Horrid: An Interview with Katrina Leno

Horrid opens with the titular poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Did you build a story off of that poem, or did it come to you later as inspiration?

You Must Not Miss, the book I wrote previous to Horrid, opens with a poem called “One for Sorrow.” It’s another creepy nursery rhyme and I used it to format the sections of the book, much the same as in Horrid. When I came across the Longfellow poem, I had this memory of my mom reciting the poem to me. She’d also told me a very gross true story of a classmate she’d had that used to eat her own hair . . . The plot of Horrid developed quickly after that!

Mystery novels play an important role in the story. Jane talks about Agatha Christie in particular. What are some novels and authors who influenced you within the genre? What did you pull from to create Horrid?

One day early on in the brainstorming process for Horrid, I visited my local library bookstore and found a giant pile of old Agatha Christie novels. When I saw them, it just clicked for me that Jane was a big mystery fan. I read a bunch of Christie novels, then branched out to Josephine Tey, Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, and the queen of all haunted house books—The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. All of these books sort of smashed together to create the character of Jane (and the character of North Manor), and one of the main plot points of the book is lovingly lifted from one of Christie’s novels, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead.

In Horrid, the house is as much of a character as Jane and Ruth. How did you create a place like North Manor? How did it take shape throughout the writing process?

I grew up in New England and New England is just chock-full of creepy old houses. I’ve been a fan of the haunted house trope for a long time because there’s always something more happening beneath the surface. The Haunting of Hill House is the perfect example of this, and Shirley Jackson really makes you question everything by the end of the book. I wanted North Manor and Jane’s journey to be like that. I think the most interesting kinds of endings are the endings that aren’t handed to you. You have to work together, you and the book, to uncover the truth there. I wanted North Manor to feel real but also impossible, stable but shifting and uncertain. Of course, the house itself is only part of the equation—there’s also Jane, who is constantly shifting and uncertain and very much an unreliable narrator. In that respect, she has a lot in common with North Manor, and the two of them really helped shape and inform each other.

I’m pulling a quote from Barry Curtis’s Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film: “All explorations of the haunted house involve a kind of archeology, the uncovering of an occluded narrative that constitutes the exorcism in much the way that Freud or Marx understood the substructure as providing the key to understanding and redemption.” In order to understand the house, the characters have to understand the past—the two are wrapped up in each other. Which came first when you were designing the story? The events that took place on the grounds and inside North Manor, or North Manor itself? How did the two influence each other?

I had a vision of North Manor really early on in the brainstorming process. I’m not an artist at all, so I’m sure I’d draw a truly terrible rendering of it, but I can picture it perfectly in my head. Without giving too much away, the longer version of the Longfellow poem was very inspiring to the backstory of what happened in that house—so I knew both things almost simultaneously, both what the house looked like and what terrible things had taken place there.

Horrid deals both with generational trauma and hereditary mental illness, and a great deal of it centers around the family home. The past repeats in important ways throughout the story, but there aren’t any direct flashbacks. How did you balance a story set in the present with the weight of the past its characters are influenced by?

I love a good flashback, but I think there’s something inherently creepy about not getting too much information. Memory is unreliable and becomes even more unreliable when mental illness and generational trauma are involved, and I wanted to lean into that unreliability. I don’t necessarily think anyone’s version of the past is quite what happened. But their motivations are a direct result of that same past—so how are we to trust anyone’s motivations?

Roses, hair, and books are all repeating motifs within the story that the characters have great personal attachment to (and, at various times, find themselves compelled to devour). How did you choose these symbols? Tell us about the thought process there.

A large portion of Horrid deals with a psychological disorder known as pica, which causes people to ingest things that are non-nutritive. A lot of these things aren’t even necessarily bad for you—I remember an episode of “My Strange Addiction” in which a woman ate chalk. She visited her doctor, who basically said “Yeah, it’s not really harmful, so while I don’t recommend it, it could be worse.” The same goes for paper and rose petals—you’re not supposed to eat them, but neither is poisonous and most likely will not harm a person who ingests them. Jane eats books because I loved the idea of wanting to consume one’s favorite story. I like subverting the role of roses, too. Most people think they’re beautiful and sweet, but I actually don’t like them much, and think it’s more interesting if the very smell of them becomes sinister . . .

Stories are notorious for changing and evolving as they go. What was the biggest change from the first draft to the final? Is there anything that would particularly surprise your readers?

I remember the ending changed a bit and became much more fleshed out and developed—I think I have a tendency to rush when I see the finish line in sight! The beginning of the book also changed; originally there was a lot of backstory there that really slowed down getting to North Manor and jumping into the creepiness of that setting. Toward the end of the editing process, I wrote scenes down on note cards and spread them around the floor. This was a great way to see the entire arc of the story and what scenes just didn’t need to be there. I’m definitely an over-writer and tend to cut a lot of out my books as I edit them.

Writing teenagers takes a different skill set compared to writing adults. How did Jane’s voice influence the shape or telling of the story? Was it harder to get into that mindset?

I feel very connected to my teenage self. It’s an easy place for me to access, I think because it holds a lot of my own trauma and experience with mental illness and mental health. Jane and I have a lot in common, but I think our biggest difference is Jane’s anger response—whereas I tended (and tend!) more toward sadness, Jane is quick to anger, and that really causes her to make some interesting decisions. Especially toward the end of the book . . .

There seems to be a tendency in YA fiction at the moment to focus on the “right” kind of representation when it comes to talking about mental illness. This can have the side effect of pushing more complicated characters to the side and eliminating the messier storylines. Jane is a complicated protagonist. Beyond her family history, she deals with anger and paranoia that negatively influence her life. How did you approach this as a writer?

The way I handle this is always to talk about things I have direct experience with, at least in some capacity. If I’m being true to my own representation, there are bound to be people out there who relate to that. Jane has pica and a compulsion to eat paper, which is something I wanted to write about because as a child I would also eat small pieces of paper. While I do not have pica and no longer experience that impulse, it definitely existed for me in my past, or I wouldn’t have chosen to write about it.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication? What projects are you currently working on?

My next book, Summer Reading, comes out in 2022, so right now I’m deep in edits for that! It’s a much different story than Horrid and I think that’s how I constantly try and grow as a writer—to explore different stories, not stick to one genre, and challenge myself with different tropes or ideas or characters I haven’t explored before. I’d love to one day venture to middle grade novels and explore different mediums for storytelling—graphic novels, TV shows, movies. My main goal is to never stop writing, never become complacent in my craft, and always look for the next challenge. And to keep writing and exploring my own truth.

9 Classic Stories That Would Be Better with Trans Characters

1. Pinocchio

All moralizing aside, Pinocchio is a story about honesty and performativity. Is Pinocchio’s “I’m a real boy!” a deflection of questioning about gender identity or a declaration of it? Maybe in this version, Pinocchio’s nose doesn’t grow when he says it, and the Blue Fairy doesn’t have to change a thing to make him a boy—he already is one. Or perhaps it takes Pinocchio saying “fine, I’m a boy, then,” in defeat and her nose extending out a foot for people to believe her about her gender, because too many put their faith in bodies to judge what’s true. Either way, I’d much rather read a complex story about truth than a tall tale about morality.  

2. Dracula

Okay, but consider . . . Quincey. He’s just a random cowboy who helps take down the Count, and that’s pretty rad. That’s all the reasoning I need, to be quite honest—and cowboys were super queer to begin with, so why not? 

3. The Wizard of Oz

This series actually has a trans character, sort of. I just wish we saw more of her in popular culture. As a baby, Princess Ozma was assigned male by a witch (which we call “the gender binary” in real life) and discovers she’s a princess much later. Eventually she learns how to navigate her true self in a way that makes her happy and turns out to be a pretty rad ruler. Also, Ozma of Oz was the only Oz book I read as a kid, but I read it many times and I turned out trans. Coincidence? I think not. 

4. Cinderella

Cinderella gets dressed for a party and her family doesn’t recognize her there. She has to take off the dress before her stepsisters see her. The person she spent all night with didn’t recognize her in her own house. Maybe it’s because she’s not out—she presented differently at the ball and at home, and neither her stepmother nor her prince knows what she looks like another way! Besides—believe me, I would know—it’s a lot harder to find size 12 heels than size 6, so it only makes sense that it’s harder to find a woman that a bigger shoe would fit. 

5. Frankenstein

Honestly, I already read this story as somewhat of a trans/non-binary narrative; there’s something so relatable to me about being considered monstrous because of your physicality, about people seeing you as not only undesirable as a partner but undesirable in society. In this novel, the mob is the bad guy and the Monster isn’t quite what he’s made out to be.  

6. Rapunzel

Here I think about the Prince—perhaps Rapunzel’s Stockholm Syndrome adopted mother is angry about her having met the prince because she wants Rapunzel to keep believing in gender essentialism and binarism. Which sucks for her, because Rapunzel tracks down her Prince and they live happily ever after and Rapunzel becomes a huge advocate for trans rights. The End. 

7. Hamlet

This one takes a little more finagling; to be honest, we have enough stories where LGBTQ+ folk die, and—spoiler alert!—pretty much everyone dies in Hamlet. Only Horatio survives—and perhaps in this version, Hamlet and Horatio were in a serious relationship in college, but Hamlet has to start dating Ophelia after Horatio starts to transition (because Hamlet is still working out his sexuality and isn’t ready to tell his family). Despite being on the DL, the boyfriends’ love for each other mostly thrives. However, Hamlet still strings Ophelia along, because he’s a jerk in every possible variant of this story. Horatio deserves better.  

8. Winnie-the-Pooh

I hate wearing pants and am nonbinary, so clearly—by the law of syllogism—Winnie-the-Pooh, who also hates wearing pants, is nonbinary.  

9. Any other story: 

Look, I know I promised a listicle with 9 stories and so this may feel like a cop-out. But I mean it: all stories would be better with one or many trans characters. Maybe they’re not always the main character—I’m not sure that I want to read A Clockwork Orange through the point of view of Alex as a trans person, for example—but trans folk are real and we deserve to be in books!  

We deserve to be heroes and love interests and side characters and people mentioned in passing. Hopefully one day there’ll be enough books that embrace us that we can start finding ourselves throughout the narrative, as good guys and neutral guys and even bad guys. We deserve to be normalized, because we’re ordinary. But we also deserve to be celebrated, because we’re extraordinary, too. 

5 Quirky Stories to Spice Up Your Spring

The flowers are blooming, the birds are chirping, and we’re finally entering the defrost zone. What better thing to do with this newfound springtime warmth than to sit down in the park with a good read? Here at F(r)iction, we love a wacky story that gets our imaginations whirring, and so we’ve collected five of the most unusual we could find. The somnolence of winter is behind us; it’s time for a new season. Wake up your literary senses with one of these quick and quirky reads:   

Goblin” by Rachel Harrison

The world’s newest dieting app quite literally comes to life in this magical short story by Rachel Harrison. When a woman attempts to slim down for her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, she gets far more than she bargained for. The goblin on her phone, meant to encourage her weight loss journey, jumps through the screen and turns real. Following her everywhere, raiding her pantry of its junk food, verbally abusing her when she fails to stick to her regimen—the creature is relentless. While it is certainly not easy to write about eating disorders, Harrison does this mental health struggle justice in this touching and disturbing piece. Read this piece right now on Electric Literature.  

Children in Alaska” by Zach Powers

If you love it so much, why don’t you just marry it? A popular joke among middle schoolers for decades, but in this short story by Zach Powers, it seems to ring true. A man marries—we kid you not—a lightbulb. As impossible as it sounds, Powers pulls the story off with humor and grace. Pick up a copy of his collection, full of other strange yet intricately woven tales, to find out this sweet couple’s fate. 

The Semplica Girl Diaries” by George Saunders

In this haunting tale by George Saunders, suburban families decorate their lawns not with plastic flamingos or painted rocks, but with actual human beings. Told through a series of journal entries by a poor father desperate to please his family, the story deposits the reader right into the heart of this dystopian society. Tackling topics such as social class and immigration, this story couldn’t get any timelier, despite the eight years that have passed since its initial publication. Read it here and now on The New Yorker website.  

How to Live Your Best Life” by Peter Kispert

What if you had the opportunity to start life afresh, move to a new city with a quarter of a million dollars lining your pocket? How much would you risk just for the chance? These questions and more are explored in the recently released collection by Peter Kispert, I Know You Know Who I Am. In this particular piece, characters participate in a game show in which the penalty for incorrect answers is the instantaneous death of their loved ones. Maybe it sounds crazy. But it just might work? Find out by picking up a copy of this fantastically bizarre collection.  

Parakeets by Kevin Brockmeier

We live in a world of noise, but imagine a world of eternal song instead. This is the world that Kevin Brockmeier creates in this remarkable short story. Everyone sings, everywhere, all the time, spreading happiness throughout their quaint city. Or nearly everyone. One man is mute, having lived his entire life as the odd one out in this town full of musicians. His most valuable connection is not with other people, but rather his own pet birds. Read more about these beloved parakeets by reading the story now on Granta or by ordering his whole collection, full of equally moving pieces.  

We hope this list successfully shook off any lingering winter blues, but if you’re hungry for more, have no fear. F(r)iction has got all of your wacky story needs covered. Browse through our fiction here or check out our latest literary commentary here. Keep writing and reading weird! 

7 First Drafts Every Writer Writes

Putting together a first draft can be an exercise in both patience and urgency. We would all love to be that writer that can finish a whole novel in less than a month, but more often than not, a first draft doesn’t come easily. No matter where you are on your writing journey, here are a few types of drafts you’re sure to encounter.

1. The draft thrown together in the hour before your writing workshop

Last week, your instructor told you that you would need to write one flash-fiction piece to go over in small groups for today. That’s easy, you think, I can do a five-hundred-word story by then. So you put the assignment off and read literary journals at your leisure, patiently waiting for just the right idea to come to you. But then a whole week goes by and you’re left with two hours until workshop. Scrambling, you grab your laptop and write a quick story about the hair in the bathtub drain and your last relationship. Usually, this kind of draft needs some love, but there are a couple of salvageable ideas that can jump-start your writing in future drafts—it’s definitely one you will keep coming back to.

2. The draft that was meticulously put together on a long-term writing schedule

Your mentor suggests writing on a schedule. You find you’re most productive between two and three in the morning, so you tell yourself you’ll write for one hour every other night. You start off unsure, but then you start to really like your ideas. One paragraph turns into three pages, then ten and yes! You finally have a complete first draft—and you’re exhausted. You love the final product, but you’re not sure when you’re going to be able to follow a writing schedule again. You keep this strategy in mind for the next time you have a long-term writing project.

3. The draft that came from freewriting

Potentially the most elusive type of first draft, you’ve done dozens, even hundreds, of freewrites by now based on countless prompts. But when will you finally have an original idea? Although it’s a tedious endeavor, you manage to find a gem among the piles of notebooks—and hey, you can’t help but fall in love with it! You even have some pre-written material that you want to try adding to the second draft.

4. The draft you wrote while watching Netflix

Sometimes the background noise of a show helps you focus, and it’s fun to look up to from time to time while you write. This is a high-risk strategy, and before you realize it, you have finished season one of a K-drama while absentmindedly typing on your laptop. You have definitely spent more time watching a love story than looking at your Word doc. You take a closer look at your writing—wait, did you just copy that dialogue word for word? And this other scene looks awfully familiar. Maybe you need to look this draft over again, and this time, add some unexpected twists into the narrative.

dadaworks

5. The draft that’s a mashup of random ideas from your notes app

You have a dedicated tab in your notes app for all the ideas that come to you throughout the day. These come from dreams, spontaneous shower musings, or even mindless tasks at work—all of which leave you too busy to dwell on any idea for too long. You open your notes to search for some writing inspiration, but you’re not sure you’ll find the answers you’re looking for. Exploring the ocean beginning, finding blue cheese, forgetting about chickens—what do these even mean? Although they’re abstract, you use these ideas to produce a surprisingly mysterious and lyrical new draft. You think this story has real potential for some poetry/prose hybrid elements in future drafts.

Prettysleepy Art

6. The draft that’s a hybrid of several other first drafts

You couldn’t bring yourself to let these drafts go, so why not combine them to make an ultimate chimera draft? You thread favorite parts of previous drafts into one story, and while the end product isn’t quite what you imagined, you think the different pieces play off of each other nicely. If you work on focusing the narrative in future drafts, you think you could end up with an amazing story.

7. The draft that ends up being a final draft because you’re writing it just before a submission deadline

You only know it’s the last day of the month because you have to pay rent tomorrow. This also just happens to be the day the submissions window for one of your favorite literary magazines closes! You stay up all night reading some of their recently published stories and writing your own. Does this narrative seem like something they would want to publish? But you don’t have time to think too hard about it—the deadline is in thirty minutes. In a leap of faith, you upload your draft to Submittable. Now, you only have to wait for eight to sixteen weeks for a response.

No matter how you get around to writing it, a first draft is a first draft, and you should be proud of what you’ve done. After all, having something written is better than having nothing—and first drafts are the only way to eventually get to that perfect final draft. Once you’re satisfied with your revisions and ready to send your piece into the literary world, you could try submitting your work for publication in F(r)iction!

Late to the Party: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve been an avid fan of speculative fiction for as long as I can remember, but I’ve always tended to stick to rereading my favorites. The sci-fi and fantasy genres are massive, and I have decades—if not centuries—to catch up on. Sure, I’ve read TheLord of the Rings, but what are the other foundational books in this realm? The game-changers? The “classics” I ought to have read by now? I’m clearly late to the party, but hey, at least I’ve made it, right? Now that I’ve arrived, here are my thoughts on the classics.

***

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.” – A Wizard of Earthsea

I knew nothing about this series before I picked it up, and little more about Le Guin herself. I’d read one of her series—Annals of the Western Shore—too long ago to remember properly, so I went into this with no idea what to expect. All I did know was that Le Guin was considered a brilliant, boundary-pushing legend in the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) genres. So, I may not have known her work, but I certainly knew her name.

A Wizard of Earthsea was published in 1968, launching a series and career that has had a profound impact on SFF literature over the past fifty-three years—and it’s hard to believe I knew so little about it for so long, given that Le Guin’s influence is so prevalent. For example, some critics credit her for popularizing the “magic school” story long before Rowling. So many of my favorite authors, influencers of my own writing—Rick Riordan, Christopher Paolini, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman—have acknowledged Le Guin and her Books of Earthsea as favorites of their own. And, in science fiction, Le Guin was a pioneering voice for women; The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is considered a “breakthrough for female authors,” offering a revolutionary perspective on gender roles and cementing Le Guin’s place in the genre. She amassed a stunning oeuvre of novels, short stories, poetry, translations, and essays that won her dozens of awards, including the Boston Globe-Horn Book award for A Wizard of Earthsea, among many other prestigious honors for SFF writers.

Le Guin’s seminal fantasy novel opens on the island of Gont, in the Archipelago of Earthsea, the birthplace of a boy destined to become the great wizard Sparrowhawk. The boy, whose true name is Ged, discovers his powers at a young age and seeks to realize his full potential, first under the tutelage of the wizard Ogion, then at the school on the island of Roke. In an impulsive display of his prowess in front of a rival student, Ged inadvertently lets loose a malevolent shadow into the world. The shadow knows him intimately and will pursue him to the ends of the world to possess and destroy him. Ged is the only one who can confront and defeat this unnameable evil, and no place will be safe for him until he does.

On the surface, this is a timeless epic tale, a classic Hero’s Journey through the dichotomous battle of good versus evil, light versus dark. A little formulaic, perhaps, but that’s not necessarily a criticism; there are reasons the hero’s journey appears here, not the least of which being that Le Guin was intentionally subverting some of the fantasy conventions she grew up with—as she explains in her afterword to the 2012 edition of the book. Specifically, she says, she questioned the conventions of featuring a white hero—which Ged is not—and using a grand battle to define and defeat the story’s villain. Le Guin pushed past those conventions in A Wizard of Earthsea, adding an unexpected (and thoroughly welcome) nuance to that traditional light versus dark formula: namely, that light and dark exist in balance with one another, and that a person cannot be whole without elements of both.

Such introspective subversion drives the narrative, offering unexpected complexity and realism to this children’s book. Power ought not to be wielded for its own sake, nor is mastery of anything achieved through shortcuts—these lessons are impressed upon Ged as he struggles to control his impatience and pride during his magic studies. But what resonated most strongly with me is the value repeatedly placed on apparent mundanity, and the respective roles all things play to balance the world. Altering even the most trivial of things disrupts the equilibrium and may have untold consequences, and for that reason, everything—rocks, sand, even silence—is equally important. This lends a fascinating dynamic to Le Guin’s world: it is at once complex and simple, huge and small. We learn of the legendary power of dragons and the ancient magic of true-names, but so too do we spend time walking in silence and enjoying fellowship. The quiet, contemplative moments in Ged’s life are just as profound as the grand epic unfolding around him.

As a result, Le Guin does not sacrifice attention to her characters for the sake of the plot—something she discusses at length in her essay, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown.”  At the heart of this fantastic narrative is a very human story. Ged is impulsive, proud, and prone to jealousy, much of which arises from his humble upbringing and desire for his peers to value him as an equal. He makes a cataclysmic mistake in boastfully attempting magic beyond his abilities, letting the shadow and its evils loose onto the world. The incident leaves him scarred and shaken to his core, and we watch as he must choose between securing his own safety and that of others, pushing him to the brink over and over again. He struggles, triumphs, fails, and doubts. Like the heroes we love in our stories today, when he is rocked to his very foundations, he finds within himself the strength to rise, and grow, and overcome.

I was pleased to find that most of the characters, and the rest of the Archipelago, are not white, which was a welcome surprise from a book published in the mid-twentieth century. I was much less pleased to discover that very few of those characters are women, and fewer still have any significant role in its unfolding—and I’m not the only one. The women of Earthsea remain in their homes, away from the happenings of Ged’s adventures, so I’d hoped to encounter more dynamic women as the narrative progressed. Thankfully, we meet Yarrow of Iffish, the precocious and witty younger sister of Ged’s closest friend Vetch, but even she appears late in the story and stays behind as her brother and Ged depart for his final confrontation with the shadow.

The words “Le Guin” and “Feminism” had always hovered close together in my mind, and I wondered, disappointed, why A Wizard of Earthsea did not seem to meet those expectations—even if the following novel, The Tombs of Atuan, switches to a young woman’s perspective. But I found the answer from Le Guin herself. At the time A Wizard of Earthsea came out, fantasy stories written about women—and unapologetically by women—were unprecedented. As Le Guin explains in her 2012 Afterword, she had to be “deliberately sneaky” with her subversions of the conventional fantasy narrative.

However, as Le Guin explained in a 2004 interview with The Guardian, she was able to bring a new perspective to the later Earthsea books because of her growth as a writer during Second Wave Feminism: “One of the things I learned was how to write as a woman, not as an honorary, or imitation, man.” And, she has said in an interview with Karabatak, reclaiming her own voice in a male-dominated genre enabled her to explore her Archipelago more deeply and thoughtfully, seeing the world through the perspective of “the powerless.” I’m eager to see how the women of Earthsea appear and develop in the rest of the series, as I now feel certain they will.

Reading her interviews and essays, I’m increasingly delighted by Le Guin’s wit, her passion, and her sagacity. She was a remarkable and talented woman, and it’s no wonder her work has had such an impact on SFF literature. After finishing A Wizard of Earthsea, a pleasant enough read that continues to resonate after setting it down, I’m left wanting to read more of her work. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Annals of the Western Shore, or delve into the ground-breaking The Left Hand of Darkness—or stay in Earthsea for a while longer, which promises to get even better as the series progresses. Regardless, I now have a much longer reading list.

A Review of Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Published September 22, 2020 by Gallery Books.

Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems is the highly anticipated follow-up to the genre-busting, art-blog-turned-New-York-Times-bestseller Hyperbole and a Half (Gallery Books, 2013). Think of it as the narrative-comic equivalent to Alanis Morisette following Jagged Little Pill or Fiona Apple following Tidal. Called “a connoisseur of the human condition” by Kirkus Reviews, Brosh’s autobiographical prose mixed with simple Paintbrush drawings—what Brosh herself has called “stand-up comedy in book form”—is silly, insightful, and poignant. Brosh’s graphic proxy borders on stick figure, with big eyes and a yellow ponytail, and usually wears a vivid pink onesie or, if depressed, a gray hoodie. Indeed, part of Hyperbole’s appeal is Brosh’s candid, humorful, and refreshingly spot-on depictions of her paralyzing anxiety and depression. Solutions and Other Problems is full of Brosh’s trademark whimsy and wisdom and yet is somehow more daring and vulnerable.

I was rereading Solutions while waiting at the doctor’s office purposely ignoring the man who, sitting as close as COVID-possible, kept alternately sighing and commenting about HGTV. I shifted ever-so-slightly in my seat to make eye contact impossible. I didn’t care for the shade of blue they chose for the renovation either but knew better than to say so aloud. I had, after all, just finished Chapter 3, the one about Neighbor Kid, who “gets up at 5 in the morning and hangs out directly in front of [Brosh’s] door like a bridge troll—all who wish to pass must answer her riddles, and the only riddle she knows is Do you want to see my room?” Neighbor Kid does this for “7 consecutive months.” “I have never met anybody,” Brosh writes, “who is this determined about anything.” Anybody, that is, except for Brosh herself. For 7 consecutive months, Brosh avoids, refuses, and outright lies to Neighbor Kid so as not to see her room, no matter how many lamps are in there.

Brosh’s work isn’t just for introverts. However, she makes those of us who’d rather not engage in small talk and have resultantly developed a hard exterior as a coping mechanism, feel a little less alone in the world, and, if I’m honest, a little less guilty. Brosh knows that engaging with others leads to more engaging with others, which is the thing she’s trying to avoid in the first place. Sometimes it’s okay not to engage, even, or maybe especially, in the face of a “5-year-old social juggernaut”: “I mean, what’s going to happen? I go look at her room and then she leaves me alone forever?”

To be fair, Solutions and Other Problems is its own kind of unstoppable force, an unconventional, often nonsensical battle wherein cartoon drawings battle real and imagined fears. I’ll admit that, at first, even though I knew it unfair to immediately start comparing the two, I thought Solutions wasn’t matching up to the brilliance of the sidesplitting Hyperbole. The pacing is different, the tone more somber. Despite both being deeply personal and true about life in ways that only Brosh could illustrate, Solutions isn’t a simple sequel. In one of Hyperbole’s most memorable moments, Brosh compares depression to her fish dying, while her friends keep offering useless advice, like “why not just make them alive again,” or meaningless platitudes, like “fish are always deadest before the dawn.” “Let’s keep looking,” one drawing says, “I’m sure they’ll turn up somewhere.” “No, see,” Brosh’s proxy retorts, “that’s a solution for a different problem than the one I have.” We might, then, reasonably expect Solutions and Other Problems to show us the solutions to the problems Brosh does have. And yet, although Brosh may have created her own rules for Hyperbole, she doesn’t stick to those rules in Solutions.

Maybe Brosh “can’t be contained by the rules” because the rules never made sense in the first place. Heck, Solutions doesn’t even have a Chapter 4, “because sometimes things don’t go like they should.” But that statement turns out to have more significance than a mere explanation as to why she skips Chapter 4.

Brosh’s signature art and philosophical narrative have an effect that’s difficult to capture. The combination of oddly appealing drawings interrupting unique but nevertheless strangely relevant experiences is also profound in ways few authors can achieve. If I were to describe Neighbor Kid, for example, I could say she resembles a skeleton with too many teeth and a lot of brown hair and is wearing a purple t-shirt with a heart on it. While that’s not remotely adequate, it’s not entirely off. How do Brosh devotees explain the hilarity of random “fun facts” during the “serious parts”? Fun facts like, “the Orcish word for hospital is ‘GOREHOSPITSTROON,’ meaning place of one thousand tubes and no answers” or “in a world where fruit was money, it would cost too many grapes to buy a giraffe.” Or consider how Brosh tells us about what she had to do to the 2-year-old who’s “apocalypse-level scared of dandelions”: “I trapped her under a towel and dragged her into the woods.” And, well, we get it.

Brosh has a distinctive way of making you laugh out loud one minute and hold your hands over your mouth with despair the next. In the title, solutions comes before, not after, problems, because nothing is resolved. Some things can’t be resolved because, as Brosh writes, “sometimes all you can really do is keep moving and hope you end up somewhere that makes sense.” From childhood kleptomania to divorce to mutually beneficial hostage situations to unfathomable grief and loss, Solutions and Other Problems may have felt like a long time coming, but it was well worth the wait.

8 Poems Worth Memorizing

What’s your attention span like at the moment? The pandemic has made concentrating more difficult for many of us, and for those who love books, reading novels has gotten a lot more challenging than it used to be. I’ve found that, despite its reputation as a difficult form, poetry has actually become easier for me to read than novels. Unlike novels, poetry needs short, focused bursts of concentration. These brief, intense periods of focus are perfect for reading and remembering poetry. And since it’s associative rather than chronological, poetry as a form is uniquely suited to being memorized. By using patterns of repetition—rhyme, assonance, alliteration, meter, recurrent imagery—poems make themselves relatively easy to remember. It helps too that because so much poetry comes from oral storytelling traditions, it’s a very aural form. I find that, even when I’m not trying, the rhythm of a poem or a few perfect lines gets easily stuck in my head. And so when the world is too much, and reading longform work is difficult, I satisfy my thirst for literature by committing poetry to memory. Here are some poems worth remembering:

Animals” by Frank O’Hara

This wonderful poem bridges the distance between love and loss, showing how all love is a little bit bittersweet and all love poems are a little bit elegiac. At 12 lines, this poem is great for memorizing because it’s short and sweet, and because each stanza works as a discrete whole. If memorizing the whole poem is too much for you right now, start with the perfect final lines:

“I wouldn’t want to be faster

or greener than now if you were with me O you

were the best of all my days”

The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop

“The Shampoo” is a bold and tender depiction of aging love. Bishop pairs the stars and the night sky with the everyday actions and observations of loving someone, in a way that both elevates the quotidian elements of love, and grounds the romance of the night sky. Greying hair gets turned into stars, a tin basin is compared to the moon and intimacy pushes aside the fear of time passing. It’s not a hard poem to memorize because Bishop has such mastery of rhyme and each of the three stanzas follows an ABACBC rhyme pattern. If you’re going to memorize just one section, though, the last stanza is beautiful:

“The shooting stars in your black hair

in bright formation

are flocking where,

so straight, so soon?

–Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin

battered and shiny like the moon”

The Good Morrow” by Jack Underwood (from John Donne’s poem of the same name)

We’re cheating a little bit here by sharing two poems: one originally written by John Donne, and then a modern update of the same poem by Jack Underwood. Both poems are simultaneously earnest and playful, exploring love’s ability to transform and the adventure that comes with loving someone. If you’re just memorizing one section, I recommend the opening lines of Jack Underwood’s version:

“I’m not sure I remember what we did
before we LOVED. Were we gherkins bobbing
in our harmless jars, with vinegar and seeds?
Or were we stuffed in a tube of sleep for years?”

A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay

Many of the poems I’ve suggested so far have been about love. Although this poem expresses immense tenderness, it’s an elegy rather than a love poem. “A Small Needful Fact” balances between hope and hurt and should be remembered in its entirety. It’s so compact and every line is so vital that to take only a line or two would do the poem as a whole, and the man it remembers, a disservice.

“A Small Needful Fact”

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

“The Blue Terrance” by Terrance Hayes

Terrance Hayes revises black identity under his own terms in his poetry. This poem reflects on his writing and sense of what art can do. Hayes’s poetry remarkably captures the strangeness and physicality of personhood. Its smooth end and internal rhymes will make this poem stick around in your mind even before you start trying to memorize it. Here’s a section to start with before tackling the whole poem:

“That’s why

the blues will never go out of fashion:

their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of

consequence; that’s why when they call, Boy, you’re in

trouble. Especially if you love as I love

falling to the earth. Especially if you’re a little bit

high strung and a little bit gutted balloon.”

kitchenette building” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry leaps off the page into your ear and into your mouth—it’s such aural poetry, which makes it delicious to speak aloud. Take the opening lines of “kitchenette building,” a poem about art and dreaming and the way the circumstances of real life sometimes leave little space for those things. Brooks’s exploration of these ideas culminates in a merging of the everyday and the artistic. Through the existence of this poem–which interrogates both art and the social systems that force people to live in cramped, unsuitable spaces–she shows that that reality and the dreaminess of language can coexist, and that all aspects of life can make for great poetry. At the same time, Brooks exposes the ways in which being forced to live in spaces like the one described can restrict people’s capacity for creation:

“We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,

Grayed in, and gray. ‘Dream’ makes a giddy sound, not strong

Like ‘rent,’ ‘feeding a wife,’ ‘satisfying a man.’”

Foreign Body” by Kimiko Hahn

Kimiko Hahn’s poetry is full of linguistic pleasure and strangeness. Memory and female lineage are vital to her work, and her poetry interrogates familial and cultural inheritance. This poem is an exploration of all of these things. If you’re just going to learn one part of the poem, these opening lines are gorgeous:

“This is a poem on my other’s body,

I mean, my mother’s body, I mean the one

who saved her braid of blue-black hair

in a drawer when I was little.

Meaning one I could lean against — 

against not in resistance. Fuzzy dress

of wuzzy one. Red lipstick one.

Kitchen one. Her one to me”

This Moment” by Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland’s work draws upon the magic of everyday life, turning suburbia and domestic life into spaces of suspense and possibility—subjects worth writing about. Boland’s work emphasizes women’s voices, allowing women to exist as complex individuals rather than symbols to bolster a misogynistic cultural identity. Its brevity makes choosing just one line from this poem to memorize difficult, but the last lines are particularly resonant:

“Stars rise.

Moths flutter.

Apples sweeten in the dark.”

Cutting Greens” by Lucille Clifton

“Cutting Greens” is a poem about food and domesticity that does what poetry does best: makes quotidian things strange and new. These lines encapsulate this poem’s interest in the strangeness and ferocity of hunger and care:

“just for a minute

the greens roll black under the knife,

and the kitchen twists dark on its spine

and I taste in my natural appetite

the bond of live things everywhere.”

So, without further ado: let’s get memorizing! (Pssst, if you’re looking for more great poetry, we have a vast treasure trove of poems here at F(r)iction Log!)

The Cosmic Mundane: an Interview with Helen Phillips

The Beautiful Bureaucrat was a strange, unconventional book and I couldn’t put it down.

Sometimes literary writers are a bit dismissive of the idea of a page-turner, because it sounds a little trashy. But, when I read a page-turner, I find it dynamic. I was curious if I could write a book that took on big themes and put them in the context of something that would have that thrill and urgency of a page-turner. It took me seven years to write the book.

The fact that you used such simple prose—it was engrossing. Those beautiful metaphors and those big ideas took me off guard because I was pulled into the plot and then suddenly, your words were jumping off the page to sucker-punch me.

There were really two things I was interested in when it came to writing the book. One was the dynamism and intrigue of the plot and themes. The other was language. When I think about the plot and the alternate world that I set it in, I’m thinking of influences like Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Haruki Murakami. Then the other sphere of influence was writers who were really precise with language like Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, and Jenny Offill.

At one point, the book was more than twice as long—320 pages. Both the plot and the language were affected by cutting it down. That was when I finally got the plot and the language to be potent.

Where did this outrageous idea come from?

Any idea comes from so many different sources. But the most direct, real-world source was that I had a job. It involved, during part of the year, inputting data into a database. I spent a lot of time inputting names into the database—like Josephine. I spent a lot of time thinking about the people whose names I was typing, and about their lives.

Also, the idea that somewhere, in some office, some bureaucrat was typing my information into a database. At the moments of frustration or exhaustion with my job it lightened my load or it added intrigue to the task to imagine those other people.

I also feel like a lot of my writing inspiration comes from me imagining a nightmare version of the familiar world. There’s mundane life—and a lot of life is mundane—and then I imagine a surface peeling back and something that is innocuous turns out to be threatening. I wanted the book to have something that seems mundane and then it suddenly becomes terrifying. And vise versa, something that seems terrifying, like the USPS notice that keeps following her—it seems so ominous—and then at the end it turns out to be this gift that she’s been given.

Another source of the idea: my husband and I had a time where we were moving from sublet to sublet. There was that basis in reality.
In a way this book feels like autobiography and in a way it feels like science fiction—it feels like both at the same time.

Lastly, there is the question of the meaning of life …

How did you strike a balance between giving us too much or too little? How would you describe the source of the dark creepiness of the book?

I feel like I live with such an acute awareness of death. I think that in a sense, what the ominousness is in the book is the fact of our own mortality—the way that it informs everyday existence. In this book, it becomes concrete.

How did you stick with this unconventional idea?

It took me seven years to write the book. I was pregnant when writing the second draft of it. I felt like I had a nine-month deadline.

About a week before my daughter was born I sent it to my agent. It was radio silence for three months. But I was so busy being a new parent that I barely noticed. Finally I reached out to her and asked, “Did you ever read that book?” She basically said, “This book is such a dark book that the reader won’t want to stay in this world with you. It’s too dark, it’s too heavy, it’s too gloomy, and the plot doesn’t hold together.” That was a huge moment of discouragement.

So I spent a year working on short stories and ignoring the novel. The following summer I went back to the book and realized that my agent had been right about everything. I almost abandoned the book at that point. That was where the most courage came in, because I already spent years of my life on The Beautiful Bureaucrat. I was like, “Am I going to do another draft and waste more hours of my life?” But the book still had its claws in me. I finally decided, “You know what? Screw it. I’m going to waste more of my life on this project.”

It seemed unlikely that it would ever reach publication—especially after what my agent said. That’s when I cut it in half. The plot was the last thing to come, which is really backwards. But that summer I figured out the plot and how it would all fit together.

When I was writing my first book, which is called And Yet They Were Happy (a collection of flash fiction comprised entirely of stories that are exactly 340 words), I kept telling myself, “This is not a publishable book.” It was the best writing experience I had ever had up to that point in my life. I found satisfaction and joy in my creative process that I had never before experienced to such a degree. It was very liberating to say, “This might not ever be published; in fact, it probably won’t.” With The Beautiful Bureaucrat, I had the same feeling. But it’s only by feeling that maybe it
won’t be published that I felt risky enough—that I felt free enough.

My editor, Sarah Bowlin at Henry Holt, fell in love with The Beautiful Bureaucrat right away. Within 24 hours of my agent sending it to her she had written back. She wasn’t the only one interested. I felt like I was writing something that wasn’t that marketable, so the level of interest the manuscript received was a complete shock to me.

I know that this plot will haunt me for years. I’m so glad that you went out on a limb and wrote something like this.

I felt the stakes when I was writing this book. There are so many elements of my own life in the novel. But I do tire of reading certain contemporary fiction, when I feel writers aren’t taking on the most important stuff of life.

So you wrote short form before you wrote this novel. What was that transition like?

I guess that’s not entirely accurate. I wrote three novels in my twenties that are dead to me and dead to the world. One was about the history of the New York subway system. One was about a bunch of people that were stuck in an enormous blizzard. The other was about the wife of an astronaut who disappears into space. They are full-length novels. I worked on them for years of my life. They never really came to fruition.

After abandoning those books, I wrote my book of microfiction, And Yet They Were Happy. In writing The Beautiful Bureaucrat, I wanted to combine what I did in terms of image/metaphor/language in And Yet They Were Happy with the plotting/mystery elements of my second book, a middle-grade adventure novel called Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. (After writing And Yet They Were Happy, I had decided to give myself an opposite kind of challenge. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just resorting to “experimental” writing because I couldn’t do the other. So then I decided I’d write a book for children, because I thought it was a really great forum to write a straightforward plot.) When I set out to write The Beautiful Bureaucrat, I wondered, “Could I do both? Can I have those images and metaphors and those big questions, combined with the suspense and characterization?”

I always write by challenge.

How did you balance wide-scoping distance with intimate writing?

The cosmic is contained within the everyday. Each minute of your life is slipping into the ether—that’s part of the human condition. In a way, the intimacy and cosmic-ness of the book imitates what a lived experience is like. The most powerful moments of life—whether they are sad moments or joyful moments—are the moments where the two suddenly flash together.

I loved the attention you gave to names. Can you talk about that?

When I was seven years old, I asked my babysitter too buy me this baby name book that was on sale at the grocery store. She was like, “Why do you need a baby name book? You’re seven years old.” But from the time I was a tiny child, I’ve always been a writer and I’ve always been interested in names.

With Joseph and Josephine, there is the fact that they have the same name. That’s working in a few ways. One is that there is a connection between them—that they are, in a sense, the same person. When I give them the same name, I’m indicating to the reader that they are symbolic, almost fairytale characters to some degree. There’s also the suggestion that they’re each an average “Joe.” At the same time, they’re the cutesy, darling couple that has the same name.

With Trishiffany there’s the humor. Trishiffany, that combination of names, it’s supposed to be an absurd, exaggerated thing about her character. Her full name also has significance. Patricia means “a patrician” and Tiffany means “gift of God.” Those things combined make sense with being a bureaucrat in this book. Maybe I’ve overdone it with the symbolism.

My original vision of the book was that the entire text of the story would be on one side and the other column would be a list of names. It would include the names of everyone I’ve ever known, which would have been creepy of me to do. But I didn’t end up doing that.

The usual paradigm of numbers is that they tend to embody a cold way of thinking about people. I love that Josephine uses Joseph’s social security number as a pet name. It was a bureaucrat thing to do and it came across so well.

When I had that job entering peoples’ names into a database, I found it to be sort of the most cold, boring task you could do. But then I took a step back and remembered that someone raised every one of these people. Structures like the IRS or the DMV—we hate these bureaucratic structures, and yet there is something humane in the act of being tallied. I read an article by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker and she has in it the quote, “The flipside of democracy is bureaucracy. If everyone counts, everyone must be counted.” That idea is certainly important in the book. The implication in the final scene is that everything in the universe has been counted—that there is an inherent dignity in being counted. I envision that final scene as an uplifting one, at least to some degree. That room full of files is supposed to be a glorious, dazzling image.

What is your publication history like? How did you get an agent? How did you fight through the years of rejection?

Well, my very first publication was in Highlights for children when I was six years old! It was a poem called “The Rainbow.” My first publication in my serious, adult life was in The L Magazine, which is a local Brooklyn magazine.

I have an Excel spreadsheet where I kept track of all the places I’ve submitted my work and every place that it’s been rejected from. I got in the habit of rejection so long ago. The ability to be rejected is probably the most important trait of being a writer. Writing has to be its own reward. There is no way to have success in this if you don’t take a joy in the actual process of doing it, because it’s a long road to receiving outside recognition.

I think the whole agent thing can appear very insider-y, and my agent did come through a family connection as we are from the same hometown—but I always emphasize to my students: it’s not as hard to break into the industry as it can look like from the outside. Many agents have approached me over the years following publications in certain magazines. To beginning writers: do not be discouraged. You can find agents in many ways.

My agent’s name is Faye Bender. She’s fantastic. But, she didn’t have luck sending And Yet They Were Happy out to publishers. She submitted it to a bunch of editors and it got rejected from all the big publishing houses because they said, “What genre is this?”

Then my agent stepped aside and I took it upon myself to send the book out to a bunch of small presses. I submitted it to a contest run by a small, wonderful press called Leapfrog. It was a finalist for their contest—it actually didn’t win. Then the editor called me and said, “We love your book, even though it didn’t win, we want to publish it anyway.”

There are a lot of different paths to publication. Having an agent isn’t the only way. My four books have been published by three different presses (Leapfrog, and Delacorte Press—which is a division of Random House—and Henry Holt), and each experience has been really distinct and cool in its own way.

An Interview with Matt Gallagher

I loved this book. I haven’t read a war book this good since Tim O’Brien.

I appreciate that. O’Brien is The Godfather of American war literature, so that’s very kind of you.

Can you tell me what it was like to transition from writing nonfiction to writing a novel?

It took a lot of time and care. I decided after writing Kaboom that I wanted to write fiction. So I decided to go the MFA route, because I’ve always been a classroom learner. I had to swallow my pride a little bit, having already published a book, but it was probably the best thing I could’ve done because I got to study with people where, in many cases, I was probably the first military veteran they’d ever known. When I was submitting to workshops, it may have been the first military story they’d ever read. It really forced me to look at my own work from a completely different perspective. Then, making that jump to fiction was a matter of getting out of my own head.

Early drafts of the book were actually third person, but I found that it lacked the deeper emotional texture that first person can get to. So when I decided to write this novel in first person, I knew that the narrator needed to be more engaging than I am, more interesting than I am. So I just started with really basic things to help me learn how to write first person in a different voice. Jack’s a younger brother; I’m an older brother. It’s a very different view, and his relationship with his older brother is important. I called up my younger brother and interviewed him. I asked what it was like being the younger brother. And he was very honest with me. He said, “Oh, you know, it’s hard. Sometimes you were kind of an asshole, and here’s why.” So that was helpful.

I had to do a lot of research. I read a lot of journalism, a lot of oral histories, to find out how the war had changed, evolved—how the country had changed since I’d been there myself. I didn’t want to just be limited by, I think David Foster Wallace called it “our tiny skull kingdoms.” And slowly but surely, I kept writing and rewriting, to the point where I was writing from Jack’s perspective.

A lot of first time fiction writers try to make themselves as close to their first person narrator as they can. But it looks like you went to a lot of lengths to really distance your experiences from that of Jack’s. How important do you think that was to the writing process?

I think it was very important. Not just to get out of my own head, but to get away from my own tour, the limitations of those fifteen months. Certainly I wanted to draw from my own experience, but one of the goals with Youngblood was to write about the war with some fullness, if not the totality of the nine-year conflict—a wider view than just one man’s experiences. I wanted something with some breadth, so setting it near the end of the war was important. It allowed me to explore these corners and crevices of the Iraq war that I’d only read about, that I’d been interested in, that had maybe nothing or very little to do with the experiences of Matt Gallagher but fascinated me as a citizen, as somebody that cares about American foreign policy.

As fiction writers, we’re taught to find the most dramatic moment and then tell a story around it. And, of course, you didn’t do that. You went to the deceleration of the entire war process, and that gave the book a very intimate sort of feel. What was it like to explore the sides of war that we don’t really see?

Early on, as I was still formulating the book, it was less important for me to write about conflict than the after-effects of conflict, and how that lingers within individual souls, how that affects not just the people directly involved, but their friends and family, for years, often decades, after the fact. So often I’d heard, “Oh, war books aren’t for me.” From readers, book people, sometimes friends. I wanted to write a book for those people. And I realized that the best war books aren’t really ever about war. They’re human stories of love and hope and loss and survival. I knew that I needed to include some combat sequences, but I really wanted to spread those out through the narrative—keep them kind of separate. I was more interested in exploring how those things resonated with the people directly involved, both American and Iraqi, and people indirectly involved, both American and Iraqi.

You have a line early on in this book about how this is a “gray war.” I think that is one of the most interesting aspects of Youngblood. What was it like to write characters that were never really black and white, that were always kind of mitigating the middle area?

It was frustrating and challenging, but then fulfilling. I think a perfect example of this is Chambers. I wanted to play with the stereotype that I think a lot of readers—or people in American society—might have: the sociopath, a warmonger. And certainly that’s how Chambers presents himself at first because he’s establishing his own authority within the platoon. But I’d like to think that he’s much more complicated than that. We’re seeing Chambers on his fourth tour. In many ways, he’s the inevitable result of sending young men and women to war over and over again without necessarily a clear purpose or end goal in mind. Of course he’s going to make compromises and perhaps some murky decisions, because that’s how he’s made it this far.

One of my early readers asked me what Chambers was like on his first tour. I thought about it before I went into the rewriting. And I think he was, in his own way, just as idealistic as Jack is. He’s just been through too much and seen too much. He’s had to find his own smaller purpose in the midst of all of this, and that small purpose is a noble one. It’s to bring his soldiers home alive, whatever it takes. But that’s obviously going to conflict with some of the other characters’ intentions.

I found myself completely fascinated by Jack’s older brother. As you’ve said, one of the most interesting aspects of this genre is exploring not what happens during the war, but what happens to the people as a result of it. What was it like to juxtapose Will and Jack together—both their upbringing and how they are as leaders after the war?

Exploring that brotherly relationship felt important, and it was another way for me to get at an earlier phase of the Iraq war. Jack might not be able to clearly articulate it, even to himself, but clearly much of the reason he joined the army in the first place is because of his brother: aspiring to be like his brother in some ways, while also defying and resenting other parts of his brother. It’s a very younger-brother reaction, which is, “I can do the same thing you can but I’m going to do it my own way.” I think that all comes to pass in the letter that Will writes to Jack in book three. I don’t think Will is prone to the same introspection that Jack is, but Will does his best in that letter to open himself up and to really confront his own failures as a leader from his military days—something that he hasn’t yet shared with Jack. And Jack’s reaction to that letter is off the page. I think you can see its impact on his decision making and how he views moral courage going forward. And Will, nakedly opening up, perhaps for the first time to his brother about his own experiences overseas, helps crystallize for Jack what he should do going forward—finding, in his own way, maybe one small thing worth doing in the midst of all this ruin.

I found the always-slightly-present humor in the voice really fascinating, especially given how grim the content is. How did you manage to keep your mind in that lighter lens when looking at things that are really quite horrible?

It felt like an important thing to do—from a writerly craft perspective—to keep the story from becoming dark destruction on every page. But it also felt true to the experience—not necessarily my own, but true to the fact that very young men and women go overseas on our country’s behalf to carry out these wars. Memory can distort, memory can warp. However we spent our early twenties, we look back with a little more self-seriousness than we had in the moment. It’s also the most natural thing in the world, not just for young people, but for human beings, to find lightness in the midst of so much heaviness and darkness. There’s that particularly grisly scene near the end of the book where they come across the remnants of the car bomb and the wild dogs are going through those remnants. Some of the soldiers make some off-color jokes. They don’t do that because they’re inhumane, or because they don’t have empathy for the Mukhtar; they spent a lot of time with the Mukhtar. It’s the most human thing they can do because they have to keep going. They’re there on a patrol. If they were to stop and really brood over what they’re seeing, they’d shut down. It’s not as though that memory won’t stay with them for many, many years after they return home. But in that moment, they don’t have the luxury of stopping and really sharing with each other what they’re really thinking. So it’s a quick dark joke and let’s keep going.

Tell me about the process of taking the plot’s original conception to the final draft. What was the writing process like?

Slow and steady. I think I went through twelve full drafts.

I subjected a couple friends to every single one of them, God bless their souls. The first couple of drafts were very disjointed, but it was just a matter of getting the ideas out of my head and onto the page and things weren’t quite lining up. I’m very much a trial-and-error writer. I can’t say that I actually worked six days a week, three to four hours every day. But I do know that on the days I didn’t spend enough time writing I literally felt bad. Like I hadn’t accomplished something I needed to. So trying to abide by a schedule as much as possible was vital. And then just being truthful with yourself. Knowing when it’s not good enough, knowing when it’s not exactly as you want it to be. I mean, I would’ve loved to have finished this book two years ago but it just wasn’t ready yet.

So how many years did you work on it?

Let’s see. I started it in 2011. So about four, four and a half.

I know you got your start writing a blog, which you turned into a memoir. Do you think that the routine of blogging helped you fall into the routine of fiction writing? Or was there a conflict in the way that blogging depicts a short episode while the novel involves a very complex process of putting pieces together?

A little bit of both. I think the blogging background definitely helped in terms of not being afraid, especially with those early drafts of just sitting down and doing it. But I absolutely had to unlearn a lot of bad habits. There was a point in the early drafts of this book when I’d hit a wall with a chapter at six or seven pages, which was like a lengthy blog post. I had to teach myself how to draw out scenes, how to tease out dialogue, that it was okay to spend—if need be, if it made sense—longer than a couple paragraphs with a character’s thoughts. These were things that I could literally, viscerally feel changing in my writer brain. It was just one of those things that took time, and rewriting, and reminding myself that this is what I wanted to do, that the novel was the right medium for this story.

I was talking with David Abrams, who wrote Fobbit, about how political books written about Vietnam and the Iraq war can usually be distilled down to one main political point. Do you think that’s true? And if so, what do you think you’re saying with this book?

War is inherently political, so I absolutely agree that any war novel or war story is going to be charged with that. It mattered to me that I try not to be politically didactic on the page. I mean, I’m sure it’s imbued in there somewhere because it’s part of the reason you write the book. But that kind of blanket partisanship bores me as a reader. As a writer, I wanted to do something more interesting and more nuanced. If there is one thing I hope readers get out of Youngblood, it’s that the consequences of armed conflicts can never be contained or anticipated. The way they impact people and communities and countries resonates in so many different ways and for so much longer than anyone can imagine. Two words that I kept in mind over and over again were “inheritance” and “legacy”—the way the unintended consequences of that armed conflict linger. Maybe that’s not uppercase political, but I think it’s certainly lowercase political and ideological.

Having written both a nonfiction work and a fiction work in the same sort of sphere, do you feel like you were able to purport that mission and the things that were really important to you better in either your memoirs or in this book?

I’d have to say this book, and that’s probably because it’s the most recent one. If I’d been entirely satisfied with what I’d conveyed in Kaboom and how I’d conveyed it, I probably wouldn’t have written this book. I can’t remember exactly who, but some famous dead writer said, “Well, I’m just rewriting the same book over and over again trying to get it just right.” At least for now, I think I’m good with the topic. But if someone were to say twenty-five, thirty-five years down the line, try to get at Iraq again, I think I’d probably understand because when I’m older I might not be as content with Youngblood as I am today.

That makes perfect sense. So, on that note, what are you going to do next?

Not write about Iraq! I have another novel that I’ve been working on. It’s mostly about post-empire America, set in the center of the storm and what this ever-changing republic looks like from the inside—whereas I think Youngblood’s kind of written from the fringe about post-empire America and about republics. I’d give you more details but frankly, they’re just going to change anyhow. It needs a lot of work but I’m excited about its potential.

An Interview with Alexandra Kleeman

This is a very strange book, and it’s really gutsy to create something so unconventional for your debut. How did that go? Why did you choose something so challenging as your first novel?

Well, debuts are funny. You’ve never written a book before, and there’s this feeling where you wonder if this is the only book they’ll ever let you write. You want to put everything you can into it. I think that’s why so many debuts are really personal or draw from autobiographical experience. When I was starting out writing after college and I was starting to read work by contemporary writers for the first time, it was a revelation. I learned that you could write amazing stuff and not be a dead classical author. I was really into writers who could really put forward emotions that are almost not really considered emotions. They’re odd, they’re mundane. That kind of writing is connected to technology and communication in a way that many books aren’t, because literature is often insulated from those commonplace things that occupy our everyday lives.

I really wanted to write about my experience and take seriously all the mundanities that I had felt were not worthy of writing about and try to imbue them with a kind of exaggerated pathos. I had to figure out a form for doing that, and I ended up cobbling it together from advertisements, media, and my own wanderings. I still had to figure out how I could visit all these places and emotional landscapes and still have a story that was real in some way, that had a plotline that could build up and detonate by the end.

I wasn’t sure how people were going to respond to it, but I also thought that if this was the moment I give the world something for the first time, I want to give people a piece of myself.

One of the things I find really interesting is this idea that there are elements of life that aren’t worthy of the page. You have commercials and other things in the background that come together to form the collage of the novel. It’s so different.

One of the really interesting things about living today is the way our internal lives are shaped by media. There’s media around us all the time, these images and advertisements and TV programs that puncture you on a deep level. They’re about people you’ll never meet or who don’t exist, but when they get into your living room or onto your phone where you can carry them around all day, they become very intimate. It’s a paradoxical kind of closeness and distance. In some ways this is a very internal novel, but in other ways, I think a lot of the emotional work depends on interfacing with these strange ads. They’re unsettling, but it’s not totally clear why. The reader has to take on that distress in their own body—it’s like being confronted with something difficult and disturbing.

The pacing of this novel is quite brilliant. There’s a great deal of absurdism, but you introduce it in a way that is so slow and gradual that the reader isn’t thrown out of the narrative. How did you create that sense of pace?

I really wanted to borrow the pacing of a mystery—instead of a series of things happening, it’s more of a series of clues being discovered. The world at the beginning of the novel is the same as at the end of the novel, but it feels different because of what you’ve seen in it. I wanted to slow the pace of the story and create the effect of seeing one thing among the familiar that just doesn’t fit in. I wanted to create moments where the reader would recognize that something is off and carry that feeling through as those moments accumulate and things get stranger and stranger.

A’s behavior is interesting in the beginning—you kind of relate to her. But then she starts doing crazier things, and you begin to feel almost sickened by her. It’s hard to relate with someone when they’re eating someone else’s hair.

I wouldn’t say that my favorite characters in books are unlikeable characters, but once I’ve emotionally attached to a character, I’ll follow them wherever they’re going, even if it makes me feel bad to go there. I’ve found this to be a really powerful experience in reading. I wanted to take a character who begins as a person pretty similar to myself and then force her to make a series of choices that would be impossible for me to make. I wanted to place her in an increasingly untenable position and see how far I could follow her there as a writer.

One of my favorite quotes about craft is from Haruki Murakami. He talks about how writing is like playing a video game that you are creating as you play it. There’s a kind of feedback between what you put on the page and how you react to it. It guides how you drive the story along as a result. I have always thought that there are many things that seem more and more cruel the longer and more intensely you observe them. I really believe in literature as a way to make the invisible parts of our world visible, and sometimes make the visible parts invisible or less prominent. I wanted to take the story to a place I’d never been before.

One thing that really surprised me about the book is how deeply funny it is. How did you manage to write something that is very serious and craft-focused and still has the kind of ability to make a reader laugh out loud?

When I was dwelling in the writing of this book, I found that a lot of the body issues that the book addresses are very psychologically intense and anxiety-inducing. Any time you think about the question of who you are, who you’re becoming, and your relationship with your body, you get into some very challenging territory. The only way I know to explore that territory and still be able to think and produce is to make fun of it. For example, I created a lot of products that I almost think could be good ideas. If I got myself in front of the right people, I could pitch them, and someone would run with them. But they’re exaggerated. I kept myself sane while writing the book by making myself laugh.

I’m really interested in how much tension you built through the narrative. We’re getting these ads second-hand, but there’s still this sense of something lurking in the background. How did you create that kind of tension?

When I was a kid, I would watch Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, and think, silly coyote. He really never gets the roadrunner. However, it’s only his cartoon flesh that lets us discard empathetic feelings for him. I think it’s a really interesting exercise to try to reactivate those feelings. Think about what could happen to cartoon flesh that we don’t see happening. What if we took an unreal character and moved him one or two steps closer to our own bodies? What if it did experience pain, hurt, aging? What if, when the TV is off, the character is still there somewhere, suffering in its way?

I’m really interested in empathy, and I’m interested in how the world we live in is configured by whom we decide to give empathy to. For example, I think the world becomes different around you when you become really moved by animal rights issues. I believe that literature has a great deal of power to shift those psychological boundaries. I’m really interested in playing around with those different degrees of empathy and bodily realness.

My male editors described being very affected by some of the female-centric elements of the book. Do you worry that your novel might be pigeonholed as a “female book?”

I don’t think that the issues in the book are necessarily just female body issues. They’re issues for anyone who has a body: how am I thinking about my body, how am I shaping my body, what other ways can I be shaping my body? Who else could I be? I feel like people can empathize with a lot; the body is an empathy machine. When we hear about situations we’ve never experienced, I think we’re usually able to imagine some part of what that experience is like. So I hope that it does connect for a lot of people.

What I’ve been hearing since the book came out is that both men and women are really interested in these questions. I think we have a big space open now for women writers to take up writing about the issues they face in their lives. Women have opportunities now to write and give these ideas the literary treatment and not feel like they’re doing something frivolous. I think it’s an exciting time to be a woman writer.

Talk to me about your writing process. How long did this book take to write?

The first draft took me a little over a year, and then I revised it for a good year and a half. When you write a book from beginning to end, you don’t make all the best choices. Plus, you’re aware of the fact that you’re not making the best choices, which can be really frustrating. If you let that get to you, you can really hamstring yourself. I think a lot of being a writer in the long haul is about developing that therapist voice that you keep inside you that tells you there’s no perfect solution.

As I worked on it from beginning to end, I felt very firm on some parts. I felt really good about the world I was creating, what I wanted to explore, how I wanted it to appear. The same goes for the progression of the main character, what I wanted her to go through. So a lot of that was there for me. One of my faults, I think, is that I’m a big planner. I can sit down and want to write a short story that does something specific. I think it should have these elements, and it should end in a certain way. When you do it that way, you usually end up with something close to what you imagined at one point in time. However, you don’t really have room for something unexpected or uncontrolled when you have everything figured out like that. When I wrote the novel, I felt strongly that I had to put myself in dangerous or threatening situations. I’d start here and know that I wanted to go to another place, but I couldn’t know how I’d get there beforehand. You have to put yourself in the position of the character and walk through the book in that way.

I was also really lucky that I had a great agent who really made me think that there was something in me that I hadn’t discovered yet.

Tell me about the publishing process. How did you find your agent and your publisher?

My agent contacted me after reading a story that I had published in the Paris Review. I was interested in working with her because she worked on Amelia Grey’s book, THREATS, which was another super-gutsy book. There’s a pressure to figure out what the best thing to say is, the best words to use, but there’s also external pressure. You want to call your book finished and send it out, you want to move your life forward. But my agent gave me the impetus to work on it longer and dwell on it. I needed that time to figure out solutions to the problems with the book, which were very personal and amorphous. I don’t think I couldn’t have fought my way through those problems seamlessly without that time.

After we had worked on it for about a year, we sent it out to a number of people. One of them was a guy who had been in touch with me ever since one of my first stories was published. He would send me a note at six-month intervals, but I’d never met him. He took the book home with him on a Thursday night and had an offer on Monday. The best thing was that he wrote me a wonderful note that really showed his personality and showed me that he had spent a lot of time and thought on the book. I could tell that he was going to be invested in a serious way. He’s the one who gave me my editor. From there, I was able to do the last layer of revision that I’d had in mind.

It’s nice to hear that essentially you went about publishing and found success in the traditional way: you write stories, they get published, someone reads them and finds you. Did you get frustrated with that process at all?

It’s possible, I think, to be very cynical about how publishing works. There are plenty of people who write great stuff and don’t get their proper due. But I really find that it’s a person-driven industry. Everyone working in it genuinely loves books, and they’re open and eager to be touched by what lands on their desks. There is definitely an element of chance: do you get to the right desk, do you get your work in front of the right person? But I love that there’s so much genuine enthusiasm in this industry.

An Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell

There’s been a lot of talk about your book being all about female empowerment and an overall feminist text, but actually, your female characters are incredibly flawed. At times, they’re even more flawed than your male characters.

Sometimes people think I’m picking on the guys and I sort of feel like I don’t really cut anybody any slack. It’s really not a book against men. It’s really just about showing how when people make mistakes, they have these ramifications through their lives. If everyone behaved absolutely perfectly then maybe we’d avoid trouble—but maybe not even then. 

How did you balance the line between writing your characters as flawed, but still sympathetic?

It’s hard. In stories like “Tell Yourself,” where the woman is kind of a drunk and a drug addict and she has kids, you read the story and are immediately very concerned about her children, and you’re kind of angry at her for not being a better mother. I hope that by bringing characters like this to the floor and giving readers the opportunity to live with them for a while, we can make them more sympathetic. But I know that there’s a risk of taking it too far so that a reader might just shake their head and say, “I don’t even want to read about this kind of person.” I’m sure that happens with some readers. 

I’m really interested in how we all want to invent nice people in our human family, but I also want to write about the problematic people in all of our lives. For me, it’s important to remember that those people are still part of the human family, and even if they’re causing trouble, we have to find a way to work with them. The reason for writing stories is to explore that in a fictional way. I always hope that by presenting fictional versions of difficult relationships, people can look at the difficult relationships in their own lives (which maybe aren’t as extreme), and have a little more sympathy. 

Reading the book, I found that your settings are kind of their own characters. They’re so rich and so lively and oftentimes very quirky and, of course, you have that Midwest focus. They’re so incredibly vivid. Can you talk to me about how you create the settings for your stories?

I rely mostly on landscapes that I know very well. I think we see that also with writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. Their familiarity with landscape—with their own personal landscapes—gives them a really powerful tool. I feel like my knowledge of this place—this part of Michigan—is a really important tool for me, because I know everything that grows here, I know every animal that lives here, I know all the different kinds of people who are in the background. I consider people part of the setting.

I try, as writers do, to make the exterior world reflect the interior world. My intense familiarity with that exterior world allows me to reflect what’s going on inside a person. This collection is a little bit different because I had more domestic stories that took place inside rooms. But I still mostly rely on these very familiar places.

Of course, we all know that great magical mystery of fiction: that if one pays very, very close attention to the detail of any given place, it reflects the universal, somehow. It’s very mysterious. Our ability to use landscape is a really important tool, and somehow that’s really just a way to make a story feel universal.

It seems like you’ve let a lot of your personal experiences bleed into your stories. Which of your life experiences do you think were most influential in creating this collection?

I think growing up on a small farm with a single mother, really working hard with my hands and my body—I think that’s what informs this collection more than anything. I’ve always wanted to write circus stories because of my time in the circus. I’ve never been able to fathom a novel out of that, though, nor a whole collection of stories. There are two circus stories in my first collection and one here. I like to think the circus was influential, and it is, but I only spent maybe six months in the circus. So while I was interested in the circus, my soul was not drenched in it the way my soul was drenched in the life of the farm and rural spaces. 

Sex is clearly very important in your stories. Can you talk to me about why you find that interesting?

It really is a collection that explores different gradations of sexual discomfort and sexual violation. I think that’s appropriate in a book that’s really trying to take on women’s issues. I’ve avoided it in the past because I was worried about being pushed aside as a woman who writes about rape, you know? But I found that I really did need to write about it. Rape and different types of violation are a part of most women’s lives.

For example, there’s one that’s as mild as in the first story, where a teenage boy suggests that a girl’s head would look better on somebody’s else’s body. That’s actually a sort of mild sexual violation, if you think about it. “I’d like to have sex with you but I wish you had a different body.” I wanted to explore the nooks and crannies of sexuality in that way. I have been sort of traumatized—as a lot of women have been—by news stories about young women who go to parties and don’t know what happened until the next day. I should say, we’re haunted by that idea. That we could get drunk and then somehow lose control and lose the right to control our own bodies. I think that needs to be explored.

Do you have an ideal reader in your mind when you write? The kind of person you really want to stumble upon these stories and be moved by them?

I guess it’s my friend Heidi, who I thank in the book. Whenever I write, I think about Heidi because she’s a very philosophical person, and she loves to read, and she is unflinching. She always faces every problem that comes her way and doesn’t shy away from it. She also has no patience for foolishness or literary mistakes. 

Generally, though, I am interested in a literary reader who has the desire to stretch his or her mind a little bit. I really do write both for men and women. That’s been something I’ve kept in mind as I write. The men in my life are very important to me and I’m very close with men, and I feel like I can write from a man’s point of view as well as I can write from a woman’s. So it’s been important for me to feel like I can speak to men, and it’s very important for me to think that I might inform men a little bit about things they weren’t aware of. But it’s also about informing women—there are plenty of women who aren’t aware of these situations. I’ve had very generous responses from my male readers. But I do get men who shy away from even picking up the book.

I asked a male colleague to read some of your stories, though he was very reticent to read something that he calls, you know, female literature. But he really loved it.

I do think that I can be a little tough to read. Rather, I guess I want to write stories that do not give anyone a place to hide. I want to write stories where people really do have to face the complexity and the discomfort of these situations. Often when something’s really uncomfortable, as human beings, we just want to hide from it. I want us all to look at these situations. I don’t want us to play innocent and pretend that women all around us are not dealing with these difficult situations. And I want people to be open to communicating and thinking about that.

So my last question about the collection is actually about the closing story. It’s just outrageously uplifting. I spent the entire time smiling while reading it, and I was really curious about the decision to close a collection that has a lot of darkness in it with a story that has so much hope.

I actually see all my stories as being very hopeful. It can be difficult for a reader to come upon this material in which a protagonist has so much work to do before she can mend. My protagonists are often at the beginning of a journey of making themselves whole, recovering from extremely difficult situations. Because these are short stories, these women can’t come too far—you just wouldn’t believe it in such a short space. So I guess my vision of Suzanna in the last story is that she has gone through all these difficult situations and she is at a place now where she has done a lot of mending. The hope that we have for Suzanna is a hope that all the women in my collection can have.

When the Dust Settles: An Interview with Emily St. John Mandel

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project.

This interview originally appeared in F(r)iction #1, released in April 2015. It is available for purchase in the store.

What lead you to write a novel about the end of civilization?

This will seem counterintuitive, but I wanted to write about the modern world. One way to write about something, of course, is to consider its absence, and it seemed to me that an interesting way to write this world would be to write about a place in which all of the trappings and structures of civilization had been stripped away.

There are a great many things about our world that are absolutely appalling, but we’re surrounded by a level of technology and infrastructure that is frankly remarkable. I grew up in this world and should be used to it by now, but it seems miraculous to me that I can cross the Atlantic in a single night or talk to people on other continents on my cellphone. Station Eleven is a plot-driven book, but it’s also a love letter to the current world, written in the form of a requiem.

About two-thirds of my way through Station Eleven, I realized that this book really doesn’t have a traditional narrative arc. Instead of one or two characters, we’re given several, each with a narrative that jumps between timelines and plot arcs. Can you describe why you made this choice and how you put it together for the novel?

It’s a structure that I’ve been using since my first novel. I find it to be an interesting way to tell a story, partly for reasons of narrative tension—you can move toward climaxes in two timelines simultaneously—and partly because it’s a structure that lends itself to very in-depth character development, because you see those characters from different points of view and at different times in their lives. I also enjoy the challenge of this type of structure. Making it work is like solving a complicated puzzle.

I was particularly struck by your treatment of memory in Station Eleven. Some chapters recall characters who survived the pandemic, while other characters seem either unable or unwilling to recount their previous lives. Was this intentional? If so, why did you take this approach to memory? What fascinates you about memory as a storytelling device?

Yes, that was intentional. I took this approach because I’ve long been interested in memory as a topic. I’m interested in its unreliability—the way three different people will remember the same event in completely different ways—and in the possibility of memory becoming a burden: the idea that sometimes forgetting might be preferable, and the idea that in a post-apocalyptic scenario, the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.

Compared to other stories that deal with similar subject matter, your novel seems relatively light on the grimness and violence that often permeates such apocalyptic tales. Why do you think your novel came out so much more hopeful than the others?

Well, that was a conscious choice on my part. The difference comes down to timing: I set most of the post-apocalyptic action of the book twenty years after the apocalypse. Most of the post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read tends to focus on the time during or immediately following a complete societal collapse, with all of the horror and mayhem that that implies. I assume that there would be a period of utter chaos immediately after an apocalyptic event, but I felt that that ground had been very well covered by other writers, and I don’t find it credible that that period would last forever, everywhere on Earth. I was more interested in writing about what comes next: what new cultures and new ways of living might begin to emerge, after the initial period of mayhem has subsided?

Reading your novel, I was really charmed by what I perceive to be another major difference between Station Eleven and other novels that deal with the end of civilization: it doesn’t seem like a warning as much as an exploration of possibility. It is almost completely absent of the chiding, often condescending tone of many post-apocalyptic stories. If that’s a fair assessment, why did you approach your story that way?

I certainly didn’t intend to chide anyone with this book. Except possibly those people who walk in slow motion while staring at their iPhones on rush hour sidewalks, but that has nothing to do with the apocalypse and I don’t think those people are receptive to influences from the outside world anyway.

I know what you mean regarding other novels about the end of civilization—I loved A Canticle for Leibowitz, but it was a pretty heavy-handed warning about the perils of nuclear power and the follies of man. I’ve always been wary of novels whose aim is to impart a specific lesson, and I’ve never wanted to write one. I found it more interesting to write about not just the end of a civilization, but the beginning of whatever version of civilization comes next.

In your novel, the Traveling Symphony of the post-collapse world chooses to perform Shakespeare almost exclusively. Can you explain why you made this choice?

In the first several drafts of the book, the company performed plays from a range of eras—everything from Shakespeare to David Mamet to modern teleplays, specifically How I Met Your Mother and Seinfeld. But the newer works started to seem a bit incongruous to me; those works are so much a product of the modern world, and of course in a post-apocalyptic scenario, the modern world has come and gone.

As I began to read more about Shakespeare’s life and work, it seemed to me that there were some natural parallels between Elizabethan England and the post-pandemic landscape of the book, the most obvious being that in Shakespeare’s time, theatre would so often have been a matter of these small companies of traveling players setting out on the road. I liked the symmetry in the idea that I was writing about a time when such a company might again set out, the age of electricity having come and gone.

But there was something else that I hadn’t previously been aware of, and that was the impact of the bubonic plague on Elizabethan England and on Shakespeare’s life in particular. His family and his life were marked by the disease. Three of his siblings died young, and his only son, Hamnet, was a probable plague victim at eleven. Plague closed the theatres again and again. It began to seem to me that the people in his time would have been haunted by their memories of pandemics in the recent past, and that was of course exactly the scenario I was writing about in my post-pandemic future. As I continued to revise the book, it began to seem more and more natural to me that the company would focus exclusively on Shakespeare.

In addition to Shakespeare, there is another form that appears just as frequently: comic books. We at Tethered by Letters are very fond of comics, so that really stood out to me. Why did you choose to include comic books as this sort of uniting concept for your novel?

Given the complex nature of the structure, I needed something to tie the pre- and post-apocalyptic sections of the book together. I’m interested in comic books and graphic novels as a form, and I always knew that my character Miranda was going to be someone who writes and draws them. I thought it would be helpful to the continuity of the novel to have a couple of objects that exist in both the pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds, so I went with the comic books and a paperweight.

There is a moment early in the novel (the beginning of chapter 14) that struck me as a particularly excellent piece of characterization. It’s a paragraph or two in which you describe a character’s clothing. I was totally blown away by this—such an effective, understated way of introducing a character. Can you describe how you go about creating and developing your characters?

Thank you. For anyone who hasn’t read the book, that section is about a slightly hapless character’s struggles to meet the dress codes of the corporate world. I was interested in writing not just about that particular character, but about class stratification in the office and the way it’s expressed through clothing, which is a topic that interests me. Executives dress in beautiful, expensive clothing, and their administrative assistants dress in much cheaper, synthetic, highly flammable copies of what the executives are wearing, and we all politely ignore the fact that they’re dressed in entirely different ways. I don’t know that it could reasonably be otherwise, but it’s interesting to me.

As for developing characters, you just figure out who the character is, and that governs how they’ll behave in any given situation. In the book, Miranda is someone who works very hard, is a conscientious person, needs to keep her job, and doesn’t have much money, so she’ll do whatever she has to in order to meet the corporate dress code, including covering the scuffs on the heels of her shoes with permanent marker.

Stylistically, your writing in Station Eleven is some of the most beautiful and unique I’ve encountered in a long time. How did you develop the style in which you write?

Thank you. I think writers just naturally develop a particular style over time. It’s a matter of practice, and trying to push yourself further with everything you write, and reading good books.

Are there particular influences that contribute to the way you write?

I think my prose style was heavily influenced by Michael Ondaatje, and by Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. It’s difficult to imagine two less-similar prose stylists, but there was something in the richness and beauty of Ondaatje’s prose that spoke to me, and The Executioner’s Song showed me how to pare my prose style to the essentials.

Part of our mission at Tethered by Letters is to help guide and nurture emerging writers. Can you tell me a bit about your own writing process?

There’s no real secret to it. I just write. I love my home office, and try to spend as much time there as possible, but I write whenever and wherever I can: in hotel rooms and on airplanes, on the subway, in coffee shops when I have a break between meetings or events. The only formula I know of to produce good work is to write as much and as often as possible, and then revise it until it’s good. It takes me about a year or a year and a half to write the first draft, and then I revise it endlessly.

What advice can you offer to those writers who hope to see their work published?

Don’t panic if your first draft is terrible. First drafts are always terrible. That’s what revisions are for. Also, don’t assume that the publishing world is closed to you. There is a pervasive and entirely false narrative that in order to be published you have to live in Brooklyn, or go to the right parties, or know the right people, or have an MFA. None of these things are true. I didn’t know anyone when I was starting out as a writer. My first agent found me in her slush pile. The publishing industry is full of interesting, passionate, committed people who love books and whose job it is to find great books to publish.