“Any story circling around the idea of death is going to be charged. But I would also say that I’m interested in getting myself to believe that it’s going to happen to me. I’m interested in it, because if you’re not, you’re nuts. It’s really de facto what we’re here to find out about. I hate the thought of messing around and then being like, ‘Oh, I’ve got pancreatic cancer.’ It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to even think of. But to me, it’s what you should be thinking about all the time. As a fiction writer, the trick is how to be thinking about it in a way that makes it substantial. You want it to matter when you do induce it.”
It turns out, hay bales give considerably when you leap across them. Their shape compromises with the soles of your sneakers. I never scaled hay bales as a kid but doing so this weekend made me feel young again. More accessible than a tree, anyway.
Cows, it turns out, are quick. Their open faces and slow jaws belie a rather frightening agility, given their size. I heard a cow moo from a distance and thought, oh my God, it sounds like a cell phone, instead of the other way around.
We spent time during sunset on Saturday shooting arrows into the soft sides of hay bales, our target a piece scrap paper fished from the truck—the paper remained unpierced. He flew a remote helicopter toy-drone that took pictures of us. We moved locations, beside a show-off of a tree, and shot a rifle at a tennis ball we could barely see from our distance. Again, we missed. We turned the laser on and laughed at how unable we were to remain still. We agreed not to talk about our failures, made steak in cast iron skillets with goat cheese, and she put extra chocolate chips in the brownies she baked from a mix, which I drank with a glass of whole milk.
The next day, my legs itched from the hay and my peace-sign fingers ached because I’d been gripping too tightly. I laughed with her, saying, It’s a metaphor.
What’s true is music is true for art is true for fiction. Cohen is spot on here:
“How did I ever get into this racket? I dunno! What am I exactly doing in it? I don’t know. I haven’t got a clue. I think it just comes down to nudging the guy next to you and saying, ‘That’s the way, isn’t it?’ They can either agree or not agree.”
This is exactly what my favorite writing does—it touches something you already know, whether or not you’re aware of it. The quiet bell of recognition sounds, and you relax: Yes, this is the way it is. And no matter how terrible that ‘way’ may be, at least you are not alone in knowing it, in feeling it.
Based on the press info included in my review copy of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, The Panopticon, I basically assumed that the novel was autobiography in the guise of fiction. Fagan grew up in the Scottish social care system; so to does her narrator, Anais. Fagan has had four different legal names; Anais, at least three, by my last count. But Fagan assured me in her interview that this book is not her story, and I believe her for two reasons: 1.) She told me she did write her autobiography, and that she’ll publish it when she’s old, and 2.) The voice of her narrator sounded so wholly different than the woman with whom I was speaking. Fagan spoke quite convincingly of Anais’s motives, sure, and it was obvious that Fagan’s understanding of her narrator was complete–but she also spoke of her from a distance, and without any self-consciousness, and with the delicate, measured talk that so often spills from the mouths of skilled writers when asked about their characters and all it takes to wrangle them. Anais’s voice got into Jenni’s head, and into mine as well.
“I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”
Just this morning, after a headstand-y, dolphin-y (aka woooo-that-was-hard) yoga class, I grabbed some donuts and a ham & cheese kolache and dug up the above Rilke quote from the New Yorker‘s review of Adam Phillips’ new book Missing Out: In Praised of the Unlived Life. Reviewer Joan Acocella echoed/unpacked Rilke’s statement this way: “People, [Phillips] writes, have no discernible connection to one another. But we can give solace to those we care about by allowing themselves to just be, without having to explain themselves.”
It’s so easy to feel like my loved ones are my responsibility, or that they reflect on me or I on them, like I have some kind of worker-bee job to do, plodding away to effect change. Sure, I think it’s healthy, important change I’m cheering for. And surely goodhearted, honest advice has some merit, some place in our lives. But really: What do I know? And how often does what we say make a difference anyway? How good does it feel to be left alone–in other words, accepted without question, loved for your bad habits and your little meannesses alike?
It came up again, this idea, in “Tenth of December”, a story I reread this afternoon and which broke my heart all over again. An ailing, aging narrator remembers his relationship with his wife:
“When they were first married they used to fight. Say the most insane things. Afterward, sometimes there would be tears. Tears in bed? Somewhere. And then they would—Molly pressing her hot wet face against his hot wet face. They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you always expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing he’d ever—”
In other words: No explanation necessary.
Alas, this desire to shape persists despite the fact that I know such an endeavor is useless, proud, and nearly always unfruitful, if not irrelevant. And so this review was a lovely thing for me to come across: Why not instead work harder at not changing them? The more I think about it, the more I fear any attempt otherwise is not just useless, but harmful, even poisonous—like any number of species of ripe red berries stumbled across on a long hike, just asking to be plucked and tasted.
This fall, at an impromptu party thrown for those authors stuck post-Texas book festival and as Hurricane Sandy brewed back in NY, I connected with the editor of Kirkus Reviews Online (also at this party, I stared slack-jawed at Robert Caro and ate raw marshmallows because I was too shy to toast them.)
The happy result of meeting the editor has been a handful of assignments that do not feel like work at all: I get to read books, and then interview their authors to find out what makes them tick and how the story came about. The glory! The pestering! The insight into
craft shared neuroses! Anyway, the first one is up here and the second one is due out shortly.
(Oh, and the craziest part? Finding your praise (and name) in the editorial section of Amazon!)
“The place Joanne is building inside has rooms for all of this. Not just rooms. Beautiful ones. For Karl and Jerry and Karen and Nate in his cowboy hat and the hot-tub guy and movie directors and old-lady healers and people trying to love their asses and people who think they’re stupid for it. In these rooms, each thing that looks crazy or stupid will be like a drawing you give to your mother, regarded with complete acceptance and put on a wall. Not because it is good but because it is trying to understand something. In these rooms, there will be understanding. In these rooms, each madness and stupidity will be unfolded from its knot and smoothed with loving hands until the true thing inside it lies revealed.”
Gaitskill also describes redwood trees moving in the wind like this: “Slowly, the trees move their great hair.”
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