author of Broken Sleep

Other Press: Your first novel, And the World Was, was published in 2006, and soon after you began working on Broken Sleep. Many writers take years to finish their second novel, like Akhil Sharma with Family Life. What was it like to write a book over so long a period of time? How did your writing process change throughout the years you were writing Broken Sleep?

Bruce Bauman: Both of my books took years and years to write. Both were “started” over twenty years ago. I understood early on that I was not a book-every-two-or-three-years kind of writer. I understood and accepted my limitations. I knew that if I wanted to write the books I envisioned, I had to get smarter and become a better writer. I’ve told my shrinks for years—two or maybe three novels I’m proud of and I’m declaring victory.

Both were rewritten many times in various forms. Once I got the basics down, Word took about six years and Broken Sleep around nine. Once it got going, BS was so much fun to write. Hard and frustrating some of the time, sure—but fun is the prevailing emotion. Even when it’s depressing.

I didn’t feel pressure to finish until the last year or so because my mom was dying and I had so wanted her to SEE its publication. I couldn’t do it and I will always regret that. But a book takes as long as it takes and I had to respect the book.

My work habits only changed once really—and that was when I actually became a writer and got serious instead of just calling myself a writer. I learned a lot about discipline and dedication from my wife, Suzan Woodruff, who has been an exhibiting artist since she was in her mid-twenties and is a brilliant painter. She has her own unique vision and follows it without giving a damn about what is trendy or hot in the art world. Once that change happened in me, I became very focused and disciplined.

OP: In Broken Sleep one of the characters, Moses, navigates what it means to be Jewish, to have that as a central part of his identity. Your first novel was also concerned with faith and the role it plays in our lives. What is it about that theme that drew you back to it?

BB: Faith, belief in God or lack of belief, and my own struggles have made that question central, and I assume it will always be central thematically, sometimes right up front as in Word, sometimes as part of many themes, as in BS. I have twenty-five diaries or notebooks, and the predominant themes are my dreams and interpreting them, my complaining about pretty much everything and trying to figure out how to give meaning to a life when you no longer have faith in God. What replaces it? Art? Sex? Politics? Fame? I don’t know the answer.

Identity is tricky and extremely complex but so often we as societies and individuals try to simplify and reduce personal identities to types, including national or religious identities. We—all of us—have individual and group identities. We often see ourselves in a way no one else does.

I’m going to stop here. The question of identity and what it represents in all meanings of that word is always central to my work, and my books speak for me on this subject.

OP: Early on in your novel a character states, “Irony without empathy is empty and juvenile.” Is this something you believe? Are there any works of art that in your opinion use irony with a true sense of empathy?

BB: There’s a song in the book “Papa’s Gun,” well yes, it’s about Hemingway’s suicide. But the lyric “irony and pity / oh so witty” is kind of a rip from The Sun Also Rises where the Bill character sings “Irony and Pity…” to Jake. That is one translation of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. All great tragedies, from the original Oedipus the King to Hamlet to The Great Gatsby have both. The last lines of The Sun Also Rises are a perfect example; a modern take on irony and pity. It’s essential to know that Lady Brett and Jake Barnes believe they are in love with each other, but because of his accident/impotence, they cannot really be together.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

OP: There are a multitude of voices in Broken Sleep, with several characters narrating their own chapters. How were you able to carve such distinct and brilliant voices for so many characters? Did the voices of the characters come before you found the form your novel would take, or after?

BB: The short answer is I have no fucking clue. Hell, a few years after Word was published, I tried to write a short piece using the voice of Levi Furstenblum. Couldn’t do it. He’s in BS briefly, but not his narrative speaking voice. Levi has, so to speak, left the building and he ain’t coming back.

Mindswallow’s voice I had very early on. Steve Erickson advised me to experiment with first and third person for Moses, which I did. And Moses said loud and clear “Third is me—I am an Old Testament voice.” Salome was the longest in coming—she always had to be in first person, and when she finally came to me she didn’t shut up.

Patience is the key. And getting good advice. After I’d written a few versions, first Allen Peacock, then Terrie Akers with an assist from Anjali Singh, really helped me get the order of the chapters right, and in so doing they let me know when a voice went off, and when I, Bruce, was intruding.

OP: In Broken Sleep the world is transfixed and transformed by Alchemy and his Insatiables. Salome’s work is equally captivating. Are there any musicians or artists who have brought that kind of significance in your own life?

BB: The Beatles and to a lesser degree Bob Dylan. It’s kind of cliché, but aside from their talent, which was enormous, they changed the cultural landscape of the world. In 1969, you could take any eighteen-year-old from the US, Brazil, East Germany, South Africa and put on Sgt. Pepper’s and suddenly they had something in common. It wasn’t just the music—that was the catalyst—it was an idea, a common language. I think that was really new. Maybe Chaplin and Garbo had that kind of recognition back in the 20s, but they belonged to everyone—grandkids, Mom and Pop and Grandpa and Grandma. Elvis had the youth thing, but he was empty inside. At that perfect moment in time The Beatles, who were a group—Dylan was always an oddball loner with friends—belonged to a generation. The youthful left-wing uprisings in France, the US, Mexico, China, Prague of ’68 dwarfed the European uprisings of 1848. I could make a case that without the new methods of communication open to almost everyone, and the Beatles were the lead messengers who instinctually grasped this new world, that the 60s as we know it could not have happened without them.

The net is an enormous technological leap, but you gotta remember this: in 1967 The Beatles played “All You Need Is Love” on the first live satellite link to 400 million people. There were others on the broadcast, but the Beatles were the stars. The Beatles had 400 million linked friends about twenty years before Mark Zuckerberg was born. That is transformative power.


read full text

Missed Kamel Daoud, Francine Prose, and Dinaw Mengestu at Albertine Books? No worries! You can watch the video below.

read full text

I know, I know most of you wanna hear about Alchemy Savant. The facts of his scurvy-pervey sexcapades and what really happened that night he bought the big one. I’ll get to that, but I been prepping for some time and I got a story to spill that’s more than just Alchemy. I loved the bastid and I despised him. Like he said, we was honest brothers, and sometimes brothers fight. Yeah, he rescued me from a life of scrounging for dimes in the deep end of the shitpool. Did that for lots of us. That was him, then and always: a lifesaving con-trol freak. After becoming a rock ’n’ roll god, he wanted not to be prez but a left-wing king.

I also been advised by the people paying me to do this to start when we met in ’92, almost thirty years ago now. I ain’t writing a word, just dictating. Don’t worry, it’s all me. They can fix everyone’s grammar except mine. I gotta sound like I sound, not some airbrushed version of me. I ain’t gonna softsell nothing neither. Some shit will make me look like a crude, ignorant crudhead and a world-class a-hole, which I was way back then and maybe still am. Judge for yourself.

I was born Ricky McFinn. Twisted branch in a warped family tree. Part Italian, part Irish, and all lapsed Catholic.My journey to becoming Ambitious Mindswallow began late summer of ’92, I’d been doing zip for a few years since I got my butt tossed out of the highfalutin School of Performing Arts for acting like a plastic surgeon and “repairing” my piano teacher’s nose after he opined my mother should’ve aborted me. Since it was my third offense, I was fresh out of community service and no-jail-time cards, so I was awarded an allexpense- paid trip to Spofford, the juvee jail. Before I could even join a gang, this motherfucker, who had body tatts of his mama, the Mother Mary, and muscle heads, tried to stick his wang up my anal hole. I elbow him in the nuts and tell him to take his queerass Puerto Rican butt back to his cell and leave me the fuck alone. That night, in the showers, in front of his compadres he gets on me for being so skinny (I was about six feet two, 130 pounds back then). So I put this fucker down: “Yeah, so what? I’m carryin’ weight in the only place it counts.”

“What you mean? You got dope?”

“Wha-utt?” I says. “Cocksucker, you so fuckin’ stoopit.” I grab my nuts. “I seen four-year-olds carryin’ bigger logs.” I let that one sink into his big, bald skull. Then wham, I snap him, “Hell, I bet yo’ mama’s clit’s bigger than your muscle!” That did it. They gouged out my left eye, which got me out of Spofford fast and gave me my little good-luck charm. Still keep my eye in a glass marble around my neck. My family was s-o-o-o sympathetic. (My dad and some Jew shyster sued the city. They ended up getting something but I didn’t get squat.) So then I was living at home, speculating on what to do with my wonderful fucking life. One night I am sound asleep when I hear my sister Bonnie, who has the other half of the bedroom, moaning and popping chewing gum bubbles while balling some lucky future herpes dick she picked up at Paddy Quinn’s. I figure I’ll hide in the bathroom, only my older brother Lenny, who’d gotten out of the army and was a speed freak, was shivering and shaking right on the bathroom floor. He liked to use me as his punch dummy, so I take about two hundred bucks and some of his pills. He can’t do shit. I feel much better after that.

My mom was screwing her new Korean lovewad — the Asian invasion was getting heavy and Main Street looks like a mini-Peking. My dad hadn’t found some pathetic divorcée to put up with his act that night, and he’s passed out drunk on the pool table in his half of the living room, which is also the office of the two family businesses. The other half is filled with “secondhand” dresses that happened to be all new that my dad “buys” and my mom sells to the neighborhood wifies. I think, Shit, Spofford’d be better than trying to make a life with this family a ratbrains.

I toss a few things into my backpack. I open the kitchen window to the fire escape. We lived on the sixth floor. I take this chair, go out the front door, and lock it. Wedge the chair under the door handle so they can’t get out. I climb up to the roof, down the fire escape, and slip back in through the window. I dial 911. I turned on AC/DC so loud it could rattle the Chinese super’s place six floors below. They all jump up and start screaming. My mom is wailing, “Ricky, yeh bastid, I’m gonna kill ya, I swearh!”

I plead to the 911 lady, over all the cursing and commotion, to get someone over here ’cause they is dying. If only. I scoot out the window and down the fire escape with only my Strat and backpack, wearing my leather jacket, though it’s late- August shitbowl Flushin’ Bay hot. I hear the sirens as I head toward Main Street to catch the Seven, thinking, They can kiss my bony ass if they ever see it again.

I start hustling — not, as rumored, letting old queens suck me off, but I do rip off tourists and hang out on 2nd and B at the Gas Station club that is this burnt-out building with only half a roof. For free booze and crash rights, I clean up the broken bottles, crack vials, and vomit. Me being only eighteen was a misdemeanor next to the other shit going down.

One night about 3 A.M., from my seat inside I see this snazzy guy wearing a black sports coat, black porkpie hat, a purple T-shirt, and black stud earring, and puffing hard on an unfiltered smoke, high-step out of a limo. (This was a few years before that hood became a haven for the hundred-dollartorn- jean crowd.) Beside him is a six-foot blond strung-out model type with albino skin and straw-thin arms clomping onto him. He has the aura. Everyone just zooms their eyes on him as he swaggers in and downs like five beers in five minutes. I’m playing my Strat, I plug in whenever I got the urge. After he buys a packet of powder for his babe, who snorts up right there, they split. As he walks out, he says, “I like your playing.” I’m thinking, Fuck you, who cares what you think? The crazy thing is, already I do care.

To make some extra smash, I was buying junk and toot from this Super Fly knockoff who hung out on the southeast corner, we call him Duckman though he calls himself “Mr. Sam Spade,” wearing his big-brimmed hat and brown leather jacket and polished white shoes. He patrols around his corner like Chuck Berry doing the duckwalk and quacking “crack, crack.” I buy some stuff from Duckman and cut that shit down so detergent’d get you higher. I sold some shit to a coupla prepsters in the Gas Station, who is acting like they was dirty boulevard homeys. This one guy, showing off for his babe, tries to scam me by shorting me, giving me seventy bucks instead of a hundred. We engage in a minor conflagration. He tries to play tough. “Fuck you, man, that shit isn’t worth a hundred.”

“You right, it ain’t.” I says to his chick, “Why you sucking off this prick? You should try this white trash missile.” I stare real tight in his face: “G’head. Try something, yeh pisshead.” As I’m doing this, I spot the snazzy dude from the other night without his hat, sitting with my guitar on his lap. He’s sidewaysed himself into the corner and is lazy-eyeing us, and then, again, he smiles at me, while strumming the Velvets’ “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.”

I say to the prepster, “You think I won’t mess your pretty face, you are way mis-tak-en.” With my left hand, I pull off my shades. “Look close at my left eye . . . Yeah, it’s glass. Gift from my cell mates. Now gimme me the dope and the cash. All of it.” I took it. “Now go!”

The guy keeps strumming. No one really listened to the music or poetryslammin’ there. The Nuyorican was down the block if you was into that mumbo-jumbo. I grab an acoustic guitar from behind the bar and hand it to him. I take mine back and we start jamming. He drops me a dime worth of lickass. “You handled that real sweet.” “Yum, just swallowed that pussy whole.” He nods and starts playing “Police and Thieves,” achingly slow and reggae cool. Not at all like the Clash. I says I never hear it like that, and he says, “I always preferred Junior Murvin’s original.” I say nuthin’. Don’t want to show my ignorance. Then he starts messing with more music I never heard. Turns out it’s his shit and he sings his lyrics:

I do it for the chicks and money
don’t care ’bout no salvations
or gold-plated salutations
all I want is chicks and money . . .

We’re jamming when Mr. Suburbia drives up with his boys in a Mercedes with CT plates. I stop playing and step outside. He and his three buddies come at me. I pull my metal before they get close, and I grab the main sucker. I go right at his ear. “Bitch, I tolt ya. I don’t care. I’ll cut you good and we’ll be one pretty pair a misfits.”

Mr. Suavola glides out to us like he’s Mahatma Luther Kingmaker. “Let’s maintain a level of intelligence and decorum . . .” He gently takes my arm and pulls the knife away from the guy’s ear. He calls out to the Duckman, who saunters over.

“My man, Alchemy Savant, ain’t seen you since I hear your soulman’s heart and chocolate vodka voice charmin’ us at the Paradise,” Duckman declares, and quacks. “So what can I do you for?” These clowns are morgue-meat white. The neighborhood cops drive by and Duckman throws a big Howdy-deedamn- do kiss at ’em while Alchemy is explaining everything, only he adds this, “My friend and I, we need a car, and I think these gentlemen are going to lend us theirs as compensation for our troubles. What do you think?”

Duckman muses for a sec. “That be fair.”

Mr. CT starts howling, “No way. Wait. Please. No!”

Duckman says, like he’s sucking the last juice from his whore’s hot spot, “Boy,” and he’s lov-ing using that word, “boy, did you see that black-’n’-white that drive by? You don’ do what I suggest, you take your ride, and I call my associates and they stop you before you hit First Avenue. You know what the Tombs is, boy? The Tombs is the nastiest cell in America.” These tools are piss pants yellow now. “Shee-it, you’ll see it for yo’self.”

I’m just wishing, wishing this cat had been my lawyer in juvee court. “Okay, boys, past your bed-wettin’ time.” The CT guys start slinking away and Alchemy surprises me when he yells after them, “Give me your number.” They stop and do that, and the screw job, he thanks them.

I think it’s finally done ’til Duckman grabs my arm. “How much you get?”


“That and the shit be mine for services rendered.” No way I’m hosing Duckman. “And, one mo’ thing, as I am sure you remember, anything you sell to the white boys in here, I gets seventy-five percent. And them other three corners, I owns ’em.” He and Alchemy shake hands. I hand over the cash and the dope to the Duckman, and he quacks on back to his corner. Alchemy yells out to me, “You up for a ride?”

“Where to?”

“L.A. Going to start a band there.”

Never been to L.A. and I ain’t got sweet nuthin’ to lose and no future in New York. “Let’s jam.”

Alchemy drove like red lights, slow-moving cars, potholes is just hazards to be avoided. Or not. In minutes, we’re over the GW Bridge and jetting away from dumps like Bayonne, the “American Dream Developments,” and them putrid gas tanks of the “Garden State.” Yeah, a garden doused in weed kill. I’m thinking to myself, So Looong Flushin’, when he swivels his head so he’s looking backward and stares at the city, and I’m getting a tick nervous here about his driving skills, and he says, “Look at that skyline, and the acolyte cities, the lights, they’re like God’s dissonant drips merging across the sky on a Jackson Pollock canvas.” Uh, yeah, sure. I don’t know Jackson Pollock from Jack-in-the-fuckin’-Box, and if God created Hoboken in his image, then book me a ticket to Satanville.

A coupla minutes later he turns and asks, “So, besides taking advantage of foolish college kids, what do you want to do?”

“Pile up chicks and money,” I croon. We laugh and start riffing about L.A. and the music we want to play and all the movies we dig and all the shit we have in common. ’Cause I don’t know yet, but sense there’s plenty we don’t.

We drive for a coupla hours and it’s like 4 A.M. when he pulls off the 80. Even at that hour it’s not like any Jersey that I seen. No gas and garbage smells.

He announces, “I need to see my mom. There’s a motel where we can get some rest first.” In the room, in like one minute, the guy’s asleep. About two hours later, I hear him howling. I am freak-ing out, and I don’t freak easy, but I ain’t never heard such scarifying noises exiting out from no one except when Tommy Huston shot Davy Rathbone in the nuts. I’m thinking the guy is a psycho or he’s gonna die on me and that’s all the bullshit I need, stuck with a “borrowed” car and a dead body in Nofuckingwhere, New Jersey. I leap out of bed, turn on the lights, and shake his ass awake. He sits up, he’s all sweaty, and his eyes — whew! They are a kaleidoscope of light and dark browns with dots of tans and whites, gonzo wild and like he has just seen God and Satan — only his voice and body are totally cool.

“It’s part of my birthright,” he finally says. “You’ll see in the morning. Now go back to bed.”

I’m more than a bit jittery, so I put on the cable TV, watch some porn, and jack off in the shower while Alchemy is once again fast asleep.

read full text

An excerpt from Rupert Thomson’s Katherine Carlyle

Another beautiful September. The sun richer, more tender, the color of old wedding rings. Rome filling up again, people back at work after the holidays. I ride through the city, over potholes and cobbles, the sky arranged in hard blue blocks above the rooftops. The swallows have returned as well, flashing between the buildings in straight lines as if fired from a gun. I park my Vespa outside the station and walk in through the entrance.

It was spring when I first started noticing the messages. Back then, they were cryptic, teasing. While crossing Piazza Farnese, I found a fifty-euro note that had been folded into a triangle. A few days later, at the foot of the Spanish Steps, I found a small gray plastic elephant with a piece of frayed string round its neck. I found any number of coins, keys, and playing cards. None of these objects had anything specific to communicate. They were just testing my alertness. They were nudges. Pokes. Nonetheless, I felt a thrill each time, a rocket-fizzle through the darkness of my body, and I took photos of them all and stored them on my laptop, in a file marked INTELLIGENCE. The weeks passed, and the world began to address me with more precision. In May I stopped for a macchiato near the Pantheon. On my table was a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. I recognized the prefix — Bologna — and called the number. A woman answered, her voice hectic, a baby crying in the background. I hung up. The scrap of paper was a message, but not one I needed to pay attention to. In June I entered a changing cubicle in a shop on Via del Corso. Lying on the floor was a brochure for a French hotel. “Conveniently located for the A8,” the Hôtel Allure offered a “high standard of accommodation.” I borrowed my friend Daniela’s car on a Friday afternoon and drove for seven hours straight, past Florence and Genoa, and on around the coast to Nice. At midnight the hotel’s neon sign floated into view, the black air rich with jasmine and exhaust. I spent most of the next day by the pool. The hot white sky. The rush of traffic on La Provençale. In the early evening a man pulled into the car park in a silver BMW. He stood at the water’s edge, his shirtsleeves rolled back to the elbow. His name was Pascal, and he worked in telecommunications. When he asked me out to dinner — when he put that question — I somehow realized he wasn’t relevant. If the Hôtel Allure was a mistake, though, it was a useful one. I’ve been imagining a journey ever since.

The station concourse smells of ground coffee beans and scalded milk. I stare up at the Departures board. Firenze, Milano. Parigi. None of the names stand out, none of them speak to me. Voices swarm beneath the high sweep of the roof, footsteps echo on the polished marble, and then a feeling, sudden yet familiar — the feeling that I’m not there. It’s not that I’m dead. I’m simply gone. I never was. Panic opens inside me, slow and stealthy, like a flower that only blooms at night. The eight years are still with me, eight years in the dark, the cold. Waiting. Not knowing.

I deliberately collide with someone who happens to be passing. He’s in his early thirties. Black hair, brown leather jacket. He drops his bag. An apple rolls away across the floor.

“I’m so sorry,” I say.

“No, no,” he says. “My fault.”

The moment he looks at me, my existence comes flooding back. It’s as if I’m a pencil sketch, and he’s coloring me in. I go and fetch the apple. When I pick it up it fits my palm perfectly. The shape of it, the weight, makes everything that follows feel natural.

I hold it out to him. “I think it might be bruised.”

He looks at the apple, then smiles. “This is like a fairy tale.
Are you a witch?”

“I just didn’t see you,” I say. “I should be more careful.” I’m breathless with exhilaration. I’m alive.

“Are you waiting for someone? Or perhaps you’re going somewhere — ” He glances at the Departures board.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I say. “Not yet.”

Something in him seems to align itself with what I’m feeling. We’re like two people running side by side and he has fallen into step with me. Nothing needs to be explained, or even said. It’s understood. His eyes are dark and calm.

“Come with me,” he says. “Do you have time?”


His fingers curl round mine.

We walk to a small hotel on Via Palermo. They have a room on the second floor, at the front of the building. I hear the muted roar of a vacuum cleaner. There’s a coolness about the place, a feeling of suspension. A hush. It’s that hidden moment in the day, the gap between checking out and checking in.

On the stairs he’s behind me, watching me. My hips, my calves. The small of my back. I can feel my edges, the space I occupy. We reach the door. He steps past me with the key. He smells of wood and pepper. As soon as we’re inside he kisses me.

The room has a high ceiling and surprising lilac walls. From the window I can look down into the street. He pushes me back onto the bed. I tell him to wait. Lifting my hips, I pull the apple from my pocket. He smiles again.

We take each other’s clothes off carefully. We’re not in any hurry. One button, then another. A catch. A zip. The TV watches us from the top corner of the room. The curtains shift.

When he’s about to enter me I hand him a condom from my bag.

“You’ve done this before,” he says.

“No, never,” I say.

He looks down at me. He thinks I’m lying but it doesn’t bother him.

“I carry them to stop it happening,” I say. “It’s the opposite of tempting fate.”

“You’re superstitious?”

I don’t answer.

The noise of the traffic shrinks until it’s no louder than the buzz of a fly trapped in a jar. There is only the rustle of the sheets and the sound of our breathing, his and mine, and I think of that place in Brazil where the rivers join, two different kinds of water meeting, two different colors. I think of white clouds colliding in a sky of blue.

I cry out when I come. He comes moments later, quietly. When I turn over, onto my side, he adjusts his body to mine. He lies behind me, fitting himself against me as closely as he can, like a shadow. I feel him soften and then slip out of me. This too is part of the coloring-in.

Afterwards, I follow him downstairs. Out on the street I’m worried he will tell me his name and ask if he can see me again but all he does is put one hand against my cheek and look at me.

“Mia piccola strega.” My little witch.

He kisses me and walks away.

Later, I think of the apple we left in the hotel room. Lying among the crumpled bedclothes, its red skin glowing.

read full text

author of Katherine Carlyle


Other Press: Katherine listens to and references a lot of music in this novel, including “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” What part does music play in your life and in your writing?

Rupert Thomson: I listen to a lot of music, but mostly on my phone, while traveling, or in the car. I never listen to music when I’m writing. Favorite artists include Howling Wolf, Cesaria Evora, Roxy Music, Nirvana, Diego Cigala, Van Morrison, Björk, The Fall, Diamanda Galas, and Nick Cave. It’s hard to keep up-to-date though. At the moment I’m listening to the soundtrack from the Iranian vampire movie The Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night. Since music is something that defines people, it sometimes helps me to create a character. In Katherine Carlyle, the fact that Massimo puts on Suicide and then Miles Davis late at night tells you something about who he is. So does the fact that Kit’s father sings Dinah Washington songs badly when he’s driving. When my memoir This Party’s Got to Stop came out, there was so much music in it that the UK publisher made a CD and sent it to booksellers. It was an eclectic mix, everything from Jacques Brel to Alien Sex Fiend.

OP: Throughout the novel Katherine returns again and again to one of her favorite films, Antonioni’s The Passenger. What do you think about how consciousness is inhabited in fiction as opposed to in film? Are there any films that have had as deep an impact on you as The Passenger has had on Katherine?

RT: In the first draft of Katherine Carlyle I referenced The Passenger instinctively, without realizing how fitting it would turn out to be. I simply thought it was a film that someone of David Carlyle’s generation—also my generation—would have seen and admired. Also, David Carlyle might be attracted by the fact that the film is about a foreign correspondent—i.e., someone in the same profession. Gradually, though, I realized that the movie’s protagonist echoed my protagonist: they were both self-destructive while appearing to be spontaneous and carefree. Perhaps Kit even subconsciously imitates the story arc of her father’s favorite film in the hope that it might help him to follow her and find her. In any case, I found all kinds of ways in which the two narratives could play off each other.

In films you’re looking at people from the outside. It’s about surfaces—what you can decipher from what you’re being shown. In fiction you’re more likely to be inside, looking out. The miracle of fiction is that it allows you to inhabit different thought patterns, different characters, different worlds. You get to spend time in other people’s heads. No other art form penetrates human consciousness in quite the same way.

So many films have had an impact on me. A short list of directors I keep returning to would include Wong Kar Wai, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fassbinder, Billy Wilder, Wim Wenders, Paul Thomas Anderson, Visconti, John Cassavetes, Claude Chabrol, and Harmony Korine. Most recently I’ve become obsessed with Bela Tarr’s film of Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango. Some individual scenes last almost half an hour. You stop expecting jump-cuts, or even editing. (In an interview Bela Tarr’s editor once said: “The important thing is to know where not to cut.”) Watching becomes a form of meditation. I’m always looking for films that challenge the medium, that attempt what Susan Sontag once called a “heroic violation of the norms.”


OP: Katherine Carlyle is your tenth novel, and you’re well known for tackling widely varying subjects and genres in your writing. What is it that keeps you engaged with your work on a day-to-day basis?

RT: I have never felt that the word “genre” applies to my work. It’s just not relevant. The books are the books. They might have a thriller dynamic or horror elements, they might masquerade as historical novels, they might even appear speculative, as Margaret Atwood’s often do. In the end, though, they don’t fit any of the boxes. In the past critics have compared me to writers as different as Gabriel García Márquez and Elmore Leonard. I have also been compared to Dickens, Kafka, J. G. Ballard, Mervyn Peake, and David Lynch. I’ve even been compared to Grace Jones. Perhaps “genre-defying” is the best way of putting it. Critics also talk about my unpredictability. I actually think the books have more in common than they seem to think. The subjects and settings may vary, but the lack of similarity is superficial. Dig deeper, and you begin to see certain themes recurring. That said, I don’t feel I should be too aware of those themes. Self-consciousness is a form of constriction. All I’m interested in is what is coming next. The next challenge, the next journey into the unknown. The only interesting book is the one I haven’t written yet.

What keeps me engaged on a daily basis? Only last week my brother asked me if it was true that I worked seven hours a day, seven days a week. I told him it was. I couldn’t do that, he said. I couldn’t sit in a room all alone for seven hours a day. Then he said, I don’t know how you do that. I smiled. I can’t imagine living any other way, I said. I get to inhabit so many different worlds. I get to live all these different lives. Because—to paraphrase William Burroughs—if you don’t actually experience what you’re writing, if you don’t live it, it won’t feel authentic. Writing isn’t about any one particular book. It’s a life’s work. I think Günter Grass said that. The books are successive attempts to capture something, to get something right. But that “something” is always just out of reach. Perfection is necessarily elusive.

OP: You do a remarkable job of illustrating the world as Katherine moves through it, from Rome to Berlin to Arkhangel’sk. Did you travel or do any kind of research into these places?

RT: I wrote six or seven drafts of Katherine Carlyle without traveling anywhere at all. I knew Rome a little since I had lived there in the late 90s, and visited in the early 2000s. I’d lived in Berlin too, and spent a week in the city in 2007, researching locations. Russia and Svalbard were entirely unknown to me. For the first six or seven drafts I was content to imagine them, but I knew in the end that I would have to go, if only for a smell, a sound, a glimpse of something. I spent a week in Svalbard towards the end of September 2013, then traveled from Moscow to Arkhangel’sk with my brother some two months later. I had so many adventures! The reason why I insist that the writing comes first is because research of this kind—exotic, unpredictable—tends to provide too much material. The fiction is in danger of being swamped by real experience. If you aren’t careful, the novel morphs into a diary, or a travelogue. I like to distinguish between real facts and imagined facts. In a novel, the imagined facts must always take precedence. The best way to research is to do the imagining and then to set out on a quest for what has been imagined. Much of what I experienced and discovered in Russia and in the Arctic Circle was eventually discarded, including a whole chapter in the extraordinarily atmospheric steel town of Cherepovets, and yet a kind of flavor lingers—and I used certain locations and encounters, or versions of those locations and encounters, when they fitted into the book I had already written, or when they enriched or illuminated Katherine’s particular psychology. In the end, my two great hopes are that the novel feels perfectly authentic, and that the many hours of research don’t show.


IMG_1331 copy

A view of Svalbard 

OP: What is it about IVF that made you want to use it as an avenue to explore identity and the dynamics of a family? Was it difficult to inhabit Katherine’s mind?

RT: In the early 2000s I read a newspaper article reporting the birth in Barcelona of a child who had been frozen as an embryo for the previous thirteen years. Thirteen years. I instantly saw those years as a period of waiting. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the child had a sibling who had been born nine months after the original fertilization. In other words, the child had a sister—or a brother—who had once been the same age but was now thirteen years older. The child who was born second had missed thirteen years of his/her sibling’s life. Reading the article, I couldn’t help but see IVF—and especially cryopreservation—as some kind of metaphor. At first I thought about the sense of slippage, the idea that somebody could be two ages at once (in the novel Katherine says she is 19, but also 27, since she was frozen for eight years). Later, I began to see those years in the freezer as a very modern form of abandonment. In the novel Katherine uses the unique circumstances of her conception as the trigger for a journey of transformation. In traveling north, towards the Arctic Circle, she is in some sense returning to the place where she began. Psychologists call it “repetition compulsion.” As a fiction writer, I saw all kinds of possibilities in the fact that a young woman’s pre-existence could haunt—and influence—her real existence.

By the time I read that article I had already entered the world of IVF myself. My daughter was an IVF baby. She was also frozen while still an embryo, though only for three months. I found the science miraculous but hard to believe in. The techniques were still so new that nobody could predict what the physical and psychological consequences might be. I felt I was going into the unknown. I felt awe, but also fear. (An early title for the book was Frankenstein’s Daughter.) All this uncertainty and conjecture led to what I hope is an unexpected and gripping first sentence: I was made in a small square dish.

Inhabiting Katherine’s mind was something that came naturally to me. I didn’t have to work at it. I didn’t even have to invent her. She was just suddenly there, from one day to the next. It was as though she had always been there, waiting to be written about. And she came complete—with a physical presence, a voice, and an agenda. She came to me so naturally, in fact, that I became suspicious. I decided to try to distance myself from her by writing the third draft of the book in the third person. It was a disaster from page one, but I went through with it, all the way to the end. And it was good that I did. In the process, I learned why a first person narrative was so crucial for this particular book. Katherine Carlyle is an ecstatic novel. It’s narrated by a young woman in a state of wrongheaded exaltation. She is convinced that she has found the key to her existence, the right way to live, and as a result of this conviction she is highly persuasive. I felt that if I told the story from outside, readers would be less persuaded, less intrigued. Furthermore—and crucially—I could only shift seamlessly between Katherine’s account of her own life and her imaginary account of her father’s life if I wrote in the first person. If I used any other voice, the dreamlike quality would be lost, and the narrative would become awkward and unconvincing.


Rupert Thomson in Arkhangel’sk, in an abandoned clothes market at night.

read full text



Book Summary

An old man sits in a bar in Oran and tells a stranger the story of his brother’s murder. He tells of the circumstances surrounding the murder, he tells of how his brother’s murder shaped his and his mother’s lives, and he tells of the supposed investigation that comes after the murder. But The Meursault Investigation is more than the story of a family and its tragedy—it is the story about the power of storytelling itself, about the power of language and the need to use it carefully, about the totalizing alienation felt when a story uses its power to obscure a truth, and the violence that’s inflicted when that obfuscation is taken as the only story to be told.

A response to The Stranger, The Meursault Investigation brings new and insightful perspective to Camus’s classic text, initiating a fresh and unique dialogue with Camus’s themes of alienation and absurdity, while situating them within the context of the urgent questions faced by both Algerian and American society today. In reading Kamel Daoud’s novel, students will be able to consider questions about personal and national identity, the power of literacy to affect change, and the ways in which one finds and constructs meaning.

Contains mature content. You may want to preview before reading aloud.


Teaching the Book

How do you confront stories that are told not by you, but about you? How does who tells a story shape what the story says and means? How can a person tell a story about himself that works against the his total absence in someone else’s story, without recreating the violence experienced from that absence? The Meursault Investigation stands on its own as a commentary on the social ills faced in modern societies, and offers students ways to examine those ills. It also allows students the opportunity to revisit Camus’s The Stranger with new questions and a new critical perspective. Why would someone want to write a response to The Stranger?

Theme Focus: The power of language

Comprehension Focus: Authorship

Language Focus: Alienation and disenfranchisement

Get Ready to Read

Pre-reading Activities

Preview and Predict: Discuss with students the title and cover of the book. Have them describe the cover and consider these questions:

  1. Where do you think the book is set? Why?
  2. What feelings does the cover evoke? What does the man on the cover of the book make you think of? Would you think differently if it were a lone woman?
  3. Whose footprints are on the cover of the book?
  4. Have the students take particular note of who the author of the book is.
  5. Does the man on the cover of the book remind you of Camus’s Meursault?

Brainstorming: Have the students read the book jacket description. Ask the students what they know about colonialism and “the Arab world.” After having read Camus’s The Stranger, did they have any questions about “the Arab,” or had they forgotten about him? After reading the description of The Meursault Investigation, what questions about “the Arab” come to mind, if any? Ask the students to think about other books they’ve read that were “responses” or continuations of classic texts, and why these books are written, decades after the original.


Explain to the students that the author uses vocabulary to evoke a certain response from his readers. Some of these words have exact histories behind them and are used in academic and social justice contexts today. Others simply help to create the world Harun inhabits, and serve to capture the alienation and otherness he feels. The following list contains some of these words.

Ask students to write down what they think the following words mean as they come upon them. Afterwards, have them look up the words and write down their definitions. Have students compare their own definitions with the ones the dictionary provides and decide which one they think applies better and why.

  1. impunity (p.6)
  2. intangible (p. 6)
  3. settler (p. 11)
  4. decolonized (p. 31)
  5. indifferent (p. 39)
  6. diaphanous (p. 58)
  7. absurdly (p. 75)
  8. interminably (p. 103)
  9. dissonances (p. 119)
  10. despair (p. 133)

Using Vocabulary: Ask students to refer to the definitions they wrote for the above words to answer the following questions.

  1. When Harun says that Musa’s murder was “committed with absolute impunity,” is he referring to the trial Meursault faces in Camus’s The Stranger, or Camus’s book itself?
  2. What specific act is Harun describing when he says “Some of our people even decolonized the colonists’ cemeteries”? Is he using the word ironically?
  3. Why is Musa indifferent to the fact of his mother’s life? What else is he indifferent about? What is he not indifferent about?
  4. Who is Harun referring to when he uses the word settler? Is there another name he uses for them?
  5. What is the despair Harun refers to that he thinks Meriem runs away from?

As You Read

Reading the Book:

Modeled Reading: Read aloud from the first few pages of the book. Ask the students to describe the voice of the speaker and their reaction to his speaking directly to an unnamed listener. Ask them to consider the differences they notice between how The Meursault Investigation begins and how The Stranger begins. Why does Daoud make these changes? What are some similarities and differences they notice between Harun and Meursault?

Textual Analysis: Ask students to keep these questions in mind as they read the book, and to point to passages from the book to support their answers: Is what Harun faces at the hands of the djounoud comparable to what Musa faced at the hands of Meursault? What causes Harun’s alienation? Is the hold Maman has over Harun similar to other exercises of power in the book?What do you make of the fact that both Harun and Meursault are fatherless?

Reading Comprehension

Authorship: How many investigations are there in the book, and who leads them? What is the difference Harun experiences between hearing the story of Harun’s murder from his mother, reading it in the newspaper, and reading it in “Meaursault’s book”? Is it comparable to the difference you experience when reading The Stranger and reading The Meursault Investigation?

After You Read


Comprehension Focus

On Authorship: Musa’s murder is one story told by several voices. Who are the people who tell this story? In each version of the story, what is the focus? What is included and omitted and why? What is the difference between how each of the voices tell the story, and what is the objection Harun has to how others tell the story?

Theme Focus

Why is language important?: Why does Musa learn French? What does he appreciate about French and the way Camus/Meursault uses it that he does not find in how his mother uses language? In the book Musa’s mother holds an enormous amount of power over him. When he learns how to read and write in French, does he start having any power over her?

Compare and contrast these two passages:

“Yes, the language. The one I read, the one I speak today, the one that’s not hers. Hers is rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts, and improvisations, but not too big on precision. Mama’s grief lasted so long that she needed a new idiom to express it in. In her language, she spoke like a prophetess, recruited extemporaneous mourners, and cried out against the double outrage that consumed her life: a husband swallowed up by air, a son by water.” (p. 37)

“The reason why your hero tells the story of my brother’s murder so well is tha he’d reached a new territory, a language that was unknown and grew more powerful in his embrace, the words like pitilessly carved stones, a language as naked as Euclidian geometry. I think that’s the grand style, when all is said and done: to speak with the austere precision the last moments of your life impose on you.” (p. 100)

Language Focus

Have the students choose one of the words describing alienation and disenfranchisement from the above list and use it tin a one-paragraph review of the book. In another paragraph, have the students use other words from the list for who they imagine could be Harun’s counterpart in the United States.

Do Camus and Daoud use the same words to describe alienation? Have students find the similar words and write the sentences they appear in next to one another.

Have the students use the vocabulary words to relate the anonymity the Arab in The Stranger and Harun in The Meursault Investigation grapple with what some people may be experiencing in the United States.


Content Area Connections

History: Have students research the history of the Algerian War of Independence and compare it to contemporary efforts for liberation, such as the Arab Spring or the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Language Arts: Have students write a 500 word response to Daoud, imitating his voice and style.

Arts: Have students create a new cover for the book.

Extension Activities

—Compare and Contrast: The novel is in many ways a response to Camus’s The Stranger, even as it uses the form of Camus’s later novel, The Fall. Ask students to read The Stranger and The Fall, and to then consider what commentaries The Meursault Investigation makes on Camus’s books.

—Are there any sentences or scenes from The Stranger that are directly quoted or lifted in The Meursault Investigation? When they first read The Meursault Investigation, did theses sentences or quotes seem as though they came from another voice?

—Are there any themes are revealed in The Meursault Investigation after reading Camus’s books that remained hidden before?

—Can they identify why Kamel Daoud chose to use the form of The Fall for a book that is a direct answer to The Stranger?

—Do The Stranger and The Fall resonate with them in the same way The Meursault Investigation does? What effect does the 70 year difference between the publication of The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation have on how they approach each work?


For Further Reading

The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Fall by Albert Camus

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe



read full text

An excerpt from Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation

Mama’s still alive today.

She doesn’t say anything now, but there are many tales she could tell. Unlike me: I’ve rehashed this story in my head so often, I almost can’t remember it anymore.

I mean, it goes back more than half a century. It happened, and everyone talked about it. People still do, but they mention only one dead man, they feel no compunction about doing that, even though there were two of them, two dead men. Yes, two. Why does the other one get left out? Well, the original guy was such a good storyteller, he managed to make people forget his crime, whereas the other one was a poor illiterate God created apparently for the sole purpose of taking a bullet and returning to dust — an anonymous person who didn’t even have the time to be given a name.

I’ll tell you this up front: The other dead man, the murder victim, was my brother. There’s nothing left of him. There’s only me, left to speak in his place, sitting in this bar, waiting for condolences no one’s ever going to offer. Laugh if you want, but this is more or less my mission: I peddle offstage silence, trying to sell my story while the theater empties out. As a matter of fact, that’s the reason why I’ve learned to speak this language, and to write it too: so I can speak in the place of a dead man, so I can finish his sentences for him. The murderer got famous, and his Mersault  story’s too well written for me to get any ideas about imitating him. He wrote in his own language. Therefore I’m going to do what was done in this country after Independence: I’m going to take the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind, remove them one by one, and build my own house, my own language. The murderer’s words and expressions are my bien vacant, my vacated property. Besides, the country’s littered with words that don’t belong to anyone anymore. You see them on the façades of old stores, in yellowing books, on people’s faces, or transformed by the strange creole decolonization produces.

So it’s been quite some time since the murderer died, and much too long since my brother ceased to exist for everyone but me. I know, you’re eager to ask the type of questions I hate, but please listen to me instead, please give me your attention, and by and by you’ll understand. This is no normal story. It’s a story that begins at the end and goes back to the beginning. Yes, like a school of salmon
swimming upstream. I’m sure you’re like everyone else, you’ve read the tale as told by the man who wrote it. He writes so well that his words are like precious stones, jewels cut with the utmost precision. A man very strict about shades of meaning, your hero was; he practically required them to be mathematical. Endless calculations, based on gems and minerals. Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! His world is clean, clear, exact, honed by morning sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by “the Arabs,” blurred, incongruous objects left over from “days gone by,” like ghosts, with no language except the sound of a flute. I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves. How he must have suffered, poor man! To be the child of a place that never gave you birth . . .

I too have read his version of the facts. Like you and millions of others. And everyone got the picture, right from the start: He had a man’s name; my brother had the name of an incident. He could have called him “Two P.M.,” like that other writer who called his black man “Friday.” An hour of the day instead of a day of the week. Two in the afternoon, that’s good. Zujj in Algerian Arabic, two, the pair, him and me, the unlikeliest twins, somehow, for those who know the story of the story. A brief Arab, technically ephemeral, who lived for two hours and has died incessantly for seventy years, long after his funeral. It’s like my brother Zujj has been kept under glass. And even though he was a murder victim, he’s always given some vague designation, complete with reference to the two hands of a clock, over and over again, so that he replays his own death, killed by a bullet fired by a Frenchman who just didn’t know what to do with his day and with the rest of the world, which he carried on his back.

And again! Whenever I go over this story in my head, I get angry — at least, I do whenever I have the strength. So the Frenchman plays the dead man and goes on and on about how he lost his mother, and then about how he lost his body in the sun, and then about how he lost a girlfriend’s body, and then about how he went to church and discovered that his God had deserted the human body, and then about how he sat up with his mother’s corpse and his own, et cetera. Good God, how can you kill someone and then take even his own death away from him? My brother was the one who got shot, not him! It was Musa, not Meursault, see? There’s something I find stunning, and it’s that nobody — not even after Independence — nobody at all ever tried to find out what the victim’s name was, or where he lived, or what family he came from, or whether he had children. Nobody. Everyone was knocked out by the perfect prose, by language capable of giving air facets like diamonds, and everyone declared their empathy with the murderer’s solitude and offered him their most learned condolences. Who knows Musa’s name today? Who knows what river carried him to the sea, which he had to cross on foot, alone, without his people, without a magic staff? Who knows whether Musa had a gun, a philosophy, or a sunstroke?

Who was Musa? He was my brother. That’s what I’m getting at. I want to tell you the story Musa was never able to tell. When you opened the door of this bar, you opened a grave, my young friend. Do you happen to have the book in your schoolbag there? Good. Play the disciple and read me the first page or so . . .

So. Did you understand? No? I’ll explain it to you. After his mother dies, this man, this murderer, finds himself without a country and falls into idleness and absurdity. He’s a Robinson Crusoe who thinks he can change his destiny by killing his Friday but instead discovers he’s trapped on an island and starts banging on like a self-indulgent parrot. “Poor Meursault, where are you?”

Shout out those words a few times and they’ll seem less ridiculous, I promise. And I’m asking that question for your sake. I know the book by heart, I can recite it to you like the Koran. That story — a corpse wrote it, not a writer. You can tell by the way he suffers from the sun and gets dazzled by colors and has no opinion on anything except the sun, the sea, and the surrounding rocks. From the very beginning, you can sense that he’s looking for my brother. And in fact, he seeks him out, not so much to meet him as to never have to. What hurts me every time I think about it is that he killed him by passing over him, not by shooting him. You know, his crime is majestically nonchalant. It made any subsequent attempt to present my brother as a shahid, a martyr, impossible. The martyr came too long after the murder. In the interval, my brother rotted in his grave and the book obtained its well known success. And afterward, therefore, everybody bent over backward to prove there was no murder, just sunstroke.

Ha, ha! What are you drinking? In these parts, you get offered the best liquors after your death, not before. And that’s religion, my brother. Drink up — in a few years, after the end of the world, the only bar still open will be in Paradise.

I’m going to outline the story before I tell it to you. A man who knows how to write kills an Arab who, on the day he dies, doesn’t even have a name, as if he’d hung it on a nail somewhere before stepping onto the stage. Then the man begins to explain that his act was the fault of a God who doesn’t exist and that he did it because of what he’d just realized in the sun and because the sea salt obliged him to shut his eyes. All of a sudden, the murder is a deed committed with absolute impunity and wasn’t a crime anyway because there’s no law between noon and two o’clock, between him and Zujj, between Meursault and Musa. And for seventy years now, everyone has joined in to disappear the victim’s body quickly and turn the place where the murder was committed into an intangible museum. What does “Meursault” mean? Meurt seul, dies alone? Meurt sot, dies a fool? Never dies? My poor brother had no say in this story. And that’s where you go wrong, you and all your predecessors. The absurd is what my brother and I carry on our backs or in the bowels of our land, not what the other was or did. Please understand me, I’m not speaking in either sorrow or anger. I’m not even going to play the mourner. It’s just that . . . it’s just what? I don’t know. I think I’d just like justice to be done. That may seem ridiculous at my age . . . But I swear it’s true. I don’t mean the justice of the courts, I mean the justice that comes when the scales are balanced. And I’ve got another reason besides: I want to pass away without being pursued by a ghost. I think I can guess why people write true stories. Not to make themselves famous but to make themselves more invisible, and all the while clamoring for a piece of the world’s true core.

read full text

Terrie Akers, Marketing Director

My summer reading plans are always more ambitious than I’m ever able to live up to, but these are the books that beckon expectantly from the stack on my coffee table: Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr (currently reading), 10:04 by Ben Lerner, A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (I recently read and adored Life After Life), and ARCs of Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson and City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg.

Bruce Bauman, author of Broken Sleep

For the last dozen or so years, I’ve read a “big” book during the summer, where I could take my time and savor the style and substance, and marvel at the magic of the storytelling. To see how an author can keep a reader engaged for many hundreds of pages. Sometimes it was a reread like Don Quixote (this was also an actually-finish for the first time) or War and Peace. Sometimes a new classic like Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I missed the last couple of summers because I was too involved in my own work. Now that I’m done, I had many choices and I decided on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. I’m about 100 pages in and I’m hooked. He was a master. And yet, any summary I gave of those pages would seem an inadequate explanation of why it is so compelling. I just can’t wait to read more.

Chris Cander, author of Whisper Hollow

I’m reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov—a darkly humorous and absurd satire of Stalinist Russia that highlights the best and worst aspects of the human condition.

Elena Delbanco, author of The Silver Swan

I’ve been reading the work of several twentieth-century women writers from England and Australia. Most notable are two breathtakingly beautiful novels by Helen Dunmore: The Siege, about the siege of Leningrad during World War II, and The Betrayal, which picks up the thread and the characters in immediate postwar Soviet Leningrad. Both books are stark, spare, impeccably written evocations of the horrors of that grim period.

Another intriguing novel, Angel, by English author Elizabeth Taylor, tells the remarkable story of a young, eccentric girl who becomes a successful writer despite her total literary naiveté and lack of education. It’s a study of the power of delusion and determination.

And, by Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, The Watch Tower, a psychological stunner about two sisters, abandoned by their mother, who fall into the sinister hands of a man who offers to help them.

None of these books are contemporary. They’re all fantastic.

Marjorie DeWitt, Editor

Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and I’m hoping to read City on Fire, which I’d like to finish by its October publication date (the spine runs thick!). Also Middlemarch. Editing a novel about George Eliot will do that to you!

Kelsey Hoffman

I just finished reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which absolutely blew me away. I read the whole book in three days, and can’t stop thinking about it. If you are a fan of fairy tales or fantasy novels definitely pick this one up.

Also on my list for the summer is the final installment of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, Acceptance, which I hope will answer some of my questions about what’s going on in the creepy and mysterious Area X.

And finally, I hope to read Ernest Cline’s new book, Armada. If it’s anything like his debut novel Ready Player One, it’s going to be epic!

Déborah Lévy-Bertherat, author of The Travels of Daniel Ascher

I just finished Jacob, Jacob by Valérie Zenatti, a beautiful novel about a 19-year-old Jewish boy from Algeria who joins the Forces françaises libres in 1944, to free France from the Nazi Occupation, and dies in combat.

I am presently reading Falling Out of Time by David Grossman, a magnificent polyphonic text, about a man who lost his son and starts walking around his town, followed by other “orphaned” parents.

After that, I plan to read something more cheerful, a Chinese satiric novel: The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian… and many more books!

Keenan McCracken, Associate Editor

For fiction, a friend’s been periodically reminding me to read Barry Hannah’s Airships for years now and I keep putting it off, so hopefully I’ll finally get around to it by the end of the summer.

Also looking to start Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories. More than once now,  I’ve been a bystander to people performing a kind of secret handshake over her work, so my curiosity’s definitely piqued.

For poetry, I’ve been reading Emily Hunt’s spare, mournful, totally stunning debut collection Dark Green, published by The Song Cave, which is fast becoming one of the most vital small publishers in the U.S. Also just getting to Adam Fitzgerald’s debut, The Late Parade (Liveright). Fitzgerald’s poems have an impeccable musicality to them–definitely drawing on the work of some of my favorite poets (Hart Crane, Ashbery), but the vision’s entirely his own. Hard to believe they’re both first collections.

Probably the strangest thing I’m looking forward to is the first volume of Peter Sloterdijk’s three-volume critical/morphological rethinking of Western metaphysics, Bubbles (Semiotext). It’s apparently beautifully written, and since lyrical philosophy’s pretty rare (and probably only getting rarer), it seems worth checking out.

Christie Michel, Marketing Associate

Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country has been on my bookshelf for a while, so that’s first on my list. Later this summer I’ll be reading Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, where Angela Davis delves into the music of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, and I’ll be starting in on Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, which looks gorgeous.

Anka Muhlstein, author of Monsieur Proust’s Library and Balzac’s Omelette

I am reading Primo Levi. His complete works are coming out this fall in new translations. I have just finished If Not Now, When, which I had never read, and am now in the midst of The Drowned and the Saved. I find Levi the most moral of witnesses and of an unusual intellectual integrity. I do take breaks from this unbearably poignant body of work by reading snatches of Colette.

Lauren Shekari, Subsidiary Rights Director

I am probably the last person in town to read the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, so this summer I plan to binge read them all. I won’t be doing any European travel, but I’m hoping they will make me feel like I’m in Italy!

Rupert Thomson, author Katherine Carlyle

Long sunlit days require dark reading matter. I have decided to investigate the work of David Goodis for the first time, a writer who has been overlooked, but whose name deserves to stand alongside those of RaymondChandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain. His intense, jazzy, subversive novellas of urban fear and alienation—Down ThereNightfall, The Moon in the Gutterwill inject a welcome sense of doom and hopelessness into my otherwise carefree summer. Prompted by my recent obsession with Asian cinema, I will also be sampling some Japanese noir —Malice by the best-selling Keigo Higashino, and Hotel Iris by the chillingly gifted Yoko Ogawa. Like countless other readers I have been seduced by Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels—how rare and refreshing to discover books that actually live up to the hype!—and I’m sure I will devour the fourth and last in the series, The Story of the Lost Child.  In September I am participating in a celebration of the work of the Nobel Prize-winning French author Patrick Modiano. By way of preparation, I’m intending to revisit The Search Warrant and Honeymoon. Modiano’s slender, atmospheric, and oddly gripping novels are set during the Nazi occupation, a world of uncertain identities and hidden agendas. What seems to fascinate him are the gaps in people lives—the bits that have been removed or repressed, the bits that can’t be accounted for. His books are puzzles, but they are also laments. Finally, some poems. This summer I will be diving into new collections by two of the greatest poets alive today: Red Doc> by Anne Carson, and Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück.

read full text

An Excerpt from The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas

Paris, Summer 1721

In the Regent’s Bath
“No hangover can stand in the way of a good idea,” says Philip d’Orléans to himself, inhaling the strong fragrances of his bath and closing his eyes. Were he to open them, his field of vision would be obstructed by his large, pale paunch, afloat in the hot water; and although the sight of that beached animal’s belly of his, that soft demijohn distended by nights of debauch and gluttony, wouldn’t completely spoil his delight in his good idea, it would certainly diminish it. “My children are big and fat,” declares the Princess Palatine, his mother, who herself is not thin. As the thought of his mother is always agreeable, his corpulence becomes a matter of complete indifference to him. But should he recall the words she’s always happy to add — “Big fat people don’t live any longer than anyone else” — he’d feel a frightful pang of sadness. Two years ago, his adored eldest daughter, the Duchess de Berry, died in a horrifying physical state, her obesity augmented by — or so it was said — the early stages of a pregnancy. The speed at which she’d burned out her young existence, her thirst for pleasure and extinction, the delirium of theatricality and self-destruction in which he had so loved to join her — all that had left her incapable of engendering anything but her own death.

He knows he shouldn’t dwell on the Duchess de Berry. He mustn’t think about her in these evil hours, these leaden, alcoholic hours. Stick to the present, and to whatever fosters belief in a future . . . Yes, it’s a good idea, he repeats to himself, plunging his head underwater. He’s found the solution to two vexing problems: one centers on the political need to neutralize Spain and prevent a new war, and the second results from his secret, crafty desire to put off as long as possible the time when little King Louis XV might beget a dauphin of France. It won’t be tomorrow, since the boy’s only eleven years old and won’t come of age until his thirteenth birthday, and even then . . . But the best course is to address the matter now. If the king has a son when he dies, then that son will naturally inherit the crown; but if the king dies without a male heir, then . . . then . . . perforce . . . the crown would belong to him, to Philip d’Orléans, regent of France, nephew of the late King Louis XIV, who throughout his reign took pains to keep his brother’s son well away from the government, to treat him like a good-for-nothing, and all the more rigorously because the Sun King was aware of the young man’s capabilities. Except in Louis XIV’s service, intelligence was no asset at the court of Versailles.

By a smooth transition, this reflection leads the regent back to his admirable idea. The bathwater’s cooling down, but he doesn’t care, he’s happy with his plans for the future.He’s a man who’s scrupulous and careful in accomplishing his mission, though things aren’t easy, what with the suspicions of poisoning that weigh on him, suspicions incessantly revived by the old court party; but should the occasion authorize him to ascend to the throne in all legality, he can very well see himself as king. Philip I? That title’s already taken; there was a Capetian Philip I. He fought doggedly against William the Conqueror and got himself excommunicated for repudiating his wife, Bertha of Holland, who had been chosen for political reasons . . . as if there were any others, the regent thinks, as if there were any such thing as marrying for love, at least as far as he was concerned . . . and this point, though not so painful as the death of his daughter, still rankles him. Philip II, then? Why not? Philip II, called “the Debauched.” A naive but irresistible vision; power, once tasted, is difficult to give up. It’s no use to be clear-sighted, to know that the more power you acquire the less you count personally, since you’re nothing but a pawn on the chessboard of the ambitious who are working away feverishly below you. No, you hold on, you postpone as long as possible the moment when you must step outside the circle of light and away from the hum of praise and compliments — the moment when you’re going to find yourself alone in the dark, hunted out of the world, stricken from the ranks of the living. Philip II — wouldn’t that complicate relations with the current king of Spain, Philip V? Yes, quite a bit, and not only because the king of Spain’s named Philip too; he would also be in the running for the French throne if Louis XV were to disappear. Of course, Philip II is a title that has been taken before: there was Philip II of Spain, called Philip the Prudent, the gloomy builder of El Escorial, an archpious, slow-moving bureaucrat. From the Prudent to the Debauched, a long story . . .

The regent’s daydreams slowly dissolve in the mists of his bathroom. A single question remains: How will Philip V react to this excellent idea of his? The regent strokes himself vaguely. He starts to doze off in his bath. Two chambermaids take hold of him, one on either side. They lean over and pull him up by his armpits. Their breasts jiggle in the steamy air. The regent smiles, blissfully happy.

But perhaps he’s not giving so much thought to his hangover as he is to Cardinal Dubois . . . Dubois, a man who not only has never stood in the way of good ideas but is positively bursting with them, especially in matters of diplomacy. And the regent’s good idea, the excellent idea he’s congratulating himself for, might have been suggested to him by the cardinal, his former tutor, the doer of his dirty work, a creature who plumbs the depths of degradation and scales the peaks of distinction.

Working with his customary speed and effectiveness, the cardinal sees to it that the king of Spain, Philip V, the former Duke of Anjou and a grandson of Louis XIV, is apprised of the main points of the idea/solution, which will assure a complete reconciliation and a solid alliance between the two kingdoms. And Philip V, under the influence of the French ambassador in Madrid, M. de Maulévrier, vigorously supported by the king’s confessor, Father Daubenton, a Jesuit who can manipulate the king’s will almost as well as the queen, gets enthusiastic about the project. As a rule, Philip V is not given to easy enthusiasms. With his demeanor of an old man worn out before his time, his buckling knees, his pigeon toes, his pallor, the dark circles that enlarge his eyes, he doesn’t give the impression of someone who expects very much from the future. And in fact he’s got no earthly
expectations whatsoever. All his hopes lie in heaven, not in the world. But when he reads the letters from Paris, the thick black cloud customarily hanging over him evaporates. He rereads the letter and then has it read to him by his wife, Elisabeth Farnese. When he writes his reply to the regent, he doesn’t feel he’s responding to the proposition; he has the impression that he’s its source. And he would appear to find the idea breathtaking. So perfect a plan seems to have been conceived not by a human mind, but by Providence.

The Duke de Saint-Simon, Ambassador Extraordinary

In his memoirs, Saint-Simon describes for posterity the “conversation curieuse,” the interview in which Philip d’Orléans, the companion of his childhood, apprises the duke of the brilliant idea. The two men are almost exact contemporaries. The regent is forty-seven, Saint-Simon forty-six. The passing years, war wounds, and nocturnal excesses have left their mark on the regent. His brick-red complexion designates him as a serious candidate for a stroke. The brilliance of his presence, dimmed by his weak eyesight and the stress he operates under, shines through only intermittently.

Saint-Simon, decidedly shorter than the regent and just as imposingly bewigged, looks much younger, and because of his regular life, the heat of his imagination, his passion for analysis, and the fact that he brings the entire weight of his existence to bear on every instant, he is formidably present. Profoundly different though the two men are, they’re united by the duration and sincerity of their friendship and by the pleasures of intelligence, the excitement that comes with quick wit and unspoken understanding. Nevertheless, Saint-Simon seldom departs satisfied from his conversations
with the regent. The scene the two of them play out is always repeated. Saint-Simon, brimming with initiatives and impatient for them to be realized, harasses the regent, who suffers the assault with lowered head and contrite face. It’s not that the duke bores him. Certainly not! Nor that the regent disapproves of the duke. Not in the slightest! On the contrary! But — and here’s the cause of his distress — the regent doesn’t have the courage to go the way of reason, which is namely, in Saint-Simon’s view, his own way. The regent stoops, hunkers down, grows annoyed at himself, but does not act according to reason. He makes the wrong decision every time. And why? Because he’s weak, because he’s already been taken in by Dubois, and because for all the duke’s acuteness, his interventions come too late.

This conversation, however, goes differently. The regent’s in excellent humor, proud of his news, proud of the secret he wants to confide to his friend. Saint-Simon has grievances: he’s never been invited to any of the Palais-Royal dinners given in the pink-and-gold dining room, cushioned like a jewelry casket (no matter that the mere thought of those orgies repels him, especially the fact that His Highness the Duke d’Orléans, a grandson of France, acts as the chef), and his opinions are rarely heeded in the Regency Council — without counting the thousand daily wounds he suffers from barbarians who don’t respect the rules of etiquette and the permanent scandal caused by the arrogance of Louis XIV’s bastards, who are in ascendance everywhere. But Saint-Simon is so flattered and touched by his friend’s demonstration of confidence in him that he forgets all complaints. He takes pleasure in recalling the scene:

Early in June, I went to work with His Highness the Duke d’Orléans and found him alone, walking up and down his grand apartment. As soon as he saw me, he said, “Ah, there you are,” and taking me by the hand continued, “I cannot leave you in ignorance of the thing I desire and prize above all others, which will give you as much joy as it gives me; but I must ask you to keep it utterly secret.” Then he began to laugh and added, “If M. de Cambrai [Cardinal Dubois, archbishop of Cambrai] knew I had told you, he would never forgive me.” Thereupon he informed me of the accord which he had reached with the King and Queen of Spain, of the arrangements by which our young King and the Infanta of Spain were to be wed as soon as the girl came of age, and of the agreed marriage between the Prince of Asturias and Mlle de Chartres [Saint-Simon’s error; he means another of the regent’s daughters, Mlle de Montpensier]. If my joy was great, my astonishment surpassed it.

Perhaps Saint-Simon finds the difference in rank between the betrothed parties surprising, but he’s especially flabbergasted by the spectacular nature of the reversal by which the son of the king of Spain — upon whom, two years previously, the regent declared war — has become his future son-in-law.

Upon learning of these impending marriages between France and Spain, between the French Bourbons and the Spanish Bourbons, this creation of alliances between the continent’s two most powerful kingdoms, uniting two branches of a single family — in other words, the realization of Europe’s worst fears — Saint-Simon’s immediate reaction is to advise keeping the matter a deep secret, so as not to infuriate the other countries. For once, the Duke d’Orléans can give him a guilt-free response: “You are right, of course, but that is impossible, because the Spanish desire to announce the declarations of marriage at once, and they wish to send the Infanta here as soon as the proposal is made and the marriage contract signed.” Curious haste, Saint-Simon points out, given the ages of the four young persons involved. Their betrothals are admittedly premature. The Prince of Asturias is fourteen years of age, the regent’s daughter twelve. Louis XV, born February 15, 1710, is but eleven. And as for Mariana Victoria, the infanta of Spain, her date of birth was March 31, 1718. Louis XV’s future wife, the future queen of France, is not yet four years old!

Saint-Simon doesn’t find the ages of the betrothed parties surprising, in fact doesn’t give them a single thought, and in this he resembles the authors of the agreement. What stuns him is the audacious stroke of marrying a daughter of the House of Orléans to a son of Philip V, a man veritably steeped in hatred for that family and for the regent in particular. A little later in the interview, having recovered from his amazement, Saint-Simon thinks about drawing some personal advantage from the project. He asks the regent to appoint him to bring the marriage contract to the court of Madrid for signing. In the same breath, he proposes to bring along his two sons, Jacques-Louis, Vidame de Chartres, and Armand-Jean, in order to obtain for them and himself the title of grandee of Spain. Saint-Simon desires grandeur. The regent smiles. For if the Duke de Saint-Simon is pas grand — that is, not tall — his elder son, Jacques-Louis, is even shorter than his father. His nickname is “the Basset.” The regent accepts. Saint-Simon, therefore, will be the “ambassador extraordinary” for a far from ordinary marriage.

read full text

Response to Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation has been overwhelmingly positive, sparking widespread and engaged discussion amongst critics and readers of all types. The New York Times Book Review hailed it as “[A] rich and inventive new novel…so convincing and so satisfying that we no longer think of the original story as the truth, but rather come to question it,” and The Guardian dubbed it “An instant classic.” But Daoud’s work has inspired more than words; each new review is accompanied by it’s own artwork, which does its part to illuminate the themes and beauties found in Daoud’s work.

Scroll down to see the arresting illustrations and photographs inspired by Daoud’s novel.










read full text

Julia Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in the American film adaptation of Eduardo Scheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes.

read full text

Adam Shatz, Khiereddine Djamel Bekkai, Kamran Rastegar, and Other Press publisher Judith Gurewich joined Christopher Lyndon on Radio Open Source to discuss Kamel Daoud’s “rich and inventive new novel,” (New York Times Book Review) The Meursault Investigation.

Together they discussed the place Camus classic holds in history and literature, the postcolonial aspects of Daoud’s novel, his critique of both Camus and Algerian society and government, and local and international responses to Daoud’s work. Shatz commented:

What’s remarkable, what’s striking about The Meursault Investigation, is [Daoud] takes a further step, a much bolder step. He turns this novel into a critique of postcolonial Algeria. He really situates the absurd in post-colonial Algeria, in a country that achieved liberation after this long and bloody war of decolonization but did not render liberty to Algerian citizens. So in a sense, he’s critiquing Camus, he’s paying tribute to Camus, and he’s appropriating the whole theme of absurdity, saying, “if anyone suffers from a predicament of absurdity, it’s not settlers like Meursault, it’s Algerians after their liberation.”


One of Matthew Richardson’s illustrations of “The Outsider” for the Folio Society.

Listen to the discussion here.

Learn more about Camus and The Meursault Investigation here.

read full text


author of The Travels of Daniel Ascher

Other Press: In your novel the protagonist uses her skills as an archeology student to discover a long-held family secret. Why did you make Hélène an archeologist?

Déborah Lévy-Bertherat: I’ve been fascinated by archaeology ever since I visited Pompeii at the age of six. I find it bewildering to think that wherever we walk, layers of the past lay beneath our feet.  I even considered studying archaeology instead of literature…

I learned a lot from conversations with Pompeii specialist Alix Barbet. She told me, for example, that cast bodies were not merely the tortured shapes of dying victims, which is how I saw them. They contain a skeleton, jewels and objects. This gives information not about how people died, but about how they lived.

As for Hélène, she has always wanted to be an archaeologist, without knowing why. As the novel unravels, she understands that her quest is deeper than she thought. She becomes the archaeologist of her own family’s history, especially Daniel’s. She must find out where her uncle comes from and why he looks so different from her grandparents. A family is like the earth: under its smooth surface lie hidden traces of the past. You may dig into that past, by inquiring, and that’s what Hélène does. She feels that she can’t ask Daniel directly. But she meets his neighbors, friends, and relatives, and each of them gives her a clue about Daniel’s true story.

In the end, she understands that the archaeological sites she studied—a children’s graveyard, cast bodies of Pompeii, an old mosaic—were all images of Daniel’s tragedy. But her main discovery could be that the question is not only “How did they die?”  but “How did they live?”

read full text

An excerpt from Where Women Are Kings

Elijah, my lovely son, my beloved,

I want to tell you your life. Everyone has a story inside them, which begins before they are born, and yours is a bigger story than most will ever know. They say I shouldn’t tell you some things, and that words can hurt little ears, but, son of mine, there are no secrets between a mother and son. A child has seen the insides of its mother’s body, and who can know a secret bigger than that? And they say a lot of things, those English. What they call “child abuse,” we Nigerians call “training.” So don’t mind them.

Your story begins in Nigeria, which is a place like heaven. There is continuous sunshine and everyone smiles and takes care of each other. Nigerian children work hard at school, have perfect manners, look after their parents, and respect the elderly. Nigeria is brightness and stars, and earth like the skin on your cheeks: brown-red, soft and warm.

I am full up with proud memories from Nigeria. Most of all I remember my family. Mummy — your grandmother — was famous for shining cooking pots and shining stories. “Long ago,” she would tell me and my sisters, “a woman, so full of empty, sold her body as if it was nothing but meat for sale at the market. She traveled all over Nigeria, that woman, looking for something to fill up her insides, and learned many languages, searching for words to explain the emptiness. And people liked
this empty, clever woman: she was made of starlight; her heart glowed silver. They listened when she spoke her many-language words, telling the places she’d seen: of Jos, where the sky rained diamonds, and the North, where men disappeared inside walls of sand, and the Delta creeks, dancing with river spirits. And so the people made her king. And the land filled her up, and the emptiness was sky. Nigeria is a place where women are kings. Where anything is possible.”

All my childhood she cleaned her pots while I watched, listening to her stories, to her songs, contented as any woman who ever lived. Mummy’s singing was loud, which was a good thing as my sister, your aunt Bukky, from whom you inherited that beautiful skin tone, had the kind of voice that reached inside your face. I remember one day her begging Mummy to share secrets. The sun was only half risen, yet we’d been up for hours, listening to Mummy sing and Baba snore.

“Please,” Bukky whined. “Please, Mummy. I won’t tell a soul.”

“I’ll never tell you my secret ingredient.” Mummy shook her head until her beaded plaits clicked together. She laughed. “Never. You can pester me all day and my mouth will be closed
tight as Baba’s fist on payday!”

“Please,” Bukky said, looking at the cloth with which she was wiping the pots. “It could make us rich. Imagine, a formula that cleans pots that well for sale on Express Road!” Bukky was always looking for ways to make money, and she was foolish. Once, she’d nearly been arrested after a man told her he’d give her one hundred U.S. dollars to carry a bag through airport customs. If Baba hadn’t driven past and seen her out of school and hanging around with a bag that wasn’t hers, she would have been thrown in prison. And if it had been Mummy who’d driven past, then Bukky would be dead, for sure. And who knows if the gates of heaven would open for such a crime, even if it was born of foolishness? But the things that sit in my heart are not Bukky’s foolishness, or our parents’ exasperation. Rather, the light in the compound, dancing on the metal of those cooking pots, making a thousand patterns in the dust and on Bukky’s pillow cheeks; Mummy’s laughter; Baba’s snoring. The tiny emptiness, where you would grow. A place where women are kings.

I remember that the house, with broken stairs and a leaking roof, had a central courtyard where Mummy washed rice in one of those pots; I swear our rice was the cleanest in all of Nigeria. My sisters, Miriam, Eunice, Rebekah, Bukky, Esther, Oprah, and Priscilla, spent their time looking in Mummy’s other shining cooking pots, examining the thickness of their eyebrows, the distance between their eyes (Bukky always said you could have parked a car between Esther’s eyes), the shape of their lips, the curl of their eyelashes. Baba chuckled with laughter whenever he saw them looking in the pots, and patted me on the head. “Lovely Deborah,” he said. I never looked in a cooking pot. I knew, even from such a young age, that it was sinful to be vain. I was a clever child, Elijah. Gifted. I knew the Bible so well that I could recite Psalms from the age of one year. I’m not sure if it was my not looking in a cooking pot or my willingness to study the Bible that made me Baba’s favorite. But I knew that I was. And every daughter who is her father’s favorite grows up blessed, as I was.

Really, we were all blessed. We loved school and attended the Apostle of Christ Coming Senior Department, which was only a fifteen-minute walk away. But we loved coming home from school even more — to eat dinner together and talk through the day, and read the Bible, or the other books that Baba bought for us from the store near his work, or books given to us by Mummy, which were so often read that they stayed open, as if their stories were alive and wanted to be heard. We lived on the outskirts of Lagos, in the suburb of Yaba, near the bus stop on University Road toward Yaba Cemetery: me, Mummy, Baba, my seven sisters, aunts, grandparents, and my brothers, Othniel and Immanuel — although Othniel was busy training to be a pharmacist and always out at work or the university library, and Immanuel spent all his time with his girlfriend, who lived on Victoria Island. Immanuel’s girlfriend was even more of a top secret than Mummy’s cooking-pot paste; she had starred in a music video and her parents were separated and never attended church.

Church was always a big part of our lives. When you live in a place like heaven, you cannot forget to thank God. And we had another reason to love God: our uncle, Baba’s brother, was born with the voice of God in his heart. Uncle Pastor performed miracles. He could make a dying man live, and turn around a family’s bad luck to make them the most fortunate family in all of Lagos. I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes. I’ve seen many things. One man prayed for the miracle of financial security and returned to church a week later with a winning Lotto ticket, a new Rolex watch, and a girlfriend with breasts so large that Baba could not help commenting on them, and Mummy made him put all the naira from his pocket in the offerings bin. How we laughed, Elijah! Our church was a place of happiness, and your little face led me back to it, back to our parents’ laughter. We’d all watch the way Mummy and Baba teased each other: his pretending to choke on her cooking; her calling him “bigbelly man.” Their laughter. The way they looked at each other, and at us. It was such a happy home. A family. There is nothing sweeter than that.

Mummy and Baba had strong foundations to their marriage, so, when the winds blew too hard, nothing fell over. They were friends first, for so many years, and when I became friends with Akpan, I remember Mummy and Baba looking at each other and the smile they shared. They wanted strong foundations for me, too. They were so happy when your baba led me under the palm tree, producing from his trouser pocket a ring that shone like a midnight star and must have cost six months’
salary. They knew something of how marriage can work. They felt happiness, but also relief. Even in a place like heaven, life is difficult for women. If it hadn’t been for your baba, Akpan, asking for my hand in marriage, I do not know what would have become of me. And, son of mine, that is the situation for women the world over.

I was lucky. Akpan became my friend. He visited all the time, and every time he visited I liked him a little more. He had a kind face and he believed in things, and often had a Marks and Spencer carrier bag full of gifts for us: a matching goldplated jewelry set for my sisters and me, a travel alarm clock for Mummy, though she never traveled farther than Ikeja and didn’t have any AAA batteries, anyway.

Sometimes, when I was a child, I heard God in my ear — heard His voice as clear as the colors of morning. When I told him, Akpan said I had a spiritual gift. He said God had chosen me to whisper secrets to, because I was beautiful. He called me his angel and my heart swelled so much I struggled to breathe. It was many long years before we were married, and before Akpan got a visa for himself and a spouse visa for me so that we could leave our home and come to England, to the flat in London where we made you on the first try. The stars were bright that first night, Elijah, as though the Nigerian stars had traveled over to Deptford to light up our lovemaking. You were born from love and Nigerian stars and secrets believed.

You are loved, little Nigeria, like the world has never known love.

read full text

author of Where Women Are Kings

Other Press: In Where Women Are Kings you display a compassionate understanding of the intricacies of Nigerian customs, the adoption process, and the workings of mental illness. Was it the result of research, personal experience, artistic imagination, or a combination of all three? How were you able to explore such big and disparate themes without having them overwhelm the narrative or the characters?

Christie Watson: As a novelist I often take lived experiences and ask What if? to create narrative. Of Where Women Are Kings I wanted to take my lived experience of adoption and ask questions outside my own (positive) experience. I take research very seriously; I think it’s the job of a novelist to get the facts right. Even in fiction there needs to be truth, and a well-researched novel allows for believability and more importantly, avoidance of offense. But of course all stories are a combination of all three aspects you mention. It’s impossible to separate the different elements.

I am driven by character first, story second. I always preach to my creative writing students that character is the most important thing. People read stories to identify with a character, no matter how sophisticated the plot or external events. And themes of a novel are subconscious, and more about the writer. The themes will emerge even if you try to suppress them, so I don’t worry about themes too much. I write strong characters and let them tell the story! I simply listened to Elijah’s voice.

OP: Some of the most moving parts of your novel are the letters Deborah writes to Elijah. Why did you make her letters a part of the novel? Was there ever a point when you were writing where Deborah appeared only through the third person, as with the other characters?

CW: I wanted to experiment slightly with form, and I was interested in consciousness and how to tell the story with Elijah at the center without losing the narrative voices of Nikki and Deborah. The letters allowed me to explore insights into mental illness and take the reader on a journey into psychosis.

Deborah from third-person perspective would have been a very different character, and there was a risk that she would become unsympathetic. I wanted to climb into her head and see the story from inside her, understand what or who drives good people to evil acts.

OP: In many ways, what Elijah faces is a conflict of between the cultural and religious inheritance his mother has left him, one that is inextricably tied to her intense love for him and the life they shared, and the stability and care Nikki and Obi offer him when he becomes a part of their family. Do you think it’s difficult for those working in the public sector, like Chioma and Ricardo, to address the abuses children like Elijah face without censuring the cultures they are a part of?

CW: We can’t separate ourselves from culture, and I know from working in the NHS that mistakes have been made plenty of times in the past due to the harmful attitude that if something abusive is considered culturally normal then it is not child abuse. But in my experience it’s not people from within a culture who condone harmful practices but well-meaning public sector workers fearful of being called racist. Child abuse such as female genital mutilation, or faith-based abuse like Elijah suffers is child abuse in any context. Things are improving dramatically and the dangers of calling child abuse something culturally acceptable are being addressed throughout the public sector, in the police, social services, and NHS.

OP: Both Nikki and Deborah face their own challenges in their respective experiences of motherhood. If they were ever to meet, what do you think they would make of each other?

CW: I think they would be equally devastated by the loss they recognize in each other.

read full text

An Excerpt from Out of Sight

“It’s all façades here,” Ed Ruscha once said. “That’s what intrigues me about . . . Los Angeles — the façade-ness.” He has described himself as a landscape painter, and it’s true. But Ruscha’s is also an art of façades, and the landscape he painted, especially in the 1960s, was that of L.A. and its many façades — its storefronts and apartment buildings, gas stations and restaurants, and, above all, its signs: Los Angeles is a city of signs, and Ruscha is its poet-painter laureate.

Interest in the Southern California landscape was not unique to Ruscha in the 1960s. It fi gured importantly as well in the work of Joe Goode and Vija Celmins, two painters whose initial focus on “common objects” gave way over the course of the decade to images of desert, sea, and sky. It was not an obvious choice. Though the landscape was the defi ning subject of American painting in the nineteenth century, it had, by the middle of the twentieth, largely faded from view. Yet Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins all discovered a way beyond the impasse of mid-century American painting by reclaiming the Western landscape. Such concerns were a long way from the alleged dictates of the L.A. Look, at least insofar as that label implied an art preoccupied with high-tech materials or a synthesis of color and form. Still, Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins had all studied with Robert Irwin, and even if their work didn’t betray any stylistic influence, it is also true that their concerns were in many ways closer to those of Irwin and L.A.’s so-called Light and Space artists than to those of the East Coast Pop artists to whom they were initially compared. Light was a constant theme in Ruscha’s paintings, for instance, as space was in Celmins’s; Goode, meanwhile, tested the limits of sight, of what could be seen and what could not.

However indirect or oblique their aesthetic kinship with other Los Angeles artists, the parallels among Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins are striking. Just as L.A.’s “façade-ness” was at the heart of Ruscha’s work, the Southern California landscape we encounter in the work of Goode and Celmins is one of false fronts and obstructed views. What, if anything, lies beyond the façades? An answer, I think, can be found in the history of landscape painting and the American West — and the relationship between that landscape and the idea of the sublime.

The sublime — the frisson of exhilaration and terror that arises from the sense that one is in the presence of some overwhelming, even godlike power — found its purest artistic expression in Romanticism. In the early nineteenth century, poets such as William Wordsworth and painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and J. M. W. Turner immersed themselves in the natural sublime, mirroring in their art the experience of vertiginous mountain passes, the boundlessness of the sea, or the infinitude of stars in the night sky. Evocations of the sublime were likewise key to the popular success of many crowdpleasing American landscape painters later in the century. The genre’s heavyweight champion was Frederic Edwin Church, whose Niagara was a work of such sublimity that crowds would stand in line for hours for the chance to swoon before its majesty. Works such as Niagara were, for many observers, testament to the greatness not only of the artist but of America, symbols of the young nation’s vaulting ambition and its promise of spiritual renewal. Sentiments of this sort stoked the zeal for westward expansion, the ideal of Manifest Destiny that demanded continental reach, and no one did more to promote that ideal than Albert Bierstadt, whose paintings of the Sierra Nevada rivaled Church’s in their grandeur.

Postwar American painting had a brief flirtation with what the art historian Robert Rosenblum, referring to painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, dubbed the “abstract sublime.” By the late fi fties, however, Duchampian irony was ripe for revival. And irony is the enemy of the sublime; it is a small, skeptical voice calling us back from the brink. We see it most clearly in Jasper Johns and the artists who followed in his wake, including Ruscha, whose work is thick with irony. But irony alone cannot account for the hold Ruscha’s work has on the viewer’s imagination. Amid the absurdities so abundant in his art, an air of mystery remains.

In a series of paintings begun shortly after the New Painting of Common Objects show, Ruscha hit upon a strategy he would build on in years to come. Emphatically horizontal canvases — what Ruscha himself once called his “Panavision format” — helped him push the conventions of architectural perspective to comic extremes. Ruscha regarded “the horizontal line and the landscape” as “almost one and the same,” and these works illustrate the point. The first, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, depicted the Twentieth-Century Fox movie logo. Twice as long as it is high, the painting captures the absurd monumentality of the emblem. Against a black background, the towering logo occupies the left side of the picture; perspective lines extend from the logo’s lettering to the lower right-hand corner, where they converge. Ruscha applied the same scheme — elongated horizontal format, black sky, perspective lines meeting at the lower right — in Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas. The picture is divided by a diagonal that constitutes the building’s roofl ine and overhead sign, which simply reads “STANDARD.” In both paintings, the overall effect is mock heroic, a ludicrous kind of triumphalist grandeur (looking at Large Trademark, you can almost hear the familiar Fox fanfare).

Ruscha tinkered slightly with the formula in what has become one of his most iconic images, the Hollywood sign, executed first in a series of prints and reprised in two later paintings.* The sign sits proudly on its hilltop, its letters silhouetted against a glowing red-orange sunset. But it also looks a little lost, occupying but a small fraction of the real estate in the center foreground, where it is dwarfed by a sky that seems to go on forever. It is no match for the mythic Western landscape, the legacy of Bierstadt paintings and John Ford Westerns, yet its mere presence deflates the myth, reminds us that it’s just a Hollywood production. As the last light fades, the sign serves as the closing credits for the American sublime.

Ruscha painted the Standard station in 1963, but it had already made an appearance in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the first of his many small books. Ruscha’s books have a very different feel from his paintings and prints; the mock heroic is replaced by the mystifyingly mundane. Each book comprises a series of photographs, artless snapshots, of exactly what its title promises: Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Nine Swimming Pools, Thirtyfour Parking Lots, among others. Some of the books — including, most famously, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, with its twenty-five-foot-long, multi-paneled accordion fold — deal specifically with the city’s façade-ness.

ruscha pic

Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966, edition of 1,000 (artists book, 7 x 5 5/8 x 299 1/2 in.)

Even the words in Ruscha’s paintings serve as façades. They are as enigmatic as the photographs of swimming pools or apartment buildings in his books. They seem to have drifted into view, flotsam bobbing along the surface of contemporary culture: advertising slogans, announcements, non sequiturs, snatches of conversation. You can try to decipher them, but as Ruscha warns in the title of one painting, there’s No End to the Things Made Out of Human Talk. “A lot of my ideas,” he told one magazine, “come from the radio.” He liked it best, he added, “when it’s music overlapping talk, or talk over talk.” In Ruscha’s paintings, no matter how you try to fine-tune the dial, you keep getting static, the white noise of crossed signals. Is it a clue, with some deeper meaning? Or just another one of the things made out of human talk? 

Ruscha is identified with paintings of words, so much so that the fact that he titled one of his largest and most prominently placed works Picture Without Words is reason in itself to take note. The twenty-three-foot-high canvas (its extreme verticality is another exceptional aspect) was commissioned for the opening of the Getty Center in 1997. But it was the realization of ideas Ruscha first explored in the 1970s in a series of works on paper titled Miracle. In the Getty painting, a shaft of light pours through a high window and illuminates a rectangular section of fl oor. The symbolism is deliberately hokey, like something out of Song of Bernadette or a prison film where the killer finds redemption before his long walk to the gas chamber, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. Ruscha has often pointed to the role of his childhood Catholicism and its continuing influence on him, despite his abandonment of the faith by the time he was an adult. He has described his mental universe as that of “a Catholic kid intersecting with the world of crass consumerism.” Picture Without Words is not so much a declaration of faith as a declaration that, for Ruscha, words are opaque, another façade that obstructs our vision, and their absence here provides an opening of sorts for something unnameable: The light coming through the window, whatever its source, is not among the “things made out of human talk.” This is about as close as Ruscha gets to an unambiguous acknowledgment of the sublime; absent words, only the B-movie cliché of the scene itself suggests the usual ironic counterpoint. It is Ruscha’s genuine fascination with the sublime that prevents his work from being merely clever.

In his small but influential 1960 book, The Image of the City, the urban planner Kevin Lynch investigated the “legibility” of American cities — how the people who lived and worked in a particular city formed a mental image of their urban environment. In Los Angeles, Lynch concluded, they simply couldn’t: The city was too “hard to envision or conceptualize as a whole”; it was, for all intents and purposes, illegible.

The illegibility of Los Angeles was to a great extent a function of its sprawling, de-centered geography. But not of that alone. What was missing from L.A. was not just a real, physical center but, more important, a symbolic center, a touchstone where the city’s past could speak to its present. It has often been noted that L.A.’s greatest architectural treasures are private residences, largely hidden from view, rather than public buildings. It is the latter that imbue a place with collective meaning, that serve as monuments to recall us to our history. Instead of monuments, mid-century Los Angeles was, as Ruscha never ceased to remind us, a city defi ned by signs, a repeating loop of signifi ers that seemed to lead only to one another.

If the city was illegible, the Western landscape blazed with the unnameable; it teamed with signifi cance, at once mythic and historic — of the frontier spirit and a continental empire, of providential favor and self-realization, of an immanent presence beyond the reach of human talk — a surfeit of meaning characteristic of the sublime. In taking that landscape as their subject, Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins each had to reconcile the contradictions between the mythology and the dull sublunary reality of postwar Los Angeles, a task they approached with varying degrees of skepticism. “You can’t just go up and read it,” Celmins said of her own work. “You have to stand back and find your relationship to [it].” That was true of the Southern California landscape as well. For artists such as Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins, the challenge was to fi nd a place to stand — a place situated, however precariously, between suburbia and the sublime.

read full text

William Hackman’s Out of Sight is “enjoyable and well-researched” (Publishers Weekly) and “a deeply absorbing account of the midcentury years during which Los Angeles’s once-marginal art scene transformed into a prominent locus of the avant-garde” (Library Journal). Enter our Goodreads giveaway for a chance to win one of ten available copies!


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Out of Sight by William Hackman

Out of Sight

by William Hackman

Giveaway ends April 18, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to Win

read full text