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The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

David Rose author


by Ruby Cowling


Drop Cap An interview with David Rose, “hidden gem of the British short story”. Author of Posthumous Stories (currently shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize) and Vault: an “anti-novel”, his work has been described as “euphorically paranoid, slyly narrated, often hilarious” (The Guardian) and “deft, deliberate and utterly delicious” (3:AM). Here he’s generously answered some probing questions about the advice given to young writers, different artistic approaches, and what it means to have lived a “boring” life. Thank you, David.


David Rose was born in 1949, in a small semi-rural town outside London, moving later to another small, entirely suburban town slightly nearer London. He left school at 16 with two O-Levels and spent his working life on the Post Office counter.


WD: A review headline described you as a “hidden gem”. How long were you writing before you were published?

DR: I had my first story published at the end of 1988, in The Literary Review, which was then edited by Auberon Waugh (the son of Evelyn Waugh) – I still have his handwritten letter of acceptance. I had by then been writing fiction for about four or five years.


WD: As a younger writer, did you have a mentor? Did you feel generally encouraged or discouraged by the people in your life to pursue the writing of fiction?

DR: I had written the usual sub-Eliot poetry in my teens, but never thought of writing fiction, or writing seriously, until my mid-thirties. It happened spontaneously: I suddenly had an idea for a story, based on a man I met on a bus, and wrote it out of curiosity. As it happened, I was working with a woman whose daughter knew the novelist Graham Swift – this was around the time of his writing Waterland. I had read an extract in Granta, then read his earlier novels, and wrote to him through that connection. When I finished the story, I sent that to Graham too, for an opinion. He was tactfully encouraging, despite the amateurishness of the story. So he was in a way my first mentor, but not in any more active sense than that. But that was enough to make me join a local creative writing adult-education course. As to friends and family: I never showed my writing to friends or family, and never would. If they want to read it now, they can buy it.


WD: Young writers are sometimes advised to have “one true reader” for whom they write (for Stephen King, it’s his wife). Do you have one, or have you had one?

DR: The one reader we are writing for or to is that reader who has read the identical books, and had similar experiences, i.e. ourselves. We write for ourselves, initially, then consider others. I don’t think we can consciously aim our work at a specific readership; that’s too calculating.

But if we do happen to have a specific friend as a reader, that’s a different matter, and a bonus. Wasn’t it Steinbeck who wrote a long (unposted) letter to his agent every morning before a day’s writing, as a way of clarifying what he wanted to write?


WD: What are your tastes in other art forms? Do you enjoy experimental music, visual arts, etc, or are your tastes more conventional?

DR: I have always had an interest in all the arts – music, painting, literature – from my teens, though the interest wasn’t nurtured at school. My tastes in music and painting mirror my taste in literature: Twentieth-century Modernism and beyond. So in music, the discovery of Mahler was overwhelming (as was Mahler’s discovery of Dostoyevsky), but also then leading on to the discovery of the Second Viennese school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, their contemporaries such as Bartok and Janacek, the Americans – Copland, Ives, Harris, the later Minimalists, and jazz… One discovery always leads to another in an endless ramification.

Likewise in art, the great Modernist movements leading onward and, by their confrontation and engagement with the past, backward (as with music: Weber leads backward to early polyphony…). I thus have an interest in most contemporary artforms, apart from conceptual art (an oxymoron). I think we do need to immerse ourselves in the expressions of our age, which are most condensed in the arts but should extend to philosophy and history. (Old-fashioned Humanism, I guess I’m advocating.)


WD: There are a lot of “how to write” books and blogs around. To what extent do you buy in to the importance of sticking to agreed formats – such as the 3-act story structure? If this “works”, why do something else?

DR: I haven’t seriously read any ‘How-to-write’ books – I find the idea of them dispiriting. You can only learn how to write copies of stories/novels. Better to read good citical books on literature, and learn by example.

Agreed formats produce formula writing. That is fine if you want to write ‘best-sellers’ or Hollywood scripts – and it’s equally fine if you do want to do that – but not if you want to write something original. I don’t believe for one minute in ‘the 3-act story’ – it’s similar to Aristotle’s rules on drama, which were simply describing current practice, not prescribing how drama should work.

Formats work, of course – that’s why they exist – and will obviously go on working, but will do so with diminishing returns, and eventually the formats wear out. Just ignore them.


WD: Is part of a writer’s job to expand the form in which s/he is writing? Is writing simply a personal “emission” or transmission, or does a writer need to be aware of the historical context of their genre (including literary fiction as a genre) and the direction in which it’s going, and take some responsibility for their part in that?

DR: Yes, I do think it’s the writer’s concern to expand the form – that is a logical result of simply finding one’s own approach, own voice, and producing the one (or more, if you’re lucky) work that only you can contribute, which seems to me the only worthwhile reason for doing anything.

Is it ’emission’ or ‘transmission’? It’s both. It starts as emission – finding one’s voice and subject – then becomes transmission in clarifying it for others, which is how it becomes literature. I always think of Sartre’s definition of literature as a person sitting quietly in a room, using their freedom to write in addressing a reader sitting quietly in another room using their freedom to read it.

But I believe a writer’s first duty (only duty, since the rest follows naturally) is to the initial inspiration; in getting that idea out intact and alive, and finding for it its natural form. Once that is captured, the revision stage becomes a process of transmission, and of engagement.

I do think we need to be aware of what has already been written in our own field. Literature is community, not solipsism, and finding our own voice is only done by engagement with others. So as I have said about engaging with our time, we do need to be as aware as possible of the history of our chosen genre, and although it’s impossible to read everything, to at least be conversant with the range of what’s on offer. But it’s probably unnecessary to say this; most writers were readers long before they became writers.

I don’t think we are individually reponsible for the direction of a genre, because such direction can’t be controlled or directed. As Popper pointed out in science, and history, progress can’t be predicted. But in the process of finding one’s unique ‘take’, and in engaging with the genre and body of existing work, that uniqueness of voice will inevitably alter the direction of history, however marginally.

Because part of finding one’s voice lies in opening up new approaches, exploiting the possibilities of the form. I think this is especially true of the short story, which is the most Protean of literary forms, with limitless possibilities – many of them still currently ignored. But the important thing for me was always allowing the idea to dictate its own shape. It has been commented that my stories can be bewilderingly different, but I have never set out to ‘do something different’ – only to find the ideal form for a particular idea, and come up when successful with something fresh.


WD: What do you think about the argument that writers who are writing now must have an online presence, a profile?

DR: I am firmly of the pre-internet generation, and feel closer to writers such as David Markson and Cormac McCarthy in their non-use of the digital world. However, when Vault was first accepted for publication, my agent advised me to have an ‘on-line presence’ in the form of a blog – which he set up for me – and by joining Facebook. No one ever read the blog, but Facebook proved rewarding in making contacts and, in a number of cases, genuine friends, as well as reconnecting to some old ones.

It enabled me too to become acquainted with several writers whose work I would never have encountered otherwise – American writers in particular: Steve Himmer, whose novel FRAM I read in manuscript and loved (soon to be published); Edmond Caldwell, whose post-modern masterpiece Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant I went on to review several times, including in American Book Review; and Oisin Curran’s brilliant late-Modernist novel Mopus, which is still scandalously unknown even in America.

In turn, they and others have discovered my work, and stirred interest in it in America, Brazil and elsewhere. So it’s reciprocal, and that is the point. To set up a ‘presence’ in the form of relentless self-promotion will backfire. Literature is a community of writers and readers, and use of the internet is one way – now I suppose the quickest way – of tapping into and becoming part of that community.


WD: You’ve said elsewhere that “my own life has been extremely boring”. Yet you produce very rich and interesting fiction: in spite of, or because of, this quiet life?

DR: When I described my life as boring, I meant outwardly – most of it spent working, at what would appear to be a boring desk job. Actually, it was anything but – on the Post Office counter I was in close contact with thousands of people over the years, from the whole spectrum of society, many of whom I came to know well. And many of whom had led interesting lives; many of them were very funny, and some deeply strange.

Life will always trump fiction. Many of these people I could never have made up, and a number of them were the starting point for my fiction. It was, as someone pointed out to me, the ideal job for a writer.

But the imaginative conversion of the material into fiction takes place in that silent, empty room, in the evenings, which I would spend either writing or reading. Writers live a rich interior life, but an outwardly boring one. The ‘hell-raisers’, the drinkers – the hell-raising and drinking was all done when they weren’t writing (drinking doesn’t help you write; it helps you to not write).


WD: What advice do you have for writers starting out?

DR: I have never seen the point of advice on writing itself; if you need to write, you will, and you’ll find your own way. But it’s the next stage which becomes tricky: getting your work published and known.

My only advice on that would be to get involved. Don’t just submit to magazines – subscribe to them. Set one up, or help on an existing one. Starting a magazine may be easier now, in the digital age, or harder – I don’t know. It was perhaps easier in the old days of photocopying and stapling and distributing small magazines round colleges or bookshops.

In my case, I became involved in a print magazine, Main Street Journal, initially as a contributor, when it was just getting off the ground. Then, when it was refused Arts Council funding, I became involved financially, then editorially. Paradoxically, that meant we could no longer use my work in it (it would have been vanity publishing) but that didn’t matter. It made me friends and contacts who later proved immensely valuable. But at the time, it also brought satisfaction: to spot talented writers and excellent work in the unsolicited submissions, and be in a position to do something with it is deeply rewarding. It’s the community aspect again; give and take. And if you don’t support others, why should they support you?


WD: What’s next in your writing life?

DR: Next in my writing life? There is no next; my writing life is over. I have an experimental – and I believed unpublishable – novel due out in November [title: Meridian]. That I think will be my swan-song.




Ruby CowlingRuby Cowling was born in West Yorkshire and now lives in London, UK, working as a freelance writer for nonprofits. Winner of the 2014 White Review Short Story Prize and the 2013 Prolitzer Prize from Prole magazine, she was a finalist in the February 2014 Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers as well as being Highly Commended in the 2012 Bridport Prize.  Her recent print/online publication credits include The Letters Page, Unthology 4, The View From Here, and, in audio format, 4’33” and Bound Off. She is represented by Euan Thorneycroft at A M Heath.




Cassie Kellogg author

Dirty Feet, Squashed Tomatoes

by Cassie Kellogg


I started biting my nails again.

Well, not right now.

Last month, I think, I started that again.

I look down. I see dirt. Crumbly dirt. Not wet dirt. The floor isn’t dirty. I am. My feet are, actually. I don’t have on shoes because I don’t want to wear them for this. So my feet are dirty from walking to the back house from the main house.

That makes me sound rich.
I’m not.

The main house is small. I don’t know about square feet or anything like that but I know it’s a small house that only has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It doesn’t even have a dining room or a living room. It has a kitchen that flows into the family room where my baby brother’s crib is set up and the tiny TV is perched on a sideways bookshelf and the couch has a dark purple throw that’s stained with apple juice.

The back house is a one-car garage that my uncle built when he first bought the house. I turned it into a place to paint when Uncle Henry sold it to us.


I haven’t painted in forty-five days.

I look over at the last thing I painted. I stopped because I realized no one had seen anything I’d painted, ever. There are canvas’s propped against the walls.

The last one I painted was blue and grey. I wanted to mix the paints to turn it black, but I wasn’t there yet.

My nail beds are bleeding now.

“Fuck,” I say. And then I say it three more times.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Mom used to say fuck when she thought I couldn’t hear her. She would say it after she fought with my dad. She’d go into her bathroom and start washing her hands roughly, and when she couldn’t get them clean she’d say it. I was usually there. I usually heard it, but still, she always seemed to be surprised when she’d turn around to see that I’d come after her.

“Maggie!” She’d yell like I was burdening her when all I was doing was standing there.

I used to start crying when she would say my name like that.

You know when a tired mom runs into an old friend in the grocery store at the worst possible time? When her kids are hysterically crying because she said “no” to the strawberry shortcake and she feels like shit because she’d just been screaming at the kids and now she sees this old friend who probably thinks she’s an abusive parent and she wants to set the friend straight but she’s still got to make the kids calm down, too?

That’s how I felt, like an unwanted old friend butting in on someone’s life when I have no right to do that.

She doesn’t say fuck anymore. She doesn’t say much of anything anymore. Well, at least she hadn’t.

This time she was depressed for sixty-eight days. Sixty-eight days of deflection, and of disinterested stares when I’d try to cheer her up, and of barely eating anything, and of sometimes forgetting that the toddler needed to be fed too.

Day sixty-eight was last Tuesday. Today is Monday.

Today, she told me I should bring in something I’ve painted to hang on the wall. I told her I’d go get one, but that’s not what I’m doing.

I’ve thought about it a lot.

I’ve thought about everything a lot.

I’ve thought about how even though the sixty-eight day stretch has broken, it’d probably only last about twenty days, if we were lucky. I’ve thought about how she told me last month that looking at my face made her want to vomit and leave.

I asked her what she meant, and where she wanted to go.

Her eyes became glossy like she was thinking of a place she would rather be and she finally said, “Anywhere else.”

I’ve also thought about how I cried when she told me “Anywhere else,” and how she responded to me crying by looking bored, bored, and just flatly said, “Don’t act like you’re surprised.”


Maybe I should bring in the blue and grey painting. I think about it for a minute, only because that feels like my default. During the good stretches, when she’s happy, I try to prolong it as much as I can.

Not for me anymore, but for June and Max. June shouldn’t be raised by a mom who hates her; I can’t do that do her. And Max is only two and a half. I have to protect them.

I used to have to protect them.

I don’t now.


My feet are dirty. Is that how I’d like to be remembered? Dirty feet and sad paintings?

June always has dirty feet. She would go outside into the garden that dad grew during the summers and jump in the soil, like really jump. She’d ruined dozens of tomatoes (they were her favorite to jump on), but dad didn’t care. Mom would yell at June and then yell at dad for not being mad and he’d just say to her, “Laura, you’re missing the entire point!”

June would say it wasn’t her fault, though, when mom yelled at her. She’d always look at her and say, “Maggie made me do it!”

That was her catchphrase. “[Enter person to blame here] made me do it!”

Someone always made her do it.

The garden thing though, well I did make her do it. I told her it’d be funny. It was for a moment. It made me feel like a kid again, like when you could jump on tomatoes and be happy to have tomato guts all over your feet and between your toes and things were still all right.


June is so different from us. If I am blue and grey, she is yellow.

June deserves all the yellow paintings.

Maybe one day she’ll grow up and move far away and be happy. And maybe, when she packs to leave she’ll come out here and look around and somehow just know, and she’ll take all the yellow paintings.

I hope she does, anyways. They are for her.


My feet are dirty. I’m staring at them. Well, going back and forth between staring at my dirty feet, the blue and grey painting, and the crate on the floor.

What am I supposed to say right now?

What does anyone think to say right now?

All I can think is that I really should just bring the painting inside.


I don’t.

Instead I remind myself of day three of the sixty-eight day stretch. Mom had been cleaning, but cleaning when she’s depressed isn’t regular cleaning. It’s scrubbing until her body is aching and bleeding, yes, literally bleeding. Her nails were breaking and bleeding underneath the nail beds because she was scraping the ground trying to get something off that had dried onto the tile.

I did something that day.

I told her she needed help.

Really, I did that. I said that to my mom. I think I said this exactly:

“Mom, I think you need to see someone. I think you need some help.”

She said this:

“Go kill yourself!”


I got this crate from the garden. It had cucumbers in it. I dumped them out onto the grass around the side of the house.

I press my toes against it, just barely.

I think when I do that I’ll want to step back, or run away or something.

I don’t want to, though.


Someone’s crying. June, I think. It sounds like her. I think my heart breaks a little because June crying is the happiest sound I’ve ever heard. She cries in a good way, you know?

I mean, she doesn’t cry because she hates herself, or because she just relapsed, or because her mom has been sleeping for twenty-seven hours.

June cries because she wanted five cookies and only got four.

June cries when she realizes it’s gotten too dark outside and she has to come back in now and stop playing for the day.

June cries for all the things any normal person wishes they could cry about.


I don’t go in. Not even after hearing June.

I should.

I know that.

But sometimes in life, I think I’ve learned, you have a bunch of things you should do, and the whole point is finding the one you should do the most.

And I think this is a thing I should do the most.


Do you remember when you were a child and you didn’t even know that people died? I do. I remember when mom told me her sister died when I was four. That was when I found out the big secret: people die.

I still didn’t get it then, of course, I was just four. But I found out that day that dying was a thing that people did.


I step up onto the crate. I move away the rope that I haven’t looked at yet. I don’t think I will at all.


Once I told someone that I thought I should commit suicide. It was mistake. They told me, “Then do it.”

They didn’t even ask why or anything.

I did tell them why, but only because I said, “You should probably at least act like you care.”

So they asked why, and I answered: “Because I have counted the days that I remember being good and the days I remember being bad and the bad outweigh the good.”

They said, “Your goodness isn’t something you get to define.”

They walked away after that and I still don’t know what they meant.


The rope just rests on my shoulder, waiting.


June isn’t crying anymore. That’s good. She’s good. Her good outweighs her bad.


I put the rope around my neck and wait to feel scared. I still don’t. I still don’t feel anything.

I look at the blue and grey painting and think that if I were to paint something right now I’d use those colors, but this time mix them until they were black on the canvas, because I’m there now.


I smell tomatoes and want to smile. Well, I want to want to smile, but I just don’t want to. Like I want to want to live, but I don’t want to.


I think of mom yelling at June over the squashed tomatoes and June saying, “Maggie made me do it!”

I’ve never said that. I guess because I couldn’t. I just never could. My only job was to not say it, in fact. My job was to say the opposite. Because how do you really say that?


But my job is over now, I think.


So I say it,


“Mom made me do it,” and kick my dirty feet forward.




Cassie Kellogg writerCassie Kellogg is currently an undergraduate student at Arizona State University studying English and Philosophy.  She works as an editor for Canyon Voices Literary Magazine and as an Editorial Intern for Pants On Fire Press. Her hobbies include reading books, blogging about reading book, and drinking Dr. Pepper. This is her first publication. You can follow her on Twitter @cassiiekel or read her blog at howshereads.wordpress.com.






author Shelby Stephenson

Chapter 14, from Country

 by Shelby Stephenson



Now back to the ballgame, as they say, near the

green fields of home, the frat-boys singing songs the


college crowd loved during those early 1960’s

when “Green Leaves of Summer” rose over the


airwaves and boys and girls starred in Mitch Miller’s

Sing Along showering spaces popularly


elegiac until MM’s demise at ninety-nine

in 2011; meanwhile, the LP output of the Brothers


Four was a real gas. Sparkman, Arkansas, home of

Jim Ed Brown and Bonnie Brown and Maxine,


Louisianan. Their biggest song, “Jimmy Brown,”

not “Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy,” that A.P. Carter


lament: the Browns’s “Jimmy Brown” was based

on the folksong, “Three Bells”: Roy Orbison sings my


favorite version: the old songs gave The Browns popular

sellers like “Scarlet Ribbons” and “The Old Lamplighter.”


Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie sang off and on until Jim Ed

kept singing when the trio stopped: “Pop-A-Top Again,


I Think I’ll Have Just One More Round.” Before I

forget I want you to know that Tom Brumley’s


one of my favorite steel-guitarists; Boudleaux and

Felice Bryant, two of my special songwriters, wrote


Little Jimmy Dickens’s first hit. I learned it because I

am a “Country Boy”: “I’m just a plain old country boy,


a cornbread loving country boy; I raise cane on

Saturday but I go to church on Sunday.” Isn’t


childhood the works? Read Dylan Thomas or

Theodore Roethke: I figure I’m not a failure,


trying to make something out of local

stuff, my years as a boy in the country, the


road not yet paved in my mind, the huge, red-tailed

hawk circling easily out over the five-acre field,


instead of drafting near the house to stir the baby

bluebirds: clearly trouble comes in phases of the


early years; if I do not succeed, I lose the brilliance

of the dwelling I was born in: inviting you, too, to


come, sit a spell, while we talk about words in these

B’s, for example. The Bryants wrote songs on the


funny-side of life−like “Hey Joe.” I learned it from

Carl Smith. The Everlys recorded the Bryants’


“Bye Bye Love.” The Osborne Brothers released

“Rocky Top.” Jim Reeves named his band for “Blue


Boy”: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” My blades get

chummed with black-green, pussle-gutting wads.


The spindles crank under my seat, stalling my

John Deere LT 155 until it chokes down. I


smell a thicket of fishbait. I am no mechanic

want-to-be: I use wheel-chocks when I transport the


mower. I want to learn how to doctor a ratchet; that

is, actually use one. The manual does not say:


Warning: pull strap all the way through slot of

short-hooked end and then hook both ends, ratcheting


the tie-downs three times. Oh those tie-downs −

like the whiskers of Toonces the Driving Cat − they


flow until they almost flap loose from their

moorings meowing along the wind’s road


Immortal Dorkman’s major tune. There is a

lot of bucking, too, especially when I drive over


railroad tracks slow enough to bounce the little

tractor or the Scag, hoping and praying wheels


will not roll, wondering if I locked the brakes. I

perspire. Will the unblocked tires (forgot those


chocks) show me off to Someone Who Knows,

dressed in JD Green − or Scag Orange with that


Tiger Cat logo across the shirt? The cash-register

pings and I pay this time the woman at the


Quality Equipment Company (the John Deere place)

and she says: “Honey, your mower has been


ready since July 20 − we called you and left a

message on your voice-mail machine.” The


burden’s on the payee, isn’t it, the tutee,

underdog. Cricket does not know she’s one:


weighs ten pounds, Long Valley Norwich Terrier,

born, June 22, 2002, breeder, Georgia Rose Crompton:


Cricket’s ten years old on her birthday, 2012: what

beautiful and loyal companion she is: never


smiles, just rolls her eyes around, like that Lucky

Old Sun, waiting for me to come home,


staying by my side without straying, until she

smells an animal and she’s gone, like Don Rich,


that guitar-playing fiddler whose motorcycle did

him in and under: Buck Owens said his “right arm


was gone”: O sleep good and rise, you Buckaroo.

Nin and I saw Buck Owens and the Buckaroos


once at a theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

When I was fourteen at Cleveland School, by the


way, I was in the chorale just long enough to sing

“There’s a pawnshop on the corner in Pittsburgh,


Pennsylvania, and we stroll hand in hand beneath

the clock!” The Buckaroos were dressed in yellow:


Buck looked like Big Bird. To fly you must feel the

fuzz under your armpits and hold on to your seat: it’s


lonely there, hero-worship a far cry from Tom Brumley’s

steeling-glow. Tom’s Albert Brumley’s son. His bar


swoops the neck of his guitar toward

Doyle Holley, Rich, and all the Buckaroos.




Chapter 28, from Country



I don’t want to surf Imagination for any

chronology: surfeit withers like


Saran Cling Plus Wrap with its sharp-cutting

edge, no Hallmark attendance, no Phuns; yet,


pshaw − clear the throat and Hawkshaw Hawkins

appears as a given. Harold Hawkins, the singer


from Huntington, died in the plane crash with

Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Randy Hughes,


the pilot. I wonder if Hawkshaw of “Dry September”

could sing:   I’ll bet he hummed some amid the


powder and the pomade, hemming and hawing, trying

to make a difference among cowards ganging up


on Will Mayes: Hawk knew Mayes did not harm

Miss Minnie Cooper; yet he went along with the


lynching party, maybe hoping to help throw off

balance the whole bunch − Butch, McLendon, and the


hot-heads − faithful their rage might pummel evil into

bigotries too many to matter, Will calling Hawk,


Mr. Henry. Like a sharp-eyed detective

Hawkshaw Hawkins was a hunter in his youth. Why,


he might have been called “Hare,” I suppose, for

I’ve read he traded some rabbits he shot for a guitar: since


Wheeling was near, he was close to the WWVA

Jamboree, starred there, regularly, in the early 50’s,


appearing also on Red Foley’s Jubilee on ABC-TV:

my junior year at Cleveland High he joined the


Opry, 1955: Saturday nights I’d hear him on WSM,

650 A.M., the Air Castle of the South: “Sunny Side of the


Mountain,” “Barbara Allen”; “The Little White-washed

Chimney” he sang his heart out on, gathering in the


boy he was, born 1921, died 1963 near Camden,

Tennessee, in that airplane which fell into pieces


approaching Nashville: the troupe had done a

benefit in Kansas City, Kansas, for the widow of


“Cactus” Jack Wesley Call, a local DJ, who died in

a car crash, the chain of wrecks continuing after the


plane scattered on the ground, when Jack Anglin,

tenor singer of Johnny and Jack, got killed in a


highway wreck on his way home near Nashville,

after attending a memorial service for Patsy Cline:


to eulogize his friends in his song Tex Ritter rewrote

his “Hillbilly Heaven.” I’ve levitated in lofts as a


boy − you could say without much pretense I could

have been the Billy in the Low Ground, for I have


pronged hay with forks and pitched it; in the fall

when brown leaves call, I have set my fields on fire;


I have showered sparkles, too, with the folks at

PoetrySpark, at a Sizzle in Raleigh, reading with


poet David Rigsbee: we did not let the flame get

out of hand in the room we were in, a dressed-up


backend of a bar and grill, money exchanging in

front, but one − to be heard − did kiss a microphone


which smelled like a breath birthing breadthways

so the audience could hear: I could feel Poetry Central


lowering its bar to carry on without me: first reciting

Emily’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” and an


Ammons ditty from Sphere about verse dithering

among loose vowels or “sun-thing” like that, I

presented “Etching” from my Possum and finished off

with “Refrain” from Family Matters: Homage to July,


the Slave Girl in part about that ten-year-old

who took me away; art quailed, images fell


amuck, trucks on the streets ran into man-holes

withering to size and fed the underground metaphors


Stevens’s angels could have mixed, my underwear

shifting, the mike outright stinking: I could tell


the audience might not have come there to hear me

imagine what life’s like on my greatgreatgranddad’s


plantation: or, maybe I am wrong and some are

right: certainly, by jostling history to Poetry Personal, I


did not usurp the drinkers listening to “I’ll Take You

Home Again, Kathleen”: I lend and lean PoetrySpark from


this terrace under D’s Canopy, the same old place Nin

fell into a depression for the I-don’t-know-what-time.


The mockingbird’s singing in the Nellie Stevens holly.

Cricket’s watching the shadows for wings leafing the


hollering geese: the tulip poplar’s leaves fill the lawn

right where I ran the Scag and made the grass pretty; yet


the eye, my pupil, most of all, must find me, as I

evoke George D. Hay again, radio-station executive, announcer,


reporter, editor, Indiana-born, 1895, died, Virginia, 1968,

elected Country Music Hall of Fame, same year: I have brought up


the rear of multiple careers all my life: at first all I

knew was singing − and maybe that’s the last thing I know:


when I was fifteen I ordered from WSM A Story of the

Grand Ole Opry by George D. Hay, “The Solemn Old Judge”


(Copyright, 1953, by George D. Hay); after all these

years I’ve lived with the book − a pamphlet


sixty-three pages, first edition, price, $1.00,

privately printed. I took it off the shelf and a


cut-out fell out, a paper microphone, WSM, I

crafted for Miss Galloway’s typing classes I


took in 1954 and 1955: no “strikeovers,” she’d say:

now what can I say: that there were three books


in our house in ’53 − the Big Family Bible

(Southwestern Publishing House, Nashville, Tennessee),


a Sears Roebuck Catalogue, and A Story of the Grand Ole Opry:

life’s more than a bunch of crows cawing over western


Johnston County: doesn’t a life of poetry fill with the

marvelous and the shaky, solid rays of suns the world


over, with rags and children in them, fashions sparkling

bold and arrogant; ravens tagging the tops of sycamores


as one settles in the tip of a very slim-needled stem atop

a pine in Danny Langdon’s meadow, Danny, walking


up to me, cicada’s hull in his beard, while Nin

waits to come out, be counted and courted again.


George D. Hay started in real estate, taking a

job with the Memphis Commercial Appeal, then


turning to Radio, his birthday radiating between the

births of Paul Green (1894) and William Faulkner (1897):


I can see my father’s Philco on the little vanity by the

kitchen-sittingroom window, the radio’s top hot from the


blue-green-rose tubes in the casing, the noise a crackle, some

snaps, pops, rattle: I’ve read that Hay was the first to report the


death of President Harding, 1923: more people knew Hay’s

name after that; he became main announcer for WLS,


Chicago: my namesake Shelby Jean Davis he must have

known: by 1925 Tennessee got WSM, owned by


The National Life and Accident Insurance Company:

Hay put fiddling Uncle Jimmy Thompson on the


radio, called the show The WSM Barn Dance,

November, 1925, probably not a rainbow in sight, Hay


saying something like The clouds are grand with

opera; now the land’s full of grasshoppers hopping and


hoot owls hooting; cotton blooms a shindig and so

do we: Welcome to the Grand Ole Opry! The Dixie Dew Drop,


Uncle Dave Macon, came on in ’26: the Fruit Jar Drinkers,

the Gully Jumpers, the Possum Hunters, Delmore Brothers:


Sam and Kirk McGee from Tennessee: Hay brought in

there, on stage, a real steamboat whistle and he


blew that thing; the clear channel station went out

into the land, all over here near Benson: I listened:


peripheries found me, the long rows without end − go to

the end and turn around, a through and a round: feed the hogs,


water the mules, and watch out for snakes in the corncrib: the

people said You will wither with the wheat and the corn in


fall and shocks shall stand tall and you shall still miss the

image seeking you all the more, life and death informing life


and death, the living and the dying, the call of the payment and the

pavement in the central empire of the marginal: dirt roads and


woods shall celebrate triumph and return, as sorrow’s

by your side and memory your foundation.




Chapter 47, from Country


From Paul’s Hill for my country all the songs in the book

for the singers and the songwriter-poets I sing −


“If That’s the Fashion” and “If You Ain’t Loving, You Ain’t Living.”

Songwriter: Tommy Collins (Leonard Sikes). Like a Bird of Dawning


I’ll chant all night long for the Pythian Home − and for orphans − for

Leon Payne’s “I Love You Because” and let the


pages record Gene Autry’s rendition of Ted Daffan’s “I’m a Fool to Care.”

Marty Robbins just about weeps “I’ll Go On Alone.” “Is It Too Late Now?”


Listen to my brother Brown and me perform a Flatt & Scruggs Songbook.

Picture me crooning “I’ve Always Wanted you,” one of the first


country songs I heard Sonny James smooth seemingly out of drops

bubbling tears in his throat. I’m prepared to sing Marty’s


“I’ve Got a Woman’s Love” he sang for his wife Marizona. I shall sing it for

Nin: no longer impatient with scores and chords, I’ll ford the river: “I Won’t


Have to Cross Jordan Alone,” my Dell laptop changing and moving

words − Salute! − the Esterbrook Fountain Pen I wrote in flowery permanence


the songs in my book (ink was less expensive than the Ball Point, invented the year

I was born): the long run stretches “Just Out of Reach of My Two Open Arms,”


V. F. (Pappy) Stewart waiting for Faron Young to tune body and soul, as I

make that creation the origin of my teen years: Ferlin Husky:


I bought the album-turned CD − “Among My Souvenirs”: Ferlin

died, March, 2011. Merle Haggard said: “There were a lot of years


when nobody in the business could follow Ferlin Husky.

He was the big live act of the day. A great entertainer.”


Now stand up for Nelda Fairchild, the real author of “Kisses on Paper”:

May Ned (her pen-name − reap heaps): “Kiss Me Big,”


Ernie Ford’s novelty, breaks out of Speedy West’s steel and

Jimmy Bryant’s strings. Catch the sound of Wade Ray’s lament against


that Devil Booze (“Let Me Go, Devil”). “Letters Have No Arms”−Ernest Tubb

had a hand in writing − I learned it from Wade Ray and the Cow Town Five,


D-J-ing my life away, part-time, WMPM, Smithfield, North Carolina.

Sense in Ray’s version of “It’s All Your Fault” the poetry Cindy Walker pens.


May I remember the first stanza of “Look What Followed Me Home Tonight,”

lost from the little book: deliver Newt Richardson’s and Vic McAlpin’s lyrics


for “A Lover’s Quarrel.”   “Mister Sandman!” Popular in the 50’s when I made

my book while Webb Pierce sang Merle Kilgore’s “More and More” and Carl Smith


cried out for all tomorrows Leon Payne’s “More Than Anything Else in The World.”

Like most of Payne’s songs, this one feels like a poem and


a love-story: “More than anything else in the world I want to hold

you in my arms, darling, when you are near, then everything seems


all right.” “One Has My Name, the Other Has My Heart”

(Eddie Dean, Dearest Dean, Hal Blair) I learned from my


brother Paul who sang it in the late 1940’s as part of the Campus Playboys when

he was a student at Louisburg College, Louisburg, North Carolina.


Paul also sang and played rhythm guitar with The Moonliters,

a band which played around Raleigh, North Carolina.


Jim Fleenor played clarinet in the Campus Playboys

band, after college, returning home to Abingdon, Virginia, where


he presented full craftily for decades his clarinet in The Highland Quintet − east

Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina:


Freddie Hart’s “Loose Talk” I learned from Carl Smith: Buck Owens and

Rose Maddox recorded a blazing version of the song, a real country feel in it,


a smell of pending divorce court and family matters, gossip, deceit:

“We have to leave here to find peace of mind, dear, some place where we


can live a life of our own, for I know you love me and happy we could be

if some folks would leave us alone”: “Pretty Words,” Marty Robbins: one


of my mother’s favorite songs and mine, too: “Pretty words were like heaven to me”:

“Release Me,” Eddie Miller, Dub Williams, Robert Yount, listed


as writers: my favorite version: Ray Price’s: everybody

recorded it, just about: “Rosetta” I got from Wade Ray. Earl Hines


and Henri Woode, writers: Bob Wills sang it too, recorded it. He loved the song,

named a daughter − Rosetta. Leon Rausch recorded it with Tom Morrell and


the Time-Warped Top Hats: “San Antonio Rose” − Bob Wills − one of

the all-time classic swings: Nin and I sing it often to hear the players play:


“Someone to Care,” one of my favorite sacred songs, “Jimmie Davis”:

“That’s the Good Lord Saying Good Morning,” “Tex Williams”:


I must have liked the song for the pop-poetry: the world as

Nature, I would learn later: “When the meadowlark sings at dawning


and the wind’s in the willow trees, that’s the Good Lord saying good

morning, good morning to you and me”: “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,”


written, Gene Autry, a standard I sing. How many more! “A Place for Girls Like You,”

Red Hays, writer, Faron Young, singer. On this hill, through the fields,


Brown and I harmonize “Talk of the Town,” one we learned from

Don Reno and Red Smiley, early 50’s: I remember


they had the song on King: O Songs of King! When the last breath

I take among days of shadows and desert-rattling water, “Then I’ll


Stop Loving You?” I’ll bow to Jim Reeves who’ll sing it, while Wade Ray

bows his fiddle and wails “Too Late to Cry.” Noel Boggs shall play his steel guitar;


Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” bless the flakes as Eddy Arnold falls for all

who’ll listen. I’ll take your hand, Lord, and my brother’s banjo shall roll out


“I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap” and “The Wiggle Worm Wiggle.”

Jim Eanes’s melodies shall sprindge from his hand burned when he was a


child, a bad fire inspiring with ardor “Down Among the Budding Roses.” Shoots

shall shower Little Jimmy Dickens jumping backwards through a hula-hoop,


simultaneously pantomiming “Thank You” in rhythm to Thank You! painted on the

back of his acoustic Gibson guitar twirling amid the crowd’s rousing music’s


waves, rescuing you and me, O Reader, from the Hand of Many Falsehoods: I

exclaim to the Boy back there on the Hill, “You’re Under Arrest (for Stealing My Heart),”


Autry Inman and Bill Foster hoping Ray Price and the Drifting Cowboys

might turn good bad verse into frogskins and liverwurst, leaving the


image of theft and scary, sorry lines in corncribs for the rats and

mice that’ll bring back corn they stole last winter: George Washington’s


picture shall show supreme! “You’ll find that crime doesn’t pay;

your sentence is life, darling, here by my side, this is the price you must pay.”





Shelby StephensonShelby Stephenson’s Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl won the 2008 Bellday Poetry Prize, Allen Grossman, judge. Shelby Stephenson’s The Hunger of Freedom (2014) was published by Red Dashboard.


by Darren Demaree


for the delivery guy from Jimmy Johns


When anyone says
have a great fuck-
ing day, it makes

you think you can
have a great fuck-
ing day. Plus, now

you have some chips
& a sandwich.
This can be good.






for my son


teeth, now

like gravel
two ponds,

I un-
your cry.






for Nik De Dominic


I know all of the different
ways to hold gravel in a drive-
way in Ohio, but I think

I learned what to do with those rocks
in Alabama, how to toss
them casually near train tracks

most of the time because you can
only throw a few of them through
windows without dropping your smoke.




darren demareeDarren C. Demaree is the author of “As We Refer to Our Bodies” (8th House, 2013), “Temporary Champions” (Main Street Rag, 2014), and “Not For Art Nor Prayer” (8th House, 2015). He is the recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net Nomination. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.





Jacob Reecher

In the Care of Professionals

by Jacob Reecher


Drop Cap Fifteen people are playing bingo. The prize is a Twizzler. Any one person can win a maximum of two Twizzlers, and no one can win twice until everyone has won once. These people are men between the ages of 18 and fuck-knows, and this is the first time they’ve been reasonably quiet all day – although there are the obligatory bingo jokes.

A petit blonde nurse, dressed in her own street clothes like all of the half-dozen or so nurses, turns the crank and reads the number from a ball[1]. “B-4,” she says.

Covering the B-4s on his cards, Ryan, a young man with a widow’s peak of blonde hair and cartoonishly blue eyes says, “Before what?”

There is tepid laughter, but not from James, who shaved his wild beard in the lobby mirror yesterday[2], and who is in his third month on the ward[3].

“Ugh!” he says with sarcastic exaggeration. “I’m gonna throw something at you.”

James is the first among us to win a Twizzler, which is strange, because we’re allowed to play with as many boards as we believe will raise our chances of winning, and James is the only one of us with only one board. I’m playing with two myself; Ryan is playing with four; Dale, the tall one in khakis and a sweater with the strained and husky voice that sounds like the muscles in his throat are cramped in that way that wakes you up at night clutching your calf and wrenching the top of your foot towards your shin, is playing with six.

“N-44,” says the nurse.

“I can’t keep up with this shit,” says Andrew, a.k.a. Solo, who is bald and tattooed on his neck and wears his institute-issued gray sweatpants low like he is making a rap video. He’s playing with nine bingo cards, and he’s one of the last to get his candy. I don’t think he’s too upset about it – none of us would be. The only reason we’re sitting here playing Bingo is because the nurse said everyone would win eventually. A candy guarantee is enough to get fifteen grown men to play bingo when the only other options are Saturday-evening television[4], a paltry DVD/video collection, or reading a dime novel on a mattress that feels like a layer of Beanie Babies on slab of concrete.

Twizzler, anyone?


* * *


I arrived on the ward after spending twelve hours in detox. I did not need to spend twelve hours in detox; I blew a .02 on arrival and could have easily blown zeroes by breakfast. However, for reasons you can infer from the steak-knife scratches up and down my arm and the short in my bathroom’s electric socket, I was to be taken from detox to a mental hospital until a court hearing would decide my fate: return to school or remain on the psych ward until I was considered neither a threat to myself nor others.

And so I stood, handcuffs looped through a special leather belt that kept my hands graciously within junk-adjusting distance, outside door number six of some brown building covered in box elder bugs. I was cold, wearing only the white t-shirt and torn tight jeans the cops had pulled on me before carting me to detox. I had not shaved in four days, and my beard, which had been subject to several days’ worth of alcohol-induced testosterone spikes, was beginning to itch[5]. My hair was matted, unwashed and uncombed since my last shift at KFC two days ago, flattened into shameful hat-head. I was happy at least to be wearing the leather boots I have described as being “too fly,” but in honest they were cheap, and after only a few months of use were as close to falling apart as I was. I doubted they would survive the cold and snowy and wet Wisconsin winter.

With me, ringing the doorbell, was a Platteville police officer and some fucking intern whom I felt I recognized, and about whose presence I was not happy. What exactly was the logic in sending a student on a ride-along with the cop transporting another student from detox to the mental hospital? How did Platteville’s finest reconcile this plan with confidentiality?

“Well son,” Officer Half-Beard probably said to Intern before knocking on the door of the detox center to pick me up, putting his hand on Intern’s shoulder and strapping on his this-is-serious-policeman-stuff face. “Can you keep a secret, Champ?”

Platteville’s not a big campus. You see people again. And Intern, who served the vital purpose of holding things which Officer Half-Beard had no third hand for[6], would surely be pointing me out to his buddies in the student center, kicking off the highlight story of the lunch break with a “No you guys, see that dude? Well, one time….”

Finally a nurse named Katrina answered the door. She looked tired – not the way you look after a long day at work or an endless night out, but in the way a grade-school teacher with a naughty class looks in mid-May. She brought me inside and had Officer Half-Beard remove my cuffs. As I rubbed my wrists and followed her into the heart of the ward, Katrina asked me if I’d ever been on a psych ward.

I don’t remember whether I said yes or no. I had been in a psych ward, but only as a visitor.

“Well, we’re state-run,” she said, “so we have some pretty sick people here. Just let me know if you don’t feel safe.

“In here,” she ushered me through a door bearing the words “Treatment Room,” where she checked my vitals and asked if I were feeling signs of withdrawal. I said no, but she told me the nurses would find me every few hours to take my vitals and ask whether I felt any headaches or anxieties.

Katrina asked me to wait in one of the three “day rooms” until she got my personal room ready. Dinner would be served in about an hour.[7]

I won’t go as far as to say I felt unsafe, but in those first few minutes on the ward it was strange to – instead of guessing someone’s taste in music or sense of humor – to be prospecting likely levels of craziness[8]. It was a goofy little twist on that “new kid in school” feeling.

I had trouble sizing up the first patient who spoke to me. He was of average height, but looked longer because he was thin and wearing the gray sweat-suit that about half the patients wore.

“What are you here for?” he asked, looking at me with polite eye contact that because of the situation and his vivid bluer-than-O’toole eyes made me nervous.

I told him quietly.

He didn’t blink. “How long are you here?” he said.

“I dunno,” I said. “My court hearing is Tuesday, or Wednesday, they said, at the latest.”

“You’re lucky,” he said.

This may have been and may be true. Hell, it was and it is. It being true doesn’t make it less weird to hear when you said you tried to kill yourself three sentences ago.

“Wh-, uh, why are you here?”

The young man, whose name was Ryan, laughed and said, “Well Wednesday I woke up to the cops bangin’ on my door…well maybe I’d better start at the beginning.”

The story began to skip around a bit, due to Ryan’s ADHD. The jist of it is that Ryan “was fucked up in a Wal-Mart bathroom,” and somebody called the cops or an ambulance.

“I heard somebody banging on the stall door behind me,” he said, “so I quick flushed a needle down the toilet.”

EMTs took him away in an ambulance, but a bag of drugs was found in the stall. To avoid jail, Ryan said he was depressed and was sent to an expensive-as-shit psychiatric hospital outside of Milwaukee. To get out, he signed a settlement that allowed him to leave on several conditions: see a therapist, no drinking or drugs, et cetera.

“There was one little clause that fucked me,” Ryan said, indicating its size with a forefinger and thumb held half an inch apart. “It said I had to follow all my doctor’s treatment recommendations.”

Ryan’s doctor wanted him to take a non-stimulant medicine for his ADHD, but Ryan had no insurance and could not pay for the expensive medicine. When Ryan asked for cheaper meds, the doctor refused because he did not want to prescribe Ryan any stimulants.

“I told him to fuck himself, threw a Kleenex box at him, spit on the floor, and left. And the next morning I woke up to the police bangin’ on my door.”

Ryan and I played Texas hold ‘em with another patient our age named Jack. Jack had keen eyes and dark hair that on his chin formed an uneven beard and his head seemed to harden into a wet helmet no matter how long ago his last shower was. He wore discharge clothes, having been in solitary confinement for a month and a half prior to his arrival on the ward.

About three hands in a nurse named Jay told me my psychiatrist was waiting for me. The doc was a nice and hip-seeming guy with thick-framed glasses who wore his thinning hair like a fashion statement. He was a keen reader of body language and accurately put into precise words my every facial contortion. He asked me questions. I answered them as honestly as I could.


* * *


Detox sucked. The hangover wasn’t particularly bad, nor was the food[9]. What sucked was that I had no idea what would happen to me after I got out. Would I get home before my classes ended that day? In time for work at four? Or would I be taken to a mental hospital indefinitely? Most of my time in detox was spent soberly considering these questions.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d had the assurance that I would be on my way home in a few hours with nothing but hospital clothes and a story to tell. I’m sure waking up in detox still drunk and without memory of the previous night would have a fun “The Hangover” ring to it.

For example:

I had been awake for three or four hours[10], and was sitting in an armchair in the lobby reading an issue of The Economist[11], when a red-blooded Wisconsin college boy stumbled out of his room and said to the nearest nurse, “Excuse me, could you possibly tell me where I am?”

“You’re at an alcohol detox treatment center in Madison.”

“I’m in Madison?”


Maybe detox would have just been boring had it not been for this kid. He asked the nurse for his cell phone and began calling friends in a vain attempt to reconstruct his evening.

“The last thing I remember is being in my room, drunk as shit,” I heard him say at least seven times. “I don’t even remember the party.”

He was wearing a blue hospital shirt because the one he was brought in had been cut off, likely to resuscitate him the night before. When he tried the breathalyzer at eleven in the morning, he blew a .12.

Shit dude. I don’t exactly abstain myself, but…shit.


* * *


Technology has never been a friend to me. And you know, I really don’t care much for it either. In TV ads newfangled gadgets are like godsends, able to coolly ease and improve lives due to superior usability and quality. The Mac, the Smartphone, updates to my internet browser, digital cameras, have all played the role of my technological nemeses.

But my great enemy is the DVD player. Get me wrong not, I’m a movie buff. But I was, throughout high school and for several years during breaks from college at UW-Platteville[12], a childcare worker, and my time at Tiger Den, as it was called[13] during the school year[14], was exacerbated considerably when the TV’s good old trusty VHS tape player was replaced with a DVD player that’s remote was naturally lost instantly. This resulted in cumulative days spent on my knees between 2007 and 2011 in vain attempts to get past the main menu of movies that would not play when I pressed the player’s “play” button. I am 90% sure that the vocalized impatience of the Tiger Den kids[15] over those four years flipped something in my psyche. So the following anecdote is not altogether lacking in humor, and perhaps even some kind of poetry:

After the interview with my psychiatrist and another with a physician, I was again set loose on the ward. Ryan spotted me walking into the day room and asked if I wanted to watch Ocean’s 12. I would have been more excited about Ocean’s 11 or 13, but the other option was Paul Blart: Mall Cop – still an easy choice.

We asked a nurse, a black man with an African accent almost too strong to understand, to set up the movie for us, and settle down onto green furniture that looked like it was made from recycled McDonald’s play-places, but felt more like a stress ball. The nurse unlocked the cabinet of the entertainment center under the TV and inserted the disc into the DVD player. The TV was small and our “couch” was across the room. From where we sat, the screen was no farther across than my index finger held at arm’s length. I worried for a second about my film-viewing pleasure – I didn’t even have my glasses. The cable television characters that appeared on-screen before the nurse switched the input were blurry masses of tan and white.

I stopped worrying once the nurse hit the button and the screen turned to static, only static besides the words “No signal,” flashing in a little gray box in the middle of the screen. Wires were checked, another nurse was fetched.

“No signal.”

“No signal.”

I was bummed that Ryan and I couldn’t watch Ocean’s 12, but at the same time I finally knew how the kids felt on the days I couldn’t get the DVD player to work. It’s like you’d been promised something and the promiser reneged. It feels like being cheated.


* * *


I’m reading in the day room with the Packers/Colts game in its second quarter. Dale is at the puzzle table, Jeremy is behind him in an armchair, and Andrew is sweeping. This is a classic strategy to quiet tiresome talkers like Andrew, a strategy I learned week one of childcare: give small-time troublemakers and loudmouths menial jobs to keep them distracted.

John, a man whom I haven’t heard speak and who wears orange Crocs with his gray sweat-suit, enters and starts shuffling through puzzle pieces.

“Will ya fucking move?” says Jeremy with quick anger. “I can’t see the fucking TV.”

“Why should I?” says John. There are empty chairs and sofas all around the room, and John can’t move out of Jerry’s line of sight without abandoning the puzzle.

“I can’t see the fucking TV!” says Jeremy, his voice rising.

John grabs his crotch. “You want somma this, motherfucker?”

“No, and if you think I do you must be a faggot.”

“How old are you, thirteen years or thirteen months?”

“I’m 49.”

“Yeah, well I spent five fuckin’ years in fuckin’ Vietnam,” John says, kicking Jeremy challengingly in the foot, “and I don’t have to take this!”

Jeremy sits up and clutches the arms of his chair. “Kick me again!”

“Come on then!” says John, striking a fighting stance, dukes up.

“Kick me again! I’ll put you on your ass in half a second!”

“Come on then!”

Jerry heaves his mass to his feet and steps closer to John. “Come at me!” he hollers.

“I was in fuckin’ Vietnam!” John yells, backing away from the curly-haired behemoth inching towards him, finger in a deadly point.

Just when I think I’m about to see grown men come to blows for the first time in my life, nurses rush in and tell both men to go to their rooms.

John acquiesces immediately, and stalks off muttering about Vietnam.

Jeremy is not so quiet, and lands himself in a chair.

“I didn’t do nothing wrong! Why d’I gotta go to my room? He kicked me! He kicked me!

The nurses began to interrogate Dale and I.

“I asked him nice to move s’I could see the TV!”

At daycare this could have gone on all day. But whereas childcare workers can’t touch kids for fear of lawsuits, physical force is totally in-bounds here on the psych ward. Jerry knows this, and he can also hear Dale tattling from the puzzle table, so after a minute more of arguing he begrudgingly lifts himself and stomps to his room for his time-out.


* * *


To be sure, I am a man whose fastidiousness in regards to my appearance leans dangerously into absurdity’s turf. I have been known, for example, to shower, style my hair, and spend ten minutes choosing my clothes, on a Saturday during which I have no plans to leave my house.

So as I made my way to the bathroom after snack[16] on Monday night, it was not unusual for me to still be wearing my precious leather boots, even though I had only been reading in my room[17].

I knocked on the door of the half-bath on my wing. Hearing no response from inside, I entered and conducted business.

There were four bathrooms on the ward. Two were half-baths, only a toilet and sink, within a few steps of the lobby. Andrew, however, suggested I use the full bathrooms, equipped with two stalls, two urinals, and three sinks each, due to their less frequent use and consequent norms of tolerable cleanliness. It would have behooved me to heed this advice.

I saw the floor was wet when I entered, but unfortunately assumed it was water. Strolling down the hall to my room, however, I heard with each step a soft sound not unlike the peeling of old Velcro. My boots were sticking to the floor, dipped as they had been in the piss of a grown man.

Needless to say, I was careful to take off my boots before sprawling on the tabletop they call a bed and lying awake.


 * * *


“We’ve proved that time travel is possible,” says Andrew. “Here, I’ll show you, but I gotta get up.”

This group[18] began as a trivia game in which patients read each other riddles from a deck of playing cards. Here are the riddles I read (answers found below):


“Dare it so” is just a clue

for you to rearrange;

a giant belt in outer space?

That sounds a little strange[19].


In Greek it means

“A wandering star”;

the closest neighbor

is very far[20].


This fluid’s name

is what’s in question;

I start the process

of digestion[21].


There was something deeply sad about watching Dale practically choke reading a poorly-metered iambic quatrain that rhymes “bees” with “sneeze.” James was so bored he read the classifieds of the Wisconsin State Journal. Lawrence, a bespectacled gentleman who is friendly with distinguished academics across the country, and who without my knowledge secured my transfer from the bioengineering department of John Hopkins University in Baltimore to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I could finally realize my dream of becoming a cardiologist, and who (don’t tell anyone), is actually 003, an English spy working for the CIA, highly prized for his mental dexterity and imperviousness to torture, falls asleep after reading his first riddle[22].

After telling my third riddle, I skip off to the bathroom. When I return, the game has broken down into an exchange of trivia, which Andrew naturally dominates with information that I, thanks to reading Kratt’s Creatures books to introverted six-year-olds,

either already know[23] or know is incorrect[24].

I guess I should cut him some slack. He himself had said that he learned to read and write only a few years ago[25], and was honestly surprised that I, at age twenty-one, had never been to jail.

But as he steps now to a space on the wall that isn’t covered by a completed puzzle, preparing to explain how time travel has been proven possible, I fold my arms and put on my most cynical face – the one that reads: “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“A’ight, so here’s a star in the sky, kno’wh’I’m sayin’?” he says[26], pointing to a spot on the wall. “And it takes a million years for me to see the light from this star.”

We all stare. Particulars obviously incorrect, concept close enough. So what?

“But this star moves,” says Andrew, turning from the wall and pointing to the ceiling. “Throughout the night it moves across the sky.” He moves his hands in the air to illustrate the sliding of the heavens’ panorama.

Andrew has wounds up and down his arm of varying size and shape. The first night I arrived he told me that when he was caught with twenty grams of cocaine, four pounds of weed, and a cache of weapons whose names I recognized only vaguely from the dialogue of very serious TV cops, he was sentenced to life in prison[27]. His reaction: fuck it. He sliced his wrist with a razor. They took away his razor, so he stabbed his forearm with a ballpoint pen. When they took that away, he bit two dime-sized holes a few inches below his wrist. There is still a stitch in each hole. Unable to extract all his teeth, and by this point convinced that “Solo” would inevitably find a way to knock himself off, the State sent him here to the psych ward – presumably to teach us about time travel. Andrew seems to have called off snuffing it for now – his lawyer tells him they might beat the rap if the search which revealed the drugs and guns can be proven illegal.

“So how come I see it the same when the star is here,” he points back to the spot on the wall, “and the light takes a million years to get to me as I do when it’s here,” he points to another spot several inches from the first, “when it takes three million years to get to me?”

There is an explosion of groans, nos, and buts from the group[28]. James leaves under cover of the noise, shaking his head. Once again Andrew is able to shout over everyone.

“Did I just go over y’all’s heads?” he says, before launching into a repeat of his argument that proves, rather than nips in the bud, my suspicion the he stumbled upon this theory one morning while smoking a blunt on the way back from the corner store. While he had lived in Chicago, a trip to the corner store was second in Andrew’s morning routine[29]. Every day he bought a pack of Newport 100s, two ice cream sandwhiches[30], a strawberry milk Big Chug, and two blunt wraps. Andrew would roll a blunt in the store and then walk back home, smoking, eating, and drinking.[31]

After his third explanation of time travel I finally figure out exactly what was wrong with his theory.

“I’ll tell you where you’re wrong,” I say. “The stars appear to move because the earth rotates. So their apparent movement across the sky doesn’t affect the Earth’s distance from any one star.”

Andrew suddenly becomes professorial as hell. He gets a piece of paper and starts drawing a diagram.

“Here’s us,” he says, pointing to a little black dot. “And here’s the sun,” he points to another dot twice the size of the first and a half-inch away. “And this [third black dot two inches away] is the star. See how Earth moves away from it? So how come I see this star just as good from here as from here?”

I leave the room dazed at both the man’s perseverance and his stupidity. A patient in solitary confinement is beating his head against the wall – it echoes throughout the ward. This is Dan, whom I met my first night here. He, like me, is in the ward due to what he calls “circumstantial insanity,” and told me when I met him that if I want to talk, he’s a pretty level-headed guy. He is now in solitary confinement for punching out a light bulb in the bathroom and holding the socket to his neck. As his head’s thumps echo through the halls, I consider knocking on the door and asking to join him.[32]


* * *


And if you, reader, are anything like my classmates in workshop, you’re waiting for a moment of vulnerability from me, the narrator. For example, the rundown of my history of suicide attempts, eating disorders, and past and current drug and alcohol consumption that I gave to my psychiatrist. It might make for some interesting dialogue, or a chance to reveal my – the narrator’s – tumultuous past, you could be thinking.

Or possibly a scene in which I reveal a real emotional connection between myself and, say, my parents, would be an effective way to let the reader into my – the narrator’s – emotional world. Just think of the fireworks inherent in the revelation of the long-standing family dynamics[33] that could have in part contributed to my – the narrator’s – being jumped by a bunch of cops while naked and drunk in my – the narrator’s – apartment and carted to a detox center by a pretty blond one[34].

But a scene with my – the narrator’s – mom and dad might toe the line of cliché, or might come across as emotionally manipulative. Maybe something more low-key would suffice. Perhaps a vignette about the time Jack and I played chess, best two out of three, and I beat him the first time with a nasty little queen trick[35] before he handed my ass to me twice on a plastic dinner tray. I – the narrator – went back to school the next day, and I believe Jack went back to solitary confinement. Another possibility is me and Jack and Ryan playing cards[36] in a dark room[37].

This last example provides an excellent segue into my confession to the fact that none of these scenes will be included in this piece. This is because my – the narrator’s – time talking with my psychiatrist or visiting with my parents or playing chess or cards with Jack and/or Ryan was mine – the narrator’s. While the rest of my time at Mendota Mental Health Institute was spent remembering dialogue or constructing scenes in my head or jotting impressions in a notebook, I turned the writer off for some parts. And unfortunately for you – the reader – those parts turned out to be exactly what you wanted most to read about.


* * *


I apologize.

A psych ward is the only place on Earth where three sober people can all simultaneously sell themselves the idea that a game of Monopoly would be fun. This is because people in psych wards are either crazy or crazy-bored or both.

Ryan, Dale, and I have played maybe twelve turns. We can only find one die, which we roll twice. Dale and I have each amassed a respectable real-estate investment portfolio and are entering the game’s early wheel-and-deal stages. Ryan has landed on “Free Parking” twice, and is biding his time.

A cute young nurse with a slim waist and black curly hair approaches with a small paper cup of meds for Dale.

“What is it?” Dale croaks. “Since when do I take my medicine now?”

“I don’t know, I’m just following your sheet,” says the nurse. “Will you just take it?”

“Well why should I?” Dale wheezes, his throat visibly straining to speak under his gray goatee.

“Because you have to. Because it would make my life a lot easier.”

“I want,” says Dale, his tight growl rising in volume, “to be told when my medication changes! Why wasn’t I told?”

“Dale,” says a bald male nurse looking up from a newspaper in an armchair in the back of the room. “Would you please not raise your voice?” He spoke like a father desiring a quiet Saturday with no bickering from the kids.

Dale slammed his fist on the table, shaking the die and the chess pieces[38] on the board.

“Dale!” say both nurses.

“This is fucked up! This is fucked up!” Dale’s voice is cracking.

The male nurse stands. “Calm down Dale!”

The cute nurse says gently, “Take your meds.”

“Ah, fuck you,” says Dale, grabbing the cup of pills, emptying it into his mouth, and throwing it on the floor. He does the same with the cup of water. “Get me a grievance form” he said as the cute nurse picked up the cups and left the room.

The male nurse sits down and picks up his paper again. “We don’t have any,” he says as he looks for the spot where he left off.

“I want a grievance form!” Dale hits the table again.

“We don’t have any. Fill out your grievance on a plain piece of paper.”

Slam! “Don’t play this game with me! I know this game!”

The nurse hides behind his newspaper.

Dale is silent.

“It’s your turn Dale,” Ryan says.

Dale looks at the die for a second, then shoves his money to the middle of the board.

“I quit,” he says, getting up and leaving the day room.


* * *


Every morning after breakfast and an optional shower[39] there was a goal setting group in the main day room. Like all groups, it was optional, but about ten or so patients were usually present[40]. The patients’ goals were usually the same every day. Andrew promised every morning to be “less conceited.”[41] James, throwing his arms in the air in mock enthusiasm, committed daily to being “positive!” Jack once said he wanted to “increase conscious contact with God as I understand it.” He said “it” because “my god’s got some lady parts too.”[42]


* * *


Daytime Groups.

Saturday: Prose, Poetry, and Lyrics. I am absent due to visit from parents[43].

Sunday: Patients are asked to list what they believe to be the five greatest movies of all time. Next they are asked to imagine different endings for one of the movies. Finally patients imagine different endings for events in their own lives. Ryan said the only thing he would change is signing his stipulation agreement the last time he was on a psych ward. He regrets this more than he regrets his father’s death.

Monday morning: a deck of jumbo cards are passed around. Patients draw one and answer a corresponding question. Patients answer questions in clipped sentences, rushed by the nurses as if we patients care about even distribution of turns. The questions are listed below along with their card counterparts.


  • Ace: When and where do you feel most relaxed?
  • Two: What is a hope you have four your future?
  • Three: Where would you like to go on vacation?
  • Four: What is one of your long-term goals and what steps are you taking towards it?
  • Five: What medical breakthrough would you like to see during your lifetime?
  • Six: Name someone who has encouraged you sometime in your life.
  • Seven: Who is someone that is part of your support system?
  • Eight: If a book was written about your life, what would be its title?
  • Nine: Name one decision you made within the last two weeks which has had a positive effect on you.
  • Ten: What are the two most important things in your life?
  • Jack: Tell us something you are proud of.
  • Queen: If you could be any age what would you be and why?
  • King: What is one life improvement you would like to make?[44]
  • Joker: Give yourself a compliment.


Monday Afternoon: Bead-fusing – a slow repetitive activity which sooths the mind. I make a flower, but have to stop due to a visit from my parents. Others make lizards, bees, their initials, et cetera. This activity was popular among young girls at daycare.

Tuesday afternoon: gratitude journals. Patients learn to make daily entries of three things they are grateful for, and decorate their journals with patterned construction paper. I do not decorate mine, because my parents arrive to take me away mid-group.


 * * *


And if you, reader, are wondering[45] if you are wondering why it is that my arm was scratched with a steak-knife or the electrical socket in my bathroom was shorted, I will advise you to keep[46] that particular question to yourself. It doesn’t matter and I’m really tired of talking about it.


* * *


But this may give you a hint.

The first new patient since my arrival appeared on the ward Sunday night after dinner. I noticed him being given the grand tour on my way to take a phone call. He looked confused and scared, but also a bit like he always expected to be in a place like this sooner or later. I’d seen this face on countless kindergarteners, but on a guy my age it threw me.

A few hours later I was watching the Saints/Chargers game and playing solitaire. I had just played my best game ever – a smooth and fast three-card draw – when the new guy walked in. He looked younger than me. I asked how it was going. It seems unlikely that he said “good,” but he said something and sat down.

“What’s your name?” I said.

“Tristan,” he said. “What’s yours?”

I told him. I noticed I was making the same wide-eyed eye contact Ryan had made with me the first night. I hoped I wasn’t scaring Tristan, and tried to joke around a little bit.

“Are you sizing people up,” I said, “wondering how crazy they are?”

Tristan looked truly stung by the question. “No,” he said.

I felt bad for asking. This young man was probably in no mood for sarcasm. I tried to make him feel better. “I was,” I said.

Tristan said nothing.

“Wanna play a card game?” I asked, abandoning my game of solitaire and and shuffling.

He said sure.

“You know speed?”

He shook his head.

“Texas hold ‘em?”

“I don’t know many card games.”

I didn’t feel like playing teacher, and wished someone else was nearby who’d want to play. After a minute Tristan got up and walked out of the day room. He returned soon, and plopped in an armchair in the back.

I quit my game of solitaire and went to apologize.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out,” I said, plopping in the chair next to him.

“No,” he said, looking at his hands.

I sat down. “What are you here for?”

“I don’t know.”

This surprised me. “Well, where are you coming from? Where are you from?”

“I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“All right,” I said, so embarrassed I got up and looked at the bookshelf I’d perused a dozen times. I even took down a book – a history book titled The Making of a Prefident [sic] – to adequately fake genuine interest.

I don’t know what I did wrong in my exchanges with Tristan. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe I asked the wrong questions, or in the wrong order. Maybe I should have done most of the talking, like Ryan did during our first conversation. Maybe he didn’t realize I was another patient; I was dressed in street clothes, not a sweat-suit. Or maybe I didn’t do anything wrong, and Tristan just didn’t want to talk [47].


[1] This is a legitimate Powerball-lottery-type bingo machine they’ve got here on the psychiatric ward. The cards don’s even need chips. Instead they come equipped with see-through red slips of plastic that you slide over the number like a Star Wars scene-transition effect.

[2] The only way you can shave here is with an electric razor in the lobby.

[3] After three months on the psych ward: you will be able to correctly guess “missing link” in Pictionary based on a drawing of a puzzle with one piece missing. This is because you have already seen somebody else draw that picture for that card.

[4] Even with basic cable, pretty bleak.

[5] It was however, still blond, and thus invisible, and thus impossible to acquire sympathy through complaint about. My facial hair will forever look like the peach fuzz of a preteen.

[6] While driving from detox to the hospital, Officer Half-Beard searched Google maps for directions while driving. And he probably writes tickets for texting behind the wheel.

[7] Dinner: cold, bland, served on stackable trays. Presence of single-serving ice-cream is cause for excitement. No lactose-free milk available, so I must ask for Lactaid pill before every meal. It is a bit embarrassing due to its relation to bodily functions. Ryan and I trade food in secret – milk and vegetables for bread and butter.

[8] Weight played a factor, as did age and the presence of facial hair. Marked similarity in appearance to Benicio Del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas earned one inmate – excuse me, patient – named Jeremy a “FUCKING CRAZY!” rubber stamp on his forehead. His constant pulling at possibly imaginary stitches in the back of his head and his unwavering conviction that Brian Eno is a cocksucking faggot who raped and almost killed Jeremey’s girlfriend didn’t help.

[9] Considering.

[10] A conservative estimate. My room was “secure,” meaning it was video-monitored and constantly lit. When I found out, I wished I hadn’t been so sober, as a nice little buzz would have brought sleep faster.

[11] And feeling like quite the informed citizen doing so.

[12] Until August 2011, when it was suddenly required that employees reapply for their jobs each year, and I was told that I would not be rehired as a result of my general ineptitude as a childcare worker. My own opinion that the reapplication requirement was in reality an excuse for my boss to clean house of workers like me without actually using any form of the verb “to fire” is shared by all other workers who were not rehired for the summer of 2012.

[13] The tiger is the Byron School District’s mascot.

[14] In the summer it was referred to officially by the Byron Park District by the stupefyingly generic “Summer Camp.”

[15] Whose number ranged from ten to 50 during my years there.

[16] Referring to a snack as simply “snack” is normal when it is as regular as breakfast, lunch, or dinner – as it was at the daycare I worked at (ten o’clock a.m. and three o’clock p.m.) and the psych ward (eight o’clock p.m.). A favorite snack served in both places: Nilla Wafers…despite the lack of milk to go with them.

[17] During a visit on Saturday, which was uncomfortable and exhausting, and which mainly consisted of silence and gin rummy and overlong hugs in front of my new drug-dealing-or-just-out-of-prison friends,

my parents had brought me my homework. I had been falling behind in the reading of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children even before all this hullabaloo, and now had some real catching up to do. They also brought me a pair of jeans, some socks, and some v-neck t-shirts.

[18] group n. a scheduled period of time in which men on the ward gather to participate in a planned activity.

[19] Asteroid belt.

[20] Planet.

[21] Saliva.

[22] During my parents’ visit, Lawrence was being visited by his wife. Not ex-wife. My mom said the saddest parts were Lawrence’s brief moments of lucidity.

[23] Boa constrictors aren’t poisonous, and squeeze their prey to death instead.

[24] Komodo dragons aren’t twenty feet long. They generally max out around thirteen feet.

[25] He’s twenty-two.

[26] I am not exaggerating. For a while I was unsure whether to include Andrew in this piece because his dialect was next to impossible to pin down. One thing I absolutely remember, but couldn’t fit in any other way, was his insertion of the letter R into the word beautiful, as in “I’m brutally brutiful.”

[27] This did not quell Solo’s entrepreneurial spirit. He constantly stalked around the ward waiting for some contact to call him with an update of some kind. While I called my parents to tell them where I was, he incessantly badgered me to ask them to text his guy on the outside. I did. They texted “Solo says to call” to God knows who, and only received on text back: “Who is this?” I still half expect them to call with news of a mysterious rusty Acura parked across the road, watching.

[28] Here used in the more traditional sense.

[29] First was a rinse of Listerine and a shit ton of gum.

[30] The kind with the “bun” made out of cookies.

[31] He told me all this on the patio, where after a few days patients were allowed to spend a half-hour outside. On the patio was a gazebo, a garden with tomatoes and jalapeños and habaneros, picnic tables, and an 8’ basketball hoop. Naturally, the basketball was flat.

[32] Later, scribbling this scene in my notebook, I thought Andrew might have been trying to explain a layman’s version of the theory of relativity. If so, I don’t think he understood what was coming out of his mouth any more than the rest of us did. I don’t think it’s often he does know what’s coming out of his mouth.

[33] Which could maybe be foreshadowed in the dialogue with the psychiatrist.

[34] Who, it is discovered en route, was the same cop who found me – the narrator – passed out on the corner of Water and Main the night several months prior during which my – the narrator’s – landlord gave me – the narrator – CPR, and whom I decided halfway between Platteville and Madison it would be wholly inappropriate to ask out for a drink sometime.

[35] The only ace in the sleeve of my chess game, if you’ll forgive the clunky metaphor.

[36] I don’t remember what game.

[37] I don’t remember why it was dark.

[38] Used in lieu of the normal metal pieces, which could of course be used to kill oneself.

[39] There were two shower rooms, which could only be accessed by permission of a nurse. The state of Wisconsin courteously provided each patient with a Tupperware of toiletries which included: one (1) bar soap, one (1) stick deodorant that worked like a ballpoint pen and pinched my armpit hairs every time, one (1) tube Greenco fresh mint tartar control fluoride toothpaste, one (1) toothbrush with bristles that hurt my gums, one (1) cheap plastic comb. After my release I used the soap when I showered in the gym locker room. I keep the comb in my back pocket, greaser style, at all times.

[40] Mostly because they were in the day room already anyway and didn’t feel like leaving.

[41] A challenge for a man who, on the outside, will only wear a shirt once before throwing it away. He spends a lot of money on white cotton undershirts.

[42] Jack kicked my ass in chess my last night on the ward. Once he walked into the bathroom while I was picking a zit and called me Rico Suave. I liked him.

[43] Another reason for my half-heartedness regarding their visit.

[44] Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

[45] As were the cops who took me from my apartment to detox, my hip psychiatrist, my parents, and both counselor’s I’ve seen since my release.

[46] As did the patients at the Mendota Mental Health Institute.

[47] But then why did he sit down when I asked how he was doing? Why would he agree to a card game if he wanted to be left alone? What could I have said or done to make him feel more comfortable? What did I…?




Jacob Reecher writerJacob Reecher graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 2013. This is his first non-fiction publication, although his fiction has appeared in Driftless Review. He currently lives in Byron, Illinois, and is editing his first novel.




Melissa Grunow writer


by Melissa Grunow


There is something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance.

—E.M. Forster, “What I Believe”



I park my car in front of the house and climb out slowly, not knowing what to expect. The grass is soggy beneath my feet as I walk across the yard toward the open front door, though no sound is heard from within. Halfway across the lawn I pause to get my quickening breath under control. Water seeps into my shoes, and I pull my cardigan tighter around my body to ward off a chill. I wipe away the rain water rolling down my temple and onto my cheeks like cold tears, take a deep breath, and step toward the porch.

The door opens and my niece runs to me with her arms outstretched. I’m filled with relief as I pick her up, her little arms warm against my cold, wet cheek.

“I yelled at my dad,” she whispers in my ear. “I told him I was going to your house.” She pulls back and looks to my face for approval.

“Are you hurt?”

She shakes her head and wriggles.

“Stay on the porch and out of the rain.” I set her back on the ground. “Don’t go back inside.”

Moments later my sister steps through the open door. She isn’t crying, but looks as though she has been. I’m surprised by how skinny she is, how skinny she has become. Her long hair is pulled back, but strands have fallen out of the rubber band and are hanging loose around her face.

“He said you can’t come in.” William. Her boyfriend. Keeping me outside and in the rain is his way of reminding my sister, and me, that he’s the one in charge. He’s the one in control.

I don’t protest because I know how quickly his temper will escalate. Instead, Mary Beth passes boxes to me out the front door, and I pile them into my car and her minivan. She and William are still fighting. I can hear them, though their voices are chopped by the opening and closing of screen doors. My niece sits on a bench on the covered front porch and stays there, just like I told her, sheltered from the rain. I am afraid if she goes back into the house she will never come out.


* * *


I was brand new to my position writing technical manuals for a software development company when I met Raul. I was recently slender, recently out of a four-year marriage, and recently without a hint of self-esteem or self-assurance.

I don’t know what drew me to him initially. He wasn’t particularly attractive. Tall, yes, and Hispanic, his skin tone a smooth, almost caramel color. He was younger than I, by about four years or so, but his body wasn’t aging well. His hair was thinning already, even in his early 20s. He dressed more like a used car sales manager than his own peers. His sense of humor was terribly immature and he believed himself to be much smarter than those around him. An introvert and a recluse, he sheltered himself, the ruler of his own tiny world.

But he also had moments of kindness, of thoughtfulness, moments where I felt connected to him because he said something insightful or did something unexpected. He had me hooked on the hope that I would catch him being a good person, that I would be witness to a different sort of man, a better man than he presented as himself. So instead of refusing him, I pursued him.

He made it clear from the very beginning that he wasn’t interested in me, that I wasn’t good enough for him. I was thin, but not thin enough. “Suck in that brisket,” he would tell me as he poked my stomach. My hair was long, but not long enough. “My ex had hair all the way down her back.” I was a woman, but not feminine enough. “Why don’t you ever paint your nails?” I was too pale, too stumpy, too opinionated, but also too easily influenced. His criticisms were a challenge; if I just tried hard enough to please him, I would win him over. It was a test of my virtue and my self-worth to pursue him in the first place. It was a test that I ultimately failed.

Less than a year after I met him and a summer of sleeping with him, I moved from New Mexico to Ohio to start a doctorate program. I spent those first nine months flying in and out of the El Paso airport trying to keep the relationship going, but my efforts often backfired. If I stayed longer than three days during any given visit, we would fight. It normally started with him disapproving of my hairstyle, my clothes, or that I never wore enough makeup to cover the imperfections in my skin. They were the same criticisms over and over until I refused to listen any longer.

When Raul and I fought, we fought without resistance or regret. Our fights were slaughterhouses of words. “I have really high standards. I deserve better than you,” he once said to me. It was four hours into an argument. He was seated in his computer chair in the corner of his bedroom, hunched forward, elbows resting on his knees, his giant frame sinking into himself.

I was standing next to his open closet, pulling clothes off the hangers and stuffing them into my rolling duffle bag. Scattered on the floor were objects he had thrown at me when I had started packing my bag. They were mostly gifts I had given him and framed pictures of us, memories created where the smiles hid a rigid system of rules that I could never seem to follow.

I had suspicions that he was not entirely committed to me, but I couldn’t prove it. Whenever I brought my suspicions to his attention, he managed to convince me that I was crazy, that my instincts were wrong, that I was just jealous. That was until I found naked pictures of Verna attached to his emails during one of my weekend visits. I didn’t confront him about the pictures. Not only was confronting him useless, but I strangely relished my discovery. It finally gave me something real, something tangible, to cling to so I could convince myself that I had to leave him. Those pictures gave me certainty.

My body told its most convincing lie ever the night I found the pictures. I was affectionate, loving, attentive. I offered him a drink, a snack, a hug each time I moved from room to room, gathering my things and packing them away for my flight home the next day. I moved slowly, cautiously, trying not to seem too eager to leave. I had to be careful to not start an argument that would devolve quickly into him criticizing and me pleading with him to see that I wasn’t fat or disgusting or stupid or worthless, as he had told me so many times before. No, I wanted that night to be calm and quiet so that I wouldn’t relapse into being desperate for him to keep me.

His suspicion came the following afternoon when he drove me to the airport. It was the first time I didn’t cry over the thought of leaving him and returning to Ohio, back to the doctorate program that I would ultimately abandon after the first year, partly because of him, and partly because the program made me feel worse about myself than he did. As much as I tried, I couldn’t fake tears. I sat in the passenger seat of his black Viper, dry-eyed and silent as we crossed the New Mexico state line into Texas, the last time I would travel eastbound on I-10. I wanted to remember the distant shacks positioned on the side of mountain, just on the other side of the river, but still Mexico, still a foreign country.

I turned to look at him, his face hidden under the reflection off his glasses. “I’m going to miss you,” I lied. But in the weeks ahead, it would become true. I would miss him. I would believe I needed him as I struggled with myself not to go back. I had given up so much to be with him that I had nothing left to fill his absence with when I tried to move on.

“I’ll miss you, too, Tubby.” Tubby. His nickname for me. A constant reminder that his idea of affection was to insult me. He hadn’t called me by my real name in months.

I checked my watch as we approached the terminal. After nearly a year of traveling back and forth to visit him, I had experienced every travel delay and disruption imaginable. This time, though, the sky was clear, and I was nearly two hours early for my flight. For once, the weather was on my side.

He took my bag out of the trunk and set it on the ground, avoiding eye contact. He was angry again, quiet, shifty, and distant. Typically I would start to panic and pester him with questions, trying to figure out what triggered his mood. It was always something I did; I just never knew what exactly. “I’m sad to leave,” I lied again, hoping to soften him up. I hadn’t cried at all that morning, and I was worried he had caught on to my untruth. I was also determined for him to remember me as a good person and to feel regret for letting me go. He knew exactly how to keep me clinging to him. By the time I leaned in to give him a hug, he barely put one arm around me.

“Goodbye, Tubby,” he said with irritation in his voice. I wanted to slap him for that infernal nickname.

I hated him for carrying on some internet romance with a woman I was always highly suspicious of, and I hated myself for not paying attention to my suspicions. I walked up to the ticket counter, pulling my duffle bag behind me, feeling duped and defeated, another relationship failed, another promise broken. So I did what any self-respecting women who had no other idea about how to take control of her life would do: I spent $90 I couldn’t afford and upgraded my seat to first class.

On the plane, the cabin darkened around me, and I looked out my window at a single pink streak across the blackening horizon. The shifting clouds flashed over it, and I caught my transparent reflection in the window. I turned away, not wanting to be reminded of all the times I stared for hours into a mirror, smoothing my hair, studying my skin for blemishes, determined to see the flaws he could see and desperate to fix them. Raul reminded me all the time that he believed my tattoos and my upbringing made me trashy and worthless. I bit into a warm cashew and washed it down with a sip of chardonnay. I reached up to turn on the light above me and sat back in my seat. I immersed myself in first-class perks, smirking inwardly at how easy it was to pretend. I was a graduate assistant teaching one composition class a semester and making about $16,000 a year. I didn’t belong in first class then or ever, but nobody around me had to know that. For a few hours I could pretend that my life was different, that I was deserving of more.

I had deceived myself for an entire year pretending my relationship was something extraordinary, that it was worth the cruelty, the infidelity, the name-calling, the insults, the mood swings, because I believed that I had won him over in the first place, so I just had to try a little bit harder for his affection, I just had to be a little bit better to be deserving of his love.

It was time to stop lying.


* * *


William comes out the front door, and I stiffen. His rage is printed all over his face, and his eyes are dark and darting around until they settle on my niece. I’ve managed to keep her outside for an hour, and as long as I can see her, I know she’s safe.

I pick her up and turn away from him. “Leave her alone,” I say. “I don’t trust you.” I murmur reassurances to my niece. She clings to my neck and doesn’t look at her father. He stares me down. I brace myself for a shove or a punch. He finally goes back into the house, and within minutes I hear my sister screaming.

I run to the door just as she is coming out onto the porch.

“He won’t let me take Madison.” She puts her palms to her temples, her fingers spread wide.

I had screwed up. I had taken my niece from him for a moment, and now he was going to take her from my sister for the night—or longer—just to remind us both that he has the power.

I feel that same churning in my stomach that I had felt every time I had given in to Raul’s demands, every time I had conceded his point just to avoid an argument.

“She can’t stay here,” I say to Mary Beth. “You don’t know what he’ll do to her.”

“She’ll be fine.” My sister is scared, but her words don’t reflect it. Even in the process of leaving him, she is still convinced that William subscribes to some kind of moral code, that he isn’t a man-shaped monster.

Williams comes out of the house and stands on the porch, waving the court paperwork at me, a demonic smile on his face. I approach him and stand on solid legs, legs that Raul had once measured the circumference of as evidence that I needed to lose weight. My sister, waifish and shaken, stands behind me with her arms crossed.

“You’re not taking my daughter.” He leans over me from the top of the porch, his narrow-set, beady eyes darkening. “If you do, it’s kidnapping.” He had what the courts called the right of first refusal. He could, at any time and for any reason, refuse a caretaker for my niece, even if that caretaker was family, and in this moment, especially if that caretaker is me.

Legally there is nothing I can do, and he knows it.

“She’s terrified of you,” I say, calling his fathering abilities into question, knowing it will anger him. I’m stalling, trying to think of a way out of this.

“Do you really think I would hurt my own daughter?” he narrows his eyes at me. “You have no right to talk to me like that. This is my house.”

“You let her go,” I say. “Or I’m calling the police.”

He laughs. Right in my face, he laughs. My sister shifts from one foot to the other, visibly nervous. “Go ahead. They were already here, and they left. You’re just wasting your time.” He stands up straight. “I’ll make sure they know that if you keep running your mouth, I won’t hesitate to put you in your place.”

For a moment, I try to think of a way to make him hit me. His temper is bubbling just beneath the surface, and I know that if I could get him to lose control, then I could press charges. But it wouldn’t be enough. Even if I could get him arrested for the night, he would be out tomorrow and ready to retaliate. I look over at my niece. If I don’t get his permission to take her for the night, who knows when I would see her next? Getting him to hit me wasn’t a long-term solution. In so many ways he is Raul, and I know it isn’t possible to outwit him with words or antagonize him to violence.

Being with Raul for so long had equipped me with the knowledge that the way to calm down a man like William is to appear to give in, to lose. So, I exhale, soften my face, and look directly at him. I force an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry.” My voice cracks, and I even manage to force a few tears into my eyes. “I know you would never hurt her. I know you’re a good dad. But imagine if you were me, and you came into this situation when I did. Wouldn’t your greatest concern be for the child? I don’t know what else to do. I’m just here to help my sister.” I turned and looked at her, then back at him. “Because she asked me to.”

On the corner of the porch my niece sits with her legs crossed. She smears dirt from a spilled flower pot, muddying her clothes and shoes in the process. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone but me that she is there witnessing all of this.

“You’re right. You’re totally right. I’m sorry,” I say again. “I’m just trying to do the right thing. For everyone.”

He searches my face, and for a moment I think he is going to call me on my bluff. I’m not the least bit sorry. But I have to let him think he has complete control. I have to let him think he has won.

His eyes shift and I swear a shadow has been lifted behind them. He blinks and takes a step back. “I’m sorry for giving you attitude.”

It isn’t until I exhale slowly that I even realize I had been holding my breath. I smile a soft smile. “Won’t you let her come with us? Just for the night?”

He turns and looks at his daughter, dirt smudged on her cheeks. She should be wearing a jacket, but she isn’t. “Madison,” he says. “What do you want to do?”

She looks at him, then at my sister, and then at me standing in the rain. I stare at her, hard, as if I can force my thoughts into her head. Finally, she says, “I want to sleep at Miswissa’s house.”

Without a word, William stomps inside, letting the screen door slam behind him. My sister and I face each other, and she looks shocked, betrayed. I’m confused until I realize she believes my apology is sincere, too. Like him, she was expecting me to match aggression with aggression. She had never seen a woman take on an abuser and win.

William returns with Madison’s jacket in his hand and tosses it at my sister. “I want to talk to her before she goes to sleep,” he says, his jaw rigid.

My sister nods in compliance, and I’m already scooping up Madison to strap her into the car seat before William can change his mind.

The sky darkens as we drive home that night. I shiver in my wet clothes and turn up the heat. Rain water rolls in rivers on the windshield just before the wipers smear them away. The twenty-minute drive to my house is the beginning of a long journey ahead of us. But it is one that I have traveled before.




Melissa GrunowMelissa Grunow’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in New Plains Review, The Quotable, Ohio Edit, The Adroit Journal, 94 Creations Literary Journal, The Dying Goose, Wilderness House Literary Review, and others. She teaches college-level English and creative writing courses in Michigan, and recently finished writing her first book titled “River City, A Memoir in Essays.” Visit her website at http://www.melissagrunow.com/.






Reading John Fante

Born in Denver, Colorado on April 8, 1909, John Fante was the son of a hard drinking Italian immigrant father and a timid, deeply religious mother. Fante’s early years were defined by poverty, prejudice and his parents’ incompatible union, all of which became lasting themes in his literary explorations of Los Angeles and the working class immigrant experience.

Fante’s passion for writing eclipsed his interest in school, and by 1929 he had dropped out of the University of Colorado and moved to Los Angeles to make it as a writer. His break came in 1932 when his literary idol, H.L. Mencken, published Fante’s short story “Altar Boy” in the journal American Mercury.

The Bandini Quartet

In the early 1930s, Fante began work on The Road to Los Angeles, the first in what would be a series of four novels featuring his now legendary alter ego, Arturo Bandini. The book was highly autobiographical, describing a young man’s struggle to escape conflicted parents, prejudice and poverty and become a great American writer. Though later critically praised, this first novel was unanimously rejected, and Fante never did see it in print.

In 1937 the author married Joyce Smart, a striking Stanford-educated poet and editor whose support was central to Fante’s ultimate recognition and the survival of his work. She was her husband’s fiercest defender and advocate, eventually resurrecting The Road to Los Angeles and having it published posthumously.

Fante continued his Bandini quartet with Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938) and Ask the Dust (1939). Both were published to great critical acclaim. Ask the Dust is widely considered to be Fante’s masterpiece. Yet neither of the books found a large readership and fell out of print within a short period of time.

Fante’s Inferno

Plagued with disappointment, and with children on the way, Fante turned to screenwriting as a side career. He bought a house in Malibu, worked with Orson Welles on the doomed project It’s All True, and made a comfortable living writing scripts that mostly didn’t get made. “I am now a complete and ungarnished hack,” he wrote to his friend, the writer William Saroyan. Anchored to a job he despised, he saw any hope of pursuing the literary work he valued drain away.

Years later, Fante’s health also began to fail. Diagnosed with diabetes in 1955, by the 1970s he had lost both legs and his eyesight to the disease. His books had long fallen out of print, and his inspiration was gone. He was known to say that if he were to have written about these years, the title would have to be “Fante’s Inferno.”

Lost and Found

In the early 1970s, Robert Towne, then a young Hollywood screenwriter with one script to his credit (The Last Detail), came upon Ask the Dust while researching 1930s Los Angeles for his script Chinatown. Towne thought the book was the best novel about Los Angeles he had ever read and immediately sought a meeting with the author in hopes of acquiring screen rights. At first Fante was disagreeable and suspicious, but his wife Joyce smoothed the way, and in the mid-1970s Towne bought the rights with Fante’s blessing.

The writer Charles Bukowski further improved Fante’s fortune in 1980 when he sent John Martin, his editor at Black Sparrow Press, a copy of Ask The Dust. A devoted fan of Fante’s work, Bukowski famously claimed that Ask the Dust was the best book ever written and that John Fante was his God. Bukowski had also referenced Fante many times in his novels, and his editor finally wanted to know if this Fante was real.

After reading Ask the Dust, John Martin was so taken by the work that he phoned Bukowski and exclaimed, “Fante is great, great! I can’t believe it! I am going to republish his works!” And soon Fante’s stories and novels were all back in print at Bukowski’s Black Sparrow Press. The fresh acclaim energized Fante. In spite of his poor health and blindness he embarked on writing what would be last book, the final piece of his Bandini quartet. Called Dreams From Bunker Hill, the novel portrayed the negative effects that Hollywood and screenwriting had on Arturo Bandini’s soul and writing. Fante wrote it by dictating to his wife, and it was published just before he died in 1983.



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bleeding edge close up

Book Review

 Bleeding Edge Thomas Pynchon


Penguin Press HC, 2013
496 pages


How to Read Bad Books by Great Writers:

A Review of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge by David Letzler


Over the years, I’ve come to group readers into two categories: some of us are aficionados, and others are connoisseurs. Aficionados devote themselves utterly to a small stable of writers: for instance, on the day that a budding Margaret Atwood aficionado first reads The Hand-Maid’s Tale, she hurriedly looks up the release date of the next Atwood book to mark it on her calendar, then runs off to acquire and read everything else Atwood has written, back to The Circle Game. Nothing can deter her: if reviewers are unimpressed with the latest book, they must simply lack her own deep understanding of Atwood’s artistry. A connoisseur, on the other hand, believes that since even an excellent writer only manages a couple of great books in a career—and since there are many great books out there—he is better served reading widely than deeply. Even if impressed with Junot Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for example, he might decide, upon seeing that This is How You Lose Her is yet another compendium of tales about how Dominican men just can’t stay faithful to their women, that there are probably other books out there worthier of his time. If a connoisseur has favorite writers, it is because he loves their very best books, and he believes the best way to honor those books is to avoid reading those that do not live up to their standards.

For music and film as well as books, I tend to be a connoisseur(*1). However, just as even the most devoted aficionados occasionally break fidelity to experiment with someone new, I sometimes turn aficionado: as a teenager, I strayed from my dutiful survey of the Greatest Rock Albums of All Time to spend time with the lesser works of Paul Simon, and as an adult I have read all five thousand dense pages of Thomas Pynchon’s nine published books. Gravity’s Rainbow is, I think, the greatest American novel, and Mason & Dixon and V. are also on my long list, so consequently, I’ve decided any new book he puts out deserves my attention. Being a part-time aficionado in this way reminds you that there are some wondrous things just beyond the mainstream: the only way you’re going to find songs like “How Can You Live in the Northeast?”, for instance, is to listen through the new album Simon puts out every five years, and the only way you’ll read scenes as sparkling as the apotheosis of the airship Inconvenience is to get all the way to page 1085 of Against the Day. That said—you have to sit through a lot of mediocre Simon songs to get to the revelations, and Against the Day, though it has plenty of beautiful passages, doesn’t have one thousand and eighty-five pages of them. Being a part-time aficionado, in other words, also reminds you of the arguments for connoisseurship in the first place.

This year’s Bleeding Edge, though, looked as if it might add to Pynchon’s impressive list of era-redefining masterpieces, rather than his second tier of minor delights. It was to be set in New York, circa September 11th, 2001, and would focus on fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow’s exploration of the darker corners of the young Web, making shattering discoveries along the way about the connections between era’s financial malfeasance and geopolitical catastrophes. Upon its release, the book got all sorts of positive press, including a National Book Award nomination. When I agreed to review it for The Writing Disorder, I was optimistic that it would, as several of Pynchon’s books had in the past, cut through our morass of incoherent cultural discourse to clearly and powerfully articulate where our civilization might be headed.

After I had read it, though, I considered withdrawing my offer. It’s a lousy book, probably Pynchon’s worst, and negative reviews of books by famous writers usually benefit no one(*2). But I don’t like refusing assignments, so I’ll use this essay, instead, to talk about an important and underexplored element of the reading life: what to do with bad books by great authors. While most people choose simply to avoid discussing bad books (“if you can’t say something nice,” etc.), there is a lot to be learned from them about craft: after all, nothing quite highlights the artistry of Raiders of the Lost Ark so well as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In this review, then, I want to point out four specific problems in Bleeding Edge, which collectively make it fail where Pynchon’s masterpieces have succeeded. (For those who have not read the book yet, I’ll arrange them in order of least to greatest spoiler content.) If the goal of criticism is to call attention to the valuable aspects in art, then a negative review of Bleeding Edge can at least use the book to demonstrate, in relief, what is so excellent about Pynchon at his best.

Problem No. 1: On the Present Tense

Bleeding Edge is written in the present tense. Many of the book’s reviewers have noted this metaphorically—i.e., that it does not have a historical setting, as did the colonial Mason & Dixon and fin-de-siècle Against the Day—but it’s also literally true. On page 1, we read, “It’s the first day of spring 2001, and Maxine Tarnow, though some still have her in their system as Loeffler, is walking her boys to school” —not “It was the first day” or “walked her boys to school.” Perhaps that doesn’t seem so strange—given the setting, it might even appear appropriate—but Pynchon’s three other novels set more or less at the same time they were written (V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Vineland) all use the simple past: it’s only in his chronologically-loopy historical tours de force Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon that Pynchon uses the present. As innocuous as the choice might seem, I think it’s at the root of the book’s problems.

In 1987, William Gass, one of the few living fiction writers that postmodernists will allow in Pynchon’s league, penned an irascible essay about the present tense for the New York Times Book Review, lambasting its use in the minimalist stories that were then gaining favor over his brand of erudite metafiction. When used by great writers, Gass notes, the simple present signifies a “habitual present”—things that happen persistently and without change—which can then be juxtaposed to singular events operating in other tenses, collectively generating a “thick present, a present made of a deep past.” However, he adds, this is not how the present tense is used in much contemporary fiction: there, it is frequently deployed under the pretense that it makes a story feel more “authentic” or “immediate”—even though, of course, no one uses the simple present this way in real life(*3). Consequently, Gass claims this use of the present is “thin,” and even readers who find his essay overwrought and reactionary otherwise can probably agree that this adjective is appropriate for describing a certain kind of creative-writing-workshop piece written in the present.

Now, Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon have thick presents. Famously, Gravity’s Rainbow begins, “A screaming comes across the sky”—but that is only because a supersonic V2 rocket has already hit, foreshadowing the novel’s extended treatment of complex and inverted causalities. Similarly, Mason & Dixon’s opening sentences, setting up the book’s frame-tale about the young republic’s subjunctive possible worlds, span a variety of verb forms—“Snow-Balls have flown their arcs,” “the Sleds are brought in,” “shoes deposited in the back Hall,” “the Children, having all upon the Fly, among the rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might,” “Here have come to rest a long scarr’d sawbuck table,” etc. Even Pynchon’s books written in the past tense tend to apex when timeframes scramble, as when Sidney Stencil in V. realizes that there is “No time in Valletta. No history, all history at once” or when Merle Rideout in Against the Day uses the Integroscope to run his deceased daughter Dally’s old photograph forward in time. Pynchon, in other words, has always been at his best when the time is out of joint.

Bleeding Edge does not use the present tense this way, however. Instead, it sticks to the linear, close-third present tense that we see in the first sentence, consequently forcing Pynchon to spend much of the book recording his hard-boiled heroine’s perceptions of ephemeral minutiae and local color rather than deploying his characteristic syntactic fireworks. It may not quite be minimalism, but it’s not really Pynchon either. I had wondered if he does this to mimic the conventions of the female-investigator genre, but no: the annals of Maxine’s predecessors—Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum—are all written in the first-person-past. Regardless of the reason, this decision severely constricts Pynchon’s prose. Reading him describe adolescent disgust at organic food (“‘Sprout Loaf? Organic Beet Fritters? mmm-mmm’”) and relay Jewish women’s reminiscences of their first visits to Loehmann’s (“It was boot camp. Gave you discipline and reflexes”) is occasionally amusing, I guess, but it tends toward pastiche rather than insight, and it’s not his strength. If Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star came off as a Pynchon novel written by someone without Pynchon’s scientific acumen, then Bleeding Edge sometimes feels like the reverse, Pynchon trying to write a DeLillo novel without the latter’s feel for mimetic chatter and idle musings.

Granted, The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice were similarly focalized on the linear narratives of investigator-protagonists, but at least in those books Pynchon could sketch their sixties California milieu effortlessly and with precision. (Think of how Shasta Hepworth’s “sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt” so effectively place us in 1970 L.A. in the latter’s opening paragraph.) The present-ness of Bleeding Edge is especially limiting because Pynchon is much less adept at the culture of the present. To place us in 2001, he relies on references to the Jennifer Aniston haircut and Doom, which, in addition to being pretty standard-issue, are about six years too late. Outside of brief shout-outs to Mitch Hedberg, Bart Simpson, and Ace Ventura—funnymen that, while in tune with Pynchon’s comic sensibilities, don’t inspire the prophetic cultural insights of, say, Underworld’s Lenny Bruce interludes—Pynchon only gets comfortable when given the opportunity to invoke 2001’s nostalgia for the late 1970s: you can see him relax considerably when he gets to drop references to Steely Dan and write a parody of “Car Wash.” Overall, then, Bleeding Edge’s entire technical framework seems, from the first sentence, to be a peculiar misuse of Pynchon’s immense talents.

Problem No. 2: On Character

The book’s setup also prevents Pynchon from doing what he does best with his characters. Pynchon’s characters have always been something of a litmus test for appreciating his books: his huge casts of eccentrically-named nutjobs tend to fascinate his fans and wear thin on everyone else. On the surface, Bleeding Edge seems to have the usual rogues’ gallery: the inadvertently-acclaimed documentarian Reg Despard, who asks Maxine to look into some fishy accounting by his mysterious tech client hashslingerz; the transplanted West Coasters Vyrva and Justin McElmo, the former of whom knows Maxine through their children’s neo-Freudian private school and the latter of whom is working on a proprietary Deep Web venture called DeepArcher; the Luciferian hashslingerz tycoon Gabriel Ice, who has his eyes on Justin’s project; a foot-fetishist hacker named Eric Outfield; a pair of Russian goons named Misha and Grisha; and so on.

But in Pynchon’s masterpieces, his characters are not weird just to be weird. Their quirks, in addition to providing comic value, explore the practical consequences of certain abstract concepts. The story “Entropy,” for instance, features a quartet that plays jazz without any melody, harmony, or instruments, but that’s not just a joke on the bare-bones tendency of modal experimentalism: it addresses the very limits of communication itself. In Bleeding Edge, though, quirk tends to be gratuitous, as in the case of Conkling Speedwell, a man with eidetic smell who wants to find out what cologne Hitler wore. This restricts our emotional engagement with the characters, and especially with the villains, who have, ever since the Lady V., been so vital to Pynchon’s metaphysical terror. James Wood once argued that Pynchon’s cartoonish characters made his treatment of evil unconvincing, writing “everyone is ultimately protected from real menace because no one really exists. […] The Nazi captain Blicero in Gravity’s Rainbow, or the ruthless financier Scarsdale Vibe in Against the Day, are not truly frightening figures, because they are not true figures.” That is a grossly inadequate description of Blicero, terrifying precisely because he is so similar to the Herero hero Oberst Enzian, whom he loves passionately and abuses grotesquely. It is, however, a fair treatment of Vibe, and it’s even truer of Gabriel Ice. Ice is a caricature of the sniveling tech profiteer, a foul-mouthed Snidley Whiplash who gets dialogue like, “Listen to me bitch, I’ll buy as many judges as I need to, but you’ll never see my son again. Fuckin never.” Characters like Ice may be “true” in the sense that people as blandly awful as them do exist, but I think what Wood means is that their one-note crassness prevents readers from having to spend any time thinking about them, which severely limits their fictional function. Far scarier is a villain that makes readers realize what can be so enticing about such personalities, and how thin is the line between good and evil.

It’s possible that Pynchon simply lacks the intuitive grasp of the paradoxes of high finance and computer science (in contrast to his earlier work’s command of physics, astronomy, and vector theory) to make the book’s characters as interesting as they could be. Though Maxine knows enough math to name-check interesting phenomena like Benford’s Law, she does so only to engage their practical rather than theoretical implications. When Igor Dashkov asks her about the safety of his investments with Madoff Securities, she simply replies (with the immense benefit of hindsight) that Madoff must be running a Ponzi scheme, which is not especially edifying to any reader who follows the news(*4). Maxine may be the one character in the book who isn’t just a slapdash oddball, but as contrasted to Oedpida Maas’s philosophical seeker, she’s more a pragmatic Jewish mother (albeit one toting a revolver): you’d prefer her as a friend, but she’s not an ideal protagonist for a systems novel.

As a result, Bleeding Edge’s dramatis personae are often reduced to little more than plot explication. If someone with more patience than I were to run Bleeding Edge though an OCR scanner alongside Pynchon’s other books and do some data-mining, I suspect they’d find that it has the highest percentage of dialogue in his oeuvre. Without the time-warping, expansively-inclined central narrators of his earlier books, the requisite intricacies of Pynchon’s narrative end up having to be exchanged verbally, which makes both the prose and the characters speaking it much duller than Pynchon is capable of writing. Combined with the problem of the present tense, the effect is sort of like what basketball fans felt in 1994 watching Michael Jordan, on hiatus from the NBA, play minor-league baseball badly for the White Sox: the strides and leaps that looked so spectacular when executing free-throw-line dunks seem far less impressive when they fail to catch fly balls.

Problem No. 3: On Conspiracy Theory

There is one place in the book, though, where Pynchon pulls off one of his patented ontological time warps. It occurs on the night of September 10th, at a techie instant-nostalgia party for the 1999 dot-com collapse, which concludes to the chords of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” as everyone stumbles home “under silent assault, as if by something ahead, some Y2K of the workweek that no one is quite imagining.” Pynchon is not original in yoking together turn-of-the-millennium tech-finance instability and 9/11, but the link is worth exploring. After all, in tandem the two at least partly refuted the 1990s thesis that we were at the “end of history,” that the new century would bring perpetual peace and prosperity in the form of a unified world-system of liberal democracies joined by an optimized capitalist market that would simply make everyone richer and richer. New York on September 12th, then, might be depicted as something like the postwar Zone in Gravity’s Rainbow, a site of catastrophic destruction awaiting (in both anticipation and terror) the arrival of a new worldview to replace an old one still freshly smoldering in the streets.

That idea’s great promise makes what Pynchon does with 9/11 quite disheartening. I’ll put it this way: the word “al-Qaeda” appears exactly once in Bleeding Edge, as does the name “Osama bin Laden”; all other references to any other individuals potentially involved with either of them take up less than one page total. Many more pages, meanwhile, are devoted to what has long been Pynchon’s hobbyhorse, conspiracy theory. There’s video of suspicious feds with Stinger missiles; a set of financial records linking hashslingerz and the CIA to certain Islamist groups; a litany of truther talking points, including the suspicious fluctuations in United and American Airlines stock prices in the week leading up to the attacks; and so on. If the book’s not a full-on truther manifesto—these plot strands, to be fair, never lead anywhere concrete—it’s clear that Pynchon thinks they’re the most promising avenue for analysis. As Maxine’s friend Heidi tells us, “No matter how the official narrative of this turns out […] these are the places we should be looking, not in newspapers or television but at the margins, graffiti, uncontrolled utterances, bad dreamers who sleep in public and scream in their sleep.”

But if the late-twentieth-century novels of Pynchon and his cohort had elevated paranoid conspiracy theory into something of an epistemological weltanschauung, the September 11th attacks ought to have reminded everyone that it usually derives from nothing more complex than bigotry and ideological rigidity. Take, for instance, the view—held by a not-insignificant number of people both in 2001 and today—that every major event in contemporary politics is controlled by a malevolent cabal of Jewish financiers. 9/11 should have been received as a rejection of that thesis: after all, if the defining global event of the early millennium was executed by anti-Israel terrorists, targeting the city with the world’s highest Jewish population and destroying the center of world finance, then that vaunted Jewish cabal couldn’t really be all that omnipotent, could it? However, faced with an irreconcilable conflict between empirical reality and dogma, these individuals, of course, find it much easier to revise reality than their worldviews, so there emerged a rumor that the Jews working in the WTC were warned of the attack and stayed home, proving that 9/11 was an inside job plotted by the Israel lobby to turn world opinion against Islam and further Zionist imperialism. 9/11 conspiracy theory, in this way, tends less to validate any postmodern thesis about the inaccessibility of truth or the machinations of all-powerful institutions than to recall Richard Hofstadter’s argument about the paranoid delusions that have always run along the margins of American politics.

Besides, in Pynchon’s best fiction, he uses paranoia not to celebrate it, but to raise questions about how we map large social formations. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop discovers the Bland-Jamf-IG Farben conspiracy against him by becoming more paranoid, but his resulting belief that everything he encounters is connected to that plot leads him narcissistically to conceive the whole war as a stunt to manipulate him; upon finding that approach untenable, his resulting “anti-paranoia” causes his identity to scatter. Pynchon’s take on 9/11 paranoia, by contrast, is not so sophisticated. In many respects, really, his approach may derive from nothing more complicated than ideological distrust of the cops. Having invested so much energy in Vineland warning us that shows like CHiPs and Hawaii Five-0 had undermined the counterculture from within by presenting the police as benign authority figures, he has become constitutionally incapable of acknowledging genuine police heroism: regarding the NYPD’s work on 9/11, he has Heidi say, “Dating cops is like so over. Every chick in this town regardless of IQ is suddenly a helpless little airhead who wants to be taken care of by some big stwong first wesponder. Trendy? Twendy? Meh. Totally without a clue’s more like it,” which prompts Maxine to reflect upon how “arrogant” the police have become post-9/11, guilty of such acts of oppression as “yelling at civilians for no reason” and getting free “Hero” jelly doughnuts from local bakeries. (Portraits of the department’s work during the long and draining response efforts are, as you might expect, entirely absent.)

I have not made a thorough survey of 9/11 literature, but it strikes me that one reason we so far lack any really great fiction on the subject is that no writer has been able to integrate two indispensable facts about the attacks: on the one hand, the clear culpability of a deeply conservative Arab religious and political worldview in executing them; on the other, the place of that worldview within a larger global situation. To do both at the same time seems beyond the capabilities of our current ideological camps: those on the left, like Pynchon, have generally been unable to acknowledge that there could be any terrible global event for which Western imperialism is not ultimately responsible, and those further right (at least as far right as anyone in letters gets—say, John Updike) have been unable to deal with the role of Western global dominance in making Islamism so popular. That’s probably why many writers have shied away from the big picture, dealing instead with small-scale family portraits. That’s fine so far as it goes, but it’s inadequate to a lot of the event’s bigger issues and, for that matter, tends toward treacle. I don’t know how this problem will be resolved, but the writer who manages it will be the one who gets ensconced in our grandchildren’s syllabuses.

Regardless, the problems with the book’s politics run deeper than Pynchon’s contempt for the police. Subsequent to the diatribe above, Pynchon has Maxine and Heidi critique how “irony” has been scapegoated for 9/11, treated as a “fifth column” because “somehow it did not keep the tragedy from happening,” which they believe is just part of an opportunistic Establishment attempt to discredit “urban gay humor.” A number of reviewers, however, have pointed out a more obvious demographic connection involving irony, discussing its place in the intellectual white male humor of Pynchon and his aging contemporaries. In addressing this subject, several have invoked David Foster Wallace’s 1992 essay “E Unibas Pluram,” which famously claimed that the ironic strategies used by that school in the sixties and seventies for political subversion have been coopted by TV and now merely further consumerism. Through Maxine and Heidi, then, Pynchon seems to be pushing back against that attitude, advocating for the continuing political value of postmodern irony in the post-9/11 world. Yet this entire debate has always struck me as somewhat silly: irony, in the end, is just a literary trope, one that can be used well or poorly, and subsequently lacks any inherent axiological standing. (Can you imagine an aesthetic being championed for, say, its resolutely synecdochic perspective?) Arguments like Wallace’s, I think, are a byproduct of academic histories of literature: to talk about literary history, you need to identify movements, and to identify movements, you need to emphasize a broadly-defined common denominator uniting disparate writers—but by their nature, common denominators are the least interesting things about any particular book, and, moreover, they tend to be the easiest features for bad writers to mimic. If irony seems less effective now than it once did, that’s simply because a lot of mediocre writers have been using it. Irony used well can be as cutting as ever it was—just as irony used poorly was as ineffective for Daniel Defoe’s 1702 “The Shortest Way With the Dissenters” as Wallace found it in early 1990s fiction.

Pynchon does write irony well when he wants to, though it’s not on the short list of his greatest skills and certainly isn’t all-pervasive in his work. At his best, he uses it to bring out the uncomfortable tension between possible attitudes toward a complex situation: at the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, when the wisecracking narrator tells us to “Follow the bouncing ball” by singing an old Protestant hymn as we face nuclear doom, the ironic lightness of the statement highlights American cultural passivity but also suggests that there is something to be held onto in the communal experience of religion and the cinematic sing-a-long. But there’s another kind of irony that sometimes pops up in his work, too, which uses its double-voicing to sidestep problems that Pynchon doesn’t know how to solve. This type appears all too often in Bleeding Edge. For example, at one point, Pynchon has Maxine’s family spend a night out at what she calls “the last unyuppified bowling alley in the city.” Of course, Maxine is herself a yuppie through and through, but while Pynchon presumably realizes this point, there’s never any acknowledgment of our heroine’s mild hypocrisy, nor any exploration of how the anti-gentrification gentrywoman ought to conduct herself in modern New York. More seriously, it’s irritating to see Maxine’s circle of comfortably settled Upper-West-Siders (whose demographic, as many reviewers have noted, Pynchon shares) relay talking points about the city’s economic disparities that are best exemplified by their own dominance of the Upper West Side. Perhaps Pynchon is smirking behind all of this, but that’s not a sign that he’s got it all figured out—instead, it’s that he’s hasn’t got figured it out, and isn’t particularly interested in trying.

Problem No. 4: On Utopia

The book’s political vision isn’t entirely negative, though. In fact, as with much of Pynchon’s later fiction, there are some utopian impulses, which are here related mostly to the DeepArcher project. The program is originally designed as a private, dreamy oasis on the Deep Web, somewhat reminiscent of SecondLife and centered on a train depot with departures heading out to…well, it isn’t that clear, because we don’t spend much time there. This isn’t groundbreaking for fiction—William Gibson’s Neuromancer did much more with technical aspects of the idea thirty years ago—but it does extrapolate the idealistic escapes of Pynchon’s last few historical novels into a logical contemporary space. On 9/11, though, DeepArcher’s security becomes compromised, which prompts Justin and his partner Lucas to make it open-source. Unsurprisingly, the site is immediately overrun with tourists. As one longtime user complains to Maxine, “All these know-nothings coming in, putting in, it’s as bad as the surface Web.” The techie dream of an Eden insulated from the corruption of the material world is, as with so many would-be Edens before it, destroyed.

But isn’t that always the trouble with utopias—they’re perfect until any actual people get to them? There’s something distinctly elitist about disowning one’s beloved projects as soon as the masses find out about them. If striving for the beyond has any positive function in art, it has to be striving to get beyond something other than just other people. For all the energy that Marxism has devoted to theorizing about commodification and the culture industry, this line of thought always reduces to a peculiarly self-defeating form of hipsterism: anything that succeeds for a small audience is dismissed for lacking transformative scope, but anything that expands to a large audience is condemned for having been coopted. The absurd consequences of this view might be best seen through how Maxine’s disappointed interlocutor now wishes to set off for the Even Deeper Web, telling us, “They drive you deeper, into the deep unlighted. Beyond anyplace they’d be comfortable. And that’s where the origin is.” Indeed, we later read that some of the book’s other hackers have gone off the grid to devote themselves to building such a place. But if they are to create anything more than a private playground for a programmer aristocracy, it, too, will be overrun, and they’ll have to find an Even Deeper Deeper Web.

Pynchon’s best work, of course, has long struggled with this problem, but elsewhere it has more obviously acknowledged it, deriving its power from the beauty and dread involved in idealists’ efforts to create a world anew. Toward the end of Mason & Dixon, for instance, Pynchon imagines an alternate narrative in which the famous survey concludes differently:

One late Autumn, instead of returning to the Coast, the Astronomers will just decide to winter in, however far west it is they’ve got to…and after that the ties back in to Philadelphia and Chesapeake will come to mean that much less, as the Pair, detach’d at last, begin consciously to move west. The under-lying condition of their Lives is quickly establish’d as the Need to keep, as others a permanent address, a perfect Latitude,—no fix’d place, rather a fix’d Motion,—Westering. Whenever they do stop moving, like certain stars in Chinese Astrology, they lose their Invisibility, and revert to the indignity of being observ’d and available again for earthly purposes.

Using all his powers of syntax and figuration, Pynchon here tackles everything awesome and terrible about the American sublime (at least, as seen by Europeans): its possibilities for discovery and wonder, its freedom from orthodoxy, its capacity for remaking—and its potential for dissolution, destruction, and conquest. As it happens, this passage is echoed, tellingly, in Bleeding Edge. After a late night of investigation in New Jersey while her family is visiting the Midwest, Maxine reflects:

Maxine’s hair is a mess, she’s been out all night for the first time since the 1980s, her ex and their children are somewhere out in the U.S. sure to be having a nice time without her, and for maybe a minute and a half she feels free—at least at the edge of possibilities, like whatever the Europeans who first sailed up the Passaic River must have felt, before the long parable of corporate sins and corruption that overtook it, before the dioxins and the highway debris and unmourned acts of waste.

This is not the voice of a writer who approaches his book’s political implications in a spirit of exploration, his thoughts holding “no fix’d place, rather a fix’d Motion.” It is the voice of someone firmly set in his beliefs, who sees his work largely as a way to rehearse those beliefs to an audience he expects to share them. This is the voice of complacency; from a writer who has for decades so fearlessly and with such enormous scope challenged his readers’ beliefs, these provincial limitations to Bleeding Edge are deeply disappointing.

In Search of the Twenty-First-Century Novel

At some point, someone will write a novel that makes sense of the September 11th attacks—and maybe, in the process, the Internet, our financial system, and America’s role in the twenty-first century. That novel will rewrite all the contradictory dogma and platitudes plaguing existing avenues of cultural discourse: it will find figuration adequate to economic interrelations that are increasingly less comprehensible to anyone but the most specialized of specialists; it will engage a world in which radical egalitarian desires to improve access and choice are indistinguishable from the “frictionless” ideals of neoliberal technocracy; it will acknowledge that any technology that makes the transmission of information more “open” will also make it more exposed (surveillance and transparency being, after all, synonyms), eroding the private self that the literary novel has for so long fostered; it will treat religions seriously, not as arbitrary and indifferent collections of ethnic traditions but as deeply-held integrations of experience that are mutually incompatible with both each other and secularism; and it will discover why an event that killed fewer people on the day of September 11th, 2001 than did AIDS in South Africa alone should have so utterly remade the way our civilization understands the progression of its history.

I had hoped that Thomas Pynchon, who forever altered how we understood the founding of the United States and the end of World War II, might be able to pull that off. Perhaps that was too much to expect. As all connoisseurs know, most writers only have a few miracles in them, and Pynchon has given us more than his share already. If there is another Pynchon novel in the future, hopefully it will show, as did Mason & Dixon after Vineland, that everyone is allowed a bad book now and then, and that they do not imply any irreversible loss in talent or insight. But for the sake of appreciating the brilliance of his masterpieces, it’s important to understand how totally Bleeding Edge fails. I titled this essay, “How to Read Bad Books by Great Writers,” and my answer to that question is that you must admit they’re bad—it’s the only way you can explain why the good books are good. Bleeding Edge is the novel that people who hate Pynchon think Pynchon always writes; to praise it is to tell the world that the rest of his output is what they thought it had been all along, nothing more than the rantings of a stoner crank.
Reviewed by David Letzler




David LetzlerDavid Letzler teaches English at Queens College in the City University of New York and lives in Briarwood, Queens with his wife and cat. He’s just finished his dissertation on the enormous novels of Thomas Pynchon et al, so you can trust that he basically knows what he’s talking about. Most of the time, he promises, he likes Pynchon more than Michiko Kakutani does.




1. My wife, meanwhile, is an aficionado: that’s all that’s behind the otherwise arbitrary gendering of my two categories.

2. It’s hard not to come off as envious, splenetic, and self-serving. Plus, there’s not much upside: while people love to lampoon negative reviews of books later considered to be classics, I have yet to see anyone mock positive reviews of works later considered to be terrible.

3. This need for artificial felt immediacy probably only appears necessary, I suspect, in stories when there is little worth having feelings about otherwise.

4. If you want novelistic insight on high finance, the best place to go is still William Gaddis’s J R.

David Letzler on Thomas Pynchon

chang rae lee

Interview with Chang-rae Lee


A Conversation with CHANG-RAE LEE, author of the book, ON SUCH A FULL SEA

 On Such a Full Sea

Some writers are gifted, and some writers are truly gifted. When reading a book by a truly gifted writer, we wonder how their writing became so intelligent and inspiring. Was it their upbringing, their education, or were they just born with this talent? Chang-rae Lee is a truly gifted writer. It’s apparent on every single page he writes. When you read one of his books, you know you’re going to get something special—a very compelling story, some deeply felt characters, and beautifully composed sentences from beginning to end.

Chang-rae Lee is a Korean American writer and professor of creative writing at Princeton University. His books include Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, Aloft, which received the 2006 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the Adult Fiction category, and The Surrendered, a nominated finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He was also selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty.

His latest book, On Such a Full Sea, published by Riverhead Hardcover, was released on January 7, 2014. I wanted to learn more about this new work, and why this book is so different from his previous work. I spoke with Mr. Lee in late autumn.


C.E. Lukather: First of all, I’d like to say congratulations. I really enjoyed reading your new book, On Such a Full Sea. It’s a really great story. Is this an idea you had thought about writing before? Where did it come from?

Chang-rae Lee: I never thought that I would write such a book. The book that I originally conceived, and may still write, was going to be about contemporary China and all the things that are happening there, its economic power in the world, its ascendancy. The focus was on factory workers and the factory towns where they make everything we use here in this country. So I went over there and did some research, which was a fascinating experience, and planned a social realist novel centered on workers and their bosses and the owners. The story was going to have an American component, though not much of one. But when I got home and started writing, I felt I wasn’t adding that much to what I saw, nor to all the good journalism I had been reading about China. I guess I didn’t have enough of a special angle. When you’re writing a novel you need that angle.

Around the same time I was on a train trip, taking the Amtrak along the northeast corridor from New York to D.C. And when you’re on that train, which I’ve traveled all my adult life, you pass a ghetto area of Baltimore. Over the years I’ve seen serial iterations of that area, the houses burnt down, boarded up, abandoned. So at this point they were boarded up but kind of cleaned up, too, like a ghost town right in the middle of a very busy city. And then I had a thought—I wondered why we couldn’t just give these buildings to some people. And my next thought was odd: why not just bring over some people from China—people from some environmentally ruined area where they couldn’t live anymore, and bring them over here to settle and revitalize the place. And then it all just sort of clicked and I thought, maybe that’s my angle. Of course it wasn’t my original story, but it bridged what I was interested in at the start, namely Chinese ascendancy but also American decline.

C.E. Lukather: Yes, I think that comes through in the book.

Chang-rae Lee: The two kind of go hand-in-hand. So I projected out a few generations, setting the story in the future, writing about what America would look like in a future when China was the great power. Then I thought why not write a story about these people who are brought over here as workers to live in factory-like towns. And it just sort of developed from there. I think all of the factory research in China helped, but I didn’t really use that much of the specifics. It was more of a feeling or sensibility of the people that I began to write about.

C.E. Lukather: Was it exciting for you to write a futuristic book—something you’ve never really written before?

Chang-rae Lee: It was exciting. I thought I would be more wary writing it, since I hadn’t written a book like this before. But in fact it wasn’t a different experience fundamentally, for even when you’re creating a “new” world like this it’s not that different from creating a world that already exists. Perhaps I felt I could take a few more liberties but you still have to make the created world absolutely possible and realistic.

C.E. Lukather: And the book does feel very real, to me.

Chang-rae Lee: This book is partly an adventure story, with the main character going off into a strange world, but also it’s a story about community, the place where she comes from. The book alternates between those two worlds, and I had a lot of enjoyment inventing both. I don’t know if it would have been as much fun just writing about one or the other.

C.E. Lukather: Well, you’ve really created three different worlds in your book. There’s the hometown of the main character, Fan, there are the outlying, sort of wild areas, and then there are the more affluent, well-mannered towns that she visits during her journey.

Chang-rae Lee: Yes, three distinct worlds, without much or any mobility between them. Aside from describing those worlds and the divisions between them, I found myself becoming just as interested in who was doing the telling, which in the novel is an unnamed “We.” A first person plural narrator. In some ways this was the part I enjoyed the most, in terms of the process, developing this communal voice and letting it evolve.

C.E. Lukather: So how long did it take to write this book?

Chang-rae Lee: It didn’t take that long, about two years. For some people that’s a long time, but for me it was really short. I usually take four or five years to write a book. But once I started and got into it, it really kind of rolled along. After the first draft I would go back and forth with my editor about certain sections. But the book is pretty much how I wrote it.

C.E. Lukather: The main character, Fan, is a really great, strong character. Is she inspired by anybody?

Chang-rae Lee: Not really. I was simply interested in a strong young female character, this Fan. She’s not very talkative, or anything like a typical hero. She’s not really a leader, but somehow she manages to inspire people by her presence. I liked that idea of a quiet hero, who is sort of a mirror and a vessel for everybody around her. People also use her and take advantage of her, but she draws them out, too, and compels them to reveal and expose who they are.

C.E. Lukather: She draws you in, and attracts people to her.

Chang-rae Lee: She’s a small-statured young woman, who holds all our hopes and wishes as she goes out into the landscape.

C.E. Lukather: The scenes when she’s outside, in a sort of unrestricted zone, are pretty terrifying.

Chang-rae Lee: That’s a funny thought. Compared to my last book, they didn’t seem so terrifying to me.

C.E. Lukather: Well maybe not terrifying, but shocking, the way they unfold and what happens really startled me as a reader.

Chang-rae Lee: Well, that’s good. You always wonder as a writer. But that was part of my interest in writing this adventure story. And I think in a way any kind of speculative fiction is an adventure story—you know, we’re all traveling to a unfamiliar place. Trying to figure out how everything works. Rather than watching people within a context we already recognize, and seeing what they will do.

C.E. Lukather: And some of the more shocking or startling scenes in the book actually take place in the more civilized regions of this world.

Chang-rae Lee: That was why I had these three different places strictly cordoned off by class. I had the idea that within a particularly cloistered section of society, very weird things can begin to happen. Strange practices, strange beliefs. And that’s one of the things I wanted to get to, this idea that these elite people are just as bizarre and absurd as anyone else. Of course the other people back in the counties and B-Mor have their owns problems as well.

C.E. Lukather: They seem like the most civilized of all.

Chang-rae Lee: In a way, it’s the most controlled, being a production facility. It’s a facility more than a town. And that’s one of the things I saw during my research in China. The factory I saw wasn’t a horrible place, being in fact decently clean and well-run. But everything was specified, and that contributes to a certain kind of environment and ethos. In my novel, I wanted all the functionality and specification to ingrain itself into the consciousness of B-Mor and its citizens.

C.E. Lukather: Without giving anything away, was the outcome of your story something you had envisioned from the beginning, or was it something that happened along the way?

Chang-rae Lee: It unfolded as I wrote it. I didn’t know what was going to happen from chapter to chapter. I had no map at all. So I kind of went on a road trip. Usually on a road trip you know where you going, but with this story, I had no clue. Of course I realized some things about halfway through, that certain things would have to happen and that Fan would meet certain people.

C.E. Lukather: So when you were writing this book, did you have to get in a certain frame of mind in order to write, to see these characters and this place?

Chang-rae Lee: Yes. I had to allow myself a lot of flights of fancy. And a lot of startling things began to happen, which also startled me. Like some of the things that happen in the house of the older Charter couple—just horrifying. But then you continue, and you just keep making linkages as you go. Writing a novel is the risking of a certain kind of fright. But that’s what’s fun and challenging about it. But to be honest I was strangely relaxed writing this, which I hadn’t felt in a while. The other novels I’ve written, I felt rather tense the whole way.

C.E. Lukather: Describe what your writing routine is like.

Chang-rae Lee: I wake up early. I have kids, so I usually make breakfast for them before they go to school. Then I go up to my desk. I have an office in the house. And basically I work until lunch. I have a quick bite and maybe I’ll go for a walk, and then I’ll work again until the late afternoon. I also teach, so on those days my schedule is a little different. If I’m teaching in the afternoon, I’ll still try to work in the morning. And I’ll prepare my work for class at night. I don’t tend to write at night anymore. I did when I was younger, but now I mostly just work in the morning. When I’m finishing a book and really pushing to the end, I will write around the clock—for a few weeks usually. But normally it’s a pretty structured writing day. I need a good routine. That’s the only way it works for me. I write one sentence at a time, and I take my time.

C.E. Lukather: Do you work with an editor, or do you finish an entire book and then send it to an editor?

Chang-rae Lee: Yes, I try to finish a full draft before I send it off to my editor. That’s the way I’ve worked with most of my books. I send it off, once I’ve finished the story. Is that crazy?

C.E. Lukather: No, you’re in total control of your work.

Chang-rae Lee: I really don’t want to get too much feedback mid-stream. I always say, you can get really good advice, and really sound technical advice, but if it doesn’t come from you, it might not fit. It won’t be organic. It may lose that special feeling. And special doesn’t mean it’s perfect, it means that distinctive angle or passion you have for your story.

C.E. Lukather: You mentioned that there were projects or books that you worked on in the past, but then moved on to something else. Are there still some projects that you would like to go back to and complete? Or do you just move on and not look back on those at all?

Chang-rae Lee: I may go back and try to totally rework the original China novel. But the others—no. Those are just different versions of the books I’ve already written and published. So there’s no reason to go back and write them. I don’t ever want to write even close to the same book twice. It’s a pity, all the work that went into those projects, but the work comes out in other ways, and it’s all just part of the process. Maybe the novel you read is only possible because I spent a year and a half writing a slightly different version.

C.E. Lukather: So this book begs the question, would you ever bring back a character that you’ve written in another book?

Chang-rae Lee: Likely not. It would have to be such a different book, and I might only be interested if the main character were different enough. Otherwise why bother? But you never know.

C.E. Lukather: Do you work on a computer, a typewriter, or write on a pad?

Chang-rae Lee: Always on a computer. I’m from the generation when people were starting to use personal computers on daily basis. I wrote all my student papers on an Apple computer—those early models. Sometimes I wish I’d written longhand, but I guess I’m just too lazy. Also, my process is that I write each sentence about 25 times. So it makes more sense to do that on a computer. And perhaps the computer enabled that. But I edit with a pen, printing out on paper what I’ve written.

C.E. Lukather: Would you talk a little about your family life?

Chang-rae Lee: I have two daughters, both in their teens. We have a pretty normal family. My wife is an architect. And we both work from home.

C.E. Lukather: Is it sometimes hard to get any work done with your family always around?

Chang-rae Lee: They know that when I’m in my office writing it’s my job. And the kids are in school during the week. And during the summer they have lots of activities. So everyone is pretty busy.

C.E. Lukather: So you teach short fiction at Princeton?

Chang-rae Lee: Yes, we only have undergraduates here, so they’re not really writing novels. So they write short stories and we read short fiction as well. That’s a big part of my class, the reading part. They’ll write three or four stories during the course of the term.

C.E. Lukather: For young writers today, what do you see as their greatest gifts and their greatest obstacles?

Chang-rae Lee: They have the ability to write about a lot of different things. They’re not just writing about college kids at frat parties. The subject matter is very diverse and I encourage that. They’re trying to push themselves, and not just write about what’s around them. I think one of their greatest obstacles is that sometimes they write a story in the way that they think a story should be written, rather than just writing. They have this theoretical idea of how a story should sound, and what should happen. And that’s good in the sense that it offers some structure, and a little roadmap. But most often the best writing I see is when they sort of let loose and are free, get a little dangerous, a little transgressive. Young writers are sometimes too careful in a funny sort of way, because they don’t want to make mistakes.

C.E. Lukather: What books did you read growing up?

Chang-rae Lee: Pretty much everybody. James Agee and Joyce, Whitman and Hemingway. I was really into American stories, being an immigrant kid who thought all about this place.

C.E. Lukather: Do you do a lot of social media? Are you on the computer and internet a lot?

Chang-rae Lee: Not really. I have a Facebook page. Sometimes I post things there. I don’t have a Twitter account. Mostly I just use email.

C.E. Lukather: Does the internet or technology interfere with your family life?

Chang-rae Lee: No, not really. When we’re home we try to have a family meal every night. And our kids enjoy our cooking. Even if they have things to do, they always have dinner with us.

C.E. Lukather: Are you a good cook?

Chang-rae Lee: I think so. We cook a lot of different things. It’s important to us. It’s really nice to have everyone home to enjoy a meal. My wife is part Italian and I’m Korean so we and the kids always have these discussions about whether the Korean meal or the Italian meal brings the most pleasure. We go back and forth between the two.

C.E. Lukather: The new book comes out in January? Will you be taking time off from teaching to do a book tour?

Chang-rae Lee: Well, I don’t teach until February. So for the main part of the book tour, I’ll be free. I have a full teaching schedule in the spring, but I can still do events on weekends. I have a really packed schedule for spring. My publicist is great, though. She’s really a fun and smart person and people respect her. She’s really good.

C.E. Lukather: I think your new book will bring you a whole new audience. It’s a really great adventure story. Even the cover is great. I love the image of the main character.

Chang-rae Lee: Yes, I think it came out great.

C.E. Lukather: Thank you very much for your time. I enjoyed speaking with you and I really appreciate it.


To follow Chang-rae Lee on Facebook, visit: Facebook

For details about his new book, visit: On Such a Full Sea

Interview with Ivy Pochoda


ivy pochoda


A Conversation with IVY POCHODA



visitation street


Ivy Pochoda is someone you can’t miss in a room full of people. She stands out with her confidence and energy. She is someone that you would definitely want to talk to. Ivy just published her second book, Visitation Street, from Dennis Lehane Books. Like Ivy, it’s a book that instantly grabs your attention. From the very first page with its carefully written prose, to the unfolding mystery that takes you along to its compelling and unexpected end. This is a book that is hard to put down. I met with Ivy at a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles one Sunday afternoon not long ago. Although she is in the midst of a long book tour, going from city to city on both coasts, she still made time to sit down with us and talk about her writing. Ivy is very serious about her work, but she also has a great sense of humor. A former professional squash player, Ivy is a writer with a competitive edge.



The Writing Disorder: Thank you for meeting with me today. Can you talk about your new book, Visitation Street, and how you came up with the concept for the story.

Ivy Pochoda: I was living in Red Hook at the time, which is where the book is set. And I was struggling with another project—I think I will always struggle at the beginning of a book—that was set in Vienna, and I have never been to Vienna, which wasn’t going very well at the time. And I was talking to my mom on the phone one day and she said, why don’t you write about something that’s going on right outside your window. And I took it quite literally. So I just started writing about people who passed by my window in Red Hook. I lived right across the street from a bar. And there’s a lot of activity there. So I just started describing a lot of the activity inside. The bar there is actually called The Bait & Tackle. So that’s how it began. And eventually I expanded it into different areas of Red Hook, the housing projects and other locations. And I made a lot of the characters younger, because there’s a lot of drugs and drinking, and a longing to grow up quickly. So it came from where I was living and that’s where it began.

The Writing Disorder: Is that where you grew up?

Ivy Pochoda: I grew up in Cobble Hill, which is a few miles away from Red Hook. And it’s very different. The way Cobble Hill is now, it’s pretty gentrified. But when I was growing up there, it was more like the way Red Hook is in the book. So it reminded me of the way it was when I was growing up.

The Writing Disorder: Are any of the characters in your book based on people you knew and grew up with?

Ivy Pochoda: Every character began as someone I saw on the street, or perhaps someone I drank with at the bar, or met at the bodega. A lot of the background characters are based on real people, except the more I wrote them, the more I changed them. People may think they recognize themselves. One person is definitely right, he knows who he is. But I don’t know a lot of these people very well, so I had to make up a lot of the details about them. One of the characters is based on someone I went to high school with, another was a teacher I knew. Things like that.

The Writing Disorder: And the two female characters?

Ivy Pochoda: I think those are based on friends I grew up with, and they’re based on me at different stages of my life. I had a friend growing up and I was always the dominant one, always wanting to go out and drink, and she didn’t want to. But I’ve also been in the other position, where I felt left out. So I wanted to dramatize those friendships because that’s what it was like for me growing up. It was important for me to portray that.

The Writing Disorder: Was it difficult to lose one of your characters early on?

Ivy Pochoda: No, it was difficult to decide whether or not to bring that character back. I kept coming up with different scenarios. But I knew deep down what that character’s fate was, and I had to remain true to that feeling.

It was also a way to open up the story, to make one of the characters go missing. And in my mind, whenever I got upset about the character not being there, I would think of some of the more negative aspects of her personality, and that would make it easier for me to deal with. That’s true with most female relationships, girls hate each other, girls are so mean. They don’t mean to be, but they can’t help it.

The Writing Disorder: Your prose is so careful and precisely written. It’s almost as if every word is carefully chosen. It’s very beautiful the way you write.

Ivy Pochoda: I read and edit a lot of books and I’m always shocked how language is almost the last thing people think about. For me, it’s the first thing. That’s why it’s so hard for me to write right now. Language for me is the best part of writing. I mean plot is always difficult. I find the language kind of easy. I have to hear it. And I know when I’m doing a bad job, so I usually just stop. But I don’t like fancy language, either, pretty or over written stories.

The Writing Disorder: So how is life for you now, compared to when your first book was published?

Ivy Pochoda: Well this book has gotten a lot more attention. The first book came out and nothing really happened with it. It was through a publisher that puts out a lot of books, and they try to see what sticks and what doesn’t. So there wasn’t a lot of publicity behind it. By the time it came out, they were on to the next thing. But this book has been great. I’ve had so many amazing opportunities. It’s like a night and day situation, where now I feel like a real writer. But now I have to write another book. (haha) I don’t have to, but I probably should.

The Writing Disorder: You’ve had a lot of people come out for your book signings, like at The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. And you’ve been on a book tour. How has that been?

Ivy Pochoda: Yes, we’re about to start up again. We’re going to San Francisco, and New England, where my father lives. And we’re going to New York as well. I also did a reading at the bar where the story is set. And that was quite harrowing. But it worked out well in the end. And there will be a few more stops in the fall, like the Brooklyn Book Festival, which is a very big deal for me. That will be fun, and perhaps the L.A. Times Festival of Books next year.

The Writing Disorder: Can you talk a little about your family life growing up.

Ivy Pochoda: Sure, I grew up in Brooklyn in a place called Cobble Hill. My mother was a magazine editor. She was the book editor at The Nation magazine for a long time. She’s worked at a lot of different magazines over the years. She worked at Vanity Fair, also The Post and Entertainment Weekly. Currently she’s the editor of a magazine called The Magazine Antiques. My father worked in publishing at a lot of the big publishing companies like Random House, Doubleday, Simon & Schuster. He had his own agency for a while, and now he’s doing university publishing. He lived in Michigan for a while, but now he’s back in New Hampshire. My parents are divorced. Growing up, our house was full of books. I didn’t even watch television until the sixth grade — then I made up for lost time, and watched a lot of it. I go through fits and starts. I either watch a lot or zero TV. There’s so many choices these days that I don’t watch anything. I lived in Holland for six years and there was nothing on TV, so I used to watch anything I could. But now, with hundreds of channels, I don’t watch anything — really strange.

My childhood was very literary, but my parents never encouraged me to become a writer. I wrote a lot of poetry. I have no brothers or sisters. So I played squash a lot, and other sports.

The Writing Disorder: What attracted you to squash, as apposed to basketball or baseball or some other sport?

Ivy Pochoda: Nothing in particular, my parents had a membership to this fake country club in the city. So they signed me up for lessons, when I was eight or nine. I started playing once a week, and then I did summer camp and I got really good really quickly. My school didn’t have a lot of sports, it was a very artsy school. So I played squash like three to five days a week. I really enjoyed it.

The Writing Disorder: Do you still play?

Ivy Pochoda: Yes, I still enjoy it. There’s a club nearby where I play. And my husband plays as well. I give him lessons on occasion.

The Writing Disorder: Were there a lot of writers around your home growing up?

Ivy Pochoda: Mostly journalists. I don’t remember a lot of novelists. I remember one who was a science fiction writer. My mom had a lot of friends who were writers, but we wouldn’t see them on a regular basis. Most of her friends were writers, but a lot of them were journalists — my parents had a lot of weird friends.

The Writing Disorder: What books did you read growing up?

Ivy Pochoda: I read everything. Every summer my mom would buy me like ten books. But I can’t think of anyone specifically.

The Writing Disorder: Who influenced your work?

Ivy Pochoda: I read a lot of modern fiction in college, it was the farthest thing you could get from reading Ancient Greek. I like reading long books. I thought I was going to write a long book. I love books like War and Peace. I read a lot of Willa Cather growing up. My dad bought me books by Kurt Vonnegut and James Ellroy, Steppenwolf, a lot of ‘60s books as well. My mom got me a lot of Henry James. But I read a lot of mysteries as well. I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes when I was little. I think I read all of them.

The Writing Disorder: When did you first start writing?

Ivy Pochoda: I started writing in high school and in college and it was great. I wrote poetry all through middle school and high school. After college I was living in Amsterdam and I was playing professional squash. It wasn’t all that satisfying, and my parents were harassing me about doing something constructive with my life. So I decided to write a book. But I didn’t think I would make any money from it, so I started another book called The Art of Disappearing, which was initially called The Art of Losing, after a poem, but we had to change that. So I just taught myself to write. And after I sold that book, I went to graduate school, and I realized I needed a little help.

The Writing Disorder: With your parent’s background in publishing, and your reading and writing a lot as a kid, it seems like maybe you were meant to be a writer.

Ivy Pochoda: I just knew that I didn’t really want a regular job, so I’ve gone out of my way to figure out ways that I didn’t have to. And being a writer seemed like a very reasonable one. I had one office job in my life. And it was fun. But I didn’t want a regular life. I wouldn’t mind teaching, though.

The Writing Disorder: You’ve been successful in squash, and you’ve been successful in writing. What are you working on now?

Ivy Pochoda: I’m ghost writing a celebrity biography for a TV/Hollywood actress. They are mostly based on interviews. My agent keeps telling me to stop doing them. But I like the work and it pays the bills. I did a biography on Rhoda, Valerie Harper. And I recently wrote a book on a polygamous Mormon family with four sister wives. I wrote their book, called Becoming Sister Wives. I went out to Las Vegas for ten days and interviewed them. No comment on the sister wives.

The Writing Disorder: And your husband is a filmmaker.

Ivy Pochoda: Yes, he’s made some short films, written some screenplays, and he currently works in TV.

The Writing Disorder: Has there been any talk of turning your book into a film?

Ivy Pochoda: There’s been some interest, so we’ll see.

The Writing Disorder: How did you come up with the structure for your novel?

Ivy Pochoda: When I started writing this book I was in graduate school and I went to a low-residency program — which means you go to class a few times a year and you send your work in. And you turn in your work every month for about five or six months. Each month is about 20-30 pages of writing and four essays on books I’ve read. And I didn’t know where I was going yet. So instead of going from chapter to chapter and following one character, I kept switching perspectives. It made it so I thought of each chapter as a short story. And once I came up with the idea of the two girls on the raft, I made that the through line. For me it’s a very easy and very hard way to write a novel, not knowing if it’s all going to come together in the end. I thought that maybe I would try that again in another book, but maybe not.

The Writing Disorder: Where did the visual idea of two girls on a raft come from?

Ivy Pochoda: It just came to me. I wanted something that would open it up like a prologue, something that would set the stage for a hot summer. I recently read Ian McEwan’s, Enduring Love, that opens with a balloon accident, and the accident — it’s such a dynamic chapter. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the plot, but someone that the main couple meets during it, becomes this stalker character and it changes their lives. So I thought it would be interesting to have an isolated incident to set a story in motion, but my initial idea was that it would just be a stand alone piece, but then it became the backbone of the story.

The Writing Disorder: There’s a hint of a supernatural element in your book.

Ivy Pochoda: You can read it however you want. Do some of the characters really hear voices? That’s up to the reader to decide. I have my own opinion, but I think it can be read different ways. The city does have a certain ghostliness to it. The old city lying underneath the new one. There’s definitely a ghost city shimmering under the surface. There was a lot of violence there in the 1980s. People grieve in different ways. I can only imagine how many people died there over the years. So I wanted to dramatize that in a psychological way.

The Writing Disorder: Does a cruise ship really dock in the city?

Ivy Pochoda: Oh yes, the Queen Mary docked there when I was living there. We all went down there at five in the morning to see it, thinking it would bring a lot of change to the city, but it came and went and that was it.

The Writing Disorder: So everyone thought it would change the city.

Ivy Pochoda: Oh yes, all these businesses made all these changes, to their names, etc. — and nothing happened. One Swedish tourist wandered off the boat. That was it.

The Writing Disorder: What is your writing process like, or what is a day of writing like for you?

Ivy Pochoda: In an ideal world I will start writing at 9:00 or 9:30 a.m., and write until 2:30 or 3:00 p.m. But I know that during that time, I will do a whole bunch of other stuff. But I try to get at least three solid hours of real writing done. If I can get three pages a day, that’s fine. If I can get five pages, that’s amazing. If I write more that that, I might consider taking the next day off (haha). I set myself goals, though. Like today I need to get my character from point A to point B. I always try to have a goal in mind for what I’m going to write about. I write on a computer and I have notebook next to it. I only write at my desk — nowhere else. I can’t write in a coffee shop, or a restaurant or on a plane.

the art of disappearing

The Writing Disorder: Who reads your work first?

Ivy Pochoda: Nobody. I don’t let anyone read something until it’s completely done. I might let my mom read something. She’s a really good editor. She’ll tell me if I’m being lazy or if I’ve overdone stuff — I tend to overdo things. She’ll say, “We get it, they’re ghosts,” or whatever. Towards the end of a project I’ll let someone read it. I let someone read this at sixteen chapters, when I had a problem with certain things. And I got one good note on it. But I think I know those answers all along. I don’t really love feedback – about plot.

The Writing Disorder: And your husband doesn’t read your work as you’re writing it?

Ivy Pochoda: No. He only read Visitation Street a few weeks ago. It would make me crazy to have him read it while I was working on something — not that I don’t value his opinion. He’s very smart, but he’s very plot-driven.

The Writing Disorder: Do you write any poetry?

Ivy Pochoda: I used to, but that was back in high school. And I don’t play any musical instruments. I can barely turn on the stereo.

The Writing Disorder: What was it like playing squash competitively, and living overseas as a professional squash player?

Ivy Pochoda: Yes, it was really fun. I’m not sure if I should have done more of it or less. I had figured out that when I got up to my highest (world) ranking, which was 38, that I can get in the top 20, I know I can, but I don’t want to, I’m not going to put in the work that it would take to reach that goal. It was also not lost upon me that living in Amsterdam and playing professional squash was a very strange decision. But I wanted to travel in Europe and I wanted to have a job. So I tried to do both, go out and have a life, and play squash. I was really good at it. I always wanted to win the U.S. National Championship, and it kind of bothers me.

I also know that when I was training my hardest and putting in the most amount work and hours – playing twice a day, six days a week, and not drinking — that it wasn’t really satisfying. But I love to socialize and go out with friends.

I also was a head case. Like I would train all year, and then at the tournament I would be totally ready to win, but then I couldn’t even tie my shoes, and I wanted to throw up. So I made a pact with myself that I would mentally let go of winning a national squash championship — if I sold a novel. That I would never be nervous about writing a book. I put all the belief that I didn’t have in squash, I put that into becoming a writer and writing — which is silly because writing was in other people’s hands, but squash was in my hands. But that’s okay. But I loved playing on the U.S. National Team. I always played well in team events. Two of my best friends were on the team. One of them because an artist and the other published a novel. The three of us went to El Salvador together for a tournament, and Colombia. It was really fun, and it’s great to travel with your friends. We all went to Harvard. So after a tournament we would go back to the hotel and hang out, and no one would talk about sports.

And my senior year in college I won the college individual championship squash title. That was the big one. See that I wanted, and that I killed myself to win because I wanted it so badly. That’s all I wanted. I can still remember it. The three years leading up to that, my team was the national championship team, we were the women’s team champions. And I got to the finals when I was a sophomore. So I came back the two years later and won it. It was great. I remember everything about it — every detail. I have a videotape of the match that I won. You should see the outfits we wore. I cried afterwards. It’s not an Olympic sport yet, it’s still in contention — the vote is coming up — but it doesn’t really televise well.

The Writing Disorder: Have you ever thought about coaching?

Ivy Pochoda: Oh yes, I’ve coached for a long time. When I was working on my first book, I got a job at the Harvard Club of New York coaching squash. I thought I would be there for about a year and I ended up coaching there for about four years. I’m a good coach but I get frustrated and impatient sometimes. I loved training the U.S. National Junior Team.

The Writing Disorder: You have a really great website by the way. What do you do when you’re not writing or working on a book?

Ivy Pochoda: I basically do three things: I write, play squash and cook/eat/drink. I love to cook. I had a horrible experience playing squash when I was 23. I trained all year for the national championship, but I had a complete meltdown in the first round. I was so upset. And that was the time my parents said to come back home. So I stayed with my mom for a few days. And I remember being in the kitchen I saw these two cookbooks one for Indian food and one for Thai food. So I got home, and I said I’m not going to play squash for about two months, so I cooked everything in those two books. I practiced so hard. And now I still prefer to cook either Thai or Indian food. That’s what I like to do. And I think I’m pretty good at it. It’s all about the seasonings.

The Writing Disorder: What are you working on now, or do you know what your next project is going to be?

Ivy Pochoda: No. I sold my current book in the summer of 2012. And normally a book takes over a year and a half to come out. But I finished the edits in October of that year. There’s a lot of work you have to do once you turn a book in. You have to keep editing it. And its been a sort of whirlwind ever since. You know selling a book, along with the publicity, which started in March of this year. And we did this pre-publicity tour. So I just haven’t really had a moment to take a break and relax. I tried to write something, but I think I just need to take a breath. I’ll start writing again. I did three ghost writing projects while I wrote Visitation Street, so I need a break. And I just started a creative writing program at The LAMP Lodge on Skid Row. So I’m going to be working on that. I live right near there and pass by everyday and I thought I wanted to do something for the community. I did some research and emailed a few people, and I found out about LAMP, and they have a really good LGBT community. So I’m really excited about the project. They have art and music facilities — it’s better than some high schools. We’re going to do a two-hour workshop once a week. And we want to do a newsletter, or a literary magazine. The people that I’ve met there are phenomenal.

The Writing Disorder: What kind of music do you listen to, and what kind of music did you listen to growing up?

Ivy Pochoda: I don’t listen to a lot of music. And when I write I need absolute silence. I like The Clash, Elvis Costello or Tom Waits. But my musical education has been hampered by a few things. My parents listened to a lot of music, so I listened to their music — Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, things like that. But they never thought to engage me with radio or others kids music. I never thought to go outside their interests. I wasn’t a normal kid. Then, in college I listened dance music. But when I moved to Holland, before Napster, music was so expensive there. I could barely pay my rent. But even if I did have money to spend, it was not to buy CDs. So I missed about six years of TV and six years of music. And it’s hard to catch up.

But when I’m writing, I demand silence.

The Writing Disorder: How did you go from writing your first book, to getting it published?

Ivy Pochoda: Through my agent.

The Writing Disorder: How did you get an agent?

Ivy Pochoda: Well, I have some friends in publishing. And when I finished my first book, I sent it to a few of them to read. And one woman actually read the book, and thought it was good. So she suggested that I send the book out to five or six agents that she suggested, and that I had to contact them on my own, but I could mention her name — and just see what happens. So I sent it out to everyone, it was actually eight agents, two of them men and six of them women — and all the women accepted it, and the men did not. So I went with the first person who accepted it, and she turned out to be the best agent. I love her so much.

The Writing Disorder: Is she still your agent today?

Ivy Pochoda: Yes. So she said that first book wasn’t ready to publish yet, and gave me some extensive notes to work on. And so I revised it and she sent it out ten times over eight months, and it was rejected by everyone. Then she did a second pass, and sent it out twenty times, and it was rejected again. So she said we could do two things, that I could either start a new book and put this one aside, or I could do another rewrite and submit it again. So I rewrote it again, and she submitted again ten times and it was rejected again. And I thought, Oh, my God. So I did one more rewrite and she sent it out again, and she got the tiniest offer, and we took it. But I don’t know if anyone else would have gone through all that. So after that I decided to go to graduate school, that I never wanted to go through that again. And this next book was a totally different story. We sold it in like two days. Thank God, because I think I would have had a nervous breakdown. I was nervous everyday to do this book, so it was a pretty bad start.

The Writing Disorder: Do you spend a lot of time on the internet, like Twitter and Facebook?

Ivy Pochoda: I can be on the internet for hours — nothing constructive, though. But there are so many cool writers on twitter and we start talking. And someone might be talking about my book, or vice versa, and they might say let’s get together. It’s great. I don’t know any other way to meet writers like that. It’s kind of cool.

The Writing Disorder: Do you have a lot of friends who are writers?

Ivy Pochoda: Yes. I have a lot of writer friends like in the last two weeks. But seriously, I have made a lot more writer friends since I became a writer. And I have a lot of squash friends, too. Half the material on my Facebook page is about writing, and the other stuff is about squash, or food-related stuff.

The Writing Disorder: Have you written any short stories?

Ivy Pochoda: I wrote one short story, and it was published, in a magazine nobody has heard of. But I was really excited at the time. And they spelled my name wrong. I think I’ll probably stick with novel writing for now.

The Writing Disorder: Have you thought about taking this story or these characters further?

Ivy Pochoda: No. I think that’s it for them. They don’t need me anymore. I think we’re done.

The Writing Disorder: Do you ever write with a pen and paper?

Ivy Pochoda: Yes, a lot. I don’t have great handwriting, but sometimes I like to write things in longhand. Like when I get an idea, I’ll usually write in out on paper first. I always keep a paper note pad by my computer. And I’m very particular about the pen I use. I’d like to have nice handwriting, but sometimes it’s indecipherable. But I can make it look nice when I want.

The Writing Disorder: What are your impressions of Los Angeles? Was it a big adjustment from life in Brooklyn?

Ivy Pochoda: Yes and no. I mean, my life didn’t change a whole hell of a lot. I work from home and I go and play squash. I do enjoy driving however, and I get a particular thrill when I encounter something uniquely Los Angeles, like the neon lights on Sunset Boulevard. All in all, I like it here. But part of me wants to move back to Red Hook.

The Writing Disorder: What are some of your favorite places in Los Angeles, or favorite things to do here?

Ivy Pochoda: I love my neighborhood, The Arts District and I like all the abandoned warehouses nearby. I love downtown as well. When I lived in Echo Park, I really enjoyed walking the loop in Elysian Park. Oh, and I love Thai Town. I eat there all the time.

The Writing Disorder: Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure meeting and talking with you. Thanks again.


To follow Ivy Pochoda on Twitter, visit: Twitter

For details about her book, visit: Visitation Street

Interview with Steph Cha


steph cha


A conversation with writer STEPH CHA



follow her home


Steph Cha is relatively new to the writing world. She just wrote her first book, Follow Her Home, published by Minotaur Books earlier this year. Of course, she’s been working on this book for years. But to the average reader she’s just arrived. Follow Her home is the story of a young woman who becomes a reluctant detective in present-day Los Angeles. It’s an homage to Raymond Chandler and his great noir stories set in the same city. Steph Cha takes her character down her own unique path, and comes up with a story that is both compelling and exciting. It’s a definite page-turner.



The Writing Disorder: Congratulations on your new book, Follow Her Home. I really enjoyed reading it. I also grew up in Los Angeles. So it was easy to visualize all of the streets and locations you write about. I love reading about familiar places.

How did you come up with the unusual concept for your book? How long did it take to write?

Steph Cha: I read Chandler in college and I just loved those novels — the style, the sense of place, the kind of noble, weary hero. On the other hand, I knew what I was reading was outdated in many ways, and that the diverse, sprawling Los Angeles I know was not really in Chandler’s imagination. I wanted to write a contemporary L.A. noir that showed the city I know, from a point of view based on my own — something like Korean-American, feminist, twenty-something shithead. Once I came up with the character and started writing, I got a draft out in about a year and a half, with several breaks. The editing took longer, about three years all told, though most of that was waiting time.

The Writing Disorder: Tell us about the process of writing your first novel? Was this your first attempt?

Steph Cha: This was my first attempt. I started writing it because I didn’t like my summer job, which is such a bratty thing to say, but it’s true. I was in school and decided that if what I was studying to do didn’t fulfill me, maybe I should give that pipe dream a shot. I started writing it a couple pages at a time, and the more I wrote, the more I thought I might finish the thing. I didn’t outline, and I wasn’t very disciplined, so there were weeks at a time when I wrote nothing, like when I hit a snag in the narrative. I’ll have to keep myself more on task going forward.

The Writing Disorder: Did you have a publisher before you finished, or did you start looking once you finished? Where did you begin to look?

Steph Cha: Oh man, I found my publisher a year and a half after I finished my first draft. I took almost a year getting my agent on board, and after that, we revised for three months before submitting anywhere. Once my agent decided the manuscript was ready to go, he pitched it to a short list of editors, and somebody bit.

The Writing Disorder: You grew up in Los Angeles? Talk about your life growing up here — your family life, friends, social activities? Where did you go to school?

Steph Cha: I grew up in Encino, so the valley, mostly. My family life was tame. Parents, two younger brothers. My grandma lived with us for a while when I was very young. I went to private school my whole life (Oakwood for a bit, then Mirman, then Harvard-Westlake), so I led a pretty sheltered, privileged existence. I was an obedient, studious sort of kid. My social life was entirely wholesome, maybe even a bit bland. I didn’t start seeing my friends outside of school with any regularity until I got my driver’s license.

The Writing Disorder: Do you follow Los Angeles history — crimes, architecture, movies, etc.? What are some of your favorite stories about the city?

Steph Cha: I follow it loosely — I’m interested in stories about L.A. but definitely more movies/books than minute local current events. I love L.A. noir as a genre, so Chandler, Mosley, Ellroy, and the accompanying class of movies. Good God, Chinatown.

The Writing Disorder: What are some of your favorite books about Los Angeles?

Steph Cha: You know, I just went through my GoodReads, and it looks like about half of my exposure to L.A. literature falls under the noir umbrella. Outside of that, I really like Elsewhere, California by Dana Johnson, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, and Southland by Nina Revoyr, which is sort of cheating because it’s also a mystery, at least in part.

The Writing Disorder: When did you pick up your first Raymond Chandler book, and what was it?

Steph Cha: The Big Sleep, freshman year of college.

The Writing Disorder: What is your favorite book of his? What other crime authors do you read/admire?

Steph Cha: I have a special fondness for The Big Sleep, but The Long Goodbye is his best novel. It’s pretty incomparable. Other crime authors — well, outside the usual suspects, I like Denise Mina, Gillian Flynn, and when he goes that way, Jonathan Lethem. I’ve also really enjoyed books by Attica Locke, Naomi Hirahara, Daniel Friedman, and Joy Castro in the last year, and will probably keep reading them. And oh — I guess he might be canon, but Ross Macdonald.

The Writing Disorder: Are you a fan of film noir as well? Which movies do you like most?

Steph Cha: Oh yeah, though I suppose I’ve only seen the big ones. As mentioned, Chinatown, but also Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. I also like movies like Brick and L.A. Confidential. Neo-noir is sort of my jam. Drive was my favorite movie of last year.

The Writing Disorder: How do you begin a story?

Steph Cha: An idea and a little bit of discipline. I find that if the idea’s any good, it’ll bloom a bit as long as I do the work of writing words on a page.

The Writing Disorder: Do you write poetry or short stories? Anything published?

Steph Cha: I’ve been tinkering with short stories over the last several months, but I haven’t even submitted anything at this point.

The Writing Disorder: What was your youth like, and what made you want to become a writer?

Steph Cha: It was privileged, peaceful, and probably a little bit boring. My mom was strict, and I studied a lot. I was always a big reader, even when I was small, so I think that’s what did it. I fantasized about becoming an author starting around third grade.

The Writing Disorder: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

Steph Cha: Ah, that’s a tricky one. I didn’t start calling myself a writer until I landed an agent, more than two years after I started writing. I probably started thinking of myself (very cautiously) as a writer once I made the decision to finish this book, maybe halfway through the first draft of the manuscript.

The Writing Disorder: What does your family think of your work and success? Do you ever get their input on your writing?

Steph Cha: No one in my family follows publishing/books very closely, but they’re all proud and happy. My grandma, who speaks no English, has been selling the book to all her friends, who also speak no English. I don’t get any input from my family on writing, but they’re enthusiastic about the end product and that’s good enough for me.

The Writing Disorder: Who influenced your work early on? What books, authors did you read growing up? Who do you like to read now?

Steph Cha: As a kid, I read Roald Dahl and a lot of those hardcover classics bound and marketed for children — Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Heidi, that kind of thing. I read Poe around fifth grade, and I think my first stab at creative writing involved a blood-splattered wall. I think my favorite book between the ages of eleven and fifteen was Catch-22. At the end of my junior year of high school, though, I read As I Lay Dying and Lolita in the span of a couple months, and I started reading furiously after that. I still read fiction almost exclusively, mostly literary stuff, a healthy amount of crime, a classic that I missed now and then.

The Writing Disorder: When did you first get published?

Steph Cha: This book. Officially, April 16 of this year, then.

The Writing Disorder: Describe what happens when you are working on a story or book.

Steph Cha: I don’t have a lot of data points, but I will say that I have a hard time sitting down and writing for eight hours. I tend to have productive spurts and dry spells, and I’m working on pushing through those dry spells with a bit more discipline. I do work much better when I’m on deadline — huge procrastinator, but I respect deadlines.

The Writing Disorder: How much of what you write do you throw away?

Steph Cha: Scraps here and there. I do edit a lot, but I haven’t trashed too many large segments of irredeemable writing.

The Writing Disorder: What are you working on now?

Steph Cha: I have a few things going, including a literary novel and bits of short stories, but the primary project is a sequel to Follow Her Home.

The Writing Disorder: What do you do when you’re not writing? What do you do for fun?

Steph Cha: I read! Ha, is that boring? I guess I also hang out with my basset hound and my fiancé and my family and my friends. I like to eat, and since I like to write, too, I post a lot on Yelp. I also like to drink, mostly in moderation.

The Writing Disorder: What are some of the challenges of being a writer today?

Steph Cha: I think I’m still too green to speak competently about the changing marketplace, or ebooks or whatever, but there are a few things I would guess are pretty timeless. It doesn’t help that most writers don’t make minimum wage doing what they love, and the constant battle of ego and self-doubt is certainly wearisome.

The Writing Disorder: Where and when do you write? Describe the space?

Steph Cha: I write on my couch, under a throw blanket, with my dog either at my side or my feet. I write throughout the day, rarely in the morning. I goof off in the morning.

The Writing Disorder: Was writing encouraged at home?

Steph Cha: In a way. When I was very young, my mom had me write stories in order to learn vocabulary words. She’d give me like ten or twenty new words, and I’d have to incorporate those into stories. I think she was more concerned about the memorization than the creative bit, but I did enjoy those exercises.

The Writing Disorder: Does anyone else in your family write?

Steph Cha: No.

The Writing Disorder: How much research do you do before you begin a new project?

Steph Cha: Very little, to be honest, unless you count whatever knowledge I get from pleasure reading. I research as needed — I tend to avoid it unless I have a specific question.

The Writing Disorder: Once you have the basic story written or first draft, is the editing process longer than the initial writing?

Steph Cha: This time around, it was, but I think that’s because I spent long periods of time waiting around. I think the cycle tightens up after the first book.

The Writing Disorder: Do you have other creative talents — music, art, etc.?

Steph Cha: I play piano and sing on a pretty basic level. I also used to play cello but I don’t even have access to a cello anymore. I’m a fair doodler, too.

The Writing Disorder: What is a typical writing day for you?

Steph Cha: Wake up, roll downstairs, dick around on the internet, eat something, walk dog, write.

The Writing Disorder: Do you spend a lot of time on the internet? What do you do, what sites do you visit most often?

Steph Cha: So much. It’s terrible. I always have Facebook, Twitter, and GoodReads open, and I frequently Google myself and spy on my Amazon page. I also spend a lot of time on Yelp and on Videogum, which is a medium-sized pop culture blog with a great commenting community.

The Writing Disorder: Do you have a lot of writer friends?

Steph Cha: I have writer friends now! I didn’t until fairly recently, but now I have a little group of people to get beers with in the middle of a random weekday.

The Writing Disorder: What kind of music do you listen to? What groups were you into growing up?

Steph Cha: I stopped listening to new music almost altogether when I was in college. I “discovered” Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Clash, Pixies, etc. in high school, and got into like Built to Spill, Beulah, Rilo Kiley, Modest Mouse in college. I have an ex who will send me cool new music now and then and I enjoy that, but I think my days of being very into music are basically over.

The Writing Disorder: Who reads your work first?

Steph Cha: I showed the first draft of Follow Her Home to my roommate and one of my best friends, who reads a lot. Now, though, my agent.

The Writing Disorder: Do you miss Los Angeles when you’re away? What do you miss most about it?

Steph Cha: Tons. And this is easy — my family.

The Writing Disorder: Was it difficult to structure your book and maintain the tone?

Steph Cha: No. Noir has constraints, and those constraints made it relatively easy to keep things consistent.

The Writing Disorder: Are the characters in your book based on people you know?

Steph Cha: Not really. I borrowed characteristics here and there, but no one whole.

The Writing Disorder: What do you do for fun? Where do you like to go?

Steph Cha: Well, this week I’ve watched an insane amount of RuPaul’s Drag Race but that isn’t typical. I mostly read and eat and drink. I live in Los Feliz, and I love my neighborhood, so I like walking around here. We have the Observatory up the street, Skylight Books down on Vermont. I go there a lot.

The Writing Disorder: I think your book would also make a great movie. Has anyone discussed this with you?

Steph Cha: Yeah, it’s been discussed, but not in a lot of detail. I think it would make a good movie, but I don’t know anything about that industry.

The Writing Disorder: What was it like going to Yale Law school? I assume you wanted to become a lawyer — what changed?

Steph Cha: It was okay. I made some very good friends while I was there, including my fiancé. I liked being in a class with so many smart, talented people. The school part, though, wasn’t my favorite. I just didn’t find it that interesting. I don’t think I ever wanted to be a lawyer, not especially anyway. I went to law school straight out of college, and I guess I didn’t have the imagination to do anything else at that point.

The Writing Disorder: You also attended Stanford. What did you study there and what was the experience like?

Steph Cha: I studied English and East Asian studies, with a minor in psychology. I loved it. I miss English class. As far as the college experience goes, I had a good time. I just went to my five-year reunion in October and a wedding on campus in April, and I really only have fond feelings for Stanford.

The Writing Disorder: So once you finished school, what was your plan — to become a writer, or something else?

Steph Cha: College? I was planning to be a lawyer, or something like that. Once I graduated law school I knew I wanted to pursue writing in a serious way.

The Writing Disorder: Are you enjoying the life of a published writer, book tour, etc.?

Steph Cha: Oh yeah. I feel very blessed, and I’m grateful for all the support I’ve received from my family and friends. Touring is stressful sometimes (you caught me at the end of a particularly rough week), but I’ve had fun doing it. I’m glad my book is out there in the world, and I plan on writing a few more before my time is up.

The Writing Disorder: Thank you very much for your time.


To follow Steph Cha on Twitter, visit: Twitter

For details about her book, visit: Follow Her Home

Tina May Hall Interview

The Art of Writing




Tiny May Hall is a very good writer. That’s what I thought when I first read one of her stories. Well, actually, I hadn’t even finished it. I was just a few sentences in. But I instantly got the feeling that she really knew what she was doing. Then I proceeded to read the rest of her book. It was every bit as amazing as the first part. And while she takes the reader on some very strange, humorous, and often unexpected journeys, you get the feeling that Tina May Hall is a born storyteller. It’s what we, as readers, are always searching for—the perfect book.

Winner of the 2010 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, a competition Raymond Carver once judged, Tina May Hall’s outstanding book, The Physics of Imaginary Objects, is a true masterpiece, an instant classic, and a book that should be read by everyone. If you’re a writer, it will make you want to write more. If you’re a graphic designer, it will inspire you to write as well. Even if you’re a politician, it will inspire you to write. This is one of those books that makes everyone want to become a writer.

With so much enthusiasm for her work, I couldn’t help but contact Tina May Hall on behalf of The Writing Disorder. I thought an interview would help readers understand where a person who writes like this comes from, and how she became the writer she is today.

So I used my various resources and came up with an email. I sent off a note to Ms. Hall, and presto, she agreed to be interviewed for our literary journal. Not only was Tina a great person to interview, she also provided us with an example of her work to reprint on our site. With kind permission from the University of Pittsburgh Press, we thank you. And we’d like to thank Tina for taking valuable time away from her writing, teaching, and family, to participate in this interview. Thank you, Tina.




THE WRITING DISORDER: Where did you learn to write?

TINA MAY HALL: I learned to write by reading a lot as a child and then later in a more disciplined fashion at the University of Arizona, Bowling Green State University, and The University of Missouri.

TWD: What books did you read growing up?

TINA: Everything by Jane Austen and the Brontës. Louisa May Alcott, L. M. Montgomery, Madeleine L’Engle. It was pretty typical girlhood fare.

TWD: Tell us about your family life growing up. Were there any creative people in your life?

TINA: My father is an electronic engineer who is immensely talented at rigging up all kinds of devices. My mother is an artist who cycled through pottery, painting, stained glass, porcelain dolls and now is back to oil painting. She has always been incredibly, inspiringly creative in all facets of her life. Both of my parents demonstrated on a day-to-day basis how one might cobble together something beautiful and functional out of unlikely materials.

TWD: How do you begin a story or piece?

TINA: I usually start with an image and write from there. It is a bit like walking into a dark cave with only the tiniest light—very fun and a little scary.

TWD: How long is the editing process?

TINA: Probably because the starting is so undirected, the revising takes a long time. I usually take a few months to write a draft of a story and then work for a couple of years on revisions. This is why I usually have two or three projects going at once!

TWD: Do you write at a specific time of day? What do you use to write?

TINA: I used to only like to write in the morning, but now that I have a child, I’m much more pragmatic and I write whenever I have the time to do so. I always write on the computer; if I try to write longhand, everything that comes out is unbearably sentimental for some reason.

TWD: Have you ever published something before you felt it was ready?

TINA: One of the benefits of having a long revision process and being generally reluctant to send work out is that the work normally feels pretty complete by the time it is actually published. That said, I’ve had invaluable help from the editors I’ve worked with who have taken the stories I’ve sent them and refined them with really beautiful suggestions.

TWD: What is your workspace like?

TINA: Cluttered. I like to imagine a clean desk, maybe with a vase of lilacs and a white curtain blowing at the window, but it hasn’t materialized yet.

TWD: Do you have other creative talents – music art, etc.?

TINA: Nope. I’m a one-trick pony.

TWD: What is it like to be a critically-acclaimed author?

TINA: I’m not sure I’d claim this title for myself. It is lovely to have the book as an object and such fun to hear from people who have read it.

TWD: What is your home life like now?

TINA: I have a four-year-old so my home life right now revolves around superheroes, Legos, and Ben 10. That Ben 10 theme song is catchy. I find myself singing it all day long. It is an existence rather steeped in testosterone and myth, for the moment.

TWD: What is a typical writing day for you?

TINA: As I said before, I have to fit the writing in where I can, which is wonderful and aggravating at the same time. A few years ago, my idea of a writing day was a whole uninterrupted day when I would get up, make myself a pot of tea and then sit and contemplate the story, write for a while, contemplate some more, write, repeat. Then I’d pour myself a glass of wine and read until bedtime. Nowadays, a more typical writing day consists of writing for a bit, getting distracted by the desires of the people around me for clean socks and underwear, packing some lunches, teaching a couple of classes, writing a little bit more after class, going to the grocery store, putting my child to bed after telling him multiple completely inaccurate stories about Superman, and then writing a bit more. Writing is a much more organic part of my life now—it really isn’t sacred in the way it used to be.

TWD: What’s the longest time you’ve gone without writing?

TINA: I write in fits and starts. There have definitely been months at a time when I don’t write fiction. So far, I’ve always been relatively secure in the knowledge that the writing will be there when I come back to it. It helps to keep a list or notebook of ideas and snippets of images, just to feel like there are things to prime the pump, need be.

TWD: Do you enjoy editing, or the initial writing process more?

TINA: Editing, by far.

TWD: How much of what you write do you throw away?

TINA: Probably about 80%.

TWD: How do you feel at the end of writing a story?

TINA: Like most writers, I feel ecstatic for about a day and then reality sets in. It always does feel like a bit of a miracle to have the whole thing in front of you, even if you are already starting to see the flaws.

TWD: What are you working on now?

TINA: I’m working on a novel about an encyclopedia entry writer who gets obsessed with Victorian arctic exploration.
TWD: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

TINA: Hike, camp, snowshoe—anything that gets me away from desk and outside. There is something so heartening about nature; it is a relief to just enjoy trees and stones and great drifts of snow after struggling with a story.

TWD: What are the challenges of being a writer today?

TINA: I think we have a lot of very attractive things to do in front of the computer besides write. It can be hard to turn away from the email and the blogs and all that. There are so many enticing ways to spend our time talking about writing rather than actually doing it!

TWD: What do you read now, who do you admire?

TINA: I read Carole Maso, Jayne Anne Phillips, Lydia Davis, Kate Walbert, Kathryn Davis, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Neil Stephenson, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje and a whole bunch of others. I have pretty broad reading tastes and love suggestions. I still make a summer reading list each year.

Tina May Hall is assistant professor of English at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Her stories have appeared in 3rd Bed, Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West, minnesota review, descant, the Collagist, and Water-Stone Review, among others. She is the author of the chapbook All the Day’s Sad Stories.

For more information, please go to: tinamayhall.com


From The Physics of Imaginary Objects (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010)
a story from TINA MAY HALL


Faith Is Three Parts Formaldehyde, One Part Ethyl Alcohol


Rosa keeps her finger in a jar on the nightstand. In the morning, it twists to feel the sunlight. She watches its gentle convulsions and holds her other fingers up to share the warmth. Since she cut off her finger, she has worked in the diocese business office, filing and answering phones. Mostly, she answers questions from parents about the parish schools and fields requests for priestly appearances. While at work, she doesn’t think about her finger too much. It is just her left pinkie finger; she can still type seventy-five words a minute. In fact, some people don’t even notice it is missing. Those who do usually look appalled and ask, almost reverently, how it happened. Then she has to lie, all the while praying for the Lord to forgive her.

She used to carry the finger with her in a large shoulder bag, the jar wrapped carefully in a bath towel. For a while, she needed it with her all the time. She would take it out at work when no one else was around and in restaurant bathrooms to assure herself that it was still there, that it hadn’t dissolved, that the glass of the jar hadn’t cracked, leaving it withered and gray. She never showed it to anyone. This was partly because she didn’t want anybody to know about it. Cutting it off had been enough to make the nuns expel her from the convent, even though she was, by their account, the most promising novice they’d seen in years. If the fathers found out she had kept it, she would probably be excommunicated. The other reason she never showed anyone is because she was afraid that sharing it would diminish its potency. Her severed finger is a miracle, a divine link. Every time she unwrapped it in the darkness under her desk or in the chill of a bathroom stall, it would glow love. It is a piece of her that is always praying, a sign of the preservative power of God’s grace.

She worried so much that she finally stopped carrying it with her. During the day it drifts at the edge of her imagination, two and a half inches of waxy faith suspended in a globe of silvery liquid. At night, she dreams of watery expanses and moons shaped like fingernails.

One Thursday in April, a man in his thirties enters the diocese office a few minutes before closing. He crosses to Rosa’s desk and stands in front of her, apparently studying her name plate. His silence makes her nervous, and she tucks her left hand under her thigh before asking how she can help him. He doesn’t speak, and she wonders whether she should try to get past him to the outside door or dash into the copy room behind her where her most lethal weapon would be a five gallon bottle of toner. Just as she starts to pray to the Lord for divine intervention or at least a little timely guidance, the man pulls a small silver box from his pocket, parts the edges of his collar, and holds the box to the bit of clear tube that protrudes from his throat. “Rosa?”

She thinks it is the most beautiful and terrifying sound she has ever heard. It is a cross between a whisper and a deep bass with overtones of metal, but it is not mechanical. It is a sound she imagines stones make when mating or dying. He repeats, “Rosa?” Again the sound amazes and humbles her, provokes a feeling she has only experienced after praying for hours, late at night, when the other nuns were sleeping and she was alone in the cold arch of the chapel. There is an almost sexual tightening of her abdomen, a powerful contraction deep in her stomach.

“Yes,” she whispers.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you, it’s just that this is the only way…”

He says he has a spiritual problem. His voice still startles her, but she is becoming used to it and its effect on her; however, this question throws her into a panic because all of the priests are out of town for a convention on venial sin except for Father O’Rourke who doesn’t approve of conventions and went to Las Vegas instead for the weekend. The man looks distressed by this.

“Well, then maybe you can help me. I guess it is sort of an administrative matter.”

“I’m not really an expert,” Rosa says. “Don’t you think you’d better wait for the fathers to get back?”

The man plucks at his collar in agitation. “If I don’t resolve this now, I’m afraid I’ll lose my nerve.”

She wants to say something reassuring, but her stomach growls and the man smiles and says, “I’m keeping you from your dinner.” He holds out his left hand because he is still clasping the silver box to his throat with the right, and she hesitates but finally gives him her left hand to shake and is surprised when he doesn’t say anything about her missing finger. That’s when she finds herself asking him if he’d like to eat with her at the deli next door so they can talk more about his problem.

Over corned beef and coleslaw he asks about her missing finger, and because he asks so casually, she tells him the truth. He is the first person she has told the story. Everyone else who knows the truth heard it from the nuns who found her in the kitchen, on her knees, her severed finger beside her on the stone floor, her hands clasped, forehead pressed against the avocado metal of the refrigerator. They said she was in rapture; the doctors called it shock. She tells him how it didn’t bleed at all and how this disappointed her, how even at that time, even when she was having the most meaningful religious experience of her life, she felt somehow cheated by the absence of blood. She tells him without prompting, almost shyly, about the voice she heard before it happened, except it wasn’t a voice. It was more a feeling, a shifting of weights and forms around her. That’s how she explains it after the waitress asks if she wants cheesecake—it was as if her perception of everything slipped for a moment and she knew what she was supposed to do. He asks only one question.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s proof, of course.”

It isn’t until she has accepted his offer of a ride back to her apartment that she realizes they haven’t talked at all about his problem. He is quiet when she reminds him of it. The artificial voice box is a moth, still in his cupped palm. Then he says he was wondering if it was possible to bury objects, not a person, just an inanimate thing, in consecrated ground. She thinks for a long time before she has to say she doesn’t know, but she doesn’t think so. He sighs when she tells him this. The noise comes from his mouth, not the box; it is a painful sound that makes her knuckles ache. When they reach her apartment, he asks if he can come in for a moment, says that there’s something he’d like to show her. And because she feels this bond with him, this recognition, she doesn’t even question him, just nods and leads him down the sidewalk to her door.

“Do you have a tape player?”

His voice seems weaker, more metallic than before, and she wonders if he isn’t used to talking so much. So, as if her not speaking could conserve his strength, she simply nods again and points to the corner of the living room. He stands in front of the machine for a while, both hands pressed against it. When he does move, it is to reach into his pocket, but this time he brings out a cassette tape, not the silver box. He places it in the deck and presses play, and for a few minutes the room is quiet except for the murmur of the tape cycling into the machine. Rosa is still standing in the entranceway, the door open behind her, and she can see the dark form of his car in the mirror on the opposite wall, and strangely, she can see another reflection within that image. She recognizes the cold blur of the moon on his windshield as a voice comes out of the speakers and she knows without him telling her, for he is not talking or even looking at her, that this is his voice, was his voice. It is a child singing a song about a spider and a rainstorm, and as the rain starts falling, there is a click where the recording stops.

“May I leave this with you?”

This surprises her but she knows she will say yes, knows she won’t be able to help herself, and the sound of the tape player continuing past the voice, scanning silence, brings back that feeling of praying in the empty chapel and another memory, the rasp of metal against stone tile, the smell of onions, the whine a bone makes when it is lost. Rosa wants to give him something in exchange, to show him the thing she holds secret. She says, “I’ve been keeping something too,” and places her left hand on the coffee table, spreads her fingers until they are shaking with the effort, and uses the forefinger of her right hand to trace the cold transparent space where her pinkie used to be.