Welcome back to plzplztalk2me, an occasional series in which I talk to folks who want to talk to me! This time around, I talked to Abby Norman.
Abby Norman is the author of ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: My Quest To Make Doctors Believe In Women’s Pain, out from Nation Books in March 2018. Abby and I talked post-election, when we were miserable but still in shock. The interview is short, mainly because I’m a bad interviewer and spaced out our email correspondence over the course of several months. Abby discussed the X-Files, ballroom dancing, and surviving.
Abby Norman: It has been the STRANGEST of times. I might be a little FRANTIC AND MELANCHOLY. In general, but today specifically because of the Senate vote.
But like fuck me, right!?
p.e. garcia: Frantic and melancholic is the current state of the nation, I think. Things seem to get worse each day. What’s helping you survive?
Norman: Yeah, it’s a strange time. . .I’m not sure I feel like I am surviving. The last few weeks I’ve found it progressively harder to work in every sense. I should consider myself lucky, I have a manuscript due to the publisher in one month, and therefore there’s always at least a small chunk of my day that MUST be devoted to that and nothing else (i.e. news twitter). For me, there’s always the physical factor because I’m ill, and that I’m used to. I’m not used to being, like, spiritually exhausted. I’m used to wanting to work and finding it challenging because of illness. I’m not used to the feeling of just. . .not wanting to do it in the first place. I don’t know if it’s coming from a place of futility, or exhaustion, or both.
So, I find myself taking my dog for longer walks. Which is probably good for both of us. I live on the Maine coast so we can spend a lot of quiet time in nature which I’ve found particularly helpful. I’ve found myself harkening back to what made me happy as a kid, too: new books that aren’t work related, watching The X-Files before bed, dance lessons. I do ballroom and had gotten to the point over the last few months where I really couldn’t afford it anymore. After the New Year I finally said, you know, fuck it. I’ll find the money. Because I can’t give this up. It’s literally the only non-work related thing I have. It’s physically good for me. And it’s fun. And I’m good at it. It’s not something I show up at and fail at, which is probably a good confidence boost. It’s not like waking up and getting on the internet and having people call me a feminist slut and telling me to kill myself before 9 AM, you know?
garcia: Would you like to talk about your illness? I don’t want to push you to reveal anything you may be uncomfortable sharing.
I understand that feeling of futility and spiritual exhaustion quite well, I think. Lately, I think I’ve become more fatalistic. I think to myself: we will survive, because we must, or we will die, because we will. It’s made me feel like I have less to lose, and thus I feel more open about how I’m feeling and what changes I want in this dumb world. I’m not sure if that attitude is exactly survival, but it’s something.
I’m glad to hear, though, that you have small pockets of self-care. It’s strange what a radical act self-care has become. What books are you reading? What made you interested in ballroom? Where are you in the X-Files (like what season)?
I think there’s been such a strange attitude lately–mostly of people in positions of privilege–of being consolatory toward folks who would literally tell you to kill yourself. But fuck those people. Fuck anyone who would say such vile things to you. You’re better than them, infinitely, and you can take some satisfaction in knowing that their pathetic lives will be spent rotting neck-deep in the viscous garbage that is their own opinions. I would like to place those people on a bicycle, push the bicycle into a lake, and then hurl the lake into an active volcano. I don’t like them.
That’s probably little comfort, of course, but I do hope at the very least you know that you have a supporter in me, and that I will personally challenge anyone who is mean to you to a fist fight.
Norman: Well, I’ve practically built my career on being transparent about my myriad health problems, which were initially of repro nature. I was diagnosed (rather: fought to have the diagnosis I determined confirmed by doctors who thought I was hysteric) with endometriosis several years ago. That’s the subject of my book. Over the last year or so, after struggling with it for about six years, I’d finally started to feel as though I had a handle on it. Then I got shingles, which really fucked me up for a few months. After that, in the spring of this last year, I started having trouble thinking/speaking. My left side went numb. I was terrified I’d had a stroke, which can sometimes happen after you’ve had shingles. Long story short, 9 months worth of testing, and the doctors I’ve seen think its MS. I have some shit going on with my spine that looks freaky as hell, but of course no one has taken the time to explain it other than to call it demyelination. Naturally, being a writer with a proclivity for investigating things at 2 AM, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Annals of Radiology trying to disprove their theory, but also not liking the looks of the alternatives.
How this shakes out in my day to day life is that I’m very tired and in a lot of pain most days. While the numbness resolved over the course of a few months and is now intermittent rather than constant, I’ve still struggled with certain neurological quirks that’s really given me a crisis of self. I’ve always heavily identified with my intellect, particularly as it pertains to my ability to write and speak. Having that be so imminently threatened has depressed me beyond measure. Imagining that I will soon likely lose my insurance, and no longer be able to experiment with medications that have given my glimpses of normalcy and relief, is beyond depressing. It’s put some of that fatalism in me, too.
But, so too has it put a fearlessness in me. I haven’t got anything to lose except everything. My quality of life, first and foremost. The course of the disease is unpredictable and there’s no way to know, for sure, what particular iteration of it I’ll have or not have. I’ve been told by one specialist that I likely won’t know anything about its progression for at least ten years, because it’s all assessed retrospectively. So, I figure I can’t count on anything. But y’know, no one can really. I guess I just have a more deliberate framework of uncertainty in which to operate.
Self care has always been somewhat radical for me, I think, because it often is for women. I’ve always felt guilty about it. Now it’s just more en vogue to feel guilty about it. As sick as I am, I still feel guilty about even doing things that are arguably quite necessary to my well-being, to my ability to function day in and day out. I often think I’m making things worse by trying to “hold out” and “grin and bear it” as long as possible. I think prevention and proactivity has been cross-wired with indulgence somehow.
July 26th, 2017 / 12:30 pm
The Synchronia Project, slated for release next February, is difficult to define. Not exactly a journal, it is a composite, open-ended literary endeavor that will feature work by multiple authors. But it is not a collaboration between the authors; the only collaboration happening is between editors Emily Kiernan and Joe Trinkle , who will be reading the submissions and arranging them into a larger whole. The end goal remains vague, only because the project is still accepting submissions. It is these submissions that will in large part determine Synchronia’s direction, and Kiernan and Trinkle hope to discover a larger narrative—a feeling of synchronicity—across the selected pieces. I had the opportunity to interview these two and learn more about the project.
Dan Hoffman: What was the impetus behind The Synchronia Project? Was there a specific literary influence, or did it evolve from a bigger reading of the collective writing you see as editors and writers?
Joe Trinkle: I think it started by us wanting to create something from other people’s work. We’re both writers who read a fair amount of anthologies and literary journals, and we wanted to do something ambitious, something more than just a collection of stories that we like. I think, somewhere in the back of my head, when I’m reading several simultaneously produced journals, online or in print, I notice how much we are writing about the same things or writing in similar voices, and we wanted to play around with that. To see if a pool of submissions would reflect some kind of pattern.
In a larger sense, some of my favorite novels feel like several broken novellas woven together, stories that would not have had nearly as much effect on a reader by themselves, but somehow add to each other, compliment, enhance each other, even if their plots don’t cross paths. I’m thinking Last Exit to Brooklyn, Infinite Jest, and some of the great short story collections of the twentieth century—those kind of books. I actually just read Cloud Atlas, which is a perfect example of what I was thinking about when Emily and I first discussed this project. I wanted to see what it would be like to try to create a fractured novel like that, but with stories from several writers.
Emily Kiernan: It absolutely had a lot to do with the kind of work we like to read. Fracture has been one of the watchwords of literature since the advent of modernism, and. we grew up as readers and writers in a world where that kind of fallen-apart messiness was a dominant form. Most of our models for what it meant to write about the present world, or for what it meant to approximate our experience, inhabited that kind of cut-up space. So of course we are drawn to these broken narratives. One of the first books I remember Joe and I bonding over was Winesburg, Ohio, which had that distinctly modern novel-in-stories form. It is a flat-out rejection of cohesion. Given this history, I think it is natural that we wanted to extend that form outwards, from the book itself to the magazine or the collection.
One thing that I think is remarkable about The Synchronia Project, though–which actually works against this tradition–is that we’re not fracturing something whole, but rather trying to fit these broken pieces together. Binding up the wounds (a little fragment of language that knocks about in my head).
DH: It seems to me that the closest antecedent to The Synchronia Project actually belongs to the realm of cinema, and not of literature, because even if a single literary text unifies multiple narratives it is still, finally, only written by one author; whereas arguably in cinema there is often no single “author” of the film. How much, if at all, was cinema an inspiration for this project?
JT: I watch an embarrassingly low number of films, so my immediate response would be not much. But I’d argue that even though a book usually has only one author, it often times has many editors; it often goes through the finely cut die of a workshop or an MFA program, and the ideas that are infused into the text partly come from reading the work of others. The idea of “one author” is true, but there are a lot of hands on the text, both directly and indirectly.
EK: I also can’t claim any substantial film knowledge, beyond having watched a few more of them than Joe, so any cinema influence on the project would be indirect. As for the one-author element, there actually is a lot of collaborative writing out there, though I suppose it’s more common in poetry than in fiction. (Can I advertise? I’d like to advertise. A few good friends of mine recently started Bon Aire Projects, which publishes exclusively collaborative work.) Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs wrote a novel together called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Supposedly the name came from a news report about a fire at a circus—a fact that haunts me. The poor hippos.
DH: On that note, is there any connection between your ideas on authorship (post-Barthes, post-deconstructionism, etc. etc.) and the spirit of The Synchronia Project? Because it seems to me that such an endeavor must in part emerge from a distinctly contemporary conception of what it means to read and interpret texts. Would you say that, in a sense, this is as much about your interpretation of the submissions as their intrinsic qualities?
EK: I don’t think we are out to make any particular comment on authorship–there still exists more than one valid way to own or not own your work–though I suppose we are exploring one of the little rooms that Barthes et al opened up. We’re mostly a bit over-enthusiastic and a bit over-confident and want really badly to be in on the good stuff we see happening all around us in the writing world, so we manufactured this bribe of publication to get our favorite writers to let us futz with their work. We are, in a sense, asking our favorite authors to put aside their authorship for the duration of this project, to engage in this particular book/journal/what-have-you on different terms. It’s a playful thing at heart, and I want authors to engage in it in that way.
It is also strange and intimate what happens when you ask people to work with you, to be in your circle, in this odd way, and we are interested in that act of unearned generosity or faith. There are always problems with gate-keeping, with editing, with privileging one voice over another, and this project puts pressures on those seams in a way that I hope will be revealing, and that I hope will work.
JT: I listen to/watch many author interviews, and something I’ve noticed is how surprised writers can be by the things that others find in their work. Writing fiction is largely intuitive, I think, as well as the revision process, and while major motifs are often intentional, other aspects of the work just kind of sneak in from the subconscious, or the part of the brain that thinks abstractly, that doesn’t quite focus on words. So when a great book is written, and everybody reads it and then someone sits the author down for an interview, they ask her all of these questions, to which she ends up replying, “Yeah, that just kind of happened,” or “Sure, I can see that.”
In this way, themes seem to emerge that the author is not entirely in control over, and when you look at several works from within a given time period, it’s even easier to draw lines between those unconscious themes. To answer your question: we want to see work that is good, to identify those unintentional unifying themes, and to thread it together with other work with similar sub- or unconscious trajectories.
November 20th, 2013 / 12:00 pm
[Note: In 2000, Albert Mobilio of Bookforum asked Ben Marcus to interview David Markson. Though questions were sent, the interview was never completed. In 2012, after reading the questions on benmarcus.com, I decided to redirect them (with modifications) to Marcus himself. The interview took place via email.]
David Markson (1927-2010) was born in Albany, New York, and spent most of his adult life in New York City. His novels include Springer’s Progress, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Ballad of Dingus Magee.
Ben Marcus is the author of The Age of Wire and String, among other books. His new book, a collection of stories, will be published in January of 2014.
Interviewer: Do you consider exposition to be deadly, inert territory?
Ben Marcus: There’s the infamous rule fed to beginning writers that you should show and not tell, but telling is one of the great and natural features of language—it’s part of what language was invented to do. It’s just that when telling is done badly—”she felt sad”—it’s conspicuous and embarrassing, it works only to remind us of the insufficiency of the mode. I always dislike hearing this rule, even if I understand why it’s given, but Robbe-Grillet is a perfect refutation of it. Sebald, Bernhard, Kluge, Sheila Heti. And of course Markson himself. Even the great narrative writers use exposition in masterly ways: Coetzee, Ishiguro, Eisenberg. READ MORE >
February 18th, 2013 / 3:19 pm
[Guest Post: Greg Gerke]
Ken Sparling is a writer. He works in a library in Toronto. He has written six novels. His latest is Intention, Implication, Wind from Pedlar Press. His first, Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, published by Knopf in 1996 will be reissued by Mud Luscious Press in August.
Over at BOMBLOG, a deep interview with one of the best & bravest: Jarret Kobek. Conversation includes: ATTA, Disneyland, fiction/fact, youngwriterfear, culture bends.
The Necessity of Certain Behaviors
by Shannon Cain
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011
160 pages / $24.95 Buy from Amazon
Stories in Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors pair exhibitionist events and their three-ring tableaus with characters who typify “marginal,” yet who nonetheless surprisingly assert not only their outsider status, often in correlation with their sexualities, but also their complexities—a young lesbian ventures to the set of The Price is Right to meet her father, Bob Barker, only to find not parental but sexual identities challenged; a mayor’s wife endures the scandalizing of her sexuality after she is caught masturbating in the YMCA’s shower room, only to find that her new relegation to sexual deviant has allowed her singular insight into victims of the myriad sexual minefields in her community—the cumulative effect of these stories also achieves a reversal: common notions of taboo or freakishness gain warmth and humanity, while the normative culture unveils its crippling deformities. Cultural critique couldn’t have a more compelling and sophisticated face. In an era often favoring equivocation as a substitute for vision, this collection is clear: take a stand, make it compassionate. Others agree, of interest to note: American Literary Review, American Short Fiction, Colorado Review, Massachusetts Review, Southwards, Tin House, The O. Henry and Pushcart Prizes, the National Endowment for the Arts, and The Drue Heinz Literature Prize.
January 20th, 2012 / 12:00 pm