terese svoboda

Sunday Service

Rich Uncle by Terese Svoboda

Manhattan between the wars was not made dull by death or dread: it sang. The pink-lipped living strode past the fresh monuments mounted over the new mica-glitter sidewalks, exclaiming over the stars at their feet and around the park, trolley conductors competed in bellringing as they took and mistook actual stars from far off California. Although liners could be heard moaning clear across town, exiting and entering with abandon, ironshod hooves no longer rang, only the occasional garrulous fruit vendor sang from his horse, making its last rounds, or a carriage-driver cursed at his plumed nag dodging motorcars, the last harnessed for the park pleasures of rubes or Frenchies–so much noise was made on the street that the pink-lipped living shrieked their gossip as they walked in twos and threes over the glittering sidewalks.

An odd couple shrieked down the street in tandem, not quite together, not quite incognito, one of them a deb. New York debs were covered by the press just like Grable, cited in columns and flashbulbed beyond blindness. With assets considerably less physical than fiscal, Dot had been debuted but not suitored. She directed the two of them south along the mica, south to where one could get a seat, more specifically, a seat on the stock market. A woman with a seat would be new. Toothpaste was new, most all of what stacked up beside a pharmacist’s till was new. Father, owner of all the sugar in the world, would know what a stake in clean teeth was worth and that she could handle such a transaction, and handle it best with a seat.

Today a company selling women’s items, Dot said, napkins they called them as if you would have them at table, was about to make a public offering of stock, and Father thought she might handle the delicacies. She had handled them, and then Father. Bid it up, she told him at lunch. Women aren’t having children anymore. A coathanger company could produce piles of profit too. (more…)

HTMLGIANT Features & Word Spaces

Word Spaces (20): Terese Svoboda

I bought the $25 desk at a museum sale in California. The rolltop doesn’t function, one of the legs is coming off, and I have to pry the drawers open, but I like how the desk part slides a little forward. It makes me feel as if I always have secret extra space, the way our apartment includes a long frosted glass window with a light behind to suggest that there’s another room. The French doors open to the living room/dining room/everywhere else room. A Murphy bed fronted with bookshelves folds down beside the desk for optimum concentration. My office is essentially the bedroom. I don’t know what to say about that.


August 17th, 2010 / 10:03 am

Sunday Service

Terese Svoboda Excerpt

Excerpt from Pirate Talk or Mermalade, a novel in voices to be published this fall by Dzanc Press.

1718 – Nantucket Beach


I’ve seen boats as big as this whale. I’ve seen gryphons the same size, with teeth growing in even as they were taking their last breath.

You have not. And not a live one.

I’ve been to sea, I’ve seen all you’re supposed to, being at sea. I am sixteen, after all.

If you’d stayed at home, you would’ve seen to Ma. I’d be a pirate twice, with two voyages under me, if I didn’t have that.

Quit your carping. Go stand on its middle. Maybe it will release its wind if you jump on it.

For sure it will stink to heaven if I jump on it.

Let’s poke out its eye.

It’s a wonder you’re not tired of poking whales, a-roving on the ocean like you do, with all the new sail.

Here’s the stick–let’s do the eye.

Cap’n Peters says there’s luck in a whale’s eye. And money. Some men use saws on such as the eye, to examine the socket and take away the skull too.

You told this Cap’n Peters about this whale?

Cap’n Peters can see it himself. He’s anchored out beyond the neck, nearly done scouring the fresh-wrecked Abingdon. He’ll come.

Our greasy luck! Then the sooner it dies the better, and not for anyone else but us to collect it.

It’s alive all right. Look at the eye.

Help me with the stick. A donkey could haul it out, where could we get a donkey?

If we had a donkey I wouldn’t be walking the beach looking for rope to catch the mussels on, would I? If we had a donkey, you wouldn’t be shipping out every time the wind blew and leaving me here with Ma, myself only in short pants still and no cutlass.

We need a donkey. The smell alone will bring Peters.

Do you believe in whales? I mean, that they talk?

Two fiddles can talk. One calls, the other says Yes and then some.

Whales dance when there’s boats coming with harpoon.

The way pirates do on the gallows.

Not all of them.

They’re crying whales, not singing. Poke here.

They swallow the pennywhistle and dance on the tips of their tails on top of the water. And sing.

Whales cry about their future like all creatures worth killing. There’s a tear now, with Peters coming. Look–I can make it dance without singing.

Let it be, it’s starting to bleed.

I’ll let it be with a cut of the knife. If only I had a good one, if only Ma hadn’t sold that bit of a blade while I was gone.

She’s sold all her brooches, down to the tin-and-garnets.

She sold the true baubles after you were born—or gave them up, cleaned out by whoever she had after you had a father, cleaned out clean as a pike in a trough.

They use beetles to clean the skulls when they’re empty. Cap’n Peters says so.

Peters, Cap’n Peters–would he be the one seeing Ma now?

He’s seen all of her, if that’s your actual meaning. How huge those skull-cleaning beetles must be, so big they can’t walk after all that eating, beetles that could eat all of every one of the colonies.

Slippery here, whoa.

Cap’n Peters’ has got his glass on us now. There, over the wave.


Tease me like you don’t know he’s watching. Play foot-in-the-water. He’ll think we are but boys and won’t beat us then when he sees us.

We are but boys. If I only had a knife—

If you grouse and slaughter the whale before him and he balks and whines, Ma will tie herself to the rafters and I will have to cut her down. It’s a poor revenge for her living from one man to the next, though she swears Cap’n Peters is her utter last.

I told you to get her set right, to take Ma to someone while I was off at sea, a woman with a cure.

She wouldn’t go, she said she’d have no business with someone like that, she didn’t need no one other than Father. She talks to Father from the rafters where you can see the sea out the little window, she talks to you out that window too.

She doesn’t know who Father is.

This be true, but still she talks.

This fish is leaking like a ship come ashore.

Whale, it’s a whale, not a fish. And if you would quit your poking at the eye, it wouldn’t leak so much. Poking it like that makes the sound it makes worse.

You talk like a sea captain with your Don’t this and Fish that, a bloody captain, the kind I don’t take to.

It’s the life of the sea, you said. Yo, ho, ho, you said. You toe the line, you said.

I will give you another punch to match the first.

It breathes–hear it? Cap’n Peters says they are cousin to us.

I can’t hear anything while you blather on about Cap’n Peters.

I say we leave it alone because Cap’n Peters will pay us to chop it up. They’re bound to want the steaks and oil even if it be old, and some of the bone to hang hats on,
and bone for those who truss up the women.

That’s real work, all that chopping.


The bone is all I want–I can carve “The Apostle on the Desert” into the bone.

I can carve that–one cut meeting another.

You are a stupid boy. Look–it thinks it is a creature of the land now, it wriggles so, it wants to walk about on its tail. With the next big wave, let’s push it in with our backs.

Let’s kill it.

Die, die.

What’re you whispering?

Nothing. Die, die, or they’ll get you, you whale of us all, you fool whale.

You are whispering.

I’ll whisper if I want to.

The whale’s dead anyway. Why else is it up on the beach?

Not breathing like this it isn’t dead. Not yet.

Look, Peters is bringing hooks and axes. And a cutlass! There’s a knife.

It’s so soapy-feeling on the outside.

Pitchforks and pries. Let’s poke it through to the brain before they get here, let’s poke it to make it dead before they poke it, so we can claim it and get the bone. I am grown, after all.

Die, die.

Why do you cry like a girl?

I’m not a girl.

Whale-lover, then. Crybaby.

Listen to it breathe.

I can’t hear anything but Cap’n Peters and his men beaching loud like six blacks banging dishpans.

It’s breathing big.

There–I’ve got the stick through, no thanks to you.

It still breathes.

If I hang on it here and pull down, the whole side will rip and they’ll know it’s ours. Give me a hand–

Pirate Talk or Mermalade is Terese Svoboda’s fifth novel. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “jeu d’esprit of the privateer life.” It comes out on “Talk Like a Pirate Day.”

Like Prions: An Interview with Terese Svoboda by Shya Scanlon

Svoboda_Terese_cTerese Svoboda is one of the best writers of her generation. HTMLGIANT readers especially will notice at once the tell-tale signs of the pee-free classroom commanded by one Gordon Lish, but her work operates on a global level as impressively as it does syntactically. It has the concision and dark, domestic play of Christine Schutt and the scope and moral outrage of Don DeLillo. But of course she is an author all her own—as much a product of her work in The Sudan as she is of her time in the classroom—and her wry, canny, and cosmopolitan sensibility is tempered only by a rooty ease and kindness—surely a farmer’s inheritance. At home in a multitude of different forms, she’s received prizes both for her fiction and poetry, taught all over the place, produced video work for PBS and MoMA—the list goes on. She’s just released a book of poetry heralded by Thomas Lux as “goddamn terrific,” has a reissue of her third book of prose coming out this month, and two (TWO!) novels being published in 2010 and 2011, one comprised solely of pirate dialogue. If you haven’t read her yet, you’re lucky: it’s superb stuff, and there’s a lot of it out there to discover. If you’re already familiar with her work, it’s always worth revisiting. I asked her a bunch of questions about her craft, her practice, and her politics. Fan Club line forms here. — Shya Scanlon


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November 9th, 2009 / 1:27 pm