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.

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…