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Unearthing the Story: An Interview with Peter Hessler

Penguin Press

In the fall of 2011, Peter Hessler arrived in Egypt, with his family — twin toddlers, and his wife, the writer Leslie Chang. The two had met in China, where Hessler first landed as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996. His first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, details his two years teaching English. Two other books, Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China and Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, followed. After leaving China in 2007, the family settled in southwestern Colorado, where they are now based. A few years later, they decided to wipe the slate clean and move to Egypt. But just as they planning their move, the Egyptian Arab Spring started, sending the country down the chaotic path it has followed until today.

Hessler’s latest book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, chronicles both the revolution itself, and the lives of the people they met during their five years in Cairo. It’s a deep look at what is, in some ways, the oldest country in the world, and it bears the hallmarks of Hessler’s work: vivid scenes, elegant narrative arcs, and a long lens that examines the links and gaps between Egypt’s troubled present and its ancient past.

Today, Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He won a National Magazine Award for his 2007 National Geographic story, “Instant Cities,” and in 2006, Oracle Bones was a National Book Award finalist. In 2011 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. After leaving Egypt, his family returned to Colorado again, before decamping this year for another stint in China, where Hessler plans to teach at Sichuan University, 20 years after he first taught at Fuling Teachers College. Frank Bures spoke to him about the value of language, learning from John McPhee, and what your garbage man can teach you.

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Frank Bures: You built your career writing about China, but how did you start writing in the first place?

Peter Hessler: My first interest was in 10th grade. I had an English teacher in high school who thought that I had some talent at it, and encouraged me. She was the one who made me think seriously about becoming a writer. That was one of the reasons I ended up at Princeton, because they had a good creative writing program. I was encouraged there by Russell Banks, who was my teacher and a thesis advisor, and also John McPhee.

I originally was interested in fiction. I didn’t do journalism in high school, didn’t work for a paper or anything, and at Princeton I never published a word in a college publication. Later, after I took McPhee’s class, I started doing a little freelancing. In grad school overseas I started shifting towards nonfiction, partly because I couldn’t sell short stories. It was hard to publish them, whereas I could publish my travel pieces and essays and get paid for them, and that was encouraging. But I was still unsure when I joined the Peace Corps at age 27. I’d published a lot of travel pieces, but I’d never held a job in journalism, and the kind of stuff I published wasn’t enough for me to support myself.

I didn’t do journalism in high school, didn’t work for a paper or anything, and at Princeton I never published a word in a college publication.

FB: What kind of travel pieces had you done?

PH: The New York Times used to have these essays. The first one I wrote for them was about taking the Trans-Siberian train. Because after I finished grad school at Oxford I traveled for six months, and I consciously researched stories along the way, thinking that when I got home I would write pieces, and possibly write a travel book. I wrote the train essay, and just sent it to a name on the masthead at the Times, and by some miracle they read it and published it. After that I started doing some stuff for them as a freelancer.

FB: When did you start thinking about books?

PH: When I joined the Peace Corps, I wanted to learn Chinese and become a better writer. But I didn’t think I was going to write a book about that experience. I felt I was too young, and I really was. I didn’t have the maturity to write a book, nor did I really have the material at that point. But I did take a lot of notes. It was my way of processing what was going on. I would write about experiences I had, or encounters with people, things on campus, but just in a diary format. And I tracked a lot of my students’ writing because they were such beautiful writers, and I thought they were fascinating people.

Then with six months to go, we got Internet for the first time, and I got back in touch with people. If it had been any earlier, it probably would’ve been a distraction, but at that point it was good to start thinking about the future.

He said, ‘It’s there. It’s in you. You just need to do it.’

I had written to John McPhee throughout my time there, and he had written back often. But now we were on email, and I remember writing to him because I was thinking about applying for journalism jobs, and applying for an internship at Newsweek in Beijing. John wrote me a long letter, telling me: “You should write a book about Fuling.” Because he’d read these letters. He said, “It’s there. It’s in you. You just need to do it.”

That was a powerful moment, because I hadn’t thought about it. Once I got that email and started thinking, it immediately made sense. When I went back through all my notes in my diaries, I realized, “I’ve really got a lot of stuff here.” But I could also see what I needed: more detailed descriptions of the landscape, and some deeper observation of the community and of the city.

FB: Did you write the book then?

PH: No, I didn’t write the book until I left. I went back to my parents’ home in Missouri, and I decided I would take about half a year. I was 29 years old and I had never held a job. I had college debt, so I felt a lot of pressure. I was applying for journalism jobs at the same time, sending out resumes to The New York Times, Washington Post, and Time, pretty much anybody who had a China bureau, and I got form rejections across the board.

When I finished the book, I sent a resume to Amazon, because they had sent me a recruiting thing when I was in Fuling. I had no idea what it was. I guess my life could’ve been pretty different. I sent them a resume, but they never wrote back.

I was so depressed by that point. I had completely lost all perspective. I just wanted to get rid of the thing and put it behind me and do something else. After a couple weeks of this sort of thinking, I finally sent the book out to agents, and a couple of agents were interested. I went to New York and met with them, and I ended up signing with a young agent named William Clark. He sold the book to HarperCollins, and it happened very quickly. It wouldn’t be considered a big advance, but it was enough to pay off all my college loans, and suddenly I realized, “I can just go back to China on my own. I don’t need a job. I’ll just go and figure it out.” And that’s where Oracle Bones starts, in that I was just showing up, and I had a part-time assistant position at The Wall Street Journal, for $500 a month, and that gave me a base.

I was so depressed by that point. I had completely lost all perspective. I just wanted to get rid of the thing and put it behind me and do something else.

It took a while for River Town to come out, because I took a long time editing it. But there was a lot of stuff going on that year and people were starting to get interested in China. So I very quickly had a lot of work. After about a year I got a break with National Geographic and The New Yorker. I was on the ground there for just a little more than a year when I sold my first story to The New Yorker in 2000. Then a week later I sold my second story to them, and we were pretty much off and running.

FB: It was a great time to be writing about China.

PH: Yeah, I was very lucky. I was at the right place in the right time. But it did take some faith, because it was very discouraging earlier, when I was rejected for those jobs and living at my parents’ house. I didn’t grow up with any money, so I couldn’t rely on anything else. And the college debt weighed on me.

FB: Was there anything you learned from John McPhee that influenced the way you write, or think about writing?

PH: There were huge numbers of things that I learned from him. There’s technical stuff. Probably one of the best examples is a “set piece.” He’d teach us that in his course, and show us an example from his writing. It’s something, actually, that a lot of journalists don’t learn, because you only do it in long-form writing, but it makes you think differently about the structure and organization, and that was a really useful lesson to have as a young writer. The example he gave came from his Alaska book, where he’s on his trip through the Alaska back country, and they see a bear. The thing shifts to maybe 1,000 or 1,500 words about bears, and it’s no longer in his experience. It talks about the nature of bears, things they do, and their size. There’s all this, of course beautifully written, but it’s a way of getting background information in an interesting way. It also allows you to step away so the voice doesn’t get stale.

McPhee had a lot of technical lessons, but I think the most important thing was the deeper ways of thinking about writing. One of them, for me, was that you can do fascinating creative writing as a nonfiction writer. I had always been so focused on fiction that I was kind of turned off by the newspaper style of writing. My parents didn’t get The New Yorker, so I didn’t realize there were these other ways of writing nonfiction, and that it could be just as dynamic and fascinating as fiction, and just as artistic.

FB: How did you and Leslie choose Egypt?

PH: There are a couple things. We wanted something different from China. We wanted a different kind of challenge, and something that would give us a new perspective. We wanted to study a language that would be fascinating and rich. I like the idea of a place with a long history, and especially with ancient history because I like archeology. But we also needed it to be a place that would interest The New Yorker. I couldn’t go to Portugal, right? I mean, how many stories about Portugal are you going to write for The New Yorker? I had to be able to support my family.

We thought about India, but I didn’t like the way that there wasn’t one language that unified it, and it seemed like maybe it was too close to China in some sense. So we eventually settled on the Middle East. It was going to be Damascus or Cairo, because those are good places to study Arabic. We were leaning toward Damascus for a while, but once the Arab Spring started it was clear that Cairo was the place. But we’d never been there. We showed up in Cairo with these kids, and neither Leslie nor I had ever been to Egypt.


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FB: Having kids myself, I can’t imagine a move like that.

PH: When I look back, it’s totally crazy. Leslie and I, maybe we’re delusional or something, but we’re also pretty calm people. It helps, too, if you’re doing this with somebody else who’s totally on board. It was definitely a hard first year. I mean, I think the whole thing was hard, because it’s hard with little kids to do something like that, and it’s hard to be in the midst of this chaotic political period. It was very intense. But it’s an engaging place. The people are likable, even though Egypt has problems on a level that we had not experienced in China. There’s serious dysfunction in many aspects of Egyptian society. But it was a phenomenal experience, and I was also fortunate in that I did get to know individuals who brought some light to what was going on, and not just in the sense of understanding. They were engaging, positive people that I liked to spend time with. Sayyid, and Manu and Rifaat, our teacher. We loved it.

FB: What’s your feeling about the importance of learning the language of a place where you’re writing about or living?

PH: To me, it was fundamental. I’m not interested in writing in-depth about a place where I’m not at least doing my best to learn the language. In Egypt I didn’t become fluent like I was in Chinese, but I was very conversant, comfortable with somebody like Sayyid. I could spend a lot of time with him and his family and understand what’s going on, and that was really important to me.

FB: With Egyptian Arabic, what did you learn about Egypt that you wouldn’t have learned without that?

PH: There’s the deep religious nature of the language, and the impact of religion on the language itself. It’s fundamental to that language. I think that that’s pretty rare in the world. There aren’t that many cultures where you have the religion so deeply embedded in the language. It’s a huge part of what you’re saying when you’re using these terms all the time.

I had always been so focused on fiction that I was kind of turned off by the newspaper style of writing.

The language also makes you think a lot about the Pharaonic world, and the ways in which it lasted or didn’t last. There are remarkably few Pharaonic words in Egyptian Arabic. It’s quite striking. There are probably more Turkic words than there are Pharaonic words. But it’s also striking that a lot of those Pharaonic words are very foundational, like the vocabulary for agriculture has a lot of Pharaonic stuff in it, and the word for women, the word for water, the word for land, the Nile, the river. These are things that have deep roots, and those survived the adoption of Arabic.

FB: I love how in both The Buried and Oracle Bones, you’re writing about the distant past and the present, and finding connections and divergences. Do you think that was one of the reasons that you were attracted to Egypt?

PH: I definitely liked the idea of this place with an incredibly rich ancient history. I think there are always some people who say, “Well, that’s not really relevant to what’s going on today.” But I don’t believe it disappears. There are too many echoes that you can see. Also, it’s not just whether things stay the same. I’m not saying that everything is static, but more what I’m saying is that the ancient Egyptians were brilliant politicians, and a lot of what they did politically we see echoes of. For example, their use of nostalgia. Even 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, they were already writing nostalgically about the past, and the perfect political world of the past. That’s an effective political strategy. It’s what Trump does now. People do this all over the world.

FB: What’s your sense of the difference between how people in China and Egypt relate to that distant past?

PH: It was a huge difference. The Chinese are much more comfortable with it, and there are a couple reasons for this. The main one, of course, is they see their history as an unbroken line. It’s a very powerful thing to have that link. Egypt does not have that. The other huge difference is that the last Egyptian to declare himself Pharaoh was somewhere in the second century BC, and from that point until 1952. there was not a single Egyptian leader.

FB: What was the biggest challenge as a writer in Egypt?

PH: It was getting enough language, and being able to do that while the revolution was going on and while I had small children. I couldn’t study all the time the way I had in Fuling. In Egypt I was having to go report on stuff, and I had kids to take care of.

FB: In Oracle Bones you say that in writing narrative nonfiction stories, you’re collecting fragments and organizing them into stories. Some of your stories have arcs that span years. How do you know when a fragment, or something that you’ve collected, is part of that story?

PH: It’s an instinct you develop over time. It took me a while to get there, but by the time I left China I had a pretty good sense of this. When I was in Colorado, for example, and I was reporting on the uranium industry in my corner of the state, and I ran into a town where everybody was telling me to talk to the pharmacist, because he knew everything. That confused me, because why would a pharmacist be somebody who knows a lot? Then I talked to him and realized, well, there’s no medic, there’s no hospital anywhere near here, so he’s basically like a doctor.

I feel like when you start with an issue or a theme, maybe you’re dehumanizing people from the start.

He also mentioned the story of some loner in town who died and left him half a million dollars, and at that point my instinct kicked in and I thought, “There’s something going on here.” So I left him out of the uranium story, with the idea that I was going to pursue this. I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I thought there was something there. You get those instincts over years of writing stories and books. The same thing in Egypt when the garbageman, Sayyid, kept bringing me stuff from the neighborhood and he knww so much about people.

FB: Do you typically start with an idea?

PH: It’s usually either a person or a place. It’s almost never an idea. I don’t start with themes or issues. Partly that’s my instinct, but partly it’s also deliberate because I feel like when you start with an issue or a theme, maybe you’re dehumanizing people from the start. Maybe you’re fitting them into a larger narrative or idea that isn’t appropriate. So I tend to start either with a place or a person, and then the issues and the themes are secondary. They come in as I get to know the person or the place.

So I get to know Sayyid. Then I start to learn about him. Then that leads me into the informality of Cairo and the self-organization of those communities. Then it also leads me into gender relations, because I start to get to see how him and his wife interact. It leads me to issues of education, because I realize that this incredibly intelligent person is illiterate, and I get to know what his children are doing in school, and educate me in new perspectives. But it all starts with him.

FB: And now you guys are going back to China. Where are you going to be?

PH: We’re going to Chengdu. I’m going to teach for a year at Sichuan University. It’s been 20 years since I taught in Fuling.

FB: Is Chengdu near Fuling?

PH: It’s close. I wanted to teach in Fuling, but I wasn’t allowed for political reasons. I could do it in Chengdu. I’ll also be tracking down my former students and seeing what they’re up to, and revisiting Fuling.

FB: Are you going to write a sequel to River Town?

PH: I suspect some kind of follow-up book. But, I don’t know. I always wait until I’m into it before I really know what form it’s going to take. I do want to build on that experience, and I want to try to write something about how this place has changed and what it feels like on the ground, both for the people involved and for me as an observer. I’m also interested in my former students, who were a remarkable generation, because they were born around the time that Mao died, and they grew up with the changes. I’m curious to know more about their perspective on what they’ve seen and what they’ve lived through, because they’re middle-aged now.

FB: Is your plan to be there for a year?

PH: Right now, I think we’ll be there for five years. I’ll do one year of teaching, and then transition to writing full-time and reporting. Leslie is finishing her Egypt book, and then she’ll transition to writing. We also want our children to learn Chinese.

FB: How did you guys meet?

PH: I was working at The Wall Street Journal as an assistant, and she was a journalist, or a correspondent for them in China. I was the lowest guy on The Journal totem pole, and she had a real job, back in ’99. But we didn’t date then. We were in the same circle of friends, and then in 2003 we started dating.

FB: Can you say what Leslie’s Egypt book is about?

PH: It’s about women factory workers in Egypt. She reported on the factory in Alexandria. She has really good stuff, and she’s partway through it now.

FB: That will sit nicely on the shelf next to Factory Girls.

I’ve never wanted feedback from anybody while I’m writing, because I add in stuff a lot while I’m going, and I want to be the one to shape it.

PH: I think the two books will be interesting. My book and her book also will be interesting because we’re looking at Egypt from slightly different angles. There are some cross-themes, and it was fun to have these projects being researched at the same time. It helps, I think, both of us to have all these conversations while we’re doing research.

FB: Do you guys read each other’s work, like Joan Didion and John Dunne?

PH: Pretty late in the game. We don’t do it as we’re working. I’ve never wanted feedback from anybody while I’m writing, because I add in stuff a lot while I’m going, and I want to be the one to shape it. Actually, for this last book, she didn’t read it until pretty late in the process because I think she was feeling a lot of pressure for her book and trying to get it going, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to throw it on to her. She needed to focus on her thing, but I think that was a little bit of an unusual time, just part of the whole challenge of doing these projects with young children. We’re both very supportive, and it helps a lot in terms of the reporting, because each of us is learning things that help the other person.

FB: With two writers in the family, how do you balance your life and work?

PH: I guess that develops kind of naturally. It’s all we ever knew together, because both of us were writing from the time we met. The hardest thing about having two writers is probably financial, and lack of stability. Neither of us have a steady paycheck, but we had kids so late, and then both of us had the good fortune to start in China, which was a good place to get established. Though we would never write together. We have no interest in that. We are not a team of writers. It’s an individual sport, like running.

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Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness and editor of Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology. He writes about travel, culture, language, science, outdoors, narrative, and belief for publications such as Harper’sAeonLapham’s QuarterlyThe Washington Post MagazineOutside, and the Best American Travel Writing

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

‘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…

“We’re All Still Cooking…Still Raw at the Core”: An Interview with Jacqueline Woodson

(Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

Adam Morgan | Longreads | September 2019 | 9 minutes (2,283 words)

In 2016’s National Book Award–nominated Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson infused her writing with a sense of place I could feel in my bones. From the “heat rising from cement” in Bushwick to the brownstones of Park Slope, Woodson has an uncanny eye for detail, right down to the “fine lanugo hair still clinging to the nape” of a teenager’s neck. In her new novel, Red at the Bone, Woodson returns to Brooklyn for another story that folds time as effortlessly as fabric. In the summer of 2001, a 16-year-old girl named Melody is introduced to society at a house party, to the tune of Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” She wears a resewn dress that was originally made for her mother’s own coming-of-age reception, a dress that was never worn thanks to her mother’s unexpected pregnancy. “Already, when it was time for her ceremony,” Melody thinks, “I was on my way. Already, at nearly sixteen, her belly told a story a celebration never could.” Read more…

Truly Seeing the River: An Interview with Writer Boyce Upholt

Photo of the campsite on the Mississippi River Rory Doyle.

The Mississippi Delta is the name of the vast swampy bottomland that runs for 200 miles between Memphis, Tennessee and Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Mississippi, North America’s second-longest river, mostly created this alluvial landscape. Dense forests covered it. White money, forced Black labor, and government engineering seized, farmed, and tried to control it. For many people, the name evokes images of Tom Sawyer or the Blues or roadside barbecue joints. Author James C. Cobb’s book described the Delta as “The Most Southern Place on Earth.” Even though populous Memphis sits on its northeastern edge, and many Blues festivals take place there, for its size, the Delta is not a region many outsiders visit. It contains some of the US’s most searing poverty, some of its greatest natural beauty, the origins of Blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and some America’s most violent, racist history. Writer Boyce Upholt has made it his beat.

A Connecticut native who found himself in Mississippi, Upholt has written about the Delta’s groundwater for The Atlantic, about the Delta’s Indigenous cultures for Roads & Kingdoms, profiled Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, the Delta’s last rural juke joint, for The Believer, and has explored one Delta island for the Oxford American. Once home to a murderous, moonshining frontiersman name Perry Martin, the legends associated with Martin cloak Big Island as much as its thick woods. This mix of wildness, lore, and neglect drew Upholt back for many trips, where he camped and brewed his morning coffee with Mississippi River water. His resulting travel dispatch “Beyond the Levee” brings this far corner of the nearby world to life, partly through Martin, a character who embodies the land itself. In a few brief pages, the piece explores two huge topics ─ America’s most iconic river, and the idea of wildness ─ and satisfies itself with providing not a volume but a window, a tantalizing glimpse, just big and deep enough. Upholt took the time to speak with me about this story, his work, and the Delta he loves.

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I grew up in Arizona, and first learned about the Delta on a visit to an ex-girlfriend’s family farm in the floodplain in eastern Arkansas. It was pure chance I traveled there, but that vast land’s lush, tarnished beauty immediately gripped me. You grew up in Connecticut. How’d you get interested in the Delta?

It was chance, for me, too. After college, I wasn’t sure how to become a writer, so I joined Teach for America and took a job as a math teacher on a Native American reservation in South Dakota. Then, after an unsatisfying yearlong stint in journalism, I decided to go work for TFA coaching teachers. I wanted to get somewhere “new” ─ to me at least ─ so when they offered me a job in the Delta I jumped. I wound up staying  for nine years, and I credit the place with getting me writing for real. There is such a rich history of storytelling and literature. I began writing a blog, then local magazines. Eventually I got an MFA and managed to find a way to write full-time.

In this Oxford American story, one person, Perry Martin, embodies this regrown patch of Delta, and then you become a new character in that story of development and environmental degradation, because you rewrite how we view the Delta’s character: wild or tame? Ugly or magical? How’d you first hear about Perry Martin and Big Island?

As someone who grew up hiking and camping, I found the Delta’s farmland beautiful but orderly: it’s a giant garden, nature contained and restrained. Then, in 2015, I wrote a profile of John Ruskey, a Mississippi River guide who is based in the Delta. We went out on the river, and I became obsessed.

The Mississippi sits amid a vast, wild landscape that almost no one knows is there; the river is at once a national icon and something we have completely forgotten. I kept writing about the river, kept exploring. In 2016, I did a weekend canoe trip with three friends down the backchannel along the west side of Big Island, which is one of the wildest, quietest stretches on the river. As a guide, I used Rivergator, an online text that John compiled. He offhandedly mentions a history of moonshiners on the island, and eventually, though conversations with locals, I began to fill in the details.

Back to that 2015 profile you wrote: What about the River fueled your initial obsession?

I will always remember that first campsite: we were on this wide sandbar that was covered with coyote and bird tracks. All night, I could hear the sound of trucks driving on the levee, which was just a stone’s throw away; I could see a glow on the horizon that was Angola Prison. And yet I felt completely remote and isolated, surrounded by the water, in this un-human space. I wanted more of that. But I also just kept finding interesting little tidbits: abandoned steamboats sitting along the riverside; attempts to catch and process invasive carp; a rapidly changing ecosystem. It still blows my mind that no one has written the book I’m working on: a look at what we’ve done to this river and the effects we’re seeing now.

There’s no real process besides paying attention: paying attention to what sparks my own curiosity; paying attention to what small dramas connect with bigger issues and questions.

Let me ask you about that book you’re working on: Why haven’t other people written it yet? Would it fit into the distinctive literary nonfiction cannon that includes Eddy L. Harris’ memoir Mississippi Solo, Mary Morris’s memoir The River Queen, or more like John M. Barry’s Rising Tide, and John McPhee’s River chapter in Control of Nature

The latter books, definitely. I’m not a huge fan of the adventure memoir. The landscape has so much to tell us, so why focus so narrowly on ourselves? There’s a difference, in my mind, between a trip ─ a paddle downriver, a hike along a trail ─ and a ramble. In the latter, your path is unclear; you make unexpected detours; you return to the same places, sometimes, looking at them in new ways. This, in my mind, makes for a much more interesting book. Great Plains has been a huge inspiration: Ian Frazier spent a few seasons driving around the middle of the country, often seemingly at random, and from that mess he pulls out this compelling history of a forgotten place. Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams is another great example; he sees this wide swath of the Arctic on various scientific expeditions.

As for why that book hasn’t been written, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe because people don’t think of the river as a place, just a line of water. But there is a whole valley around it, that was a part of it, and was regarded as the country’s first Wild West. That valley was cut off by the levees; now even people who live just a few miles away rarely see it. It’s easy to overlook the environmental problems there, until they well up into floods, like this year.

Your Twitter bio says “i wander around and write stuff.” People often wonder how writers find their stories. So you found the Big Island story by writing another story. But as a wanderer, do you find many stories by chance, or do you have some process that lets wandering lead to discovery?

There’s no real process besides paying attention: paying attention to what sparks my own curiosity; paying attention to what small dramas connect with bigger issues and questions. I have a lot of Google Alerts. I read blogs and newsletters. I flip through newspapers and listen for what people are saying when I’m on the road. (Latif Nassar’s ideas on where to find stories are spot-on, by the way.) Honestly, the hardest part can be deciding which of many ideas deserve my commitment. Lately, I’ve been spending more time reporting before I even decide to pitch, to make sure stories have depth.

You describe your interest as a writer as “how we shape place, how place shapes us.” Lots of writers have beats or themes they fixate on: music; sexual politics; war. What does your interest in place say about your nature or worldview? Or your approach to writing and reporting?  

Really, I wish I had a clearer beat. I’ve always been fascinated by landscapes, both human-made and “wild” (though that’s a problematic word). Scratch the surface of a landscape and you find all kinds of history. Paying attention to the history of places often reveals connections: we are connected to the land itself, to a larger ecosystem, and to a long chain of people who, through the generations, have crisscrossed the world. In terms of how I write and report, these sorts of stories often demand that I get out and be on the ground, so I can be a tour-guide through strange, misunderstood corners of the world. It also means I have to find a way to include myself in the story without becoming too solipsistic. I’m not sure I always succeed.

Travel writing used to be a very popular genre, filling many magazines’ pages. That’s changed a lot. But some of my favorite kinds of travel stories are the kind you just described: where a bit of the author’s personal narrative leads readers to unfamiliar parts of our world and reveal larger connections. What are your thoughts on travel writing and the travel dispatch as a form, one not pegged to any news or event, but that has something to say?

It’s among my favorites, too, though when done poorly it’s awful. There are many pitfalls. I  try to stay particularly aware of my privilege: as a middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual white guy, I have so many legs up in terms of getting a publication to pay me to write about a place. Often, we’d all be better served to hear from someone from that place. The river, as a place, poses less of this conundrum, though I try to honor indigenous traditions that existed along the Mississippi ─ and in many cases persist ─ as well as the way Black laborers, often enslaved, did so much of the physical remaking of this place.

Yes, the Black labor that cleared the dense Delta hardwoods also drove America’s lucrative cotton economy: the legacy of their forced labor and dehumanization remains. Poverty still plagues so many people of color here. Is it difficult to explore nature apart from humanity in this region?

In any region. I don’t really believe there is such a thing as “nature” apart from humanity. Humans are animals, after all. And human beings have been living on this continent for tens of thousands of years. They cleared forests, built monumental structures, actively manipulated the environment. The idea of an empty wildness came later. (John Muir argued that the Native and Hispano migrants should be kept out of his beloved Yosemite by soldiers; they spoiled the view, he thought.) I always come back to a quote from the critic Raymond Williams, from the “Ideas of Nature”: “[T]he conquest of nature . . . will always include the conquest, the domination or the exploitation of some men by others. If we alienate the living processes of which we are a part, we end, though unequally, by alienating ourselves.”

Also, have you seen the photo of the lush old-growth bottomland forests in Lucy Braun’s canonical 1950 book The Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America? A towering canopy with vines trailing down the stout sweet gum trees. Makes me wish I could tramp through just a few acres of woods like that, though just a few. It’d be exhausting.

I haven’t, but it’s gorgeous. You can do it, though! It’s not old-growth, but there are plenty of acres that look much like this inside the levees, along the river. I wish there were more of them, and what we’ve got left is at risk. The only way we’ll get there is if more folks go out and explore and appreciate them!

‘Indigenous Writing Is Going To Continue To Set The Bar For Literary Excellence’: An Interview With Alicia Elliott And Arielle Twist

Longreads Pick

“Terese Marie Mailhot interviews Alicia Elliott and Arielle Twist about some recent triumphs in Indigenous literature — and about other triumphs still to come.”

Published: Aug 13, 2019
Length: 8 minutes (2,037 words)

‘We Live in an Atmosphere of General Inexorability’: An Interview with Jia Tolentino

Tampatra/iStock/Getty & Random House

 

 

Hope Reese | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,578 words)

 

Should we trust what we think we know? That question lies at the heart of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, critic Jia Tolentino’s debut essay collection, in which she draws on her life experiences — from being raised in a Texas megachurch to starring on the teen reality-TV show Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico — and uses them as a lens to explore the blurry line between what is real and what we present to our audience, regardless of whether we are journalists, actors, or Instagrammers. Tolentino, formerly a Jezebel editor and currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, is skeptical of the structural forces that compel us to craft a perfect image of ourselves, and Trick Mirror examines the implications of our many modern façades.

I spoke with Tolentino about her nine-essay collection on the phone while she was in New York City, ahead of her book launch. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read more…

‘If an Animal Talks, I’m Sold’: An Interview with Ann and Jeff Vandermeer

A Midsummer Night's Dream. Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). (Culture Club / Getty Images)

Alan Scherstuhl | Longreads | July 2019 | 19 minutes (5,080 words)

“Hic sunt dracones,” the 500 year-old Hunt-Lenox globe warns travelers off the coast of southeast Asia: Here be dragons. In the half millenium since that mysterious Euro-centric globe’s construction, dracones have evolved, in the popular imagination, from representatives of a dangerous, fantastical unknown to something like just another of the familiar beasts populating what we might call the Fantasy-Industrial Complex. Through big-budget TV and movies, video and pen-and-paper games, and hundreds of novels and short stories each year, fantasy rules like never before. Dragons reign over much of our pop-culture globe, not just one patch.

Diverse and often self-reflexive, today’s fantasy fiction varies wildly in quality and approach. Writers like N.K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olondria), Ann Leckie (The Raven Tower), Kameron Hurley (The Mirror Empire), Seth Dickinson (The Traitor Baru Cormorant), Marlon James (Black Leopard, Red Wolf), Steven Erikson (the Malazan Book of the Fallen series), and many more have in recent years spun dazzling, forward-thinking variations on a genre that has at times been accused of wallowing in repetitive stories, simplistic good-versus-evil conflicts, and an inherent conservatism.

Now, with the publication of The Big Book of Classic Fantasy (Vintage), anthologists Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (shes a Hugo Award-winning editor; hes the bestselling author of the Southern Reach trilogy; and together theyve edited The Big Book of Science Fiction, The Weird, and other collections) are declaring that fantasy has always been weird and wild, thoughtful and delightful. The Big Book covers a diverse array of fantasy fiction from the mid-nineteenth century through the end of World War II. It opens with a German fairy tale (Bettina von Armin’s “The Queens Son”) about a queen whose son, immediately upon sliding from the womb, is stolen by a she-bear; it closes, fittingly, with J.R.R. Tolkien, whose tale “Leaf by Niggle” concerns nothing less than an artist’s act of world-making. The almost 800 pages between these offer almost 90 stories from around the world, from the expected writers of fantasy (Fritz Lieber, Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany, L. Frank Baum), many unexpected fantasists (Zora Neal Hurston, E.M. Forester, W.E.B Du Bois, Edith Wharton), and a host of surprises from lesser-known writers. The Vandermeers approach is expansive. Half the stories in The Big Book are works in translation; fourteen have never before been published in English; few concern monster-slaying. Read more…

Those Limits Were Not Hindrances: An Interview with Megan Pugh

Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

During his 40-year career, Leon Redbone was a musician for whom the past was never past and the persona was as important as the music. But what about his real name? And where did he come from? “That’s a memoir question,” he told one journalist. “I don’t answer memoir questions.” For the Oxford American, poet and prose writer Megan Pugh spoke to Redbone’s family and acquaintances to paint the most robust, reliable portrait we have of this compelling musical mystery. The story, “Vessel of Antiquity,” came out in the Spring 2019 issue with tragically fitting timing. Redbone died on May 30th, just a few months later.

While “Vessel” solves certain mysteries, it deepens the more important ones. While tryiing to understand what drew this expatriated Armenian to America’s musical past, the author captures the essence of the person — hilarious, kind, driven to live as his authentic self — and captures the sound and meaning of the music as only the best writers can. With incredible narrative skill and poetic sensibility, the story seeks the truth without taking the fun out of Redbone’s painstakingly constructed identity; more proof that poets often make the best prose writers. Pugh spoke with me about writing and Redbone via email.

***

How did this story start for you? Were you a fan of Redbone’s?

I wanted to understand why Leon Redbone’s live performances were so astonishingly good, and so moving. I saw him play in San Francisco in 2008 and 2011, and after both shows, I emailed a dear friend — a historian living across the country — about how urgently we needed to discuss the wondrous things Leon Redbone was doing with time: not just playing the old tunes, but also talking about long-dead musicians as though they were alive, whistling along to recordings, noting the presence of an onstage trashcan that seemed vaguely like the dustbin of history. (In hindsight, “discuss” probably meant “listen to me be very excited while I repeat all the details I can remember.”)

Years passed, Redbone retired, and no one had published the kind of serious, career retrospective he deserved, something that did justice to his art. When I reached out to Redbone’s publicist, Jim Della Croce, in 2017, he encouraged me to write one. Over a series of phone calls, Jim also told me wonderful stories about spending time with Leon. The piece began in fandom, with plenty of solitary research, but it moved along because so many people who knew Leon Redbone — friends, band members, family — were so generous with their memories.

Some of the best music stories start with that sort of passionate fandom, the urge to understand and honor someone wondrous. But part of Redbone’s legacy is the mystery he creates about himself. Did the people you talked to put limits on what they’d say about his origins?

Yes. Redbone was a very private person, and his friends were loyal— as friends should be. When I asked the blues singer Paul Geremia if Redbone had ever talked about his family’s history, for example, Geremia simply replied: “That’s personal.” Other folks, even if they’d known Redbone for years, understood that they weren’t supposed to ask about his life before he’d become Leon Redbone — or that if they got close to asking, he’d avoid the topic. Dan Levinson, who played clarinet with Redbone, remembered asking “something like ‘Are you fluent in any other languages,'” to which Redbone would reply, “‘Yes, all languages.'” Those limits never struck me as hindrances — they were information. And I was interested in other information, too: how Redbone worked, what it was like to be out on the road with him or in the recording studio, whether my developing sense of him seemed right to people who’d know.

I should be clear that by the time I became a Redbone fan, it was pretty easy to find his birthplace and given name (Nicosia, Cyprus, and Dickran Gobalian): George Gamester had written about them in the Toronto Star back in 1986. Those details led me to others. But as I learned more about the Gobalian family’s history — Redbone’s father survived the Armenian genocide, and “Leon” was the name of the last king of Armenia — I worried about what to include. Should I follow the example of the pianist Tom Roberts, who told me that when people tried to talk with him about Redbone’s origins, he’d just plug his ears and sing? So many people had been careful not to violate Redbone’s privacy, and I wanted to be careful too. I sought advice from friends — one a professional philosopher, another a longtime journalist. They told me that this information would not harm anyone; that I was going to share it in a respectful context; that it might generate interest, knowledge, and understanding; that I’d talked about this history with Redbone’s wife, Beryl Handler, and younger daughter, Ashley; that this is how profiles work. But I ran the details by the family one more time anyway, just to be sure.

It’s interesting that you sought a philosopher’s counsel, because a project like this presents the clear ethical issues you describe, but it also begs other questions about how sharing this personal information influences listeners. If his identity and performance were, as your story says, as important as his music, does knowing Redbone’s other identity change the experience of his music?

That’s a tough one, and I wouldn’t want to presume to answer it for other people. I’m still moved by Redbone’s work for the same reasons I’ve always loved him — his sly panache, that voice, the way he breaks the rules of time — but research and writing have deepened my experience and helped me understand it. Yet there’s so much about Redbone I don’t know, including how appropriate it is to think of his life before he was publicly Leon Redbone as an “other identity.” I like that uncertainty. I like that he kept audiences focused on his art.

His death, though, and the poor health that preceded it, have changed what I hear. On some level, his records were already raising the dead, but I wish this didn’t now include him. I never met him, but it felt oddly intimate to have so many long and sometimes heartfelt conversations with people who cared about him enough to try to help some woman they’d never met write an article. I suppose that process amplified the feelings of simultaneous closeness and distance that I love in his work — the past brought back, the past you’ll never quite get. But also, I’ve just been thinking about these people — who know him not just as an artist, but as a person whom they’ve lost — a lot.

You also mention how no one had published a serious career retrospective before. Was the limited number of secondary sources a challenge?

I don’t want to imply that there was a lack of writing about Redbone. There’s quite a bit, and I found it incredibly helpful to read many, many profiles, record reviews, and interviews from the 1970s on — especially since, by the time I began working on the piece, Redbone’s health was too poor to allow for an interview. What I read didn’t do what I wanted to do, but that was okay — it meant that there was room. And though no one else was writing about Redbone’s career at length when he retired, the folks at Riddle Films premiered a wonderful documentary short, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone, last year, with stories about Redbone’s emergence on the Toronto scene and some beautiful, more recent footage.

Some of my favorite prose writers are poets, including Hanif Abdurraqib and Denis Johnson, and after seeing the way you articulate ideas and use language — I had to read this with a pencil to mark the margins of the pages — I wasn’t surprised to learn that you are, too. How do your poetry and prose inform each other? What challenges does writing in two forms present? 

That’s nice to hear, thank you! Both genres, for me, involve a kind of obsessive attention. Both come from a desire to find a language for something at times when that language might not be immediately evident. Whatever I’m writing, I tend to enjoy thinking about the ways that — to borrow from Kenneth Koch — one train may hide another, or one experience may haunt another. I tend to feel very attached to the sentence, as a form, and the kind of wonderful fragmentary play at which many poets I admire excel never comes easily to me. But I’m mostly okay with that. I like sentences.

Reimagining Harper Lee’s Lost True Crime Novel: An Interview with Casey Cep

Ben Martin / HarperCollins

Adam Morgan  | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,793 words)

 

Four years ago, when the news broke that a second Harper Lee novel had been discovered fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the literary world was shocked. Some readers were thrilled by the prospect of returning to the world of Scout, Atticus Finch, and Boo Radley. Others were concerned the 88-year-old Lee might have been pressured to publish an unfinished draft. But Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for the New Yorker and the New York Times, drove down to Alabama to get to the bottom of it. And what she found wasn’t a publishing conspiracy, but another lost book Lee had attempted to write for more than a decade, but never finished.

The book was called The Reverend. It would have been a true-crime novel like In Cold Blood (a book Lee helped Truman Capote research, write, and edit, despite his failure to give her any credit). The Reverend would have told the story of Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who murdered five members of his own family in the 1970s in order to collect life insurance money. It would have touched on voodoo, racial politics in post-industrial Alabama, and a courtroom setpiece that rivaled To Kill a Mockingbird for drama. But Harper Lee never finished writing The Reverend, and now, thanks to Casey Cep, we know why.

Cep’s debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful. Cep actually tells three concentric stories: the crimes of Willie Maxwell, the trials of his lawyer Tom Radney, and Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write about them. When I called Cep from “a Southern phone number” on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon, she initially thought I was one of her sources calling with a “some bombshell thing they want to show me, far too late to help with the book.”

*

Read more…

Keeping the Focus on the People: An Interview with Joe Kloc

Photo of the anchor-outs Therese Jahnson.

In his memorable Harper’s feature “Lost at Sea,” journalist Joe Kloc captures the struggles of the approximately one hundred people who live on salvagd boats off-shore from affluent Sausalito, California. Theirs isn’t a subversive lifestyle choice. It isn’t alternative living. The people known as “the anchor-outs” are essentially homeless and have found a way to survive on the water, instead of on land.

Thanks to the second tech boom, San Francisco has forced many residents to leave the Bay Area in search of affordable living. Yet the anchor-outs live in view of the famously expensive city’s famous skyline, and new residents arrive regularly, buying discarded ramshackle boats and becoming part of a tight-knit floating community who survive on their wits, salvaged materials, shared resources, and food grown on deck and gathered on-shore. On calm sunny days, they call their life outside Sausalito “Shangri-lito.” During a bad storm, they struggle to stay afloat. Death hangs over this aquatic community as much as poverty. Kloc illuminates their lives with great care and nuance. He spoke with me about his story and this community by email.

***

As your article mentions, you first started talking with the anchor-outs in a Sausalito park in 2015. Was your entry into their world pure happenstance, or had you heard of this community before?

It wasn’t happenstance. I first heard of the anchor-outs in 2010 or ’11, from a friend who grew up in Marin County. I tried at the time to write a pitch for the story, but failed. I could never figure out what it would be about, what the arc would be. That was a blessing. Twenty-four-year-old me would not have been a good fit for the job. I would have romanticized the anchor-outs and their troubles. When I returned to the idea years later, after having spent some time on Richardson Bay, I realized that the situation was more complicated. Time passed harshly on the water, and luck changed quickly, but the anchor-outs found meaning and friendship in their lives despite it all. That became what I wanted to write about: how people trapped in poverty lead beautiful and complex lives. Hopefully that came across.

Yes, the beauty of their social ties came through clearly. One of the things that moved me was that sense of community, how they share resources, time, and loyalty. Did they treat you, an outsider, with suspicion? As a journalist, how did you develop enough trust to be allowed so deeply into peoples’ worlds and then walk that line between reporter and friendly acquaintance?

The man named Innate Thought was very helpful in bringing me into the fold. That is just who he is. But it also didn’t hurt that a year before we spoke face to face, I had found his email on a YouTube video that he had posted, of anchor-outs meeting with Sausalito city officials. I sent him a message, and though was too busy to talk at the time, when we eventually met in 2015, that bit of history gave him the sense that I was invested in his story. Once we spent a few days together, he began making a lot of introductions for me. I recall him saying to Larry Moyer something like, “He’s a reporter, but don’t worry, he isn’t looking for a scoop.” What exactly that meant I’m not sure, but it appeared to put people at ease. Then I just stuck around long enough that I sort of became furniture in their lives. That’s a great place to be, in terms of access. But like you said, that’s where the line between reporter and friend becomes difficult to navigate. I was sharing their food and talking about the hardships in their lives. A bond did form. There were times when we’d argue about politics, or mourn the death of an anchor-out that we all knew. I tried my best to build the trust in our relationships around me being fair to their stories. I think all that most people want is a fair shake. They never asked for anything more.

People living in poverty are harassed in so many ways, from restrictive local ordinances to aggressive law enforcement. It is often motivated by false assumptions that dehumanize and isolate struggling people, cutting them off from the world.

From your first 2015 park encounter with them, it took you four years to report and publish this story, but really it took about eight or nine. How does a writer stick with a story that long?

For one thing, Innate and Melissa would occasionally call me on the phone, sometimes just to say hello. That gave the project a momentum of its own in my life. But more to your question, once I settled on the idea that the passage of time would drive the story, it was harder for me to stop reporting it than to keep going. The longer it went on the more complete it felt, and the more confidence I gained that I could fairly portray the people and circumstances involved, though I’m still nervous about having gotten those things right. Eventually, I did feel I’d reached an endpoint. Many of the anchor-outs I knew had either passed away or left the anchorage or fallen out of touch. I knew I was very lucky to have had this window into their lives, and I felt obligated to keep up my end of the bargain.

The anchor-out Larry Moyer lived on Shel Silverstein’s old boat. Now that Moyer has died, what’s happened to that boat?

There is no easy answer to any question about boat ownership, but here goes. First off, when Larry was living on Shel’s boat, he was not anchored-out, as Shel’s boat, the Evil Eye, is docked along the shore. I’m not sure who lives on the boat now. The last I heard, not long after Larry died, Larry’s wife, Diane, moved out of the Evil Eye and onto the boat where Innate and Melissa had been living when I first met them. That boat was known as Larry’s boat, as it was the boat Larry had lived on before he moved onto the Evil Eye. When Diane moved to Larry’s boat, Innate and Melissa moved to a shrimp boat. Innate told me they were very happy with the arrangement. It was always stable when a storm came through.

‘Many [people] assume that a person who looks broken must be shattered, when in fact he is trying to fix himself as best he can.’ That was the story I tried to tell.

Your story touched gently on the tensions between the anchor-outs and the people who live on shore — the landlubbers’ claims of increased crime rates, the bar patron’s comments about them being homeless — but were there layers to these tensions you decided not to include? You mention “efforts to remove them.”

I want to note that there are many people in the area who aren’t opposed to anchor-outs, who have a lot of affection for them. Several churches organize hot meals, and locals bring food to the park. That said, the efforts to remove and regulate the anchor-outs are both real and complicated. Some people advocate for a mooring field in the anchorage, and others believe no one should be allowed to live out there at all. Had I far more space, I would have gone into detail. But I think, in a story of this length, the day-to-day lives of the anchor-outs would have gotten lost in discussions of local politics. This may be wrongheaded, but I felt that, for what I was hoping to accomplish, it was more important to keep the focus on them. People living in poverty are harassed in so many ways, from restrictive local ordinances to aggressive law enforcement. It is often motivated by false assumptions that dehumanize and isolate struggling people, cutting them off from the world. While I was reporting, I thought about the book Sidewalk, by Mitchell Duneier, who spent years following the lives of booksellers on the sidewalks of Greenwich Village. He wrote, “Many [people] assume that a person who looks broken must be shattered, when in fact he is trying to fix himself as best he can.” That was the story I tried to tell.