Awesome piece in the Trib’s Printer’s Row literary supplement about 2nd Story: “In vampire lore, the undead often have the ability to ‘glamour’ humans: They focus an intense type of hypnotism on humans, forcing them to believe what the vampire says. Being in the audience for 2nd Story, one of Chicago’s premier literary reading series, is kind of like being glamoured.”
On May 6th, I’ll be telling a story at Victory Gardens as part of Listen to Your Mother, a national event raising money and awareness for motherhood and moms in need. I’m super-excited and grateful to be a part of this – thanks for having me, Tracey and Melisa! Here’s a quick cast interview I did about motherhood, Chicago, and telling stories.
I did this super-fun and slightly insane interview about Everyone Remain Calm for Hypertext. I talked for like an hour about artists that influence me. I talked about the fictional characters I’d like to sleep with. I talked and talked and laughed a lot, and figured out some things about myself that I didn’t really know before. The best kind! (thanks, Chris!).
Thank you for writing about a character with the Incredible Hulk under her bed. Why do you think other writers don’t come clean about those kinds of relationships? I mean, no one talks about it. It’s the last frontier.
There’s this scene in Love in the Time of the Cholera when Florentino Ariza runs into Fermina Daza in the market. He was totally in love with her; she stomped all over his heart; now she’s standing there with her new husband and Florentino looks at him and thinks, This man has to die. I was going through a break-up myself at the time, I’d just bumped into my ex and his new girlfriend, and reading that scene was like, Yes! That’s it exactly! It’s a feeling I’d wager everyone has experienced at some point, but of course, you can’t admit it. You have to move on! You have to be the bigger person!—but in secret? Your imagination is on fire.
So there I was, a twenty-year-old girl in Chicago in 2000, connecting with some Columbian guy in the early 1800′s, all because of the very honest admission of a secret feeling. I love this about fiction; those moments where I connect with the characters. I’ve seen myself in Florentino Ariza, in Lena Grove, in Ivan Yakovlevich and Jimmy Cross and Alice Kingsleigh and on and on. It’s fucking fascinating, and, I hope, opens me up more to finding connections in my day-to-day life. If I can see myself in these fictional characters, why not the guy next to me on the bus? The woman on TV with the fundamentally different political beliefs? People of different backgrounds and cultures and experiences—and to think someone might read my stuff and find their secrets, somehow, within it? It blows my mind.
Here’s the secret about my Hulk story: for a long time, the relationships I had in my head were more fulfilling than those I had in real life. At the time, I was reading a lot of Kafka, and he does this thing where he gives a concrete, visual image to an abstract feeling or concept. Don’t want to go to work? Okay, now you’re a cockroach. The justice system is fucked up? Okay, here’s this whacked-out machine. I thought, Let’s give this secret of mine a concrete image. Let’s give it the Incredible Hulk.
I have conversations all the time with people about the fictional characters they want to have relationships with (and/or sleep with). Can there be a comment section at the end of this interview and people can write in their list? Everyone’s got a list. Mine goes like this: 1. The Hulk 2. Indiana Jones 3. Seven of Nine 4. Jose Arcadio 5. Luke Duke.
Chicago and Michigan. Alaska. Chicago, Michigan and Alaska. What’s the connection? What’s the attraction to those places besides living there? Why plop your characters in them? Why not Miami? Or L.A.? Somewhere where people eat jicama and are addicted to Botox? What does ‘place’ do for you as a writer?
For me, place is the guts of the whole damn thing. It affects everything: first in a very immediate way dictated by the space; like, I’m thinking of that scene in Kill Bill where the two blondes are kicking the shit out of each other in a trailer. Uma Thurman keeps trying to pull out her samurai sword to behead the chick with the eyepatch, but she can’t get it out of its sheath ’cause the ceiling in the trailer is too low. If that space had a higher ceiling, the scene would have been over in ten seconds. And then there’s the more abstract way of how the characters relate to and act within the place. For example, I act differently in my home than I do in public, in places I know versus places I’ve never been, in different countries, time periods, etc. I’m big into the sci-fi and other-worldy stuff, and the trick is creating the world that the characters inhabit. It’s not any different writing about Chicago, Michigan, and Alaska (all places I’ve lived, by the way). You have to create those worlds. My Chicago is different than yours. My Chicago now is different than it was ten years ago. My Chicago is different than the Chicago of some of my fictional characters.
I could spend my whole life writing about only Chicago and never begin to crack its surface. To really get the complexity of a place, I think, you need to see it through the eyes of lots of different voices/backgrounds/experiences. You also need real specifics, the place within the place within the place; like Leo’s Lunchroom in Wicker Park in Chicago in 1999. The Uptown Theatre in Uptown in Chicago in 1940. Women and Children First in Andersonville in Chicago in 2010. I’m working on a novel right now—which, incidentally, is set in Chicago, Michigan, Alaska, and Prague—and the magnitude of research I’m swimming through to really understand these characters and their experiences is just crazy. Awesome, but crazy. What did Chicago mean to a Czech immigrant in 1968? What does it mean to a college student from Michigan in 1995? To a new mom in 2008?
Honestly, it feels less like I’m consciously choosing place, and more like the characters I come up with tell me where they’re from; I just listen and try to do them justice. L.A. will show up if one of my characters makes it happen. Or if I get an assignment to write about it, in which case I’ll make it happen. Or maybe at the end of this month, since I’m going to L.A. for a conference. Or, shit—maybe I’ll write about it tomorrow, ’cause now you’ve got me thinking.
These characters, I’m thinking, in particular, about Penny in ‘The Boot’, are desperate in some way. They’re all seeking something (the Dad in ‘Shot To The Lungs and No Breath Left’, Shelly, Penny, everyone in ‘Times Are Tough All Over’, Eliza). And, yet, there seems to be this incredible hopefulness in all of the stories. Amidst all of this emotional or economic desolation there’s an escape. Can you talk about that a little bit?
I was recently hanging out with my friend Bobby, and somebody asked him if he believed in love at first sight. He said yes and they asked why and he said, “I don’t want to live in a world where it doesn’t exist.” That’s how I feel: I don’t want to live in a world where hope doesn’t exist. I can tell you all sorts of stories about desperation or fear or anger, but for me the most important part is knowing how the characters react under such circumstances. You can either say, This is scary, let’s hide under the bed, or This is scary and here I go.
So, I get to ‘Professional Development’ and I’m along for the ride, in fact you’ve got a hook in my lip and I’m just letting the current take me, and, I’m thinking, ‘What a shift! This is so realistic.’ (Not that ‘Incredible’ wasn’t) I’m along for the ride, though, as I said, and then things start to shift back again into that world between reality and a very realistic dream-reality (which is where most of these stories hang) and I’m completely buying it. I’m right there with the band. It doesn’t seem fantastic at all. It just seems like the reality you’ve created. Why is that odd reality something that attracts you as a writer? Why do you feel comfortable there?
The psychology 101 answer is that I was an only child from a very small town, and what saves you is your imagination. Imagination, and the library. I remember spending a lot of time in the creek behind the house, looking for fairies. That scene in Times Are Tough all Over where the girl catches all the frogs and kisses them?—that was me.
I’m really attracted to the phrase What if. What if the marching band follows me home? What if the guy sells pee for a living? What if a tidal wave of hot lava poured down the hall? It’s such a good gateway into storytelling, whether you’re writing the very realistically real or the totally fantastic real. It also makes even the simple acts of walking down the street or grocery shopping—those deadly mundane things—so much more interesting! Seriously, what if there are ninjas in the produce section?
Not to go all crazy with the Kafka, but reading The Metamorphosis was a big lightbulb sort of moment for me. I was on the el, on the way to a job that I hated, thinking Gregor doesn’t want to go to work either, so he turns into a bug. The realization that I could make something magical, dreamlike, or cracked-out happen to someone in response to a very realistic, universal emotion was a huge revelation. And then somebody gave me Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to this day my favorite writer, and that’s when I started really thinking about magical realism and how it might fit into my life—here, now, in Chicago. I also love Murakami, Allende, Vonnegut, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Geek Love, my friends Joe Meno and Elizabeth Crane, all sorts of sci-fi and fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Carnival, The Matrix, The Shining, that crazy scene in Magnolia where it starts raining frogs, anything that explores a… let’s say tilted view of reality. I also think magical realism is a really fascinating way to tackle political commentary, which is becoming more and more important to me as I get older and became—how do I want to say this?—a more engaged citizen. I think our world can be better. I think art can help accomplish that.
I like the transition/placement of ‘One One-Thousand, Two One-Thousand, Three’ after ‘Professional Development’. How much did you think about story placement? Or is it the way the stories came to you?
I wish I had something really profound to say, like I ordered the stories mathematically or in accordance with the tides, but the truth is: it didn’t cross my mind until a week before the final draft was due. See, like most everyone—I’m busy. I have three jobs and a three-year-old. At this point in my life, writing time is precious, guarded, the last canteen when you’re lost in the desert. I spend it on the actual physical act of writing, the Ass In Chair sort of thing, and at that time I was locked in to rewriting each individual story as opposed to examining the book as a complete movement.
My friend Leif has a farm in Michigan, this stunning, peaceful place with the pond and the land and everything opposite of my life in Chicago. I called him totally panicked, crying about deadlines, about noise—not the noise of the city but the noise of life in general and how can one be reflective, or think critically, or even daydream for that matter with all this go-go-go, at which point he was like, “What the hell are you talking about?” and I said, “I need to come to the farm,” and he said, “Oh, cool. I’ll get wine.” I am eternally grateful to him for that time, that room of one’s own. I spent a desperately needed week just… sitting, rereading the stories and trying to examine how they all fit together. I wrote the story titles on post-it notes, laid them on the floor in the solarium, and moved them back and forth. I’d switch two of them, stare at them for an hour, and then move them back. How did they fit together? Tone, point of view, subject matter, realism to magical stuff, lengthwise? My work as a curator for 2nd Story really came into play here: instead of finding the connections between multiple storytellers, I had to find them in myself.
There’s something interesting happening with time in ‘One One-Thousand, Two One-Thousand, Three.’ In fact, in most of the stories. Can you talk a little bit about how you use time in the structure of your stories?
I was rereading American Skin, and in the beginning there’s this fight scene that totally kills me: it starts with the narrator getting on the el, and ends when he gets off of it. That’s it. On and off. It seems like writers are always having the whole How do you know when the story is done conversation, and the simplicity of that structure blew my mind. I tried it with One-One Thousand, this thing I’d been working on where a girl is stuck skinny-dipping in a quarry: story starts when she gets in the water and ends when she gets out of it. That’s what determined time: how long can you tread water? How cold does the water get after the sun goes down? What does your skin look like?
It’s helpful for me, when I’m finishing a story, to think about how much time moves within it. Shot to the Lungs covers about a half hour. The Boot happens over several months, however long it takes Penny to walk off the weight. In Logic, the narrator is a waitress, so time moves by her counting coffee refills. It’s about what makes sense to the characters, the worlds they inhabit, and what’s going on in the particular moment. I have a story I perform for 2nd Story about pregnancy tests, and it moves in real time as you wait for the stick to turn blue or pink.
(I ripped that off 24).
(I really like Jack Bauer. Maybe he could live under my bed).
There’s this kind of fascination with the modern world and the hoops through which we’re expected to jump. It’s like, as an artist, you’re saying, ‘This is all just so complex and weird…when did it get like this?’ Your characters have to negotiate through all the shit (‘I Asked The Guy Why Are You So Fly?’). Do you feel that way or is it limited to the characters on your pages?
I feel that way for sure. There are all sorts of hoops, many of them shitty and unfair and totally irrational, but when I finally get some distance and am able to look back on the moment reflectively (i.e. I’m not pissed off about it anymore), it’s easy to see the profound part of the experience as well.
I originally wrote I Asked the Guy Why Are You So Fly? for this super-awesome performance series called The Dollar Store. The host, Jonathan Messinger, gave a bunch of writers and performers and musicians an item from the dollar store, and we had to come up with something around that item. Mine was a plastic marijuana leaf on a chain. Which made me think of those giant bling necklaces guys used to wear on MTV. Which made me think of the song Funky Comedina by Tone Loc that played on the radio during the Eighties. It was a funny gimmick, but I didn’t want a gimmick—I wanted a story. At the time, I was in the middle of dating a bunch of people, trying to find The One, that insane all-consuming search. Want to talk about jumping hoops? About complex and weird? Shit, there’s a reason there are so many stories and books and movies and plays and sitcoms and songs and operas and poems about looking for love. Out of all the ridiculous situations we find ourselves in, a date with Tone Loc seemed pretty tame.
You’re an oral storyteller, too. I hear you very clearly on the page and have heard at least one of these stories told orally. What’s the connection between oral storytelling and printed work? What’s different? How much does live performance – gesture, voice intonation, pauses, etc., – overlap with what’s happening on the page? How is it different?
I paid for college waiting tables: in the mornings I read Tolstoy and Morrison and Christina Stead, and at night I poured drinks and listened to people of varying levels of intoxication. It really struck me that the books I was reading and the stories I was hearing had all these profound similarities in voice, craft, and intention. People tell stories to connect. To explain, escape, seduce, educate—connect.
For me, the story on the page and the story told aloud are one and the same. I write for an audience, and I’d like the audience to read my work on the page the same way I’d read it aloud. I’m interested in the craft of that—voice, punctuation, word choice, pacing. Have you read The Tell-Tale Heart? It’s not possible to read that story without yelling at certain moments. HOW DID POE DO THAT? HE MAKES YOU YELL. It’s amazing; it’s craft; and I’m interested in how the craft of performance influences the craft of writing. A lot of this comes from my training in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College, where the oral telling is a large part of the writing process, and also my work with 2nd Story, where we’ve spent the better part of a decade experimenting with this stuff. I get really excited about it, obviously, but I can also get all fancy and scholarly. Give me a sec to put my hair in a bun.
Can you explain the popularity of the Foo Fighters?
I got a bit misty at the end of ‘Greek or Czeck or Japanese’. Do you think that’s fair to lay on your readers? I mean, we’ve got a lot on our plates. Why should a story elicit those emotions? Why put your readers through this?
I watch a lot of bad movies (if my husband were here, he’d be nodding vigorously right now). I love ones that are really, really awful, but also wonderful, preferably with lots of gratuitous explosions. I like a good fight scene, I like drama, I like watching characters react when they’re really challenged in some way. But people are challenged in small ways, too. I tried to think about finding balance between some of those giant, overwhelming things, like in the title story where the girls mom gets squashed by a tornado, and those seemingly small moments that are actually huge, like in One-One Thousand where a 14-year-old girl lets a boy see her naked. All she does is get up, out of the water, but for her, it’s the greatest challenge I could’ve thrown her way. Greek or Czech or Japanese was, for me, another one about challenges. Having a kid in this world? My God. Even getting married, putting your heart in someone else’s hands? What a profound act of bravery.
I think the emotional reactions we have to stories—or any kind of art, for that matter—is more about what’s inside us than necessarily what the artist intended. There’s this scene in the movie Things You Can Tell By Looking At Her where Holly Hunter walks down a street and cries. That’s all that happens. She walks down the street and cries, and every time I see that scene, I lose it. I am a puddle on the floor, the gaspy, gulpy kind of crying where you can’t control the sides of your mouth. Every time I watch it, I think, Okay, here it comes, hold it together—but I can’t. Something just erupts.
It’s kind of beautiful,. I think.
‘Oscar and Veronica’ has the acidity of Tennessee Williams and oaky hints of Woody Allen. How much are you influenced by other artists?
Careful. I can talk about this for a really long time.
Bradbury’s got a great line about stuffing yourself with all kinds of stories and art so every morning you can explode like Old Faithful. He says, “I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting.” I love that. It’s a fucking way of life: I read books. I read literary journals and student work and 2nd Story stories. My husband curates an art blog and every day is like, Look at these sculptures,! Look at these photographs! Look at these paintings made from wine and wax and gravity! There’s always art coming in. My challenge is figuring out what I can learn from it: about craft; about the world; about myself.
I know I’ve been talking a lot about the magical stuff, but I also really get off on art that makes reality seem so fucking real, you have to punch the wall. I’m looking at you, Nina Simone, and you, Adele—have you heard Adele sing Someone Like You? That song makes me die. How can I write a page of text with even a fraction of that emotion? And PJ Harvey!—google PJ Harvey singing Rid of Me in Sydney. She’s seriously going to jump through your computer and cut your arm off, which I totally get; I’ve had days where I want to cut somebody, too—but here’s the thing: I won’t. I’m too nice. PJ Harvey’s probably too nice, too, but in the song she allows me to engage with these feelings I wouldn’t ever act on. It’s amazing, because it’s so totally real.
Yes, yes, I know, we’re all way too sober for the What is Real? conversation, but I learn a lot from artists who really test that water. There’s this scene in the film The Princess and the Warrior where two characters fall in love during an emergency tracheotomy performed under a mack truck with a Big Gulp straw and a Swiss army knife. The girl can’t breath. The guy is sucking blood out of her neck. It’s crazy and implausible and beautiful and real and it kills me. KILLS ME. The scene in Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov takes an axe to that moneylender kills me, too. He’s this kid, trying to get through college. He can’t pay tuition. He’s can’t buy food. He can’t go to the doctor—doesn’t have money—so the hunger and exhaustion and fever make everything fuzzy in his brain and I’ve seen this kid a thousand times in the college students I teach today, here, in 2011. Same with Caleb Trask in East of Eden—everyone tells him he’s bad, so that’s what he thinks of himself. He can’t see the good that’s there, too, and it’s so, so, so REAL. How do you write that? How do you craft it? In the book Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, he goes on for like a gazillion pages about how obsessed Philip is with Mildred (which is totally crazy ‘cause she makes fun of his clubbed foot and calls him names and steals his money—total bitch, this girl) and finally it’s like, OKAY MAUGHAM. I GET IT. HE’S OBSESSED.WHY ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT THIS. But then my friend Lisa came over for dinner, and she’s dating this girl who doesn’t treat her particularly well, but she won’t break up with her, and this has been going on for months, and it’s all Lisa talks about and suddenly I was like MAUGHAM IS A GENIUS. Because it’s real. Because we do obsess over people who are bad for us. We go on and on, and this gets me thinking as to how much page time I spend on any given thing, and also what point of view do I best tell it from? You want to look at point of view, you look at Faulkner. Reading Light in August made me want to lie down on the floor and give up. I mean, for real, Faulkner. HOW DID YOU DO THAT? It’s third person, but goes off into italicized first person whenever we’re in a character’s head, but there’s this section right in the middle where we’re in those italics but the first person narrator just got knocked unconscious, so these aren’t his conscious thoughts we’re reading, but rather his subconscious mind? WTF, FAULKNER! And while I’m WTF’ing Faulkner (yeah, I just said that), it’s fascinating that he can go for nine pages without a period and it reads super, super, super sloooow, and then you’ve got someone like Hubert Selby Jr. in Last Exit to Brooklyn who’ll go for nine pages and it’s like a lightning bolt, I almost can’t keep up the pacing’s so damn fast. It has something to do with adjectives and adverbs, I think; Selby doesn’t much use them, and Faulkner’s got like twenty in every sentence!—I could go on. I love this shit. I geek out on it, like my sister Mary does with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or my Aunt Phyllis does with Nascar.
Why do life-altering events always happen at the Metro?
There’s such safety at a rock show: the anonymity, the darkness, the booze, the crowd—you can be anyone. You can try on different personalities and see if they work, and, at the same time, you’re not alone, because the music connects everyone. It’s really magical, if you think about it. A sweaty, sloppy, magical mess.
The worst feeling in the world is when the lights come up at the end of the night. Suddenly, everyone has to go back to who they really are.
In many of the stories, there’s this tight link between physical and emotional pain (the Hulk pummeling a lovelorn character under her bed or the Indestructible Lady pierced with knives and sobbing). Can you comment on that connection?
I think that connection is more a part of our day-to-day life than anything I came up with. Listen to what we say: “He hurt me.” “She ripped out my heart.” “I want to punch him in the face.” “You guys, I died. I’m serious, I died.” Our language even assigns the same verb for physical and emotional pain: I feel. It’s a part of our culture, I think, and from a literary standpoint, it’s back to that whole thing with assigning a concrete image to an abstract feeling or concept. Love in the Time of the Cholera, for example, compares lovesickness and cholera.
Also, I’ve had my heart broken once or twice. It fucking sucked, and took way longer to heal than the time I fractured my ankle.
Your characters experience tornado drills, being blockaded in their own bedroom, all kinds of natural and unnatural events. Which is more difficult: fiction or life? Or fictional life. Or life as fiction?
In fiction, you can edit out the boring parts, or at least make marching bands or tornadoes or tidal waves of lava appear to make things more interesting. I’m trying to apply that same principle to real life: edit out the boring parts. Or add a marching band.
Talking about my brain over at Writerhead (thanks, Kristin!).