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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.

***

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.

United States of Conspiracy: An Interview with Anna Merlan

Mike Rosiana / Getty

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | April 2019 | 17 minutes (4,461 words)

 

On March 13, 2019, a twenty-four year old construction worker named Anthony Comello drove to Staten Island and backed his pickup into a Cadillac owned by the head of the Gambino crime family, Frank Cali. When Cali came to the door, Comello shot him. Comello was arrested a few days later in Brick, New Jersey, and upon his appearance in court, it became clear that he was a believer in the confusing and ever-shifting conspiracy theory, QAnon — whose adherents believe President Trump is locked in a mortal battle with a “deep state,” which they contend is running child sex trafficking rings (among other things). A photo from the arraignment shows that Comello had written the letter “Q” on his hand, along with “MAGA FOREVER” and “United We Stand.”

A mob boss, a cadillac, a murder, a town called Brick, New Jersey — all of those things make sense when itemized and grouped together. In 2019 it’s not even that surprising that a member of QAnon was involved. But, barring new information, what is surprising is the simplicity of the actual motive — Comello wanted to date Cali’s niece and Cali disapproved.

“Life is so much more random than we would like it to be,” Anna Merlan told me over the phone, when we were talking about Cali’s murder. “Everything is so much weirder and less meaningful than we would like it to be and I constantly see people that I talk to grappling with that idea — that maybe there isn’t a grand narrative under the surface animating everything.” Read more…

‘Imagine Us, Because We’re Here’: An Interview with Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob / One World

Naomi Elias | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (4,793 words)

Nearly five years after the release of her award-winning debut novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob returns with a graphic memoir, Good Talk: A Memoir In Conversations (One World, 2019). Jacob tells the story of her life in a series of conversations between illustrated figures of the author and her constant companion, her son, who is six-years-old at the beginning of the book and is referred to as Z throughout. Z’s hyper-observant nature leads him to ask complicated questions about race and politics the likes of which Jacob first illustrated for BuzzFeed in a 2015 graphic article entitled “37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed Race Son” that quickly went viral. The resulting memoir is a stunning achievement — it’s already being developed into a TV series — that offers a look at America through the eyes of three generations of Jacob’s family: herself, her Syrian Christian immigrant parents, and her mixed race son whom she is raising in Brooklyn with her husband Jed Rothstein, a white Jewish documentary filmmaker.

Jacob’s tracing of her family’s history in this country — from the start of her parents’ immigration story, to meeting and falling for her husband, to the present day where she is raising a brown son in Trump’s America — is a resonant testimony to how difficult but necessary it is to find and fight for your place in the world. In a heartfelt address delivered to her son in Good Talk, Jacob neatly condenses the existential dilemma that is the crux of the memoir: “I can’t protect you from spending a lifetime caught between the beautiful dream of a diverse nation and the complicated reality of one.”

While framed by Jacob’s conversations with her son, the book spans several different pivotal periods in the Indian-American author’s life. Jacob takes us time-traveling through her early years growing up in New Mexico as the daughter of immigrant parents, invites us to relive her dating foibles, walks us through the highs and lows of her early career as a writer in New York, and lets us overhear intimate conversations she’s had with her husband about how to nurture and protect their interracial family. Each period we revisit is filled with revealing snapshots — sometimes literally when Jacob shares actual family photos — of the type of life she lived and the people and experiences that shaped who she has become. Like any good conversation, the book is generously punctuated by humor, has an effortless flow, and is more concerned with thoughtfully exploring questions than in arriving at definitive answers. Read more…

Forming Relationships with the Road: An Interview with Tom Zoellner

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Reading Tom Zoellner‘s Tucson Weekly piece “Interstate 10: A Personal History,” about the road between Phoenix and Tucson, I knew immediately I was meeting a native desert rat who knew my home turf. I grew up in Phoenix and went to college in Tucson, so I’ve driven that same stretch of interstate countless times. During my drives, I used to sketch ideas for ways to write about it, about the dry land it travels through and all the active roadside businesses and decaying relics of yesteryear. I never got past the note-taking stage, which is partly why I am so excited to see someone else write such a worthy homage to what Zoellner calls the state’s “most reviled” stretch of road.

People loathe it and do it on auto-pilot. By paying close attention, Zoellner functions as a tour guide in a place you’d never expect to want a tour, narrating all the interesting, ugly, and odd points along the way, as well as his connections to it. Ultimately, his piece is as much about the land as it is about learning to see past our own boredom and prejudices, to cast the familiar anew. When I read the word “caliche” on the last page, it made me homesick. Only a desert rat knows what caliche means, and seeing it in print warmed my red-chilé-colored heart. Zoellner talked with me about writing this piece and the nature of placed-based writing.

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You lived in Phoenix but grew up in Tucson. When did you get the idea to write about this stretch of desert highway?

I suspect every commuter has a funny ongoing relationship with the buildings and objects outside the window on their regular drive — little physical mysteries. Who lives in that house? How did that ugly sculpture get there? Does anyone really feel socially elevated after going to “Elite Car Wash?” These musings, often pointless, are the background noise of real thought, like a radio station playing a song of which you’re barely cognizant, and I realized with a jolt while on I-10 that the essential spool of these half-awake thoughts had not substantially changed since I was 12 years old. Nor had the highway, really — it was just as uninviting and shabby-looking as ever. And it occurred to me that this was Arizona’s most unloved highway, but it was also the one most traveled by a statistically overwhelming margin. That became the central paradox of the story, and pretty much everyone who lived in Arizona would get that instinctually, and likely have a similar interior relationship with this road.

Had you made other attempts to write about it? I ask because I did — I sketched notes for a piece about it for years while driving it — and I’m excited to see that you succeeded where I failed.

Writing can take place in the mind long before your fingers ever hit the keyboard. Stephen King has a wonderful simile about writers as paleontologists who are not so much creating material from scratch but merely excavating fossils that have existed in the subconscious for a long time. In that sense, I’ve been writing this piece since I was a sixth grader with no awareness that anything was being created. And so one day, while making my umpteenth Phoenix-Tucson drive for unrelated reasons, I just scribbled a note on every “old friend” that I saw out the window, as well as the same brief and entirely-predictable thing I always thought when I spotted it. The actual piece took less than two hours to spit out once I sat down. It had already been “written.”

What did your Tucson Weekly editor think of this idea at first? Were they like, “Why would anybody write about that boring drive?”

This was first pitched to Arizona Highways, the legendarily well-illustrated publication of the state highway department that has been touting the visual glories of the state since 1925. I thought they might enjoy a counterintuitive take: “You’ve seen enough of Monument Valley. Now here’s what you didn’t know about the state’s most butt-ugly road!” Suffice to say, this wasn’t for them. I’ve been friends for two decades with Tucson Weekly editor Jim Nintzel, probably the state’s most astute political reporter. He was good enough to give it a try.

Have you read or been influenced by other road stories, a genre that might be called roadside journalism or highway literature? 

One of my favorite books is U.S. 40: Cross Section of the United States of America, a collection of essays and photography published in 1953 by the under-appreciated American writer George Rippey Stewart, and then brilliantly updated by Thomas Vale in 1983 in a book called U.S. 40 Today: Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America.

Picacho Trading Post, demolished. Photo by Aaron Gilbreath

What’s it like writing for an alt-weekly right now? Some still seem unpredictable, fun, and adventurous.

When I was a daily newspaper reporter, I wished for the kind of length and freedom enjoyed by alt-weekly writers. I’ve been lucky these last few years to occasionally freelance an article for a few of them.

As you say in the essay, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) razed most of the town of Picacho, which had been there since the 1880s, and no media outlets wrote about it. Did you discover that while writing this, and is this essay sort of your way to correct that?

Yes on both questions. Picacho deserved a much better civic obituary than I could give it, or that it ever got. ADOT couldn’t tell me much of anything about the decision to virtually eliminate it for the widening of the SR 87 interchange. It was a vanishing whose paper trail seemed thin enough to have been anchored in the 19th century rather than the 21st. Highway villages have an odd relationship with history — built to serve people who are going someplace else, who never stay and who barely give it a close look or remember it.

What are your ideas about the way we relate to physical locations, and about writing about a personal relationship with place?

It’s extremely hard. You could write a ten-volume set about a small place, and still feel like you didn’t capture its real essence. The center will always retreat from your grasp. Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to motion seen behind windows.