Interview with Janet McNally

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Janet McNally is the author of the novels The Looking Glass and Girls in the Moon, as well as a prizewinning collection of poems, Some Girls. She has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame, and her stories and poems have been published widely in magazines. She has twice been a fiction fellow with the New York Foundation for the Arts. Janet lives in Buffalo, New York, with her husband and three little girls, in a house full of records and books, and teaches creative writing at Canisius College. (Source)


You incorporated a number of fairy tales into this book. Are these stories ones that were important to you as a child, and/or now?

They’re very important to me now, certainly. I think that I was always drawn to fairy tales, but I can’t tell you when I first read the true fairy tales. I’ve taken courses in fairy tales and now I teach courses in fairy tales, mostly in modern retellings, but we have to revisit the actual fairy tales too. My re-obsession with fairy tales happened when I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter. I have an older daughter who is seven and I have five-year-old twin daughters. When I found out that I was having a girl, I was thinking about the fact that all these stories, or many of the stories, that we tell over and over about girls and women are often about girls who are in trouble or need some kind of saving. I wanted to play with that, so I did that in poems and now I’ve done that in here, too. And, I don’t necessarily want to play with it and make every single one of [the girls] a badass who wins all the time, that’s not it, but I just wanted to give them more of a voice. It’s astounding in some of the original fairy tales how little of a voice they have. You know, I often think about Snow White who literally wakes up and the prince is like, “Gonna marry you!” and she’s like, “Okaay.” Because, you know, she really has no agency at all and that is indicative of how women were treated. They often had no agency as to whom they were going to marry or really in any other way, like the path their life would take.

When it came to writing about a ballerina did you have to do much research? Or did you write through experience? 

I was a dancer when I was younger. I didn’t dance on point because I tried it and didn’t really like it. I preferred more lyrical ballet and then also modern and hip hop and tap and all these other things. I mean, I did everything. But here I felt, I love ballet. I love watching it and I felt that I needed something that would sort of reflect the fairy tale world. The way that ballet is all about illusion and you’re supposed to believe that it’s very easy and effortless. They’re just flying around there, but Sylvie says in the book, have you ever heard what it sounds like? Just knowing what dancers feet look like, what dancing does to your body, that seemed very related to fairy tales. The harm that is done to women’s bodies in them, perhaps.

I did some research because there is no National Ballet Theater, so it’s kind of modeled on American Ballet Theater. I didn’t want it to be the exact same thing, where people would be like that’s not how it ABT works, so I wanted to have it be my own, but it has that model of school into the company, where not every kid in the school is going to go into the company. But, there’s this expectation that Sylvie will because Julia did. There’s precedent for what Julia’s doing but she’s very young to have these chances to dance these principal roles, but there are definitely dancers who have done that.

Sylvie’s relationship to ballet is not dissimilar to Julia’s initial relationship to drugs. What inspired you to draw this parallel? (There is an amount of dedication you need to have to dance and it can sometimes be a toxic relationship. Sylvie is expected to go into this and once she’s in level seven and up she can’t really find her way out. So, it’s kind of like that addiction as it takes you)

I think that that also explains why Julia’s so driven not to lose that, right? Because, at that point, that’s all she has. I think [Julia] talks about going to college or she’s thinking about going to college. But, I know that Julia is doing that in whatever world I’ve created here, so she is trying to take a different path because the original path she thought her life would take has been closed to her by her injury. But it is something, you’re right. You get into [dance] and it can be hard to see a way out and part of that is the expectation that other people have. Even Sylvie and Julia’s mother, who is a pretty decent mom in a lot of ways, she also is just kind of expecting that since it didn’t work out with Julia, it’ll be Sylvie who’s going to be able to do this. I think it’s pretty clear that Sylvie is not so sure that she wants to do that. That makes a lot of sense, that connection.

Fleetwood Mac was a major theme in the second part of the novel. How did you choose the playlist specifically for that part? 

I had this idea that Jack would have this annoying habit of listening to only one band at a time. I mean, I love music and I know a lot of music obsessives and I’m married to one, and he’s never done that, but I could see somebody doing that and just as a way to really get to know someone’s cannon, right? So, I was thinking it needed to be somebody who it would be a little playful. It couldn’t be somebody who was just strictly cool, like the example in the book where she asks about Bowie and he says “I already did that” and she’s like “Err.” It couldn’t be somebody that was that uncomplicated. I wanted it to be something that was playful and kind of funny where she can be like, “Oh, god, Fleetwood Mac,” and then actually end up really liking it.

That’s sort of my relationship with Fleetwood Mac whereas I thought they were just over the top and cheesy and just songs that I barely knew. Then when I had music fan friends who were like, “No, no really listen to this” and I was like “Okay actually, you know, they’re great.” Stevie and Christine are just very cool and the guys are fine, too, I guess  *laughs*. It just made sense because they’re over the top and kind of ridiculous, but also serious music makers and they have their own fairy tale stories within that. [Fleetwood Mac] has done a lot of talking about what it was like when they were at the height of their fame and [Stevie Nicks] has expressed regret for never having children. She’s just a really interesting, open person and so all that was sort of around the edges for me. But mostly, they also have a lot of songs that people know and it was really fun.

I had so much fun with the chapter titles in this book. My last book has numbered titles and I don’t know when’s the next time I’ll do this again, but I had a really fun time pulling out phrases that were the titles of the different chapters. And then the songs, it was fun too to think of what song could fit what chapter.

Sylvie’s subconscious thoughts sometimes appear in parenthesis, what made you choose this format? Why did you utilized it and what can it inform us about Sylvie? 

I think it was just fun for me. It’s something that just happened with her voice. Now, obviously, when you’re writing first person, it’s all internal. They’re telling the story, so this is almost like the internal of internal. I also think that Sylvie has a hard time thinking about and talking about dealing with things that happen, traumatic things that happened, especially the actual overdose or what happened afterward. So that’s a way for her to kind of put it there, but not have to touch it too closely. I think she says at some point that she’s barely told this story even to herself, what it was like that night when they found her on the couch. So, for me, it sort of evolved organically and became a thing. I do believe that characters have to become real in some way and then they kind of tell you what they want to do. So, that was something that she seemed to just want to do and I let her.

Do you consciously write for a young audience? If so, how do you tap into a younger mindset when writing a younger character? 

It’s no trouble for me to tap into a younger mindset because I feel like a perpetual teenager in some ways. And I always say “I’m a grown up?” I think most grown-ups probably feel that way: a lot of my friends seem to. I still feel very connected to my teen years. They were messy and chaotic. In some ways I enjoyed them, so it’s not an upsetting mental space for me to inhabit. I think sometimes people may want to rewrite their teen years the way they wanted it to be. For me it’s not quite like that. It’s kind of like revisiting the feelings that I had at that time, and it’s really fun.

I don’t think there’s a huge difference between writing for teens and writing for grown-ups because I think teenagers are really smart, and I’m not writing down to them, changing my vocabulary. It allows me some things like super-short chapters. It’s something you could do in adult fiction, but it’s not done as much. It’s very common in YA and I like working that way. YA also has those… you want each chapter to have an arc, to end in a place where you really want to turn that page. It’s sort of a thing that happens in YA. And it’s fun to write that way. I have students now — I teach a YA workshop — and right now they’re writing… supposedly they’re beginning novels, so we’re writing two chapters that we’re workshopping throughout the semester. It’s interesting to see them try to do that. Up to this point most of them have only written short stories, and it’s a totally different way of structuring something. But you still have that little teeny climax. YA novels are certainly shorter. And there are certainly other differences, but it’s not a dumbing down or anything along those lines.

You also write poetry. What do you see is the relationship between your poetry and your fiction? Do you have a preference? 

If I had to choose one I would choose fiction because that is the one that is most important to me. But I really love being able to write poems because it feels like play because you can do whatever you want. In fiction you do have to follow some sort of narrative quality. There’s a lot more freedom in poetry, at least for me. I don’t know if every poet feels this way. And it [poetry] is a great way of using my brain in a different way.

Also, I love, with poems, that you can leave so many holes. With fiction you do have to fill in a lot of blanks. And poetry, which I do still use to tell stories, you can do it in a way that’s more loose, which appeals to me very much after having to fill in things when I’m writing a novel. It’s okay if people don’t exactly know what you’re talking about. They come to it and they can bring themselves. I mean, that happens in fiction, too where the reader is really involved in the story, where it’s going to be a different experience for every single reader of the book because you’re going to bring who you are to it and meet me halfway.  But I love both, and I feel really lucky to be able to do both because it’s nice, when I feel I’ve hit a wall in one genre, how I can hop over for a while into the other.

How did the process of writing this book differ from your first novel? 

It differed a lot because I was under contract and I had to write it faster and I had other people’s expectations, and my experiences with the first book… other people’s voices in my head. When you write your first book… Lydia Netzer, she wrote a book that was called Shine, Shine, Shine. That was her first book, which I like, and she said your first novel, it’s like your whole life up to that point you’ve been writing that book. And then your second one you’re supposed to do in a year or two and it’s much harder. So the second book was a lot harder, and there was a time when I thought there’s no way I can do this.

Young adult lit, they want you to produce pretty quickly. The schedule can be very difficult, especially when you’re somebody who has a job and has a family. My dad was dying when I was finishing this book, and that was also really hard — I wasn’t sure what I was doing or who I was or what was even happening, so it was a lot different in that way.

But what was funny was, you write this book, and you do your edits and whatever, and eventually you get what are called pass pages, which is like, they’re photocopied and all laid out and it looks like a book but they’re just 8 by 11 pages. And you have to read through that and make sure things are the way you want. You make manual changes if they’re not. And this is after the copy editor has asked you questions about, “Oh, her eyes are green here but they’re blue here,” and they’re amazing in that way (and you also kind of hate them). But they’re doing their job, and we’re lucky to have them. Anyway, when you get the pass pages… This time it was wild because I thought “oh wow it really is a book. It actually, I think, makes sense.” And I wasn’t sure when I finished it that it was ever going to be that. And so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed coming back to this book and reading pieces of it at readings because I had a difficult relationship with this book at one point. We were not getting along.

What was the easiest part of developing the sisters’ relationship? If you could add or take away an element what would it be? 

I don’t think I would add or take away anything. I’m happy with the way they are. I think their relationship is complicated enough for me. I don’t have a sister: I have a younger brother who I love a lot. I read a lot about sisters… I always wanted a sister and I have relationships with other women that are sisterly and especially I think I sought out in my life a lot of older sister figures, and now I’m the older sister figure two younger people which is pretty cool to see that from both sides. So… I love my brother; he’s awesome, and so I would not trade him. There’s one [brother] in here: Everett. Their relationship is really great. Everett’s not like my brother but that closeness and kindness, that comes from our relationship.

I’m interested in sister relationships because of the way that when you have children of the same gender they’re going to be compared to one another maybe more than if they’re not of the same gender. And I have three daughters who, to me, they look very different, but people often say “oh wow they look so much alike,” and “they have the same face.” (They don’t.) But there must be something about them that does look alike. I have twins so I know the way they’re going to be compared to one another, and of course we compare them too even if you try not to, so that’s really interesting to me.

This was a different relationship in some ways because there are seven years between Sylvie and Julia. My last book was also a sister story, and there were 2 years between them. That was more like my girls. The one thing I’m working on, the book for adults, [in that] there are 16 years between the sisters. That’s a whole different thing, where there is a kind of “oh we had another baby” situation.

I can’t stop writing about sisters, which might be a problem.

Is there one character you were very attached to creating? Could you see what that character was doing outside of the story? 

I usually can see what characters are doing outside. It’s hard to say just one. Obviously I’m very attached to Sylvia because she is, in many ways, the me figure.  I definitely look at writing as acting. I almost exclusively write in first person because I want to take on a persona because I have a lot of fun with that. And so my narrators, my main characters, are always different from me in all sorts of ways, but there’s an innate me-ness in them. I have a big soft spot for Sylvie, Jack — I also really love Tommy and Sadie. In this case I think I wrote friends it would have been great to have when I was a teenager. And they are… Tommy, definitely, their [Sylvie and Tommy’s] relationship is based on a friend of mine who I don’t talk to a lot anymore, but at one point we were so close. It’s funny because some of the affection you have for characters could be, in some cases, the affection you have for a real person, for pieces of that person, but they are definitely their own entities. They are separate. For example, I don’t know anyone exactly like Jack. And my friend that I’m thinking… There are elements of my friendship with him in Tommy and Sylvie’s relationship, but he’s very different from Tommy in notable ways.

And our last question: What genre would you consider this book? Is it magical realism, or a fairytale, or something else? 

That’s a good question… One thing is, I’m not super comfortable using the term “magical realism” because I have a writer friend (Anna-Marie McLemore) who has made a convincing case that “magical realism” is rooted in some kind of oppression, so I don’t feel comfortable taking that term on. But the quote on the cover from the Booklist review mentions magical realism. Many people use that term that way. Perhaps it’s just semantics, I tend to call it realism with a touch of magic. I’m most comfortable, I have the most fun, with magic that you’re not quite sure is magic, magic that can be explained away.

I think I would say this is a realistic contemporary novel with elements of possible magic, if I can create my own genre. But certainly a lot of people would call it magical realism, and that’s fine. But I’m not sure: is the magic magic? Is it Sylvia’s desire to see Magic, to have permission to go find her sister? I don’t know. Obviously, since the book was found and since Julia sent it to her, it’s a pretty big coincidence, but in life there are very big coincidences. The universe has sent some things my way that seem unbelievably coincidental, where I think “whoever is writing my story, this is not believable. I could not put this in a book.”


About the authors of this post: This interview was a collaboration between the Fall 2018 staff of 30 North.

Interview With Brittany Cavallaro

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Brittany Cavallaro is a poet, fiction writer, and old school Sherlockian. She is the author of the Charlotte Holmes novels, including A Study in CharlotteThe Last of August, and The Case for Jamie, which will be released March 6, 2018. She’s also the author of the poetry collection Girl-King and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She earned her BA in literature from Middlebury College and her MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is a creative writing instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy.


Can you tell us about the process of writing in a teenage boy mindset? Did you ever consider a different gender dynamic to Holmes and Watson? Such as two girls or two boys? 

That’s a really good question, and I’ll start by answering the second part first. Holmes and Watson are interesting figures in the history of queer studies and queer theory, and there is a really strong case to be made that Holmes and Watson have a romantic connection in addition to a platonic one. There is some evidence that Doyle, in fact, based Sherlock Holmes and John Watson off of a pair of his friends who had lived together as “confirmed bachelors” in London for a long time. I would love to see some kind of canonical adaptation of Holmes and Watson that works really closely with the original Sherlock Holmes stories and re-imagines it as a queer relationship. But I’m not necessarily the person to write that story, and I was also keenly aware that it is not my place to be telling a lesbian version of Sherlock Holmes. There are [stories where] Holmes and Watson are re-imagined as lesbians, they’re just not been picked up by mainstream publishing in the same way, or they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. The same goes with gay, male Holmes and Watson. There is, of course, a way to make them both girls or both boys and have it be a platonic relationship, but one of the most important things for me was creating a relationship that blurred the lines between friendship and romance in the way that a lot of really obsessive teenage relationships do. And in my own experience, in where I felt like I had the most right to be telling this story, I wanted them to be a boy and a girl.

In terms of writing in the voice of a teenage boy, I actually really enjoyed it. I never imagined writing in anybody else’s voice for the series – I knew I wanted Jamie Watson to be the world’s worst rugby-playing-teenage-boy-poet, and that was something I thought about quite a bit from the beginning. I think that teenage boys get the short end of the stick in a lot of ways. I feel like while we are expanding the representations of different kinds of teenage girls, we are sometimes forgetting about the complexities of teenage boys; that they evoke different kinds of gender expression in the same way that girls do. Jamie Watson is kind of a hot-headed romantic, and, in a lot of ways, he’s a lot more sensitive than Charlotte is, and in my own experience, that’s been the case as well: my male friends have felt things more deeply than I have. So, I drew Jamie a little bit from life, a little bit from my imagination, and a little bit from the original Dr. Watson and what I imagined he would’ve been like as a teenager before he evened out as an adult. That was where I started building Jamie.

How was it writing a mystery novel? How do you as a writer anticipate readers’ expectations and subvert them? 

I hope I do that! I mean, we have certain expectations of a mystery novel, particularly ones having to do with murder – that you’re going to find a body, and that then you’re going to find a second body. You’re going to have a detective who exists a little bit outside of society, and because of that, has a unique view as they look in. The most important thing to me in writing the Charlotte books was that I wanted the girl to be the genius, and I wanted her to be the kind of genius that was frightening, not the kind of type-A perfectionist genius we see portrayed so often – that there was something raw, jagged, and frightening to her intelligence. In a lot of ways, I think the Charlotte series is a character study where they solve mysteries, rather than a mystery series that has some ongoing characterization, and some of my impetus for that comes from my changing relationship to the Sherlock Holmes stories as I’ve gotten older. When I was a kid, I loved those stories because they were wonderful, little puzzle boxes, but now, I’m more interested in the relationship between the outsider and the person you think of as his human credential. As in, you can say, “Holmes must be an all right guy because this really wonderful person is his best friend.”

One way I wanted to subvert original the Holmes and Watson relationship is that I think Jamie is still on his way towards being a good person as much as Charlotte Holmes is. He makes a lot of mistakes, and in the original Sherlock Holmes stories I think Watson is very steadfast, loyal, and not an incredibly dynamic character. So, I wanted to give Jamie a little bit more room to have flaws.

In terms of writing a mystery novel – don’t do it. *laughs* It’s a lot of fun, but you will find yourself constantly contradicting yourself and constantly making a giant muddle of your work. I think I tweeted when I was thinking about it a few months ago, something like, “revising a mystery novel feels like you have this giant, messy ball of yarn that has a grenade inside, and the only tool you have to open it is a chainsaw.” There’s no way it’s not going to end with dismemberment and blood. I’ve had to allow myself, as a novelist, to be messy in my plotting and in my decisions in a way I’ve never really allowed myself to be in my poetry, because in order to get the novel done, I have to say things I’m going to contradict later, I have to make decisions that are wrong, and characters will die who will have to be resurrected by the final draft. There’s a lot of stuff I have to ultimately fix. I think mystery novels seem very tightly plotted and controlled, but you’re only seeing the finished product. At least in terms of the way I work, I have to clean up all my edges, constantly, and that’s been a big challenge for me. It’s gotten a little bit easier as time has gone on, but when I was first writing A Study in Charlotte, I was like “Oh my god, what have I done!” *laughs*

When it comes to constructing a narrative, how did it differ when writing a poetry book versus a novel? 

In terms of writing Girl King, originally the book wasn’t in sections: it was one long arc in terms of the poems. One thing that was really useful, actually, as I continued to revise the book, was putting it into smaller arcs and thinking about each section as a self-contained unit. Constructing a narrative of twelve poems was a lot more natural for me than constructing a narrative of, say, forty-eight poems. As I was used to constructing these smaller, tightly-constructed poems, so, I found that sections were really useful. I also was worried in the original few drafts of this book [Girl King] that the reader might trying to ascribe one speaker onto the “I,” to constantly return to this one conception of who is telling these stories, and that that reader would be looking for her narrative development over the course of the poems. I really think there are a number of speakers in the collection, and one thing that having it in sections de-emphasizes is the importance of having one voice in the collection. There’s this weird slippage with poetry much of the time. People really like to read autobiography into your poems, whereas nobody would read A Study in Charlotte and say, “I know you’re Jamie Watson,” and you reply “Yep, totally Jamie Watson!” *laughs*

But with Girl King, oftentimes I would put poems next to each other that very clearly had different speakers to try to trouble that idea a little bit and to break up the idea of who was talking. So, a lot of the construction of this [Girl King] has to do more with setting and with time-period. I like to think about those poems next to each other, speaking to each other. For example, maybe there will be a poem set in 1990’s, Illinois, next to a poem set in the nineteenth century, but I feel like the speakers are quite similar, and so we can kind of transition from one to the next in that way. Or, I will put two speakers from a similar time-place who are quite different people next to each other. I think quite a bit about creating tension in that way.

In terms of writing a novel, it’s just very different. I would think quite a bit about how the events of the novel mimic the character’s internal journeys throughout the course of the book – if my characters are moving from this emotional point to this emotional point, how can I put them through a series of emotional events that would lead them there, and how do those events, and what they are, mimic the internal struggle of these characters?

What made you choose to write about the descendants of a fictional character and making the ancestors real in the world of the novel? How true did you feel you needed to be to the source material? How do you make it fresh for a 21st century audience? 

Woof. *laughs* For the third question, I just hope I have! I guess to answer the other questions, we Sherlockians do a thing called playing the Great Game, or the Grand Game, depending on what continent you’re on. What we do, we strange group of people, is that we pretend Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were real, Dr. Watson wrote the stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the literary agent, and all the inconsistencies in the stories add up in some way, or are mistakes that Dr. Watson himself had made when he was writing the stories. We do that because there are a lot of inconsistencies and mistakes. Jamie points out a few of these over the course of A Study in Charlotte; he breaks down “The Speckled Band” and all of the errors Doyle made while writing it.

I wanted to make my Holmes and Watson, Charlotte and Jamie, the descendants of Holmes and Watson for a couple of reasons. The first is, if we suppose Holmes and Watson were real, then we have all of this amazing, weird expectation placed on any descendants they might have. So, if they were real people in the world they would have been quite famous; they would have had a kind of celebrity that was really troubling for the descendants who felt they had to live up to it. In a lot of ways, I wanted to mirror the feeling you have when you’re a teenager, when you feel like there is a certain amount of expectation placed on you by your parents—whether it’s to be like them, to not be like them, or to perform in some proscribed way they’ve set up for you. So, I felt there was kind of a nice mirror there; there was a way for me to satisfy some of my Sherlockian impulses while also staying true to the spirit of Young Adult fiction.

In terms of it being new – well, it’s interesting. I think there are a lot of adaptations that focus on the ways in which a modern-day Sherlock Holmes would be a technological wizard, and I think that definitely has merit. But the thing that drew me to writing a story like this was that I love campus novels. I love boarding school novels, and there seemed something kind of strange about Charlotte having her own CSI lab in the middle of a setting like a boarding school. So, in terms of keeping it fresh or new for a modern day audience, I tried to focus on the characters themselves feeling modern rather than the trappings, or the means of deduction, feeling hyper-modern, because I’m not a technological expert. So, quite a few of things I have Charlotte focus on are spy training techniques, a lot of MI5 stuff, that doesn’t require technology. She knows how to tell if people are lying, which I now know how to do since I had to study it for Charlotte –  it’s weird, to be able to look at someone you don’t know and be like … *makes a telling look, laughs*

In A Study in Charlotte, Watson struggles with his national identity, stating, “In England, I was an American. Here it was the opposite.” As your work seems to center around Anglo topics, do you see this sense of national fluidity in yourself? 

At the time I was writing Girl King and A Study in Charlotte, I was thinking a lot about those questions. I had been living in Scotland for a while; I had plans to move back to Scotland, and, at that point, I was thinking quite a bit about what it meant to be an American abroad. I had never felt so American as I did when I was outside of America, and that was a really strange and interesting experience for me. I think that feeling of being an outsider, no matter where you are, is something you feel a lot when you’re a teenager, whether you’re trespassing on another social class, or trespassing in somebody else’s family – that you don’t belong where you are, this idea that you’re never exactly quite right. That was something I wanted to underscore with Jamie Watson. Another reason why I made Jamie this outsider was in tribute to the original Dr. Watson, who comes back from the war in Afghanistan to London where he’s friendless and alone. I wanted to think about what that would be like for a sixteen year-old boy, minus some of the trauma, which is also something Doyle doesn’t really explore. His Dr. Watson has old war wounds – although, with Doyle’s inconsistencies, sometimes the wound is in his leg and sometimes it’s in his shoulder, which is part of the reason why on page one of Study in Charlotte, Jamie says he misses “London like an arm, or a leg.” *laughs* Sometimes I don’t know why anybody reads these books; I just wrote them for myself!

That was one way I thought about it; that Jamie didn’t necessarily have a home he felt he could go to, especially in America with his father nearby who he wasn’t close to –  that he would feel quite like an outsider. I really dislike the word “Anglophile,” but I suppose, in some ways, you could say I am one or someone who is really comfortable and happy in Scotland. When I was living there, I found the sense of history really fascinating. I loved the idea that I could stand somewhere and that place had existed for a long time. I had a Scottish boyfriend for a long time, and when he came to visit me in the States, he made the observation that America feels like it could blow away at any time, like a bazaar, or a county fair. I couldn’t stop thinking about that for months after he’d said it.

I’m really interested in exploring that sense of being uncomfortable where you are, and what is productive about that feeling of being uncomfortable. If you were standing just outside something, how does that change your relationship to it rather than participating in it? Some of it just comes down to being a writer, in that I watch myself watching things all the time. There’s nothing so acute as the experience of being a foreigner, and I really liked being a foreigner, which probably says strange things about me.   

In your poems, you blend together historical, mythical, and pop-culture references seamlessly. Is there a process of choosing these? And is there a worry that these references will clash with one another if you choose them? 

I really feel I have less agency about what goes into the poems than I do about what goes into the novels, in that sometimes the reference just sort of presents itself, or I get really, really stuck on a title [a poet friend like Rebecca Hazelton] has given me… In terms of this, so much of the time I think that when I’m writing a poem, I am writing it to revise something that really bothers me, and that botheration doesn’t have to be negative, necessarily, it could just be an idea that I get stuck on. As a kid, I was pretty obsessive. If I liked something I really, really liked it, and I think I learned how to channel that into writing. And so, if I watch something and I really love it, I will watch it four hundred more times, and then I will write something about it. I love the things I love to death, I guess.

What’s an example?

Sherlock Holmes, obviously. When I was a kid, the X-Files… but yeah, I just am sort of obsessive and sometimes I think about my poems as an encyclopedia of things that I haven’t been able to get rid of. There’s a Marie de France lai I wrote about in Girl-King about a woman who was accused of cheating because she is carrying twins, the idea being that, if you have two fetuses inside you, they have to be the result of parentage of two men. And I just thought about that all the time for some reason and I’m not sure why. Mostly, because I think it—we tell stories to explain the world, but sometimes the story that you choose to tell to explain the world is a shitty one, like this Marie de France story. What can we make of that? I wanted to explore it.

I was really obsessed for a really long time with Victorian magicians. There was a year… the best year of my life was the year that there were two Victorian magician movies that came out, The Prestige and The Illusionist—do you remember that? They came out at the same time! I was like, ‘I don’t know even know what’s happened here!’ I love Nicola Tesla, I love the horrible monster that was Thomas Edison, I have no idea why I love these things, but I just do. And I think a lot of the time, my poems are my way of explaining to myself why I love them or why I was bothered by them, or both. And I usually love things that have a big flaw in them that don’t let me step inside of them completely, and my writing is a way of fixing that or revising it. …Like my Berryman imitations, where John Berryman is my favorite poet, and his depiction of women and black people is just flawed, offensive, and occasionally straight-up gross…And yet, the way he works with language is so interesting to me and was so influential; I started rewriting his poems phrase by phrase, making his Henry into a woman—which I hope offends him, wherever he is—and trying to explore, at least, my feelings on gender. I don’t think I’m the person to rewrite Berryman’s poems on racial politics; that’s not something that I’m qualified to do… Tyehimba Jess has rewritten some of the Dream Songs, like in his pom “Freed Song”, which is wonderful. But yeah, so some of my work was intriguing to work out like ‘what is it with Berryman?’ and ‘why do I love him and how can I fix this’, which is not to say my poems are doing anything but satisfying some need for me to talk back to those poems.

Have you ever purposefully, or unconsciously, written poetry about your Sherlock Holmes series? Is there a process that gives the characters more depth, or tell you new things about them? 

So my second poetry collection, Unhistorical, has a long murder mystery about Holmes and Watson, as Holmes and Watson. That’s coming out next year… The Holmes and Watson poems I was writing were trying to speak more directly to some ideas I have about power, genius, and agency than what I think the Charlotte Holmes book are doing, and the poems—those Holmes and Watson poems I’ve written—are also in conversation with the more contemporary poems in that manuscript, in that they depict a relationship that the Holmes and Watson one. I want those to be read on top of each other as much as possible. So much of what I love is from the nineteenth century, and getting to write from a place where I can use that diction is creatively fruitful for me. I also think that those concerns from Doyle’s stories are pretty contemporary, ight? Like, who has more power in the relationship and why is the question that I think we ask a lot in all of our friendships and relationships in the day to day, even if we aren’t aware we’re asking it. There is a poem in Girl-King that I think about as the precursor to the Charlotte Holmes books. It’s called “Autotheism” which is the word for the worship of oneself as a god. The poem is set in contemporary America, and while it’s not explicitly about her, I very much had a young, female, Sherlock Holmes in mind when I wrote that.

How do you form multi-faceted characters like Holmes, and what is that process like?  

I like to start with conflict. I like to start with people who are very conflicted internally, and are in conflict—whether it’s friendly or unfriendly—with the people around them. And then I like to see what decisions they make and what they want to say to each other. Most of my character discovery comes through dialogue. I really like having one character take offense at something the other said, and then just seeing what happens. Even if a lot of that doesn’t actually make its way into the final novel, it’s really educational for me about my characters. And in terms of poetry, and in terms of writing fiction, it’s all about voice—what would they say, why would they say it, how would they say it, would they be silent, would they stare you down until they make you speak? Those are all interesting questions for me, and I think they can tell us a lot about a person. But I’m also hyper-verbal, and so it can just be I’m drawing from my own experience.

What would be your advice for aspiring, young writers?

Don’t specialize. Take as many different classes in as many different things as you can. Study each one of them deeply. Spend a semester just writing fiction, even if you think you’re a poet. Spend a semester writing poetry, even if you think you’re a fiction writer. If something interests you, and you can fit it in your schedule and you can check off some requirement with it, do it. I really always wished I could have taken an Anthropology class in undergrad, but didn’t. When I graduated, I realized, ‘oh, I guess I’m just…never going to take an anthropology class.’ All information is useful to have. And what I draw on when I’m writing, sometimes I bring up stuff from years and years and years ago. Keep your notebooks, keep your old class notebooks. I refer to notes I took in my university Shakespeare course all the time. Give yourself occasional permission to slack on something else if it means to get your writing done. One weekend, you can be a really bad friend, or a really bad student. You can’t do it all the time, but sometimes you’re going to have to make a decision, and occasionally your writing has to win…and that was a big issue for me in my twenties when I was teaching and I was taking classes and I was trying to hang out with people and trying to live my life. It was hard to find the time to write because it’s so solitary, and you never know if it’s going to be any good, but you have to prioritize it. I think one thing that is easy to forget when people are telling you that, is that something else has to lose for a little while. So something can lose for two hours on Sunday for you to write; something can lose for you to write on Monday morning; something can lose on Friday night. Not all the time, but you need to figure out a way to put the work in.


About the authors of this post: this interview was a collaboration between the entire Winter 2018 staff of 30 North.

 

 

Want to read a previous interview with Brittany Cavallaro? Click here.

A Review of “Patience” by Daniel Clowes

PATIENCE_FC_Colors-(1)Daniel Clowes is considered one of the most notable comic artists of our era and has had a couple of his works made into feature length films. An example of this would be his book “Ghost World,” about two girls and their journey after replying to a man’s newspaper ad for a date, which was turned into a film starring Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch. He tends to feature lonely, self-loathing men who want to feel connected, but push away those that try to get close; the male ego is a constant in his works. In “Ghost World,” the man from the newspaper ad exemplifies these traits. In “Patience,” Clowes has made subtle changes of this theme, while also still remaining true to his tendencies.

As the story begins, it’s 2012 and Jack Barlow learns that Patience, his wife, is pregnant. As they are discussing their financial worries and how they will make it work, Patience reflects on her early years:

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Page 4

 

Clowes overloads the reader with tons of information in the beginning of the novel. He is purposefully using this tactic to leave the readers confused; it can be difficult to follow what is happening during the first time reading through, so it helps to read a second or even third time to truly capture all of the little intricacies. When Jack goes back to 2012, the readers will also learn more about why things played out the way that they did.

In the scene after the one shown above, Patience starts to talk about her old life, but Jack doesn’t want to talk about it and quickly diverts the subject back to the baby. Everything seems to go well afterwards, but if you’ve read any of Clowes’ other books, you know not to be fooled by this.

One day, Jack comes home to find Patience has been murdered. Clowes takes on the cliche of a woman dying early on in a story to provide momentum for the rest of the story, also known as being “fridged.” There are other occasions in his works where he has used cliches to call attention to them and even parody them to reflect the current state of our culture. While they can at times be subtle jabs at the cliches, Clowes makes his purpose clear by overly drawing on the use of the cliche of Patience being “fridged” and makes it over-the-top. He does this with his use of dramatic language, especially when Jack finds Patience’s body, and his colorful palette.

After being framed for the murder of his wife and unborn child, Jack was sent to prison for 18 months. He was released after evidence appeared that proved him innocent, further giving him fuel for his quest for revenge. It’s suddenly 2029, and Clowes paints a picture of what he envisions the future to be like: inappropriately sexual public displays, monitors projecting a dictator’s speeches on loop, and people dressed in crazy outfits. A lot of this can be considered stereotypical of what people visualize when they think of the future. Clowes has been know to have depicted the future in a similar fashion in previous works of his.

Jack learns of the existence of a time-traveling device, and his hopes of seeing Patience again are hurtled into the forefront of his mind. This is when the “cosmic timewarp deathtrip” part of the tagline comes into play. The novel follows Jack as he is flung around time and space, trying to save Patience. As I mentioned earlier on, Clowes has a type. His protagonists are lonely, self-loathing creatures who have an ego. Jack is no different, and it becomes unclear at times what his true motives are in continuing on with his journey. There is a point in Jack’s journey where he contemplates why he is even doing this anymore. He doesn’t know if he’s even doing it for his wife and unborn child, or gone beyond all of that to a point of pure revenge:

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The line becomes more and more blurred as Jack keeps leaping through time, being yanked about time and space by the time-traveling device. Jack experiences these strange visions, and his body begins breaking down and reforming. Throughout the graphic novel, Clowes includes these wild, colorful images, and during the evolution of Jack reforming, he really takes advantage of that. He uses a much broader color palette in “Patience” as compared to some of his other works, such as “Ghost World” with its black, white, and green palette and other of his works that have stuck with the more basic black and white template. The vivid colors are very impactful in the scene where Jack’s body is being ravaged by the process of time-travel, his interior organs becoming visible through his exterior flesh.

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Pages 79-80


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While “Patience” has a similar thematic style to Daniel Clowes’ other works, there are some interesting differences. His male protagonist, while still a loner with self-deprecating tendencies, goes to great lengths to exact vengeance for his wife’s murder. Fans of his oeuvre may be conflicted about their feelings for this piece. There are several cliches that occur throughout the novel that can give readers pause, but by the end they should be able to see the way that he is using them in a parodic manner. His art style was amped up for this piece as well, so die-hard fans may have a hard time liking the immense color palette that Clowes uses.

“Patience” is a story of love, murder, and self-discovery. Clowes paints a vivid picture of love lost and a man doing whatever it takes to find his wife’s killer while struggling with the morality of changing fate. The visuals are so beautifully executed that Clowes’ storytelling is amplified by their use.

*Images consist of photos taken by Kayla Etherton and images found on Google


Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 6.14.09 PMAbout the Author: Daniel Clowes was born in Chicago, Illinois, and completed his BFA at the Pratt Institute in New York. He started publishing professionally in 1985, when he debuted his first comic-book series “Lloyd Llewellyn.” He has been the recipient of multiple awards for his seminal comic-book series, “Eightball.” Since the completion of “Eightball” in 2004, Clowes’ comics, graphic novel, and anthologies have been the subject of various international exhibitions. Clowes currently lives in Oakland, California with his wife and son, and their beagle.


About the Author of this Post: Kayla Etherton is a recent graduate of North Central College majoring in Graphic Design with a minor in Marketing. She enjoys reading all kinds of sci-fi/fantasy literature, but has recently been reading mostly graphic novels. She is also an alum of the NCC Women’s Track and Field Team.

A Review of “Steal It Back” by Sandra Simonds

9780991545490Sandra SimondsSteal It Back is a call to action for readers and a personal reflection that gives commentary on modern social topics including feminism, capitalism, and motherhood. Simonds takes the reader through her personal journey of stealing “it” back – everything from femininity to power, adventure to vulnerability – and along the way, readers are prompted through Simonds’ breathless, fierce writing to steal “it” back as well – whatever that may be to the reader.

The most unconventional poem of the collection is also one that best encompasses Simonds’ unique style. “Occupying” is a single paragraph that extends nearly seven pages without a single period. Though there is the occasional exclamation point or question mark, the lack of periods adds to Simonds’ quick-paced, intense voice and forces the reader to consume the poem in one breath. Simonds also utilizes repetition effectively in this poem, and in others of the collection. The line, “They are building a Catholic schoolgirl” is repeated throughout the poem. This draws the reader’s attention to Simonds’ idea that “they,” whether it be her parents or another authoritative figure in her life, tried to shape her into a good, Catholic girl, for better or worse. Simonds talks to the reader in meta fashion and seems to be replying to her critics, writing, “Oh you think this is so terrible? Well / you try to write a better one, friend.”

While it may seem like the nonstop, continuous, repetitive nature of such a poem could lose the reader’s interest, Simonds manages to transition between different subjects and scenes seamlessly; she recognizes when the reader’s mind may begin to trail off and regains traction with a fresh image or line.

Simonds’ most effective technique is to juxtapose heavy topics with the everyday. McDonalds, Sephora, and Lady Gaga all make appearances alongside feminism, the monotony of unfulfilling jobs, divorce, and the trials of motherhood. She uses her personal experiences while still relating to the larger issues at hand in the world. In the poem, “I Grade Online Humanities Tests” she writes about her complicated relationship with a mechanic, but also about the larger issue of men feeling entitled to things because they are used to being in power. She writes, “the guns are male because he owns the guns . . . and Home Depot is male because he owns and owns / and owns and all he can do is own / everything that will rot / like privacy or speech or porn or black swans / or my big tits.” While her poetry may have started out for Simonds as a release for her own emotions, she expands and touches on the bigger problems in society that her life experiences bring up.

One aspect of Simonds’ writing that may not appeal to all readers is her tendency to write poems that clearly show a passing of time during her writing process. She separates some of her poems into pieces on different pages and the subject changes slightly on each page. The disconnect suggests that she may have left the poem and returned at a different time to finish it. In “A Poem For Landlords,” Simonds outright states, “I am writing this so fast. / I will not be able to look / back at it but just now / I am looking back at it since I made / dinner and cleaned the house.” Some readers will be turned off by her blatancy in stating these actions and describing her writing process, however, it adds honesty and an interesting pacing of time to the poems. She may also be giving commentary on the futility of poetry in enacting change.

Simonds has created a collection that is not easy to digest, or to forget. By the time the reader reaches the final lines of the book, “I know what is real / and I know how to steal / back what is mine,” they won’t be able to resist the urging of Simonds to do the same.


sandra-simonds About the Author: Sandra Simonds’ poems have been included in the Best American Poetry consecutively in 2014 and 2015, and have appeared in many literary journals. She is an Associate professor of English and Humanities at Thomas University in Georgia, and lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

 

Review of “Find Me” by Laura van den Berg

Find Me by Laura van den BergLaura van den Berg’s Find Me explores the mind of Joy, an orphaned cough syrup addict, as she experiences life after the potential end of American civilization.  The novel opens during Joy’s stay (or imprisonment) in a hospital searching for the cure to a disease that wipes the memories of its victims before taking their lives. Eventually, Joy escapes and wanders in search of her biological mother in a dystopian landscape. Although the novel seeks to be a more distinctive narrative in a sea of dystopian novels, Find Me maintains a sub-par impression upon the reader. Ultimately, van den Berg confuses and continually loses touch with her readers through spoon-feeding themes, disclosing unnecessary information, frequently using clichés, and distracting the reader with a jumbled organizational structure.

Throughout the novel, van den Berg spoon-feeds her audience with overstated messages of profundity. Rather than allowing the reader to dissect the possible meanings of the work, such as the importance of belonging and being found, one is bombarded by statements such as, “To be looked for is to matter” (223). The theme of the novel is not open to interpretation and discussion. Thus, the narrative feels simple and interest diminishes.

Along with overstating themes, van den Berg frequently reveals information that neither affects its plot nor its message. In the second half of the novel, a character is hinted to possess psychic or predictive abilities (176). One would believe that such a profound disclosure would affect the premise of the plot, but it did not affect any element of the novel. It was not relevant at the time of its revelation, and it continued to stay irrelevant. If the author’s intention was to add depth to the character, or to garner interest, it did not appear as such. Sequentially, the disclosure of irrelevant information invoked feelings of disappointment and confusion.

Peppered throughout Find Me, clichés particularly common to young-adult dystopian novels frustrate the reader. Towards the beginning of the novel, as Joy is reliving a memory where she watches reruns of “The X-Files,” she states, “I’ve never liked the things girls my age are supposed to” (34). This overused statement not only turns off the reader, but feels mildly condescending. What are 19-year-old girls supposed to like? Why must Joy declare how she’s “not like other girls”? One cannot help but interpret Joy’s declaration of difference as a method of implying superiority to stereotypically feminine women. Furthermore, as the novel continues, Joy engages in sexual activity with her roommate in the hospital and does not shower for days to hold fast to his scent. Her desperate hold on her moments with him has a poetic appeal, but feels empty; reactions to physical love such as this have been overused in romance novels and films. As a result, the many clichés of Find Me contribute to its lack of distinction in the dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre.

Along with relaying random information and overusing clichés, van den Berg distracts readers with the confusing structure of the novel. Although it is predictable, with one chapter relating the present and the next revealing the past, it distracts from the plot. The reader can easily get lost along the way by forgetting the most recent events and constantly attempting to retain information about the past. Some of the chapters reveal disturbing qualities of Joy’s past that add emotional depth to her narrative, but others feel random and unnecessary. For example, the larger portion of chapter 18 is dedicated to stating facts about Norway and the origin of the disease that has ravaged America. While the disease has arguably caused the events of Find Me, and Norway is the home to a minor character, the information given about the two falls flat, thus unnecessarily interrupting the progression of the plot. Further assisting in the disruption of the novel’s flow was van den Berg’s consistent use of three-dot breaks. For example, within the span of the five pages of chapter 40, three-dot breaks appear 10 times. The excited thoughts that Joy experiences could easily have been encapsulated in paragraph form. The information instead reads as overexaggerated and encourages the reader to rapidly skim through it in anticipation of the last page. The chapter, along with the many others that exude the same love of scene breaks, resultantly reads as choppy, scattered, and lacking in cohesiveness. Laura van den Berg’s writing style ultimately detracts from the reader’s consumption of her work.

Although Find Me loses touch with its readers, it still has some charm. Van den Berg’s use of imagery was imaginative. When Joy experiments with an unknown drug, she states, “my brain is a blue jellyfish that has crawled out through my ear and is hovering somewhere along the roof of the tunnel, happy to finally be free of the body” (225). An experience with drugs may prove difficult to convincingly describe, but van den Berg has accomplished it without seeming stereotypical or overdramatic. Additionally, the language was well-written; the tone felt conversational, yet still possessed gravity and poetic qualities in the right places. The positive elements of the overall work do not cover for its flaws, but they are still present and worth considering.

Fundamentally, explicitly stated themes, excess information, the overwhelming use of clichés, and a distracting writing style effectively contribute to the lackluster impression of Find Me. If the novel had better confronted its themes without overstating them, readers would be able to fully appreciate the novel. However, its audience instead becomes disinterested and lost in a book about the act of finding.


Laura van den BergAbout the Author: Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her MFA at Emerson College. Find Me is her first novel, which was selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR, Time Out New York, Buzzfeed, and others.

 


About the Author of this Post: Ashley Suslowicz is a freshman at North Central College majoring in English and minoring in Sociology. After finishing her undergraduate studies, she plans to attend law school near Chicago. She loves Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and coffee.

Review of “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders With Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders tells the melancholy tale of President Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to balance grieving his recently deceased son Willie with holding together a nation that’s trying its hardest to tear itself apart. Simultaneously, Saunders tells the journey of Willie Lincoln’s soul as it travels through a sort of limbo state between life and death – the bardo, as the Tibetan people would call it. It’s a story that’s as bizarre and fantastic as the President’s is sad and humbling. And Saunders writes it all in brilliant technicolor prose that burns itself into the brain.

At first, the style will throw many readers off: Saunders notes the speaker of the paragraph at the end of it, and chapters are quite short with some only lasting a few lines, like a kind of rapid-fire epistolary novel. Quotation marks are almost entirely absent, and tangible strings of conversation are hard to track down. At times it seems like the characters address the reader more than anyone else on the page. Yet the reader can quickly distinguish between the characters’ voices, and eventually quotation tags seem unnecessary, like the human appendix. Once the style feels familiar, the rest is nothing but pleasure.

The novel breaks down into two main parts: Willie’s (more accurately, his soul’s) story and Abraham’s. Willie’s soul’s story is told by several deceased fictional characters that are also spending time in limbo. These characters include the printing press professional Hans Vollman, the homosexual romantic Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas. Vollman and Bevins have the most interesting relationship; their petty bickering and stubbornness is funny, but also carries a deep-seated sadness with it, like Vladimir and Estragon in “Waiting for Godot.”

Several other characters pop in and out, but they don’t do a whole lot to move the main events forward. They don’t take anything away, either. Each character, even if they appear for no more than a few paragraphs, contributes some little detail that adds to the constellation of beauty that is Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders gives us the death story of nearly (if not) all the souls we encounter in limbo: everything from a razor blade to the wrists, to a drunken carriage-trampling, to a nose-smashingly high fall from a window. The means of death often reveals more about that character than any details pertaining to their previous life, a clever narrative trick that spices up exposition and makes the introduction of new characters a treat and not a task. Many of the souls in limbo have bizarrely distorted persons, reflecting some aspect of their character. Roger Bevins III grows multiple sets of arms, ears, noses, eyes, etc. when reminiscing about the pleasant sensations of nature. Hans Vollman’s penis is perpetually swollen (for reasons you’ll have to read to find out) and sometimes grows so large that he has to hold it with both arms so he doesn’t trip over it!

These bizarre features of the bardo may read as excess to some, but they work. Especially when put up against the incredibly somber delivery of the President’s story, told through excerpts of dozens of historical documents and primary accounts. Saunders pulls short passages and sentences from these various texts and combines them to make a parallel narrative to Willie’s posthumous journey. I never would have thought a method as ambitious as this could produce poignant and cohesive prose, but somehow it does! The historical-collage chapters read so effortlessly that, if I didn’t know any better, I would be convinced it was just Saunders executing his normal prose.

These chapters offer crucial details, such as impressions of Willie before he died, descriptions of the emotionally broken President visiting his son’s grave, hints of Mary Todd’s mental fracturing, political critiques of the President’s wartime moves, and grisly accounts of the carnage on the battlefield the day after battle. Even though these chapters have been arranged to create a new narrative, they still have an air of historical accuracy. And it’s this idea, the sense that this really happened, that grounds the wackiness of the bardo sections and makes the whole novel a deeply moving and utterly human affair.

To anyone looking for a novel written in vivid prose that doesn’t let up for one second, look no further. In Lincoln in the Bardo you’re sure to find a wildly original story told in a wildly original way that somehow, against all odds, seems faintly familiar at heart. It’s the most human novel about dead men with giant penises wandering a Tibetan purgatory you’ll ever read.


Author George SaundersAbout the Author: George Saunders was born in Amarillo, Texas, but grew up in Chicago. He completed a degree in exploration geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines. He later completed his MFA from Syracuse, where he also met his future wife, Paula Redick. Saunders has had various works published in The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine.

Review of “All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers” by Alana Massey

All the Lives I Want

All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers is a collection of essays written by Alana Massey where she connects the lives of celebrities to her own life. From Winona Ryder to Princess Diana, Massey explores the legacies of these famous women while using them to reveal personal details about herself. She does this to show both that we are not that different from celebrities and how their lives both relate to and have an affect on her own. This book is the first for Alana Massey, but her experience in writing goes beyond this. Her essays, criticism, reviews, and reporting have had regular appearances in publications such as the Guardian, New York Magazine, Buzzfeed, and more.

All the Lives I Want contains fifteen different essays featuring over twenty famous women between them. Her first essay, “Being Winona; Freeing Gwyneth: On the Limitations of Celebrity Type,” discusses Winona Ryder’s shoplifting incident from 2001 and Gwyneth Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling” from Coldplay singer Chris Martin. Massey created a theory that she was a “Winona in a world made for Gwyneth’s.” As she states, “This theory positions the one time best friends as two distinct categories of white women who are conventionally attractive but whose public images exemplify dramatically different lifestyles and world views.” She identifies herself as a Winona and her ex’s new girlfriend as a “total Gwyneth.” She understands that she used Winona as “an avatar that represented [her] own suffering.” She makes a point here which she makes in later essays that people are their own selves, and even if someone identifies with someone else, that doesn’t mean they are identical.

An essay that wasn’t as strong was “Heavenly Creatures: The Gospels According to Lana, Fiona, and Dolly.” This essay discussed a close comparison between Fiona Apple and Lana Del Ray and a loose comparison to Dolly Parton as a way to discuss how these female artists portray sex and relationships, with Apple and Del Ray being on the racier side and Parton being on the more conservative side. What I gathered her point to be in this essay was sometimes young singers such as Apple were forced to portray a sexuality that was reflective of a person older than themselves while Parton was able to move away from sexuality and focus on hurt in relationships. Maybe it was just me, but I felt Massey focused too much on Apple and Del Ray and portrayals of sexuality and then just threw Parton in there as a way to show not all singers have to do this.

The next essay, one that I looked forward to because of the subjects was, “No She Without Her: On Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and the Singularity.” Massey discussed a slight personal connections with the twins as they were students with her for a brief time at New York University. “They were not just celebrities, they were our classmates,” she notes while discussing a fellow student who had wall to wall pictures of the twins. Massey also remember how there was a countdown until the Olsens turned eighteen and how that disgusted her: “[The media] wrote as though the only thing in the way of unbridled passion between ordinary sleazes and billionaire teenage performers and entrepreneurs was a pesky statutory rape law that would soon be irrelevant.” While the message of this particular essay was clear—defying and dehumanizing women because they are in the public eye is wrong— getting to Massey’s point was a little difficult. In an essay where she is supposed to be relating these celebrities’ lives to herself, she barely mentions herself. She also never explicitly states her point, only her disgust and judgement. I wanted her to go beyond the concept of them being young and go into the problem with how young girls are made to feel like this dehumanization and degrading of women is okay, when it isn’t, but she never did get beyond the initial disgust.

In several of Massey’s essays, the connections to the particular celebrities felt loose, and the points were difficult to grasp. There were some, such as “Our Sisters Shall Inherit the Sky: On the Lisbon Sisters and the Misnomer of The Virgin Suicides,” an essay in which she discussed Massey’s relationship to her sister and the book and movie The Virgin Suicides, where she seemed to alter too rapidly between casting judgment and admiration on the characters and narrators of the story. She would say things such as, “Though the boys never admit as much, it is crucial that the Lisbon sisters are all thin and beautiful within reason;” however, she also states, “I wanted a boy to look at me and see mystery of my own making,” where she practically applauds the glamorized view the adult male narrators are putting on five girls who took their own lives years ago. She discussed how the characters were wrong but never really focused on the fact that the glamorization of depression and suicide portrayed in the novel is a bad message.

The concepts and points of each of the essays were practical and often relatable in the sense that everyone expresses insecurity and compares themselves to others and makes mistakes, To be honest, I would not recommend this book as a whole because many of the essays felt like they had no bigger point than the fact that the celebrities were living their lives and others were observing. However, I would recommend the essay, “Public Figures: Britney’s Body Is Everybody’s,” an essay that deals with weight issues, eating disorders, and the pressures society puts on women to be the correct weight. In this essay, Massey states “[Men’s] standard calibrations for the weight of a petite woman is between 100 and 115 pounds, an average woman 115 to 125, and tall ones 125 to 135,” clearly stating that they are wrong to assume this and that is a major problem within society.

Another good essay was “All the Lives I Want: Recovering Sylvia,” This one debunked the myth that what we read and who we admire doesn’t necessarily have a major and consequential effect on our person. Just because Sylvia Plath committed suicide doesn’t mean her admirers will as well. As I discussed earlier, regarding “Being Winona; Freeing Gwyneth: On the Limitations of Celebrity Type,” not all women are the same and cannot just be put into two categories.

Lastly, “A Bigger Fairy Tale: On Angelica Huston and the Inheritance of Glamour.” This one shows the power of women. It displays a woman, Angelica Huston and how she was strong even though she was betrayed by a man. She was equally as strong with and without him and that’s the way it should be. She admires Huston, “Angelica’s memories are unapologetically steeped in Hollywood decadence and the class privilege that accompanied her fellow travelers on these journeys.” These four essays were the ones that I found to be the most enjoyable of the collection and also the four that succeeded the best in getting their messages across.


About the Author Alana Massey: I’m a writer covering identity, culture, virtue, and vice. I’m the author of All The Lives I Want, a collection of essays reimagining the lives and legacies of famous women in a way that makes it easier for us to forgive ourselves. My writing appears in Elle, The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York Magazine, Vice, The New Republic, Pacific Standard, BuzzFeed, The New Inquiry, and more. I split my time between Brooklyn and my farmhouse in the Catskills where I write, read, drink champagne, listen to pop music, and Photoshop glamorous collages of myself like the one you see here.


About the author this post: Kate Haley is a sophomore at North Central College where she studies English Writing and Organizational Communication. When she is not spouting off random facts about anything and everything, she fills her time with reading copious amounts of books and writing novels that will hopefully become best-sellers (or at the best, sellers).

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The press is a happy accident. I was working an office job with two friends, and we discovered blink, a tiny magazine Robert West had published for several years. Though we didn’t know it, the magazine had changed editors and gone defunct. But we were so entranced by it. We wrote to the editor and asked if we could become her staff, we sent in money for subscriptions. Several months passed. We asked again. Nothing. So we wrote to Robert and said, “We’d like to start a magazine like blink. If you’ll share your subscriber list with us, we’ll send our new magazine to them for a year.” He did.

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