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Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor@Grinnell

Earlier this month I attended the Writers@Grinnell afternoon roundtable with novelists Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor. Greenwell’s latest novel is Cleanness, and Taylor’s debut novel is Real Life. I first saw Greenwell last fall in conversation with Carmen Maria Machado at her reading at Praire Lights in Iowa City.

I took notes at the event, but I don’t have them with me now, so this will be from memory, and not entirely chronological. The roundtable began with Greenwell and Taylor asking each other a couple of questions. Greenwell asked Taylor how he’d decided on the compressed time frame of his novel (a long weekend), as well as the structure and the shifting tense (present vs. past) and POV (first person vs. third person). The tense and POV came naturally, almost subconsciously, and once Taylor realized what he was writing in he didn’t want to go back and change it. This line of questioning also led to musing on one’s weaknesses as a writer and writing–indeed, creating art–from one’s infirmities (I think).

Both authors’ novels seem to mirror their own lives in a lot of ways, but I was drawn to Taylor’s because its protagonist is trying to survive grad school (I think he has it a lot worse than I did). Taylor himself wrote the novel in grad school, I believe, and in the Q & A a student asked him about his interest in both science (he studied biochemistry) and writing and literature. Taylor saw lots of commonalities between these two fields or pursuits. For instance, both as a scientist and as a novelist you can spend years of your life working on something and not know whether it’ll come to anything (how reassuring).

Greenwell and Taylor both talked about not being able to watch TV shows because they’re uninterested in serial stories that just continue and never end. It’s boring when every episode ends in a cliffhanger intended to lure you back for more. Greenwell said that a story can only have a shape if it has an ending, and I suppose the serial nature of TV, and the perpetual hope of another season, makes that impossible. (I wouldn’t really know; I don’t watch TV either, though not for that reason.) He said he liked works of literature that laid out the whole plot at the beginning, so you knew the shape of the story. My interpretation was that he was much more interested in execution than plot or even storytelling (in a conventional sense).

Another student asked Greenwell how he could write so bravely and unflinchingly; this student sometimes wrote things and then was filled with the sense that they should never write about such things again. In his response, Greenwell talked about shame as an intrinsic aspect of growing up gay, or queer, in the U.S. I think he meant one should do something with that shame rather than deny it? I believe both authors concluded that writers shouldn’t let anyone else hold them back from writing what they want to express.

The most heartwarming aspect of the roundtable were their comments about their friendship, to which they returned again and again. Basically, they seem to have the ideal literary friendship. Greenwell alluded to Taylor making living in Iowa City bearable for him. It sounds as though they meet up in coffee shops almost daily. Taylor also talked about the importance of having that one friend who will instantly get your Jane Austen reference, who will know just what obscure character you mean and share your feelings about them. In fact, they ended the whole roundtable by saying, “Friendship!” in unison, with a kind of ironically sentimental intonation. But at the same time you knew at some level they really meant it.

Writers@Grinnell

After I blogged about a number of the fall Writers@Grinnell events, Dean Bakopoulos of the English Department invited me to do my own Writers@Grinnell event. It took place last month in the Mears Cottage Living Room. I was quite surprised–pleasantly so!–by the turnout. There were so many people that some of them had to sit on the floor behind the sofa where I was seated. There were a lot of students, most of whom I didn’t know (I did have one former student and one current student in attendance). There were some of my fellow speculative fiction reading group members. And there were some English Department faculty.

Hosting me was Paula V. Smith, also of the English Department. She gave me a lovely introduction and then revealed (to the audience and to me) that she had a surprise gift for me. It was a copy of Small CraftWarnings Vol. 1 No. 2, which she and her best friend had co-edited in 1981. Jonathan Franzen was also on staff at the time. Small Craft Warnings is one of Swarthmore College’s literary magazines; when I was there, I served on the editorial board for three years. The issue Paula gave me was one of the first under the magazine’s new name. I was delighted to receive it. The issue consists of poetry and photography, and a number of the poems are translations, from Chinese, Spanish, and French.

I spoke briefly about how Sparkers and Wildings came to be (the long journey for Sparkers and the much quicker crafting of Wildings), and then I took questions. They were all interesting! A couple had to do with my approach to writing specifically for middle grade readers: whether I thought about my audience or how I’d had to revise my books to make them suited to young readers (the political machinations can only be so twisty!). Someone asked about how to balance exposition and action when you have a lot of worldbuilding to do. Somehow the subject of what I’m writing next came up, so I gave away a couple of details about the project I hope will be my next book. My current student asked me about the languages in my fantasy worlds, and I explained that there were no full-fledged conlangs behind the languages in Sparkers and Wildings. But the language in my next book actually has a sketched-out grammar and a deeper vocabulary beyond what little makes it onto the page. Paula asked me about the names in Sparkers and Wildings, a topic I’ve thought about and get asked about relatively often.

Afterwards, I signed a few books, breaking out Isabelle’s stamp again, and chatted with a few students. One of them asked me about story ideas and length. That is, how do you generate enough stuff for a whole novel but not so much that it becomes too much? I wasn’t sure how to answer at first because I always write too long and then embark on epic word-cutting sessions. I’m not very good at writing short stories that are actually short. But upon reflection, I think it’s best, at least when drafting, to let a story grow to the length it wants to be, even if it’s awkward. Novellas exist! Then you can always revise, fleshing out bare bones or carving away excess until you have the story you intended.

New Story: Yet a Youth

My short story “Yet a Youth” came out on Monday in Issue 80 of Youth Imagination. You can read it here! This story actually originally appeared in almost identical form in the Spring 2010 issue of Small Craft Warnings, Swarthmore College’s oldest literary magazine (of which I was also an editor). So this story is at least ten years old! I’m still fond of it, though.

“Yet a Youth” is one of the rare stories I’ve written that has no elements of fantasy. Maybe I could even say it’s not speculative fiction, except that I hesitate to categorize it as historical fiction because it isn’t set in a real time and place. Maybe this setting could have existed or did exist somewhere in the United States of the 19th century, but I didn’t actually research it. So it might be alternative history. It’s also a little bit unusual for me because the protagonist and POV character is a boy. Most of my main characters are girls.

The inspiration for this story came from a verse in the book of Judges. There was a time about a decade ago when I decided to read the King James Bible straight through from Genesis onward, and I stumbled upon some verses that particularly struck me. I guess this was one of them. I didn’t want to name my main character Jether, though.

Fun fact: I entered “Yet a Youth” in Swarthmore’s William Plumer Potter short story competition, which was judged that year by Wesley Stace/John Wesley Harding (who recorded a rendition of the shape note tune “Columbus”). While I did not win or even place, the judge gave public comments on all the entries, and he described “Yet a Youth” as Gothic.

2019 in Review

2019 was also a big year, though I did not travel as far as in 2018. On Twitter (which I have now joined), I’ve seen people reflecting on the whole decade since we’re about to enter the new 20s (how weird–I think “the 20s” still evokes flappers and Prohibition to me, though the pull of the 20th century feels weaker than for “the 60s,” say). It hadn’t occurred to me to look back on the decade till I started seeing those tweets. I don’t think I much noticed the dawn of the last decade; I was just trundling along in college. But if I look back on this past decade, most of the major accomplishments of my life were achieved in it: I got an agent, I graduated from college, I published two novels, I got a Ph.D…. One can, of course, debate the merits of cataloging one’s life in terms of material accomplishments. Anyway, let me zoom back in on 2019 and recall the highlights, non-chronologically:

2020, here I come!

Carlos Gamerro@Grinnell

You might be forgiven for thinking this blog has become a Writers@Grinnell column, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but fear not, I can promise some more varied content soon. In the meantime, the next writer I saw at Grinnell was Argentinian novelist Carlos Gamerro, who is an International Writing Program resident at the University of Iowa this fall. He taught a short course at Grinnell on the vanishing narrator (which reminded me of Philip Pullman’s fondness for the omniscient narrator, which he touched on in this wonderful recent interview). As he explained it at the reading, Gamerro’s class was on the historical progression from omniscient narrators to forms of storytelling without a narrator at all.

At his Writers@Grinnell event, Gamerro read from his latest novel, Cardenio. In fact the excerpts he read were dialogues, so he and Dean Bakopolous of the English Department read them as though they were scenes from a play. Cardenio is a character in Don Quixote and presumably the eponymous hero of a play, Cardenio, written by Shakespeare and his contemporary, John Fletcher. The play was lost, but Gamerro’s novel centers on John Fletcher and the writing of Cardenio. The scenes they performed for us were mostly comic exchanges between Shakespeare and Fletcher, as Fletcher tried to convince him it was worth writing a play from this material, and between Fletcher and Thomas Middleton, another playwright who has written his own Cardenio in two days and wants Fletcher to buy it, lest Middleton have it released before theirs.

Gamerro introduced these lesser-known English playwrights with not a little enthusiasm. He described how Fletcher and his friend and collaborator Francis Beaumont lived together, wrote plays together, shared their clothes, and shared the same girl, Joan. All three lived together in a happy ménage à trois (this was how I interpreted it, at least) until Beaumont decided to make a good marriage and left. Gamerro made it sound like Fletcher was left bereft. Poor fellow. He also told us Fletcher had written a play, The Tamer Tamed (the full title seems to have been The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed), a perhaps rather feminist follow-up to Shakespeare’s nowadays reviled The Taming of the Shrew.

According to Gamerro, there is evidence that Fletcher knew Spanish and thus read Don Quixote before his compatriots, though the first English translation was produced relatively early. Gamerro said you can hear the Spanish in this first translation. Interestingly, to prepare to write his novel, Gamerro immersed himself in primary sources of the time. He decided this was the best strategy after being frustrated by the clearly false generalizations being made in works of history on that era: “We want to think the past is much more homogenous than the present.” He consumed lots of English plays from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, till the language and the way people spoke began to come to him. He resolved to at least write a first version of his novel in English, even if he didn’t publish it. From what I can gather, the first edition of Cardenio is Gamerro’s own Spanish translation of the novel he originally wrote in English. The reading was from the English version.

I find it interesting when writers write in a language other than their first, or other than the language they typically write their original drafts in. There are so many reasons to do it. Jhumpa Lahiri writing in Italian comes to mind, and François Cheng. I’ve written a few original works in French, most of which I then tried translating into English, and I think I always preferred the French version. One example, from a long time ago, is “L’orchestre de Jénine,” which appeared with its English translation in an issue of Voyages, Swarthmore’s journal of original works and their translations. Writing in French isn’t something I do regularly, though; I think it has to spring from a specific impulse, and I don’t get many such impulses.

Kaveh Akbar@Grinnell

A couple of weeks ago, I went to another poetry reading. (I don’t even go to all the Writers@Grinnell events! Just…most of them.) It was in the evening; earlier that day I’d been to Kate Manne’s scholars’ convocation on epistemic entitlement, mansplaining, and gaslighting. Somebody I went to college with is now Kate Manne’s advisee and had always spoken highly of her, and the talk and, especially, the following Q & A were excellent. I am rather enjoying being at a small liberal arts college again, where I might see the same people at a philosophy talk in the morning and a poetry reading in the evening. But anyway!

The poet was Kaveh Akbar. In his introduction, we learned he writes an advice column for The Paris Review, in which he prescribes poems to suit the letter writers’ particular needs. He also told us early on that when he was young he read Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote thinking it was the novel on all those lists of Novels You Must Read.

That evening, he told us he would mostly be reading new stuff. He had a sheaf of papers in his hands. After the first poem, he added that by new stuff he meant work from the past couple of years or so. The first poem was entitled “How to Say the Impossible Thing.” He said it was the only poem he’d written in the last six months, and this was the first time he’d be reading it in public. So, how does one say the impossible thing? The first word of the poem was “plainly.” There was another line I noted: “I don’t trust myself.”

Akbar had told us he’d also be reading some poems by Not Him, and the first was one by Suji Kwock Kim. I had to look up the title, but it’s “Fugue.” The poem is about the birth of a child, and I was struck almost from the beginning by the magic of wordsmithing, how the right words combined the right way, by their sound and their meaning, create the most perfect phrase or image. That “skull-keel and heel-hull” is almost tactile. And then there was the line, “Memory, stay faithful to this moment, which will never return”; I doubt I’m the only one to relate to wanting to hang on to a beautiful moment, to be assured of never forgetting any detail of it, because it’s already so precious as it’s happening.

The last poem he read was a long one, “The Palace,” and so he invited people to lean their head on a neighbor’s shoulder (with enthusiastic consent, of course). Danez Smith issued a similar invitation to hold hands when he read his last poem of the night. The lines that struck me most in “The Palace” were: “Mistyping in an e-mail I write, / I lose you so much today, / then leave it” and then the reprise at the very end: “Lose me today, so much.”

In the lovely Q & A that followed the reading, somebody asked Akbar about writing as a lonely pursuit. He said, “I am a person who can be lonely at a table of friends.” Then he said (and I’m passing over swaths of his answer) that art is defamiliarization, and that loneliness, that not-being-among, gives one a vantage point that’s really useful to an artist. Some amount of loneliness is essential, but you have to learn how to harness that loneliness (and also take care of yourself).

A religious studies major asked him about religion in his poems, and he talked about praying in Arabic with his family as a child, reciting in a language that none of them spoke. Today, he sees poetry as having the same function as those prayers did, namely, thinning the membrane between oneself and the divine (however that’s interpreted). Someone else asked him how he viewed the poems in his first collection now, and he said that anyone who’s ever written a book will tell you they’re not the person who wrote that book by the time it’s actually a book. He sees his older work as a portal to a person that he was. I’m not sure I feel that as strongly, but certainly I can see how the stories I’ve written in the last couple of years reflect facets of my life in that time.

Charles Baxter@Grinnell

The same day I drove back to Iowa after the Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention, I went to a Writers@Grinnell event with Charles Baxter, another Minnesotan author who went to Macalester back in the day. It was billed as a roundtable, like with Danez Smith, but it actually turned out to be a craft lecture, a talk genre apparently well known to MFA students, but not to me.

The topic of the lecture was the request moment, which I guess is what it sounds like: a moment in a story when someone asks a character to do something. It makes sense to me that such a moment could be revealing. There’s the content of the request, the requestee’s reaction and response, what it means that the requester feels able/entitled/obliged to make the request, the meaning attached to the response (proof of loyalty, affection, etc.), and so on. Baxter said people often talk about the importance of what characters want, but he’s also interested in transferred desire, that is, when characters do things because other characters want them to.

Some memorable quotes from the lecture:

  • “I can’t go back to being the person I was–that’s what it means to be undone.” I believe this was just in reference to the power of stories to undo us.
  • “Don’t ever ask anybody how much that person loves you”–he pronounced this a terrible idea.
  • “Literature often doesn’t work through simple desires and fears because life doesn’t.”
  • “Often aftermaths are more interesting than violence that precedes them.” This was related to Alice Munro’s short story “Child’s Play.”

The part of the lecture that made the biggest impression on me, though, was a startling coincidence. Baxter incorporated musical examples into his talk. The first was Ralph Vaughn Williams’s orchestral setting of Poem 32 from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The second, he said, was a traditional ballad that exemplified how a request moment can also be a prohibition (i.e. don’t do this). He said it was called “The Silver Dagger” and asked if anyone knew it. I half raised my hand, but I think he saw me, because he said, “One person.” Maybe somebody else raised their hand too? I knew exactly why it exemplified a prohibition because it begins, “Don’t sing love songs.” Baxter proceeded to recite the entire text, which I knew, and then he played us a recording of the song. But the weirdest part is that a few hours earlier, I’d sung “The Silver Dagger” while driving on an Iowa highway, and it’s not a song I sing that often these days. I’ve talked about liking Solas’s version before, which is different from the version he played us. That was the one I was singing earlier that day.