Author Archives

Zan Romanoff

‘I Want Every Sentence To Be Doing Work’: An Interview with Miranda Popkey

Moon on the sea.

Zan Romanoff | Longreads | February 2020 | 17 minutes (4,459 words)


“What I’m trying to say,” the narrator explains midway through Miranda Popkey’s debut novel, Topics of Conversation, “the theorem that must be accepted as a premise if any of my behavior is going to make sense, is that I have been, that I continue to be, best at being a vessel for the desire of others.”

Indeed, this nameless narrator spends much of the novel relating other people’s stories about their lives: repeating a conversation with a friend’s mother about an affair she had in her 20s, or describing a YouTube video of a woman recounting a party at which she almost witnessed the writer Norman Mailer stabbing his wife. (The stabbing is real; the video, fictional.)

But she also, more and less incidentally, reveals herself as her own life unfolds in short story-like sections that cover the period from 2000 to 2017: her ambivalence about all of the stories she’s hearing, and the way that they shape her actions and her perception of her self.

I’ve known Miranda since we were teenagers: we met in a dining hall our freshman year of college. (Ask her about it, she loves to tell this story, which begins with me being unable to work a hot water dispenser.) Over the course of the fifteen years we’ve known each other, we’ve talked endlessly about the topics her novel covers: about narrative and its pitfalls, desire and its darknesses, whether it’s possible to ever really be sure of what you feel, or think, or want. So of course I had to get her on the record for Longreads, to talk to her about how all of that talking — with me and with everyone else in her life — had finally led her to this book. Read more…

‘By Choice, and Not By Choice…Time Is Going To Change You.’

Apollo and Daphne by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, c. 1470-80. Oil on panel. (VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Zan Romanoff  | Longreads | November 2019 | 13 minutes (3,494 words)


I first encountered Nina MacLaughlin on Tumblr: at some point around 2010, I stumbled onto her blog, Carpentrix, in which she was chronicling the transition from working as a full-time journalist to doing carpentry in and around her native Massachusetts.

I fell in love with the physicality of her writing, the force and attention with which she inhabited the world, and for years, I watched from across the internet (and the country) as she renovated countless kitchens and bathrooms for strangers, hand-built tables for her brothers, and, more recently, got into making spoons.

MacLaughlin published a memoir, Hammer Head, about her career transition in 2015; as it happens, we met in real life that same year — when my best friend married one of those brothers on a bright, cold Boston afternoon.

Wake, Siren is MacLaughlin’s first work of book-length fiction; it re-tells the stories of the female characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, reimagining a cast of mostly silent women as a chorus of voices who have plenty to say about the ways that they’ve been (mis)treated and (mis)represented throughout history. Read more…

‘I’m Incredulous That People Do This Repeatedly. The Second Book Thing Is So Real.’

Panic Attack / iStock / Getty, and Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Zan Romanoff  | Longreads | September 2019 | 15 minutes (4,099 words)


Mary H.K. Choi has been writing on the internet basically forever, covering everything from music to fashion to the best in snacks for publications like The New York Times, Vice and GQ. So it should be no surprise that her writing about the internet is so good: thoughtful and funny, antic and empathetic, and deeply and consistently searching.

Her debut novel, 2018’s Emergency Contact, traces a relationship that develops over text message between a hipster coffee shop barista, Sam, and hyper-anxious college freshman named Penny; it’s a refreshingly chilled out look at the way the digital can actually help create intimacy, instead of just impeding it.

Choi’s follow up, Permanent Record, is oriented in the opposite direction: it looks out at the selves social media allow us to project into the world. When pop star Leanna Smart stumbles into the bodega where college dropout Pablo Neruda Rind works, they hit it off instantly. Leanna — or Lee, as Pablo calls her — makes Pab’s life exciting, but hanging out with her also allows him to avoid the very unglamorous problems — debt, stasis, and uncertainty — that will be familiar to anyone who’s lived through their twenties in the twenty-first century. Read more…

A Manson Murder Investigation 20 Years In the Making: ‘There Are Still Secrets’

Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel, defendants in the Tate-LaBianca murder trial, walk from the jail to the courtroom. August 7, 1970. (Bettmann / Getty)

Zan Romanoff | Longreads | June 2019 | 13 minutes (3,591 words)

The story of how Tom O’Neill’s CHAOS: Charles Manson, The CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties came to be is almost as crazy as the story of the book tells in its pages. Twenty years ago, an editor at Premiere magazine asked O’Neill to write something about the 30th anniversary of the Manson murders — whatever he thought would be interesting. Now, on the 50th anniversary, that magazine story is finally being released in the form of a 400+ page book.

The intervening years take O’Neill from the backyards of LA drug dealers to the offices of CIA agents doing research on the drugged out hippies in San Francisco’s Haight District. At one point, he gets four haircuts from a barber who intimates that Manson might have been involved with the mob. And as the story spins wildly out of O’Neill’s control, defying reduction to a single, simple narrative, only one thing seems certain: that the settled story of what happened in Los Angeles in the summer of 1969 might not be as straightforward as we’ve all been lead to believe. Read more…

‘Every Woman Writer Feels Like She’s Starting Over Without Any Guides’

Vizerskaya / Getty

Zan Romanoff | Longreads | February 2019 | 11 minutes (2,920 words)


“Stories can be risky for someone like me,” the narrator observes early in The Raven Tower, which marks highly decorated science fiction author Ann Leckie’s first novel-length foray into fantasy. The speaker is an ancient god named The Strength and Patience of the Hill, who goes on to explain a cardinal rule for gods in the world of The Raven Tower: “what I say must be true, and if it cannot safely be made true — if I don’t have the power, or if what I have said is an impossibility — then I will pay the price.” That price is the god’s own life.

It makes sense that four novels, two Locus Awards, one Hugo, one Nebula, and an Arthur C. Clarke Award in, Leckie is grappling with the power and potential of narrative and language; after all, one of the hallmarks of her writing has been the way she interrogates social and political power structures. Her first three books, which comprised the Imperial Radch trilogy, are narrated by an artificial intelligence system, Breq, designed to oversee a warship and the human bodies — called ancillaries — that have been retrofitted to serve it. Breq is therefore a single consciousness who has lived a multiplicitous existence; her native language has no words for gender, and she herself (Leckie chose to use “she” as a gender-neutral pronoun in the series) has no experience of it. The reader is thus immersed into a speculative critique of gendered language and storytelling; as is often the case with Leckie’s work, the trilogy is so thoroughly and thoughtfully original that it feels one step ahead of most of the rest of the genre (or the rest of the world).

The Raven Tower’s narrator also falls somewhere complicated on the continuum between single and multiple consciousness: The Strength and Patience of the Hill is a god, whose experience of self is markedly different than the humans its second-person narration is addressed towards. This set of unusual choices around perspective and point-of-view give the narrative a kaleidoscopic, sometimes almost hallucinatory quality that is uniquely and addictively immersive. Read more…