Megan Stielstra’s new essay collection, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, is a guidebook to living in troubled times. I found myself putting the book down to draw out the time I had with it. Each essay is urgent and impassioned, unique and universal, a reminder we’re not alone.
Jaime Rochelle Herndon: Your other book is also an essay collection. How did you come to essay writing?
Megan Stielstra: In high school I was the kind of geek who cut class to hang out at the library. I’d sit on the floor, reading Tolkien, Atwood, Virginia Woolf, but the kicker was Richard Wright’s Black Boy. In chapter 13, the character of Richard gets a library card for the first time and, in reading novels, he’s able to understand people who are different than himself. There I was, a sixteen-year-old girl in super-sheltered, small-town Michigan, having this profound connection with an adult man in the Jim Crow South. It was the first of many stops in an ongoing dialogue I have with myself about the enormity of our world and my own responsibility and privilege within it. Continue reading
Salt Houses, Hala Alyan’s multigenerational first novel about a Palestinian family, is a richly layered story of devastation, rebuilding, and making your way home, when you’re not even sure where that is anymore. As a Jew who believes strongly in the importance of a Jewish homeland, I wanted to read Salt Houses for a different perspective—to hear the stories I might not have heard otherwise. I asked Alyan some questions about the book and our current sociopolitical climate.
Q: You’re Palestinian-American. How much of this story is drawn from your family history and how much is part of the larger cultural story?
A: I borrowed structural elements from my familial history, in terms of the countries that appear in the book and the way the family in Salt Houses is displaced more than once. I wanted to keep the focus on this one particular family’s story, while also nodding to the larger sociopolitical context that housed it. I was inspired by the tradition of storytelling in Arab communities, and how that is a way of reclaiming history and identity. More generally, I was inspired by the resilience of refugees and immigrants I’ve come across in my personal and professional life, and I wanted to honor the story of displacement by unpacking it as honestly as I could. Continue reading
A man wakes up and doesn’t remember the night before. Then he sees photos that show him assaulting a woman. Add the fact that he’s a new father, his job involves experimental surgeries, and his own father has dementia—oh, and he can read minds—and you’ve got Fiona Maazel’s new novel, A Little More Human. Memory, autonomy, and conspiracy theories abound in this complicated, well-crafted book. Maazel has won the Bard Prize for Fiction and was a National Book Award Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. She was recently awarded a Guggenheim.
Jaime Herndon: One thing I loved about A Little More Human was the intersecting storylines, especially Dr. Snyder’s memory loss, juxtaposed with his son’s mindreading ability and blackout. How did you come up with the structure/form of the novel?
Fiona Maazel: Thematically, I knew I wanted to be writing about memory, and memory as a way of constructing identity, juxtaposed against how incredibly hard it is to establish an identity when we know so little of what transpires in our own inner lives. I wanted to get at all that, but there was no way to do it from one perspective. I needed a few characters to allow me to approach the topic from multiple angles. Continue reading
I first read Melissa Febos while in my MFA program. Her memoir Whip Smart was next to the register of my local indie bookstore, and I picked it up while the cashier was helping the person in front of me. This was years ago, but I remember it well, because her memoir of her work as a professional dominatrix was unlike anything I’d ever read before. Her new book, Abandon Me, is a collection of luminescent autobiographical essays—stories about bonds that break, fierce love, and what makes a family, all shot through with art and passion. It defies easy description or categorization, and begs to be reread, to be unpeeled, layer after layer.
Jaime Rochelle Herndon: Abandon Me feels more “bare bones,” somehow, than Whip Smart. More raw or vulnerable. On page 196, you say, about Whip Smart: “By building a story, I could find a beginning, middle, and end.” Does this also apply to Abandon Me? Continue reading
The Art of Waiting is a hybrid memoir from Belle Boggs, author of the 2010 novel Mattaponi Queen. It tells the story of Boggs’s journey through infertility and IVF, but it also examines fertility, motherhood, and assisted reproduction, and how these fit into our society and culture. Drawing from medicine, theater, literature, personal experience, anecdotes, and biology, Boggs writes about motherhood in a smart, unsentimental, incisive way.
I knew from the moment I read about this book on a friend’s Facebook post that I had to read it. As a medical writer with a degree in maternal-child health and a background working in ob/gyn, and as a new mother who used assisted reproductive technology to conceive my son, I can tell you this: The Art of Waiting does not disappoint. Boggs’s prose is quiet but powerful, and she did her research in every way.
Jamie Rochelle Herndon: This is not merely a memoir; it feels to me like a cultural exploration/commentary/criticism, almost a sociological memoir, if that makes sense. What made you decide to write it like that, instead of a straight memoir? Continue reading
Maggie Nelson is the author of The Argonauts, Bluets, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, and several other books of poetry and non-fiction. The Argonauts won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism and was a New York Times bestseller. Nelson has been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Fellowship in Poetry.
Colter Ruland: I first read your work in an undergraduate poetry workshop where we were assigned Bluets. It was, without a doubt, the highlight of the reading list. It demonstrated how one can write about complicated ideas and be vulnerable concerning one’s personal narrative. Is writing from the personal a way for you to then engage with broader ideas, or is it the other way around?
Maggie Nelson: Thank you, and I’m glad you read Bluets as an undergrad! You know I don’t think of the personal and “bigger ideas” as opposite or even separate spheres of inquiry, per se. I often conceive of myself as doing the non-genius version of what Wittgenstein was doing when he would ask questions like, Can my right hand give my left hand money? It’s your body and it’s also a complex idea at the same time. As it should be.
CR: In many ways you’re breaking down hierarchies of language and subject matter, eliminating the sort of stuffy question of what can and cannot be put into conversation with one another. In The Argonauts, you write about your pregnancy and your partner Harry Dodge taking T, and it can occupy the same space as your and Harry’s (hilarious, insightful) interpretations of X-Men: First Class. Continue reading