Category: Interview

TCR Talks with Melissa Febos

by dein sofley

In her new memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos explores the legacy of her two fathers: her birth father, a Native American, with whom she reconnects over the course of the book, and the father who raised her, a sea captain.

Sections weave her quest together with moments taken from her childhood through escapist tendencies that manifested in sexual obsessions and a drug addiction in her young-adult years and into an obsessive love affair with a married woman that triggers Febos’ fear of abandonment. Historical tidbits expand the narration along with digressions into texts ranging from Homer and Jung to the film Labyrinth. The book confronts the legacy of addiction, the traumatic “legacy of abandonment, of erasure” that was Febos’ birthright, and considers the forces that command utter devotion that can both destroy and redeem us.

Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Whip Smart. Her essays have appeared in publications like Tin House, Granta, and the New York Times. She’s on the board of directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and teaches writing at Monmouth University and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She lives in Brooklyn.

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: When I first read the title of your memoir, Abandon Me, it seemed like a dare. What was your intent in choosing the title?

MELISSA FEBOS: The title came to me suddenly; it wasn’t something I considered with intent. Usually, a title is the last thing I add to a piece of writing, but with this book, it came to me before I’d written the book. I suppose there was a lot of intention in it, but not of my conscious, thinking mind. It felt like a message from the deeper regions of my intelligence and imagination. The dual meanings arrived more as an instruction for how to direct the book. The title suggests the place I hoped to arrive at by the end of the writing process, and indeed, it was. That is, I wanted to move—both within myself and within the book’s progression—from one definition of abandonment to another. Perhaps the dare that you felt was a dare I made to myself, an entreaty to transform abandonment from a fearsome thing to a sought thing, a thing one might demand, through the alchemy of writing. So, I think the title helped guide me in some ways, like a lighthouse or North Star.

TCR: Portions of your memoir appeared as essays in various publications before the book was published. Was the aim of your essays to amass a collection and create a memoir?

MF: No. For a while, I was simultaneously writing the essays and ruminating on this book (for which I already had a title, written on an index card and tacked on my wall). About four essays in, I realized that they were the book. There was some repetition in the essays that I thought would be redundant in a book (if I ever thought about it), though it turned out that part of the book’s work was to examine particular events from multiple perspectives, to highlight the prismatic nature of pivotal moments and the multiple narratives we can build around them. I still consider the book an essay collection more than a memoir—the pieces are discrete, especially in terms of form, though I do think they cohere into one complete thing.

TCR: In the book, you seamlessly mingle your ruminations with astronomy, psychology, mythology, history and analyses of pop culture. Ferdinand the Bull, Jung’s Red Book and the film Labyrinth figure prominently. Many of your references circle around and through the larger story, bending time and elucidating overarching themes. What was your process in writing, researching and incorporating such a broad range of outside sources that you assembled into a cohesive narrative?

MF: The integration of outside sources was an organic process, and not one that I planned. The process of writing is also that of thinking, for me. I don’t quite know what I think about a subject until I write about it. It’s difficult for me to “think” abstractly, difficult for me to progress through ideas. I have to materialize the process somehow, and writing does that best. This book is, among other things, a record of my contemplation of a set of experiences and ideas: different concepts of “love,” identity, addiction, attachment, abandonment, and so forth. I had some urgent questions that were prompted by my own choices, such as: How could a person so versed in psychology, with so many years of therapy and recovery under her belt, have gotten embroiled in such a harrowing and compulsive, such an “unhealthy” love affair? Or, why had I never been curious about my birth father until I was thirty-two? Why this lifelong tendency for self-erasure through substances, people, and even stories? And how had building narratives been a survival tool, and also a way to hide from truths I feared? Since childhood, I have looked to texts for answers to my biggest questions. Books have always felt easier to ask than people. Unlike people, I am not beholden to them. They have no reaction to my confidences. I can put them down or return to them at any point. And they are consistent, even if my interpretations change over time. The questions I needed to answer in this book were so vulnerable. I had a lot of shame about the choices I’d made, ways that I’d behaved toward other people and myself. So, I went to my texts. Most of the sources that I bring into Abandon Me are old confidants—books or films or thinkers that I’ve consulted for a long time. I did some, but not a lot of research into new sources for the book. If the incorporation of those texts didn’t feel germane to the story, I wouldn’t have included them. But because it was so much a story about seeking insight, it felt very natural.

TCR: In your memoir, you wrote that “Books were my obsession, but music more succinctly captured emotion than any combination of words I found.” Do you listen to music when you write? Are there certain artists or albums that you listen to, to evoke a certain era or emotions when you’re writing a given topic?

MF: I do. I almost always listen to music when I write. Usually, I’ll find a handful of songs whose emotional tenor really matches that of the piece I’m working on, and then I’ll listen to them over and over for the duration of writing it. Sometimes, for an important scene, I’ll just play one song on repeat while I write it. The music works as a kind of emotional metronome, and helps me stay focused on the feeling that I’d trying to nail. It also helps me to easily re-enter the piece, or the scene, on a different day, or on an airplane, or in a café or a waiting room. Music helps me create a private space that I can enter and work, no matter where I am.

TCR: As a writer, writing her life experience, how do you maintain the emotional distance required for you to sustain objectivity of your subject matter?

MF: Oh, I don’t think I do. Objectivity is a fantasy! No one is ever objective, least of all about themselves. And in a significant way, I didn’t have much emotional distance from my subject matter, either. One of the primary storylines in the book is that of an intense love affair, and I wrote the majority of the book while I was still in that relationship. I consider this now, in hindsight, and it shocks me a little. Because I, too, have talked about the importance of objectivity and emotional distance to my students, as surely your teachers have. But I also know that this was the only way for me to write this book.

I think part of what we mean when we say “objectivity” and “emotional distance” is simply that our perspective has changed in some fundamental way. And sometimes that change can happen very close to an experience. It keeps changing, yes. And I’m sure I could write the story of that relationship with a more layered perspective from a farther vantage point. But that is not the book I wrote. And it isn’t the story I wanted to tell, either. I wanted that story to be primarily concerned with the immediacy of it all—I wanted to capture the blistering heat of it, the madness, the small ways that I abandoned myself over and over until the only thing left in my life was her. In a pragmatic way, I needed to be close to the experience so that I could remember it. I have a terrible memory! I take notes on everything I might write about, because I so quickly forget.

More importantly, the story I wanted to tell was of the trance of that love, the elaborate illusion of it. And so, in retrospect it makes sense that I wrote much of it from inside that dream. Because once you leave an experience like that—which is essentially an altered state, a different kind of reality with its own laws and logic—it’s hard to understand or even quite remember what being under the spell felt like. I think it’d be much harder to write a convincing portrait of it. You know that scene in Labyrinth where Sarah eats the poison peach and goes to sleep and she’s in this beautiful dream about a masked ball, and she’s in a beautiful dress, dancing with David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King? And then she realizes that she’s dreaming and she smashes the mirrored wall with a chair and the whole beautiful scene flies into shards and no longer exists? Well, it’s like that. If you’ve ever been in an incredibly fucked up, addictive, myth-building, relationship, you’ll know exactly what I mean. And if you haven’t, well, I hope you escape that particular fate. I think I do, anyway. My point is, to free yourself from that dream, you really have to smash it. And once your denial is gone, it’s gone. You can never go back. It’s like any addiction. Once you look at the truth, you can’t un-see it. And the time when you lived in the dream seems unbelievable, your past self like a zombie whose logic you can’t fully enter any longer. The most accurate portrait of that time I could have written was from inside it, and so I’m glad I did. And there was a change in perspective, a dramatic one. I stopped writing the book for a few months and I lived it. And then I knew exactly how my book ended.

All of that said, I do think it helps a story to have access to a greater spectrum of understanding than is possible from inside an experience, or even shortly after it. The other half of Abandon Me, fortunately, is about my childhood. And it’s been a long time since then, so I had access to a greater range of insights, if not the same degree of detail that the more present timeline had. I’m not sure that either narrative thread would have worked alone. The childhood material was rich with reflection, but needed the immediacy and conflict of the love story to galvanize it. And the love story was relentless and vivid, but needed the insights that the childhood sections illuminated in it as anchors.

TCR: Jung posited a realm of the mind, sometimes conscious often not, called the shadow. He thought that the function of the shadow was to shut away thoughts, memories and feelings that we had forbidden to consciousness for one reason or another. My understanding is that all of BDSM involves explorations of parts of ourselves that we may have previously been aware of only in deep shadow, possibly buried beneath experiences of trauma and/or feelings of shame. From your experience as a dominatrix could what’s considered kinky merely be a desire to reunite with a part of ourselves that was lost in the shadow? Do you think that acting out sexual fantasies can provide another form of reclamation of forbidden feelings and foster healing?

MF: Yes. Though I don’t know if all BDSM involves that. I mean, insofar as everything we do does. I think we are always being driven by these shadow parts, often more so for their hiddenness. We fear them, and so avoid them, and so have little insight into the ways that they govern us. Freedom lies in facing them. So, I think any process that includes facing the parts of ourselves that we fear, or feel ashamed of, will be healing, will enlighten us. This is one of the reasons that I write. It is the primary way that I face my own shadow parts. It’s possible, even, to think of all human relationships as opportunities to do it. I love all of Jung’s writing about the shadow self, and to some degree think of my whole life as a long series of efforts to illuminate my own shadows. Through BDSM and my work as a dominatrix, the process of recovery, finding my birth father, and living through this painful relationship. I have often had to go to dark places to find those within me, to draw out their hidden parts. And writing is the way that I process those experiences, the way I come to understand their meaning.

TCR: In a New York Times interview you said, “So much of this book is about the prismatic experience of being seen, about how excruciating it is and how starved we are for it—especially those of us who have an instinct for secrecy.” The act of keeping secrets requires omission. Like the labyrinth that Sarah ultimately created to solve, as a child you used to take objects from your house, bury them in the yard and then hide the very elaborate maps you drew pinpointing the locations of your treasures. Do you think that the proclivity for secrecy is a necessary act of individuation that leads to the inevitable “discovery that we are irredeemably alone in certain respects…” as psychiatrist R. D. Laing once wrote? Might the secrets we keep map our own transformation?

MF: It’s so interesting that you describe the labyrinth as Sarah’s creation. That is essentially how I came to see it, as I wrote that essay, but I don’t think I ever say it so directly. I mean, that’s a long chain of things to think. I’m not sure that progression is always, or even often true. Secrecy is certainly a natural and important stage of development for children (Jung also writes a lot about this), but I’m not sure that it always leads to revelation of our aloneness. I’m not sure that’s even true for me. Secrecy was an acute form of aloneness, yes. I love the idea of our secrets mapping our own transformation, and I do return to my own early instincts for secrecy a lot in my work. My secrets have mapped my transformation, yes, though I am very secretive! I’m sure unsecretive people have other habits that can be traced to decode some foreshadowing of their transformations. Here is what I think: we do build our own labyrinths, or choose them. We find ways of surviving the catastrophes that life deals us, and those survival mechanisms often lead us into the labyrinth. Secrecy is among these, for me. Letting go of them has been a big part of finding my way out. And the terrible beast that I face in the center, that fuming minotaur, is always me.

TCR: Writing has provided a way for me to express the things I’m too scared or not yet ready to say out loud. How has publishing your secrets affected your personal relationships and your relationship to writing about your life experience?

MF: That is too big a question to answer here. Or rather, it is too big an answer. I would need your whole journal for that, and the next issue, too. I will say this: I, too, began writing because it felt like the safest place, the only safe place, to put words to some things. And finding that tool saved my life. I mean that literally. I think I would have overdosed, or been killed, or killed myself, or at least been consigned to live a kind of walking death, had I not found I way to whisper the truth to myself.

And publishing those truths has also saved me, in a different kind of way. It has brought me closer to other people. Strangers, sure, but more significantly, the people I love. It has forced a kind of honesty that I am rarely brave enough to attempt in any other way. Intimacy is born in this risk. To be seen, you have to be seen. It is that simple. It is a terrifying exchange. Or, it requires what often feels like a terrible risk, a risk whose stakes might break you. And I won’t soften it: there have been moments when I felt like it did break me, exposing my most frightening truths, my most vulnerable self, and the consequences of that. But it has been worth it, entirely. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If the cost of intimacy is brokenness, then I will pay it again and again. We don’t know our own resilience until we survive, again.

TCR: In your memoir you wrote, “Sometimes you have to break your own heart to mend it.” You also thanked Amaia for enabling you to see the importance of belonging to your story in your acknowledgements. Do you think that longing begets belonging? Could you please speak about your experience of breaking your own heart?

MF: I don’t think that longing begets belonging, necessarily. I wish that it did, for all our sake’s. But maybe I do think that healing your own heart necessitates breaking it. So much of our suffering springs out of attachment—all of it, the Buddha would say—out of our devotion to a particular ideal, the object of a lover, a self-conception, money. We worship so many things that aren’t real. We are always chasing the stories of our childhoods, trying to correct them. This striving, chasing, and longing is a kind of love, or resembles something we call love. And to be free of it, we have to let go of that love. We have to stop believing that our lover can save us, or complete us, or make us happy. We have to smash the precious ideas of self: our victimhood, our self-hatred, our resentments. We hold these things closer than many things we supposedly “love.” And I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that it breaks our heart to let them go. In many ways, Abandon Me is that story. It is a story about all the things I held precious, that I worshiped even when they poisoned me, or isolated me from others, or prevented me from belonging, that I had to let go so that I could be free. So that I could finally sit down inside my own story and inside myself and claim all of it, including the parts that I had rejected or feared or abandoned. That feeling of belonging? I had not known it before.

TCR: I once read that desire is life’s longing for itself. Your efforts in unraveling your identity through writing may include, as you wrote, the desire “to be known perfectly, as only a creator could know us.” After all of your struggles with various addiction, fearless self-searching, yielding to your feelings and scrutinizing over the details of your life, do you believe that it’s possible for any of us to be fully known?

MF: No. I don’t believe that we are knowable in a way that matches that particular desire. I don’t believe that the “self” is as solid a thing as we like to believe. Insofar as we can meet that desire to be known, to be unconditionally loved and seen, I think we must do so ourselves.



Dein Sofley teaches refugees English in the sanctuary city of Chicago. She earned her BA from Columbia College Chicago and is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction from UC Riverside’s low-residency program. Her work is forthcoming in Writers Resist

TCR Talks with Ragnar Jónasson

By David M. Olsen

On a recent visit to Reykjavik, Iceland, I found a great little bookstore in the downtown area. Eymundsson was a three-story establishment with a coffee shop on the third floor. I sought out the section by Icelandic authors and came across an impressive display for Ragnar Jónasson and his Dark Iceland Series. I knew that Nordic noir was very popular throughout the European zone, so I purchased a copy of Jónasson’s bestseller Snowblind. I read the first chapter that night, and tore through the rest of the book in a few days. Needless to say, it’s a gripping read. It tells the story of Ari Thor, a rookie police officer in an isolated Icelandic village investigating the mysterious death of a writer. After I finished it, I emailed Ragnar to see if he would be interested in doing an interview, expecting never to hear back. To my surprise, he responded, so I asked him a few questions about his books and his writing process over email.

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TCR talks with Zoe Zolbrod

BY tracy granzyk

Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir, The Telling, was published in May of 2016, and it will undoubtedly remain a “go to” book for both survivors and family members of those who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. In The Telling, Zolbrod comes to understand and accept the grey her own experiences have equated to within, while at the same time gives readers an example of how trauma and tragedy might be assimilated and used to empower one’s self. Especially poignant and game-changing in the memoir are her experiences as “Mama Bear”; a new parent with an immediate need to protect not only her children, but all kids from suffering the same experience she did. While Zolbrod never takes refuge in the title of victim, her honest pain exposes the depth to which she is still able to feel, never seeming to shut off and others out as a result of what was done to her.

As a writer, Zolbrod’s voice is both authoritative and accessible, and the narrative flows smoothly through different time periods of her life. She serves as both teacher of topic and craft by threading four Research Shows chapters within the story’s framework, allowing her to break off from the narrative, which she described during our conversation as a respite from the emotion inherent in diving back into such a painful experience. As a person, Zolbrod’s warmth and kind soul are what I was first drawn to during the interview that follows.

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TCR Talks with T. Greenwood

By Chih Wang

T. Greenwood’s new novel, The Golden Hour, is a beautiful, haunting mystery folded into the personal drama of a woman finding her artistic truth. When she was thirteen, Wyn took a shortcut through the woods on her way home. What happened there would send Robby Rousseau to jail and forever mark her as a cautionary tale to other girls. Twenty years later, living next door to her ex-husband, Wyn is unhappily painting generic landscapes to pay the bills when she learns that new DNA evidence might set Robby free.

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TCR Talks with Caroline Leavitt

By David Martinez

caroline-leavittCaroline Leavitt’s new novel Cruel Beautiful World is a stunning, heartbreaking book. Set against the background of the Manson murders, it tells the story of a young girl’s dangerous affair with her high-school teacher, and her family’s loss and grief. It winds its way down a path between longing and darkness, guilt and forgiveness, and leaves the reader breathless in the end.

Caroline Leavitt is a New York Times bestselling author with a long and impressive list of achievements. Her work has been translated into many different languages, and has appeared in a slew of magazines such as Salon, Psychology Today, Publisher’s Weekly, People, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She has been the recipient of the New York Foundation of the Arts Award for Fiction, was a 2003 Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellow Finalist, and a National Magazine Award nominee for personal essay. She teaches novel writing online at Stanford University and the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and lives in Hoboken, New Jersey with her husband.

cruel-beautiful-worldI got to email, and learn from, Leavitt about her recent book, her writing process, and the sometimes-thin line between fiction and nonfiction.

The Coachella Review: So, to start off, what was your process for writing Cruel Beautiful World? How did it go from an idea to the page, and how was the development once you started putting it down on the page? Did it change a lot from the original idea?

Caroline Leavitt: I always start with whatever is haunting me. I have been wanting to write this book since I was seventeen, when the girl who sat in front of me in study hall kept talking about her fiancé, who was much older and a “tad controlling.” A year out of high school, I heard that she was murdered by him when she decided she wanted to date other people. I was haunted. But I didn’t understand her, how she could have stayed with someone who had violence in him, how no one helped her. How could this have happened?

Then, ten years later, I got involved with a guy who was quietly and subtly controlling. When someone tells you something over and over in a loving voice, it’s hard not to believe that person, especially if he is talking to you in a rational way, as if it is for your benefit. I was only a hundred pounds but he felt I could be skinnier. He monitored my food until I was down to ninety-five pounds (and I still felt fat). He wouldn’t let me see my friends and he didn’t like me interacting with his. I was with him for two years and finally was able to break it off when he went into my computer without asking and deleted a whole chapter of my novel, replacing it with Groucho Marx jokes. When I protested that it was my work, he said quietly, “Listen, Caroline. This is the way it is with us. There is no You. There is no Me. There is only Us.” I suddenly understood my high school friend, and I began to write.

I wanted it set the in the years when the joy, peace and love of the sixties transformed into the violence of the 70s, when four kids were killed at Kent State for protesting the invasion of Cambodia, when Manson went on trial, when peaceful protest became violent. The cruel and beautiful world, so to speak. There was also the whole sense of what you saw was not really what you got. People in the 60s felt that if you had long hair and wore flannel shirts and talked about peace and love, why then, you were a hippie and one of them. But look at Charles Manson. Everyone thought at first that he was just a hippie, because he had the hair and the flannels, and he lived “back to the land” in a kind of commune. No one ever thought he and his members were killers. That’s why I put the Manson trial in as background music, sort of. Lucy keeps staring at the girls in the news. They’re beautiful, happy, smiling, madly in love with Charlie. But they’re also controlled. They are also willing killers.

Cruel Beautiful World changed a lot as I was writing. Suddenly, I found myself writing about my mother in the character of Iris, because my mother had actually bloomed in her nineties at an independent living place. The sibling relationship of Charlotte and Lucy became my own fractured relationship with my sister. We were best friends and so close that we were almost the same person—up until she turned twenty and then she became troubled. And I began to realize that I was very much Charlotte, always trying to fix my sister, to get her to have a better life—and instead, I was making things worse.

I think there were about twenty-eight revision of this novel!

TCR: What’s your process for writing your other books? 

CL: Every novel is different, and more challenging. I always feel that I have what I call “writers’ amnesia,” where I forget how to write a novel. I forget how hard it is. But I do always start with some question that haunts me, one that I hope the novel I’m writing will answer. How do you become part of a community when the community doesn’t want you? How do you care for another person without losing yourself? When do you know when to give up control?

Once I figure out that (I call it the moral question), I start mapping out where I want the characters to go. What is it they want and why? What’s at stake for them? What is the misconception they carry that actually keeps them from getting what they need—which is something different and more profound. What is the moment when all seems lost and they realize and heal this misconception?

I always have to know the end, and the beginning. Then I can find my middle.

I write what I call a writer’s synopsis. Thirty or forty pages that detail what is going to happen in the book, and then I show it to a story structure guru I know and he tears it apart. I try to boil it down to a solid skeleton, and then every other thing about the novel changes from draft to draft.

I also always have to have a great first chapter. That chapter tethers me to the book. When I am struggling in the middle of the novel and starting to think that I should not be a novelist at all, but maybe dental school is in my future, that first chapter calls me back. It says, “hey, you did this, and this is good. You can make the rest work, too.”

Then I sigh and go back to work.

TCR: What are you reading now, and what has been some of your inspirations?

CL: I am always reading about four books at once. Right now, I’m haunted by Dan Chaon’s Ill Will. He’s one of my favorite authors because he keeps getting darker, while still staying literary and I love that. I love to read novels where the author shows me something I’ve never seen before, where rules aren’t just broken, but smashed. I can’t tell you the name of another novel I’m loving now because I’m reviewing it right now, but it’s a debut where the author moves backwards and sideward through time, and reading it has been a revelation for me. It’s shown me what else can be done with writing!

John Irving always inspires me. He writes deep, moral fiction, and he takes chances. I have one of his quotes on my wall about writing that says, “If you don’t feel you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then what you’re writing probably isn’t very vital.  If you don’t feel that you are writing over your head, then why do it?” I loved that so much I tracked him down and wrote him a letter, and to my surprise, he wrote back. He said he had never said that quote (!) but he agreed with it.

TCR: Cruel Beautiful World deals with complex issues: sex between an adolescent girl and her high-school teacher, abuse, murder, and devastating loss. As a writer, how do you handle some of the heavier sections? Is it difficult to push yourself into some of those dark places?

CL: Sometimes it is cathartic, especially if I know the character is going to be okay in the end. Other times, when there is going to be no happy ending, it is so difficult, I don’t go to my desk because I’m terrified to write a scene. I dread going to that dark place and I have to tell myself, this is the writer’s job, to go to the places so other people don’t have to, to make it real, to tell the truth. I cried through a lot of places as I wrote. My editor, Andra Miller, kept telling me, go darker, go deeper, and then I’d have to go back and feel everything all over again. Writing this particular novel was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

TCR: I read the NPR piece where you talk about how this book was influenced and somewhat inspired by real events. I know that with my own writing I have some family and friends who don’t love the autobiographical and “real life” elements in my work. Is it difficult for you to make the transition from nonfiction events to fiction, and have you experienced any conflict with family and friends who may not love the almost nonfiction parts in your work?

CL: Oh, such a great question. Some people who knew the high school friend of mine were angry with me for writing the story, though it really wasn’t her story. They thought I was going to make her family and friends suffer more by having this all unearthed again. But I never mentioned her real name, and I was always careful to say that this isn’t her story—it jumpstarted from it. Plus, I loved her. I was deeply sympathetic to her once I understood her, and if that could help someone else from making the same mistake, that was a good thing.

It’s more difficult with my family. My mother, who inspired Iris, has dementia and she can’t read anymore, which brings me great sadness. I intended Iris to be a love letter to her. It’s incredibly painful that she can’t know or read my work or even understand the story, as she’s always been a champion of my work. But the sisterly relationship is more difficult. Like Charlotte, I spent most of my life adoring my sister and trying to fix whatever was wrong with her life. And she resented me deeply for it. I had to learn to let go, to let life wash over me and let her try to heal herself. I have told her the novel is part love letter to her, but she refuses to read it, which also brings me great pain.

Actually, I was sued with my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, because a family in Pittsburgh, where I was living, had the exact same names as my characters and the exact same situation, with a mentally ill daughter. I was furious that they thought I’d be dumb enough to use real names, plus I had no idea who they were, and the origins of my novel came from my relationship with my sister and with a mentally ill girl who lived down the block from me. I was really upset, and my publisher made me change two of the names!

I’ve found that people don’t recognize themselves, but often they think they are in a novel when they are not.

TCR: One of the aspects that I love is that you’re true to your characters. The book is in third person, but when it’s Lucy’s chapters it’s Lucy’s voice. When it’s Charlotte’s chapters it’s Charlotte’s voice. When it’s Iris’ chapters it’s Iris’ voice. Were these personalities fully formed before starting their lives on the paper, or did they develop more as you wrote? Was it a struggle to keep them straight, or did you find them overlapping from time to time?

CL: That is the best compliment ever. Thank you so much.

I have a method. My agent once told me to find photographs of people who I think look like my characters and paste them by my computer so we both are looking at one another all day long. At first, I thought that was a silly idea, but my agent is really brilliant, so I gave it a try, and I found that every day, being surrounded by the faces of my characters, they became more and more real to me. I just felt that I KNEW them. I knew the clothes they’d wear, I knew how they would think, what they were afraid of. It’s important not to have photos of celebrities or anyone smiling, but real people photos. People looking frightened or hopeful or sad. Works every time for me.

I also spend about six months before I start to really write getting to know everything I can about my characters, why they do what they do. Sometimes I have them write me letters in answer to a question, like, “Why are you pissed off?” And the words just flow. The characters take on their own life.

All of these characters are still totally alive to me. Sometimes I think I see them walking on the street and then my heart breaks because I want to call out to them, but I know I can’t.


David Martinez is a student at the UCR Low Residency MFA program, where he studies fiction and dabbles in poetry, nonfiction, and screenwriting. He has dual citizenship between Brazil and the United States, and has lived all over Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the United States. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

TCR talks with Bruce Bauman

Cover-Broken-SleepBy Heather Scott Partington

Bruce Bauman’s novel Broken Sleep is six hundred pages of madness. But it’s madness with intent. The author’s postmodern rock and roll saga takes on politics, art, and the idea of inheritance. Moses Teumer, a professor suffering from leukemia, goes looking for his real parents to find a bone marrow match. He discovers his mother, Salome Savant, was a young artist impregnated by a rumored Nazi; Salome was told after Moses’ birth that he was dead, while he was skirted away in a quick adoption. When Moses finds Salome, he also discovers he has a half-brother, Alchemy Savant, who is a star in the most famous band in the world, The Insatiables. But in a book where characters believe they can time-travel through their DNA, nothing is as simple as it seems.

Bauman, senior editor of the well-respected but recently defunct literary magazine Black Clock, is a professor for CalArts’ MFA and Critical Studies programs. His work in Broken Sleep is unlike anything I can remember reading. Its multi-layered plot, titles, character names, discography and puns operate on a level unlike most contemporary fiction. Bruce and I caught up recently by email after our panel at the LA Times Festival of Books (“Fiction: Finding a New Normal”).

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Lenney on Lenney: TCR talks with Dinah Lenney

By PAM MUnter

Dinah2A graduate of Yale and the Bennington Writing Seminars, Dinah Lenney also trained at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse School, home of the esteemed Sanford Meisner technique. Like writing, acting has taken her to myriad places—stage, screen and theater—allowing her to play a wide variety of roles.

Dinah has taught both acting and writing courses all over the country. She has also spoken at a TED conference at USC, a presentation integrating her interest in all the arts, “When Life Meets Art.” With Mary Lou Belli, she wrote Acting For Young Actors: The Ultimate Teen Guide.

And she has written two memoirs, the first (Bigger Than Life: A Murder, A Memoir) the story of her relationship with her father following his brutal murder. The second (The Object Parade: Essays) is a collection of autobiographical essays. More recently, she edited and contributed to a collection of flash essays, Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, with Judith Kitchen.

In between books, Dinah has written essays and reviews for literary journals, anthologies, and newspapers—both online and print. She is currently a Senior Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and have two grown children.

The Coachella Review: Let’s start at the top. Why did you start writing?

Dinah Lenney: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember—since I was a kid. I wrote to entertain myself and I wrote to let off steam—to figure things out—because if I didn’t write it down, whatever it was, I thought I’d burst. And that’s still why I write. I write, therefore I think, y’know? And not the other way around.

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TCR talks with Jacqueline Kolosov

By Joelyn Suarez

This interview accompanies Jacqueline Kolosov’s essay “Afterwards.”

Jackie & Marah profileJacqueline Kolosov is a widely published author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She has two YA novels out this year, and co-edited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. Her collection of essays, Motherhood, and the Places Between, is forthcoming. One of the essays included in the collection is the 2013 recipient of the prestigious Burns Archive Prize for Nonfiction in the Bellevue Literary Review. She also teaches in the Department of English at Texas Tech University.

Kolosov took the time to talk with The Coachella Review about everything from her intriguing versatility as a writer to reproductive technologies and the Syrian refugee crisis.

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“The Emotional Cactus”: TCR Talks with Tara Ison

by David Martinez
Tara Ison photo

Tara Ison’s work is a pleasure to discover, and her most recent book, Ball, a collection of short stories, is a great place to start. The sometimes strange, always intriguing stories will leave a reader reeling, pondering, and perhaps a little uneasy. In this collection, there is no character Ison is unwilling to follow and no area so dark she will not look.

Her novel Rockaway was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, as one of the “Best Books of Summer” in 2013. Her essay collection, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies was selected as Editor’s Choice in the Chicago Tribune. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Black Clock, The Rumpus, and a number of other reviews and anthologies. She also co-wrote the movie Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.

I’ve been a fan of Ison’s writing since I heard her read at a writer’s conference at Arizona State University, and was honored to be in a few of her classes as an undergraduate. Her classes were an oasis for me at the time, full of excerpts from The Elements of Style to The Big Lebowski, with explanations of how every character wants something. I remember her saying, “Even The Dude wants something. He just wants to get his rug, man. It really tied the room together.”

I sat down with Tara in a coffee shop to talk about her process as a writer and her most recent book.

The Coachella Review: First off, what are you reading?

Tara Ison: Oh, wow. Well, right now I’m in the middle of school. The semester just started. So, most of what I’m reading is prep for my classes and my students’ work. I don’t usually have the time to read for pleasure in the middle of the term. Although reading my student work is always a pleasure, and the class prep is pleasure, I’m reading those things analytically rather than immersing myself into the world of the text as a reader.

We’re going to be talking about Winesburg, Ohio next week, and there’s a Leo Tolstoy story that we’re going to be looking at. I’m dipping back into Charles Baxter’s essay on defamiliarization. I am assigning a piece from Jesus’ Son, of course, because I will always assign anything I can from Jesus’ Son. That’s what comes to mind, off the top of my head.

Oh! We’re also talking about the epistolary form in class right now, so there’s a great epistolary story by Ha Jin, and there’s another brilliant, very short, epistolary story by Amy Hempel. Both of which are amazing, so I’m revisiting them right now.

TCR: I’m also curious about your writing process. How do you sit down and do it?

TI: My writing process in one word would be avoidance. [Laughs] I’ll do anything to avoid writing. It’s such a love/hate relationship. And the hate of the process seems to have a stronger voice than the love of it. I have to shoulder past the hate in order to sit down, and if I sit down long enough the hate dissipates and the love takes over, and it takes me to the writing zone where it’s easiest to be about me and what I want and my ego, my thoughts, my feelings, and I become so immersed in what I’m doing that I disappear. I take all of my anxieties with me when I disappear.

So, the trick is just getting myself in the chair. That’s always the challenge for me. A deadline is the best possible part of the process. I don’t miss deadlines. The only other time there’s an ease of getting into the chair is when there is already something I’m working on that is speaking to me, calling to me. It’s after I’ve sort of gotten past that first hurdle of the blank screen, the blank page. It doesn’t happen all that often, but I’m thrilled when it does, when there is that sense of urgency that I have to get back because the characters have an urgency. If the characters are urgent about what they’re doing I feel an urgency to tell their story.

Ball cover photo

TCR: There are so many interesting characters in your new book, Ball. I read a few of the stories in different magazines before the book came out. “Multiple Choice” was in Black Clock, and “The Knitting Story” was in Tin House, and I know you’ve mentioned before that you wrote these stories over a long period of time. So, how did you decide to put together a collection of short stories?

TI: What’s interesting actually is those two stories, “The Knitting Story” and “Multiple Choice,” are the two most recent stories. They are also the two that are the most experimental in form; I tend to be very traditional in terms of form and structure, but I was really exploring something a little different in those two stories. So, maybe that’s a direction that I’m going in right now.

The other stories, yeah, they span about ten years—maybe twelve years. It really came about almost logistically. My publisher had just published Rockaway, a novel that I wrote that came out in 2013. We were talking about what the next project might be, and I found myself just throwing out there, “Well, I might have enough stories for a collection.” He said, “Great, let me take a look at it.” So it’s not a very interesting story how it came to be a collection. I scooped up the stories that I had written. I did look at it to see if it could form a collection. I did look to see if there was a unity in terms of theme, or, aesthetic. Something where I felt even if they were all coming at it from a very different approach and with a different style, they were still tapping into a similar aesthetic, a similar mood, and I think that they do. I think that, as different as some of them are from each other, they still are ultimately speaking to dark impressions that can no longer be controlled.

TCR: That’s one of the things I was going to talk about, or ask about. I notice how much the stores fit into the spaces of each other. So, part of that just happened to be that way? Did you look at all the stories together to think about the book as a whole, and make editing decisions from that?

TI: I didn’t go back and re-edit the stories. I might have changed a comma here or there, but they are basically the same form as they were when they were originally published. I think where that came in to play mostly was with the structure of the collection, and the sequence of the stories. That needed to have its own organic rhythm. They needed to relate to each other in a way so that someone reading through the book was their own journey.

I was very aware of the texture in how I sequenced the stories. For example, I did not want to begin the collection with “Ball,” the titular story—my personal favorite—because that story is one of the darker ones. It’s one of the more disturbed ones. It goes to a very, I think, frightening place. It did for me when I was writing it. Both sexually, but also in terms of what happens in the plot, which I don’t want to give away. I didn’t want that to be the first story in the collection, because I wanted a reader to ease into it. Frankly, I didn’t want to scare somebody off. So, “Cactus,” to me, felt like the right story in that for most of the story that is a much more conventional, traditional narrative. The darker elements sneak up on you. I think that initially the reader is grounded in a more tolerable or relatable kind of emotional struggle for the character. So, it eases in to the dysfunction, I think, in a more welcoming way. I didn’t want somebody to close the book on the first page and not read any more. But then, yeah, “Ball” comes second. I did also want the reader to know what they were in for if they were to read the rest of the book.

TCR: It’s a pretty good choice. I mean, I love “Ball,” it’s one of my favorite stories in here, but I could see somebody picking up this book book, if “Ball” were the first story, seeing “dog vagina,” and placing it right back on the shelf.

TI: [Laughs] Not everyone wants to read about a dog vagina, no, no.

Yeah, so even for the rest of the book I wanted to space out the ugliness and the darkness and the dysfunction and allow the little sorbet or sherbet moments in between some of the other darker narratives. I think it is like a multicourse meal, and you want to balance out the stronger flavors with the milder flavors. The heavier, richer course with the lighter, easier course. So, the meal has an overall structure as well. And that was very much in my mind as I was structuring the stories.

TCR: Speaking of “Cactus,” it’s a very desert story. The desert is a weird place for me. I’m not from here. I moved here from Florida. But the desert seems to creep up on me, and now influences my writing and a lot of things that I do. Does it have the same kind of feeling for you?

TI: I’m glad to hear you say that, because I wrote that story before moving here to the desert. I had never been to Joshua Tree when I wrote that story. All I knew of the desert was the occasional road trip outside of Los Angeles, you know, driving through San Bernardino. Probably driving through Arizona at some point. But I am not a desert person. It’s not my landscape, and I don’t feel it. So, if it captures some of that in that story, I’m delighted to hear it. My being a desert person, now that I live in Arizona, has been sort of forced upon me. And I fight it. Like I said, it’s not my landscape. It doesn’t speak to me. I’m not especially interested in the topography or landscape or world of the desert. It’s not my place. But I think for the book it works emotionally. I think it works psychologically. And the whole motif of the cactus. She’s an emotional cactus. She’s a spiritual cactus. I used that motif more because I was interested in a character who functioned like a cactus than I was in the desert landscape.

TCR: There’s a really interesting story behind “Ball,” how it came to be, how you published it, and the ending.

TI: Oh, right! The ending! Yeah, I do love that story, and I like telling students that story because it’s… I hope it’s a love story of some of the struggles that a writer has that aren’t writerly, that aren’t the struggles that you have at the desk. They’re the struggles that you have being a writer in the world.

I had written that story when I was a grad student at Bennington. My mentor at the time was Rick Moody. He liked the story very much, and the ending of the story is risky. It was a risk. He liked it so much that he suggested I send it to the editor at Tin House, and he put in a good word for me so that it wouldn’t get lost in the slush pile. I heard back from the editor at Tin House, who said, “I really like the story. Would you consider changing the ending?” I flipped out, got extremely anxious and upset, and had a dark night of the soul. I wound up getting in touch with Rick, saying what do I do? What do I do? Sounds like they’re interested in the story but also want to change the ending. Rick said, and I’m paraphrasing, “You know, editors know what they’re doing. They read millions of stories. They’re very often right, and they see things that the writer is unable to see, because the writer’s too close to the material. Sometimes the writer needs to trust the editor, listen to the editor, and do what the editor wants.” And there was a pause, and then he said, “Not this story.”

That meant a lot to me. He was basically saying no, you stick to your guns on this one. The whole point of the story is the ending, and if you take that away there’s no point to the story, which is how I felt. So I wrote this long email back to the editor at Tin House, this long apologetic, rambling letter saying I’m sorry. I would love to be in the magazine. I would love to do what you want, but I can’t change the ending to the story, and here’s why. I mean, it was so neurotic. I was being such a pain in the ass. Rule number one: do not make your writerly neuroses the problem of the editor—the problem of anybody. I still do it. Of course, I still do it all the time. He wrote back, very kind. He said, “No, no, no. I don’t want you to change the ending, but the senior editor and some of the other people in the room are nervous about it. I will keep fighting for it. I’ll do what I can.”

I think almost six months went by. I know it was at least four months, and he wrote me back and he said okay. “We’re in. We got it.” They put the story in, and I did not change the ending. Looking back, that was an example of a time when I did the right thing.

TCR: Tin House is a big deal, too.

TI: Yeah! And it was my first short story! It was my first published short story. I had already, at that time, written my first novel, A Child Out of Alcatraz. But I had never published a short story, and it was my first. So, yeah. It was a very big deal to figure out what to do about that.

TCR: You mostly write novels. You have a wonderful collection of essays that I loved, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies. And this is your first short-story collection. How different is it approaching a novel as opposed to a short story collection or collection of essays?

TI: I could see that this experience with this collection might be a little unusual, in that so many of the stories were written over such a length of time. Was it Henry James who said something like, “A novel is a big shaggy monster?” I might be misquoting him, but I agree with that. You’re driving down the dark road, you can only see the ten feet ahead of your spotlights. You’re wandering. It’s massive. It’s hairy. It’s shaggy. [Laughs]. It’s a monster, and you just have to keep the faith, and stick with it. The commitment that a novel requires is overwhelming.

A short story is different. In the midst of writing a short story, it’s every bit as immersive. I’m still lost in the story. But it’s the difference between driving through a park and driving through a national forest. It just feels like you can contain the beast. It feels more manageable. Even the moments of greatest despair, of being lost in the thicket of a short story, you know you’re not going to be wandering for years necessarily. And that in itself makes the going a little bit easier. It just feels more finite. You know that the edge of the woods is nearer, and it’s easier not to succumb to despair writing a short story than in writing a novel.

I felt that way also with the collection of essays, that sense of completion you feel when the short piece is done. Even though you’ve got another ten essays to write, you’ve scaled one mountain. You know you can scale a mountain. So you’ve got ten more mountains to scale, but you have that confidence of knowing that you’ve successfully completed one. I think that is very helpful in order to keep going. You don’t get that kind of satisfaction or encouragement from the process of writing a novel in the same way. Even if you’re talking about novels in chapters and completing chapters, it’s not the same. So, I loved the process of putting together an essay collection and a story collection, because they’re wonderful little bursts of fulfillment, and wonderful little bursts of feeling a sense of completion that you don’t get from a larger project.


David Martinez is a student at the UCR Low Residency MFA program, where he studies fiction and dabbles in poetry, nonfiction, and screenwriting. He has dual citizenship between Brazil and the United States, and has lived all over Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the United States. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona. David’s most recent work was published in Broken Pencil.

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