Tag: interview (Page 1 of 2)

TCR Talks with Rick Moody

BY SCOTT STEVENSON

Rick Moody, the award-winning author of The Ice Storm and Garden State, shares the true story of the first year of his second marriage in The Long Accomplishment: A Memoir of Hope and Struggle in Matrimony. A recovering alcoholic and sexual compulsive with a history of depression, Moody is also a man in love and the divorced father of a beloved little girl.

He emerges from a complicated past into a second marriage. This union is strengthened by confronting new challenges—miscarriages, the deaths of friends, and home invasions.

The Coachella Review: Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of The Long Accomplishment?

Rick Moody: It describes, more or less, the first twelve months of my marriage to visual artist Laurel Nakadate, and all of the things that happened to us in that year, many of them rather hard. Infertility treatments, lost pregnancies, suicide among friends, death, dementia among our parents, crimes committed against our persons and our property. It tries to arrive at a celebration of committed-ness, despite all the hardship.

TCR: You describe this year as your “annus horribilis.” Your first memoir, The Black Veil, was published 16 years after the events in that book. The Long Accomplishment was published a few years after the events. Why did you want to talk about this year now?

RM: It was less a question of wanting than I didn’t think I could write anything else. There was so much difficulty happening, and at such a velocity, that it sort of precluded my writing fiction for a while. I just didn’t have room in my head to write a novel, and I thought that writing about what was happening might help me achieve some understanding. Also, I thought that maybe I could help some other people going through similar things. Couples struggling with infertility, people who had gone through divorce (which is where the book starts, with the end of my first marriage), victims of crime, and so on.

TCR: Do your memories evolve through time? I feel memoirists struggle a lot with truth and memory. What truth about marriage in The Long Accomplishment do you feel will be immovable by time?

RM: I think memory is mixed up with desire, with despair, with culture, with history, with other people and their accounts, with photography, with what is written, and so on. It’s anything but pure. It’s like the reverberations that accompany a bell after the initial tolling has already taken place. It’s like what you hear after the applause has died down. Were I to rewrite The Black Veil, my first memoir, now, it would be a lot less heartbroken than it was when I started it in the late nineties. For example, I now look back on my hospitalization, in my twenties, as a great gift. The Long Accomplishment doesn’t need to be a definitive account, the only account, or anything else. It’s just a record of where I was when I wrote it. I hope the result might be a little moving, and perhaps offer an audience the chance to care about the hardship of others, especially couples trying to conceive.

TCR: Do you really think you’ll look back ten or twenty years from now and still see it as an annus horribilis?

RM: I don’t know, really. I’m not the greatest forecaster. (In 2015, I wrote that Donald Trump would never be president.) I feel like forecasting is not a terribly effective use of my observational capacities. But I don’t think it matters what I think of the year in question. I will probably be somewhere quite different (at age 78), and not thinking about 2013-2014 in great detail. But I will say this: home invasion and grand larceny afflicted on one’s property is pretty memorable, pretty traumatic, and pretty hard to shake. I know Laurel, my wife, has not shaken it, and I don’t expect I will shake it too easily. One can go back into the thrall of that particular sequence of our story and still feel the wound as pretty fresh. If that is the anchor store for the mall of our annus horribilis, it is liable to still be anchoring in 2040.

TCR: You write about teaching Heinrich von Kleist at NYU. You write, “In Kleist, it’s more that events take place, disassociatively, and we are at their mercy. We, the readers, impose an interpretation of events, even though their sequence is contestable, and thus it was Kleist, as you can see, all around us.” Can you talk more about Kleist and if he influenced your writing in The Long Accomplishment?

RM: Kleist was not a particular influence, so much as a tonal flavor, because I taught him that year under scrutiny in the book. But the way sequence, order of events, works in Kleist is of great interest to me. He leaves events to happen without the excess plotting that one associates, for example, with the century that followed him. You can imagine Susan Sontag liking the work, because it resists being emblematic, it resists a symbolic field. It sort of wants to say exactly what is says, and no more, in a kind of materialism, and that is maybe what’s Enlightenment about Kleist and his considerable achievements. In The Long Accomplishment, I was trying to make a similar case, that amassing the annus horribilis, making it into some kind of fated-ness, some moral tale (though at various times during the years I felt that that was exactly what it was), was to misunderstand what the present is. The present is a new roll of the dice. A new set of possibilities. And while the past leads to it, the present is also free, in a way. There is a liberation here, and trying to reach that place of liberation is a worthy task.

TCR: Your wife Laurel is a photographer. You write that she has terabytes of pictures. What drives Laurel’s interest in photography? Do you think we take pictures because we’re afraid of forgetting or not getting the details right for a memory?

RM: Laurel’s photographs are a lot bigger than a mnemonic exercise, more complex, more various, more performance-oriented. And what she likes as a person who loves photography is less the documentary, except insofar as the documentary is full of feeling. She is interested in how the photograph speaks to human emotions and consciousness, I think. Like a writer, almost. Laurel’s father and brother are both writers, and she’s married to a writer, and she took a lot of writing classes when younger, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and I think some of what she likes about visual art has to do with a first-rate education as a writer. And while the preservation aspect of photography, the Instagram image culture aspect, is a register that she notes and has worked with and against, it is less about forgetting, and more about getting at what we’re feeling. I’m putting words in her mouth, here, and don’t mean to, but this is, I guess, what she might say about it all.

TCR: The next thing I want to talk about is your relationship with death in this book. Your friends M.J. and Maggie Estep pass away. Your daughter’s friend Stella tragically dies. One of the most affecting moments is when the twin embryos of your sons are “reabsorbed into the first spark of the universe, to be reclaimed at a later date.” You write this year had “a sort of accretion of losses that no one should have in one year,” and it did not seem possible for you and Laurel to move on after her DNC. Does writing about these losses help you grieve?

RM: This is a subject that I think about a lot and have always thought about a lot. For a time I thought about it without having that much experience with it, or only the experience that one has according to the explicable march of time. But then death came calling with greater frequency, and in a more unpredictable and implacable way. It seems to me the knowledge of death, and its influence over who we are and how we are is the greatest question to address in art and literature. The fact of non-being in the midst of being. It is less, I suppose, that writing helps than that writing can be a fact of grief, a thing to do while grieving. For me it is, and maybe this is simply because I am a writer. I don’t see The Long Accomplishment as scripto-therapeutic, in that it has that single confessional purpose, but I do see language as a way, a very beautiful way, to leave behind some accurate impressions. It puts the being in being.

TCR: You are open about your Christian faith. What did you learn about your own life and your relationship with your faith through these losses?

RM: As I say in the book, my practice of faith is mostly about community, and not at all about doctrine, nor about paving some way for the afterlife. Faith is a thing to do here and now to try to describe what being alive is for, and what you might do with it, in the short time you are here. I don’t really care, at all, whether Christ’s body was physically raised from the dead, or if it was his spirit. I think his resurrection can be wholly symbolic and still be immensely powerful. I like all of the possible interpretations, or most of the possible interpretations, and I like the noise of them all at once. I like Christianity as a text, and especially I like those stripes of Protestantism that encourage you to make your own interpretations, and which eliminate layers of hierarchy between you, the faithful person, and the divine. My idea of it right now is sort of Franciscan, that the best thing is to be in touch with what animates, and to feel that closeness, and to live, morally, because that’s what inevitably happens, moral vision, in the becoming-close with the divine. Does this help with loss? What helps, maybe, is the idea that you are not alone in loss, that there is no question of aloneness. This is one reason why I have written at some length about Lazarus of Bethany, and Christ’s part in the story of Lazarus of Bethany. Jesus of Nazareth wept over Lazarus, and felt the loss, and was undone, and then he brought back his friend. He indicates what grief feels like, and is a co-sufferer, and that is an indication of what the community of faith might do for the people who grieve.

TCR: You talk about the Dante reading group with M.J. She’s one of your friends who dies during the year you write about in your memoir. You support her writing, and she appears to be jealous of your success during the course of your relationship. The passage you reference in Purgatorio is where the eyes of the envious are sewn shut, “because they cannot rightly see what is in front of them.” Then, you write, “Was the ’stitched shut‘ quality more an aspect of my character? Or more M.J.’s?” That question surprised me. Can you talk a little about your relationship with M.J. and why either of you may have been blind to what was right in front of you?

RM: My sense, and I am a person with a history of mental illness myself, is that character always has blindness attached to it. You can’t see all of yourself, physically and mentally, and that blindness is important, even essential, to who you are. You are always blind to some aspect of character and consciousness. I know I am. I think of myself as being very fully examined (for example: in twenty-five years of psychotherapy), but part of my examination suggests that low-level delusion is always taking place whether I want it to or not. What I was trying to suggest about M.J. was that even though it seemed obvious that she was suffering with a very serious illness of some kind—the symptoms were pretty classical and not hard to miss—there are also limitations as regards the observation of these things. Subjectivity is a thing not to be ignored in a narration of mental illness. Subjectivity is a thing to be prized, with all of its error messages and low-level delusions inborne. M.J. was a person I cared about, and my caring made me, in some ways, an ineffective helper when she most needed it. Frankly, it’s still painful for me, thinking about it. But at least in talking about her I can try to do what Jesus of Nazareth did for Lazarus—he wept and then raised up his friend from the beyond.

TCR: This is your second marriage, and Hazel is your daughter from your first marriage. What were both wives’ reaction to this book? Do they remember events differently?

RM: I don’t know the reaction of my first wife. I didn’t ask. And I’m not sure she read the book, nor took an interest, and who can blame her for that? Laurel was very fully integrated into the process of The Long Accomplishment, and the book is better for her having participated. Some memories, where I couldn’t remember, are hers. It should be understood that she will perhaps make a book or a project in her own way that touches on some of these events or similar events, and in no way did I imagine my version was comprehensive and stood for us both. Our influence across platforms is pretty significant. She had room to make deletions and amendments and recalibrations in my book, with the implicit agreement being that I did this in words, and then later she could do it in photos, films, performances, or however it appealed to her. This, therefore, is only one part of a larger multi-media grieving act produced by the entire team. (And if you want to see Laurel speak to grief, follow her current “reperformance” of her 2010 performance piece, 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, which is happening on Instagram as we speak, one day at a time, at @365_tears.)

TCR: Finally, because you write about music, I can’t resist asking, what new music are you excited about for 2020 and the next decade?

RM: I don’t really listen to much popular music, unless it makes a huge impact. (For some reason I think that song by Sia called “Chandelier” is really, really good.) That said, I really have admired Nick Cave’s recent Ghosteen. I am excited about Mia Doi Todd’s new album. I think Mark Mulcahy’s recent work, The Gus, is a masterpiece. I greatly admire the recent album by The Schramms called Omnidirectional. The new singles by Sparks, “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World,” is perhaps the single best song about climate grief I have heard recently. I love the two recent albums that David Garland, much afflicted with the recent loss of his wife, did with his son under the name The Garlands, Vulneraries I & II. I think Matana Roberts is a genius and can do no wrong. I think Sunn O))) has stealthily become one of the most important serious music ensembles I know of. I really like the 12K label, and just about everything that Taylor Deupree does. I also really like the sort of orthodox minimalism of the Irritable Hedgehog label, and its great collection of performances by R. Andrew Lee.  I also really like Death Grips. Ed Palermo is the greatest contemporary arranger.


Scott Stevenson is pursuing his MFA in Nonfiction at UCR Palm Desert and spends the rest of his time steeped in the advertising world of Hollywood delivering the commercials and trailers you can’t skip on the internet or on your mobile device. He loves to explore Southern California. There is always an unchartered neighborhood with an interesting history waiting to be discovered in the City of Angels. It helps if there’s a bar or coffee shop or both located there. He was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, a flyover city for helicopters smuggling cocaine from South America in the 1980s. He recommends watching Cocaine Cowboys to understand his native state. @scotterson on Instagram

TCR Talks with Rene Denfeld

BY FELICITY LANDA

The Butterfly Girl is Rene Denfeld’s second novel in the world of Naomi Cottle, a private investigator who is drawn to cases of missing children. Naomi’s knack for finding these children has earned her the name “The Child Finder,” but her need to pursue them stems from the one cold case in her own life: the missing sister she left behind when she herself escaped captivity as a child. When Naomi sets aside her work to finally find her sister, she meets Celia, a lonely homeless child abandoned to the streets. Celia is running from her abusive stepfather and hiding amongst butterflies, her imagined guardians and the only place she feels safe. Naomi and Celia continue to collide throughout a shocking series of events in Naomi’s search.

Denfeld’s own experience as a homeless teen has led to an incredible life of advocacy, from her career as a public defender helping victims of trafficking, to her life as a foster mother of twenty years. Denfeld is no stranger to the hardships of abandoned children, and she cares for her characters as fiercely as she cares for those off the page who turn to her for aid.

Denfeld has written a tense, page-turning, crime novel that leaves readers feeling connected to her characters and their stories in an intimate way. Naomi and Celia dig through their haunted pasts, even while they uncover the truth of the present. The Butterfly Girl is a book that lingers, alive with hope as much as it is streaked in sorrow. Denfeld and I spoke about the importance of how we fictionalize trauma, the way she discovers her stories, and the beautiful and inspiring life she has led that motivates her writing.

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: The honesty with which you write about sexual trauma and childhood pain is beautiful and harrowing. I admire the way it’s extremely clear in your books that even though the pain is in novel form, it echoes a reality that exists all around us. You also mention in your interview with Psychology Today the importance of protecting the dignity of these children by not including anything graphic or modeling the abuse after any real people. How do you find the balance of staying behind that line, while reflecting the honesty and reality of abuse?

RENE DENFELD: Our culture rewards writers who exploit trauma, especially sexual violence. It is more acceptable to make rape into entertainment than to capture the gravity of the offense. Personally, I don’t like graphic work. A single, well-placed line can say more than paragraphs of explicit degradation.

Even fictional victims deserve respect and dignity. My approach is to imagine I am showing the fictional victim the pages of my work and asking how they feel about how I presented their trauma. I want them to feel respected, just like I would want my trauma to be respected. As writers, I think we have to be honest with ourselves about why we are writing about trauma. If you are using rape as a trope, if it is to advance your plot, then perhaps reconsider. Your story doesn’t need my pain to advance.

All too often writers reach for tropes to describe those who commit harm, too. Want a bad guy? Make him an ex-foster kid. Or say he grew up with a single mom. Or paint him as a brilliant sociopath. That’s a common trope that completely ignores rape culture and how such men are made. It may feel easier to write violence as happening outside ourselves, but by othering offenders we other victims too. I think it is more interesting to write about violence in terms of how and why it actually occurs. That means wrestling with some tough stuff. That means looking at our collective responsibility to each other.

 TCR: There has been some debate going on recently about fictionalizing our own trauma, although we know many writers do this. Do you feel that fiction has been a form to express some of what you’ve been through? In doing so, have you been able to see your own experiences in a different way?

RD: I love that these conversations are happening. I am eager to learn more from others, too. I’ve written non-fiction essays about my trauma history, including essays about how my stepdad was a registered predatory sex offender. But I’ve found the most healing through writing fiction. Perhaps for me it is a way of controlling the story. Fiction can give us a power, and the power is in controlling the story. I think that is compelling. As victims we often feel powerless. But writing is a form of power, and for me, at least, fiction is very powerful. I get to create the story I want, with the outcome I want.

TCR: T. Kira Madden speaks about the idea of writing being more than just catharsis for trauma in her essay “Against Catharsis” in Lit Hub. She says, “Art is a superpower that allows creator and consumer to be in dialogue regardless of circumstance or logistics or miles, a shared experience, a third plane found when two people meet by seeing one another through the page.” I’m curious about your thoughts on writing as catharsis, and how that differs between writing essays about your life verses fiction that deals in similar plains.

RD: I grew up feeling I didn’t have a right to exist. Putting words on paper is an act of courage for me, because it says I have the right to exist. In our society we like to vanish people. We disappear them into prisons, into poverty, into foster care, into homelessness and addictions. We tell people like me that we are broken forever.

The power of creativity, too, has been seen as the property of the wealthy. But poor people have the right to create too. We have a right to whimsy, joy, magic, and the power of story. When we write our stories we are creating artifacts. We are creating testimonies that cannot be erased. A story can be a safe place for both writer and reader. It is a place to explore what haunts us. People find themselves in story. Everyone has a book they say saved their lives. So, it is a form of connection with others too.

Also, I’m a bit skeptical at the idea of catharsis. Experiences aren’t things that we can just get rid of. It’s not like getting food poisoning and vomiting and poof you get better. Instead of a catharsis model perhaps we need a greater understanding of how we process experiences, and how writing can play a role in that. Writing about something doesn’t make it go away. What it does is bring it closer, so we can learn from it.

TCR: In your essay in Crime Reads, you say, “Writing The Butterfly Girl felt radical. It shouldn’t feel radical to depict homeless children as existing, or mattering, but few books do. Instead kids like myself are used as plot devices, to be thrown away on the page as we are in real life.” Your books don’t feel as though they are written with an agenda, but they do feel radical in many ways. Do you see your writing as a form of advocacy? In what ways?

RD: It’s sad that it is radical to write homeless people as human beings, isn’t it? It shouldn’t be the case but it is. I was homeless myself. Rarely have I seen realistic depictions of homeless children in novels. I wanted to remedy that.

I think all books are political. If you have a book where everyone is white and racism doesn’t even exist, isn’t that erasure of the truth itself political? There are popular crime books set in these absolute fantasy worlds where police are never racist, false convictions don’t exist, mass incarceration is not a problem, and rape kits never go untested. I mean, what kind of crazy propaganda is that? I’ve worked as a licensed investigator for over ten years, including working death row exonerations, and I can vouch such books are political, too. They are just covert. They want us to believe the system is working.

TCR: You’ve written a fair amount about your experiences as a foster and adoptive mom. What do you want your readers to know about the foster care system, and what advice would you give to anyone considering fostering?

RD: I waited twenty years before writing about my kids, because I wanted them to be grown and give permission. I still try to not share personal details of their history. I run everything by them first. Those are their stories to tell. I choose to foster and adopt because it felt right to me. I am profoundly lucky. Being part of someone else’s healing journey is a big honor.

TCR: The character of Celia is so beautifully contrasted with Naomi, in their fierceness and deep love for their sisters. How did you go about crafting Celia as a counterpart to Naomi, who was already a fully developed character coming into this novel?

RD: I don’t sit down and plot out my characters. I feel my way into them. I get to know them. Both Naomi and Celia did everything they were supposed to and got punished for it. Celia did what girls are supposed to do. She told the truth about her stepdad. But only a tiny percentage of rape reports result in arrest, and of those, even fewer result in convictions. So, Celia ended up homeless, as I did. Naomi escaped, only to lose her sister for her courage. To me her story is symbolic for how women can be scapegoated for telling the truth.

A lot of books deal with trauma. But usually they stop with the arrest of the offender. I want to deal with the after. I want to show how we can heal and recover, and all the challenges of that. We all experience trauma in some form. Life can still be wondrous in the after.

TCR: The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl both have mystery and suspense built into the core of the story. When you wrote them, were you writing to an end that you already knew, or were you discovering the plot as you wrote?

RD: I always know the beginning, middle, and end. The rest of the story is a process of discovery. I find it very exciting. I love writing as much as I love reading. I get to be inside the story, watching it unfold.

TCR: What initially drew you to the symbol of butterflies? What do you interpret in Celia’s obsession and how the butterflies relate to her experiences?

RD: I survived trauma by escaping into a world of imagination. I think a lot of us do. We talk about resiliency, but I think we should talk about imagination. A person with an imagination has hope. They can imagine a different future. Imagination can bring us solace, comfort, and a vision of ourselves. We can tell a new story of who we are.

A homeless child is still, at heart, a child. When I lived on the streets I was still a child. Celia believes in butterflies. For her they represent a path through the darkness, the cocooning of trauma, and the metamorphosis to her future self. Celia wants to believe she can be beautiful too. I am here to tell her she already is. You are, and so I am.

TCR: Do you plan to return to Naomi’s world in the future? Or do you see yourself moving on to other projects?

RD: Right now I am writing something new. I can’t wait to share with you. It is inspired by my work with innocents and in prisons.

TCR: I’m looking forward to reading! What do you hope your readers are finding in the pages of your books, whether they can relate personally to your characters or not? Do you hope to inspire more advocates, raise awareness, or simply to connect on an emotional level to your readers and fans?

RD: I want to share the magic of story. I think readers and writers are part of a whole. Stories are nature’s honesty. They tell us that we are all equals in this world.


Felicity Landa holds an MFA from UC Riverside Palm Desert, and is a graduate of the Cal State Long Beach Creative Writing program, where she earned the Horn Scholarship for her fiction. Her work has appeared in Raising Mothers, The Sunlight Press, Capulet Mag, and elsewhere. She currently serves as a fiction editor for the online literary magazine Literary Mama and was previously nonfiction editor for The Coachella Review. To learn more please visit www.felicitylanda.com.

Related Post: Laurie Rockenbeck’s Book Review: The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld

TCR Talks with Rachel DeWoskin

By Gina Frangello

The versatile writer and former actress Rachel DeWoskin—a member of my Chicago writing group since we were set up on a “blind friendship date” by our mutual close friend Emily Rapp Black—was born in Kyoto and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After studying English and Chinese at Columbia University, DeWoskin moved to Beijing to work as a public-relations consultant and ended up all but accidentally becoming a Chinese TV star and sex symbol on the blockbuster nighttime soap opera Foreign Babes in Beijing, which was watched by approximately 600 million viewers. Following this heady and surreal experience, DeWoskin returned to the United States in 1999 and returned to her first love—literature—earning a master’s degree in poetry from Boston University. Her memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China, was published by W.W. Norton in 2005; Paramount Pictures purchased film rights and the project is currently in production. DeWoskin has since become the author of five novels: Big Girl Small (FSG 2011) Repeat After Me (Overlook 2009), Blind (Penguin 2014), Some Day We Will Fly (Viking 2019) and Banshee (Dottir 2019). DeWoskin, whose mannerisms are gracious and intense in equal measure, is, in addition to her writing, a devoted mother of two, married to the playwright Zayd Dohrn, a morning exerciser, a fierce friend, and the core creative writing faculty at the prestigious University of Chicago. Who better to dissect the complications and contradictions of a woman, like Banshee’s Samantha Baxter, who “has it all” than DeWoskin, who is both extraordinarily productive while leading an intimate family life?

It was my pleasure to discuss Banshee with Rachel over an email exchange conducted while we were both traveling like maniacs over the summer. Further, as a breast cancer survivor myself, the publication of Banshee feels watershed to me. Transcending facile “sick lit” portrayals of virtuous heroines and “feminist outlaw” labels that eschew serious examinations of women’s own culpability, DeWoskin presents instead a ferocious, lyrical, highly skilled tightrope walk of one woman’s simultaneous emotional disintegration and sexual awakening in the face of a dehumanizing medical industrial complex and a lifetime of seeing male colleagues “getting away” with behavior she would never have considered prior to staring her mortality in the face. What results is one of the most complex, morally ambiguous and intimate stories of body and women’s (still) societally sanctioned roles I have read in recent years. It was my great honor to read and blurb Banshee prior to its publication, and it’s even more exciting to share my conversation with Rachel DeWoskin with TCR readers.

–Gina Frangello 

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TCR Talks With Lyz Lenz

By Leanne Phillips

Author Lyz Lenz’s marriage ended after the 2016 presidential election. Lenz voted for Hillary Clinton, and her husband voted for Donald Trump, and although this wasn’t the reason for the divorce, it was a catalyst after years of signs that Lenz and her husband were different people.

Lenz’s first book, God Land,[1] is part investigative journalism and part memoir. A resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Lenz writes about Middle America and how it is changing, particularly with respect to faith and church. At the same time, the book tells the story of Lenz’s life after divorce and her own journey as a feminist and a woman of faith.

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TCR Talks with Tim Murphy

By Scott Stevenson

Tim Murphy is the author of the novel, Christodora, longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal.  It was also named a Best Book of the Year by The Guardian and an Amazon Editors’ Top 100 Books of the Year.  As a journalist, he has reported on HIV/AIDS for twenty years.

Correspondents is his follow-up to Christodora and was an Amazon Best Book in May 2019.

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TCR Talks With Michele Filgate

By: Felicity Landa

Shortly after Michele Filgate’s deeply personal essay about her relationship with her mother was published on Longreads, it went viral. “Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them,” she begins in her poignant and moving piece. In her essay, Filgate breaks her silence to tell the story of why her relationship with her mother is so painful.

“I wrote this essay because I felt like we couldn’t have this conversation in real life,” she tells me during our interview. In doing so, Filgate unearthed a community of people who also had stories about all the things they couldn’t talk about with their mothers. “Knowing that something can speak to a stranger and make them feel less alone, and really resonate with them—that’s the power of words,” she says. The overwhelming response to Filgate’s words gave her the idea to compile an anthology named for her original essay: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.

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TCR Talks with Maggie Nelson

BY: Aimee Carrillo Rowe and Juniper

Maggie Nelson’s writing resists reification. She attends to what she calls the “multitude of possible uses, possible contexts” of words, creates shifting frames of reference, and defies genre with works that are part poetry and autobiography, theory and criticism. Readers are drawn to the suspended quality of Nelson’s writing, to the agency it provides the reader to question meaning.

Nelson has published nine books, offering intimate narrations of the personal that uncover questions of theory. Jane, The Red Parts, and The Art of Cruelty make up a three-book meditation on violence that opens with her aunt’s murder. Her cult favorite Bluets consists of 240 numbered prose poems that tell a non-linear narrative of recovery from romantic loss while caring for a friend made quadriplegic in an accident. Throughout, she muses on the color blue to reveal the inextricability of heartbreak and desire, love and grief, and the role of art in mediating dualisms. Most recent is Nelson’s The Argonauts, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, her story of becoming a mother with a trans partner. The book challenges normative notions of the family while refusing to trap queerness under a banner of knowability.

Nelson has earned numerous accolades, including a MacArthur Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Nonfiction. She works as a professor of English at the University of Southern California. The Coachella Review had the great privilege of interviewing Nelson on the craft of writing discourse that is multivalent, in which unknowing is beautiful, for in it there is “infinite conversation, an endless becoming.”

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: “My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.” Can you describe how you edit yourself into boldness? What does this feel like in your body?

MAGGIE NELSON: It feels like sitting in a chair and running down a sharp pencil! The beauty of writing is that you don’t have to take something like boldness head on. You just keep making better sentences, eliminating dross and cant, and you get there.

TCR: That’s interesting, because our next question may be related, conceptually, for you. We were thinking of the way José Muñoz imagines queer utopia, à la Bloch, as an astonishment at the mundane and wondered whether your preoccupation with the color blue in Bluets works, in part, as a practice in astonishment? Or is astonishment only something that can result sentence by sentence, like boldness?

MN: Right, I don’t think astonishment is something you can hunt down directly. As Bluets says, such demands are murderous to beauty. If you practice the art of paying close attention, astonishment can be a side effect. But it’s the attention that matters, and that comes first.

TCR: If the stanzas in Bluets were rearranged, would the narrative remain equally true?

MN: Well, it’s not a collage. It builds. I don’t write for truth per se—I don’t know what true means exactly—but certainly it wouldn’t be the same book, in which case whatever truth value or truth effects it achieves right now would be lost or changed.

TCR: ‘I’m not on my way anywhere,’” Harry sometimes tells inquirers. “How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?” What is at stake in going nowhere or writing against or without teleology—without a need to accomplish, complete, or even move forward under a logic of progress? Have you gone up against any strictures around time in the publishing industry? Without being on the way anywhere, how does a writer know when a project is finished?

MN: I don’t think there really are big strictures around time from the literary publishing industry, not such as there are for journalists writing for deadline. In my experience, most everyone bragging about having missed a deadline and being in trouble with their publisher etc. is stretching the truth a bit, in an effort to make their work sound more desperately needed and awaited than it is. Perhaps that fantasy is what keeps them working. Baldwin had it otherwise, conjecturing that “it is only because the world looks on [the artist’s] talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.” That’s more my POV. Also, one can move forward without teleology—arguably that’s how the entirety of the universe, including life on earth, evolves. You can evolve without teleology; even Darwin said so. That said, every artist usually feels the need to “resolve” a piece—you want to make it better, as best as it can be, until it’s time to finish or abandon it. This, in my experience, is a very nose to the grindstone activity, not really hospitable to disruption by more macro concerns. It takes the time it takes.

TCR: You’ve said, “I have never really thought of myself as a ‘creative person’—writing is my only talent, and writing has always felt more clarifying than creative to me.” Do you consider this “clarifying,” in part, as a form of archiving queer culture or is your intention limited to the personal?

MN: I’m realizing that I’m not really addressing some of the nuances here about queer culture, and that’s because the word “queer” isn’t one I myself use very much, at least not in the way you’re using it here. I’m not against using it this way, but it’s just not native to me. I prefer a relationship to it that’s more skeptical and flickering than clarifying, ever unsure about what it means, rather than using it as if it’s a knowable adjective, noun, or verb. This is especially so these days, as the word’s connotation has changed quite a bit from when “queer theory” first ascended, with all its confidence about queering everything it touched, and knowing what that would mean.

TCR: You used to live in New York City and now live and teach in Los Angeles. New Yorkers and Angelenos notoriously love to compare the two cities. Does the feeling of a place—L.A., New York—animate your writing process?

MN: I left New York when I was 33, so it’s hard to know now what about my writing process there had to do with youth and what had to do with New York. Certainly in L.A. I’ve had the time and space to spread out, and I’ve moved primarily into longform nonfiction since I’ve lived here, and away from poetry. Poetry was the social and linguistic glue of my life in New York. I don’t have that here, but I have other things. Big sprawling thoughts and reams of sentences. I like it okay.

TCR: You take the title, The Argonauts, from a Roland Barthes’ passage: “‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’” In the final acknowledgement addressed to Harry you say: “Thank you for showing me what a nuptial might be—an infinite conversation, an endless becoming.” In your exploration of the boundaries of literature, what is the role of renewal and how do we create literature and theory that acts as dialogue rather than declaration? How can memoir explore the boundaries between people?

MN: I tend to think that all literature is dialogue, even that which announces itself as declaration. I also believe in being an emancipated reader, who doesn’t feel overly interpellated or bossed around by any particular book, who knows she can always take it or leave it. We dialogue with the dead by reading, and we dialogue with ourselves.

TCR: You’ve referenced Octavia Butler as a writer of speculative fiction whose work is critical to imagining freedom. Is your project on freedom influenced by speculative fiction?

MN: I like a lot of speculative fiction and think it delivers all kinds of innovations in thought and vision, but honestly it hasn’t been the deepest source for me, and I don’t lean on it much in my new project. I remain most riveted by the kind of speculation and imagining and enlivening that comes from drilling down into the what is, asking if we really know what is as well as we presume we do. Sometimes the idea that we need speculative fiction to alter that relationship strikes me as, I don’t know, too literal or something. I mean, one can engage in world-building by breathing differently or changing one’s mind as much as by imagining a mutant race living in a parallel galaxy. But I like it all, and I’m glad that world-building and world-changing come in many forms.

TCR: There’s a scene after Harry’s read a draft of The Argonauts where you sense Harry’s initial, unspoken reaction “as quiet ire.” The next day you have lunch together and go through the draft page by page. The passage ends with Harry asking, “Whatever—why can’t you just write something that will bear adequate witness to me, to us, to our happiness?” The narrator’s interiority responds, “Because I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding.” Do you feel you are closer to understanding this relationship now?

MN: Nah, I think it’s not really answerable. I mean, Harry’s question was, even at the time, kind of a rhetorical one—the reason why I couldn’t do what he was asking is that no writing can bear adequate witness to relationship. A book is an aesthetic event with its own needs and forms of logic. Those will inevitably deform the largesse of life and love, even if that deformation is in service of holding something, or seeing a few things clearly. You can intimate that largesse, you can mark down a few things from the flow. But life escapes, as it should.


Aimee Carrillo Rowe is a memoirist, theorist, and culture critic. She is a professor of Communication Studies at California State University, Northridge and the author of Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances (Duke University Press, 2008), Answer the Call: Virtual Migration in Indian Call Centers (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), and a study of healing, sovereignty, and indigeneity in performance communities, entitled Queer Xicana: Performing the Sacred (under review). She is an MFA student at UCR, Palm Desert, where she’s writing a memoir about queer single motherhood entitled, After Birth: Memoir of a Queer Family.  

Juniper (@june_moon) lives and writes queer futurism in Brooklyn. They are working on a collection of birthday stories as well as an essay entitled “Pseudo-Art in the Springtime” on the creation of self.  

TCR Talks with Natashia Deón

By: Charli Engelhorn

Natashia Deón’s debut novel, Grace, was published in May 2016. A graduate of the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA for Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, Deón has received numerous awards and recognition since publication, such as a nomination for the NAACP Image Award and winning the 2017 American Library Association’s Black Caucus Award for Best Debut Fiction. Grace was also named a New York Times Top Book 2016; a Kirkus Review Best Book of 2016; and a Book RiotThe Root, and Entropy magazine Favorite Book of 2016.

Deón spoke with contributing writer Charli Engelhorn about Grace, life after publication, where stories come from, marginalization in America, literary culture, and the little things that make you laugh.

The Coachella Review: You were a busy woman before the publication of Grace—a criminal lawyer, a professor of both law and writing, a mother, a graduate student, a nonprofit founder. How has the completion of your first novel and ensuing publication and support added to your personal journey?

Natashia Deón: I’ve been thinking a lot about it and feeling so blessed and fortunate and grateful, and it’s all overwhelming. I think the biggest change is that I could do things before under the radar, and now not so much. I enjoy getting to know people personally; I love being around people, and it sort of changes the dynamics. I didn’t realize that was happening until a couple of months ago. People used to just ignore me, and there was always someone else to look at, but now it feels like they’re looking at me, and that’s strange. I’m still a teacher, I still take classes, I’m still a student, still a mom, still a lawyer who’s practicing. I’m still writing. But now people invite me to come and do things, so that’s the extra. But life for me looks pretty much the same as it did before the book except for that piece, which is confusing sometimes and disorienting.

TCR: Since publishing, you’ve had the opportunity to deepen your relationship with the literary world, serving as a judge for this year’s LA Times Book Awards and a delegate representing the United States. What does it mean for you to be recognized in this way, and how have these experiences added to your life?

ND: I feel so honored to be recognized that way—just to be part of this system and another part of the Los Angeles literary community. I’m not one to be a judgy person, but I feel like I have a great opportunity to contribute in some way, I hope, to this prestigious award. When I was an NEA judge last year looking at literary organizations, it was the first time I could see that being a judge meant I could make a difference to our community, because I got to choose organizations that meant something based on my experiences, such as supporting a program for caregivers who are writers. There’s a lot of big books out, and we get lists from all over, so when I’m looking at writing, I’m making the decision to look even further . . . is there something else? I’m also considering those books that have been chosen by other awards because if they’re good, they’re good, but maybe there is something that has been overlooked. I remember when Grace was out, you saw the same books on each list, so when I found out I’d be reading two hundred seventy-five books, approximately, I thought, wow, there’s a lot of opportunity to see something more.

The delegacy was in partnership with the University of Iowa. They have this program called the Lines and Spaces program, where they bring in writers from America to go to different countries. The U.S. embassy was having a twenty-fifth anniversary of their presence in Armenia, and they wanted a reconciliation project between Turkish students and Armenian students to deal with the ramifications of the Armenian genocide by the Turkish. We spent two weeks with the students working on what it is to move forward. It was really powerful for me to see something like that in a different culture and how small I am in all of it. To go somewhere else and have sort of a different perspective of their struggles changes the way I see things, and it gave me humility to go to a community I’ve never been in and say, “Hey, I’m here to help you with reconciliation,” because who am I? By the end, we were all best friends—it was like the end of a really good summer camp. I’m still friends with them all and still know what’s going on in their lives.

I didn’t know what was going on in Turkey, but more than that, it’s about not feeling connected. I was told we couldn’t talk about the Armenian genocide, and I thought, why am I here? As a black person in America, seeing how people want to move on from history and not talk about it, I know how that affects me. You know, with Grace, people ask, “Why do we need to keep talking about slavery?” Well, because we’re still in it. It just looks different. And slavery never failed. That’s the most incredible thing. It never failed, people just turned against it. It’s exactly what’s happening right now. We are repeating history as far as I’m concerned. History is still here. So, I said, I’m not going to do to them what people do to me in America. You’re going to have to send me home. They made an exception that I would be able to talk about it, and we were able to talk honestly and relate to each other. And the Turkish students—their ancestors are the oppressors—and they were so humble and gracious. They said, “We’re sorry,” without adding, “But it wasn’t me.” There was no extra, just we’re sorry. It was beautiful to watch. That’s what I value. There are people I would never know if not for writing. People I can’t imagine my life without.

TCR: In Grace, Naomi’s life and environment are developed so clearly through her sensations and observations that we are drawn in . . . her struggles become ours, her hopes our hopes. Where did Naomi come from, and how did you approach getting into the mind of this character and expressing her experiences of slavery and society during this historical period?

ND: Writing comes from all sorts of places, but I had a daydream, or I don’t know what it was. I was walking with my son down the hallway, and it was daytime. My son was an infant at the time, and I thought he was sick and was going to die, so that was my reality. The doctors kept telling me nothing was wrong, and it wasn’t until he was three months that he was diagnosed with this rare metabolic condition, where his brain can’t get rid of a certain chemical. There are only three hundred people in the world that have it, and it’s incurable and causes developmental delays and seizures. I used to carry him around the house all the time because I was afraid he was going to die alone. Which is part of the book . . . just being afraid for his life, and then all of a sudden, it was night in my hallway. I was standing in the woods in Alabama where I used to go all the time as a kid, and I remember the full moon being there, and there was a girl and she was running and I could hear her thoughts and her voice. She had on a yellow dress that had blood on it, and she was pregnant. She ran past me, and I remember when she ran past me, I could hear her. I was thinking, I’m still asleep, I never got up this morning, so I wasn’t afraid while I was in it because I thought I’m just dreaming. Then she got killed, and it was daytime again, and I was standing in my hallway totally freaked out. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before or since. I gave my son to my husband and said I needed to write down what I just saw ’cause something weird just happened, and I sat down and started writing it out, and it became the opening of the novel, largely unchanged from exactly how I saw it. I could hear her voice saying these things, but she had a much thicker accent, a Southern accent, so I had to lighten up the dialect and stuff like that, but who she is in the book is how I first met her and how I first sensed her as a person and a character. The rest of the book is the craft of writing, but I felt like I knew who she was because of that dream or daydream. I don’t have words for it, but that’s why she’s so real to me.

I did a lot of research about that time, but also my family is in that small town in Alabama where the book is set, and at the end of the civil war, they started the first church and never left. All my family is still in Tallassee, Alabama, except for us. When my grandmother came to live with us at the end of her life, she would remember things because her mother was six years old when she was freed as a slave. I also found a lot of information I didn’t know. Like, when the book was being shopped, I remember an editor said, “I think everything should revolve around the day slaves were freed,” and I said, that’s just not how it happened. When I would see the scene in my mind’s eye, wherever imagination comes from, I would literally see these slaves frozen on a battlefield—they wouldn’t move. So, I talked to my characters, that’s part of my process, and I said, “Why are you here? Why aren’t you happy and dancing, you just learned that you were freed,” but they weren’t moving, and I didn’t know what that would mean. It was only after I researched it and found out that the Emancipation Proclamation, the second one, came in the middle of the civil war, two years in. The slaves wouldn’t have been able to walk across battlefields. There was still another two years left in the war. And they would have had nowhere to go. So, it changed part of my book about them not leaving and not being able to, and you don’t learn that in the history books. We think we know so much about that time, and there are so many books, but I didn’t want to write something I had read before. I wanted to be surprised, and I wanted to tell the readers what I was surprised by. I wanted to retell the story so it could be more historically accurate.

TCR: The novel touches on the lives and experiences of other women during this era, namely Annie, a white plantation owner, and Cynthia, a Jewish Madame. Why was it important for you to weave the stories of these other women into the novel?

ND: Well, Cynthia is based on a real person I knew, who was a former prostitute and lived around the corner from me growing up. She terrified me, like I could never talk to her, but she was my mom’s friend, and when my father left, she was the one who came around with groceries and stuff like that. But she terrified me because we were super conservative, Christian old school, my mom was church lady, and here she comes cursing with her feet on the table. But she was always there for my mom, and on the day she died, I knew I wanted to honor her and all her history and complex feelings, honor her as a woman, because I started to admire her before she passed away because she was so strong. That’s where that line, “All women have different kinds of strong,” comes from. When I was researching the book, I did research on Jewish history in the south and discovered the largest population of Jewish people outside of Europe at that time was in Charleston, South Carolina, so I had this opportunity to legitimately put this character in there. With Annie, I wanted to put her in there because she represents to me white woman who are generally overlooked… just the patriarchy and how it affects all women and how mothering affects us. I wanted to show that everybody is affected by a system that promotes violence and dishonors or disrespects women and holds them as property.

TCR: Let’s talk a little about the title. No one is named Grace in the book, but many of the various meanings for the word seem to live under the surface of Naomi’s journey. What does the title signify for you?

ND: My novel had two other names before we rested on Grace. I didn’t know what the book was about, and the line about how Naomi would have named her good thing Grace if she had the chance, that was the last thing I wrote in the whole novel. My editor said, “Grace, that’s perfect.” I didn’t know that’s what I was writing about until it was over. Some people will say, “Oh, you have a theme to your novel; it has a point.” But I didn’t know that it was about grace, the theme of it or what I thought about it… it just became. Now, when I teach my students at UCLA, I teach them that your story already exists in the future, and there is a story it wants you to tell for it. We think we’re choosing the story, but it’s chosen us. I felt very much chosen that day in the hallway, this story chose me, and it wanted to be told a certain way and had its own message, so I didn’t know until that very last moment, after I had written it for seven years, that it had anything to do with grace. That’s the best part, when the story surprises you.

TCR: Your second novel, The Perishing, was recently acquired by Counterpoint for publication. This story is about a young black woman who finds herself in 1930s Los Angeles, another time of historical strife and significance for the black community. Since you haven’t had any more dreams or visions, what led you to write about life in that period of time, especially from the vantage of a young black woman?

ND: I didn’t have another vision, but I did have dreams while I was asleep, and I had a dream about a Chinese man—it was around late 1800s, and I was in Los Angeles, I don’t know how I knew, but there were adobe buildings and stuff like that. So, this Chinese man, who was a doctor, was murdered by this mob, and it was pretty brutal. I was a love interest of this man, not his wife or a prostitute, but I was with him at this inn, and I woke up and he wasn’t there, so I went looking for him and came upon this scene. I was told to run. I was so disturbed about this dream that I woke up and started researching it. I knew what streets they were on because I saw the streets in my dream, and then I found that there was the Chinese massacre in LA in the 1860s—it actually happened, and one of the people who was killed was a doctor, and that freaked me out, so I wanted to tell that story. Then, I had another vision that was similar, kind of further in the future, and I needed something—a time in history that was midway where I could tell both stories, so the character is going through time.

I also wanted the story to take place between the two world wars because I didn’t think there was a lot of information about sort of being in between. There are Great Depression stories, but my story is on the way out of the Great Depression, so I wanted to see what life was like for black people at that time. When we think about Hollywood, we’re not talking about the people who just live there every day, and I was curious about the history and moving into the Great Deal, which sets up what ends up happening to minority groups in Los Angeles and how they got sort of pushed aside and ghettoized when it was not like that before. In 1932, it was like a Beverly Hills for black people, but then something happened, so I wanted to know what it was, and through research, I figured out what had happened. Similarly to retelling the story of American slavery, I wanted to retell the story of Los Angeles and how South Central became that bad—it started in the 30s with the violence—and even what they are experiencing right now, this sort of resurgence.

TCR: Is there a correlation you’re examining between how black Americans and other marginalized populations are treated today with the worlds you inhabit in your books?

ND: I think the problems we are dealing with now are not new. We’re repeating the same problems over and over again differently because we haven’t solved them. So, I want to show how the past is the same as what we’re dealing with right now and how with all of our knowledge and maturity, we’re still doing the same things. We haven’t actually changed, we’re just answering the same questions wrongly still. Even with the good changes, I think we are going to run into the same issues all over again, just new people, new victims. A lot of the arguments I make in the book are the arguments people are still making today and not seeing, and we have a short memory span in America. I want to remind people, and hopefully we’ll find the answers through wisdom.

TCR: Let’s switch gears a bit. Your nonprofit reading series Dirty Laundry Lit focused on celebrating reading and writing in our culture. How did reading and writing shape your life, and why is it important for you to reach out and share those experiences with others?

I found that the writing community was so cliquish in LA. Every reading I went to was the same people . . . all white guys, maybe a token here or there. The events I went to that were for black writers, it was all black people, and the same for an Asian author; there was nobody else, and it’s not what Los Angeles looks like to me. So, when I created Dirty Laundry, I wanted everybody, all gender identities, ability levels, different income levels, different races, I wanted everybody who came into a Dirty Laundry event to see themselves on stage. To me, that’s what represents Los Angeles and what writing is about. When we tell our stories, we’re inviting people into our experience to help them see it better. I wanted to have a place for that. Especially for people who don’t consider themselves readers, I wanted them to fall in love with literature, with words, like I have.

TCR: Do you feel you’ve been able to see those goals realized?

ND: I’ve seen it in the communities, in the different communities. It was a different LA back then, I think—it started in 2010 and went through 2017—but I saw it realized because we were doing it, and I saw communities working together in ways I hadn’t seen before. We still have to be in our own pockets to gain strength to be able to go out there and not have to explain who we are and define words, you know, that’s important, too, but I saw change. The future is uncertain because to do an event is expensive and time-consuming. I would love to see it again, but some things just have their own time and serve their purpose, and I didn’t want to see us die on the line. Now, it’s time for new faces and new voices to come onto the scene. I never wanted to be one of those writers that occupies space, so I started The Table as a mentorship program to find new voices and empower them to get what I have so they can make their version of whatever this means to them, but hopefully it will still be inclusive.

TCR: What is the best advice you ever received about writing?

ND: Write as if no one you know will ever read it, especially if you’re writing sex scenes or things that reveal who you are.  

TCR: What book do you think everyone should read, and what is your guilty pleasure read?

ND: I guess the book I wish everyone would read would be the one they see themselves in or their experience or their struggle, the thing that makes them feel like they are different from everyone else. I hope they find that book. I was talking to Janet Mock, who is a transgender advocate, a beautiful woman, and I got to write her tribute for Pen America. I was so excited about this piece. I learned she had read Their Eyes Were Watching God and how it inspired her to see that a black woman could want things. She was in Hawaii at that time, and she hadn’t transitioned, she was just a kid, and she said she saw herself in it, and it empowered her to make the decisions she would later make in life. For me, it was Precious, which is strange, because it’s about a girl on welfare living in the projects in New York, but for whatever reason, I saw myself in that girl. It was the first time I thought I could do this. If Precious can make it, Natashia can make it. So, that’s the book I want everyone to read, the one where they can see themselves and be inspired by it.

My guilty pleasure read? I like silly things. There’s this book about compliments that just makes me laugh. It’s about when you run out of compliments, what do you say, like, “You look really good under these fluorescent lights, baby.” It’s dumb, but it makes me happy. Just to look and laugh. The world is so dark, and it’s nice to have something that says, I’m still alive and I’m human.


Charli Engelhorn is an award-winning reporter, a freelance writer and editor, and the current managing editor of The Coachella Review. She is a second-year student at UCR-Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA for Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. When she is not reading and writing, she can be found frolicking in the woods with the best travel dog in the world, Jacopo. She lives in Los Angeles.

Winter 2018


Rob Bowman
Fiction Downstream

Jon Epstein
Nonfiction | Ain’t No Cure for the Summertime Blues — Hollywood or Bust

William Cullen Jr.
Poetry The Creek

William Doreski
Poetry | If You Want to Get Along, Trapped in the Matrix, & One Too Many Incidents

Isaac Gomez
Drama Still Hungry

Leath Tonino
Nonfiction | Big Canyon

Rachel Smith
Fiction Hotels

Maia Evrona
Poetry | The Symphony of Sickness

Clarinda Ross
Drama | #Gunsense

Larry Narron
Nonfiction | Island of the Blue Dragons

Agnieszka Krajewska
Poetry | The Gate of Pinecones & El Camino Del Mar at Dusk

Ben Loory
Fiction | Just a Thought about the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile

B.W. Shearer
Poetry | Jaunty

Gus Vishnu
Poetry | The Kitchen Scene

Eli Ryder
Fiction | Nicky Heads Home

Christie Tate
Nonfiction |Tin Drum

Marne Wilson
Poetry | U.S. Highway 85

Courtney Taylor
Drama | Lights in the Sky

Maggie May Ethridge
Fiction | Stray Cats

Terry Barr
Nonfiction |I Didn’t Have That

Natasha Deón
Interview | TCR Talks with Natasha Deón

The Coachella Review is a literary arts journal published by the University of California, Riverside–Palm Desert Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts.

 

TCR Talks With Liska Jacobs

By: David Olsen

Liska Jacobs holds an MFA from the University of California, Riverside. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The RumpusLos Angeles Review of BooksLiterary HubThe Millions, and The Hairpin, among other publications.

Catalina, is her first novel. 

The Coachella Review: I was in attendance last fall when you were interviewed by Mark Haskell Smith. There was a story regarding the sacrifices you made in order to go through your MFA and complete your novel Catalina. Specifically, regarding a bed with a barrier around it. Can you share a few details about that experience? I found it extremely inspiring.

LJ: Ha—you’re referring to the “witch lines,” which was what my husband and I called the circles of Ajax around our bed in an effort to keep cockroaches away. Those were some sleepless nights. This was soon after I quit my job at the Getty Research Institute to pursue writing full-time. My husband and I were in our twenties; we had no savings. We sold a lot of our things and moved into an apartment complex off Martin Luther King Blvd.

We never had a fridge because no matter how many roach bombs we set off, we just couldn’t get ahead of it. We became expert happy hour goers. I knew where to get $1 tacos, or two-for-one sliders and really strong mai tais. A couple of months into our lease, we lost our couch to the infestation. I remember trying to carry it down the stairs to the alley, and halfway down a cockroach crawled out, right next to my hand. These weren’t the small German cockroaches; they were American cockroaches, which are big and brown and have very thick exoskeletons. You have to whack it with something heavy, ten, twelve times, and then it can lay eggs before it dies. I just dropped the couch. My poor husband had to take it out to the alley by himself. Luckily, it was one of those cheap lightweight IKEA couches. We were down to a few kitchen chairs and our bed by the time we moved out.

This was during that year of relentless heatwaves too, when Los Angeles just felt like it was melting and would never see rain again. That kind of heat gets to people. I got a job downtown, at The Last Bookstore, and the tension down there was razor’s-edge sharp. Someone fell from a balcony on the building next door and died, there were multiple ODs in the park across the street, and weekly jumpers on the Red line. I worried a lot about whether I had made the right decision leaving the Getty. And I can tell you no one in my family understood. To them I had quit a career for a part-time book-buying gig downtown. It was great getting into UCRPD because it meant I hadn’t lost my mind, I could write, and an MFA program agreed. Plus, loans to pay for a nicer apartment!

TCR: So, Catalina. I read this book and I really loved it. It actually bears some similarities to the novel I’m writing in terms of a protagonist on his/her way down. And lots of drugs. I know you get the question a lot about whether or not this has elements of autobiography, so I won’t bother you with that question. But where did you get the inspiration for this narrative and its protagonist, Elsa?

LJ: Thank you! I’m so glad you liked it. I love Elsa. She’s an amalgam of many women I know, including myself, but she also came from a long tradition of women on the edge in literature. I’m a huge Jean Rhys fan, so any of her heroines, but especially Sasha Jenson from Good Morning Midnight. Also, Joan Didion’s Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays, and of course Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar. I’m a huge fan of literary fuck-ups, actually. To be unlikeable and to err is one of the most radical things a woman can do. It’s rebelling against the status quo, a rejection of what a woman should be. We’re lucky to be living in a time when there are so many great female characters that really challenge readers. My favorite contemporary fuck-ups are probably Olga in Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and Kitty from Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home.

TCR: What about the name of the novel? Why Catalina? Had you considered other locales as the inspiration? Did you visit the island for “R&D”?

LJ: My editor likes to joke that I’m a “method writer” because I did go over to Catalina several times. Place is so important, and I have to get it right. Not just the description but the feel of the place too. I tried out a few spots before I settled on Catalina. At one point, I thought they could sail to one of the Channel Islands, but I needed the two halves of Catalina to make the book work. All the characters are struggling against their inner selves and who they pretend to be. So, I wanted that same kind of tension reflected in the place. Catalina is perfect for that. On the one side of the island you have Avalon, this very touristy area made up like a small Mediterranean town—like a back lot or a set. On the opposite end is Two Harbors, this natural landscape with only one restaurant and one bar; Catalina Island foxes and bison come down from the mountains; bald eagles nest on the rocky cliffs.

I’m doing something similar with my second book. I guess I like to write stories that take place somewhere beautiful because no matter how I set up the characters, dark things happen. And I love the tension created between that kind of dichotomy. Beauty and ugliness, lightness and darkness. I think that’s where human truth exists, somewhere in that gray area between the two.

TCR: Let’s talk a little bit about process. Do you have a defined process for writing a novel-length manuscript? Are you an outliner? Or are you a Stephen King “Excavator” writing into the ethereal fog?

LJ: I like that, “ethereal fog.”  I don’t outline a whole lot, but I do always start with characters and place. There’s a peg board above my desk that I use as a sort of mood board. I take those cheap magazines they sell at Walgreens or CVS that have different haircuts/styles and cast my characters from there. Sometimes if I’m feeling fancy, I use foreign Vogues. I pin color swatches from Lowe’s to invoke place—Lapis Lazuli, New Terra-Cotta, Raging Sea were the colors I had pinned for Catalina. From there it’s all about what kind of situations I can put my characters in and how they bounce off each other.

TCR: Revision is another thing that interests me. Some people seem to love it, some not so much. I like revision a little better than the initial rough draft because I can see the characters and plot arcs more clearly. Where do you fall on this argument?  

LJ: They’re both gratifying in different ways. The initial draft is exhilarating because it’s so raw. It’s just you and your characters and you’re just riffing and spilling your guts out onto the page. Later there’s an agenda and it becomes more refined, which is satisfying in a different way. It becomes something outside of yourself, like a child. Part of you but also its own entity. Even after the tireless revisions I did on Catalina, I can still see traces of myself, but it’s more of a din than a flat-out echo.  

TCR: It seems like it’s every writer’s dream to get an agent and a two-book deal with Farrar Straus and Giroux. And you did it. Congrats, by the way. I had another friend publish a novel recently and they had been through fifteen drafts, thought they were done, and the publisher gave them twenty pages of notes and revisions. I am curious as to the kinds of edits that you underwent during that process? Did you feel like you had a completed, ready-to-publish manuscript when you queried? Can you give us an example of a change that was requested?

LJ: Thank you! It’s been wonderful, and I feel very lucky.

Catalina started out as a short novella that I wrote in a couple of weeks right after leaving the Getty Research Institute.  I submitted part of it during my first workshop with Mary Otis. She was nurturing and enthusiastic and after she read the other pages, she told me to keep going. I really fleshed out the novel during my time at UCRPD, working with Mary and also Mark Haskell Smith and Tod Goldberg. By the time I started querying agents, I thought I had a manuscript ready for publication. Which is hilarious because I did another three revisions with my agent, and five more with my editor!

One of the things that kept changing was the ending. I just couldn’t nail it. The original ending, back when it was a novella, didn’t feel right after I fleshed out Elsa. I had been with her for so long, gotten to know her so well, that I really wanted a happy ending. I wanted to believe that times had changed since Jean Rhys was writing. Her characters drink and have sex and reap the consequences, but that was almost a hundred years ago! Did Elsa really have to be punished? And I realized, eventually, that yes, she cannot come out unscathed. So, I went back to my original ending and cried into my gin.  

TCR: I understand that you have another novel coming up soon and have turned in a draft? Do you have a time line for that one yet? Can you give us a small teaser for the next installment from Liska Jacobs? Where is it set? Do you have a byline?

LJ: Yikes, I should be working on that right now! The deadline for my second book is fast approaching. I think we’re eyeing publication late next year (fingers crossed). I’m really excited about it. While working on Catalina I had several ideas for other books, and this one was next in the chamber. I can tell you it deals with womanhood and all its complexities. I want to untangle that dark root of female need—for a child, for sex, for sisterhood—and how those needs bend and change with age. It takes place during a very hot summer in Rome and Puglia.  

TCR: You completed your MFA and published your thesis (also a dream many share). Can you give those of us in that category some words of advice? Anything about your particular experience that resonated with you and helped you along your path?

LJ: Originally Catalina was going to be called The Worst Kind of Want, partly because it’s a line one of the characters says to Elsa, but also because my desire to write, to publish was almost all consuming. It’s the type of want that borders on need. The kind that makes you take up drinkingor measure the distance between bridges and the ground below. I mean I gave up everything except for my husband, who for some reason stuck by me. I was ready to burn it all to the ground. But humans are basically black holes of desire and nothing we throw at it fills it up. You just go on wanting. I guess my advice is, know it’ll never be enough. You’re in this for the long haul. Do it because you can’t do anything else.


David M. Olsen is a full-time insurance broker, writer, editor, and poet. He is a graduate of Stanford’s OWC program in novel writing and is also an MFA candidate at UCR-Palm Desert. He is at work on a collection of linked short stories, a novel, and a chapbook of poetry. David is also the fiction editor at the The Coachella Review. In a past life David won awards as a chef and brewer. He is a Cicerone, Sommelier, and is a certified pizzaiolo trained by 11-time world champion Tony Gemignani. He resides in Pacific Grove, California.

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