When you are writing in the intimate voice of a character, what do you feel the most acutely?

This is a hard question to answer because I really just leave my mind blank, my emotions empty, and become whatever voice seems to echo the loudest. I understand this question to be an inquiry into what emotions or thoughts surface in order to become the face of the character.

This piece provoked an intense emotional experience for me as a reader. It makes sense that it isn’t necessarily the most prominent thing on your mind while writing (the emotional impact on the reader). Can you talk a bit more about your process in writing this short piece and how you managed to put so much intensity into such a compressed form?

With this story, I was P, speaking to some distant listener, or to some otherworld observer, as his life in that moment seemed to become more than destiny, an ever-changing navigation. How could someone, in such an instance in time, not feel the weight of it? I take this approach with all of my characters, even the ones who are just part of the main character’s world. In a way I allow multiple personalities and ideas to exist at once.

Whose work have you been drawing life from lately?

I have been reading mostly non-fiction lately, but the last two books of fiction I have read were “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison and “Destructive Source” by Michael McThune. Ellison was a revisit that I shared with the author of “Destructive Source,” who has become a friend of mine. There is this interesting merging of minds that is seen in my short, which is in Ellison’s and McThune’s main characters. But, truthfully, much of my influence is drawn from the everyday I experience as an African American man in such a time.

 

God Manifest

The gun spoke in the voice of God. It trembled and groaned like the sky covered by the grayest clouds of a storm. I could feel every bit of the fear that gripped the soul behind the eyes of who stared into the barrel of this 9mm; a gun so common that one could forget the pain it brings with every awakening from its slumber. I didn’t forget though. I always remembered what it felt like, in my left thigh remained a bullet that ran from her mouth like air released in relief, except it was not relief that followed it. I remember facing fate, smiling as if I knew something it didn’t, and, at the last moment, before the finger squeezed the trigger, I turned and bolted towards a window, crashing through it as one shot…. two shots…. three shots fired after me like blood hounds. It was the third one that caught me, the third bullet that would leave a lasting impression. I forced myself to run when I hit the pavement, there was no time for pain, or for the acknowledgement that I had been hit, there was only time for an escape. Curses filled the night, wishing me death, emasculation, and half joyful promises of “I’ll get you nigga! You hear me!” But there was no time for that. So I ran, ran as if death had been driving behind me the whole time, waiting for me to stumble or grow tired of living, tired of running.

Now, now here I am, behind the word of God and the word say’s “beg muthafucker, beg.” So he begged, he pleaded for his life of drug dealing and back stabbing to be spared while on his now sore knees. He had been on them for 15 solid minutes as I held this ruler of men to his face. I planned to kill him, planned to execute him right here, in this abandoned building just blocks away from the housing tenements I grew up in, where our fates first met.

“Yo! P! Pull the fucking trigger already! It’s getting too busy out here.”

I wasn’t alone. This abandoned place is a way station for those who sail on the heroine and slip into the crack of fantasies, those who find their peace and escape in the tunnels of needles and pipes. Outside stood my boys, watching out for police or the passing fiend being too nosey. Nobody else would come in here or walk in this direction unless they were the walking dead or the killer of zombies. Mindless creatures that only seek to feed off the will of others, but too once lived. Once had will of their own pushing them to move into dreams and aspirations, love and friendships, but something took that away and placed upon them a spell that would bind them to only destruction and a dying soul. So, what am I in this moment? In this way station? Why does it matter?

My palms begin to sweat as I tighten my grip on the handle; I’m determined to do what I have to, but who says I have to? Who has decided my part in what will be one of countless renditions of the same scene, like a play that never leaves the stage. His pleas become melodic, an interwoven background to all of these questions and thoughts, so intertwined that I can’t tell the difference between my inner voice and his. They dance to some tune of truth and righteousness, almost as if the Pastor at my mothers church was calling me from a distance, from some past Sunday spent with my mother praying for my soul as so many black mothers have for their sons, her tears blanketing her whispers to God, faintly.

This gun, what does it represent in this moment? It is the angel of despair, the spirit of an end so absolute that thinking it to oneself is a summoning. Why do I give a fuck right now!? Why am I stuck in some loop of thought that must be a trap? I have this motherfucker staring down this cold tunnel, reliving every moment of his life as if he is watching a video of his existence.

“P! What the fuck man!?”, “Look, if you too pussy to pull the trigger then I’ll do it, but man we can’t be fucking chilling here like we relaxing.”

He was right, I know, shit, I know. But…the sweat now beading on my forehead is making me feel human again, like just a man. The drying of my lips bring me back to here…. to this right now of choices because one choice always leads to others to be made in consequence. The power this gun is giving me, the way it begs to be freed of its destructive calling. But, it is just a machine, a mechanism of man’s imagination, the creator of his nightmares, or the defender of his nightmares. It doesn’t breathe but when it exhales the heat is inescapable and the pain is deeper than the longing for life in this mans belly. It is a beast, mindless, emotionless, and only living through the palm that holds it.

“Please man, look, man, I’m sorry. You can have it man. You can have it. My girl is having a little one man. I’m done with this shit…for real my nigga. I’m done with this shit, with this street shit.”

“Shut the fuck up! Nobody gives a damn about your bitch or the little bastard she’s about to have. This is how shit is. You fucked up!”

That voice came from somewhere I couldn’t find. Whose voice was that? I turned and saw that my boy in his frustration had stepped to the entrance to check that all was still good outside for us. So who else could have spoken? Was that me? I looked down into the face of the man pleading for his life and the future of his child’s and saw the incredulous look of sorrowful disbelief that the life he sought to change would be the inheritance of his unborn.

The weight of the gun became almost unbearable, but once awakened it has to eat. It has to be used. It has to be satisfied. Satisfied, like the many guns that have killed so many of us; that have killed so many of my niggas. My niggas, now, the taste of that word lingers longer and seems bitter. My mind is in a loop of questions and curiosities about how I am here, weighing this mans life in my soul like the scales of the Libra, but what right do I have? What will this reverberate from here until some time down my lifeline? What worlds will this cannon destroy with one pull of the trigger? BOOM!!!

I turned in a sudden awakening, “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

“P, you were taking too fucking long man. Letting that nigga touch your heart and shit. That’s some bitch shit man, he knew what it was.”

I was relieved. My boy had taken the scale and executed the verdict…. but, I felt as dead as the man on the floor of this abandoned building laid, slowly releasing the essence of what we believe it means to be alive. My beast did not consume him and it did not consume me, but in the eyes of my boy I could see the burning lust that this man-made god brings with every release. Did I have a chance to write a different story?

Michael Powell is a Boston-born New Yorker working across multiple creative platforms: hip-hop, film production, screenplay writing, painting, photography, fiction and poetry. He is the Co-Editor of SWIPE Magazine, has released a hip-hop album and has had numerous poems and shorts published. When he is not writing he is working on his podcast, A.W.O.L. Radio Show. Michael is the Associate Producer for a creative non-profit organization based in NYC.

Michael

Michael Powell

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In Larsen’s First Novel, the Immortal Cruelty of the American Family

Taylor Larsen’s novel Stranger, Father, Beloved is about to be launched into the world and it’s going to hit you hard. 

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Taylor Larsen, originally from Alexandria, Virginia, is a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction writing, a professor of literature, and this is her first novel. She is based in Brooklyn, New York. LitScene is thrilled to read and review her, and we hope you will continue to follow future posts on Taylor Larsen.

Taylor’s mastery of language is a lot like James Salter’s — she pares things back to show you the slow painful painterly seduction of life, and to do that well you can take a scenic approach or you can get directly into the heads of characters. Taylor Larsen takes the second approach. It isn’t as “cinematic” as it is a plunge into the inner life — descriptions of scenes are there to set up the plunge. Their lavish home on the Rhode Island peninsula is intended to be an elegantly stoic backdrop to Michael and Nancy’s cursed marriage, and their crumbling attempts to parent their two children, Ryan and Max. Neurotic paranoia may be the name of Michael’s condition, but it’s a rather natural offshoot, considering that he has been struggling with critical elements of his identity for the entirety of his life.

In a way, this drama feels antiquated — a man who has been trapped in a society and marriage that deny his deepest yearnings, a career that has given his family all the material goods they revel in but which he intellectually abhors, a family from which he feels obscenely distanced — in the sense of why now? Does this still happen now? These questions may occur to you while you are reading through, but you will answer to yourself, yes, while this kind of familial agony is nothing new on a structural level, the feelings are warped enough to feel new on the page, as you progress through Michael’s rapid descent.

As readers we are both cruel and empathetic — we are cruel enough to take interest in the unraveling of a character, we want on some level to see this happen, if only to see what kind of problems are compelling enough to destroy a life, but we are also empathetic, we empathize enough to experience the emotional richness of some passages more than others — and for me, my heart’s bias was with both Michael and Ryan. It isn’t possible to empathize with everything and everyone in a novel at the same level of intensity — I think someone who did would be emotionally confused, an unfocused reader, a bit of a liar too.

And lying is a big part of this novel. As much as I empathize with Michael and Ryan (the teenage daughter), I empathize with this theme even more than the characters that are playing it out. I respond to it. It’s what they’re talking about when they say Taylor Larsen’s work is timeless. This theme is the hard-hitting truth that doesn’t ease over time, gets handed down from generation to generation, stays with you long after you’ve put the book down. We lie to each other to get through just about everything, and we lie to ourselves.

What is the novel’s message about the nature of happiness? The nature of family? And love? I am going to answer these questions in order.

Happiness is not optional

Happiness for Michael’s generation is not first and foremost on their minds and hearts as a life-driving value. It isn’t acted upon.

Michael and Nancy’s marriage is cursed from the start. They meet and decide on each other for reasons that are articulated by Michael — to himself, upon reflection — and which strike the reader as cold, mechanical, almost absurd, and yet resonantly pathetic, like so much of life when it is lived without honesty and bold risk. Only until later in the novel does it make greater sense what inner conflicts have produced such delusional rejection of life itself. His decision to marry Nancy is almost a ricochet off the events around him — his college friend, Alex, had met a girl named Meg, and the fact that both Michael and Nancy disliked Meg became a source of comfort for Michael:

“When the four of them were out at a restaurant, he would watch Meg’s tiny little mouth motor away and then see silent, obliging Nancy sitting next to her. At such moments he felt proud to have chosen someone as stoic and dignified as Nancy. He was almost positive that his being subjected to Meg’s company must have influenced his decision to want to marry Nancy.”

One of the most effective aspects of this novel is Michael’s inner voice. It is powerful, predictive, and yet entirely untrustworthy. We have no idea whether his ideas about how his family will react to his decisions will play out in reality. We don’t trust him, but we are pulled in by his voice nonetheless. It has a sickly self-soothing quality that is beguiling. It is perhaps the voice of a dulled psychotic who probably seems more or less normal to others on a day-to-day basis:

“He felt nothing for her but endless neutrality, with points of deep sympathy for her plight but no bitterness. More than for her, he had sympathy for himself and a desire not to have to think. There was the quiet yard with the busy insects floating over the flowers, there were the still bricks sheltering him in a contained space, there was the solidity of the empty house behind him. There was the dazzling beauty of his mother’s young face captured in the photographs in the house, her eyes hopeful for a romantic marriage, for a bright future, for joy. Housed in those eyes, he saw himself reflected a thousand times in unnameable points of light.”

The result of making happiness optional?

Delusion, family decay, constant unnamed unbearable tension, emptiness, estrangement.

Nothing major.

Family is full of dark secrets and painful irony

How can you tell if a family is full of painfully dark, ironic secrets? Well, the first place you look is the children. Ryan is a beautiful girl in her teenage years, but she is full of anger, confusion and lust. There is something primal about Ryan’s character that sparked a lot of empathy from me. She is full of vice and innocence at the same time, like most teenagers are, and she is confrontational but emotionally bruised. All of this made me relate to her and the pages on which she appeared were particularly alive and visceral. Max, the young son, much younger than Ryan, possesses very little potency and significance in the novel, and he is often a sad young shadow to events. This, of course, deepens the pain.

I won’t do any major plot point spoilers in this essay, but suffice to say that the dark secrets in this family are terribly intertwined. That’s what secrets do, they make pacts with each other.

Love will have its fatal grip

Love, especially if buried, can have a grip on a person’s life so intense that it is fatal to the individual’s abilty to function with integrity, optimism, openness.

“At dawn, [A.’s] original young face appeared in his mind and Michael’s body began groaning awake. The face was expressionless, then that smile, enough to begin the familiar twisting pain around his heart. Michael’s eyes snapped open, and his body began to tense once again.  A memory emerged from somewhere deep within him. It was from that drunken night in college, when he had gone to the party, found his arms around somebody, heard laughter, awoke remembering nothing, and walked around campus ashamed afterward for the rest of his college career and, in fact, the rest of his life. The memory was about five seconds long, but it was the key.”

These passages are both simple and serpentine they curve through your mind with an aching sensuality and devastation that I couldn’t get enough of, I was not prepared to let the novel slip from my hands and continue to think about its resonance. I love reading about fatal love, desperation of the heart, memories so strong and unmanageable that they crush your living breath. It’s my readerly preference, of course. The silences of Michael’s marriage are the burden that Nancy bears, she bears all cruelties, and Michael acknowledges the goodness of the woman he married — but also her ultimate inferiority.

As Taylor Larsen binds us with the pure incision of her sentences and the density of her themes, we are reminded of the crippled beauty of our failure to live and love.

I Want to Pre-Order Stranger, Father, Beloved

Taylor Teaser #2

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 11.38.51 AM So here we are at Taylor Teaser #2 for the incredible novel, Stranger, Father, Beloved, which is coming out in July, by author Taylor Larsen. My last teaser briefly discussed Michael’s mind, his eyes, his pills, and his wife Nancy, whose simple ways of life are contrasted against her husband’s obscure anxieties, melancholic/solipsistic pseudo-intellectualism, and deep, thorny self-pity (at times comically) masquerading as masculine introspection. It’s a really good narrative, even if it feels that not a whole lot is going on, except where the daughter Ryan is concerned – her burgeoning sexuality has more motion than anything else, juxtaposed with scenes that feel rightly static, as Michael is a man trapped in his own mind. We come across uneasy paragraphs that describe Michael’s relationship to Ryan:

The problem was that in sobriety, it never seemed as though it had actually happened and so he never owned up to it. But in his drunken state, he could remember leaning over and placing his teeth gently on her neck. In that moment, he had been so relaxed that he was starting to fall asleep and did not remember who was before him or where he was. In a sober state, the memory seemed to vanish. She had stood before him, such a miraculous creation, that he felt he had to connect himself to her, and that had been his way. He was helpless to understand himself, that one decision, to take two of his pills and continue to drink, had caused him to do that bizarre thing and so to become a monster in his daughter’s eyes.

Taylor Teaser #1

We have got to get this party started.

I am going to tease you slowly with a few thoughts along the way to my official review – and you’re going to be just fine with that. This brief series of teasers will be pretty casual, but the review will obviously be much more analytical (if you’re familiar with my book reviews for Battersea Review and The Brooklyn Rail, then you know what I’m talking about). One of the things I am loving about Stranger, Father, Beloved is that the main character, Michael, is exceptionally screwed up. Or is he non-exceptionally screwed up?

At any rate, the patterns of his mind seem to expand and swirl, occasionally knotting into paranoia, becoming hideous, deep clusters of anxiety, and finally the double helix of desire and delusion.Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 11.23.54 AM.png Here is a compelling paragraph, only the beginning of these mental patterns really, coaxed from the inner voice of his suffering simpleton wife Nancy:

She made sure to keep his pills stocked and always on hand. She would be lost without them and did not know what kind of man she would sleep beside if they did not have those pills. They both knew he needed them, and he was fairly regular in taking them. On the rare occasion when he did not, his eyes had a fierce unpredictability that frightened her. Michael’s best features by far were his large brown eyes and long eyelashes. They were beautiful, but their gaze was often cold and unemotional on good days, and on bad ones they flickered with secret, unkind thoughts.

I am thrilled to have my friend Michael Powell give Lit Scene his review of Mitchell Jackson’s “The Residue Years,” after speaking with Mitchell Jackson at The Brooklyn Book Festival this September.

It was indeed the purpose of my coming here, to find a good read that would leave me thinking about so much more than what was on the page, about so much more than the words that were written to simply move along the theme, the world of the story at hand.

––Michael Powell

It was around 7:15am and I was already standing on the platform heading to work, waiting for the most reliable train in New York City, here, if you are a New Yorker or just familiar with our transit system, you know the words reliable and train system don’t go together. But, there I was, waiting for the train to come, and feeling excited about sitting in the car, heading to my destination. Not excited to simply be heading to work, God no, that is unheard of in every part of the world, but excited to continue my read of “The Residue Years” by Mitchell S. Jackson, a novel I had just heard about only a few weeks before and had earnestly read over the course of the few days that passed since I had the pleasure of meeting him.

Mitchell Jackson spoke briefly at The Brooklyn Book Festival on a panel, which I had already anticipated to be boring and full of readings I probably wouldn’t enjoy. I was pleasantly surprised by the panel that spoke, not about their works but about writing from a perspective that was their own, yet belonged to so many who were living that same life – a panel he was a part of, spoke on, and in that moment, had intrigued me.

Mitchell seemed real, as if he was fresh from living the life he wrote about and was already sharing his words of experience through fiction and truth. I was a hungry intellectual, one versed in the language of the street world and one who understood the land mines of imprisonment, death, drugs, and failure that laid strewn across the path of destiny and success; here was my food, here was the meal to satiate my hunger in that moment, here was “The Residue Years” to feed me. I found the book in my hands almost instantly after standing up from my seat and there he was to sign it, it was indeed the purpose of my coming here, to find a good read that would leave me thinking about so much more than what was on the page, about so much more than the words that were written to simply move along the theme, the world of the story at hand.

My journey into the world of Champ, the main character of the story, had begun, and I willingly walked every step of it.

Champ exudes an air of grandiosity that is well-dented by his insecurities: of relationships, of his future, and most importantly, of his present. The book opens up with us hearing from Champ as he sits in prison, awaiting the arrival of his mother and daughter (his princess), for the few hours a day they allow visitation. We know he is imprisoned very far from where they are, but they travel the long journey regularly to maintain the tenuous bond between him and his daughter in her fragile years. This is our introduction to who he is in this narrative, for indeed it is a narrative that is voiced from the main character as he starts to realize all the truths of the world that he paints for us. See, from my perspective, and maybe my view is somewhat blurred by my location, NYC, and my somewhat limited but decent enough knowledge of the more subversive life of the city (aka street life), but Champ comes off as a young man struggling to be the educated person he is, capable beyond measure to surf successfully the college wave that leads to status in society.

As we read we are treated with drops of vocabulary that no one would use in their everyday conversation, let alone someone who sells drugs and has an “ace boon” named “Half Man.” At some point even Half Man grows frustrated with the language Champ chooses to converse with him regularly in. We see that Champ is a conflicted man, conflicted because he is capable of more than falling to the call of the streets in which he is familiar.

Without telling you flat-out the story and the turns, I will say that his struggle in himself comes from a past he cannot shake, to the point that he wants to re-create what was taken from him. What was taken from him, his siblings and his mother . . . here is our star, here is the true focus of the book.

Grace, the mother of Champ and his younger brothers, is so pivotal to the development of the story that without her it becomes just another story about a young black man who chose to follow what was written opposed to his own destiny. She stands as a pillar of hope. I know that is such a cliché phrase to use to describe someone that holds such a strong part to the fate of the main character but it is true, as we read we see how much she matters to the life Champ has chosen, beyond the drugs, beyond the hood he starts to become emerged in. In one quote of the book I can sum up who she is, what she represents, and her fight, which you will discover once you read:

Do it for you. For you and for her and the baby. Champ, you have to believe me. Living against the risk of love is no way to live.

When she says this, even in the context of the conversation, of the situation that leads to her speaking these words of such profound wisdom, they resonate throughout the rest of the story and it leaves us wanting to know more about the origins of them, of these words. In honesty, I would have liked to learn more about Grace, her rise to corporate America and . . . well . . . I can’t tell you the story. As conflicted as Champ makes you feel about him and who he wants to be in reflection to who he is, Grace makes you want to sit on the bleachers and cheer him, her, and the whole family on.

Me and Michael back in the good old wintry days of Mellow Pages Library.

Me and Michael back in the good old wintry days of Mellow Pages Library.

Interview, Nellie Hermann [June 2015]

The amazing Nellie Hermann, and the conversation we had, as we transitioned from winter to spring here in Brooklyn. It’s summer now, but it’s not too late to acquire a copy of The Season of Migration!

Author Nellie Hermann

Author Nellie Hermann

The Season of Migration is gorgeous to look at. The jacket, the design, all of it. Can you tell me about the work that went into the design?

I know, isn’t it?! I got so lucky – and truthfully I don’t know much about how the design all came together, except that the good people at FSG really got the book. “The Sower,” the painting that was used for the cover, is one of my favorites (Van Gogh did many versions of it), so I was extra happy that a detail of it was used. I’m totally in love with the way the book looks and can’t thank the designers at FSG enough!

Truly gorgeous design. And even more gorgeous writing. To start with, I think this is a true masterpiece of the genre. I haven’t seen anything quite like it. I say this even as I have read other books in this genre that I absolutely love, such as Joanna Scott’s Arrogance. Yet as I say this, I know you must have been inspired by other works or models, not necessarily in this genre, which I loosely define as a novel about the imagined inner life (as all inner lives must be) of a visual artist. I would rather call it this than a historical novel.

Thanks so much for your generous praise! Well, in terms of other books – I looked around a lot when I was starting writing for other books that had a similar project – a first person account (in the first version of my book it was all first person) from a historical and well-known real life figure. I was surprised at how few I found! The ones that I found that were particularly inspiring to me were David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, and John Williams’ Augustus. Also Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang which was a total revelation but also made me feel like I might as well stop trying because I could never write anything that good.

Inspiration is perhaps an irritating word, but can you talk about your inspiration for the novel?

I think the real inspiration was Van Gogh himself, and specifically his letters. It was his voice in those letters that really moved me and wanted me to try to emulate it, to spend more there.

What in his voice moved you specifically?

I was moved by his honesty I think, how close to the surface his emotions were, and how tied up always with what he saw in the world around him. I just didn’t realize what a great writer he was! Reading his letters actually make you feel like you’re really getting to know him, which was fascinating to me…maybe especially in this day and age where all our communications tend to be so quick and to the point.

For the sake of LitScene’s audience, I should mention that the idea for The Season of Migration came to you while you were a graduate student at Columbia in 2004, in a class with Simon Schama called “Writing Narrative History.” And that you were in the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library poring over Van Gogh’s letters for hours.

How did you prepare and research for The Season of Migration?

I did a lot of research – read everything I could find about Van Gogh, biographies and his own letters and all of the extraneous collections of things written about him from anyone that knew him. I also researched quite a bit about mining life and about Christianity, the other two aspects of the story that I didn’t know much about! For mining life, the novel Germinal by Zola was incredibly helpful – I also went down in a mine in Pennsylvania which was invaluable, and used a few books that actually had photographs of mining life in the United States. I found that for writing a novel, images and photographs of life around that time were even more valuable than written accounts – when writing about London when Van Gogh was there I looked at a book of images of Victorian London and that allowed me to imagine characters that felt real but also my own. It was important for me to have a little bit of a sense of what things would have looked like in the places I was writing about in order for me to feel comfortable imagining the scenes there.

In what way was Germinal an influence for The Season of Migration?

Well, it was just the main text I read that gave me a sense of what life was like in a mining town. It’s a great book, very evocative and set entirely in the kind of environment I was trying to imagine, so that was perfect. It was very helpful for me in imagining what those mining buildings were like.

It makes sense to me that you would research how things looked in Victorian London, or in a coal mining town, in order to imagine the scenes for your novel. This also highlights the fact that the novel is powerfully visual, which is primarily what hooked me.

What I mostly remember from your BookCourt Q&A was that there was painstaking, obscure research not only into Van Gogh’s life — the kind of research that seems to have convinced more than a few readers into mistakenly thinking that this isn’t a work of fiction! — but into Van Gogh’s era, by which I mean historical details, like the little details of daily domestic life back in Van Gogh’s time. I certainly like what Chris Adrian said about how the miracle of this book is how it makes Van Gogh seem ordinary, even as, simultaneously, he is extraordinary.

One of the things I learned from Van Gogh was this sense that work is work – for him, working at art was much the same as working as a peasant in a field – he put the same kind of effort into his art, and in a way his working at his art like that was a way for him to connect to the common laborers, whom he always admired but never fully belonged with. I like this notion; it resonates with me.

You often mine metaphysical themes — such as invisibility, dissociation of identity — in your work. These are as real to me, as a reader, as the description of wheat fields, canals, and old mills in this novel — your handling of these themes are closer to your treatment of light as both abstract and sensual. Speaking of which, light is metaphysical in passages like this one:

He walks with his eyes closed, concentrating, thinking of the descent into the mine, the cage falling fast, Angeline’s elbow a stone in his side; he sees lamplight cast onto wet stone, glints of white on a mottled surface, and a dot of light at the top of the tunnel like a single star on a canvas of black (p. 121).

It’s passages like this that are just stunning to me as writer and reader. I can’t think of the last time I read writing that felt this gorgeous. It’s like watching a Tarkovsky film, but I’m a sucker for language, so I’m just glad to be reminded that a single sentence can still contain the potency of an entire film. Thank you.

How do you feel about the place of metaphysical themes in contemporary American fiction?

I appreciate these questions very much, and thank you for noticing all of this. Not sure I can succinctly answer. I will say that these “metaphysical themes” you speak of are, I think, often what draws me to a book, and often what I appreciate in other writers, so it’s nice to hear you appreciating them in my work! I do think these themes and explorations are fairly rare, and perhaps under explored/represented in contemporary American fiction … these days writers who write “quiet” books (a word that has come to seem ugly in the publishing context but in fact is not!) have a harder time finding homes for their books (particularly if these writers are women, but that’s a whole other conversation), which is just an unfortunate byproduct I think of today’s digital world with short attention spans. Yeah, I could go on about this but I think I won’t.

I will say though that in my experience it is definitely these metaphysical moments that connect me to my own creativity – in the writing of this book especially, I had to have a lot of mental space and feel a connection to the natural world (i.e., not be in New York City!) in order to enter it and move forward. I’m not sure if that will be the case with all of the books I write, but for me it took that otherness of place to connect me to my own creative well and to Van Gogh’s voice.

That’s really interesting, I know what you mean about not being in NYC! I know you have taught and lectured on the use of creativity in nontraditional contexts, as the Creative Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, and I feel curious about your thoughts and feelings on this.

I do teach and talk a lot about creativity and its uses for people who don’t tend to think of themselves as creative … another big topic, and I’m not sure if it’s directly related to these questions of the metaphysical, though basically I do think that everyone at root is creative just by virtue of being human – there’s something innate to all of us that holds wonder and imagination – and that the challenge really is for each of us to find out how we can best tap into that part of ourselves and let it be cultivated and explored. There’s no question that letting that part of all of us live and breathe would be a good thing for each of us, and that all it takes is a bit of effort!

I’m interested in this because one of the things I love most about your novel is that it draws attention to Van Gogh’s own struggle with his creativity. Even—perhaps especially—a genius struggles. What do you do to convince people who don’t tend to identify themselves as “creatives” that they are, in fact, creative at heart?

I think the only way to “convince” them is to show them that they are capable – so I just ask them to write! Once someone who doesn’t think of themselves that way does a few creative exercises they tend to start to have fun with it and cut themselves more slack.

I enjoyed the discussion of “idling” in your audio interview with Zinta Aistars. What do you think is the relationship between “idling” and the creation of art? Does an “idling” kind of life result in better art? Why do artists need unstructured time in order to create, if, in fact, they do?

That’s a tricky one – no, I don’t think an “idling” life results in better art, and I don’t even think of the word that way – really I think of it as a word that was thrown at Vincent though in fact what he was doing was anything but that. We each work differently – I do tend to write more when I have uninterrupted time, but I have friends who actually work far better when they are squeezing in a half and hour in between everything else. I think it’s all about finding out how we work best and then trying to figure out how to fit that into what else we have to do.

What are you reading right now that feels meaningful?

I just read two books which I really loved, very different from one another – Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, which I found devastating and incredible in its language and restraint, and Cesar Aira’s An Epsiode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, which was strange and other-worldly and made me want to read all of his other books.

Thank you so much, Nellie.