A Review of The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on February 21, 2023.

An invitation to a month-long writing retreat with your writing idol? Who wouldn’t jump headfirst into this opportunity? After being at a low point in her life with her job, relationships, and—perhaps worst of all—writing itself, that is exactly what Alex, the main character of The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz, does. However, when she and the other four female attendees arrive at the grand estate, her writing hero Roza Vallo presents her own shocking plot twist: the five invitees must create and finish an entire novel in the month that they are at her estate. The incentive to win? One million dollars and a life-changing book-publishing deal. However, the introduction of the contest certainly isn’t the only plot twist: there is the complicated, fractured relationship between Alex and her ex-best friend, Wren, another competing writer. Then, when other mysteries arise, Alex finds herself the main character of a story where not everything is as it seems.

Alex’s character is not only well-developed throughout the whole story, but she is also relatable in her struggles and emotions. I say this even as Alex is a white woman in her early 30s, and I’m a 21-year-old Filipino-American man. She is unhappy about her state of life at the beginning of the book, but when she receives the offer to attend this retreat, work on her own creative piece, and meet her lifelong writing idol, her passion for writing is suddenly rejuvenated. We’ve all been through those parts in our lives where we crave something more meaningful, and if a chance appears to devote ourselves fully to our true passions, I know I would jump at such an opportunity just like Alex did.

Readers also witness Alex grow in her independence, self-confidence, and resolve as both a writer and human being. In the book’s first half, Alex is consistently influenced—even controlled—by what others might think of her and her writing, her own expectations of herself, the pressure of the competition, her worries regarding Wren—the list can seem endless. However, when mysteries and threats develop in the book’s second half, Alex slowly begins to think and act of her own accord, even willingly risking her life for others. These struggles and this growth make readers connect with Alex more as the story progresses, making us feel that we’re right there with her.

This book also explores the volatility of human psychology, which is no surprise since Bartz herself is also a practicing therapist. Bartz explores this in multiple ways but especially through Roza’s actions toward the other writers. In addition to the strenuous writing requirements she demands of the writers, she also invites them into one-on-one conversations and convinces them to reveal deep, dark secrets. Such is an example of dangerous power dynamics wherein Roza exerts her influence over these writers who admire and worship her. Relationship dynamics are also explored among the writers. With Alex and Wren trying to win the other writers over, as well as the mind games and backtalking that occur throughout the story, Bartz reveals the human desire to do anything to win and propel oneself forward, prompting the question of whom one can truly trust. While the dangers of power and relationship dynamics are explored within the writing retreat, these dangers can extend to life too, and we wonder what lessons we and the writers learn alongside each other.

One strength of this book is the pacing. We readers quickly realize alongside Alex that “retreat” is a gross misnomer for what comes after. There are four chapters that focus on introducing Alex and her less-than-ideal circumstances and her path to the retreat. While these four chapters take a while to get going, they are essential in setting the foundation for the rest of the book and readers’ expectations of what is to come. Then the rest of the story unravels in Roza’s grand yet mysterious estate—a place that slowly yet effectively cultivates intrigue and suspense through unexplained and perhaps even supernatural events. This buildup culminates in sudden, shocking reveals and fast, action-packed sequences that hook readers until the end, making the slow burn toward the discoveries natural and worthwhile.

This book truly becomes a hell of a ride through the intrigues Bartz seamlessly weaves around Alex. Not only does Bartz craft a flawed main character with whom readers can relate and empathize, but she also crafts a stay-up-all-night type of plot that drags us into the dangers of the writing world and humanity. I charged through this book in three days and ended up reading the remaining 30 chapters in the early hours of that final day. I was that engrossed in discovering what would befall Alex and the other writers and reflecting upon the complexities of being a writer. Ultimately, The Writing Retreat is a thrilling debut novel from Julia Bartz, one that captivates even until the very last word, just like Alex strives to do with her novel in this retreat turned real mystery and danger.

A Review of Wrath by Shäron Moalem and Daniel Kraus

Published October 11, 2022 by Union Square & Co.

Wrath is an extremely smart and fast-paced horror thriller from Shäron Moalem and Daniel Kraus. Given my enjoyment of Kraus’ past works, I was excited to see where Moalem and Kraus would collaborate to take the topic of hyperintelligent rats and the humans who created them. Daniel Kraus is no stranger to collaborations, as he has worked with the George A. Romero Foundation to complete Romero’s The Living Dead after the legendary director passed away. Kraus, who also co-authored Trollhunters and The Shape of Water with Guillermo del Toro, brings his A-game to the book’s scarier scenes and shows with this book that he can consistently write some of the best horror presently found on bookstore shelves. Shäron Moalem is not only a New York Times best-selling author in his own right, but is also an award-winning scientist and physician who has co-founded three biotechnology companies. Given the premise of hyperintelligent rats, Moalem’s science background helps ground the book as a smart page-turner. The two writers have created a great horror read, but also have the science down so solid it can be passed along to fans of the medical and techno-thriller genres.

To address an upfront trigger warning, Wrath deals with animal lab experiments. The scenes that I found the most disturbing were the experiments by EditedPets, a company which modifies animals to create the next level of interactive pets. EditedPets treats the rollout of new enhanced animals like products and not living creatures, similar to new versions of a cellular phone. As a home provider to rescue pets, I found how the book deals with the consumer mindset of pet owners and boredom of old pets when a new trending pet is released by EditedPets as a way of exploring humanity at our most desensitized. Wrath is to pets what Romero was warning us about consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, with zombies mindlessly shuffling around the mall.

Humans being desensitized is at the heart of Wrath. EditedPets is a toxic work environment, as the company is siloed and has no transparency. Tech entrepreneur Noah Goff’s work environment has employees forgetting what it means to be human, as the only life they have is being on call for him 24/7. Goff pushes the staff to meet the deadlines of a Pet Expo, and a lack of cross-communication between departments and poor work/life balance for employees leads to rats being overexposed in an experiment designed to increase their intelligence. Goff’s lack of safeguards causes one rat in particular to become incredibly intelligent. This rat, Sammy, brings about some of the best and most terrifying scenes in Wrath.

The book is also about the evolution of skills instead of a push for profit. Wrath doesn’t just focus on Sammy as the human gene splicing makes him more intelligent and he develops more and more skills to turn New York City into a state of chaos, it also focuses on the human gatekeepers who are trying to save the city. Scientist Sienna Aguirre slowly breaks out of Noah Goff’s grasp to fall back on the life lessons she learned from her father and starts working with exterminator Prez. Prez is an old school exterminator, trained by his adoptive father, and the first to leave Goff’s employment and start to fall back on what he knows is right instead of chasing the easy profits of EditedPets. And even Dallas, a bullied grade school boy who befriends Sammy, taps into the tutelage of riding the NYC subway with his train operator mother, to save a train full of people when the rats invade.

Wrath teaches us that one can gnaw their way to the top in nature or in business but can just as easily be disposed of when they no longer serve a purpose. The through line for survival in Wrath is being altruistic. The characters who put others over their own safety and don’t take the shortcuts to saving the city are doing more than helping the people in harm’s way, they are teaching Sammy what the human spirit is beyond what he knew from the scientists in the lab. As Sienna learned from her father, “genius only gets you so far. Sometimes all that works is your nose against the grindstone.” Showing up, taking care of others, and getting the job done is what it means to be human at the end of Wrath, and it turns out that even a rat can learn that lesson.

Writers Talking About Anything but Writing: V. Ruiz

An Interview with V. Ruiz on the Metaphysical, Cooking, and Trashy TV

Writers Talking About Anything but Writing is a series of interviews in which we ask writers to take a break from trying to document the world and just kinda chill out in it for a while.

Laura Villareal (LV): Let’s start with the metaphysical. Besides being a writer, you’re also an astrologer/bruja/espiritista.  I talked to Jess Rizkallah a while back about tarot in one of these interviews which I enjoyed a lot so I’m excited to talk to a practicing astrologer like yourself and hear more about other metaphysical practices. Your website lists your services, but what’s your favorite way to work with the metaphysical (tarot, natal chart readings, etc.)? Also, how did you first get into working with the metaphysical?

V. Ruiz (VR): It’s really interesting to see this question phrased this way because in many ways, astrology doesn’t feel inherently metaphysical to me! So much of astrology is ancient AF and also based in pattern recognition and history and science and data and all of these things that feel so different from witchcraft and tarot. I would say though, that astrology is my favorite tool of all of the metaphysical/occult practices I engage in. There’s so much in a natal chart that can help me understand what a person has seen, their orientation towards the world, the way others receive them, and so on. It’s like getting to hold a globe of the past/present/future of their lives. It’s an honor each time someone shares their chart with me.

As for how I got started, I, like many Latinx folks, grew up watching Walter Mercado which hooked me on the topic of the zodiac initially as a child. I have known my sun sign for as long as I can remember but it wasn’t until around 2010 that I discovered my actual birth chart. In terms of other practices, I was raised by family members who were very religious but who had strong belief systems related to the unseen. Part of it was based in Christian/Catholic thinking, but other things were not able to be labeled in the same way. My mom told me young that she would just get “feelings” or “know things” before/as they happened and I believed it. As these things started happening to me, and (now) my child, I knew there was more to life, things that couldn’t be labeled or easily described in mundane terms. I began practicing witchcraft officially around 2013 around the time I went to rehab for an eating disorder and I’ve been evolving and growing in these paths ever since. 

LV: That’s fascinating! I love how you describe reading the­ natal chart as like holding “globe of the past/present/future.” And I can relate to growing up with a mix of Catholic and beliefs in the unseen. And wow, you’ve been practicing witchcraft for almost 10 years now which is cause for celebration! In that spirit, I wonder if you can tell us about one of the most significant moments of growth you’ve experienced in practicing?

VR: It is wild to think about it. It doesn’t feel like there was ever a point where it wasn’t all so important to me. I think one of the moments that still stands out to me is from my early years in my practice: I went with some friends to a large spiritual event (there were like 200 people there) that involved drumming, trance music, dancing, and long meditations. The meditation was the final event of the evening, and we all went home around 3:00 A.M. Some of my friends were talking and saying goodbye in one area of the space, while I talked with others in a different area. We were talking about our experience during meditation, and I described the space where I was walking, and I remember being like “Oh and I saw C there too, and we both looked at each other and then kept walking.” And it didn’t seem weird or funny at the time, but when we all got back in the car, I found out C had also seen me and had described the same landscape to others. So, we had this big moment of feeling like we had connected in a different dimension or space. I think from that moment, I had this big opening internally of what might actually be possible.

LV: What a profound experience to know that you both connected in another spiritual realm.

Besides the metaphysical, one of your other passions is cooking. I love talking about food so I’m excited to hear about what you’ve been cooking lately. What kinds of food do you enjoy cooking most? Any favorite recipes? 

VR: UGHHHH, I love food so much. In my collection, In Stories We Thunder, I talk about my journey in recovery from an eating disorder and part of that healing process and journey has been embodying a space where I can nourish myself and provide pleasure with food. It’s hard at times because I have a shit ton of food allergies, so I basically had to learn how to cook to get the food I was craving without triggering a reaction. Right now, I’m really into making fish ceviche as the weather starts to warm. I finally got an air fryer so I’ve been making up for a lack of fried pickles by making them CONSTANTLY. I also love teaching myself to make meals with substitutions via experimentation. While I can’t have tomatoes, I learned to make a spaghetti sauce that is very similar to a tomato-based sauce. It requires a lot of work and steps but allows me to make lasagna lol.

LV: Good food is one of the greatest pleasures in life, I think. I’m glad to hear cooking is now part of your healing process. It must be difficult to find good substitutes for your food allergies, but the experimentation can be fun, right? There’s something satisfying when a substitute works well in a recipe, at least for me. And I love lasagna! What’s in the sauce you make?

VR: OMG YES SO TRUE. When a substitution actually works, and it works well, it’s this HUGE success. It pays off in so many ways. So, the sauce takes literally like 12 hours to cook, but I basically steep a variety of vegetables: carrots, sweet potato, butternut squash, onions, garlic, jalapeño, & various herbs. I always add a can of beets and a can of pumpkin. Most folks substitute tomato with bell pepper but I have a nightshade allergy so I can’t have bell pepper either lol. That simmers until it becomes so soft it is mush. Then you gotta add red wine vinegar, honey, the usual spices, etc. like you do the usual sauce. Eventually you blend it all together until it’s like a chunky or bisque texture. Then keep adding vinegar in splashes and letting it simmer. The beets give it the darker color but all of the veggies add to a similar flavor especially with the right combo of herbs. It’s called a “No-Mato sauce” LOL.

LV: Oooo that sounds so rich and delicious! The depth of flavor must be phenomenal after all that time cooking. I’m definitely going to try making some “No-Mato sauce.” Besides the joy of eating something delicious, food has a deep connection to memory for me. Are there some foods you cook now that are like that? Or perhaps a favorite comfort food?

VR: Food is so linked to memory for me as well. Some foods feel like a hug inside and I love that. Enfrijoladas are one of my fav because my grandma made it every day for me when I was obsessed with it in elementary school. It was also right after moving to a new city so it became something predictable and structured in a time of chaos. Tamales will always feel like a hug too, and I think with those, it’s also about the process: about the talking and helping during the making of it. Albondigas are a newer happy memory one for me. I always loved them, but then my grandma started making them with and for my child and so it took on a new meaning. She also makes them for my dog now without the salt/spices hahahah.

LV: Oh gosh, just hearing you mention enfrijoladas and tamales is making me hungry. Awww it’s so cute that your grandma makes some special ones for your pup too. It’s heartwarming how recipes and foods connect generations of family. I’m certain your child has wonderful memories connected to your cooking.

It’s not often that I get to talk about trashy TV—which I enjoy SO much—but recently I met someone who watches all the same ridiculous shows as me and it was glorious. LOL! So tell me, what are your favorite trashy tv shows and what do you enjoy about them?

VR: I just went through the entirety of Real Housewives of New York. I don’t know that any other show perfectly encompasses trash the way that one does hahahah. I think what I most love about trashy TV is that it is so low stakes. There is so much in life right now that is calling for people to learn and grow (as we should), and so much of my work and personal goals require dedication and drive. So sometimes, at night, it’s just nice to watch white women be messy as fuck and think to myself, “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?!”

LV: Oh gosh, I can’t get into Real Housewives because they’re often yelling and it makes me feel like the confused Mr. Krabs meme. I never know what is happening! LOL! I get why people love the franchise though. One of my favorite low stakes shows is Below Deck.  Have you watched other seasons of Real Housewives in different cities? I keep seeing the commercial for Real Housewives Dubai which admittedly has me interested in watching an episode or two. Are there other TV shows you’re really into right now?

VR: Omg that show totally makes me think of that meme. I can see why you’d feel like that! It’s utter chaos!!! I used to watch The OC one forever ago because I grew up in Orange County so it hit in a different way hahaha. I usually watch my reality TV while I’m working so I’m not super invested, but I like that they have so many seasons because I can take my time getting to know all of the main folks. I just looked up Below Deck because I haven’t heard of it, and now I’m very much going to watch it. Surprisingly, I’ve gotten into dating reality shows which is a whole new level of chaos. I can’t stop watching Temptation Island, it’s terrible tbh.

Aside from reality, I’ve been very into paranormal/thriller/mystery type of series and shows. Behind Her Eyes was one that still sticks with me. It was captivating on a whole other level. Maid hit me hard, it’s a beautifully made TV show. I read the book after watching it and while both are different, they’re still both so well done.

The Humid Maze of Life

I wanna be back where people meant so much to me that my whole body hurt all the time, just from caring.

Where Ashley smoked bowls with me in the stairwell, coughing, laughing, drawing our initials in a heart on the wall with ash, best friends forever, you know. Where Sam picked up my body, strewn somewhere in the lobby of our building as the sun seemed close to peeking out many nights (mornings?) in March, and dragged me upstairs to my room. She would sing songs because she knew that my insides felt cold the way they always did when I had been awake for days.

I wanna be back where Wes fed my ego with big deep swimming pool stares, platonic caresses, not so quiet adoration; clothed my body with huge warm sweaters, hung past my knees, baseball caps, lost every week; gave me a home in his lanky awkward arms, clanging lofted bed, beautiful imagination. Where bruises bloomed all over my body like lipstick stains from blackout nights, on my lower back, right foot, left knee, both elbows. Lipstick stains from god, life, the divine whatever—drugs.

I wanna be back where Sarah would lie next to me while I napped, brush her lips against my skin, float in and out of my life like a whisper of some deeper potential I would never find. Where I woke up with someone who loved me every day and went to sleep maybe with one less. Where my skin was golden, sun baked, always oily with sunscreen, sweat, salt water, sand; I was never where I was supposed to be, I was by the ocean. Where nights went on forever if I wanted them to, a transcendent bleeding together of time, that sour drip in the back of your throat; Charlotte was probably playing a Gwen Stefani CD in her ancient car; I was probably trying to count my heart rate because I used to do that all the time; Taylor was from Mars and she sat in the backseat.

Back where everything was moving, it couldn’t be stopped, it just went. Waking up in Sofia’s apartment in Downtown Miami, she was already gone, a quick shower and hello to the doorman then an Uber to the train station. On the handlebars of Charlotte’s bike, gliding down South Beach, Cammie had abandoned her bikini top, someone looped a flower through my nose ring; later a plate of cocaine and dark lighting, some fancy, nearly empty apartment complex, Charlotte truly dripping all over the pole, somehow, randomly, a childhood friend beside me in town visiting, of all things, the university I was enrolled in, an Uber away, several miles, lots of traffic.

I wanna be back in the everything, the humid maze of life, where I felt so undeniably real that I knew it was gonna last forever, that forever was really just one moment, that that one moment was now, and that I was going to let it absolutely swallow me whole.

As the Incredible Hulk Turns Sixty, Let’s Talk About Anger Management

On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers spoke in front of the US Senate Subcommittee on Communications to urge funding of public television. Senator John Pastore stopped Rogers after he quoted from “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?” a song teaching kids about anger management. PBS got their funding and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood went on to address feelings and emotions via a “neighborhood expression of care” in other ways for decades. 

Sometime afterward, Rogers visited the film set of the 70s television series The Incredible Hulk because children feared they’d turn into the Hulk if they lost their temper. Just like the comic series, the show featured scientist Dr. Bruce Banner (called David Banner in the series), who, after exposure to gamma rays, turned into a muscular behemoth when angry. Rogers talked with the two main actors of the show about anger and filmed Lou Ferrigno’s makeup transition into the Hulk. Rogers believed showing the process might start a conversation about anger and not covering up feelings.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood visiting the set of The Incredible Hulk is a perfect parallel for how therapy helped me grasp the concept of anger management. It reminded me of feeling like a toddler not yet having the means to express my feelings. Through therapy, anger management taught me skills to help control my emotions and give a proper response to a current situation instead of feeling the echoes of a past encounter. Instead of regretting that I lost my temper, I learned to ask clarifying questions about what the other person needed. Rather than let myself get frustrated, I also learned to advocate for time to process something. 

It took me a long time to differentiate anger management from actual anger. I knew people who used anger as a management tool and, to paraphrase Dr. David Banner, “Don’t make them angry, you wouldn’t like them when they were angry.” Before starting therapy, I’d snap “I’m fine” if asked what was bothering me—a red flag for me during times of emotional conflict. I couldn’t explain what was happening in my head due to undiagnosed bipolar depression nor was I raised to talk about my feelings or speak up about something troubling. So, I’d bury a lot of things and outbursts that happened due to brain lock or feeling backed into a corner. Despite this, I didn’t feel I needed anger management. But through therapy, I learned to address current and past traumas that caused those outbursts. I discovered how to better pause and verbalize my thoughts rather than panic in a frozen emotional state. I also worked to constructively speak about my feelings to build a healthy dialogue instead of letting emotions sidetrack the topic. These are skills I use daily.

How does the Hulk comic address anger management over the years when his basic principle and powers boil down to the catchphrase “The angrier Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets?” Since the first issue in May 1962, The Incredible Hulk comic book has explored how much one person can take before losing their temper. For most of those decades, the comic book didn’t deal with anger management. Dr. Banner avoided losing his temper and transforming into the Hulk, but the title character always showed up. The change into the Hulk often happened due to the military chasing down an on-the-run Dr. Bruce Banner à la The Fugitive, or a local monster of the month causing him to turn. Dr. Banner wished to find a cure for the Hulk but never his anger. In The Avengers (2012), when Mark Ruffalo says, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry”, moviegoers cheered for this version of the Hulk. For myself, I wished to break the cycle of anger. I never saw anger as “the madder I got, the stronger I got,” but as a moment of weakness. My anger was an inability to slow down, calmly breathe, and be vulnerable. It was a failure to effectively open a dialogue. Anger management taught me to speak openly while creating space for personal boundaries.

Talking through his anger is not a skill associated with the Hulk, traditionally speaking in clipped sentences, but he is known for trying to remove himself from a situation before losing his temper. In the comics, someone attacking the Hulk hears the classic phrase “Hulk just wants to be left alone”, as he would try and take himself out of the situation. Famously, the Hulk once took the act of removing himself from a situation that angered him to the extreme. In issue one of The Avengers, the Hulk is a founding member of the team before becoming an iconic rage quitter in issue two. When faced with his teammate’s opinions of him, the Hulk quits The Avengers.

Like the Hulk, I’ve rage quit. One week into a new job, I got sent out into the worst winter weather to pick up what I had been told were pictures for a client shoot. After driving in harrowing conditions through Chicago traffic, I returned to deliver what were actually my boss’s vacation photos. My boss had lied to me and I quit after discovering it. Through therapy, I realized I grew up being taught that quitting wasn’t an option. If I signed up for something, I had to see it through no matter how unenjoyable or out of place I felt. Lacking emotional maturity as a young adult, I didn’t know how to approach the situation with my boss and snapped after driving through the hazardous, winter road conditions. Much like when we first meet Dr. Banner in issue one of The Incredible Hulk. Working for the military, generals barked at Dr. Banner regarding upcoming gamma bomb testing. Dr. Banner then discovers a civilian at the bomb test site. Unable to speak up, he puts himself in harm’s way to save one person, exposing himself to gamma radiation, and ultimately turning into the Hulk.

Created by a bomb, the Hulk is a metaphor for anger, but bombs and anger prevent the negotiation of balance and boundaries. Bombs also block seeing things from another person’s perspective. In the Civil War storyline, Marvel explored members of the Avengers fighting each other over government regulation. Marvel solved the dilemma of including the Hulk in this storyline by sending him off the planet in a rocket (via Avengers: Age of Ultron for the movies and Planet Hulk for the comics) because whichever side the Hulk took would win. The Hulk represents closing off negotiations and offering a final argument of anger or a last bomb blast to end a disagreement in your favor.

Like the writers of Civil War, I needed to put the Hulk away to work on the hard conversations in my life via discussion, listening, and learning. One of the advantages of anger management was learning to calm my thoughts during a disagreement to listen to the other person’s side instead of simply waiting to speak. The Hulk may be the strongest, but he didn’t have the strength-building techniques I needed to better myself, communicate at my best, and work to bridge divides. I’d read how the Hulk wanted to be left alone or shout when first met with confrontation. In a storyline like Civil War, the heart of the story wasn’t heroes fighting about government control but communication breaking down. Anger management taught me I didn’t have to have an outburst to be heard or leave the room to end a discussion. Therapy allowed for healing dialogues and growth both at home and at work. It helps me bring calming energy for others to match instead of a decibel to be heard over.

The core problem with the Hulk and anger management is that to stay true to the origin of a long-standing character he always needs to be angry. That is both the pillar and crutch that makes comic book characters relatable for multiple generations of fans. “What if the Hulk is here to protect us from Dr. Banner?” is the current pitch of Hulk by Donny Cates and Ryan Ottley. Cates’ run on Venom explored themes of addiction, and Cates bringing their voice to a book dealing with anger encourages me. If the characters can’t grow past their origins, it’s up to the readers to grow and develop using the source material. Reflecting, the Hulk taught me a lot about anger management over the decades. I learned the answer is not to have outbursts and run away from my problems but to grow into myself and my voice. In sharing how I feel constructively at the proper time, I created stronger bonds with those around me and I don’t need to be left alone during rough times. An icon for anger, the Incredible Hulk has the potential to open the topic of conversation about destigmatizing anger management. After sixty years, maybe the Hulk can smash down the walls we have built up in ourselves over years. 

Reframing Clown Imagery: Anxiety and Bozo the Clown

Bozo the Clown reentered the public when David Arquette appeared on CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live at the beginning of this year. Arquette came out dressed as “The World’s Most Famous Clown” and presented hosts Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper with gifts such as oversized novelty combs. Arquette did an excellent job of holding true to Bozo’s mission of spreading kindness, even as Andy Cohen tried to get Bozo spill the tea on other clowns like Krusty. Arquette’s inaugural outing as Bozo showed that he is the right person to fill the famous oversized shoes and transform the current flood of horror-inducing images of clowns into traditional symbols of someone who keeps getting back up and enjoys the lighter moments in life, which is what I remember from The Bozo Show growing up.

On Christmas Day in Chicago, just a few days prior, I watched the rebroadcast of the recently aired Bozo’s Circus: The 1970s. Back when I was a kid, Bozo the Clown was a licensed property, and individual television markets had their own actors playing the main character, hosting live in-studio shows. In Chicago, Bob Bell was our main Bozo, and the show was huge. Rumor had it that there was a ten-year waiting list for the ticket raffle to be in the audience. I would get to see The Bozo Show but on the day my anxiety ruined my enjoyment. It wasn’t until looking at the recent relaunch of Bozo as an adult that I would be able to reframe my experience.

My neighbor Jimmy invited me and an older boy on the block, Tyson, to go to the show when his family got tickets in the raffle. I would have been in lower grade school at the time, and it was the seventies, so we dressed up to represent our families on television. I remember waiting in line when, suddenly, a producer was talking to Jimmy’s mom. She smiled and said we were going to be in the relay race segment but that Tyson was too old to participate. Instead of seats with a center view of all the action, the producer shuffled us far off on the end of the sound stage.

On top of that, Jimmy and I ended up being separated on opposing relay teams. We sat by the in-house orchestra in their white-with-gold-trim-John-Philip-Souza-marching-band costumes. I started sizing up the competition of the other relay racers. Soon, I felt the tightness of Sunday-church-dress shoes and wished I had worn sneakers. I wasn’t at The Bozo Show but in gym class. What if I lost the relay race for the team on TV? Everyone at school would be watching at home. I would never hear the end of it. My thoughts spiraled—soon everyone in Chicago would know, too, if I tripped up. It would probably play on a blooper reel. The relay race segment was at the end of the show, and I spent the whole airtime anxious about what might happen as I watched doomsday scenarios in my head instead of what was going on in the studio. I wasn’t enjoying something I had looked forward to experiencing for years.

In the end, the relay race was canceled due to a guest performance running overtime. But dealing with that same type of disappointment and anxiety would continue for me as the years went on. This became a tent pole moment in a lifetime dealing with anxiety.

I didn’t think about good aspects of the that day until seeing Arquette on New Year’s Eve relaying his message of Bozo and kindness. At the end of the show, Bozo led out the audience in The Grand March. Afterward, each kid in the audience had a one-on-one goodbye with Bozo and in that moment, Bozo teased me and Jimmy, which cleared away all my anxiety and disappointment. It was just one line, a reference to The Three Stooges but it meant the world to us when he said, “Uh, oh! Here comes Moe, Larry, and Curly” as Jimmy, Tyson, and I walked up to him. If I think back, I can still remember Tyson and Jimmy’s smiles at that moment. We were able to connect to Bob Bell as a performer instantly. It was comforting to know that Bozo watched the same TV shows we did, and in that moment, there weren’t other audience members, the camera crew, or the big sound stage. It was just us neighborhood kids and a clown. As an adult, reframing that one moment has helped turn around what was once a traumatic memory.

Bob Bell was able to read the room and give each kid a generous and genuine moment. Bozo was “The World’s Most Famous Clown” because the clown came first, not being famous. It wasn’t about who was Bozo in what market; it was about bringing entertainment to kids. I knew people who went into clowning to be famous first and were disillusioned because the circus life was hard and not how clowning appeared on Bozo’s television show. This type of performer found kids were too honest an audience to perform for and instead of learning to play with the reality of a clown in front of the kids, these performers were dismayed by the questions of young inquiring minds. The other type of performer focused on the negative side of the calling of clowning and only saw the makeup as a means to an end. They were never the type of people to pick themselves back up or spotlight serenity, blowing a dark cloud over interactions instead. While Bozo and the other clowns may argue and (pie) fight; he may fall down but he gets back up, brushes himself off, and gets back to work. The message of The Bozo Show was that life is tough (mishaps come from taking shortcuts) and it’s full of surprises (like a man in a gorilla suit chasing you—but you can get back up too.

Reframing my mindset also helped me focus on the day I went to the studio as an act of kindness by my neighbors. For kids our age in Chicago, anyone getting chosen in the raffle to go to The Bozo Show was literally receiving a golden ticket. Jimmy had siblings, and there were other kids on the block and at school, but he chose me. In that sense, I won the lottery of having a friend who looked out for me, and it was a betrayal of his friendship over the years to focus on the negative aspects of that day. Even though we were separated that day, Jimmy was always on my team whenever I felt anxious and helped me live a more adventurous childhood. We have fallen out of contact but over the years, I have found other friends who are there to catch me as they help me get off the metaphorical trapeze platform.

As Arquette said on New Year’s Eve, the image of clowns has recently been associated with being scary. I feel that anxiety and fear have enough resources on their side without adding a symbol of brightness and joy. To this day, I can see an image of Bozo, and it puts a smile on my face no matter what I have going on. So, I hope to continue to focus on showing appreciation for what others do for me and to give the good moments their time under the big top. Healing is not linear. In the past, before getting therapy, I would focus on the negative times. But by taking a lesson from Bozo, I can look at each past time and reframe my thoughts to see the brighter side of each memory. And, most importantly, pick myself back up.

If you grew up with Bozo the Clown too and want to check out the work David Arquette is doing, visit Empire Circus.

A Review of Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen

Published April 12, 2022 by W.W. Norton & Company.

“I’m working on a project,” said Alice, the narrator of Lisa Hsiao Chen’s debut novel Activities of Daily Living. She quickly followed with, “The real answer is the project doesn’t exist. But calling it a project makes it a thing.” Throughout the novel, Alice slowly tinkers away at a vague, never-defined project highlighting NYC performance artist, Tehching Hsieh, all while caring for her steadily declining stepfather. Part family drama part art-practice exploration, the novel marries complex narrative arcs with tender musings and conceptualizations of what it means to create and exist.

If that seems like a lot to combine in a novel, you wouldn’t be wrong. This is not a book for someone after a casual read. Activities of Daily Living keeps its readers on their toes and constantly challenges their attention span. Timelines jump around, characters are introduced without context leaving readers to infer who’s who on their own, and yet, despite it all, the novel works.

Alice’s driving force is her project, yet the story really shines in the moments shared with her stepfather who is slipping more and more into dementia. The narrative plot that follows them (and occasionally her sister, Amy) is heartbreaking. It’s particularly heart-wrenching in the way it captures the realities of watching a loved one succumb to a disease they have no control over. What starts off as minor inconveniences quickly turns into Alice and her sister making significant decisions for the improvement of their stepfather’s health, regardless of the haunting awareness that he won’t get better despite it all.

It’s an experience that’s difficult to convey. Watching a loved one diminish is full of humor and frustration, but mostly moments of intense sadness. It’s witnessing someone become an entirely different person without their consent. While there isn’t a proper way to express that dynamic, Chen writes about the experience with clarity and pose. One of the more poignant moments of the novel occurs when Alice thoughtfully summarizes, “The demented person is also incorrect—they’re the same person but wrong—wrong because you know this isn’t the life they wanted: you end up being all wrong together.”

Equally as important to Alice and this novel is her exploration of Tehching Hsieh’s array of performance exhibitions. Her research into him is interesting but seems a bit removed from the time spent caring for her stepfather. It’s evident she cares deeply for this project—at one point going so far as to attend a conference Hsieh is speaking at in Venice. Alice seems to believe there’s a strong connection between herself and the artist, but despite the efforts on her part to research and live out moments of his performances, little work is done to develop the project. It poses the question of why include this journey at all.

Recognizing the purpose of Hsieh’s performance art is essential to understanding the why. Hsieh’s work largely deals with one-year performances—ranging from locking himself in a cell to refusing to come indoors—that focus on time and the many ways in which it can be interpreted. There are several moments in the novel when interviewers pester Hsieh for an explanation of his performances, to which he ponders about time much to the frustration of the interviewer and reader. There are moments in the novel where the connection between Hsieh, the project, and the declining health of Alice’s stepfather feels nonexistent or reaching. And while it seems best to reduce, remove, or even provide more “on the nose” connections between those elements, doing so might reduce the overall feeling this novel evokes. It’s strange and difficult to pinpoint the feeling that the mundane and boring moments of everyday life are the exact moments that mean the most—both to Hsieh and Alice. It requires conscious effort on the part of the reader to pick up on, but, if paying attention, it allows one to see how Hsieh’s approach to time and daily activities show up for Alice in the ways she cares for her stepfather.

As the novel continues to unravel so does Alice’s stepfather. We witness her stepfather transition from a man overbuying items at the store to a man unable to walk or tend to his own needs due to the implications of his worsening Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The novel tracks her stepfather as he bounces from hospital to recovery center to assisted living to memory care unit, each facility growing grimmer as her stepfather fades away. In these moments, we watch Alice facing the realities of who her stepfather has become, but also moments of her discovery with Hsieh. It’s an interesting attempt at a parallel to connect the different fractions of this novel. We jump from NYC to the West Coast almost as easily as one flips a page. One moment Alice leads readers through the rehab facility her stepfather lives, then Alice is walking miles out of her way to find a specific stretch of shoreline where a ship smuggling asylum seekers beached in the 90s. It’s a fluid approach to a narrative timeline that relies on philosophical, abstract storytelling instead of clear, concrete plot lines. Alice goes on a range of tangents, making references to famous artists that go on and on before she eventually circles back to whatever situation she’s facing at the time.

This novel is not an easy sell for readers. Activities of Daily Living explores the dichotomy of time and the ways in which the seemingly mundane are the moments that eventually hold the most value. While there are areas of this novel that don’t connect cleanly, the notion that one’s “daily activities” are the ones that hold the most value is beautiful. It’s a book that the more one reads the more one starts to ponder how they, themselves, might measure the power of daily living and the overall impact those moments have on their life—rather than the big, shiny moments we have come to believe define our existence.

An Interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade

The Five Wounds explores what it means to have faith, both in and outside of the church. In past interviews, you’ve mentioned your intimate history and conflicted relationship with Catholicism. Was it ever difficult to challenge religious themes so candidly in your writing? How can writers explore the deeply personal, like religion, while still letting their characters find their own way? 

As a fiction writer, I’m always exploring the deeply personal in my work: questions of family obligation, of longing to change one’s life, of connecting with others. I can’t imagine writing about themes that don’t feel personally urgent.

My novel engages with the cultural history of Catholicism in northern New Mexico and the foundational narratives—elements that are central to my understanding of a place that matters so much to me. I think it’s really important that we challenge these narratives, examine whose experiences have been written out of the narratives, and consider who these narratives benefit and who they hurt.

The Catholic Church’s role in the region—across the globe, really—is, of course, complicated. It provides community and sustenance and ritual, it’s the source of so much beauty and art and music—and it also served as an excuse for the forced subjugation of native peoples by the Spanish colonists, a legacy of pain that persists today.

These issues all get filtered through the specific needs and desires of the characters—Amadeo, in particular, because he’s turned to these traditions. Angel, on the other hand, doesn’t think much about Catholicism at all!

You were born in New Mexico and have spoken about feeling a sense of belonging there growing up. When building the fictional town of Las Penas in The Five Wounds, was it important to you to accurately depict the New Mexico landscape you’re so familiar with, or did you take creative liberties with the setting to better serve your story?

The beauty of writing about a fictional town is that you can take all kinds of liberties! But it was absolutely important to me that my depiction of Las Penas be “accurate,” that a reader who knows the area might recognize it, if not in its particularity, in its broader strokes. So the history of Las Penas is much like the history of other villages in the region, and it shares traits with those other villages.

At the same time, it was important to me that the village not be recognizable as any particular village. I wanted the flexibility that writing about a fictional place allows, and I also wanted to make clear that the characters are fictional.

The main narrative of The Five Wounds is told in the present tense. For this story and others you’ve written, are there specific elements that help you decide on tense, or is present tense something you often gravitate to?

The past tense is definitely my default—it is, after all, the most common storytelling tense, the one we use when relating stories of our lives to our friends or the events of the day to our loved ones. But there was something about the immediacy and rawness of the story “The Five Wounds,” which the novel grew out of, that seemed to demand the kind of immediacy that the present tense offers. When I decided to expand the story, I toyed around with switching it to the past tense, but the story already felt to me like it was unfolding in the present.

How did your approach to revision look different when developing The Five Wounds into a full-length novel? How liberal are you when cutting content, and is there anything specific you look for?

Cutting is always a major part of my revision, whether I’m working in a short form or a novel. I know I write long, and I know as I’m writing that much of the material won’t make it into the final version. When I first started writing, if one of my readers said an element wasn’t working, I would try and try to make it work before, eventually, cutting it. Now, because I’m fortunate to have wonderful readers I trust, if someone suggests I make cuts, I make the cuts, and gratefully.

In past interviews, you’ve mentioned your love for backstory, a love that is evident through the delicate unraveling of your characters’ pasts throughout The Five Wounds. Does backstory naturally interject itself as you write, or do you find it helpful to map out its contents and placement beforehand?

I never map out anything—though often, when I’m in the thick of a tangled draft, I wish I did! I find myself slipping into backstory when I need it as the writer, when I’m trying to learn who the characters are and what brought them to the present moment. Often my own questions about a character arise when a reader’s questions might. Which does not necessarily mean that the reader needs all the information I discover in backstory! I typically write long drafts, and much of my revision process consists of cutting—weeding away everything that isn’t necessary so that the story can thrive. And much of what I end up cutting is backstory—material I needed to get to know the characters, but that weighs down the story’s forward motion. The key is to give only as much backstory as the reader needs without making it hard to find the path back to the present story.

You’ve said that the process of writing The Five Wounds was a bit trial-and-error, and that you hope to have a “roadmap” for your next project. Which approach would you suggest for budding writers practicing their craft, and how can writers avoid feeling restrained by an outline?

I don’t think I’ll ever be a writer who outlines before writing. I’ve tried it, and I know it works for other people, but it really doesn’t work for me. If I know what’s going to happen, then the mystery drains away, and I’m not as invested in the story. Once I’m deep in a draft, however, I will outline—I’ll map where I’ve been and where I think the story is going—but with the understanding that it is always going to change.

I advise budding writers to try both methods: outlining and writing into mystery. It’s only through trying lots of different methods that a new writer can figure out which process works best for them.

I see that you earned an MFA in fiction writing. Did you find your graduate school experience to be an indispensable step toward your later success with writing, and would you recommend that aspiring writers take part in a program like this?

At the time, the MFA was the right path for me for many reasons: it allowed me to devote two years to reading and learning and developing my craft; I found a wonderful community of fellow writers whose work I admire and whose feedback I am deeply appreciative of; and I found a mentor who changed the way I think about fiction. Being in an academic program also gave the pursuit a kind of legitimacy that was important to me at the time, and gave me a kind of permission—and it made it easier to explain to my family what I was trying to do! Having said that, though, there are so many paths to becoming a writer, and an MFA is just one of them. I definitely advise my students not to take out loans for MFA programs, because writing is financially precarious as it is.

You’re currently working as an assistant professor of creative writing at Princeton. Did you always see yourself teaching, or was writing your primary goal? Have you faced any challenges, or unexpected benefits, to balancing careers as both a writer and professor?

I love teaching, and I was a teacher before I was ever a published writer. For me it’s an excellent complement to writing. I get a lot of energy out of being in the classroom and I feel incredibly lucky to spend time with my students talking about stories. It is, of course, challenging to balance teaching and writing because there is never enough time in a single life!

For your next project, do you think you will move away from short stories and continue writing novels, or will both continue to call you? Do you find that you prefer one form of storytelling over the other?

I love both the novel and the short story form! I read both and I know I’ll continue to write both. And in fact I have two projects in the works now: a new story collection and a novel!