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Interview: Aaron Michael Morales

An excerpt from Aaron Michael Morales' novel, Drowning Tucson, appears in the May issue of The Collagist. He was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, and is a graduate of Purdue University's MFA program. He has taught Creative Writing, Latin American Literature, Multi-Cultural Literature, Contemporary Literature, and Rhetoric and Composition at a number of colleges. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana State University, where he teaches Creative Writing and Contemporary Literature. Morales has also written a chapbook of short fiction, From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert. He is currently working on his second novel, Eat Your Children.

Can you talk about the inspiration for "Drowning Tucson"? What was on your mind while you were writing this novel?

In truth, this novel was “inspired”—if I should say that—by the overwhelming amount of sadness I have witnessed in my life. It started very young. As a three- or four-year-old child I was acutely aware of the suffering of others. I would internalize others’ sadness, their tragedies and traumas—emotional and physical—until I would become despondent, melancholy, the works. Even though I was poor, I would feel the humility—that painful slap—the other poor kids felt for getting free lunch or wearing the same hand-me-downs day after day. I didn’t bother to feel sorry for myself because I was too caught up in feeling bad for them. Or, after school, if I saw some kid get the shit beat out of him, I felt every punch and kick as though it were me lying in the alley getting pummeled by a gang of boys.

My mother never really understood why I was always walking around with a downtrodden look on my face, but it wasn’t even that so many awful things happened to me, as much as it was that I felt like a sponge for emotional devastation. Some of it was my witnessing actual tragic events—unbelievable violence, racism, misogyny, you name it—and some was my young mind speculating about the sadness of others. I would invent the trauma a person was suffering if I didn’t know the real reason they were in a state of emotional distress. Here’s an example. When I was a teenager I remember sitting in a Denny’s having a cup of coffee and smoking cigarettes, and across the aisle from me was a teenage boy and his father. They sat opposite one another, eating their meal in awkward silence. And I just knew that this kid was a product of a divorce and that his father had him for the weekend and didn’t know how, or have any desire, to cook for his son, so he took him to Denny’s where they sat looking at anything but each other. The boy had long head-banger bangs that he hid behind, and his dad was dressed like a blue-collar guy. They had nothing in common. They had grown apart. They were forced into a fake father-son scenario and neither knew what to do and it was devastating both of them. They didn’t say one word the entire time they were there. Now, of course, I have no idea whether or not what I thought was occurring between the two of them was actually true, but, in my sponge-like mind, I just felt sadness for both of them and the situation I imagined them to be in. It broke my heart to see them sitting there like that, so distant.

So, I guess you could say that I’ve been carrying all this sadness around with me for all these years. There have been the tragedies I’ve suffered, and the ones suffered by my friends, family, loved ones. And then there are all the other tragedies I seem to encounter wherever I look. I catalogue them. I look at any newspaper or TV screen or magazine and my eye is immediately drawn to the worst tragedy. The 9-year-old boy set on fire for refusing to share his bike. The seven-year-old serial rapist who is incarcerated at a children’s group home in the town where I live. The fifteen-year-old girl gang raped outside her prom last year. It’s everywhere. So I had plenty of emotion and experience from which to draw this book and its stories and characters.

My novel has occasionally been critiqued as being so over-the-top that it is nearly unbelievable, but I disagree. I think my writing is a lot more tame than the real events we hear about on the news every single day, the things that happen to very real people. And certainly it is much more tame than what it must have felt like for the victims of violence who suffered some sort of devastation. For those who think I am just trying to shock people, all I can say is that I did not spend five years of my life writing this book just to get a gasp of horror or a shudder of repulsion out of my readers. That would be quite a pathetic use of five years. But if it repulses readers, I suppose that’s a good thing. It means the reader has more humanity than the characters committing these awful acts in my novel.

I’m also obsessed with humanity’s proclivity toward violence and our mistreatment of one another. I seek to understand it, and that’s why I wrote this novel. I wanted to illustrate the power of poverty and circumstance. It’s easy, as an outsider, to see solutions to problems caused by poverty and violence. But it’s another thing entirely to be in such situations, to feel so hopeless and powerless. I’m really just trying to capture all of that.

This is a very powerful piece of writing, one whose capacity to haunt comes, in my opinion, in part from the linking of chance and pain. The lives of these characters are altered irreversibly in a matter of seconds, by burns inflicted so suddenly and unexpectedly but which linger for the rest of their lives. Could you speak a little about this theme of sudden loss and change, and how it plays out throughout the novel?

I love that you said “burns” because I think that absolutely nails how it feels to be in such hopeless circumstances. In a world of poverty and violence, your entire life can be thrown into a state of upheaval in a matter of moments. One bad decision, one wrong turn, finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all of a sudden your life as you know it ends. Sometimes it literally ends, and other times your life course is altered so dramatically that you never return from this point.

I explore this theme of sudden loss and change because I think that it’s important to understand—or at least try to understand—what might lead a mother to commit suicide and take her child with her. Or what might drive an otherwise normal man to become a pedophile. There has to be a reason. There are so many atrocities committed by humans on a daily basis that we have become numb to it. But I often find myself wondering why. Because I know there’s a reason, even if I can’t understand it or agree with it, it makes sense to the person at the time, so I believe I can make sense of it through my fiction. Maybe readers will think it’s melodramatic that a man hiding his homosexuality could resort to the violence Manny does in my novel, but it’s a matter of putting oneself into Manny’s shoes. He’s got a family. A wife and two sons. He’s a pillar of the community in virtually every aspect of his life. He’s a captain in the Air Force. By all accounts, he’s the model man. And yet he’s tortured, utterly haunted by the truth that he is sexually attracted to men. He carries this burden within himself until it becomes unbearable, uncontrollable, and he cracks. This might seem melodramatic, but imagine being him. When he realizes the truth about himself, and he sees the life he’s set up for himself, it is as though his life is over. I know many middle-aged men who led lives that were lies. They married and had kids and held down good jobs. They played the role of straight man to a tee. And yet, at some point they decided enough was enough and they decided to come out and be true to themselves. Some people handle this dramatic life change just fine, and others find themselves in a downward spiral of despair. I think it is melodramatic from the outside, but that’s the way most emotional turmoil appears to those of us who aren’t suffering.

This theme, this sudden upending of lives, plays out throughout the entirety of Drowning Tucson, again and again, in myriad ways, to illustrate how people’s lives are so fragile. How life itself is so fragile. How we take normalcy and safety for granted when our safety and normalcy go unthreatened day in and day out.

I read an interview that you did over at Largehearted Boy earlier in the month, and I’m really intrigued by something you said in one of your answers. You were describing Tucson, and your reasoning for setting the novel there: “… there is a strange, and sometimes ominous, mythological magic (for lack of a better phrase) that lingers in the air—one part Old West, one part Native American, and one part Mexican American. There are forces here that are not to be trifled with.” Working only with this excerpt, these forces seem to be ones of destruction, their victims everyday people who become vulnerable at their moments of forgetfulness or impulse. How do these forces participate in Drowning Tucson—both inside the story and outside it, in its telling?

I think I purposely set the book there for two reasons. The first is that the desert is a beautiful and calming place. It truly is. From afar. Sometimes from within. But it’s also a horrifically violent and destructive place. The plants and the animals are deadly. The weather is deadly. It is inhospitable. But it also mirrors a lot of the action of the novel. After all, despite what people might think, Drowning Tucson is not just a book packed front-to-back with violence and tragedy. There are many beautiful moments. There are acts of kindness and love. Take the character Rainbow. Yes, she’s a prostitute, doomed from a very young age because she was abandoned by her mother. And yet, she is protected, guarded, and brought up by a Native American Vietnam vet who sees that she needs someone to care for her. He is kind to her, expecting nothing in return. He is selfless. He is a good man. And he sees good in her. It might be easy to overlook these moments, but there are many within the novel. Felipe, the character in the novel’s first chapter, is a very kind, intelligent, hopeful young man who simply cannot control his destiny because it’s been outlined for him from before his birth. I wanted to show how sometimes beautiful things can be destroyed. Nature, a young mind, a budding relationship. All of these things are so beautiful and delicate.

The force of violence is indisputably powerful. Anyone who has suffered the infliction of violence at the hands of another person is forever marred by the experience. It’s so easy to look away from violence, or to shake our heads when we hear about some atrocity or another, but then we forget. We move on to other things in our lives keeping us busy. Not so for the victim. She is forever scared of the dark, or sounds in the night. What to me is a house creaking and groaning and settling in at night is to her a potential intruder. Can you imagine that sort of ongoing horror?

Like you pointed out, a lot of my characters become vulnerable when they forget the forces that threaten their lives and their safety. This is when people are most often harmed. When we let our guard down. When we become too cocky or confident. It’s one of the reasons why 9/11 was such a traumatic experience. Not just because of the obvious horrors of that day, the unfathomable act that unfolded on live television all over the world, but also because we—as a nation—had become so complacent and confident and cocky that we simply could not conceive of something like that happening to us, here, in America, the one country in the world no one would ever dare to attack. But we were attacked. We were vulnerable because we didn’t see ourselves as vulnerable. And now look how our nation’s psyche has fared. We are paranoid. We are enraged. We mistrust our neighbors. People with brown skin. People with unpronounceable Middle Eastern names give us pause. Flying is now a burden to be suffered, rather than a pleasure.

So, while there are many people who are good in the world, and while there are people who live their entire lives without every suffering or falling victim to another’s cruelty, there are still so many who live with the tragic outcome of impulse or forgetfulness.

You’re currently working on your second novel, Eat Your Children. What are your goals with this novel, and how do they differ from those you had for Drowning Tucson or your earlier chapbook of short fiction, From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert?

There are a few ways Eat Your Children will differ from my earlier work. For one, it is much more linear. It mostly follows one protagonist—Davey Powers from the “Easter Sunday” chapter of Drowning Tucson—as he becomes steeped in the culture of meth addiction. The reason I chose to continue his story is because we only get a snapshot of him in my first novel, and I think he’s a very complicated character. He internalizes the violence inflicted upon him by his father, and then he enters a world of drug addiction that varies dramatically from just about every other type of drug addiction.

I’ve done extensive research for Eat Your Children, and it’s been heartbreaking and disturbing. There is something sinister about the drug and the way it changes people. It turns them into sexual deviants. It turns them into zombies. It ages the body dramatically. It makes people violent. And the level of sexual deviance is actually much, much more intense than people might think. So it will be different because rather than being steeped in a world of inner-city poverty, featuring a lot of Latino characters, it will be situated in a much different—though equally horrific—place. It is set in the Midwest, and it follows Davey through his teen years into adulthood, as he plummets further and further into this world.

I came upon this idea when I started teaching out here in Indiana. The meth problem is severe. It’s almost passé because of how frequently the news features meth lab busts and people from all walks of life ruining their lives. People here want to dismiss them all as “white trash,” but then we hear of a City Councilman being busted for dealing meth, or a schoolteacher cooking in her basement. To be truthful, there is already a lot of work out there about meth—TV shows like Breaking Bad, movies like Spun, books like Beautiful Boy—but the way my book will vary from all these other works is that it will primarily feature the children of meth heads. After all, most people are well aware of the effects of meth on drug users. What is never spoken about, what I’ve never seen featured in any news magazine or TV show—beyond a cursory glimpse—is the way it affects the lives of the children of these drug users. It is so sad, so overwhelming to see the profound difference between the way a “normal” child is raised versus the way a child of a meth head is raised. If you can even call it being raised. Without getting too involved in the plot, I’ll just say that the book will feature a lot of children, but it is no way an adolescent novel. It’s devastating. It’s painful to write. But it’s necessary. I’ll be so happy when I’m finished with it because it has been a harrowing experience being involved with this project. Nevertheless, I feel an urge, a palpable pull to write about this topic, so I’m proud of having done it. It will probably disturb and offend a lot of people, to whom I would say, “at least it’s fiction.” Because the truth is that the true story of meth kids is far worse than what I’m depicting in my novel. I do want it to get published, after all.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m writing a textbook, but that’s boring so I won’t talk about it. I have a third novel I’ve started, tentatively titled Latrinalia, which is a folklorist’s term for graffiti found in bathrooms. The idea is that I’m going to use bathroom graffiti found in bars, truck stops, parks, restaurants, and other locations all over the country to take the pulse of our nation. If I’m ever going to write any sort of “Great American Novel,” (do authors still aspire to that goal anymore?) then this book would be it. I love the idea of latrinalia and how we speak the ugly truth in the so-called privacy of our public restroom space. Yes, there is always the usual crude and adolescent sexual stuff to be found in bathrooms, but there is also a surprising amount of political observations and opinions. The debates that occur on bathroom walls are fantastic, juvenile though they may be at times. It’s going to be a monstrously overwhelming project, but I’ve already begun collect gems from bathrooms on my book tour this summer. It’s going to be a pleasure to write. It will probably differ dramatically from my first two novels. But that’s a good thing. I’d hate to get stuck in a rut or become a one-trick-literary-pony.

I also have been writing a book of poetry, but I don’t know if I’ll ever really try to submit the book anywhere. Who knows. It’s just a hobby of mine. But I’m so particular about what I consider to be good poetry that it’s paralyzed me in terms of having the confidence to submit mine to a publisher. Time will tell.

What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

I just finished rereading Varalam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, which is a beautifully brutal collection of short stories set in the notorious Gulag work camps. The things described in that book, and the manner in which Shalamov manages to avoid didacticism, are simply astounding. If you haven’t read it, I cannot recommend it enough. I also just finished reading Dog on the Cross by Aaron Gwyn, which is a completely badass book as well.  I’m looking forward to reading Brett Easton Ellis’s newest novel, Imperial Bedrooms. But, I’m most excited to read a book that was just released last year called The Trial of Robert Mugabe by Chielo Zona Eze. He and I were enrolled in Purdue’s MFA program at the same time, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his first publication. I loved his work in grad school, so I can only imagine how much better it’s gotten since then. This is a great time to be alive as a reader and as a writer. There are just so many good writers out there. I can’t find enough time to devour it all. But I’ll keep trying.

Episode 27: Saeed Jones

Saeed Jones' "Mississippi Drowning" appears in our May 2010 issue. You can now listen to a reading of this work as part of our podcast series:

Episode 27: "Mississippi Drowning" by Saeed Jones

You may also subscribe to the podcast through iTunes by clicking here, or you may add it manually in iTunes or other software by using the direct feed address:/wordpress/?feed=podcast

Interview: Carroll Beauvais

Carroll Beauvais' poem "Dog River, Alabama: Father's Elegy appeared in the May issue. Carroll is an MFA candidate at Syracuse University and an editor for Salt Hill Journal.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "Dog River, Alabama: Father’s Elegy"? What was on your mind while you were writing this poem?

I suppose like all art, it is an amalgam of experience and imagination. A certain rhythm populated with images that I couldn’t shake. My father died last March, so his death was certainly an impetus to this piece.  I knew I wanted the poem to have a wind-blown effect, the way it should look on the page, and the sensation of having a sort of wind move through you and then out of you, so it was a matter of finding the complications of the speaker’s experience and drawing them out to the surface.

2. The opening line of this poem—You leave the urn like exhaust from a tailpipe—continues to intrigue me as it works on many levels. With opening lines, intrigue certainly seems like a pivotal thing, inciting in the reader an interest/reason to continue with the poem. Also, the image of this line is exceptionally strong, both with the visualization of the ashes leaving the urn and the simile of the exhaust in relation to the father’s ashes. Do you have any story with this line, perhaps how it came to be? What made you decide to use this as the first line?

Honestly, I don’t really know how this line came to be.  I looked back through my drafts to answer your question, and the line was always there, but in the very early drafts, there were more lines that preceded this one.  The other lines were cut because they were striking a similar, less vibrant note.  Opening with the speaker in the middle of the action, and also personalizing the experience to set the tone, the tension, the loss, is more immediate and engaging than watching a writer throw darts trying to get the right image or metaphor.  I think whether it’s the first, seventh, or last line, there needs to be some momentum or intrigue to keep the reader involved in the poem.

3. Continuing from the opening line, the images in this poem work well to further establish the sentimentality of the poem: ashes leaving urn, a family activity like skiing, kneeling/waving.  I’m highly interested in how that image of the mother teaching the speaker how to ski came to be coupled with the image of the father’s ashes being scattered in the river. What brought about the connection of some of these images in this poem?

I grew up in Alabama near the water, my father built boats, so the return to water was literally a constant repetition in my childhood, and because of that, mostly an intuitive choice here.  I was a bit of a runt as a kid, so when I was learning how to ski, the weight of the skis would cause me to topple over to the side.  I couldn’t keep them straight up in the water while my father was getting the boat ready, so my mother would put on a life jacket, hop in the water, and center me until I got up.

4. Working on a journal, as you do with the Salt Hill Journal, seems to give that other side view to the publishing world. Has working as a poetry editor affected your approach/thoughts on publishing? On the other hand, has your experience working towards poetry publications yourself as a writer influenced your actions/mindset as an editor?

I’m sure that it has, though I’d like to say my editorial work hasn’t changed my own writing.  I would never suggest that anyone should be writing towards pleasing a specific journal.  Reading submissions for Salt Hill has given me the chance to see what’s out there, what other people are working on, and I find that both inspiring and helpful.  There is a fine line between a strong or promising piece and one that is ready for publication, and like most writers, I find that difference difficult to recognize in my own work.  That said, there’s a lot of great writing that doesn’t get published, and I think part of the process and struggle is finding the right fit between the work and a journal.  If anything, the submission process can help you think about your own work more critically.  Sometimes you get a rejection and feel the editor did you a favor; other times, you think the editor was wrong and try again another place.

5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m heading into my thesis year at Syracuse, so I’m trying to see how my poems fit together to form a manuscript.  I’ve also been having some fun trying my hand at short prose pieces, though I’m not sure what will come of it.

6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

I’m reading and rereading Denis Johnson’s The Incognito Lounge.  I don’t think I’ll ever finish it because each time I pick the book up I want to reread the poems I’ve already read.  It’s just that good.  I’m also reading around in Amy Hempel’s The Collected Stories, and looking forward to great books coming from my excellent teachers and mentors.  Michael Burkard, Chris Kennedy, and Bruce Smith all have new books slated for the coming year, so look out.

2010 Non-Fiction Contest Winner: Evelyn Hampton

Our guest judge David McLendon has carefully read and considered all of the entries in our 2010 Non-Fiction Contest, and we’re happy to announce that he has selected “Nowhere Hill" by Evelyn Hampton as the winner. Evelyn will receive $100 in prize money in addition to having her winning essay published in the June 2010 issue of The Collagist. All the other finalists will also have their entries published in upcoming issues.

Here is the complete list of finalists:

Winner: "Nowhere Hill" by Evelyn Hampton

Finalists (in no particular order):
"No Soap" by Joseph Harrington
"Light" by Michael Palmer
"Coal Hollow Ekphrasis" by Floyd Cheung
"Breaking Point" by David Legault

Our thanks go to David McLendon for the generous gift of his time and talent it took to read each and every one of the entries to this contest. We’d also like to thank everyone who entered for giving us the chance to consider their work. We hope you’ll continue to read The Collagist and to submit your work in the future.

Once again, we congratulate Evelyn Hampton for her winning essay, as well as Joseph Harrington, Michael Palmer, Floyd Cheung, and David Legault for being selected as finalists. We look forward to sharing their very strong work with you starting in Issue 11 and continuing across the next few issues.

Interview: Heather Momyer

Heather Momyer's nonfiction appears in the May 2010 issue of the Collagist. She is the Nonfiction Editor of Requited, a fiction reader for Hotel Amerika, and an editor for Slash Pine Press. Her writing appears in journals such asH_NGM_N, Moria, JMWW, trnsfr, and Exquisite Corpse. New work is forthcoming in Ekleksographia.

Can you talk about the inspiration for “The Mythologizing of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir”? What was on your mind when you were writing this essay?

I’m working on a larger collection of essays right now that is tentatively titled Among Friends & Lovers. It stems from my dissertation, which was called Performing the Illusion of Love. Both bodies of work are essentially arguments for personal and creative modes of criticism, which more accurately reflect my engagement with literature and the arts. I’m hoping to assert that a more poetic and experimental approach does not necessarily detract from the intellectual integrity of the response. Any weaknesses in that area are my fault, not the form’s fault.

However, the tying themes of this newer collection are relationships, love, the ability (or inability) to communicate and share intimate experiences through language or other forms of expression. Some of the essays are about more canonical authors where I weave in my experiences with romantic relationships, which I find relevant. As Robert McLiam Wilson says in Eureka Street, “All stories are love stories.” At the same time, all reading experiences are personal, to some degree. I bring what I know and what I have experienced with me while approaching fiction.

However, I didn’t want to write only about the men I know or the writers that others often already write about, such as Joseph Conrad. I decided to open the collection with creative responses to women writers whom I know personally. My experiences and relationships with those women affect the manner in which I read their work.

I chose Amanda’s stories for two reasons. 1) She is working with similar ideas that deal with the difficulty in communicating with people we love or desire to love. & 2) She is my friend.

As for Sartre and de Beauvoir, I used to be quite fascinated with their relationship. There was a point in my life when I thought I wanted that kind of relationship. I wanted absolute freedom, but then I discovered that jealousy is a bitch. And, I tend to want to argue with Sartre. My qualms with him aren’t rational. I just don’t want the world to be the way he sees it. I’m desperately looking for some kind of hope, some kind of way to feel connected with the rest of the world. I don’t want to feel that alone.

This is a piece that assumes a lot of its readers, the main assumption being they’ll know enough about Sartre and de Beauvoir to appreciate the parallels between those two and the Minotaur and Medusa, to read earnest or irony into the words you give them. It might very well be the fact that it’s categorized as an essay that it seems essential to know a little background. Though at the same time, it is a self-proclaimed ‘mythologizing,’ so in a way, you can take or leave anything. To your mind, what makes this piece not a fiction?

I really tried to stick with what I knew about de Beauvoir and Sartre when it came to the tenor of their relationship, though I’m not totally comfortable calling this nonfiction. But, it isn’t fiction either. The term “nonfiction” is a contract with the reader where I say, “Everything here is empirically true. You can trust me.” Of course, everything in “The Mythologizing” is not empirically true, but I’m not tricking anyone either. Sartre wasn’t really a Minotaur.

I’m sure lots of readers don’t know many details about the relationship between the two and many might not feel totally up on their French existentialism or feminism, but I’m not sure that those details matter. I certainly hope the essay works for those who are familiar with Sartre and de Beauvoir and their philosophies, but the important element for this essay is that there are two people who spent years struggling with defining the terms of their relationship, while trying to force their emotional responses to each other into forms that fit their philosophies.

As perhaps a follow up, can you speak specifically to how and/or why you chose the Minotaur and Medusa for Jean-Paul and Simone’s altered selves?

Ok. So, technically, the labyrinth is not a maze. But, it is commonly identified as such, so I just went with it. And the maze fits existentialist thought nicely, and that’s why I wanted to stick Sartre in the center as the Minotaur. (His desire for young women also helped.) So, here in the maze we are, not really knowing where we are or where we are going. But we can go somewhere. We can choose all sorts of directions. Or we can choose to lie down and take a nap. We have absolute control with what we do with ourselves. There lies our authority and the reason for our responsibility. However, we don’t have much of an idea of where we are going or what will happen to us while napping. We don’t know what the effects of our actions will be (though we can make some educated guesses). We have control, but we are acting blindly.

As for de Beauvoir, Medusa came after a little more thought. Athena punished Medusa for allowing Poseidon to rape her in the temple. The punishment was the transformation into the gorgon. I thought Medusa was a great figure for a feminist theorist who argued that women’s lives were shaped by men. And Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, is such a great figure for patriarchal structure, despite being a woman. If I felt like developing this aspect more, I might find myself talking about Athena as a figure who represents that authoritative, wise, academic, institutional structure (and the formal language of criticism that comes with it) that is often aligned with the patriarchy by the feminist scholars who advocate for recognizing the value of personal, poetic, and experimental modes of discourse. But, that might need to be developed elsewhere.

The intrigue in transformation is certainly undeniable. People will go to huge lengths in the name of bettering themselves, from having plastic surgery to reading that book you ‘should’ read but will inevitably bore you to moving house to someplace you hope will know the answer. But in the Amanda Marbais stories you reference, the transformation itself is the answer. It seems like there’s a hopelessness there, or there should be, but it’s illuminating as well. Can you talk a little more about how this works, as you and Marbais apply it?

Well, I don’t think the transformations are about betterment of any sort. They’re more about constantly struggling and adapting to find ways of communicating something meaningful to another human being. In Performing the Illusion of Love, I use a stripper alter-ego and discuss the performative aspects of identity and the many different ways people try to communicate, though mostly through language. The point is this: there is so much we want to say and finding the right words to convey something like the feeling of love is a difficult thing to do and I’m not sure it is even possible. Even if I can get the right words and say just what I mean, I need the other person to interpret them exactly as I said them. I’ll try several approaches, but, Sartre, I do think that kind of connection with another human being might be impossible. But, this isn’t a hopeless situation. I can try multiple means of speaking, and eventually, I think I can make you feel loved, even if we’re all hazy in the details.

Amanda does something similar with her stories. Instead of sifting through layers of discourse and identity constructs, Amanda turns her characters into animals who are forced to renegotiate their emotional responses and their modes of communication. But, yet, while language is often difficult to navigate, none of us are dismissing it. We’re all using words and writing it down.

You work as an editor for a couple of journals; how has that experience affected your own writing, be it process, subject matters, submissions, anything?

I love working for journals.  I suppose that it makes me more aware that I need to write more slowly and carefully. I read fiction for Hotel Amerika right now and while there are some really nice stories that are submitted, the journal only publishes about two per issue. Good stories are turned down. It makes me aware of the distinction between what kind of writing is done well and what kind of writing is published.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

Oh, stuff. I have two stories that I’m thinking about now. I’m thinking about violence and cruelty, and, of course, love. I don’t care that people have been writing about it forever. Love is a mystery and I’m sort of fascinated.

What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you’re excited about?

I can tell you what is lying on the floor by my bed right now: Masoch’s Venus in Furs with Deleuze’s Coldness & Cruelty, Rushdie’s Midnight Children and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Oh, and I’m reading an article on Academic Freedom in the journal Thought & Action. Oh and here, under my bed, is Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, which I just bought, so I’m not sure how it got there already, and The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, which I put down and found when I picked it up again that I had forgotten what I had read and now I’m very confused about whatever he is saying about time and the speed of light. I need to start over.