Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Cris Beam

Cris Beam

In the fourth of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels speaks with Cris Beam.

Cris Beam has written two books of nonfiction–Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers (Harcourt, 2007) and To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care (Houghton Mifflin-Harcourt, 2013)–and a young adult novel, I Am J (Little, Brown, 2011). Her books have received many awards, including a Lambda Literary award and a Stonewall Honor for Transparent, and a Kirkus and American Library Association Best Book honor and a Junior Library Guild Selection for I Am J. Additionally, Beam’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atavist, The Huffington Post, The Awl, Out, and on This American Life, among others. She teaches writing at Columbia University and New York University.

EB: Why have you–as a writer, a woman, a person–been drawn to writing nonfiction?

CB: I write fiction as well, but nonfiction is such a large genre–there is so much room in it, so much room to play with form–it feels like there are endless possibilities.

I really love learning about different types of people, and I love reporting on them. I started out as a journalist–I’ve always wanted to know how people think, and why they do the things they do. I write to try to understand how people make their decisions, how they live together, how they form communities. You can do that with fiction, you can imagine–but nonfiction allows me to actually spend time with people and ask them questions I might not be able to ask in fiction. Nonfiction allows me to be a kind of spy. Continue reading

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The Art of Denial

prison bars

The Bordirtoun Pongs have long been known for being artists of denial. To be such an artist, one must be nearly developmentally disabled at heeding the advice and/or warnings of others. When Millmore’s co-workers repeatedly told him that bridge construction was in no way safer than building railroad tunnels, my great-great-granduncle simply nodded and went on his merry way. Probably because, by most accounts, he didn’t understand much English and was partially deaf thanks to his repeated exposure to dynamite blasts. When Parris Pong was told by his most loyal customers that he needed to stop bruising his prized prostitutes, he agreed and slapped them face-side instead. Before Francisco Pong was interned, members of his congregation had warned him that his own congregants were questioning his ethnicity. But he persisted, insisting that God saw no color, and all His children would be able to distinguish between Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans. Of course, Saul was warned numerous times by Nolan Bushnell himself to stay away from his wife, a warning left unheeded.

Since I’ve started writing these pages, I have found myself becoming attuned to the patterns of denial in my fellow inmates. There’s a wing of sex offenders at Bordirtoun Correctional who have pled not guilty, who spend group therapy sessions maintaining that they did not go over to that teen’s house with sexual intentions, never mind that they had condoms in their pockets.

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HITTING SHELVES #21: The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

The Last Pilot

The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock comes out today!

It’s a deceptive novel: a book about flying that is actually about fatherhood; a book about the Space Race whose protagonist is a dropout from the program; a book about an iconic period in American history by an author born in England; a book about technological triumph that hides a family tragedy. More than any other account of our first adventures in space, The Last Pilot puts a sympathetic face on the domestic hardships behind the scenes.

We asked the author one question.

How are you celebrating the publication of The Last Pilot?

Benjamin Johncock

Benjamin Johncock

I wasn’t expecting today to be so emotional. My wife and I celebrated when we got the book deal, over a year ago, and then she threw a surprise party for me at the beginning of the summer. But, but, well; there it is. It crept up on me over coffee and Novel 2 this morning. It’s been a long way, but we’re here, to quote Al Shepard. What an extraordinary privilege it is to be published. My wife has just messaged me to say she’s bought champagne, steaks, and she’s lighting a fire in the garden where we’ll eat later, when the kids are asleep. We’re going to raise a glass to a few people tonight, because I’d rather give thanks than celebrate. The list is large for the road was long. Someone once told me that thanksgiving gives buoyancy for the inevitable tough times—of which I’m sure there will be plenty. If you ask me, self-celebration leads to self-elevation, which leads to becoming an a-hole. And here’s the thing: as soon as you start to think you’re great, the needle on future prose goes down. Self-doubt is your friend. No writer should ever lose the fear of being crap. I certainly don’t intend to. But tonight, we’ll take a moment, in the quiet, under the stars, together.

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HITTING SHELVES #20: Speak by Louisa Hall

Speak Louisa Hall

Speak by Louisa Hall comes out today!

It’s the story of artificial intelligence: why we create it, what we can do with it, and how it makes us human. Written in the form of primary documents by a cast of characters throughout history—including the diary of a Puritan girl on a ship bound for America, the personal letters of Alan Turing, and the memoirs of a tech entrepreneur in the year 2040 who’s been imprisoned for breaking the law—Speak is a novel of uncanny breadth and ambition. And depending on how the next few years play out, it might also be a very useful guide to staying human while technology evolves around us.

We asked the author one question.

How are you celebrating the publication of Speak?

Louisa Hall: I’ll launch Speak at the lovely Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. That morning, I’ll wake up in a hotel room and try to persuade myself that it’s just another regular day, because I’ve always hated special occasions. When I was little, I cancelled three consecutive birthday parties on the day of the party. After that, my Mom stopped planning celebrations. Even now, as an adult, I generally have a complete panic attack the morning of a celebration and inevitably try to cancel it, usually too late, when the guests are already arriving, or after they’ve had their first drink.

Louisa Hall

Louisa Hall

What I love about writing is that I get to wake up every morning and spend time alone with my thoughts. Sitting with my characters in the silence of my bedroom is my favorite kind of party. I like imagining conversations that won’t ever happen. Actually, that kind of one-sided talking is sort of what Speak is about. Most of the characters spend a lot of time talking long after their chosen audience has given up and gone off. I’m interested in that kind of conversation. There’s something lonely and luxurious about devoting so much of yourself to language that isn’t immediately taken up. You have time to polish every word, to make your side of things perfect. You don’t have to worry so much about the hurtful errors that happen when you’re speaking in real time. Isaiah Berlin once told a friend that he preferred speaking to writing because spoken words vanish into thin air and don’t linger to embarrass you later. I feel the opposite. Embarrassing, thoughtless, or cruel spoken words do linger forever, and the risk that you’ll make a mistake is less when you’re writing. I’d like to live in a world in which every meaningful conversation is submitted in advance on a nice sheet of paper.

So on the morning Speak comes out, I’ll probably drink coffee alone in my room. I’ll work for a while on my next book, then spend some time wandering around Boston. I’ll be reluctant to head to the launch despite the fact that Harvard Bookstore is one of my favorite places on earth. On my way there, I’ll probably consider ways of canceling the event. I’ll tell myself it would be more in keeping with the spirit of the book to read it out loud to nobody. I’ll imagine writing a very nice apology note.

But in the end, I’ll go in, and as soon as I’m inside, I’ll be glad that I’m there. Bookstores are the best special occasions. They’re full of thousands of characters speaking to no one, millions of thoughts polished in silence. They’re lonely and luxurious in the same way writing is. Bookstores and the people inside them are devoted to words for which responsibility has been taken. I’ll realize that this isn’t an event with me at the center, but a celebration of words that don’t vanish, and I’ll be very glad to be at the party.

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Interview with Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch

I first read Lidia Yuknavitch’s anti-memoir, The Chronology of Water, in 2012, and I have carried my copy in my purse or tote bag ever since. The cover is frayed, impossibly bent, and held together with tape. After being lucky enough to get an advance copy of her latest novel, The Small Backs of Children, I now carry around that, too.

The Small Backs of Children is a book about a girl. But it’s also about art-making, life-making, motherlove, creating family, and overcoming the things life hurls at us. The book centers around The Writer, a woman whose daughter died in utero and was later stillborn. After The Writer is hospitalized, her friends and family rally around her to bring her back. They remember a photograph that she loved; that of a girl in a war-torn village, backlit by an explosion that killed her family. They decide to find that girl and bring her to the States, hoping to ease The Writer’s suicidal depression.

But what happens when people from very different worlds come together? How does one decision affect the lives of everyone involved? What bursts forth from this decision? Through different point of views, the stories in The Small Backs of Children begin to unravel. Continue reading

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Did You Hear? Tangerine Speedo

New music! Sometimes old music. Music that we love!

Does anyone remember this song from 2000? Can you help me decide if it was ahead of it’s time, hopelessly unfocused, or maybe just a prime example of pre-9/11 American culture?

We’ve got an amazing “cha-cha-cha” sample throughout, we’ve got some flute, we’ve got a little drum-n-bass, we’ve got a chorus straight out of a vintage Foo Fighters song… I think there’s even a theremin in there for good measure. How the hell did this come into being? It seems like a great song to get sucked into instead trying and failing to converse with college girls. (Or so I’ve heard.)

– Brook Reeder

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Doctrine of Association

Doctrine of Association

Stunning Sentences

I head into the bakery. The matronly woman stands behind the glass display in a frilly white apron with a little hat on her head. Sugar dusts her upper lip. Eclairs, cheesecake, apple fritters, madeleines, and chocolate tarts take center stage. Tucked in the back, behind the fancy and glamorous, sits an unadorned angel food cake. And suddenly I’m thinking about my dad, because each and every birthday, he has an angel food cake. No gifts, no hoopla, just cake. He’ll have exactly one piece, topped with sliced strawberries, the foamy white cake blossoming red.

The cake and the immediate memories of my father bring to mind the 18th century philosopher and psychologist David Hartley, who came up with the Doctrine of Association. Hartley noticed that when we encounter two things in close proximity, we recall one of those things when we encounter the other. Writers use this tendency of the mind to link images together to generate a profusion of implications and associations. So when Proust’s narrator eats a madeleine in In Search of Lost Time, he suddenly remembers those Sunday mornings with his Aunt Leonie, who dipped her madeleine in her tea and offered it to him.

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The Boomstick Film Club: My First Mister

My First Mister

The Boomstick

Watch it with us: Netflix streaming

Based on its premise alone, I had a lot of reservations about My First Mister (2001). You can’t swing a metaphorical dead cat without hitting a movie that depicts a May-September romance as the most normal and commonplace thing in the world. I knew that the young woman in My First Mister was only a teenager and I wasn’t sure I was ready to see that, even if the film did make some attempt to acknowledge how strange and potentially creepy such a relationship is. But I gave it a try anyway and I was delighted to be proven wrong. Continue reading

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