"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Friday, May 31, 2019

Our June Soup of the Month is LOT by Bryan Washington! Here's our interview with the author.

Gina: Bryan, when I first picked up Lot, I couldn’t put it down. And I imagine other readers are having a similar experience. These stories humbly illustrate for the reader, a modern sense of the chronicles of love; specifically queer love  -in a raw unapologetic light you guide us. Did you foresee these elements being so profound when you first began the process of putting the stories together?

Bryan Washington: Thanks for the kind words, Gina -- and no, I didn’t foresee it at all. I was just trying to write the stories I wanted to read. But I credit my agent, my editor, my friends, and the Riverhead crew for believing in the narratives and putting them out in the world.

G: Can you tell us about the first book you’d read, whether it was in your youth or just last week, that  spoke to you?

BW: I wasn’t a reader as a kid by any stretch of the imagination, but I spent a lot of time with cookbooks and comic books. My folks kept plenty of both around the house. The cookbooks were mostly written by women of color, across continents and communities, and getting to see windows into their lives through 150 and 300 word excerpts was formative for me.  

And fanfiction was pretty important to me, too. As someone who gravitated towards queer narratives as a teen, insofar as I gravitated to written narratives at all, it was gratifying and lovely to find those avenues on the internet in the early aughts, and for free.


G: What is your creative process?

BW: I usually write generative material (new stuff) in the mornings, and I’m no good for that in the evenings. But I can edit just about anytime. And I can write just about anywhere, although a place with some sort of ambient noise in the background doesn’t hurt.

But if I want to tell a story, then I’ll make time to tell that story. That’s usually a pretty big indicator that it’s something I’m interested in thoroughly enough, especially if it’s looking like a longer project. There are too many other things you could be doing, so that impulse is pretty important to me.

G: Let’s talk about the intimacy of one of your characters, specifically Roberto…who offers us a telling glimpse into his own psychology; his runaway parents, the love affair with the narrator..Roberto states that he had never even been to church. These intrinsic strengths portray the diversities between each character. How was it that you imagined all of them, carefully painting them into a whirlwind that we find ourselves so drawn to?

BW: I generally start each piece with a conversation, which usually yields some sort of conflict (eventually, if not immediately). Then I build the characters’s world from the inside out. Their personal problems (infrastructural, familial, interpersonal, whatever) determine the lens that I can navigate their surroundings from.

G: Roberto also says to the narrator: “Home is wherever you are at the time.” The narrator cannot find himself to grasp much meaning in that statement -although Roberto goes on to explain that if he (the narrator) in fact knew what it was like to not have a home, he would one day understand. Do you imagine that readers who cannot relate to these concepts, and for lack of a better word…have been spoon fed their whole lives…that they  might be able to better comprehend the dividing lines of class and race, and hopefully have an awakening to realize their own privileges?

BW: I guess there’s two parts to that: for one thing, in my capacity as someone who writes fiction, I don’t craft stories to educate or to illuminate or to enlighten or any of that. I’m just trying to tell the story I’m trying to tell, to the best of my abilities at the time. That’s it. So if a well-off, white reader in the States comes across that line and takes it to heart, great. If not, great. As far as fiction’s concerned, I’m interested in telling the stories I’d like to tell, and the audience I have in mind are my friends. And they already know.

But if you’re telling me that a well-off, white reader in the States can internalize the whole of Hogwarts, with all of the classes and electives, as well as Mordor and Westeros and the Upside Down, then asking them to make the leap of conceptualizing -- not even internalizing, but just envisioning -- the presence of class divides in their immediate atmosphere is not a very big or demanding ask. The key is that it might force them to reckon with their own situation, which no one wants to do, and that can yield for an uncomfortable reading experience in the way that a more fantastical scenario might not (although it absolutely could).

G: “…Too dark for the blancos, too latin for the blacks.” Can you elaborate on this line, for the readers who are not yet educated on certain racial politics?

BW: Colorism is a very real thing, as are the stereotypes and typecasting associated with it. There isn’t enough room to extrapolate here, and other folks have done it much better than I could, so I’d recommend starting with Nawshaba Ahmed’s Film and Fabrication, Winifred G. Barbee’s Coming Aware of Our Multiraciality, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, Evelyn Glenn’s Shades of Difference, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

G: You opened the door to discussions on child abuse, familial trauma, and homophobia. How difficult was that to do? Or, did you find it necessary rather than a struggle?

BW: I didn’t have a larger goal when writing the stories other than writing the stories that I wanted to write, however they turned out. That was it. The themes as a whole weren’t the result of a didactic effort or anything like that -- but our respective obsessions and preoccupations are our respective obsessions and preoccupations. It’s always a struggle for me to tell stories, but that’s how I think about my problems.  I rarely find solutions. So I’m not a very optimistic person, but if there’s any optimism to be gleaned then I think it’s through people telling the stories they want to tell, whatever they are, in whatever avenues and forums they’re able to finagle.

G: What drove you to write in 1st person -and, is this decision something that occurred prior to writing Lot?

BW: I was just more comfortable with it at the moment. And I’m really into the musicality of an individual’s voice. And the third person’s too much power to me -- I admire the hell out of anyone that consistently navigates it.

G: What is the secret language of surviving the poverty of adulthood? And, how does this process effect your creative endeavors?

BW: Most of us are struggling, and if there’s a secret language then I don’t know it. Maybe you could tell me. But having multiple streams of income is a privilege, and it allowed me to say “no” to the things or pitches or whatever that I didn’t and don’t want to do. And it’s been good for me, specifically, to have non-writing avenues to work in: I like teaching and working with young folks, and I’ve been lucky to get to do that.

G: Which characters had remained with you the longest, after you had completed your final proofreading of all the stories?

BW: Poke (“Waugh”) and Miguel (“Elgin”).

G: Miguel is a character who stands boldly in view, as the narrator’s harbinger to spiritual and
sexual freedom. Their relationship is so essential to better understanding all of the other
voices that are ever so present in your novel. Might you elaborate on the recurring narrator  and Miguel’s relationship?

BW: Sure: they’re casual friends. Which is to say that they have similar struggles, and they just so happen to occupy a similar geographic space. And where the recurring narrator is maybe more brazen in his actions, I don’t think that he’s comfortable with himself like Miguel is. Their interacting with each other was fun to play with on the page: partly because of the tension, sexual and otherwise, and partly because they’re both just so different, from their senses of humor on down. But you could probably argue that the recurring narrator envies Miguel very much, and you could also probably argue that Miguel wouldn’t understand that sentiment at all (or that, at the very least, he’d call it bullshit).

G: What is the wisdom you'd like to share with other young black writers?

BW: Be wary of anyone’s free wisdom. Read everything. Write whatever you want to write about, on your terms. Don’t feel pressured or compelled to create work that solely centers your identity or existence in a marginalized group (or groups), unless that’s what you want to do, and on your terms.  

G: What may be some films  that you admire, and would like to recommend to your readers?

BW: Yi Yi, Girlhood, Columbus, Spa Night, If Beale Street Could Talk,  Spirited Away, Weekend, and Still Walking are all deeply important to me. The way films can play with silence and space and the unsaid is always enchanting, and each of those movies do that so well.

G: Can you tell us about the projects you’re most intrigued about working on, for 2019 and beyond?

BW: I just finished a novel -- it’s called Memorial. You might see it sooner than later.

G: What book are you reading right now?

BW: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li, My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. And I’m stoked for Morgan Parker’s novel.

G: What about other works that you look forward to experiencing? And, who is it that you believe might be an individual whose philosophy we need to pay more attention to?

BW: I’m gonna see Mitski in Houston in a few months. I don’t know that she needs or wants anymore attention, and she’s been very careful about how much of herself she gives her audience. But her music is a gift and that is enough. People always want more, and it’s rad to see someone just say, “No, what I’m giving you is enough”.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Presenting our (Book) Soup of the Month

Presenting our (Book) Soup of the Month:
A monthly selection our booksellers want you to love, too!

ISBN: 9781938584671
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Alice James Books - September 12th, 2017
February 2018. I first discovered Kaveh Akbar several years ago when I read one of his poems that had been published in Tin House and was quickly blown away by his unique voice. Following that, I eagerly awaited the release of his first chapbook,Portrait of the Alcoholic, and got my hands on a copy as soon as I could. Within 24 hours it was absolutely destroyed with pen marks, post-it notes, and dog-eared pages. I read the whole thing probably ten times in that first day. The quality of Akbar's first poetry collection wowed me more than I even imagined it could - and I knew he was good going into it. But then I got greedy. A chapbook wasn't going to be enough for me. I needed more, because for me, poetry is sustenance. Poetry is air. Poetry is water. I need poetry - specifically really, really good poetry - in order to survive. And once I got a small taste of what Akbar had to offer, I knew I wouldn't survive without more of it for long. I wanted him to get a full book of poetry published. And I wanted that book in my hands immediately. 

Well, fortunately for me, I didn't have to wait too long. Calling A Wolf A Wolf, Akbar's first full length poetry book, was published by Alice James Books on September 12, 2017. I bought it that day and got my shift covered at my bar job that night in order to read it. Poems are, generally speaking, much shorter than novels. A regular and more mentally stable person may not have needed an entire evening off work in order to casually read some poetry. But as I mentioned before, I need it in order to survive. And for me, nothing about Akbar's poetry was casual. It was special. It demanded my full attention. I had waited and waited for this book and I would not wait another moment to surrender myself to it. 

I opened this book with extreme caution. I was very careful about which moment I chose to begin it, because I knew it was going to take me awhile to get through. I was going to read each line of each poem very slowly, and more than once. I also knew it was going stir up some emotions in me that I might not be fully prepared for. It might make me feel things I wasn't ready to or didn't want to ever feel. But that's the power of poetry. And nothing else in this world - at least nothing that I have encountered as of yet - is quite as potent. 

The definition of a good poem, to me, is one that I don't know how to talk about with anyone. It is one whose lines I have to close my eyes after reading, and then open them back up in order to re-read. It is something so personal, so raw, so human, and so intense that it is borderline embarrassing for me to admit these sensations out loud. I feel like I am submitting to a force greater than myself and greater than the universe when a poem really penetrates me this way. Every poem in Calling A Wolf A Wolf does this to me, and that is a remarkable feat. Kaveh Akbar was certainly not the first poet I've ever read whose work has resonated with me so deeply, and he will not be the last. But he is certainly one of the youngest and most modern to do so. When I first discovered that he was the same age as I am, I felt some mild shame and jealousy. I got past that real fast though, and now simply feel lucky to be alive during the time he is around and being published, and to have access to his work.

The subject matter of this collection is not easy to define because with real poetry, it never is. There are nods to a religious upbringing as well as defiance against one. There are mentions of family bonds and of course, of love. Throughout, there is some major growing up going on, and a little bit of an identity crisis. There is existentialism and doubt and hope and wonder. There are gender issues, racial issues, political ideas, and unfinished thoughts. There is self-hate and self-love and complete and total honesty on each and every page. There are bright lights and dark, winding tunnels. Take a deep breath after each poem, dear reader, because I promise you, the next one will be an entirely separate journey through Akbar's psyche as well as through your own. 

Calling A Wolf A Wolf is for everyone. It is for poetry snobs, it is for people who want to get into poetry but don't know much about it. It is for the young and the old. It is for academics and scholars and it is for factory-workers, farmers, bartenders, teachers, parents, lawyers, doctors, actors, directors, 7-11 workers, singles, couples, the mentally ill, drug-addicts, racists, the open-minded, the closed-minded, street-walkers, and transients. It is for those so against poetry that you have to read it to them aloud with their fingers in their ears, screaming it until they cannot actively not listen. It is for everyone. CAWAW is for huma
This book is nothing short of brilliant. If you discover one new poet this year, please let it be Kaveh Akbar. If you only have enough money for one poetry collection, please choose this one. Trust me even if you have no good reason to. Because really, today and here and now, what good reason do you have not to? 
- Molly Ash, Newsstand Coordinator, Book Soup

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Our January 2018 Soup of the Month is You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman!

“Inside a body, there is no light. A massed wetness pressing in on itself, shapes thrust against each other with no sense of where they are… Anything could be inside.”

So begins Alexandra Kleeman’s YouToo Can Have a Body Like Mine. To work your way through this audacious, uneasy-making novel is to explore a familiar – and troubling – landscape. Our main character, known only as A, divides her time between a job and a relationship that are equally unfulfilling. Her home life does anything but provide respite, as her roommate seems to be appropriating A’s life, item by item, as her own: her boyfriend, her makeup, her habits, her identity. Weird goings-on, meanwhile, start to infiltrate A’s limited universe: Neighbors disappear, leaving their front door wide open. Cryptic messages and fliers start showing up around town. Entire supplies of Kandy Kakes – a ubiquitous, chemically-engineered product that resembles a Hostess Cupcake – vanish from store shelves overnight. That these events are all connected is obvious, but A can’t quite put her finger on why. At least, not yet.

The escapes from the subtly chaotic outside world available to A are limited to television – she watches a lot of television – and Wally’s Supermarket. At this bizzaro chain store, the staff wear giant, unnerving mascot heads, and the aisles are organized to “inspire creativity” in their customers’ shopping experience – or possibly drive them insane. At home, A’s viewing habits are dialed in on a strange game show with built-in, unsettling real-life consequences, and punctuated with ubiquitous, lengthy, and oddly creepy commercials for Kandy Kakes. She’s also haunted by the news story of a local man who, inexplicably, became fixated on frozen meat. Before she knows it, A is acting out in ways that seem propelled by all of these influences.

Who – or what – is gnawing away at our heroine? Blame could be placed on her overbearing roommate, her emotionally disengaged boyfriend, or any factor of modern life: big corporations; the dissolution of urban centers; trash TV specifically or The Media, more broadly. Kleeman wisely leaves much to the interpretation of the reader. This is perhaps what makes You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine a perfect novel for the new millennium (and the new year). It is part amateur detective story, part modern horror, and tinged throughout with a restrained, never smarmy sense of humor. Moreover, A makes for a strikingly relatable heroine. Directionless and fragile though she is, she’s incredibly compelling and, at times, quite funny. The “shiftless millennial” is already an established archetype, and A embodies it; how Kleeman turns that archetype on its head will surprise you.
The search for meaning is at the heart of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. Kleeman’s heroine longs to find purpose and connection in her life, and finding either is a tall order when one’s own body is an uncomfortable, unknowable place. “It’s no surprise, then,” she reasons, “that we care most for our surfaces.” Fortunately, for her readers, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is spooky, engaging and absolutely one-of-a-kind novel that is both finely crafted on the outside and richly complex on the inside.

- Kieran Kenney, Book Soup Supervisor

Thursday, November 16, 2017

An Interview with Sarah Gerard, Author of Sunshine State, our November Soup of the Month

Afton Montgomery: The first thing I have to ask is about the last essay in the book, "Before: An Inventory." I’d love to hear about your process with that one— obviously it comes at the end of the collection and really draws everything together, but it reads more like a road map that was written ahead of time... is that the case? (By the way, that essay completely blew me away— absolute favorite piece.)

Sarah Gerard: This was a really fun essay to write. My original intention was to tell the story of my life backwards through every animal I’d ever seen, which of course is impossible. Also, mostly irrelevant: not every animal I’ve ever seen has been important to me, so they would not add up to a story. This was my plan until I talked to a hypnotherapist. I’d planned to visit one to help me remember all of the animals. By the time I talked to her, “every animal I’d ever seen” had ballooned to include every animal I’d ever seen on the Internet, and the essay was going to explore our modern relationship with technology and the natural world, and etcetera, etcetera. It was unmanageable, and would have made a very disorganized, and very long and boring essay. Thankfully, I was set straight when the hypnotherapist explained to me that memories are stored selectively, and that I would not have memories for animals that weren’t associated with significant experiences. Ultimately, the essay was revised to tell the story of my life backwards through every animal I’ve ever formed a relationship with. We did some exercises to determine whether my dominant modality was more visual or auditory or sensory. Then we went on an imaginary journey to the bottom of a lake, and every bubble that rose to the surface had an animal inside it. Over the next several weeks, clusters of animal memories came to me in bursts, and I would pull over to write them down, or dictate them into my phone, or my recorder. Then I plugged them all into a spreadsheet with as much information as I could recall, including the year or span of years in which I’d known these animals. Then I organized the spreadsheet in reverse-chronological order, and just began writing the piece as a list organized into paragraphs, or stanzas. I went through several rounds of editing this piece, alone, with friends, and with my editor at Harper Perennial, to nail the rhythm.

As far as it being like a road map, it may seem that way because there’s a road trip at the very beginning—my book tour for Binary Star. I turned thirty right after my return to New York, and the essay was written on the occasion of my 30th birthday.

AM: In your title essay, “Sunshine State,” you wave off the title of journalist and identify yourself as “more of a memoirist.” Can you tell me more about that identifier? When do you think you became a memoirist? I’d also love to know why you were drawn to such a path. 

SG: I think that conversation was meant to highlight how I identified when I began writing the essay, but what’s funny about that answer is that I had yet to find out, on my first day as a volunteer at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, that I would be rudely pushed into the role of journalist. I had no idea what kind of scandal was brewing beneath the surface at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. I would need to become quite a sleuth to uncover the story. The essay is also a piece of first-person journalism, and I appear in it quite a bit as a character. This is to say that the line separating journalism from memoir is very thin, and that the difference between treating myself as a character as I would in a piece of memoir is not very far away from the way I treat the people I’m writing about as a journalist. Memoir is a kind of journalism of the self.

AM: Your essays sway heavily between deeply personal explorations and more strict reportage. What were your intentions with the variance here? How did you find a balance?

SG: It’s really a question of how much I belong in a given essay with regard to the subject matter. Some of the essays in the book are about events and people from my life, and they’re treated like straightforward memoir. But do I really want to foreground my own experience in an essay about homelessness, for example? I’m not homeless, nor am I an expert on homelessness. I simply think it’s an interesting and important topic. At the same time, I do have some personal experience with the Amway Corporation, so in the essay about Amway, I included my own experience, because it was relevant. Because I was included in that essay, I had to answer the question, “How did my childhood in Amway shape my ideas about success and achievement?” If I had included myself to a greater degree in “The Mayor of Williams Park,” the essay about homelessness in Florida, I would have needed to answer a similar question. Which I can’t do, because an essay about homelessness simply shouldn’t be about me—I can’t make it, nor would I want to make it, about me. So, I leave myself out of the essay and foreground those individuals whose story it is. What is journalism and what is memoir is a matter of degree.

AM: My favorite thing about Sunshine State is the way that your tone of voice changes as a narrator with age and maturation. Was that a conscious decision or something that happened naturally when you went to write about certain topics?

SG: I think both. I’ve understood the world differently at different points in my life. I can inhabit those mindsets and compare them against my thinking in the present day. When I reinhabit myself at age seven, I think in the voice of a seven-year-old. When I inhabit myself in high school, I think in the voice of a high schooler, and all of my high school friends sound like me, but if I were to write about them today, they would sound different. I used words in high school that I no longer use today. I responded to stimuli differently, and for different reasons. As a writer I try to show this to my reader in a way that’s seamless, so I embed it into the sound of the text, as well as writing it into the text as information. This is voice. It also goes back to the question of the author writing herself as a character—Sarah at age seven and Sarah at age seventeen are two different characters. Every character has a voice of her own.

AM: Dwight Garner at the New York Times wrote, “One of the themes of ‘Sunshine State’...is how Florida can unmoor you and make you reach for shoddy, off-the-shelf solutions to your psychic unease.” Would you say that your collection brought you some of those solutions or some catharsis in its creation? (If this is the case, I’d love to know if it was also, in fact, your purpose in writing this collection; if not, can you say what was?)

SG: I think I wrote this book just to prove to myself I could do it. Also, as a matter of economic necessity: I sold it before I wrote it because I needed some money to live on for the year that I took to write it. I wasn’t going to waste that money, so I had to write the best book I could write. It wasn’t cathartic, but I did feel accomplished when I was finished. I was grateful for the opportunity to write about some aspects of my past that remained obscure to me, like my mother’s first marriage, my off-beat childhood church, Amway, a sexual assault, and deaths in my family. I also proved to myself that I’m not a bad journalist, and that journalism is a tool that I have at my disposal as a writer. I had time to feel fascinated, even obsessive, about some things, too, which I always enjoy.

AM: I’ve been reading your column Mouthful on Hazlitt and really connecting with it. Do you want to share anything about that project or anything else that you’re currently working on?

SG: I’m about to write what is supposed to be my last Mouthful column. I had originally intended it to be a year-long exploration of my relationship with food ten years into recovery from anorexia and bulimia. Of course, food is connected to every aspect of your life, when you think about it. In addition to food, I’ve written about love, Donald Trump, my ex-husband’s cancer, a woman who babysat me when I was a toddler, vegetarianism and veganism, religion, my divorce, water quality in Mexico, and lots of other things. Hazlitt really likes the column, so they’ve invited me to continue writing it, but they’ve also given me the option of launching a new column, so I’m considering what I may want to write about next. I’ll keep everyone updated. Thanks for reading!

AM: And last but not least (of course I have to ask), what are you currently reading?

SG: I’m reading a few books: Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses, Maggie Nelson’s The RedParts, and my friend Meaghan O’Connell’s forthcoming book And Now We HaveEverything, about new motherhood.

Order your copy of Sunshine State.
Follow Sarah on Twitter:  @SarahNumber4