Author Archives

‘My Teachers Said We Weren’t Allowed To Use Them.’

Connor Pope / Unsplash

Tobias Carroll | Longreads | July 2019 | 11 minutes (2,868 words)

Consider the semicolon. It’s beloved by some and assailed by others; in the annals of punctuation lore, no other symbol has sparked as much debate. A handful of years ago it was even the subject of a very funny parody song by The Lonely Island and Solange that poked fun at hashtag rap. (Though, in fairness to the semicolon, the song’s punchline is that it was using the semicolon incorrectly all along.) In her new book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, Cecelia Watson ventures into the long history and usage of semicolons, and the results are tremendously enlightening.

Semicolon is a slim book, but it deftly covers a lot of ground. Watson explores the origin of the semicolon, demonstrates how it’s gone in and out of linguistic favor over the centuries, and thoughtfully explored how a host of disparate writers — including Rebecca Solnit, Irvine Welsh, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — have memorably used it in their work. Watson also explores some of the surprisingly severe impacts the semicolon has had on society, such as the semicolon in a Massachusetts law that wreaked havoc on the state’s alcohol consumption, or the way the semicolon in a judicial sentence caused one man’s life to hang in the balance.

I talked with Watson about the origins of her book, the role typography played in it, and how semicolons can improve your dating life. (No, really!) An edited version of our conversation follows. Read more…

‘I Surprise Myself With This Refusal To Let Go’: Kate Zambreno on the ‘Ghostly Correspondence’

Illustration Ver Sacrum, 1901, Number 4: "Duchess and Footboy" by Kolo Moser for the poem "Vorfruehling" (Early Spring) by Rainer Maria Rilke. (Imagno/Getty Image & Harper Perennial)

Tobias Carroll | Longreads | July 2019 | 14 minutes (3,601 words)


Since the 2009 publication of her first novel O Fallen Angel, Kate Zambreno has had one of the most fascinating careers in American letters. Her work has included harrowing explorations of alienation (Green Girl) and evocative forays into literary and cultural history (Heroines). The year 2019 has brought with it two new books from Zambreno: Appendix Project: Talks and Essays, an addendum to Book of Mutter, her 2017 collection of writing on grief; and Screen Tests: Stories and Other Writing, which places a series of short autobiographical fictions in the same volume as several longer works of nonfiction, mainly art and literary criticism. The bifurcated structure of Screen Tests hints at something profound and disorienting about the not-so-clear dividing line between narrative and reality: many of the short fictions, or “screen tests” à la Andy Warhol, in the book’s first half feature real people — Zambreno herself, as well as writers and artists ranging from Amal Clooney to Susan Sontag. The screen tests grapple with their subjects’ work while addressing questions of identity and community and continuity; the critical essays in the book’s second half seem to echo themes that emerged in the screen tests. That the lines between fiction and nonfiction are blurred here is precisely the point.

Zambreno’s work offers readers an intellectually rigorous experience alongside the thrill of discovery. She has several other books in the works which will also explore fiction and nonfiction in equal measure. Her next novel, Drifts, will be released in 2020, and she’s working on a book about writer and photographer Hervé Guibert, To Write as if Already Dead. Zambreno talked with me earlier this month about Screen Tests, the challenges and pleasures of writing about visual art, reading the same books over and over again, and satirizing her own role as a “minor author.” The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. Read more…

‘The Underland Is a Deeply Human Realm’: Getting Down with Robert Macfarlane

Cave of the Hands, Santa Cruz Province, Patagonia, Argentina. (Getty/Buenaventuramariano)

Tobias Carroll   | Longreads | June 2019 | 9 minutes (2,254 words)

Robert Macfarlane’s writings exist in a liminal, twilit place where language and landscape dissolve into one another. He writes vividly about outdoor spaces, borders, and the way in which one type of territory transforms subtly into another. And, as befits a writer who’s conscious of how the act of writing influences the spaces he’s writing about, he’s made language itself central to much of his work. His 2015 book Landmarks, for example, meanders through the long-lost definitions of a massive array of terms that were once used to describe very specific parts of the landscape; their loss is to some extent due to humanity having become increasingly urban, but also speaks to larger questions about our alienation from the world around us.

Macfarlane’s work is often focused on very particular places, while the greater issues he raises are universal. His new book, Underland, descends into a quite literally overlooked landscape: the one beneath our feet. He chronicles journeys to isolated caves, the man-made caverns below cities, and scientific research facilities whose underground isolation is essential to their mission. Underland reflects Macfarlane’s continued interest in language, but the nature of time is also a running theme within the book. What does it mean to enter a subterranean space that hasn’t been viewed by human eyes in thousands of years? What does it mean to create a space that may exist long after today’s civilizations have vanished? Throughout this book, Macfarlane wrestles with grand questions about humanity and its effects on the natural world. Even as he proceeds into hidden and obscured spaces, his concerns are deeply human. Read more…

Kristen Arnett on Taxidermy, Memory, and “Mostly Dead Things”

Creative Touch Imaging Ltd. / NurPhoto via Getty Images / Tin House

Tobias Carroll  | Longreads | June 2019 | 18 minutes (4,707 words)

The writings of Kristen Arnett are a beatific study in contrasts. In her fiction — namely, the 2017 collection Felt in the Jaw and her new novel Mostly Dead Things — she grapples with unruly bodies, complex emotions, and relationships both familial and romantic that have gone awry. Arnett is among a cadre of contemporary authors, such as Karen Russell and Eleanor Kriseman, who remind readers of what a stunning backdrop Florida can provide for works of fiction. And she is quite possible the only writer to ever hold a book release event in a 7-Eleven.

Jessa-Lynn Morton, the protagonist of Mostly Dead Things, has not had an easy life when the novel opens. She’s dealing with the aftermath of her father’s suicide, and is endeavoring to keep the family taxidermy business in operation while also contending with her mother’s artistic ambitions and a burgeoning relationship with Lucinda, a gallerist whose perspective on taxidermy is very different from Jessa’s more quotidian understanding of it.

Arnett’s fiction perfectly captures unruly family dynamics, the way that the same person can take on very different roles in the eyes of those closest to them, and the subtle ways in which class and economics can reshape a community over time. I spoke with Arnett about her fiction, the role of Florida in her work, and the messy line between fine art and the lowbrow. Read more…

Namwali Serpell on Doing the Responsible Thing — Writing an Irresponsible Novel

Peg Skorpinski / Hogarth

Tobias Carroll | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (4,830 words)

Namwali Serpell’s first novel, The Old Drift, tells the story of several families living in Zambia, encompassing over a century of their interwoven lives. The novel takes its title from a region located near Victoria Falls (otherwise known as Mosi-o-Tunya, which translates to “The Smoke That Thunders”), which is also where the novel begins. Along the way, The Old Drift touches on many moments in history, from the Second World War to Zambia’s foray into space exploration.

But Serpell isn’t content to simply tell the story of a nation through several generations of its residents. Instead, her narrative extends into the near future, and each of its sections is paired with a short passage written by a strange collective voice — one which doesn’t seem to be human. It’s a bold narrative choice, but it’s one that pays off brilliantly at novel’s end.

Serpell’s bibliography covers a broad range of styles and territories, from the theoretical to the metafictional. Her first book, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, explored the works of writers like Tom McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Ian McEwan. She’s contributed the introduction to Penguin Classics’ edition of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s novel Devil on the Cross. And her short story “Company,” published in the “Cover Stories” issue of McSweeney’s, reimagines a Samuel Beckett narrative along Afrofuturist lines — a process that Serpell described in one interview as “a Janelle Monaé cover of a Philip Glass song.” Read more…

Irvine Welsh on Brexit, Existential Panic, and His Latest ‘Trainspotting’ Sequel

Workers on an assembly line inside the Ford Motor Company factory at Highland Park, Michigan, constructing steering systems, circa 1913. (Hulton Archive/Getty)

Tobias Carroll | Longreads | March 2019 | 12 minutes (3,284 words)


For many American readers, knowledge of Irvine Welsh came via his 1993 novel Trainspotting. The novel established Welsh as a daring prose stylist with a flair for the transgressive, while the subsequent film adaptation supercharged the careers of many involved, including director Danny Boyle and lead Ewan McGregor. Over the years, Welsh has revisited this world in several other works, including the novels Porno, Skagboys, and The Blade Artist. In each, he’s surveyed how time has changed his characters — and gradually expanded the scope of these books from Edinburgh to something more international.

In his latest novel Dead Men’s Trousers, Welsh has brought this fictional universe to its conclusion. Several of his long-running characters have become fathers of grown children; one of them will not survive to the end of the book. But that’s not the only bittersweet element to be found here: Welsh has set the novel on the eve of the Brexit vote, creating a growing sense of tension in the background even as his characters — including sociopath-turned-artist Frank Begbie and expatriate DJ manager Mark Renton — become embroiled in a cycle of old grievances. At stake is an interwoven pair of questions: to what extent can people change, and to what extent are people willing to allow others to change?

The temporal setting of the novel also allows for some other memorable setpieces, including a number of scenes set around Welsh’s beloved Hibernian F.C. winning the Scottish Cup in 2016. And Welsh, ever the stylist, has also come up with a resonant way of conveying several characters’ experience with the psychedelic DMT: prose pauses and suddenly, the mode shifts into a graphic novel for part of a page. While Welsh has revisited his characters repeatedly over time, each of these books has a distinct feel to it; this one is no exception. Read more…

Sarah Moss on Brexit, Borders, Bog Bodies, and the ‘Foundation Myths of a Really Damaged Country’

A section of Hadrian's Wall. Associated Press / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Tobias Carroll  | Longreads | January 2019 | 16 minutes (4,245 words)

Silvie, the young woman at the heart of Sarah Moss’s new novel Ghost Wall, has embarked on a fascinating project: living with her family and several others in a style inspired by Iron Age Britain. It would be a fascinating foray into archaic ways of living, except that the academic conducting this research doesn’t seem entirely reliable in his methods, and Silvie’s father quickly reveals himself to be controlling and physically abusive. Soon enough, the oppressively patriarchal society from which she seeks to extricate herself has taken on another aspect, and the landscape abounds with sinister portents and ominous structures that seem designed to prevent escape and stifle dissent.

In Ghost Wall, Moss blends evocative and stark language with a disquieting narrative. In a different work, these might be hallmarks of a coming-of-age story. In Ghost Wall, the goal is more one of simple survival. Read more…

I Would Never Say That, But the Character, He Said It: An Interview with Catherine Lacey

McKeown / Stringer for the Hulton Archive, Getty

Tobias Carroll | Longreads | August 2018 | 16 minutes (4,305 words)

Since the 2014 release of her debut novel Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey has established herself as one of the finest chroniclers of alienation working in fiction today. Her follow-up, The Answers, took as its subject a young woman who is hired to be part of an experimental program to give a famed screen actor a kind of compound girlfriend. Both novels grapple with questions of restlessness and malaise, and turn familiar fictional ground — an American abroad in the former, a larger-than-life celebrity in the latter — into something strange and mysterious.

Lacey is also an acute observer of larger literary and cultural traditions: last year, in collaboration with artist Forsyth Harmon, she released The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence. In it, she chronicles the dizzying web of connections between artists of many disciplines over the course of decades — and in doing so unravels the mystique of the solitary genius.

Lacey’s latest book is her first collection of short stories. Certain American States demonstrates another aspect of her literary abilities. The stories found in here cover a wide stylistic range, from the surreal travelogue of “The Grand Claremont Hotel” to the meditation on loss and possessions found in “Please Take.” That stylistic range allows Lacey a way to explore her preferred themes of alienation and interconnectedness in a myriad of ways — making for an unpredictable set of narratives throughout the book. Read more…

The Tether Between Two Worlds: An Interview with Sergio De La Pava

Tobias Carroll | Longreads | May 2018 | 18 minutes (4,881 words)

Lost Empress addresses the injustice of mass incarceration, plays with the possibility of parallel universes, and uses arena football as a metaphor for how the revolution is unforeseeable. Welcome to the world — or should I say worlds — of Sergio De La Pava, whose fiction certainly doesn’t lack for a sense of scope.

His debut, A Naked Singularity, followed a young, incredibly successful public defender through a personal and professional collapse, weaving in a heist narrative and moments of absurdist comedy, moving from harrowing scenes of inequality to suspenseful setpieces and back again. Initially self-published before being reissued by the University of Chicago Press (which also released his second novel, Personae), A Naked Singluarity would go on to win the prestigious PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize — an award also won by Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated and Paul Harding’s Tinkers.

In De La Pava’s fiction, grand ideas and societal tragedies coexist with a brisk narrative voice and an irreverent worldview. Lost Empress alternates between two seemingly unconnected stories: Nina Gill, a genius football strategist, suddenly becomes the owner of an indoor football team in Paterson, New Jersey, during an unexpected pause in the NFL season; meanwhile, Nuno DeAngeles, imprisoned at Rikers Island, ponders his earlier crimes and romantic connections, and his plans for the future. Within this sprawling narrative, De La Pava tells the secret history of a Salvador Dalí painting, discusses Cambodian politics in the late 20th century, and muses about why the NFL’s labor market is uniquely exploitative of American athletes.

Improbably in our age of hyper-specialization, De La Pava, like the hero of A Naked Singularity, is a public defender in Manhattan, where he handles 70 to 80 cases at a time. He recently wrote an impassioned op-ed calling for reform of New York’s discovery laws. His interests are obviously wide-ranging, and our conversation touched on the cultural history of Paterson, what we hate about rich people, the multiverse, and more.


Read more…