~ from the short story "I Am the Voice Calling in the Desert"
“What on earth are you playing?” my mother asked one afternoon when she stepped out into the yard to hang up the wash. I was barefoot, streaked with dirt, and I’d torn my shirt.
“John the Baptist,” I said.
I must have been quite an affront to my mother in that moment. It broke her heart that I could never manage to keep bobby socks from slipping down and getting sweaty and crumpled in my shoes, and here I was, looking for all the world like a mental patient.
“John the Baptist wasn’t a girl,” she said, reasonably. “If you set your dolls up on the patio you could play school.”
I shrieked and ran around behind the garage where I could kick up dust and preach my sermons in peace.
“Don’t come into my house dirty, Helen,” my mother called after me. “Wash up at the hose and put on something clean before dinner.”
That evening I arrived at the table as she’d asked, clean and in a fresh skirt and blouse, but my mother made her displeasure with me known over supper. She regaled my father with my outlandish behavior as she passed around the stewed beef and mashed potatoes.
“Would you please speak to her, Wallace?” she asked. “Helen is absolutely out of her wits.”
“She’s fine, Joyce,” my father said. It was not uncommon for my parents to discuss me over dinner. I listened with excitement and curiosity—what would they make of me?! I turned my head as if I were at a tennis match. “The girl is fine. You’re just encouraging her.”
“No one’s encouraging me,” I piped up.
“Please be quiet, Helen,” my father said, and we all ate our dinner in tranquility.
As my imaginary life took on more and more significance, my parents grew further and further away from me. It was as if I were in a fish tank and we were watching each other through the glass. They thought they could see all of me, but they couldn’t.
I lived breathlessly in the backyard, baptizing everything I could get my hands on. I splashed furiously in buckets of water and went wild with the garden hose. I called endlessly for my dolls to repent. I made straight the path for the coming of the Lord. The wonderful and terrible thing about preparing for the Second Coming is that it brings with it the Day of Reckoning. I began spending more time than a child should thinking about hell. I looked at strangers in the supermarket with a deep sense of curiosity. Whose name would we find recorded in the Book of Life and who would be cast into the Lake of Fire? On the last day, we are told, all will be made known. Judgment is thrilling but also enough to chill you to the marrow. I began to fear for my parents. I called to them, but they could not hear. One evening, as I played long into the gathering dusk in the backyard, my mother stood in the open door of the laundry porch, framed in light from the kitchen behind her, calling my name. The sight of her pulled me out of what must have looked like a snarling rant of gibberish. I was holding a soaking wet Barbie doll in each fist.
“Mama,” I said.
“Come here, Helen,” my mother said.
She sat on the stoop and held her arms out to me. I went to her like someone in a trance, those outstretched mother’s arms calling to me. She hugged me and pulled me onto her lap. She pushed my matted head against her breast.
“Helen,” my mother said, and I could hear the way her voice echoed in her hollow chest, “what’s happening to you?”
“It’s the end of the age, Mama,” I said.
Her arms went slack around me. Her dress smelled like laundry soap. Her skin smelled of powder and of makeup—wax and animal fat.
“What age, Helen?”
“He comes like a thief in the night,” I said. I could feel hot tears in my eyes, and I knew how they would look, cutting a pink path through the dirt on my face.
“You need a bath,” my mother said. I tried to slip free of her as she stood, but she hefted me into her arms. She was still strong enough to pick me up if she had to.
“No,” I howled, struggling. “Helen, stop it,” she said, her arms like a vice around me. I kicked and screamed and twisted. “Wallace!” my mother shouted. “Please fill the tub. Helen needs a bath.”
My father leapt from his chair in the living room when he saw us. He reached out to take me from my mother’s arms, but she turned us away from him.
“I have her, Wallace,” she said. “Please draw a bath. The girl is filthy.”
In my memory, I fought her valiantly as she struggled me upstairs, stripped me naked, and plopped me into the steaming water my father had readied in the tub. I think, though, I probably flailed and sobbed pathetically. We are rarely as heroic or strong as we fancy ourselves to be. My mother didn’t cry or shout or argue. She held my arm firmly in her right hand and a bar of soap in her left. She scrubbed and splashed until I was clean and so worn out that I sat meekly in the gray, cooling water and let her wash my hair. She was nearly as wet as me by the time she helped me out of the tub and rubbed me down with a towel.
“You have to snap out of this, Helen,” she said as she dried me. “You have to pull yourself together. You’re acting like a baby with this ridiculous business, and I won’t have it anymore.”
She shook me by the shoulders when I wouldn’t look at her. She thought I was being sullen, but I was actually mourning the great gulf that had opened between us, our inability to reach each other across such a perilous divided. How could I feel otherwise when I thought she might soon be lost to me forever? I could imagine her, cowering and small, being cast into the Lake of Fire.
“Do you hear me, Helen?” she asked, holding my wet head in both of her hands.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. Now go to bed.”
I could feel her eyes on me as I walked out of the bathroom and down the hall toward my room, the carpet soft and springy under my bare, wrinkled feet.
"In The Paper Life They Lead, Patrick Crerand takes risks in his storytelling, and the result is an inventive collection. In this slim book of just over 50 pages, Crerand’s mixture of flash fiction and slightly longer stories drops the reader into bizarre and unexpected places. Fantastical events occur even when the world looks much like the one we live in. The interesting and weird premises are stated upfront allowing the reader to focus on the characters—their relationships and how they react to the situations they are in."
--Emily Webber, SmokeLong Quarterly
Read the full review here.
Caroline Leavitt, author of New York Times Best Sellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, says Patrick Crerand's stories "knocked her striped socks off."
"These stories are so jaw-droppingly unexpected. They actually remind me of Dan Chaon's stories, the matter-of-fact way that you guide us into deeply strange territory."
Read the full interview here.
Seth Berg reviews Rebbecca Brown's Mouth Trap, calling it "a fascinating, musical, often melancholic collection from an alternate dimension" and writes, "Brown has crafted dreamy, sometimes nightmarish, micro-worlds that challenge the confines of three dimensions. From the onset, she delivers an intentional, intelligently snarky heft which challenges the reader to engage in self-examination."
See the full review here.
We are delighted to see Patrick Crerand's The Paper Life They Lead: Stories receive honorable mention in the Writer's Bone year's best list. Congratulations, Pat!
Read their full list here.
We're late with this post, but Michael Czyzniejewski reviewed Patrick Crerand's The Paper Life They Lead: Stories on Story 366, saying "Crerand's choices become the real art here, his ability to make them work so convincingly. A story with a premise like [life on a Pepperidge Farm box] could be merely a joke in the wrong hands, but Crerand's commitment steers him clear of all of that, into much better territory, much more effective fiction."
See the full review here.
We made another minibook! J. David Stevens wrote it; Alban Fischer designed the cover; HV Cramond proofread it! Pre-order begins on Wednesday, January 23, and the first copies will be shipped on Tuesday, February 5.
Laura Krughoff is the author of the short story collection Wake in the Night and the novel My Brother's Name.
Q: You spent a lot of time living in different parts of the Midwest, and while not all of your writing is set in the Midwest, those that don’t have specific settings often feel Midwestern. I even found a quotation from David Kaplan at Loyola University Chicago who compared your writing to the Midwest when he said, "This struggle for identity, self-definition, a place in the world, is another strong feature of her work, all captured in prose as spare and haunting as a Midwestern winter." How has the Midwest shaped your view of your characters and story?
I do think of myself as deeply Midwestern. I’ve spent all but the first three and the past four years of my life in Indiana, Illinois, or Michigan, so the landscapes and people and politics and pace of all those states have shaped who I am. You asked about how the Midwest shaped my notion of story and character, and I see I answered by saying how it shaped me, but maybe those are the same question, in some ways. I think the wide, flat stretches of land and sky in the Midwest are really beautiful, but it takes a certain kind of looking to see it. On a walk with my mom once, when I was a teenager, she said, “The clouds are our mountains,” and that has stuck with me. The beauty of a cornfield and a blue sky crossed by contrails isn’t as dramatic as the beauty of mountains or oceans or the geological or ecological exuberance of other parts of the country, but it’s its own kind of beauty nonetheless. I guess that appreciation of subtlety shows up in what I think constitutes enough drama for short story quite often.
Q: The notion of waking in the night in prominent in your short story collection, Wake in the Night. Characters, often women, can’t sleep. They are thrust out of dreams, lying awake, waiting for something to happen. Even in your story “Audra,” which isn’t in this collection but was published in Orchid: A Literary Review, a mother attempts to soothe her insomniac daughter. What compels you toward dreams and restlessness? Is there a connection, for your characters, between the inability to sleep and being female?
I’m a pretty restless sleeper, so I’ve got a lot of experience being awake when other people are not. I write mostly about women, so anything my characters tend toward ends up being something that women tend toward, but I’d never thought of sleeplessness as especially female, though perhaps it is. I think what I’m most interested in is the liminal space between sleep and wakefulness, and the way it’s mirrored by the liminality of the whole world when you feel like you’re the only one awake in it. Night has always felt like a time of revelation and insight to me, but it’s hard to know if those revelations and insights are genuine or tricks of the mind when it’s left to its own devices. It also feels like a time of danger/adventure, being up when ostensibly you should not be. Because my characters are who they tend to be, however, that danger/adventure is almost always solitary. I am much more interested in the night than in nightlife.
Q: Most of your protagonists are women. What I find particularly interesting are the female characters who grew up as members of previous generations, such as the WWII generation, when women didn’t have as many options when it came to choosing how they wanted to live. While many of these women characters aren’t passive, they are certainly more restricted, and their actions are sometimes subtle and maybe subversive. How do you go about writing stories about women who make smaller choices and maintain the tension of story while coming to some kind of feeling of resolution when the characters can effect little outward change?
It's funny, I almost never think about my characters as making small choices or being in states of stasis or without options, but people say that about my fiction so I believe it. What I do see, though, is that the transformations I’m interested in are very often deeply internal for my characters. I’m often most interested in what it means to wait, to be patient, to be watchful. These don’t seem like passive states to me, but I do think the tension in them comes from the fact that they cannot be permanent states. To wait or to watch always means to wait or to watch for something. I think narrative tension often comes from the reader joining the character in waiting or watching for whether or not that something arrives, or whether or not the character is ready to act when it does.
Q: You recently completed a novel, Halley's Comet, which is based on your Pushcart Prize-winning story of the same name. Can you say anything about this novel and how it thematically connects to your short stories?
In lots of ways it’s a very different project; it’s about two women trying to figure out how to order their lives as their nine-year relationship is unraveling just as marriage equality as an achievable political goal is on the horizon. The protagonist, Alice, and her (ex)partner live in Chicago, but Alice grew up in rural Indiana in the 70s and 80s, so in certain ways her life is at a right angle to the lives that unfold in Wake In the Night. The novel is similarly more interested in the interior landscape of these two characters rather than the politics unfolding around them. Access to marriage matters, of course, but the novel is really about what it means to love someone, and fail at it, and try again a little differently, and do better, maybe. Or maybe not. I’ve also learned, as I’ve written it, that it’s a novel about grief and love, about the fact that you can never have—or be in?—one without being vulnerable to the other.
Q: I want to end with a more general question about writing. Do you have a philosophy on literature? What should a writer strive toward? What should a story or a novel try to achieve?
I definitely do not have a philosophy of literature. The more I read it, and teach it, and try to write it, the more certain I feel that I don’t. I don’t think this constitutes a philosophy, but I do think I strive toward getting the details right. I think when I write, I’m striving primarily toward seeing the world clearly, seeing my characters honestly, seeing the moments that make a life in the sharpest possible focus. I know it does me good as a reader and a writer, as a human, when I’m seeing the world like that.
Q: I’ve read a lot of your writing over the years: your novel They Become Her, essays, short stories, and, of course, poems. A recurring motifs that I find is the accusation of madness, particularly with women standing as the accused (the female speakers in Mouth Trap, Delia Bacon in They Become Her). Can you explain what draws you towards this theme and why it remains relevant, even today, a century after Bertha Mason was locked in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre?
I wish I could say that I am merely drawn towards madness as a theme, with the presumption of distance, a fascination informed by the power of the gaze. Madness for me, as it may be for many (particularly for women and those who have been historically disenfranchised), is more than observation, beyond investigation or a seemingly scientific attraction. There is something electric and physiological with madness made manifest internally in me. Externally, madness is always connected to containment and control of a perceived excess that must be measured, managed, and often made mute. What is the necessity of art if it isn’t mad against, and at, and from, the world that informs it? Bertha Mason remains, of course, very much alive. It is often imperative to burn our most unbearable beds and familiar confines, tear veils, scale walls, try to escape institutions that encourage a tragic demise.
Q: I often describe your writing as “dark and lyrical.” There are lovely turns of phrase and a developed musicality, but there is also so much sadness. I wonder if “despair” is the right word and if you believe there is a connection between despair and poetry. Is despair “that sickness unto death” that Kierkegaard writes about? In fact, when I read about Kierkegaarde’s description of humanity as various kinds of tension, I think of your poetry, particularly of Mouth Trap, which I always read as a collection about the tension between entrapment and bonds (Kierkegaarde’s necessities and the finite) and the freedoms of independence, even at the expense of loneliness (Kierkegaarde’s possibilities and infinite). I’d love to see an academic write this paper. Does any of this make sense to you?
I think that’s pretty perfectly put for Mouth Trap: “a collection about the tension between entrapment and bonds and the freedoms of independence, even at the expense of loneliness.” I’d love it if you, or anyone, wrote that academic paper! In terms of “despair” and its connection to poetry, this is something I’ve been thinking about for many years. A long time ago, a musician friend challenged me about creating from a space of despair or sadness, since he claimed that when he played or wrote music it came from a place of joy. At the time, I found this unfathomable, possibly because I was young and also tormentingly in love with this musician. I have often shared this story with creative writing students, particularly because I don’t think writing, or any art for that matter, comes from a singular locus, emotional or otherwise. I also don’t want to suggest that students should abide by damaging clichés about artists despairing interminably, because this can be extremely limiting. My poetry is inherently connected to despair, sure, but it is also concerned deeply with the bliss that can bear a body’s brightness.
Q: Another Rebbecca Brown attribute is density. Each word in a poem and word is thick with meaning; each word carries enormous weight. At the same time, this kind of density challenges the accessibility of the poems: a reader must work slowly when reading (or rather, I must read slowly and carefully when I read your poems). Do you consider issues of accessibility when writing? What is the poet’s obligation, if any, to a reader?
When I am writing, I don’t consciously consider the reader, who lies latent. I also don’t think about accessibility if this means providing a singularly clear, incontrovertible meaning, especially with poetry. I am often bored by narrative lucidity pointed precisely to where one must abide. One person’s ease is often another person’s torment. Instead, I guess what I am trying to do is explore unfamiliar linguistic terrains that jar and shock, surprising selves and senses into unfamiliar cognitive and emotional terrains. I’m less concerned about saying something directly than I am about the unexpected, the way a phrase you’ve never come across might evoke a visceral state, a pleasurable figuring of manifold meanings that only illusorily play at being dead.
Q: There is so much to say when talking about sound in your writing. Different kinds of sound repetitions are used, as well as image repetitions. At times, the poems sound almost like witchcraft, like a spell, and maybe we’re getting back into the realm of madness again. Can you describe what you are listening for as you write, and why?
It is sort of bewildering and bewitching—the sounds and rhythms I’m following as I write. I listen in on cadenced repetitions that often end in gerunds or rhyme, but I don’t know if it’s because I am also a musician whose head is filled with fragments of voices tuned toward a delight in the disharmonious. I do know that I like multiplicity and variety when it comes to all of those voices hallowing along the halls of my mind.
Q: I’ll end with an easy question. What are you working on now that you are most excited about?
I’ve been working on a new poetry collection entitled Too Many Fathers, which is written in response to sexist comments men have made to me specifically within an academic context. I’m especially excited about this book, since it feels like my most vulnerable, which also horrifies me, since this collection is possibly the most direct exploration of verbal and sexual abuse I’ve ever attempted. While it has been difficult to write because of what felt like re-traumatization, it also feels necessary, relevant, and possibly courageous. It definitely feels like a book that speaks beyond a mouth’s feeble trap toward our time.
We're thrilled to show off the front cover to Brook Larson's forthcoming essay collection, Pleasing Tree. Thank you so much to cover designer Dustin Hyman!
Here's a little bit of what people are saying about Pleasing Tree:
“Pleasing Tree is a natural history of Larson’s vagrancies: guiding YoungWalkers in the Sonoran wilderness, drinking an Amazonian psychotropic herb on Rockaway Beach, falling in love with a dewdrop above Salt Lake City, pissing in the canyons between the buildings in Manhattan, or walking with an Armenian-Palestinian in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter. While there are stories here, Larson never allows them to unfold in a straight line. Instead they ramble like her footprints—a crooked braid. Experience as viewed through lattices, the branches of a tree or the reticulations of the cultures she’s adopted. Her language tumbles like a creek, dances like a flute player. Words conjoin and re-conjoin, kinky: facial beehive, piss alchemy, pan-species foreplay, sopping bloodknot, twilit bullshit. This frolic across landscapes, cityscapes, and inscapes is purposeful play, exploring desert blandness and urban loneliness, seasonal affective disorder and communion with plants, the plight of Palestinians and of lovers, the science of stomach bacteria and the mysticism of light and water. As she writes, ‘The world is obscene with meaning.’”
~ John Bennion, author of Falling toward Heaven and An Unarmed Woman
“Brooke Larson’s Pleasing Tree is a pilgrimage through landscape and thought, an ecstatic meandering most beautifully wrought, visionary in its wandering. In this deft collection of essays branching with the largess of cellular star stuff, Larson’s writing jolts so expansive it becomes difficult to see the world without a shimmering awareness mystifyingly close.”
~ Rebbecca Brown, author of They Become Her and Mouth Trap