Post by Molly Laich
Watching so many films alone in dark theaters—feeling vaguely as though my Heavenly Father has abandoned me—I started to think about God in the movies. If a movie creates its own universe, then the governing truth behind that universe is there in the bones of the art, is it not? Here on earth, IRL, we can’t be sure that God is real, but maybe in cinema?
Sometimes I write film reviews for a little paper in Montana, which means I wind up seeing a lot of movies. Just for you, I’ve invented a fun game called GOD or NO GOD. It’s a one-person game with no rules, scores, ending or winners. I’ll show you how to play using a random sampling of 13 new releases from 2013.
The fact that this aggressively mindless, star-studded film was ever made and released in theaters is evidence of Richard Dawkins’ blind watchmaker at work. If there ever was a god, he abandoned these characters long ago.
Now You See Me
This is a movie about magic in the “staged illusion” sense of the word, but they end it with an inexplicable CGI glowing eyeball of a halfhearted suggestion that real magic exists. Ergo, God is a wizard.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Unlike Now You See Me, which treats teleportation like it’s the easiest trick in the world, the makers of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone claim that all of the stage magic performed in this incredibly dull excuse for a movie is based on real magic tricks, aided by only minimal CGI. There’s no real magic and there never was.
Jesse and Celine are at each other’s throats for half the goddamn film. Gravity has defeated their bodies. Celine drowns the little ones in the tub in the last scene… (Not really.)
I overheard some people say this father/son adventure saga was about Scientology, which it turns out isn’t true but here I go repeating it anyway. Nevertheless, remember that M. Night Shyamalan is the director, who made that movie Signs about the little girl who changes destiny by leaving glasses of water all over the house. Apply the auteur theory, carry the one, and…
This is The End
All the good people get sucked up to heaven in blue rays of light and I think Satan waves a towering penis around at some point, if memory serves. Sometimes this game is easier than others.
World War Z
This is a tough one. It’s a conclusion that every moviegoer has to come to on his or her own: Are zombies an expression of a harsh, indifferent, predatory existence? Or are they God’s retribution sent down from the heavens in the form of a virulent, rabies-like disease or whatever? I think
They cast a demon out of a woman using the Lord’s Prayer. Since the prayer worked, I have to tentatively conclude
I think we can all agree that Woody Allen is an outspoken atheist who’s really more like an agnostic. Not a lot of mention of God in Blue Jasmine, but if you look at Crimes and Misdemeanors and its sister film, Match Point, you’ll find that in both stories, the evildoer gets away with his crimes, because of privilege, chance, or both. The implication is that man dishes out his own punishments and rewards. Then again, who can say for sure that the Martin Landau character isn’t burning in hell as we speak?
I really went back and forth on this one. There’s George Clooney’s ghost, but most people interpret this as a hallucination. When Sandra Bullock talks about the death of her daughter, she describes it as a random accident, not predetermined or divinely inspired. Now, does the fact that Bullock survives in the end confirm or contradict the conclusions she came to about her daughter’s death? Did she survive with the help of an inner, Godly strength as part of a predetermined plan, or did she just happen to beat the odds and live? I think this movie flirts with the divine, but it has a stronger hard-on for the human spirit.
Cormac McCarthy wrote the script, so.
The movie is for kids, and they’re not just going to send our little ones into darkness. More to the point, it seems that Ender’s conflict at the end reeks of moral absolution. He’s deceived by man but ultimately answers to a higher power. It’s probably some sort of futuristic God is a robot inside a video game wrapped in a dream from the future God, but a God nonetheless.
12 Years A Slave
This is the movie that first got me thinking about GOD or NO GOD in the first place. In my review I wrote, “it feels like God or the devil is lurking in the shadows, pressing down… Always it sounds like a storm is on the way, but it never rains. A cotton field is both beautiful and feels like hell. The black people are in hell and so are the white people.” And somehow Brad Pitt always manages to be on the right side of history. He must be real.
Barry is wearing the coat he bought at the store in the West Village, the store where the girl at the register smiled at him in a way he had not been smiled at in a long time. So he bought the coat. When he took it up to the register, he noticed she had a scratch on her cheek.
Your cat? he said, pointing.
She blushed. No, she said. He wasn’t supposed to ask, is what her face said.
Oh, I’m sorry, he said.
He bought the coat with cash. He wanted to leave her a tip. Is there a tip jar? he asked.
She shook her head, fast. Her blush deepened. This isn’t a coffee shop? she said. He bought a sparkly green bead bracelet at the counter, because it was there to be bought, in a jar, an apology. Do you get commission? he said.
No, she said. This is a used clothing store.
With the blush, the scratch on her cheek stood out like a small crackle of lightning.
—from “The Coat” (Unstuck #1)
Aimee Bender is the author of four books. The most recent, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, won a SCIBA award and was a New York Times bestseller. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, HOBART, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and heard on NPR’s “This American Life.” She lives in Los Angeles.
Interview by Molly Laich
UNSTUCK: I was at the MacDowell colony and the writer Kevin Moffett and I were talking about novel writing versus short stories. I was complaining that writing my first novel was difficult, but that all my teachers said I had to write a novel in order to get ahead. Kevin told me that you had once said that you never worried about what medium you were working in—that you just started writing and whatever it turned into was fine. Can you elaborate on that a little? Do you have a preference for short stories or novel writing?
AIMEE BENDER: I like that Kevin Moffett. Yes—I have, many times, started something thinking "Aha! This is a novel!" only to find I had finished it in three pages. That has really happened multiple times. So I just don't think I can know for a while—I'll just write and see what unfolds and if it seems to be opening up to more scenes versus happening upon an ending that I like, then it seems to have a novel feel to it.
Mainly I think that all your teachers saying you had to write a novel to get ahead is tricky. Yes, they are more publishable, but if you are not inclined to write a novel then it seems like a forced thing, which usually doesn't help. There are poets in the world, after all. They're not writing novels. If you like writing stories, write stories! The audience will be smaller, but who cares? As long as you know you have to work another job, something I have always pretty much counted on, (and novel-writing in no way assures otherwise), the pressure dwindles a lot, I think.
UNSTUCK: What are some non-writing things that inspire your writing? Plays, movies, TV, life, etc.
AIMEE BENDER: Everything! I'm about to use part of Caryl Churchill's amazing play Cloud 9 in a talk on fiction. Just saw 2001 again and I can't get enough of that one. Really love the Louie show on FX—I think it's like reading a really good short story over and over. Louis C.K. is so smart and open and strange and moving. And life, yes.
UNSTUCK: What have you been you reading lately?
AIMEE BENDER: I just read Sheila Heti's new book, which I liked a lot, and now am onto Teju Cole's Open City which makes me, once again, want to listen to more classical music. I like reading about classical music. Also reading Wonderland, which is about a pianist. Also reading about plants.
UNSTUCK: You sometimes write about sexy women behaving badly. Here's a meta question for you. Do you get a lot of questions about writing about women? Do people say you are a feminist writer, or not feminist enough? Is it annoying to have your gender brought up in the first place?
AIMEE BENDER: Not a lot of gender questions but some—my favorite moment was at Reed College, which is super liberal and very academic and a little pressured because of that. Great place, but a little pressured. I read a story called "Debbieland" about junior high school girls beating up a girl and after, someone asked why I wrote about such broken women and girls. And as a woman, didn't I feel a responsibility to write strong women? I loved it as a question because it sets me up so beautifully to contradict that assumption. A perfect pitch to an eager bat. Because who wants to write strong all the time? Or read strong? Who is strong all the time?
Feminism has opened up in such a way that happily we now no longer need just strong women figures and characters but just women of all kinds. It's like how we know we'll have reached some better, more varied place with Native American portrayals in the media when there's a film with a non-wise Native American person. That's happening with writers like David Treuer but it's just at the start. Some people do call me a feminist writer and others no—it's such an interesting subject to me so I'm happy to discuss it. I'm also interested in generations and where women's rights hits all of us at different ages—me versus my mom versus my 19-year-old students and all that. My older sister could only wear pants once a week when she was in elementary school. That seems unthinkable that that was only six years before me.
UNSTUCK: How does teaching affect your own writing? Do you learn things from your students?
AIMEE BENDER: I really love the social aspect and talking about fiction, which is one of my favorite topics. Teaching also constantly reminds the teacher what she values and that is good. Keeps me honest. I do learn things from my students—they read different things, they get younger each year, literally, so they are good lines into culture too.
UNSTUCK: Regarding your process for story writing, I've read that you often start with an image or single sentence and that everything you write necessarily has a tinge of autobiography, even if it doesn't literally come from your experience. What was the magic spark that set off "The Coat," which appears in the first issue of Unstuck? How did the story come about?
AIMEE BENDER: I can't really track the autobio—it's there, it has to be there, but it is camouflaged by the story even to me. Years later I can sometimes figure out the spark but usually there are multiple sparks.
"The Coat" originally came from an assignment to write a story off of an MFA art student's photograph of a man hanging up a frame on a wall. A man with a beard, in a coat. And so I was wondering why he did that. And maybe the spark of me in there is I am interested in the idea of an empty frame, of framing something that is not there. In marking absence in that way. That's abstract, but I am repeatedly interested in that.
UNSTUCK: You've said you're interested in fairy tales because they use plot as metaphor. I am very interested in that idea. I can see that at work pretty explicitly in your story “Appleless” in Fairy Tale Review, where it appears to me that the apples represent female sexuality, and that a certain woman's failure to freely partake in the apple eating makes everybody nutso. My teacher at the University of Montana Kevin Canty told us in workshop that in a short story, we learn who the characters are by what they do. Is this something you're consciously aware of when you're writing short stories? Does it have a place in novel writing?
AIMEE BENDER: No, not consciously aware—most of the better writing I'm able to do happens when I'm paying less attention to what I'm doing. Characters do things, yes, and
it's good to get them out there and very fun to write about characters who are “do-ers” (as many writers, including myself, may find initially startling—writers are often both watchers and doers, so there's an impulse to have the character watch a lot and that can get static. It can work at times but is trickier). In a fairy tale, things happen, pianos fall from the sky, holes open in the earth, foxes turn into nymphs, so it doesn't have to be explicitly character-motivated to affect and impact and even be generated by character. That has felt so freeing to me. And yes—all true for novels too.
UNSTUCK: How much are technique and process and theme consciously present in your initial writing process? What order does it come in? Do you write first, and then think about technique in the rewrite? How would you explain this to your writing students?
AIMEE BENDER: Theme is usually not very present. Ray Bradbury has a great quote about how the first draft is burning down the house, and the second draft is picking through the ashes. I always liked that. That the beginning can be fast and messy and all over the place and as you go through it you learn. But speed allows certain choices to happen and it's helpful to try to sidestep the more judgmental analytical mind and get to the more visceral stewy stuff.
UNSTUCK: Do you feel famous? I think you are pretty famous, as far as writers go. What is it like? Does it ever hinder or get in the way of your writing or your life to be attached to a name that pretty much everybody in this community is familiar with? Does it lead to having haters? Do you ever have the experience of meeting someone who thinks they know all about you because they've read your work? Are they right? Are they wrong?
AIMEE BENDER: Fun question—an unusual one. I mean, fiction writers are not the most visible of groups, so within that group, there's a smaller group that can recognize my name, and maybe an even smaller group that has read my stuff. My daily life is not interrupted in any way. But—it's largely really nice. I love going to readings and having people come up
and tell me what their experience is of my writing—that is great! I also still have readings where two people show up and I know them both and have dinner plans with them after.
When my first book came out, there were a few haters—I think I was younger and had a first book and so it was a little more loaded publicly. And still there are a lot of Amazon reviewers who really, really hate my stuff.
As far as people thinking they know me: once I dated a guy who was making all sorts of assumptions about me based on a character and wondering if it would work out due to that. That was so annoying and frustrating! I'd never felt that before in so personal a way. But generally people don't seem to assume too much or at least they're not telling me. Usually people think I'm really “normal” compared to the strangeness in my writing but I think that skips over the weirdnesses in all of us.
UNSTUCK: What are you working on now?
AIMEE BENDER: Working on stories which are coming along. And starting to put out bait lines for a new novel fish.
* * *
Molly Laich is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She reads and writes in Missoula, Montana. Tweet her (@MollyL) or visit her blog at mollylaich.com.
I trudged through a shallow tidepool caked over with coppery surf that popped and sputtered as I moved through it. I saw a gutted aluminum trailer home erupting from a pinkish slurry, vomiting glow-in-the-dark windshield dice from its open front door. On a hill beyond there was a jagged pyramid of a hundred or so white Chinese hardhats piled up like the skulls of monks, topped by a Tekken 9 arcade game cabinet, the composite frame of which was swollen and separated, rimed with a sick yellow crust. I passed a vinyl lawn ornament in the shape of a snowglobe that was partially inflated from the heat. The team of reindeer trapped inside were furry with black fungus. Hundreds of Nerf darts littered my path like grapeshot cast on the battlefields at Gettysburg, and in the distance a fiberglass restaurant chain mascot lay with its braincase smashed. I marveled at how the things had gotten to Dokken, and how it had come to be an inhabitable surface at all. When my father ran United Polymer the garbage patch was little more than a speculation. It couldn’t be seen by satellite or by the naked eye, and the threat it posed was so remote that nobody paid much attention. Suddenly, though, there was a small, rainbow-colored island spinning at the center of the gyre. I remember the photograph that my father tried to hide from me of a group of scientists balanced on its surface in T-shirts and running shorts, staring ruefully into the distance. He was ashamed of the picture but I found it fascinating. The objects collected in the gyre told a story that no single human hand could author.
Beyond the mascot, which was a muscular cheeseburger dressed as a ninja, there was an oblong depression lined with a patchwork underlayment of parched tarps and wrappers, lengths of tattered plastic woven together and shot through with tangled bits of safety orange fencing and drag nets. The dyes and colorants used to brand the various materials had faded and bled to create a variegated tapestry. Little fronds of torn poly whipped in the breeze. There was a slick pool at the bottom of the depression and I could see even from far away the dorsal fin of something that still lived.
—from “Dokken” (Unstuck #1)
Matthew Derby is the author of Super Flat Times: Stories. His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, Fence, The Believer, The Anchor Book of New American Stories, and The Apocalypse Reader.
Interview by Molly Laich
UNSTUCK: A story always has to take place at some time. This is just one of those decisions a writer has to make. If not now, then when? I've noticed that your stories tend to happen either in a hypothetical future—as in "Dokken" and Super Flat Times—or in the 1980s—as in "Full Metal Jhacket" and "January and December." Can you say a little about how the time period works in your stories? What is it about the future? What specifically about the 1980s appeals to you? And finally, what may or may not be unappealing to you about setting your stories in the present day?
MATTHEW DERBY: Well, some of the stories in Super Flat Times started out as stories set in modern times, which meant, at that point, the late 90s. Then I wrote “The Sound Gun,” which was based on some very real nonlethal weapons technology that was being developed at the time. But as I wrote the story, I realized that I could get away with more if I cut it loose from the present. That's really when Super Flat Times started to take shape. By setting things in the future, I could prop up these outrageous predicaments for my characters and watch how they struggled to overcome them. And I never really knew, at the outset, how they would deal with these challenges. That sounds precious, I know. But I really don't have any idea how a story will end when I start it. Or I should say that I can only finish a story if I don't know how it's supposed to end. I'm just not interested enough, otherwise, to make it through.
Those stories about the 80s were mainly nostalgia pieces. John Lennon's murder had a big impact on me (even though I was seven at the time), and I felt like it was something I just had to write about. “Full Metal Jhacket” was a sort of tribute to my friends from Junior High—we were always making super 8 movies: super-pretentious stuff, really ham-fisted ripoffs of Kubrick films. And we had this feeling that somehow Kubrick would actually see the films and collaborate with us or fund a feature or something. We actually thought this. I ache for that kind of naiveté, and that story was my attempt to reach back through time and sort of caress it one last time. By the time those came out, though, I was already typecast as the “meat future guy,” so people would read the stories and struggle to figure out how they were futuristic. Like, they thought maybe the main character in “January in December” came from the future or something. So I may be stuck writing future stories whether I like it or not.
The only thing that's lame to me about writing something set in contemporary America is that I'd almost certainly have to write things like, “Starbucks,” “Applebee's,” and “Spotify.” I can't really articulate why I don't want to write about those brands. But it bums me out. But I don't have a rule about it. Someday, if I'm still writing, I'm sure I'll end up setting a story in “modern times.” But there are so many people already doing it way better than me. So I may just stick to the future, actually. There are only a couple people writing about how boring the future will be. So I feel like it's easier for me to stand out in a crowd if I become a subject matter expert in that arena.
UNSTUCK: I was particularly touched by the narrator's relationship with the dolphin in "Dokken.” Says your narrator: "I felt comfortable talking to the dolphin, who seemed to really get me." For me, the dolphin is a much needed source of warmth and "humanity" in an otherwise bleak scenario.
MATTHEW DERBY: You're right—I wanted to give the guy in “Dokken” a task that would briefly ennoble him. He sees this creature suffering the worst kind of humiliation—floundering out of the water with a surgically implanted human voice box that can only make menu recommendations—and he acts. And for a moment the reader thinks, “Hey, that guy's great. That's exactly what I would do.” At least I hope that's what they think.
UNSTUCK: On the flipside, you've invented this terrible "Meat Tower," where in a post-apocalyptic world devoid of plants, the people are resigned to eating an all-animal diet.
MATTHEW DERBY: The funny thing about “The Meat Tower” is that—I swear this is true—I had no idea it would be perceived as a screed against meat eating. When the book came out all of my friends were like, "Oh, I see you tried to push your vegetarian agenda once again." And I looked at the story and saw what they were talking about, but it was a true shocker to me.
I wrote that story for some literary journal—something that doesn't even exist anymore. One of the editors solicited a piece from me and I told her, on the spot, that I was going to write a story about a kid in a snowmobile suit sliding down a massive column of frozen meat. And I went and wrote the story, and it had the kid sliding down the tower of meat. But not once did I think about the perceived symbolism, you know, of the horror of a world made of meat. I just thought it would be a funny image.
The editor then rejected the story. I'm not bitter about it.
UNSTUCK: We were talking, before the interview, about the TV show Animal Hoarders. I don't know about you, but personally, while I love and am fascinated by them, I'm a little annoyed at all of these in-depth documentary-style shows for mining all the very meaty human tragedies, such as hoarding, weird addictions to eating tape or plastic surgery, salmon fishing, duck entrepreneurs and on and on, leaving less and less for us writers. How does media influence your writing? How does IRL influence your writing?
MATTHEW DERBY: I don't know. I feel like those shows—even the best of them—can only go so far in revealing the depths of the human condition. But Gary Lutz could write a story about a woman who compulsively licks dustings of Comet and it would just barely resemble the source material (My Strange Addiction, Season One, Episode Three). In other words, the material is all out there already. It's the lens through which the artist translates the raw material that matters.
UNSTUCK: What are some themes and ideas you're particularly interested in these days?
MATTHEW DERBY: I've been working on this project for the past year that explores the notion that language is a hardwired faculty. We, as humans, didn't sit around a campfire in a cave and invent language. It's part of our physiological makeup. We have areas in our brain that are specifically designed for producing and comprehending language. So in a very real sense, humans didn't make language; language made humans. That's totally fascinating to me.
UNSTUCK: About your writing. I find it to be clear and precise, but not particularly "minimalist." What I mean is that at times, you allow yourself to pack a lot of details and insight into your sentences. The prose is allowed to meander on the characters' reflections and ideas in a way that is sometimes absent from a lot of current writing—particularly stories published on the web. And finally, your stories are not particularly short. Have you ever felt pressure to produce shorter work? Do you find it difficult to find venues willing to publish work that takes time and care to unpack?
MATTHEW DERBY: So, you're saying my stories are too long?
I started out writing really short, “prose poem-y” stuff. “Micro fiction.” But I could never really find my footing. I don't really send my stuff out that much so I'm not getting the sense that it's being rejected based on length.
But this project I'm working on will be published exclusively online, and my collaborators and I sort of arbitrarily agreed that none of the pieces we wrote for it would be longer than 1,500 words. Our goal is to give readers the sense that they can read an entire piece on a single subway ride. We've sort of designed the project so that it can be read “out in the world.” So that's certainly forced me to compress and condense, and I think for the better.
UNSTUCK: Finally, could you share some writers or books that you currently find particularly exciting?
MATTHEW DERBY: I've just read two related graphic novels by Alison Bechdel--Fun Home, about her father, who inherited his father's funeral home, struggled with his sexual identity, and eventually committed suicide, and Are You My Mother?, which is, spoiler alert, about her relationship with her mother. To say that they're “about” her parents really underserves their incredible scope. The way she uses the comic form to tell these stories is really astounding. I don't read a ton of graphic novels, so maybe my saying that is equivalent to a guy who's never heard a rock song thinking that Papa Roach is the greatest band ever. But I don't see how Bechdel could have told these stories in any other medium. Her transitions are super deft and exhilarating and she manages to convey raw emotional content with precision and an utter lack of sentimentality that blows me away. They're definitely the best books I've read in a while.
* * *
Molly Laich is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She reads and writes in Missoula, Montana. Tweet her (@MollyL) or visit her blog at mollylaich.com.
When at last they reached the top, it was nearly dark, and Richard wondered if they had made some kind of mistake. The cottage was not as he recalled. The tree was still there, but the structure itself was lower, broader. The second floor seemed to be missing entirely, and the clapboards were wider, and painted a peeling white. Furthermore, the former gas company grounds could no longer be seen from the hilltop, and the view on the far side was drastically different. The lake he remembered was gone—only a weedy marsh seemed to lie in the valley below, and the hills did not appear as tall as they once had. Indeed, if they were there at all, they were obscured by fog. The terrain was very rocky and unforgiving, and he began to feel a terrible sense of dread.
—from “The Cottage on the Hill” (Unstuck #1)
J. Robert Lennon is the author of seven novels, including Mailman, Castle, and the forthcoming Familiar, and a collection of short stories, Pieces for the Left Hand. He teaches writing at Cornell University.
Interview by Molly Laich
[Note: This interview was conducted over Google Chat.]
J. ROBERT LENNON: You in there?
UNSTUCK: Ha. Yes, I am in there. I am in the computer.
J. ROBERT LENNON: OMG
UNSTUCK: Hello! How are you?
J. ROBERT LENNON: I'm great! Just sent in the page proofs for Familiar, the new book, so I am relieved and happy.
UNSTUCK: Oh, what a feeling. When does it come out?
J. ROBERT LENNON: First week of October. Will be touring a bit then, including to Missoula.
UNSTUCK: Speaking of which: I wanted to ask about your time at the University of Montana. When were you there? What were the circumstances that led you to an MFA? What sort of writer were you before the MFA, and how did it change you?
J. ROBERT LENNON: I was a student there from 1993 to 1995, met my wife, the novelist Rhian Ellis, and we stayed there a couple years more. I got an MFA for the usual reasons—my favorite college class was a fiction workshop and my teacher suggested I apply to MFA programs. Montana was the only place I got in—I was not a terribly skilled or mature writer at the time. The main thing I learned there, though, was discipline—to write every day, and, most importantly, to revise. I'm no longer in a position to be able to write daily but I am a total pig for revision. My first drafts are crap.
UNSTUCK: In workshop, did you work on short stories or novels?
J. ROBERT LENNON: Both. My first attempt at a novel was about a rock band that that has to deliver a baby from Seattle to Philadelphia. It was really bad, and people told me so. I also ended up workshopping the first few chapters of what would become my first novel, and that went rather better.
UNSTUCK: Since we brought Familiar up, let's talk about the new book! The novel is about a woman who stumbles into a parallel reality in which she's estranged from her children. To me, this is the saddest thing I can imagine. The ultimate life failure: to have a ruined relationship with your kids. (I don't have any kids; I'm guessing.) And you confirmed my suspicion that you were writing about your worst fears. To me, it's almost a horror story. But not in any conventional way.
J. ROBERT LENNON: A friend of mine just read it, and mentioned how sad it was. And my reaction was, "Is it? Damn, I guess it really is." Of course it is.
I do like your characterization of it as a horror story, though, and that is precisely how I've been describing it to people—a horror novel about parenthood. Not as horrifying as, say, Pet Sematary, but maybe less easy to dismiss as fantasy.
The book started as a way of exploring the weird feeling of driving on the highway after September 11th—I was supposed to be on a book tour, and it was all cancelled, and I had to drive a rental car home to Ithaca, because the airports were closed. When we were living in Missoula in 2002, I wrote about 40 pages, then gave up. Finally I went back to it in 2009, printed it out, deleted the file, and started over, retyping it all into the word processor. And this time I didn't stop. Over many drafts, it became more about parenting and less about the sci-fi conceit. I think my recent work is more about metaphor, and works more by evocation rather than description, if that makes any sense. I think I'll be returning to the social realism for the next book—a comedy, I hope. But I always think everything's going to be funny, and then it turns depressing.
By the way: I'm reading your movie review of Damsels in Distress—my wife liked it pretty well. I like Greta Gerwig. But I've never really been able to wrap my mind around Whit Stillman. I always find myself wishing that Hal Hartley were directing his movies instead.
UNSTUCK: That's sort of like how every time I listen to Elvis Costello I wish I were listening to Tom Petty.
J. ROBERT LENNON: Ha—yes.
UNSTUCK: Thanks for reading. I wish I'd reviewed Battleship instead. Rihanna as a naval officer, LOL. But anyway. It's interesting that the sadness wasn't at the forefront for you while you were writing the book. It did sort of sneak up on me as well. I was overcome with grief when she sees Sam and— but I shouldn't give things away.
Have you written from a woman's point of view before?
J. ROBERT LENNON: I have written from a woman's POV before, and I'm always a little surprised when people are surprised by it. It seems to me that writing from the other gender is a Writing 101 skill. I mean, if you can't imagine what it's like to not be yourself, you're in the wrong line of work. That said, I do usually write male characters, and I've never devoted an entire novel to a woman character before. Most of one, but never the whole thing. I felt at home in this one, though—do you think it's a persuasive feminine perspective?
UNSTUCK: I do. I found her to be unsentimental and I enjoyed the idea that she had suddenly given up the impulse to wear makeup. I agree that writers should be able to write from other perspectives, but I don't agree that it's an entirely symmetrical switch. I mean— I think it's slightly more challenging for a man to write as a woman than for a woman to write as a man. It's a complicated theory supported by my cursory studies of psycholinguistics, briefly summarized by saying that man is sort of the default stance, and as such all humans are better at slipping into a man's world.
J. ROBERT LENNON: I suspect you're right about that. And I suspect it's also easier for a male reader to accept a male character written by a woman, in part for the same reasons. Because hell, why wouldn't she be writing about a man? It could be that the bar, then, is set higher for a man trying to write from a woman's perspective—but, on the other hand, we get congratulated for doing it a hell of a lot more often, and more effusively, than women writers do for writing about men.
UNSTUCK: One more question about Familiar, maybe. You mentioned abandoning the more sci-fi-ish elements in an earlier draft, but it's not all gone. It engages with elements of sci-fi in the way Elisa becomes involved in parallel worlds discussion boards and whatnot. But it seems to me the novel is just itself and doesn't concern itself very much with genre considerations. Do you agree? Is this a luxury of someone who has written multiple novels?
J. ROBERT LENNON: I think it's a luxury of somebody who grew up reading tons of genre fiction, and is writing in an era where genre-blurring fiction is not only acceptable but à la mode. I can't get Stephen King, sci-fi, and crime fiction out of my head. Sometimes I don't bother to try. I think this is even more common among writers younger than me—all my undergrads at Cornell are members of the Harry Potter generation, and I have been getting lots and lots of literary fiction with insidious genre-borrowing in it. I like this a lot.
Yeah, there is lots of the parallel worlds stuff in here, but in earlier drafts it was there more for its own sake, and now it is there as something for Elisa to ponder. It's a vehicle for exploring character now—and for exploring the vicissitudes of family life. I am glad you regard the novel as merely being itself—that's my intent, and I think I needed to let it find itself before I could start trying to make it any good.
UNSTUCK: Let's "shift gears" a second. There's your Unstuck story, "The Cottage on the Hill," about a cottage that seems to morph via mysterious circumstances, and your novel Castle, that is about a lot of things, but much of the action has to do with home repairs. Do these stories have anything to do with one another? I get the feeling that they were maybe written around the same time or are born of similar experiences or ideas.
J. ROBERT LENNON: Well, the Unstuck story came after Castle, but I will tell you what, I am obsessed with houses. They are so powerful. I dream about them constantly—I think most people do. That story came from a dream, in fact—I was out of town with my son, at of all things a Rubik's Cube solving competition, and in the hotel we were staying in I dreamed about returning over and over to this cottage that is different every time, but still the same, in that dreaming you-just-know-stuff sort of way. I spent the drive back to Ithaca trying to remember it all, and then wrote the story with only a small amount of narrative structure inserted to hold it all together. I ought to teach a course on books about houses. There are so many good ones.
UNSTUCK: Tell us about a few! What books were helpful to you in writing Castle? (But then I have another question about Castle, so contain yourself.)
J. ROBERT LENNON: Well, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is wonderful. But I mostly think of Castle as a Stephen King novel. Whereas the biggest influence on Familiar is probably Tom McCarthy's Remainder—another book about the mysteries of cognition.
UNSTUCK: Not to be illiterate, but it reminded me a little of the film Cast Away.
J. ROBERT LENNON: Sure, I'll buy Cast Away! The first two thirds, anyway. I used to characterize my earlier book On The Night Plain as "A Coen Brothers western." This was before there actually were Coen Brothers westerns.
UNSTUCK: What I admired most about Castle was how close we were to the protagonist’s changing moods, perspectives. I think the book is psychologically deft. (I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, so, you're welcome.) It's clear we're dealing with an "unreliable narrator," but precisely how he is unreliable remains a mystery for much of the book. It's a source of much tension and intrigue! And I liked very much the white deer.
J. ROBERT LENNON: White deer: yes! They’re a staple of central New York writers. They live behind the fence at the old Seneca Army Depot. They are strange and beautiful.
My editor and I worked very hard to keep the nature of Loesch's unreliability consistent. He is not lying—but he is telling a highly self-serving narrative. There are things he needs to say, but he can't bring himself to do it, not for a long time. At first he will only allow his past to enter the story via other characters—e.g., the hardware store clerk who calls him "Soldier." But as the narrative wears on, he talks more openly about what he did, and what happened to him. The turning point is when he falls into the pit trap in the woods.
A colleague of mine at Cornell, a medievalist, told me, after hearing me read that bit, that this is a very, very old trope—you fall in a hole and remember things. Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle does this too.
UNSTUCK: I was telling somebody about Familiar and they said it sounded like Murakami's latest book.
J. ROBERT LENNON: Well, I was a little dismayed when I learned that Murakami's book was about parallel universes... but it turns out to be utterly different. I must say I wasn't wild about 1Q84—it should have been shorter, among other things. I ordinarily like Murakami a great deal, though.
UNSTUCK: I used to have these insane fears as an undergrad the night before workshop that I would show up and someone would have written the same story as I had, exactly—the way normal girls might worry about someone at the wedding wearing the same dress as them.
J. ROBERT LENNON: A former teacher who shall remain nameless once told our workshop, "If you get a good idea, write it immediately, because somebody could steal it." NO! No, that is dumb.
It is one of the most popular questions I get from would-be writers, too. "Should I copyright my idea?" No, because your idea is worthless! Ideas are nothing. A book is something—it's real—and it won't be like anyone else's. In very much the way that two women are never going to inhabit the same dress in the same way. Hell, it might not even look like the same dress.
I'll tell you what: dudes don't worry about wearing suits that ALL LOOK ALIKE. Because dudes are taught to think that their own personal special penis power will radiate out from them like glorious rays of man sun.
UNSTUCK: Would you like to tell me a little about your writing process? What you're working on next? Life plans and dreams?
J. ROBERT LENNON: Sure.
1) Usually in three- or four-hour shifts, when I am not teaching. I try to produce maybe a page an hour. It's all rather craftsmanlike—I get "inspired" sometimes but inspiration is kinda bullshit most of the time. When I have time, I write—that's about the size of it. Sometimes it's goodish, sometimes it sucks.
2) A short story about a graduate student in anthropology, then a talk about stylistic and plot extremes in fiction for the Colgate Writers' Conference, which is in a few weeks. Then a literary crime novella that I have extracted from a failed 2009 novel. Then I start taking notes on this big social comedy I want to write.
3) Get old. Read and eat and drink and hang out with my wife. Record music. I like my life; I just want to keep it going.
UNSTUCK: Your work can be dark sometimes. It deals with broken relationships and families, domestic life gone wrong, but with hints of the supernatural. I think there's a natural impulse, maybe particularly among readers who are also writers, to try to find the real-life connections between the author and the horrors he expresses. But you seem fine. I mean, not psychologically tortured or crazy or a bad parent or whatever. What can you say about the relationship between the author and his work?
J. ROBERT LENNON: Yes, it's true that I am a functional person with a happy family, and I count myself lucky. And it is luck—I don't pretend otherwise. But the collective consciousness of my household is very dark. I think that all of us have tried different ways of channeling this energy—into personal projects, rather than towards our regard for one another. I am deeply proud to already see the family illness finding its way into my older son's Twitter feed, for instance.
Let's face it—the more love there is in your life, the more you have to lose. And the more ways there are to lose what you have. I love extravagantly—the people around me, the work I do, the things I enjoy. And it opens me up to all manner of hurt. But what's the alternative, you know? Hiding from it? Writers don't have to go out in the world and do exciting things, but we can't shy away from strong emotion in our minds. Perhaps this is why so many of us become alcoholics, or suicides. There's no room for denial or aversion.
It hasn't escaped my attention that the stuff of mine that people seem to like the most is the stuff that seemed at the time of writing to be the most personal, the most trifling, the least obviously marketable. I try to tell students this—don't try to write something acceptable, try to write something that expresses your obsessions. This is hard for some writers, who are embarrassed by, or dubious about, their obsessions. But it's important to break through that wall. Your self is the only thing you have that nobody else can give to the world. That pure, unrefined ore—that's the stuff.
I believe in earnestness and honesty and in expressing strong emotion, both on and off the page. Never try to be classy. There, that's your pull quote: Writers, don't be classy!
* * *
Molly Laich is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She reads and writes in Missoula, Montana. Tweet her (@MollyL) or visit her blog at mollylaich.com.
A wrecking yard of thoughts pile up during times of sorrow. One second Marvin is remembering his pop. One second he’s noticing a stray hair on his pants. He’s looking forward to reading a novel ordered from Amazon. He’s noticing a hard plastic smell as the morning sun heats the Plexiglas windows and overhead bins, anxious because of a baby fretting several rows behind, stressed about work left undone. Too bad he can’t conjure a magic spell that would let him go through the motions of settling the estate in Seattle while keeping his Chicago customers happy, a spell that would let him be two places at once. Talk about wishful thinking. Magic isn’t about belief—it’s about suspending disbelief. Houdini said the mind believed what the eyes saw and the ears heard. A good magician is logical, like a good mathematician or computer programmer. Marvin is a good computer programmer, therefore he is logical.
He’s been documented as the fourth tallest man in North America, almost eight feet tall. Travel is a bitch. He’s hunched in the first row aisle seat, legs and arms disturbingly bent into triangles, so coiled over he can smell his socks. He owns two pairs of shoes. He is wearing the uncomfortable ones. They look new because he seldom wears them. These are shoes he bought before it was easy to find big dress shoes online, precious because of what they cost, not because of what they are. What they are is uncomfortable and ugly, styled like something from the 1960s. He could buy better shoes for a tenth of what he paid, but there’s no point in buying shoes you don’t expect to wear again until you’re dead. He settled for these shoes, for these tight, leather coffins, because there were no other choices. His crushed toes are swollen and deformed. There are more choices now. A few things get easier with time. These days you order groceries for delivery. There’s hardly anything you have to leave the house to do. Except funerals. Even the body has to leave the house for that. Ha ha.
—from “Big Feet” (Unstuck #1)
Leslie What lives in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has won a Nebula Award and been a finalist for an Oregon Book Award. She is Fiction Editor at the literary annual Phantom Drift and Co-Editor (with R.A. Rycraft) of Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging. Her story “Big Feet” appears in Unstuck #1.
Interview by Molly Laich
UNSTUCK: "Big Feet” takes place in an airplane. Did you by chance conceive of the idea on an airplane? I know that I find that I do very good thinking on public transport, whether that be on a plane, train, boat or bus.
LESLIE WHAT: The story did start one particularly painful cross-country trip when I was just trying to get home after a conference so I could see a doctor about the searing pain in my back, leg, and hip—which turned out to be a herniated disk. The person in the seat behind me kicked my seat every five or ten minutes, which turned out to be each time she crossed and uncrossed her legs. It's possible I wept from the sharp pain these unexpected jolts incited, but even if I managed to be stoic, I was truly uncomfortable and miserable. Though I tend to shy away from confrontation, I did turn around (not an easy thing to do when you are seated in a middle seat and have a slipped disk) to ask the woman not to poke me anymore. She was very large and squeezed into a very small seat. She looked as uncomfortable as I felt. I asked her if she could move her feet and she said, "There isn't anywhere else to put them," and that comment really got to me. I didn't say much and tried to suck it up the next time she kicked me.
The rest of the trip was pretty grim as you'd expect, but I'm a storyteller and an uncomfortable situation becomes a story op as soon as I can figure out how to make an uncomfortable scenario even more uncomfortable and emotionally complex (and less about me and my pain than about our common human experiences, our pain, our joy, our successes and failures). That led to me trying to squeeze a giant into a small space beside a woman with the biggest feet in the world. Each was uncomfortable in his or her own body to begin with. Their discomfort was magnified by events in their lives that had occurred or were occurring or might occur once off the plane. Add this to the discomfort of being forced to sit in too small a space and a cross-country flight becomes the proverbial pressure cooker that's boiling out of control without a graceful way to let off steam.
I know they say you shouldn't write about travel, that the destination is the story, not the trip. In general I think that's good advice, but I wanted to write about transition, about how alone I have felt in spaces crowded with people. And I thought about all the very sad trips I have taken and how alone I've felt on those trips and how hard I tried to keep it together until the plane landed.
UNSTUCK: Tangential to the last question: Where do you do your best writing? Are you superstitious or ritualistic about place? Pens? Typewriters?
LESLIE WHAT: I don't have a place where I do my best writing. It's a state of mind that I do best when I try to write on a regular schedule and when I don't give in to the ever-present self-doubt that plagues many writers.
UNSTUCK: Do you find that you are able to move freely between the different worlds of “genre” and "literary" fiction? Do you consider genre when starting a story? Do you lean more toward one or the other these days?
LESLIE WHAT: While I have found a supportive and intelligent audience in science fiction journals, I have written very little fiction that depends upon science or thinking about science. There's a reason they call SF the literature of ideas: science fiction (and its subset of fantasy) is a genre that is not limited by our common reality. The kind of social commentary and satire I write has always found an audience in the genre.
I have been criticized, at times, for working more on the level of metaphor than story event, but I feel my task is to write the story as it needs to be told without regard to how it will be marketed. Not that it matters, but for the most part I believe the fantastic events I concoct are really happening within the story. It's not that I believe in ghosts as physical manifestations so much as I believe the past is always following and in front of us. So I can write a ghost story that feels realistic to me, whether or not that ghost would register on the kinds of paranormal ghostometers you might find for sale on eBay.
I don't really worry about what kind of story I am writing until I have a solid draft and see what's there and get a sense of what needs to be there. Sometimes the story demands a realistic telling and sometimes a fabulist telling is the ticket. I'd say most of my stories fall into that interstitial/fabulist ghetto versus straight realism, but I think that like many contemporary fabulist writers, I use fantastic tropes to illuminate real world problems and I honestly don't find it difficult at all to move between mimetic and non-mimetic fiction. The story itself dictates the telling of it. While I don't write escapist literature, my stories are more likely to travel the side roads where anything can happen than the interstate that may be faster but less likely to surprise.
UNSTUCK: Kurt Vonnegut said every story should have a moral. Do you agree? Is it something you consciously think about when writing?
LESLIE WHAT: When my kids were little a friend of my mother's gave them The Berenstain Bears series and I was forced to read the books aloud. I detested these books, which valued Moral above Story, but oh, how my kids loved that freaking bear family, and we read those books until the pages were in tatters. I think children feel comforted by easy answers and feel secure believing in absolutes like right and wrong. As an adult, I'm more interested in the inexact perimeters of shadow. I find complexity challenging and interesting. Perhaps I find eBay more exciting than Sears because at Sears you always know the price, but on eBay, you neither know what you'll end up paying nor what you'll actually end up buying. I am fascinated by insecurities and uncertainties about relationships, morality, death and life. I feel compelled to explore ways each of us is complicit in our own stories—how our mistakes contribute to our shared experiences, and how we can understand the reasons for our fallibility, whether or not we can forgive it.
UNSTUCK: Your Nebula-Award-winning story from 1999, "The Cost of Doing Business," is about grief, and the fantastical element is the idea that you could somehow take on the grief of someone else and make it a business.
LESLIE WHAT: Some SF writers find it useful to imagine an Other from another Planet and use that Other as a mirror to reflect one's own insecurities, fears, strengths, weaknesses, but humans are about as alien a creature as I care to explore. A lot of science fiction (some call it speculative fiction so as not to confuse people who think the genre is only robots and rocket ships) looks at pressing social issues through a fantastical lens. As I said above, the things I'm most interested exploring in my fiction are issues around reconciliation and grief. The big questions for me: how do we go on after trauma and tragedy? How do we cope with our lives every day after reading the headlines and seeing what it's like for the rest of the world? Perhaps the past informs every thought and action, but I want to believe we have some agency we can exercise, and that our intent and our will can have an effect upon our lives.
UNSTUCK: What was it like for you after winning the award?
LESLIE WHAT: Winning the award was cool and it is a very cool award—shiny and big and with sparkles and a cool rock—but my insecurity kicked in immediately after the results were announced, and for a long time I worried that I only won because people liked me and not because the story was any good. It took several years before I decided that it didn't matter. I still won, whether or not I deserved to.
UNSTUCK: What are you working on currently?
LESLIE WHAT: Here's where that superstition you asked about comes into play: I don't like talking about the stuff I'm working on because it's too easy to think a story is a dumb idea until I've had a chance to work out most of the kinks. I don't write a story from start to finish, and instead compile bits of scenes and snatches of dialogue until the story finds itself. This can take a couple of years, as in the case of "Big Feet."
I recently finished a story that's a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel (so modern my critique group missed that aspect entirely) that I started writing in 2008, when I was taking care of my terminally ill mother. It ended up not being about my mother at all, but more about the nature preserve I visited to find refuge from a very stressful situation. I am almost done with a comic story about grief that I'd rather not talk about, but ask me in a couple of years and perhaps by then I'll be ready.
* * *
Molly Laich is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She reads and writes in Missoula, Montana. Tweet her (@MollyL) or visit her blog at mollylaich.com.