Justin Taylor is the author of the short story collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever (2010) and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy (2011). His latest collectionFlings is forthcoming from HarperCollins in August. Melody Nixon caught up with him in Brooklyn, New York, to discuss the progression of his work, fiction like a warm bath, and riding reindeer into rivers.
We Don’t Ride Reindeer Here: An Interview with Justin Taylor
Charlie Kaufman imagines a plane crash at the beginning of his semi-autobiographical film Adaptation; he envisions himself nonplussed while the passengers around him scream and fight each other for oxygen masks. I always imagine frantically writing an invariably optimistic goodbye note to my family as my plane descends – reassuring them, falsely or not, depending on the day, that I enjoyed what life I had. Almost anyone who’s flown in an aircraft has played a similar “What if we all die?” scenario in their minds, even if just half-consciously while watching the safety demonstration.
Searching the In-Between: Flight MH370 and the Emotional Landscape of the Missing
Rich Benjamin is a journalist-adventurer and the author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey To The Heart Of White America. He is a senior fellow at the think tank Demos in New York City, and a frequent commentator on NPR, Fox News, The New York Times and many other media outlets. Melody Nixon caught up with Rich Benjamin this spring, at his office overlooking the Flatiron building in Manhattan.
Rethinking Utopia: An Interview with Rich Benjamin
As I approached the corner of Throop Avenue and Van Buren Street in early summer 2013, I couldn’t help but notice the giant “Murder – $50,000 Reward” sign that loomed over the intersection, emblazoned with the photo of a dead businessman. The New York City neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, I’d heard, was still a little “rough,” but the sign was unlike anything I’d seen outside of Wild West movies. Almost comically, the image was plastered with a blood-red ‘Solved’ caption, as though calling out a fatuous warning: attention, would-be Bed-Stuy murderers – you might, eventually, be caught.
In his autobiographical novel on D.H. Lawrence Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer laments his inability to write the book he wanted because he couldn’t figure out where to live. “One of the reasons, in fact, that it was impossible to get started on [the Lawrence book] was because I was so preoccupied with where to live. I could live anywhere, all I had to do was choose—but it was impossible to choose because I could live anywhere.”
I have the same problem. I’m a migrant and a wanderer, and I’m never really sure where my home is located – in the environment, or inside me? I’ve come to an unsteady way of dealing with this uncertainty, mostly by rolling with it. I’ve also learned that direct, personal experience in the world is essential to my writing. Last summer I wrote my way through a Trans-Siberian train ride from Moscow to Novosibirsk while hanging on to the side of a swaying second-class bunk bed, trying to explain to my babushka compartment-mates that I was working on an historical novel. Last fall I finished off several stories and articles for publication amid showers of asbestos at Art Farm, Nebraska, a cooperative, self-sustaining artists’ colony that is about as close to nature and rusticity as one can get without actually becoming a wild animal. Every day from my desktop I was obliged to sweep away the powder of synthetic insulation and possibly cancerous substances that had rained from the homemade ceiling during the night. As winter approached, we practically burned floorboards for warmth. We wrote and wrote as we huddled around the fireplace.
Carrie Tiffany is an Australian writer and author of the novels Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (2005, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction), and Mateship with Birds (2012, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction, winner of the Stella Prize), as well as several short stories. Born in England, Tiffany’s work draws on the complexities of the British migrant experience in the antipodes. Tiffany talked with fellow antipodean Melody Nixon last week, on a call from Canada where Tiffany is currently teaching creative writing at The Banff Center.
On Burning Your Own Books and Bashing Off the Track: An Interview with Carrie Tiffany
Last month Masha Hamilton published her fifth novel, What Changes Everything, while working around the clock as the Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Against a background of suicide bomb attacks and early Fourth of July celebrations in Kabul, Masha talked to Melody Nixon long-distance about Afghanistan, storytelling as a human right, and the delicate act of writing in a war zone.
Melody Nixon (MN): Can you describe to me what is outside your window right now?
Masha Hamilton (MH): It’s nighttime here, it’s dark. Outside my window there’s a big tent where we’ll be gathered tomorrow with our Afghan colleagues, and partners, to mark an early Independence Day. Now it’s fairly quiet, but sometimes I do hear helicopters flying low overhead. There’s not a lot of green on the compound, but right outside my window there is a bit of lawn, which I’m very grateful for. In the distance you can see the beginnings of the Hindu Kush mountain range, beyond Kabul.
In this month’s author Q&A, Melody Nixon speaks with Shawn Vestal about childhood, the afterworld, and the “irrevocable lives” we lead in between. Vestal’s short story collection Godforsaken Idaho was published by Little A / New Harvest in April.
Melody Nixon (MN): Your collection is named Godforsaken Idaho, and several stories are set in or touch on Northwestern farms. You yourself live in the American West. Has that place shaped your writing?
Shawn Vestal (SV): I think my views are formed in large part by the places I’ve lived and experiences I’ve had, and I’ve lived in the West all my life — Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and now Washington. There is a space and distance to the landscape out here, an ability to escape others or an inability to find others to connect with. The mythos of the West — the self-sufficient, self-defined individual, who doesn’t need others — is a strong part of [my] characters’ own mythologies. Or perhaps just something that feeds their personalities just as it feeds mine.
We painted lipstick on our lips and watched businessmen in suits flip open Die Welt, grazing the top of the newspaper with their line of sight, conspicuously shy in their observations of two foreign frauen. The train shot into Berlin’s Hauptbanhof with succinct precision, confirming one of our German stereotypes: 7.00pm exactly on Dec 31st, 2003, and not a minute late. My friend and I hoisted backpacks and flowed out of the central station and into a city that was eagerly, furiously rebuilding, was humming with energy, and was dusty and heterogeneous and still could not quite figure out how to contain itself. 2004 seemed like an inauspicious year to welcome.
I hadn’t come to Mongolia seeking an education in the politics of development, but the signs of rapid, double-edged growth were everywhere. In Bayan-Olgii, the westernmost city, a huge entourage of Western foreigners driving foreign vehicles tore into the yurt camp where I stayed one night. They shook the felt walls of the camp with their shouting and drinking and ramen noodle-making, and the next morning did burn outs in the gravel driveway and honked as they left, showering pebbles over the camp owners’ barelegged children.
Around the town of Bayan-Ollgi sat multitudes of great, hulking tourist vehicles, resting at roadsides like over-fed weight lifters. They were protected by new, fat tires, for the sand, and strapped to their roofs and sides were shiny water and petrol cans, spare tires, tool kits, maps and jacks – all the accouterments of a military reconnaissance mission. I had the strong impression of being in an invaded country, watching a civilian-clothed army loot stores for bread and toilet paper.