Plastic Man Turns 80: Paying my respects to Jack Cole a second time

The hotel my older brother was working at in Rosemont, Illinois was having a comic book convention. It was back in the 1980s so about a decade off from the convention center comic cons here in Chicagoland. It was my first ever convention. I had a local comic shop where I would spend my weekend lawn-mowing allowance on current issues, but this hotel basement opened up a new world to me. My brother paid my entry fee but told me to make my money last because I had to hang out his entire shift. My wallet was empty by the time I hit the first comic book dealer’s table.

Up close, I had seen Silver Age comics from the 1960s and Bronze Age comics from the 1970s, but I had never before seen Golden Age comics from the 1940s, which saw the introduction of comic books to the marketplace. Craning my neck to see the wall of comics behind the dealer, I looked up at a beat-up copy of Quality Comics’ Plastic Man #26. Maybe it was the primary color scheme of the cover or that the page dimensions were larger, the draw of “52 Big Full Width Pages” next to the price tag of ten cents. Maybe it was the familiarity since I grew up watching The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show. But mainly, I think it was because of the cover art by Plastic Man creator Jack Cole, showing Plastic Man fully stretched, his face stoic and calm, not the wacky, Jim Carrey-esque caricature we sometimes see in the DC Comics issues and animated versions of Plastic Man. In this essay, I want to go back to the beginning and look at a man named Patrick “Eel” O’Brian, a former gang member transformed into an iconic superhero. For the eightieth anniversary of Plastic Man, I would like to take a look at the first appearance of the character and the ways my mental health awareness aligns with Patrick “Eel” O’Brian becoming Plastic Man.

On the first page of Police Comics #1 (August 1941), we open on a robbery underway at Crawford Chemical Works. Just as Eel cracks the office safe, the chemical plant’s security guard bursts in on the gang. Eel, the last one out of the office, takes a shot from the security guard’s pistol, throwing him off balance. An unstable Eel tips a vat of acid over himself and into his open gunshot wound. He is still able to escape capture but misses out on the gang’s getaway car, who all wave “adios” as they drive off without him.

My first mental health takeaway (which is a term I will use going forward to connect Plastic Man’s character arc and my work on myself in therapy) is to know who my true friends are. When I got to the point where I had to check myself into inpatient care for self-harm, I filled out paperwork asking me who I would turn to if I got to this point again. Unfortunately, the friends I put down on the admission paper weren’t there for me going forward. I remember asking my family on visitor’s day if they contacted them as I looked to the doorway, waiting. And when I got out of the hospital, they weren’t willing to be part of my healing process. They were the people I wanted to be there for me—I admired them, wanted to impress them—but not the people I needed for healing, those who I didn’t have to don a persona for in order to receive support.

Abandoned by his gang, Eel escapes through swamps and up a mountainside till he passes out. He wakes to find himself in Rest-Haven, a retreat of monks. The monks who discovered Eel give him a bed to recuperate in. They also give him a second chance by turning the police away, who are on a manhunt for Eel and his gang. When Eel asks why he wasn’t turned in, a monk explains that Eel needed a chance to not be burdened by his past, and the monk listens as Eel tells the story of what hard knocks led him on his path of crime. How he grew up an orphan being beaten down by everyone, learning that the only way to make it in the world was to take what you wanted. It is in Rest-Haven that Eel reshapes himself and discovers his stretching powers to become Plastic Man. Eel learns that he does not have to always push back at the world because sometimes there is a helping hand instead of another slap down. Unburdened by his past, Eel literally stretches to relax after talking to the monk and notices his arms extending.

The next takeaway is to find my Rest-Haven; self-care is important. I have learned the benefits of talk therapy to help me be in the moment mentally and not lose myself to racing thoughts of “what if” scenarios or be haunted by past trauma. Being in my head with these thoughts, I do not focus on the conversations around me, which leads me to miss out on my life and its enjoyable moments. Those that know me can even recognize my tell when I am too much in my head, how my lower jaw juts out and I look like a caged gorilla at the zoo (I’m a very large man for those who have not met me). I may not have the elastic powers of Plastic Man, but through talk therapy, I have slowly been stretching myself over the years into being present. It was trial and error in the beginning to find a therapist who was a right fit but once I found that person, I was able to reshape my perspective of the past and be present. Sometimes I am totally drained after these sessions. It is like being wiped out after a gym workout. So, I give myself the time needed after sessions to recuperate. I always make sure that therapy days are on my days off and give myself the remainder of the day afterward for a walk wherever the sidewalk takes me, taking in the world around me and seeing what I can capture on my phone’s camera. There are also the options of writing (I am a big fan of art therapy), reading, or TV. If I need a nap after therapy, I view it as necessary restorative sleep and not depression sleep. Even Plastic Man needs to pull himself back together.

The remainder of the issue sees Eel “rejoining” the gang for a heist only to one-up them as Plastic Man and turn them into the police. Eel demands to drive the getaway car on the next caper. When the gang enters the building, he shifts his face and body into Plastic Man. As Plastic Man, he stretches up multiple floors to get ahead of the gang, such as morphing into a rug at the bottom of a flight of stairs to catch them up, frazzling them, and making them think that Plastic Man is everywhere in the building almost at once. When the gang returns, he jumps back into the getaway car, changes back into Eel, and drives them straight by the police station. Then, the new “long arm of the law” sneakily grabs the gang members from outside the driver’s window, pulling them around the car to drop the crooks off at the station. Eel is ironically believed to be the only one to get away this time, allowing him to have a secret identity that infiltrates criminal gangs only to bust them up as Plastic Man.

My final takeaway is to ground myself in the room I am currently located. Through grounding—a practice where I work on being present in a situation when I feel overwhelmed or manic—I’ve learned how to be present in each room, to not anticipate my next move or be triggered by past trauma. By focusing on my breathing and feeling my feet on the floor, I can prevent myself from being uprooted and remain in the moment without pulling myself away with anxious thoughts or soaking in the toxic energy of others. For myself, I find I don’t have the power to bend the universe to my will, nor do I wish to, and my reacting manic to a situation is a sign that I don’t wish to deal with reality, but grounding allows me to be present in a moment and focus on the situation at hand with a clear head. I need my focus to be with me and where I am currently at in the present moment.

Plastic Man catches a lot of crooks by taking in his surroundings, morphing into objects, and waiting things out. Plastic Man is sometimes posing as inanimate objects and needs to not be an anamorphic object if he is going to come across as what he is turning into. (Meaning, a walking, talking briefcase wouldn’t fool anyone in a ransom money drop-off.) As Eel, he has to stay in his own lane to keep up the appearance of a criminal to remain undercover. The magic of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man is that it’s a kooky world, but Plastic Man adapts and morphs to meet each outlandish situation. Plastic Man gets misconceived as a walking cartoon character instead of the dual identity of Eel O’Brian/Plastic Man, a former criminal identity who changes into a heroic persona as a means of adapting to the world around him. The malleability of Plastic Man allows him to be more of a reed than the mighty oak he was before the accident and his time at Rest-Haven, someone who wasn’t going to budge for anyone. Now, Eel can go with the flow and adapt to the situation instead of being a tough guy bending the situation to his whim, or breaking under the pressure.

Another way I stay present is by observing pareidolia around me when I am out walking instead of being caught up in my head. Pareidolia is noticing shapes or faces in inanimate objects, like cracks in rocks that look like a smiling face or crumples in a discarded napkin that look like a dog. It’s like when you look at the clouds to see shapes, but without trying to Rorschach Test an image and instead stumbling on the moment naturally in the wild. Crooks in the comics don’t notice Plastic Man taking the form of an inanimate object because they are not focusing on their surroundings, only their actions. So, in these early issues, Plastic Man is not a human cartoon disconnected from the real world: he connects to the world in the comics by blending into his surroundings to wait out criminals; he processes but does not absorb shots or punches from others, they bounce off him; and most of all, he knows when to be Eel and when to be Plastic Man.

The tragedy behind Plastic Man is that Jack Cole died by suicide on August 13, 1958, in Crystal Lake, Illinois. At the time, he was working as an illustrator for Hugh Hefner at Playboy. Cole’s suicide note to Hefner can be found in the book Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretch to Their Limits! by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd (Chronicle Books, 2001). I remember being hit hard by that read to the point where I drove almost an hour to Crystal Lake. After the biography’s publication, Jack Cole was being discussed and how his death by suicide left so many questions. But I wasn’t at the lake looking for answers. For me, though I wasn’t able to verbalize it at the time, I needed to be in the space not just because I was a fan of Jack Cole, but because I didn’t feel there was anywhere I could go to talk about my own thoughts of suicide.

Jack Cole was not being selfish to take his life by suicide—he was dealing with mental health issues, and society in the 1950s was not in a place where men could talk openly about those things. I took the afternoon to apologize to Jack Cole that mental health awareness wasn’t better during his time. I walked back to my car repeating to myself that I wanted to live. On the drive home, I thought about that same persistent stigma waiting for me as I looked for help for myself—I had a doctor who told me there was “nothing wrong with a nap” when I said I was too exhausted to do anything. My family and my employer facilitated my need to mask my struggles with a plastic grin out of a fear of breathing in their toxic positivity and gaslighting when what I really needed was their unbiased support. My own path of mental health wasn’t instantaneous. I did not just snap back like a rubber band after that trip to Crystal Lake. It was facing the stigma of getting help as I was growing up, it was that emotional drive home from Crystal Lake, it was having one day years later where I thought I couldn’t handle things anymore, it was finally asking for help that same day, and it is now diligent daily upkeep on my mental health. And it is worth it.

Jack Cole created some visually stunning advisories for Plastic Man, like the giant who walked on his hands (Police Comics #11) or when we first met future sidekick Woozy Winks (Plastic Man #13) whose supernatural good luck causes an unreal infallibility to his crimes. I found the trick to Plastic Man was that he wasn’t the zaniest one in the room but adapted to the oddest things Cole could think up. In the end, Plastic Man would pull himself together returning to form. Deep down, having that Plastic Man comic under his arm helped that grade school version of me as he left the basement convention. He kept at it, reading and supporting the non-mainstream superheroes. The next decade, that kid would be older and go to the comic convention at a large event center down the road. Decades later, he would see that convention move downtown, everyone cosplaying as their favorite characters and people on the street wearing superhero T-shirts from blockbuster movies. The world has become that hotel basement. That kid in the hotel basement picked up a few things from Plastic Man, adapted to our own off-kilter world, and lived to see fan conventions take the hint as well, expanding to not just talk comics, but to address mental health awareness and the necessity of suicide prevention with booths for suicide awareness organizations on the convention floor and panels for mental health on their schedules. Seeing comic conventions as a place I sought to escape from my problems now becoming a community to end the stigma around mental health, I couldn’t think of a better eightieth birthday present for Jack Cole’s Plastic Man.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

The Trevor Project Lifeline: 866-488-7386

Find your closest crisis center: suicidepreventionlifeline.org/our-crisis-centers

Psychology Today Therapist Finder: psychologytoday.com/us/therapists

Cool for the Summer: An Interview with Dahlia Adler

Let me open with this: what inspired your latest book, Cool for the Summer?

It’s funny because I know a lot of people think that it was inspired by Grease, but it was not. It was actually inspired by reading a YA book more than five years ago that also had a summer love interest and a school-year love interest. And I thought, “I feel like I would love this more if the love interests were not both boys,” and that’s how it started. Of course, I also love the song “Cool for the Summer” by Demi Lovato, so I thought about what a book version of that song would look like. Those two ideas meshed together, and for the summer destination idea, I had just taken a trip to the Outer Banks about a year after I read that YA book. So all those things came together and made Cool for the Summer happen.

Can you tell me a little bit about where your love of storytelling came from and how you decided to dedicate your life to creating these narratives?

It’s actually only a part of my life because I also have a day job and two kids. But this came from all the way back. I am the youngest by a lot, and I was a very early reader. That means at ages four and five I was picking up my siblings’ Sweet Valley High books that were around the house and deeply not understanding what I was reading. I was just so into the cool lives that they were having—those Wakefield twins—and I knew it didn’t look like the kind of life I was going to have. I was thinking, “what a great way to live both.” I could kind of do one life through fiction and one through what I was actually experiencing. I started to tell stories that were absolute rip-offs of a combination of Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club. Eventually, around high school, I started telling my own stories that were actually my own stories. I started writing YA before I was even a YA, and the love of that never went away.

One of the things I found most striking about the book is just how funny it is. Every description is just making me giggle and makes me feel so close to the narrator. Are you just naturally that funny?

Oh yes, I am hilarious. I’m so glad whenever my humor translates because it often does not. I appreciate that you like it. Other people might find the main character unbearable, and that always happens. Some people like you and some people don’t. Some people think you’re funny and some people don’t. My characters often have my sense of humor in there somewhere. Lara, who’s the main character, and I are not so similar actually, and she’s so much more extroverted and I’m so much more introverted. I tend to just write with my voice everywhere.

Lara seems very outgoing and would rather go to parties instead of stay at home with a book. What was it like to switch your instincts and get into that extroverted perspective?

It’s hard! It’s kind of like thinking about the opposite of what I would do. My instinct for Lara is to be like, “nah, I’m just going to sit on the couch.” I wish I was more out there, and I wish I was less lazy. So I kind of thought of Lara that way. It was really important to me that she be a more outgoing, extroverted, and frankly cool character than I am. A lot of YA, including most of the YA that I write, has very internal main characters. They’re kind of loners and more introverted and especially sarcastic. That’s very common for a YA character. But this was the personality I really wanted for her: being a girl in this position, figuring out her sexuality. I wanted somebody who was in the spotlight, and I wanted somebody who wasn’t a wallflower to be figuring this out with all of the risks that go along with that. Because coming out for Lara was not really unsafe, but she had to assess all the different ways it would affect her life. I really did have to reach far beyond who I am and my comfort zone. I feel like that was worth it.

If it was a little bit more difficult for you to tap into Lara’s mind, who do you think you identified most with in the book?

I definitely in part identify with Lara. I would say I kind of tore myself in half between her and Jasmine. I’m like Jasmine in that I desperately want to get to the point already and spend a lot of time on the couch. I always want to be home on the couch. The parts of her that love books and have a more indie rock taste in music, all that stuff in Jasmine is more me. She is more affiliated with Judaism than Lara is, and that’s also more me. Jasmine is Syrian, which I’m not, so my background ethnically is more similar to Lara. But the whole scene where Jasmine has a Shabbat dinner with her mother—I do that with my family every Friday night. Those parts are all me. And some of my emotional qualities are definitely in Lara, like wearing her heart on her sleeve and wanting to people please. And the fact that she’s an aspiring romance author. Her journey on that was my journey with another book of mine. That was very much pulled directly from me. Then, Kiki is like who I wish I was. Kiki is one of Lara’s best friends. She’s the most fun, she has all of the hobbies and style I wish I had.

Talk to me a little bit about the process of this book. How long did it take you to write?

The process was actually really smooth for something I didn’t outline. I had been struggling through what was actually going to be my next book for years, and I just could not nail it. Part of that was because it required so much research. What’s so nice about Cool for the Summer is that I didn’t need to do more research. It was set somewhere I’d been and somewhere I’d lived. I was giving Lara and Jasmine backgrounds I knew about. I actually wrote the first 15,000 words on my commute on the train. Before the pandemic, I was commuting three hours a day. Then I would come home to a kid, and there was so little time for the writing and none for the research. When I realized that this was the book I could write on the train, I prioritized it. Thankfully, writing this book was absolutely the smoothest process for me. Every time I thought, oh no, I’m having a writer’s block, within the week I would figure out where I was going. It honestly felt like a miraculous process, which is how I knew it was absolutely the right book at the right time for me. I was very lucky with this one.

You talked a little bit about the difference between letting the prose pour out and using an outline. How do you decide which strategy you’re going to take?

I feel like I don’t get to decide anything. Things work or they don’t work. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth—if a book is meant to be written by you at that time, there is a scene somewhere in there that will pour out of you. I know some people like to save those scenes, and they want to wait until they get there. So when I’m desperate, I write the scene that’s pouring out now, because I’ll learn things about the characters, and I’ll learn things about their voices. There are things that will come out naturally in those scenes that are not going to come out in your pulling-teeth scenes. That said, if you write all the scenes you’re too excited about up front, you are never going to want to finish the book. So there is definitely a strong balance needed in doing that, but that’s usually my strategy. I find the part of the book that I’m so excited to write, and when I really need to, I will let myself skip to it. I’ll try to use that scene to advance the parts that have been harder for me.

My real desperation move, which I did enact with my next book, is the phone-a-friend option. This is just talking it out and letting them ask the questions that you don’t have the foresight to ask yourself about your own work. Ideally, every book just pours out, but when it doesn’t, there are some different methods you can use. Sometimes, when nothing else works, it’s just a sign that it’s not the book for you right then, and then maybe you can dig into one of your other ideas and see if something else is going to come out much faster.

You mentioned you did a lot of writing on the train. How in the world are you managing a day job, a family, and writing books?

There were years where I didn’t publish anything but short stories, and those were big stretches of time. I have a wonderful husband, and I had one kid at the time, so he took my now four-year-old son for a few hours on a Sunday or my in-laws did. I made the best use of those few hours. That’s the thing when you only have four hours a week to write. You are going to use them. But the year I last published a novel was in 2016. So in 2017, I was writing words that were going to be in my 2022 book. Maybe 2019 was when I wrote Cool for the Summer. Then, I had these YA anthologies that I published: His Hideous Heart and That Way Madness Lies. Those are both reimaginings of the works of Poe and Shakespeare, so that required a lot of my editorial time. I edit on a rolling basis, so you just figure out where the slots are in your schedule. You have to be so protective of your writing time, even when it makes you look like a jerk.

We’ll see what happens after 2022. Next, I have to write another book from scratch. We’ll see how long that takes now that it’s two children and no commute. No commute sounds like it should be a time saver, but it just means I have child care for a longer window. That window for writing isn’t there, so the truth is, I don’t know how it’s going to go for the future. I’m still happy to be home, but I appreciate that commuting gave me writing time.

What was your motivation for creating these two anthologies? Was it difficult fitting them into your busy schedule? 

The idea for Poe and His Hideous Heart came about when I had posed a question on Twitter just for fun: “If you could match up any author to reimagine any story, what would it be?” And this teacher replied and said a Poe anthology, and then she named a few authors. I loved that idea, and I mentioned some other authors. Those authors replied like, “I would do that!” and then, a couple of other authors were like, “I would do that, too!” Then I realized that this was going to happen. I had the time, because frankly, I wasn’t really working on a novel then. I was going on about five years with no agent, and I was doing short story contributions to other anthologies for which I didn’t need an agent. I thought this project was a great way to move forward, but also, I was just so excited by the idea of this anthology.

I can’t write them for my life, but I love thrillers and horror and dark fantasy. I really wanted to see that book happen. I had a strong network, I blogged for Buzzfeed, and I blogged for Barnes & Noble for six years. I’ve also run a site called LGBTQ Reads for the last five years. So, I felt like I could make the best version of this book happen. And then, once it happened, I was doing Cool for the Summer. I think the offer for Cool for the Summer came on my pub day for His Hideous Heart.

I really wanted to do this again—this thing where classic works are made more accessible and more interesting. And they can show different kinds of people with different backgrounds in classic literature and how there’s a place for everyone. The second author I thought of after Poe was Shakespeare. A second anthology was so much work because I handle contract negotiations, tax forms, and payments. Editing aside, there are a zillion other things that are a nightmare. I don’t know how many more anthologies I have in me because they are just so much. I do hope to keep writing novels, so we’ll see how things go.

Last question: what do you think is the one thing you really wanted to say with Cool for the Summer? Do you think you succeeded in this?

I would say my biggest thing with Cool for the Summer was that there is no right way to journey into your identity and your self-realization, and I feel like it got there. I think people very by and large have felt my intentions with bi representation and with the journey that Lara takes. There are a lot of things in there that are not favorites for people, and it’s a little messy. Despite how much people hate love triangles and YA, I feel like things have really been taken in the way intended, which I do not take for granted. So, I think overall, it’s been taken well and resonated with people in a way that feels really wonderful to see. I’ve heard a lot of people reach out to me and say “I wish I could give this book to teen me” or “this is the book I wish I had as a teen.” That feels wonderful to me, and I also hope teens are reading it and feeling glad they have this book. In a way, I wrote it as somebody who also wished they had it as a teen. I had a mom reach out to me to say she wanted to know if my book was age-appropriate for her daughter because it’s the first YA romance she has ever requested her mom get for her. That was actually months ago, and I’m not sure if she realized the book wasn’t out yet at the time. So I’m curious if she ended up getting it, and if the daughter ended up reading it and liking it. I would kill to hear from her.

Piecing Women Together: The messy grieving process in Pieces of a Woman

When a woman I love lost her boys to miscarriage she planted pine trees in her garden and waited for them to grow. When Vanessa Kirby’s character in the film Pieces of a Woman, Martha Weiss, lost her girl right after she was born she put apple seeds between moist cotton pads in her fridge and waited for them to sprout. The former is not my story to tell, on the latter, however, I can elaborate freely. All of us, whether imaginary or flesh and blood, have our own weird, winding ways we embark on to process our grief. These pathways are difficult to trace back or explain, but the urgency of putting them out there remains potent. Art conveys the stories we want to be told but can’t quite get around to telling. Ones that are filled with awkward silences and uncomfortable questions.

Like, how do you mourn for something that never got the chance to truly be?

In grappling with that question Pieces of a Woman emerges as a fine piece of storytelling art, even if the story it tells seems filled with peculiar rituals the meaning of which we don’t fully understand. But it doesn’t seem wrong or out of place: after all, the grieving process is often murky, opaque to those around the bereft. At first glance, Martha may come off as difficult to those who try to provide her with an emotional support network. She refuses the comfort of intimacy to her visibly suffering partner, leaving him to balance on the brink of relapse and turning the blind eye when lapse he does. She fobs off her concerned sister, acts defensive towards her increasingly demented mother, and kisses a (token black) colleague at an office party. Her grief is not a neat linear process and for most of the film she’s not even visibly processing anything. And this excruciating, tedious quality is, I would argue, the best thing in the whole film. Too often we get stories that are clear-cut and task-oriented: the bad thing happens, you process it, with perhaps just one minor setback occurring around three-quarters of the movie, and—bang!—you’re good to move on with your highly functioning life.

Meanwhile, the strenuous work of grieving is not the stuff of action movies. Those who try to come to the rescue often end up doing more harm than good, adding to the griever’s pain their own frustration about the inefficacy of help they—as rescuers—are trying to provide and failing to realize that there is no quick or easy fix. Such is the case here. To Martha’s family circle, what is perhaps the most frustrating part of her messiness is her refusal to blame the stand-in midwife; the woman who helped deliver the baby and for a split second partook in the joy of her flash-like motherhood. It is especially Martha’s mother who tries to push her own agenda, fixated on the idea of getting some kind of revenge for the death of her grandchild. This brings me to the two directions that I think the story could have developed more, which might have made it an even more compelling film to watch. The first is how the generational trauma of the Holocaust is brought up by Martha’s mother as leverage and how Martha is clearly reluctant, if not altogether unwilling, to partake in her difficult heritage as a Jewish woman. The second is how the prosecution of a midwife by an affluent family plays into the social-class conflict. Mentions of the former are scattered throughout the movie but never explored in a thorough way that a sub-plot of this gravity deserves. Of the latter there is but one indication, in a scene when Martha overhears news coverage of the trial while sitting in a cab but refuses to listen, turning her head away to stare blankly out of the window.

As she detaches from what the TV reporters are saying, the viewers can feel locked out of this other story. All throughout the movie we can sense another tragedy unravelling, not before our eyes but beneath the surface—the life of Eva, the midwife, being implicitly, systematically dismantled by the investigation and the court proceedings. This could also be a potential source of frustration for some viewers; in particular, the awareness that all the while somewhere out there another story is taking place. One that could provide more dramatic, tear-jerking—and maybe even cathartic—moments. What could be this juicy courtroom drama turns into a long-winded, psychological journey, or perhaps a trip, given that the main characters seem intoxicated by their mourning, tightly cocooned in soundproof grief. But even though some sort of overt conflict or confrontation between Martha and Eva could have given the movie more dramatic impact, the movie takes a different approach—a more empowering and less obvious one. Through the entire film, Martha’s family circle puts increasing pressure on her to punish Eva, pitting the mother against the midwife to orchestrate a battle that the bereaved woman wants no part of. A battle in which her personal tragedy becomes compartmentalized, supposed to serve as a pretext—which is what, ultimately and bravely, she refuses to do.

There is another movie that echoed in my mind while I was watching Pieces of a Woman, particularly the scene that took place in the courtroom where Martha finds her own voice and refused to cast the blame on Eva. The exchange between Eva and Martha—admittedly nonverbal, but intense nevertheless—reminded me of a scene in Love & Other Impossible Pursuits, where still-bitter wife #1 (Lisa Kudrow) confronts much-maligned wife #2 (Natalie Portman) tormented by the cot death of her newborn daughter. Rather than using this moment of vulnerability to her advantage, Kudrow looks at the other woman and pointedly tells her, “You did not kill your baby.” There is something quietly moving and powerful when characters refuse to play by the rules of the world that incentivizes them to hate each other and teaches them that the downfall of one will be the triumph of the other.

The whole shtick of pitting women against each other is older than cinema itself. Our pop culture, much like our history and our media, is rife with examples of putting women on trial to shine on them the spotlight of shame. A cold, blinding light that they either internalize or choose to avert to other women. The often source of conflict is the man, because of course it is. The infamous Bechdel test has demonstrated time and again that in most screenwriters’ minds no thing is of more concern to women than male attention. But when the core of potential conflict is not a male, but the particularly female experience of motherhood, that is where things become interesting. The ultimate manifest solidarity between two women positioned by circumstance to be rivals is a much-needed relief to the viewer. Especially since, at this point, we have witnessed a fair share of blame-tossing aimed both at the invisible midwife and the bereaved mother, who for the most part refuses to pull herself together and play according to the fixed rules of orderly grieving (whatever those might be).

Given the poignant beginning and the interesting (though at times underwhelming) development of the movie, its end might ring a bit off-key. After the pivotal (if a bit melodramatic) courtroom speech comes a teatime reunion with Martha’s mother and sister. It’s a final bright-green shot of hopeful days that could lie ahead once the apple seeds sprout and grow into tall trees. Seems a bit corny, like a technicolor-tinted cliché found in feel-good movies, which this one manifestly is not. But there is a deeper truth to all this, which is that, in order to heal, women should not let themselves be systemically antagonized and pitted against each other to provide an easy fix for what they know is unfixable. Martha’s child does not resurrect, her mother’s dementia does not retract. Life is still pretty tough as it is. But there is hope in forging those bonds and refusing to give in to revenge. Ultimately, the film shows us Martha’s reward for that refusal is the opportunity to piece together her womanhood by returning to the vital relationships with the women in her life. And maybe, in the years ahead, the possibility of creating a new life, a new beginning, a new woman. The final credits left me wondering whether that was cheesy, but it felt true, nevertheless. And if sometimes the truth comes with a whiff of cheese, so be it.

A Review of One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Published June 1, 2021 by St. Martin’s Griffin

The success of Casey McQuiston’s debut novel Red, White & Royal Blue set the bar remarkably high for their sophomore New Adult novel One Last Stop. Pitched as a queer retelling of Kate & Leopold, the novel centers on the cynical, twenty-three-year-old August Landry, a self-proclaimed loner who just moved to modern-day New York City. On her daily subway commute to university, she meets Jane, a mysterious Chinese-American lesbian in her early twenties who’s unable to remember much of her past. August quickly becomes infatuated, only to discover Jane has somehow been transported in time from the 1970s and become stuck on the Q Line, reappearing back on the train every time she tries to leave. Thus ensues a heartwarming quest to help her regain her memories and her freedom, while August struggles to keep her feelings under control.

The author’s love for New York is palpable and the novel captures a vibrant, authentic snapshot of the city. The plot, while engaging, is a little slow-moving at points and is probably the least notable element of the book. Where McQuiston really shines is their characters. Through August, McQuiston expertly epitomizes the experience of navigating your early twenties; discovering who you are and where you belong, and coming to terms with not knowing exactly what you’re supposed to do with your life. Jane, the love interest, is unparalleled. Brave, caring, and quick to stand up for what she believes in—she is unapologetic about who she is. Messages, reports, and newspaper clippings detailing strangers’ encounters with Jane throughout the years feature at the start of each chapter. They serve not only as a clever narrative technique but also as a way to emphasize Jane’s impact on those around her, making it all the more realistic that August falls for her so fast—because everyone does. The slow burn sapphic romance that develops between them is exquisite. There’s an air of serendipity as the two share stolen moments on empty subway cars and memorable declarations of love reminiscent of those in Red, White & Royal Blue.

The novel is host to an eclectic ensemble of diverse secondary characters. From the first page, I fell utterly in love with Niko, a trans psychic/bartender, and his confident, positive outlook on life. The other side characters are equally wonderful and genuine, exuding unconditional acceptance and warmth. With their frequent pop culture references, comfortable roommate dynamic, and inventive games like “Rolly Bangs,” they’re the type of characters you long to be friends with in real life. They serve as so much more than just plot devices, experiencing their own trials and triumphs that exist outside of August’s narrative. McQuiston excels at executing the found family trope as August carves out a space for herself among them and the group band together to liberate Jane from the Q Line.

The book also serves as a love letter to queer culture and an homage to the sacrifices made by the LGBTQ+ activists of the past. Through Jane, these activists roar to life. They become so much more than faded photographs and obscure figures; they are real, tangible people, with hopes, fears, and dreams outside of their role in a movement for equality. Several prominent events from queer history are referenced in the novel, and through August and Jane, we see these events from both a first-person and a modern perspective. There’s an overarching sense of hope for a future with more acceptance and freedom to be who you are and love who you love. The novel’s only couple of drawbacks are that the explanation for Jane’s time slip calls for considerable suspended disbelief from the reader and elements of the plot end up tying together just a little too neatly. For instance, revelations about a certain long-lost family member feel a little too convenient to be believable. However, these are easily overlooked as you are drawn into this hilarious, profound, sexy celebration of love and diversity. Ultimately, One Last Stop more than lives up to expectations as an effervescent medley of friendships, romance, drag shows, pancakes, history, and train rides.

A Review of The First Ten Years: Two Sides of the Same Love Story by Joseph Fink and Meg Bashwiner

Published May 11, 2021 by Harper Perennial

The First Ten Years: Two Sides of the Same Love Story is a joint memoir about the relationship between the Welcome to Night Vale podcast co-creator Joseph Fink and his wife, writer and performer Meg Bashwiner. The book follows them through the first ten years of their relationship, with alternating chapters where they discuss their interpretation of that year’s events.

“There are two sides to every love story,” as the tagline of the book says, and The First Ten Years explores those two sides fully. Joseph and Meg did not consult one another prior to writing their recounts, but they both end up diving into the most raw and vulnerable parts of their relationship and explore the subtle differences between how they remember each memory and what sticks out to them as memorable from each year of their relationship. Even when they remember details the same way, they have “their own narrative on just what they mean.”

I have been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale since its first season, so getting to read about the relationship between the show’s co-creator and one of the voice actors was fascinating. The text refuses to shy away from difficult experiences, tackling those topics in conjunction with acknowledging the good things, which make for an incredible reading experience. The book made me laugh and cry as it took me on a journey through international fame, world tours, the death of a parent, mental health issues, and bickering over who actually paid for the morning after pill after their first date. The text’s ability to balance the happy and the tragic in equal measure in ways that mirror life makes the book so much more poignant.

I loved how The First Ten Years gave me the chance to dig into what makes relationships what they are. How even couples that “become one” by adopting each other’s ways of being and thinking after being together for so long still interpret events differently, focus on different aspects of nuanced situations, and generally have different perspectives. The First Ten Years presents a couple of young dreamers in New York City falling in love and struggling to get by, who become adults with a flourishing relationship and discussions about having children. In many ways, it represents a microcosm of what it means to grow, change, and learn in one’s early twenties, and as a young dreamer approaching my mid-twenties myself, I found their story far more impactful and personal than I expected.

The only negative thing about this book is quite how targeted it is at fans of Joseph and Meg. If you don’t care about or at least know of them, it may be a less enjoyable reading experience because there is less incentive to care about their thoughts and experiences. Because their relationship was so affected by the sudden success of Welcome to Night Vale and those experiences shaping their relationship, readers without that wider context may find the text harder to relate to. That said, I do still think that even without the extra context, the book is an awesome exploration of how relationships adapt as people grow and change.

9 Public Domain Images to Cure Your Writer’s Block

The public domain is a vast treasure trove and often-overlooked resource for the literary community. Where entrance fees and distance may create barriers to certain museums and literary resources, copyright-free material is always easily accessible on the internet. Retro is in, so why not riff off the past? We’ve gathered a collection of settings, characters, and other oddities to help get the brain juices flowing. Consider this list a quick intro to inspiring your pen and generating your own prompts in the future! 

Setting

“Harold’s Auto Center, Spring Hill, Florida; 1979.” For more of John Margolies’ photos of Roadside America, check out the Library of Congress. 

Who works here, and how did they get this job?  

Your character sees this for the first time—describe the moment. Do they stop?  

What is this town like? 

What does the dinosaur see?  

What happened here? 

“New Year’s Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, Ōji.” 1858. For more work by Utagawa Hiroshige, check out Open Access at the Met. 

What place is this?  

How do the creatures speak to one another? What do they say? 

Do they exist? Do you? 

What will happen here? 

What histories surround this place? 

“Space Colony Artwork.” 1970s. Visit NASA for more renderings and concept art. 

Who gets to live here? Who works here? 

Who isn’t supposed to be here, and what are they doing? 

What is hidden? 

Where and when is this? 

What haunts this place? 

Character

Circa 1912. To browse more of Hugo Simberg’s photographs, check out the albums of the Finnish National Gallery on Flickr. 

Who is under that hat? 

Where does this path lead? 

Do you recognize who it is?  

Where is this pair going? How do they feel about their destination? 

When you take a second glance, something’s different. Do you say anything? 

“Shadows on Tent, Quarter Circle ‘U’ Ranch, Montana.” For more of Arthur Rothstein’s work, visit the Library of Congress’s Free to Use and Reuse Sets. 

What story does the standing figure tell? 

Who sits alone? What are they thinking? 

What sounds can you hear?  

Where have they pitched their tent?  

Who is in love? Who is afraid? Who is planning something? 

“Operating a hand drill at Vultee-Nashville, woman is working on a ‘Vengeance’ dive bomber, Tennessee.” 1943. For more photography by Alfred T. Palmer, visit the Library of Congress. 

How was the commute this morning? 

What else is she thinking about? 

What is different about today? 

Who is waiting for her? 

What does she want?

Object

Where do these grow? A strange land? A greenhouse? A planet? 

What kind of person grows plants like these? 

What sounds do they make? Do they speak to you? 

Pick one. Can you trust it? 

Pluck one. What happens?

“Bulletins, from January 4, 1909 to April 12, 1909.” For more resources from the Alexander Graham Bell family papers, 1834-1974, visit the Library of Congress. 

What does this structure do? 

Where did it come from? 

Do you understand it? 

How does the photographer feel when they capture this shot? 

What’s the last thing your narrator said to one of the figures?

“A Whale-Bus.” For more postcards of the year 2000 from 20th century France, check out Wikimedia Commons. 

Where are they headed? 

What conversations can you hear? 

What is the relationship between the conductor and the whale? 

How much does the whale make, hourly? 

Who wants to stop this bus, and why? 

Further Resources

If places like Wikimedia Commons or the Library of Congress seem overwhelming, never fear! There are plenty of other spaces, such as the Public Domain Review, willing to aggregate the weird and wonderful of the public domain for you.  

History is not an impartial or panoramic study—archives are shaped by the interests, intellect, and biases of those who decided what was valuable. It’s always important to consider, where is this coming from? What kind of person took this photo or made this drawing? What part of this do I use? What specific associations should I respect or be aware of? 

You hold the pen now—the writing is up to you. 

Fractured and Forgotten Memories: A Reading List

You’ve likely heard the phrase “our memories often deceive us.” To an extent, this is true: the past—or at least our understanding of it—is fallible, shaky, and often colored by our emotions and subconscious desires. But there is a flip side to this. By nature, books that tackle the absence of memory, either by forgetting or through forceful fracturing, often deal with the repercussions of those memories as they return to us. The result is an interesting case study on how we interact with and remember our past: the potent mix of pain and relief that comes with remembering, the way it helps us uncover our identity and the power it has to reconfigure our close relationships. Here are six books about fractured and forgotten memories and the power they have to encroach on the present as well as the future.  

Fledgling – Octavia E. Butler 

The last novel by lauded American science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, Fledgling tells the story of Shori, a young amnesiac whose inhuman desire for blood leads her to realize that she is actually a fifty-three-year-old vampire and member of the Ina species. The novel follows Shori’s quest to unearth the murky waters of her stolen past before those that took it from her return for something more important—her life. A book both alluring for its diverse spin on a time-old, Eurocentric trope and the navigation of classic themes of freedom and survival, Fledgling is Butler’s sparse yet pointed prose at its finest as she reckons with what it means to be “other” and how a loss of memory often marks a loss of self.  

You can order a copy of Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling HERE.  

More Than This – Patrick Ness 

Though Patrick Ness is best known for his Chaos Walking trilogy and his low fantasy novel A Monster Calls, his novel More Than This holds its own as one of the most provocative YA novels published in recent history. The book begins with sixteen-year-old Seth who, after drowning in the ocean, wakes up alone and with no memory in what he believes to be his own personal hell: the Suburban Southern English town where he lived before tragedy struck. As the story unfolds, Seth is forced to confront his past and the blame his mother places on him because of his sexuality and the incident that forced their family to move to America, illustrating how the muddiness of our memories often inhibits us from stepping forth into the future. A shimmering example of the eternal teenage desire for meaning, More Than This is an impressively challenging teen novel that tackles the importance of our most painful memories with the candidness that is so indicative of Ness’s writing. 

You can order a copy of Patrick Ness’s More Than This HERE.

The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro 

Kazuo Ishiguro is no stranger when it comes to writing about the fallibility of memory. Set in post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant tells the story of elderly British couple Axl and Beatrice as they set off to visit a son they can barely remember due to a mass amnesia referred to as “the mist.” As they begin to recover their memories, however, Axl and Beatrice are forced to reckon with a dark and violent world—one they might have been better off forgetting. Filled with memorable characters and marked by Ishiguro’s distinctive prose, which grounds the story’s more fantastical elements in a realism that makes its message more potent, The Buried Giant ruminates on the double-edged sword that is memory—both the way it protects us from the difficulty of our past, and how it is necessary for us to heal from it.  

You can order a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant HERE.

The Museum of Forgotten Memories – Anstey Harris 

Best-selling author of The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton, Anstey Harris returned this past November with The Museum of Forgotten Memories. In the novel, we meet widowed Cate Morris and her son Leo who, after being let go from her job as a teacher, moves from London to her late husband Richard’s hometown of Crouch-on-Sea to take up a job at his old museum: Hatters Museum of the Wide Wide World. But the more invested she becomes in reviving the dilapidated museum, the more she is forced to confront the reality of Richard’s death—and the part she played in it. Though The Museum of Forgotten Memories has yet to grace our shelves, Harris’s sharp voice ensures that readers are in for a richly descriptive narrative about how the process of piecing together our past can be as relieving as it is painful.  

You can order a order a copy of Anstey Harris’s The Museum of Forgotten Memories HERE.

The Blinds – Adam Sternbergh 

The Blinds, set in a rural Texas town of the same name, is home to criminals who have had their memories altered and are granted a new lease on life. The only problem: they don’t know if they actually committed a crime, or just witnessed one. For years, Sheriff Calvin Cooper has maintained a relatively shaky peace in the town, but when its citizens revolt after a string of grisly incidents, the deputy and a group of outsiders get involved, threatening to unearth the town’s grim secrets and upend its unsteady foundations. Potent and endearingly dark, Sternbergh’s The Blinds is a memorable account of how our memories provide vital glimpses into the human condition—and its vices.  

You can order a copy of Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds HERE.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa 

Reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 and the surrealism of Franz Kafka’s short stories, Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police tells the story of a young writer who lives on an unnamed island where objects disappear and those in authority are committed to making sure they stay gone. When the memory police set their sights on her editor, she hides him beneath her floorboards, the two clinging to writing as a way to preserve their shaky past. Dreamlike and haunting, Ogawa’s The Memory Police is a timeless rumination on the dangers of repressing memory and the importance of reconstructing the past—however painful it may be.  

You can order a copy of Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police HERE.

The world of our memories is vast and wonderful, as well as strange and painful. Perhaps these books will force you to look back on your past, and maybe they will help you unearth some forgotten memories of your own. Looking for more pieces on memory? Check out our latest issue, F(r)iction #17 The Memory Issue!

Five Literary Quotes Connecting Memory & Sense

When we stumble upon something that triggers a memory, neuronal circuits fire away to decipher what exactly the association is and to pull up the stored recollection. Smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight all serve as sensory connections to the world around us so that we can form and recall memories. What better way to luxuriate and ponder this phenomenon than the written word? Below is a list of literary quotes that either directly discuss memory or portray a character trying to recall a memory. Either way, they encourage the reader to recall something themselves due to the provocative nature of the sense evoked. Dive in to exercise your neural pathways! 

1. Smell as recollection: 

“The house smelled like fireplace kindling and hot water in old brass pipes—like metal melting into wood and becoming something all its own. It smelled like his childhood. Like chaos and terror and oatmeal cookies and lamb stew and nighttime in front of that drafty front window.”  

Melodie Ramone, Lights of Polaris

This quote by Ramone evokes how strongly a smell can transport us years in the past, to memories long buried and forgotten. While everyone’s childhood has its own unique set of smells, the experience captured here reminds the reader of the powerful impact senses have on memory and how to use them in writing to capture that.  

2. Taste as transportation to the past: 

“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place [ . . . ] Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs.” 

Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

Proust captures the intense sensation of when a simple taste throws us backward in time. We struggle to recollect the memory, continuing to nibble and drink to coerce the answers out of our minds. Everyone has experienced the visceral connection between taste and memory that uses sensory input to assert order over the endless logs of recollections stored in our brains. 

3. Touch to recall:  

“Touch has a memory. O say, love say, / What can I do to kill it and be free in my old liberty?”  

John Keats, “What can I do to drive away”

Here, Keats bemoans how unwelcome sensory input immerses us in painful memories of lost experiences. A simple touch, from brushing against a soft blanket to the perceived texture of a handshake, can ignite a thousand recollections at times when all we wish is to forget. 

4. Hearing a voice and remembering whose it is: 

“The weeping fit would pass, and I would drag myself back to the mirror expecting to see a child version of myself. ‘Who are you?’ I’d ask. I could hear the words; it sounded like me, but it wasn’t me. I’d watch my lips moving and say it again, ‘Who are you?’”  

Alice Jamieson, Today I’m Alice: None Personalities, One Tortured Mind 

When we contemplate sound triggering memory, we often recall snippets of experiences that happened to us or around us—the sound of breaking glass, the whistle of a tea kettle, the guffaws of another person. We rarely consider the musical albums of our singular existence, like the sound of our whistling or our laughter. So, what happens when we forget a sound that is integral to our identity, something that is important to how we perceive and associate with ourselves in an auditory manner? This quote explores the consequences of this frightening question by diving into the author’s own experiences with dissociating her own voice with her identity.  

5. Seeing a familiar sight from childhood: 

“Yet no painter could have re-created what she saw more convincingly. Every detail was as she remembered. At the bottom of the stone-cobbled path was a pond with rose-flushed lilies, and a marble bench under the cherry tree.”  

Elizabeth Lim, Reflection 

We can also be mentally transported to the past by coming across a familiar sight. The narrator of Lim’s Reflection returns home after time away, and the vivid sights remaining from her childhood inspire awe and nostalgia in her as the past and present blend together in a display that makes the reader envision scenes of beloved places from their own histories.  

There you have it! Interested in delving deeper into the nature of this tenuous human property? Pick up a copy of F(r)iction #17, Memory

Envisioning Trans Bodies in Fantasy

When I went shopping with a friend last year to find new picture books for their preschool classroom, I was happy to see a few books on the shelves aiming to introduce children to the concept of gender identity. There were books about breaking gender norms in categories like clothing and hobbies, and they even discussed topics like changing your name and how to talk to your parents. These stories encouraged children to explore their identity and be welcoming of people with genders that are new to them. As a nonbinary college student, I would have loved to have stories like this available to me when I was growing up. I never felt a strong affinity with the gender assigned to me from birth, and it wasn’t until much later in life that I was able to ask myself bigger questions about what gender means to me. Coming from a small town in rural Minnesota, this was a lonely process, and it wasn’t until I moved to a larger city that I was able to find a growing and welcoming trans community and family.

Though increasing the visibility of trans and gender non-conforming characters in children’s literature is a positive and necessary development, LGBTQ+ characters tend to be subjected to harsher treatment in other forms of popular media. Queer characters often get violently killed or die tragically, depicting the decades-old “bury your gays” trope. Lexa’s abrupt death in The 100 shortly after developing a more serious relationship with Clarke is a prime example of how this trope has dominated representations of LGBTQ+ characters. Even in imagined narratives, these characters are confined to stories of suffering and tragedy, which reduces them to plot points for cisgender and heterosexual characters. What kinds of messages does this send to people that may be exploring their gender identity and sexuality?

We need to start envisioning stories for trans and gender non-conforming people outside of the dominant narrative of suffering. Today, we see a steady rise in diverse representations of trans people in media: Netflix’s original series Sex Education recently cast nonbinary recording artist, poet, and actor Dua Saleh to play a student in their upcoming season. Examples like this allow us to begin imagining realities of empowerment in trans stories.

Fantasy can also enable the creation of identity completely outside the conventions of society. For example, in my Dungeons & Dragons group, my friends and I have created characters to represent possibilities we see for ourselves in imagined worlds. Our characters represent a diversity of identity in high fantasy: a rogue prince who bathed in phoenix fire to return as a princess, a genderfluid bard skilled in musical seduction and me, a nonbinary paladin protector praying to genderless gods. In fantasy, we have explicit permission to explore magical possibilities for our characters without being limited by societal convention. There is more to trans stories than tragedy and struggle. There can also be epic imaginings of trans joy and adventure in which no one owes anyone an explanation or defence of their gender. 

Neon Yang skillfully incorporated this idea in their silkpunk novels The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven. In this world, children aren’t referred to as a specific gender until they decide otherwise. “They” is a normalized pronoun, and some people choose to never define their gender. Through magic, people are also able to change how they present their bodies. The two main characters of the novel, twins Mokoya and Akeha, search for autonomy and independence under an oppressive ruler. The novel tackles themes of state violence and rebellion in which the twins find themselves on either side of a growing revolution.

Effective trans narratives also don’t need to take place in an entirely reimagined universe. Rich Larson’s Annex envisions a post-apocalyptic city where adults have been abducted and controlled by invaders. Children and teens sixteen and under are rounded up into warehouses, and those who escape capture need to think about how they will survive the inevitable next attack. One of the protagonists, Violet, makes the most of this grim situation and raids pharmacies to find hormones for herself. With her unsupportive parents out of the picture, she is able to grow into her own identity and how she sees herself, even on the brink of possible world domination.

I love the expanding gender representations in media today that are starting to break down the dominant idea of a gender binary. These stories are necessary in the fight against trans violence. I hope for a future where there are even more books highlighting the diversity of trans experiences and the different intersections that can exist in fantasy. Telling these stories can create a future of trans liberation from narratives of misery to those of empowerment and joy. 

An Interview with Garth Greenwell on What Belongs to You

One of the most striking things about your book is its style. Long sentences broken by short ones, a 40-page section that’s all one paragraph. Talk to me about the import of the form to What Belongs to You.

The first section of the book, “Mitko,” was the first piece of fiction I had ever written. Up to that point, I had done all of my creative work as a writer in poetry. My first education in the arts was in music, specifically opera. I thought a lot about the structure of the aria, which is related to lyric poetry. I think those were probably the biggest influences on my sense of form going into writing “Mitko” because I really had no idea what I was doing. At every step of writing the book, I didn’t have a sense of a whole I was working toward. Instead, I was really thinking about it sentence by sentence and moment by moment.

Even though I’d never written or studied prose, I’ve always loved novels. They’ve been really important to my life as a reader. In terms of prose stylists, I often say that I have a holy trinity of authors: Thomas Bernhard, who often writes in block paragraphs and certainly was an influence on the second section of the book; W.G. Sebald, whom I first read in graduate school and who first helped me imagine the possibility of writing creative prose; and Javier Marías, a Spanish novelist. In a certain sense, I think that those writers all have very patient ways of writing. They’re willing to stay in a moment until they’ve mined everything possible from it. That’s a lesson that I tried to take. I also thought about writers like Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Proust, who are all masters of that kind of writing. That’s the tradition I feel I’m working within.

It was very interesting to read the book as a publisher. You break the rules that we’ve been following for years—don’t use long sentences, don’t use prolix language, certainly don’t have a 40-page section with only one paragraph. It was a weird and unsettling thing to read your book, and to see how well it worked.

The truth is that I didn’t know any better. I’d never been in a class where I saw what those things look like in student work, so the only references I had were the people who do it really brilliantly like James and those other writers that I mentioned.

As a reader, I love lots of different kinds of books. I love books that are richly and vividly imaginative. But as a writer, this invention that speeds a plot along a horizontal axis doesn’t interest me so much as the vertical axis of a moment suspended in time. I’m more interested in wondering: What is the experience of this consciousness at this moment? What are the possibilities? This is something that lyric poems do: they freeze time and try to articulate all the information that we’re taking in at every moment—or not all of it, but a larger part of it than we’re usually aware of. I wanted to pause and think: How am I experiencing this moment, this relationship, this human interaction? That’s something that I think that literature can do better than the other arts: give us that experience of deep consciousness.

As you mentioned, you do really interesting things with time in this novel. Can you tell me about how you conceptualized the structure of the book in that sense?

The book is structured in this weird way: three parts, the first and third of which basically tell a linear narrative. Really, I hope that the whole narrative is told in the first sentence of the book. There’s this relationship that’s going to involve betrayal—everything is telegraphed in that first sentence. That first section takes place over a period of a few months, from fall to spring. There’s a gap of a couple of years, and then the next section takes place over a few months. There’s not a lot of time covered—three years, but two of them aren’t really narrated.

The second section took me by surprise, by storm. I wasn’t expecting to write it. When I finished “Mitko,” the first section, I thought that was the whole story. But I was walking around this very hot day in the particular geography of this place, and I was seized by this voice. I don’t know another way to put it. It hasn’t happened to me before or since. I went to a café and just started trying to notate that voice on the back of a receipt, scraps of paper—it was like I had to write it on trash.

What that long, forty-page block paragraph allows the narrator to do, I think, is explore these different levels of time. It’s like a solution that has different densities; you can float up and down through the different densities of his past and come back up for air in this neighborhood that he’s walking through, the things he’s actually seeing. That form really happened organically. The first draft of it was very long, much longer than what’s in the book, but it basically had the shape of what’s in the book.

When I finished it, I couldn’t touch it for over a year. It made me almost physically sick. But when I finally came back to it, the revisions were mostly about cutting and editing and trying to reshape sentences. The basic time structure of the different periods in his life and the order was really there in the first draft. It always felt right, even with multiple timelines happening simultaneously. It felt like that was what that section had to do.

There’s a very common critique of queer literature that it alienates readers, but this is a story that feels very universal. I’m curious: do you think this book could have worked if the character were straight?

No, I don’t think it could have worked that way. The book is really invested in communities that are particular to queer experience, these cruising communities that don’t exist in the same ways in straight life. There’s a tradition of writing about gay prostitution in literature, but there’s also a long tradition of writing about prostitution between men and women. It seems to me that the power dynamics are so different, and the context in which sex work happens between men and women is so different. It would have been a radically different kind of book.

But it’s sort of the magic of literature that it arrives at the universal through the particular. Very often, people ask me if I think of myself as a gay writer. The answer is yes, absolutely. There’s a tradition of queer writing that not only my life as a writer but just my life would be impossible to imagine without. I feel like and I hope that I’m writing for queer people and people who emerge from the kinds of communities that I write about in the book. It is not despite, but because of the fact that it’s rooted in those communities that the book has that universal resonance. I think that this story would be completely different if it were not set in the context of gay relationships and the queer communities that form around particular kinds of sexual practices. It’s also important that the book is set in this very particular place: the post-socialist margin of Europe in Bulgaria. Queer people are among the most marginalized segments of the population there because it’s a deeply homophobic place. This is a book about a person who is intensely vulnerable. He’s a quasi-homeless man who gets by to the extent he gets by through sex work. So all of those things I think are really rooted in a particular place and in particular communities and in a particular historical moment.

Shame is difficult to write about well, yet you made it feel so close to all of the characters. What was it like, as a writer, to write about the things that we like to look away from?

For me, the scariest part was the second section. I was exploring the geography of my own childhood, and trying to think about the ramifications of growing up in a place where, as a queer person, the only story you’re told about your life is that it has no value. Right now, there’s this very triumphant narrative happening about LGBT rights and lives, a very meaningful narrative of progress. At the same time, it is still the case that in most of the world, queer people have to fight for their lives. That’s still true in the United States. We still live in a world where queer people are taught that their lives are meaningless.

For instance, take the narrator of the book. Even though he comes from the West, even though he’s been exposed to a different kind of world, even though he’s out, even though he’s comfortable with his identity as a gay person, the base of that identity is still rooted in shame. And while that’s not reducible to his sexuality, it’s not just about being gay or because he’s gay, it is particular to the circumstances of his life. The fact of gay shame is something that we cannot lose sight of. I think it’s dangerous to forget about that in the shadow of this triumphant, homonormative narrative in which we’re all pairing up and having kids. It’s wonderful that those rights and responsibilities are available to queer people, but that’s not the only narrative of queer life, and it doesn’t erase decades of stigma. That’s still very much with us.

I’m curious. When you think of What Belongs to You, who do you think the real hero is?

I don’t think the book has a hero under the typical connotations of that term. That’s an interesting question, and I guess I hope that it’s one that can’t be answered. In one sense, the narrator is the book’s center of gravity, the camera. The interior progress of the narrator and his evolving understanding of himself and his relationship with Mitko is the dominating narrative of the book. At the same time, though, I think that the book succeeds or fails to the extent that Mitko is available to the reader’s empathy and compassion and emotional investment as a human being independent of the narrator.

But really, I hope that question is finally unanswerable between the two of them. I hope that both characters are independent centers of value in the book.

If you think about the hero as the person who shows the most courage, does your answer change?

That’s such an interesting way to think about that question. To me, there is something extraordinarily courageous in Mitko. To a remarkable extent, I think Mitko does live life on his own terms. To me, one of the most remarkable things about Mitko is the extent to which he seems free from shame, free from the kind of ambivalence that paralyzes the narrator. There’s this phrase that I stole from a favorite poet of mine, Fernando Pessoa: “squeamishness about existence.” In the book, the narrator says that Mitko has no squeamishness about existence. To me, that’s a remarkably brave attitude to take toward the world, especially when the circumstances of your life seem to encourage squeamishness.

On the other hand, I do think that the narrator faces up to things, finally. He faces up to things he’s been avoiding through most of the book, about how he relates to the world and how he at once has this great longing for connection and also keeps everyone and everything at arm’s length. I do think that there is some courage in facing up to that. I also think there’s real courage in that fourteen-year-old who refuses to deny his own existence to his father. If there’s a moment of real courage in the book, I think that’s it.

https://frictionlit.org/an-interview-with-garth-greenwell-2/(opens in a new tab)

Although the book deals with a great deal of tragedy, there are several moments of pure contentment…which somehow manage to make the low points in the narrative even sadder. Do you think this is a good reflection of life in general?

Well, at least a life with a particular kind of sensibility. There’s a relationship in the book that the narrator has with R that we don’t learn a lot about. What I’m writing now is a collection of short stories that kind of fit into the interstices of the novel, and a lot of them tell the story between the narrator and R. It’s not like those are happy stories, but there is a different vision of what fullness might look like that is maybe not as obviously or inevitably self-destructive as the relationship with Mitko.

In some ways, this kind of troubles me. As a writer, I don’t think I’ve found a way to write fully into more sustainable moments. Not moments of ecstasy, necessarily, but that middle realm of happiness where one really wants to live. You don’t really want to live in ecstasy—you want to live in something like contentment, where you’re aware of the non-tragic value of your experience. My life does have those moments; my sense of the world has those moments. To be the kind of writer I want to be, I have to learn how to write into those moments. That’s a challenge.

So you’ve been both a poet and prose writer. Which do you think works for you? How do you think your voice is coming out best?

I guess the answer to that is prose. Poetry is still a big part of my life, but not as a writer. I haven’t written poetry in five or six years. Prose opens doors, writerly interior doors in a way that poetry doesn’t for me. My experience of writing prose is much more an experience of discovery and surprise than writing poetry was, though I’m not sure why. I remember when I was first writing “Mitko,” I would just follow the sentence and have this experience of a trap door opening beneath my feet, leaving me in a place where I hadn’t expected to go, a moment I hadn’t expected to explore. It was really exhilarating. It still is.

Book Review: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Some lessons you learn gradually and some you learn in a sudden moment, like a flash going off in a dark roomI know a secret about young Sean, I guess, that he kind of ends up telling the world: nothing makes him tick.”

For fans of The Mountain Goats, it’s not a terrible stretch to have guessed that one day frontman John Darnielle would try his hand at the craft of novel writing. Darnielle can, in fact, be seen as a natural writer at this point in his career—writing short stories in lyrical form—a novel appears a perfectly natural next step for the lyricist.

Wolf In White Van centers around Sean, who after what is often referred to as an accident at age seventeen, is left with an outward visage somewhat reminiscent of Project Façade—made ostensibly a modern iteration of Hugo’s Quasimodo or Leroux’s phantom (“I worry you’ll be lonely” says Sean’s mother, to which he responds “I was going to be lonely anyway”).

After his reconstruction, Sean understands that he will never truly be able to properly communicate again, and as a response, develops the Trace Italian: a world built and expressed through letters to its cooperative players. Through the world of the Trace, Sean is allowed a renewed communication with the outside world in a strange way. Through the Trace, Sean learns of the lives of the players in a sort of invisible and one-directional interaction.

This aspect of the narrative paints a beautifully dualistic picture of modern escapism, the likes of which any avid reader or moviegoer or video game player will be able to understand: it makes a lofty note on the promise and hope in escapism, but also speaks of its wounding, alienating, and even life-threatening potential. Sean’s life is given new meaning in creating the Trace Italian, but after the drastic alteration the world of the Trace enacts on two children, the reader is left questioning which force is at fault: is the blame Sean’s for making the Trace, or is it the kids’ fault for taking such haphazard stock in this fiction?

The Trace Italian’s influence at this point is less of a fantasy than it is a dangerous fact: it befits certain individuals more than it does others, and it is in the harsh and unpredictable nature of the Trace that the reader learns the ramifications of the reckless imagination. The world the kids so readily buy into proves more dangerous than that which they aimed to escape, and Sean is left with the responsibility of his creation—now such a long-ago phantasm he hardly sees it as his own (“There are games I’m prouder of than Trace Italian,” he regards, “but it doesn’t matter how I feel”).

Upon finishing this novel, something admittedly strange occurred. I sat at my desk, novel in hand, and looked at it for a minute or so, contemplating what exactly it was I had spent the past few weeks reading. This wasn’t a question aimed at the novel’s quality, but more of its topic and discussion. This book is an absolute sucker punch to the pathos: the reader will inevitably grow attached to Sean, and this attachment will inevitably result in some truly devastating moments as he backpedals through his memories. In the end, Sean and the reader both are left with that most poignant of quandaries: “what if”. The aftertaste of Sean’s story is a melancholic hope, though maybe more representative of the first qualifier than the second: it is impossible to ignore the dramatic alterations made to Sean’s life, but his ability to deal with these changes resonates strongly with something of a mantra in Darnielle’s more recent work—“just stay alive”. There are questions left unanswered, and the future is rendered terribly hazy and nebulous, but in the end this is seen as ultimately quotidian—it’s just the way things are now, and as Sean himself remarks, “you either go forward or you die”.

Wolf In White Van is not an easy novel to read. Dealing in controversial and driving philosophical discussions, the reader may well be prompted to step away for time to think. But if there is anything truly guaranteed about this novel, it is this: if the reader is to leave, they will not do so without returning. This is the highest testament to Darnielle’s mastery of storytelling: that he can portray such a visceral, stinging work, and to have the reader return and enjoy it in spite.

Truth in the Surreal: An Interview with Eric Lundgren

Branding is an essential part of the literary industry. Any published author knows the importance of marketing a novel as a specific genre, forced to pigeonhole plotlines into predetermined categories. Unfortunately, this results in bookstores filled with “cookie cutter” books. The practiced reader can infer the next plot twist or, at the very least, the general direction of the work. Rarely do we find novels that surprise us, when, halfway through, we can’t even determine what genre we are reading.

Facades, by Eric Lundgren, is just that rare enigma of a novel.

The book takes place in Trude, a city constructed by the radical—and quite possibly mad—architect, Klaus Bernard. Now long dead, the architect’s mind-bending landmarks have become the strange setting for a war between art and politics. The Mayor condemns the public libraries, the literati takes up arms to defend their precious volumes, the intellectual elders take refuge in an elitist retirement home, where one can only pay for room and board by producing harrowing memoirs, the darker the better.

In the midst of this bizarre landscape, the most common event unfolds: a man loses his wife, he mourns quietly, he fails to help his son do the same.

That father is Sven Norberg, who spends his nights driving the convoluted streets of Trude. He’s looking for his wife, the famous opera singer, Molly Norberg. Months before, she popped across the street for an egg to sooth her throat, never to be seen again. Norberg is convinced she’d been taken, possibly by the overenthusiastic fan who leaves paintings on their doorstep: artwork spotlighting his wife beside a strange, faceless man in gray, always watching from the corner.

Obsessed with finding this “gray man,” Norberg turns to the detectives assigned to his wife’s case. They encourage his conspiracy theories, thrusting him into the mysterious underground of Trude. Guided by Bernard’s bizarre buildings, Norberg finds himself battling gun-toting librarians, art critics who embed clues in their columns, and a religious super church, strangely interested in “adopting” Norberg’s teenage son.

As these two elements—the surreal landscape and the familiar tragedy—slowly intertwine, the reader is carried into unexpected territory. Just like the city of Trude, Facades creates a landscape of surprising twists and turns. The reader is never quite sure where the path will lead them, if the street will suddenly open up to a fantastical marvel or the most human of conclusions.

By balancing these contradicting motifs, Facades disarms the reader, courageously telling the story of a man’s heartbreak, of how destructive our flaws can become, and how our intentions, no matter how noble, can destroy the things we love most.

Lundgren on Facades

As I sat down to interview Lundgren, I first inquired about the landscape of the novel, the strange city of Trude. “In 2004, I came to Saint Louis to study at Washington University,” Lundgren explained, “and at the same time, I was reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities” Describing how this reading influenced his trip, Lundgren told me that he knew almost nothing about Saint Lois before he arrived, and what he did know was mostly negative—all the crime and urban decay. However, he ended up finding the landscape fascinating. “That, together with reading Calvino, really got me thinking about this idea of invisibility and seeing the potential for transforming a certain kind of drag American city into something that’s compelling and a place a reader would love to visit.”

With the inspiration for Trude already brewing in his mind, Lundgren unearthed old subplots that had been bouncing around in his brain for some time. “For years, I’d been interested in writing a conflict with a father and son about religion, but reversing the way that is usually done, with the son becoming devout and alienating his more secular father.” Thus the struggle between Norberg and his son came to life, but Lundgren still needed the catalyst.

That’s when the noir detective plotline surfaced. “That was the last thing that came together,” Lundgren confessed, noting the strangeness of this primary plot element coming to him so late in the construction of the novel. One of the reasons for that is Lundgren has never been fond of traditional mystery plots. “I don’t like the part of the mystery story where you get tangled up in the elements, the sort of forensics and that sort of stuff. I read those books for the atmosphere, that sort of the weirdness.”

Thus Lundgren let the landscape and the internal character development evolve to almost overshadow the mystery of Norberg’s missing wife, contributing to Facades ability to keep the reader guessing. “A lot of that I credit to Kathryn Davis,” he said, “who I worked at Washington University. Her book, Duplex, came out around the same time my book came out. It was a good convergence because she was the one who emboldened me to go out there into that other worldly landscape.”

Both Davis and Lundgren were passionate about stories that made it difficult for the reader to ascertain what was going on. “We love those novels, where you can’t quite come down on an interpretation or certainty in terms of what’s real, what’s the correct reading.”

By allowing the surreal and real elements to intertwine, Lundgren sought to write a book that would always leave the reader guessing. “For me, I asked myself: is there a book out there that I want to read, that hasn’t been written yet.” When he considered the plot of Facades, he realized there was. However, that sort of book turned out to be an extremely difficult project—consisting of almost a decade of writing, rewriting, and marketing—but Lundgren is proud of what he produced: “As much as it has first novel flaws to it, I can look back and think that I left it all on the field. I shot high and was ambitious.”

Lundgren on Writing and Publishing

Lundgren started work on Facades during his MFA studies in 2005. Because he’d never written a large project like this before, he wasn’t quite sure how to progress. Although he’d only written about seventy pages, he brought in half of the novel to his writing workshop. He was hesitant to do so at first: “I was really worried that if I was openly criticized in workshop, that it would kill my momentum, that I wouldn’t be able to finish it.” However, much to his surprise, everyone had a very positive reaction to his work. “They were all very encouraging and that really helped me when I went out on my own.”

Lundgren was still working on the novel when he left the MFA program, and after four more years, in 2009, he finally had a workable draft. At that point, he began looking for representation. When I asked him how he found his first agent, he explained that he had a good friend who helped him along the way: “Teddy Wayne, who’s published a few novels himself, was kind enough to introduce me to his agent, Rosalie Siegel.” She ended up loving the novel and began submitting it to publishing houses. “We got real close, lots of editors liked it, but because of the issue of tying it all up into a marketable package, we ended up not finding a place for it.” Lundgrend paused, shaking his head. “Then Rosalie ended up retiring. I might have driven her into retirement,” he added with a laugh.

After that roadblock, Lundgren resigned himself to the fact that Facades would likely end up in a drawer for the rest of his life. However, unbeknownst to him, his friend Teddy Wayne never gave up. “Teddy had shown it to an editor friend of his, Liese Mayer, at Overlook. I didn’t even know she was reading it.” Lundgren had all but put his first novel out of his mind—moving onto another project all together—when he got a call out of the blue, saying that Overlook was interested in picking Facades up for publication. “It was crazy,” he confessed, “the whole publication process has always been like an extension of the book. Just as surreal.”

Lundgren’s Advice for New Writers

Before our interview came to a close, I asked Lundgren if he had any advice for new writers who were trying to get published. Immediately, he started talking about his MFA program. “Getting involved with Washington University was a big thing for me. I grew a lot as a writer, and I was really encouraged to go out on a limb and take risks.” Even more important was the connections he made during his time there. “That little handful of people was really helpful when I started out on my own.”

For those writers out there who didn’t study for an MFA, Lundgren had other suggestions on how to make these essential connections: “Be a good literary citizen,” he declared. “I’m not living in a center of publishing. I’m kinda away for the Brookline scene, so I try to go to as many readings as I can when authors come into town.” From his own book signing tour, Lundgren knows that some nights, only a handful of people show up. “If you go to talk to the writers afterwards, they might be really appreciative.”

Excerpt from Facades

I used to drive downtown every night, looking for my wife. The rush hour traffic was across the median and I traveled the westbound lane of I-99 without delay or impediment, sure I was going the wrong way. The city assembled itself, scattered lights in the old skyscrapers meandering the night sky like notes on a staff. What could I have hoped to find there? People didn’t just disappear, I thought at the time. They left fingerprints, notes, receipts, echoes. If Molly had walked from her opera rehearsal to the corner deli and had not materialized there or returned, she must have left a residue behind. I expressed this view to the authorities after filing the missing person report at Trude’s tenth precinct station. “It’s not always a Hansel and Gretel type situation, you know,” said the detective, a fellow named McCready who was apparently on the late shift alone, surrounded by dim idling computers. Crew-cutted and monobrowed, he looking like a man who repaired machinery with his bare hands. He listened to my story and took notes in his pocket pad, a mere scribe. On his desk, instead of a family picture, was a grainy photograph of Wittgenstein. The matte frame was inscribed with a misquotation: THE CASE IS EVERYTHING THAT IS THE WORLD. McCready promised to call if anything turned up, but I was in no mood to wait. I set out on my own through the streets, my pockets jammed with plastic evidence bags. I was a student of sidewalks. Tracing Molly’s possible steps in widening circles, I returned each night to the Opera House empty-handed, the watchman nodding me in.

This night watchman had been the last to see Molly and became the de facto authority on her disappearance, even though he was “not that perceptive,” as he admitted later in interviews. He seemed hardly to notice me as I went in and out. His good eye browsed in my direction, then slumped back into the couch of his cheek.

She was projected outward from my mind, a wavering image across the city. I began the nights as a stalker, then faded to a stumbled, a somnambulist. I rounded every corner with the conviction that she was near, but what I found in those deceptive and winding streets was only a series of dispersed apparitions. The curve of her spine in the shadow of a lightpost. The pattern of her freckles in a smattering of plaster dust. In the winking of a broken tragic signal, the green of her eyes…