On Writing

So Where Are We

“So Where Are We?” is the title poem of So Where Are We, forthcoming from FSG in August. So Where Are We? begins where Into It, my last book of poems, left off, amid the global violence unleashed by the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.

English 206

I thought I’d preface a collection of selected and new poems, Walking Backwards: Poems 1966–2016, that FSG will publish next year, with a poem that reflects on how I began writing poetry and on how it looks to me in retrospect. A few years ago I had a conversation with a very gifted younger poet in which I thoughtlessly rambled on about how much of the poetry I read by younger poets doesn’t engage me; and since then I’ve periodically tried to figure out why this might be so.

The circumstances of my own life have fueled my attraction to Leonardo Padura’s last two novels and led to my translation of them. When I first read The Man Who Loved Dogs—his sprawling novel about Trotsky’s years in exile, and the Soviet plot to recruit and train a Spanish Civil War combatant to kill him in Mexico City&emdash;I was a few years out from a period of having studied Russian intensely and a visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I had been trying to understand the lives and experiences of a whole generation of Cubans who grew up in the Soviet satellite, as several friends and family members of mine did, as I might have myself had my parents not left Cuba in the mid-1960s. That I felt taxed and lonely by the effort of making my way through Moscow as a solo traveler who did not, in this instance, pick up any friends along the way, perhaps predisposed me to feel a certain sense of compassion for Ramón Mercader in the Moscow-based chapters toward the end of the novel. Or maybe it was just that Padura is so wily about making you care about characters that could otherwise be reviled.

The Gravity of Depression

Daphne Merkin, and her editor, Ileene Smith, discuss her new book, her childhood, family relationships, and lifelong battle with the illness.

Warren Ellis & Robin Sloan

A locked-room mystery taking place at a rest home for burned-out futurists, Warren Ellis’s Normal explores what happens when you spend all your time staring at the end of the world. A darkly funny book, Normal was initially published during the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election. In early December, as the general American populace was getting a true taste of #abyssgaze, Ellis sat down with Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, to discuss haunted rocks, if all writers are commercial writers, and how exciting the world is when it’s on fire.

Rasputin

Shortly before midnight on February 27, 2015, as Boris Nemtsov and his girlfriend were crossing the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in the shadow of the Kremlin, a man stepped out of the darkness and shot the prominent opposition politician four times, killing him instantly. Nemtsov had been scheduled to lead a large demonstration the following day against the war in Ukraine and economic conditions at home. What should have been a protest march became a funeral.

Jonathan Safran Foer & David Remnick

On an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in early October, Jonathan Safran Foer sat down with New Yorker editor David Remnick for a conversation and reading from Here I Am as part of the 2016 New Yorker Festival. Despite taking place on a well-lit stage in Chelsea before a few hundred attendees, the conversation was uncommonly intimate and marked by unguarded candor, light-hearted jibes, and a healthy dose of sophomoric humor. Foer and Remnick covered everything from Jewish identity and the struggles of writing to digital distractions and raising children. An edited and condensed version is below.

What The Eye Hears

Like most books, my history of tap dancing does not include any video. But YouTube abounds in tap footage, easily accessible though impermanent, coming and going as copyright restrictions are irregularly enforced. By directing attention to it, I may cause it to disappear. Nevertheless, here I provide a guide to what I’ve found online. On my YouTube channel, you can find more clips, from very common to extremely rare, clips I describe in the book.

In 2001, I was living in Charlottesville, reading poetry at the University of Virginia, a young Canadian who had never been in the southern states before. In my second week I bought a beautiful used set of Shelby Foote’s Civil War volumes. Six weeks later I turned back to the first volume and began reading the books for the second time.

I take it as a compliment when people say my writing about music makes them interested in hearing the work I have described. The comment may not always be intended as a compliment. It may well be meant to say that the words on the page fall short in evoking the full character of an elementally aural art. Still, I’ll take my compliments where I can get them.

Guilty Thing

As an undergraduate I became fixated on my tutor, Ann Wordsworth, a woman of devastating command who held the other English Literature dons in contempt. Tutorials were conducted in a grubby shed in the college grounds where we chain-smoked Gitanes and quaffed red wine from, for some reason, small cartons. In an attempt to impersonate Ann’s wistful, pained intellect, I employed in those years a world-weary prose style, and while I read out my weekly essays she listened, hunched up in an attitude of agony, dragging heavily on her cigarette, eyes fixed on the filthy, threadbare carpet.

Adina Hoffman and Lisa Cohen In Conversation

Adina Hoffman and Lisa Cohen are long-time friends. Throughout this past summer, the two exchanged emails between Jerusalem and New York, considering what it means to write biography in each of their most recent books and beyond. Hoffman’s Till We Have Built Jerusalem, published by FSG in April, explores the contributions of three modern architects to Jerusalem’s cityscape, and Cohen’s All We Know, published by FSG in 2012, sheds light on the lives of three largely-forgotten modernist figures—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland. Their conversation flows from Hoffman’s archival instincts to Cohen’s desire to write with the dead, limning an ethics of writing that challenges received histories, upends staid forms, and finds in overlooked traces necessary truths.

Shakespeare in Swahililand

Though I was always a bookish child, two things happened shortly after my sixteenth birthday which fixed my course toward words and writing. The first of these was discovering that the British Poet Laureate was paid in wine. That I immediately decided this was the job for me was probably down in part to the flippancy of adolescence, but I think it also appealed to the noble disdain of youth that one’s life should be traded for mere money. (I have long since stopped writing poetry, but it is certainly useful to a budding author to think of being unpaid as a positive virtue.) The second important event was the gift of two volumes of poetry, one by T. S. Eliot and the other by W. H. Auden, from my mother, given on my first visit to the Middle East and first read when we were driving through the Jiddat al-Harasis desert in southern Oman.

Kristen Dombek & Dayna Tortorici

Kristin Dombek’s new book, The Selfishness of Others, takes the idea of narcissism—ever more prevalent in how we define and decipher our relationships—and deconstructs it through research, conversations, and analysis of personal experiences. She sat down with n+1 editor Danya Tortorici to discuss the “narcweb,” millennial girls, and the stickiness of language.

Utopia Drive by Erik Reece

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at,” wrote Oscar Wilde in 1891. Yet for nearly two thousand years after Plato’s Republic, most Western thinkers did ignore Wilde’s map. Christianity, as interpreted by the Apostle Paul, had hung the Kingdom of God in the heavens, so there seemed little reason to look for it here in the fallen world.

The Glamour of Strangeness

Biography is autobiography, as every biographer knows. If a biographer cannot find himself in his subject, then the result is a compendium of names and dates, people met and places visited—useful information, perhaps, but the subject is just as dead at the end of the book as he was when the reader picked it up. We read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson the first time for the moral and intellectual example of the subject, his dazzling wit, and we return to it for lovable Boswell, burning with a fanboy’s crush on the great man.

Eye of the Sixties by Judith E. Stein

I’d been researching a biography of the late art dealer Richard Bellamy (1927–1998) for several years when he popped up in a dream. In waking hours, I tracked the man whom everybody called Dick through the post-war art world, perplexed by his absence from the grand narrative of late modernism. He survived in people’s memories, not in history books.

Ian Frazier and Sarah Crichton

Ian Frazier’s been a regular contributor to The New Yorker since 1974 and has published more than a dozen books with FSG. In his latest collection, Hogs Wild: Selected Reporting Pieces, his own curiosity becomes the impetus for the writing that The New York Times called “observation backed up by research and marinated in rumination and wordcraft.” He and Sarah Crichton, publisher of Sarah Crichton Books, sat down recently at Greenlight Bookstore to talk about this curiosity, as well as meteorites, General Henry Shrapnel, and Brooklyn bus rides.

C. E. Morgan and Lisa Lucas

C.E. Morgan’s “tremendous” new novel, The Sport of Kings, is a multi-generational saga set on the bluegrass fields and racing tracks of Kentucky. This June, Morgan sat down with Lisa Lucas, the Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, for a rare interview at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn to discuss the false stigma of regionalism, internalized literary sexism, the power of empathy, and the politics of storytelling.

On Time and War by Whitney Terrell

“Why did you write this book the way you did?” the interviewer asks. The query is delivered in the kindly, hushed tone that one might use with a schoolboy who has a “kick me” sign taped to his back.