Author Archives

‘Writing This Book Was a Weird Séance ’: An Interview With Deborah Levy

A young woman and her boyfriend speak to her mother over the Berlin wall, 1962. (Bettmann/Getty)

Tobias Carroll | Longreads | October 2019 | 10 minutes (2,536 words)

 

What makes history resonate into the present, and how does memory change that? Deborah Levy’s new novel, The Man Who Saw Everything — long-listed for the Booker Prize this year — follows a British historian named Saul Adler as he prepares for, and then embarks upon, a trip to East Germany in 1988. Whether or not his visit will be a politically compromised one is a question that Saul grapples with as he makes his way into a politically repressive — and repressed — nation. Saul also finds his own desires leading him to unexpected places, from his feelings for his estranged girlfriend in London to his growing attraction to the man he’s working with in Germany.

If this was the sum total of Levy’s novel, it would be enough for a thoughtful, challenging exploration of the personal and political — but Levy has larger goals in mind. Throughout Saul’s travels in the first half of the novel, he experiences strangely dissonant moments, places where the narrative ventures into unexpected places and suggests another dimension to the story Levy is telling. In the second half of the novel, those narrative threads pay off dramatically, creating a powerful sense of memory, history, desire, and ideology all converging on a singular point. The Man Who Saw Everything comes at a time when Levy’s work has earned an abundance of acclaim: her last two novels, Swimming Home and Hot Milk, were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and her collection Black Vodka was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

Longtime readers of Levy’s work will know that she’s just as capable of voyaging into the surreal and uncanny as she is documenting the social and psychological mores of her characters. Jeff VanderMeer has hailed her early novel Beautiful Mutants for its exploration of the weird, and her memoirs Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living each take significant narrative and structural risks that one doesn’t normally see in nonfiction. Add in her forays into the mythic and the archetypal, as in the verse work An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell, and you have a sense of a writer who’s capable of nearly anything. Read more…

‘I Went Quiet…and That Allowed Me To Understand’: The Life of a Molecatcher

David Tipling/Getty

Tobias Carroll | Longreads | October 2019 | 17 minutes (4,589 words)

How does one acquire a trade? And what happens when you decide that your chosen profession is suddenly anathema to you? Those two questions hang over Marc Hamer’s book How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom from a Life Lived in Nature. The title is not a metaphor: Hamer spent most of his working life catching moles; and this book, he explains the moment that prompted his decision to stop, and the series of events that led him to that point.

It’s a singular memoir. Hamer describes a life spent making his way around Britain, including a period of homelessness early in his life. His book abounds with reflective passages about a life lived in nature, mortality, and the ways in which humanity does and does not interact with the natural world. And, of course, there’s information on catching moles.

The resulting book is fascinating in its observations on the quotidian and in its ability to capture its author’s frame of mind. “At some point on a long walk you stop being who you thought you were,” he writes halfway through, “but you don’t question it because the questions stop too.” Read more…

‘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…