We’re teaming up with Magers & Quinn Booksellers to host author Elliott Holt reading from her debut novel, You Are One of Them at the bookstore on June 4 at 7:30 pm (mark your calendars!). Through this process, we were lucky enough to be able to interview Holt and get a behind-the-scenes look at her approach to the novel, among other things. And of course, we devoured the book.
The story follows two middle school friends Sarah and Jennifer, from Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. The political environment is frosty at best, with the Cold War and nuclear warfare on everyone’s mind, including the two friends. The two girls’ home lives couldn’t be more different: Sarah’s single mother fuels fear with her neurotic tendencies and obsession with nuclear war, while Jenny’s picturesque American family seems to have it all. Sarah and Jenny both write to Yuri Andropov in the USSR, asking for peace between their countries, but their friendship starts to fracture when only Jenny’s letter gets a response. Not only that, Jenny is then invited to the USSR arguably as a form of propaganda for the country, to experience the welcoming and peaceful image the world power was trying to portray. Their fractured relationship is left unresolved when Jenny and her parents tragically die in a plane crash shortly after her return. Sarah carries the weight of her absence into adulthood.
Flash forward ten years, when Sarah receives a mysterious letter from a woman named Svetlana in Russia, claiming that Jenny is still alive. Sarah quickly packs up, despite her mother’s nervous titterings, and sets foot in Moscow, a city that is murky and always changing, with the truth always taunting from around the next corner. She searches for the truth about Jenny in what becomes a dangerous, desperate spiral of hope.
Holt is an expert at creating the aura of fear, mystery, and doubt that permeates the story. Part of this is due to her apt setting descriptions of both Moscow and D.C. (which Holt considers to be two of the novel’s characters in our interview with her, and I agree—they are living and breathing cities). Holt herself has lived in both Moscow and D.C., which informs her ability to make both of places glitter with reality and familiarity, such as this car ride from the airport after Sarah arrives in Moscow:
“Do you mind if I open a window?” I said. ” I get carsick.” The numbing exhaustion of jet lag combined with a mounting headache from all the smoke in the airport made me feel like I was going to throw up. I cranked open a window, but the air that rushed in wasn’t fresh. I coughed.
“Terrible air quality here,” said Corinne. “Whatever you do, don’t go running outside.”
What struck me on the forty-minute ride into the city was how run-down Moscow was. It was hard to believe that a country with such exhausted infrastructure was ever considered a superpower. The margins of the city were dotted with sad Soviet apartment blocks, trapped in a 1960s version of the future. The avenues were dirty—not with litter, but with actual dirt, as if the entire city needed a good scrub. And our car was one of the few on the road that wasn’t leaking exhaust. We were surrounded by ancient Ladas, some of them seemingly stapled together. “This is where the world’s cars go to die,” said Corinne.
Holt also writes Sarah’s first person narrative in a way that is innately personal, human, and intimate. Not only do we watch an innocent childhood friendship crumble, but we’re also let into Sarah’s darkest and most vulnerable moments. She is repressed by her mother, neglected by her father, feels left behind when Jenny leaves for the USSR, and constantly searches for closure when Jenny dies. We also get an up-close look at Sarah’s more questionable moments, when her obsession with Jenny gets the best of her, when petty jealousy takes over, or when her search for the truth fringes on over-zealous. Holt doesn’t let us pull away from the most realistic moments, where we’re not quite sure if we agree with Sarah’s actions or her impulses. Instead, she leans into the moment, bringing us closer. One such defining moment in the book is the following confrontation with Svetlana, who wrote the letter to Sarah asking her to come to Moscow:
“You said I should come to Moscow to learn the truth,” I said.
“Ah, truth. You Americans love truth.” She leaned back in her chair and cracked her neck. “I think it is the favorite word—after freedom, of course. You want the truth, and you ask for it like the eggs you order for breakfast. Today I want my truth sunny side up! And tomorrow hard-boiled. And then sometimes it is scrambled. And you congratulate yourself for ordering this truth, because you think asking for it is what matters. But what is truth? Pravda? No, Pravda is a newspaper. We understand that there is not one truth. There is your truth and my truth and yes, your Jennifer Jones’s truth.”
“She’s not my Jennifer Jones.”
“No? You act like it. She is your obsession.”
“I’m not obsessed with her,” I said. “She was my friend.”
Sarah’s rising obsession, and the stark, sometimes violent environment of Moscow lend the novel a dark undertone throughout, placing the reader alongside Sarah in a constant state of uncertainty, right up until the final pages of the book.
Holt has previously published mostly short fiction, making this debut full-length novel an impressive one. Her short fiction has won a Pushcart Prize and was runner-up of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award. If you’re from Minnesota, you may have heard her name recently as the judge for Paper Darts‘ short fiction contest. Meet her in-person on June 4, and nab some free letterpress bookmarks, printed with love by yours truly!
What other authors make main characters out of their settings, thanks to attention to detail and reality? Can you think of another book that brings the reader deep into the character’s vulnerable moments?
Psst: Happy Memorial Day weekend! Because we plan to be outside somewhere, grilling good eats and imbibing homemade wine (and we hope you will be, too!), we will not be posting a Three Things writing prompt on Mon, May 27. Fret not, we will get back to our regular schedule with a What We’re Reading review on Thu, May 30!
Sing This One Back to Me by Bob Holman (Coffee House Press, 2013) begins with a poem called “[Title of Poem]” which lays out some of the things to follow in the book. Here’s the beginning:
Body of poem
Tail of poem
Refrain from poem
There’s humor here, to be sure, but there’s also a clear love of poems. Holman is a poet who is constantly looking for the “Neverending poem, the other poem, yet another poem[.]” He’s a poet who actively looks outside his own experience of the world to find inspiration in visual art and in the songs and poems of other cultures. Sing This One Back to Me includes a “special guest appearance by Papa Susso,” a West African singer and poet, as well as poems in the ekphrastic mode, translations of sorts from the visual work that inspired them.
There’s a risk of appropriation when someone from a dominant group uses language and stories from another culture. Holman, thankfully, avoids this trap, and is incredibly respectful of the source material he’s working with. The third section of Sing This One Back to Me, “Jeliya! (or, Griot Poems, As Sung by Papa Susso to Bob Holman)” features poems that are performative and energetic, filled with exclamations and digressions. Holman allows Susso’s voice to come through, never editorializing or annotating the poems. “This story begins long long long long long long long long ago” begins “How Kora Was Born,” hearkening to English fairytales. “Jeliya!” begins:
Alaleka Jaliyaa Daa!
God created the art of music
This music! This song!
This song is a celebration!
These lines demand to be read out loud, they demand to be read to an audience. It’s clear that Holman has learned much from Susso.
Not all of the poems here are translations from another language. There is also a series of ekphrastic pieces translated, as it were, from paintings by Van Gogh and Rothko. A typical “Rothko” poem reads like this:
Quest amber tease
Test amber breeze
Anchor azure still
A “Rothko” poem is, according to Holman’s notes, “three lines, three words per line.” Three of the words should be colors, and they should form a tic-tac-toe pattern in the poem. Holman does concede, however, that these rules can be broken, though do so “at your own risk.” As short as these are, they too seem to want to be performed. The sound of the words becomes a new dimension and helps to create a more complex picture in the mind of the reader.
The most heartfelt poems in Sing This One Back to Me come at the end of the book, which contains a collection of lovely poems about family. “Love,” in particular, is a beautiful little piece dedicated to Holman’s late wife, painter Elizabeth Murray. “Your hand throws out / As you sleep[,]” the poem opens, and this intimate moment is compressed suddenly and stopped in time. The poems that follow touch on Murray’s death from lung cancer, making the small moment when her hand “[l]ands and settles” on Holman’s body heartbreaking in retrospect.
While the last section of poems contains less bombast than the previous poems, they are no less performative. Indeed, it is the final poem that the book is named after. “My feet on the lotus?” Holman asks, before answering,
[…]No, my feet are the lotus!
All God? Gosh, I was looking over at you—shh.
No need this talking, this poem so obvious, shh.
But Holman’s poems are never just obvious. There is always, in his own words, a “[p]oem behind the poem[.]” These poems are colloquial, honest, and sure of themselves, which makes reading them a pleasure. Reading them, though, is only part of the experience for Holman. To fully experience these poems, I imagine one would have to see and hear them read out loud, either by the poet or by someone else. These are poems to share with friends and family until everyone is singing them back.
The strain of sourcing information persists throughout art, though most aggressively in the written word. What may be buried as a plagiarized essay in class might be hailed as incisive cultural commentary at the Walker Art Center. Academic writing has secured itself with footnotes, parenthetical references and exhaustive bibliographies to ensure credibility and historical due diligence. A student earns her Ph.D not only by adhering to strict referential guidelines but through innovative and original research, while a mixed media artist could literally steal a loaf of bread and put it on a pedestal. Once in the gallery that bread becomes a bracing critique of federal subsidies, consumer waste and income-inequality. Though the work itself is nothing much, the ready-made, or this ready-stolen, excites us as a concept. In 1967, Sol LeWitt wrote in Artforum, “the idea becomes the machine that makes the art.” The physical talent, that is, the brushstrokes, the bronze-pouring, even ghostwriting, matters far less in some ways than the sketch, the command, the source of inspiration or the name with top billing.
How then do we evaluate material printed at Kinko’s, or sprayed on a wall? If the source remains anonymous, or unvetted, the production becomes dubious. Confronting these tensions of authority, Alex Forman’s fascinating historical aggregate, Tall, Slim & Erect: Portraits of the Presidents, consists entirely of regurgitated information.
As the story goes, Alex Forman found a collection of plastic, full-body portraits of United States Presidents, Washington through Nixon, from the toy maker Louis Marx. Inspired by the crude likenesses and universal height—each standing 60 millimeters short—Forman began her photographic cum biographical exposition, writing along each pictured figurine a brief, colloquial story.
The book is certainly not hers. Here she is not an author, but a shrewd, skilled researcher. Designed in the image of the Jefferson Bible, a self-selected collection of Biblical stories, psalms and passages from various other Bibles, arranged in a certain order of time and subject, Tall Slim & Erect has no page numbers, no quotations, no citations. Forman has compiled a mass of other researchers’ work: with a nine-page bibliography including books by David McCullough and Gore Vidal, biographies published by Simon & Schuster and autobiographies by the presidents themselves, Foreman is certainly well-read, but she also culls from the annals of editorial columns, Wikipedia articles and snopes.com. The reader never knows the truth from the hearsay. Of course, though, Foreman makes no illusions: “None of the text herein was written by me.”
Such a frank, blanket admission leads me to wonder if in fact Forman wrote nothing for this book. If this text is mere paraphrase, or complete plagiarism, what then is Forman’s role? She has become the friend at the bar, the all-too-knowing gossip at work. Each president’s story begins as though someone could say, Did you hear: Thomas Jefferson almost died from rheumatic constipation, he also had boils on his butt; John Adams once called James Monroe a wretched beggar for leaving the presidency with $75,000 of personal debt; when Tyler got the news of his ascension, he was on his knees, shooting marbles with his children.
Forman fills the pages with trivia, and suspiciously accurate numerical data: Taft suffered from sleep apnea; In 1900, FDR didn’t make it the cut for the Harvard football team, so he became a cheerleader; Eisenhower was a licensed pilot, and lived through 7 heart attacks and fourteen cardiac arrests; Johnson is the only person to have held all the non-judicial positions in the American political system. McKinley once shook 1,900 hands in about 19 minutes—Forman does the math for us, about one shake per second.
How can we take all of this seriously? Forman claims that Warren Harding was “superbly handsome,” and died, in 1923, “because it was the best thing to do.” She references diary entries and personal accounts, but can’t help but include absurd, unsupportable claims:
“Jackson was probably the saddest man who ever entered the White House.”
“Benjamin Harrison “was completely honest.”
“Franklin Pierce was the most unambitious man ever to run for office.”
Shot in the arm by an untalented assassin, Garfield died months later due to medical malpractice that morphed his flesh wound into a “twenty-inch-long contaminated gash, stretching from his ribs to his groin.” How does an arm wound become a lacerated torso?
Page by page, Forman’s voice rings with counterfeit scholarship, achieving a fluctuating, unreliable credibility. Her text is less about presidential facts and more about the precedents of authenticity. Though not clearly cited, Forman dutifully lists her references. Though not customarily professional, she and Les Figues Press have designed a book unlike the regimented Academics, a kind that successfully replicated our own untraceable structures of knowledge. This book reveals the wandering ideas that make the machine of history.
The challenge to evaluate the work of art relies on discerning appropriation from inspiration from derivation from impersonation. If I have an idea for a sculpture, but not the capability, I might request, or even pay for someone to make it for me. Where then can we find the work’s source? Surely the worker physically made it, but I envisioned it. It was an idea I had, an idea wrought subconsciously from the deep and fraught network of my surrounding images and voices. Where do I locate the source of my idea, if even I should? Perhaps the origin matters less than what it inspires.
Ah, springtime. Finals are fast approaching for students everywhere, and in Minnesota, it seems we are all just waiting for a little relief from the stress—not to mention, the long-lasting winter weather has been a heavy burden this year. In the spirit of academia, I decided to take a look at a collection of short stories we have mentioned once before; one which was written by a professor of mine in the English Department at the University of Minnesota. And, in the spirit of springtime, I figured there was nothing better than to read a collection of stories which are all set in (and often add a little humor to) the Midwest. The collection is called Gryphon, and the author is Charles Baxter.
Charles Baxter—much like the legendary gryphon after which his collection is named—thrives in the surreal. Through his writing, he allows his audience to slip behind the curtain of reality; to stand backstage and watch life unfold from a perspective that is not quite fantastical, but not entirely real, either. Whether he is discussing the art of forgetting, as he does in his short story “Horace and Margaret’s Fifty-Second,” or the art of, well, art (see “Royal Blue”), Baxter always manages to approach his subjects from a unique standpoint; one that asks his audience to question the role of personal perception in our own realities. This theme rings true for all twenty-three short stories in his latest collection, including seven debut stories, which have not yet been published or anthologized elsewhere.
Most of the stories in Gryphon are set in the Midwest, which makes me feel right at home in his collection. From Minneapolis, to Detroit, to the fictional Five Oaks, Michigan, Baxter has established a strong, powerful sense of the Midwest throughout his writing. However, he still manages to add a somewhat surreal mood to his stories, making his writing endlessly engaging. Baxter’s stories often focus on disruptions of normality: the events that send the calm routine of Midwest life spiraling into a new realm of life.
Baxter’s title story, “Gryphon,” illustrates this idea quite accurately. “Gryphon” explores the ways in which a quirky fourth-grade substitute teacher alters her students’ perception of reality by giving them a constant jumble of facts, myths, and lies. This teacher—Miss Ferenczi—encourages her students to explore the powers of the imagination, and to think about reality as a fluid and ever-changing concept, rather than a concrete, definitive one. As Charles Baxter himself stated on his website,
[Miss Ferenczi] seems to feel that young people should be exposed to exotic facts and possibility of this sort… Ms. Ferenczi likes to expose the members of the class to these amazing facts (some of which are true, some of which are mythic, and some of which are simply untrue) as a way of expanding their sense of wonder.
—“Gryphon: Often Asked Questions”
In fact, even Baxter’s use of the gryphon as his title expresses his knack for the surreal. A gryphon, according to Egyptian and Mongolian myth, is a legendary creature with the body of a lion, but the head and wings of an eagle. In Baxter’s words, “…these parts are combined in order to create a new, imaginary thing that does not exist in the world until someone thinks of it.” His constant emphasis on imagination and its power in shaping reality shines through in his work—not only in “Gryphon,” where fictionalization is obvious, but in his other stories as well. “The Winner,” for example, details the experience of a young reporter who follows a reclusive millionaire to the woods of Lake Superior for an interview. The further into the trip the reporter gets, the more he loses touch with his own reality. In this story, as in many, Baxter weaves an eerie, surreal mood into seemingly normal descriptions:
In what appeared to be a sitting room close to the central hallway, he deposited himself onto a coal-black sofa. On the opposite wall another work of art had been installed, an enormous monochromatic study of what appeared to be human teeth reconsidered in a post-Cubist style…Krumholtz, turning his gaze away, looked down at the floor and noticed that he had tracked dirt in from the backyard… He felt tired and hungry. For a moment, he closed his eyes.
When he opened his eyes again, he saw Angus and Ping standing in front of him, staring at him. ‘What’s the matter with you?’
As a creative writing student at the University of Minnesota, I can now say that I have completed almost a full semester of class with Charles Baxter (pending my final paper) and have taken many classes from his former students. This concept—a writer’s ability to capture the space between fantasy and reality—has been the topic of many classroom discussions and in-depth literature analyses. What, in fact, gives a writer this ability? Charles Baxter has posed this question many times in the past sixteen weeks I’ve spent in his classroom. We’ve studied the ways in which authors set the mood for a story, and the techniques writers use to build characters and to establish settings. We’ve picked apart paragraphs for sentence structure, and sentences for word choice. However, never has Charles Baxter used his own work as an example (perhaps he’s too modest to present his own work, as we Midwesterners tend to be) and yet, he seems to be one of the best examples of the craft. From my studies, and from my journey through Gryphon, I’ve learned that walking the line between fantasy and reality is truly an art—the ability to help a reader connect to something that is just out of reach is one that very few authors have managed to master. And trust me, we’ve studied many authors over the course of the semester.
Charles Baxter’s clear and concise prose carries the reader seamlessly through each of his stories. His characters are interesting and relatable, and his plots are extremely enticing. Not to mention, he brings his sense of humor from the classroom into his stories.
I’ve learned a lot from Charles Baxter over the past few weeks. Not only has his University course taught me invaluable lessons about the art of writing, but his collection of short stories, Gryphon, has given me incredible insight into the relationships between perspective and reality, and the incredible power of the imagination. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend Baxter’s class to non-university students (though I would love to) I can—and do—recommend this collection of short stories. It’s the perfect, light read to carry you into the summer.