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Archive for the 'Original Essays' Category

Powells.com interviews and original essays

Full Frontal Feminism Revisited

It is arguably the worst and best time to be a feminist. In the years since I first wrote Full Frontal Feminism, we've seen a huge cultural shift in the way feminism is thought of along with the same old nonsense.

Decades after feminists fought for access to birth control, against sexual assault and rape culture, to have equal pay, and to be free from discrimination, we're still largely battling these same issues. But despite the political déjà vu, feminists do seem to be winning the culture wars: politicians that deride birth control use are widely mocked, the mainstream media that used to ignore or declare feminism dead is now on board, and the most culturally relevant artist in the world — Beyoncé — calls herself a feminist.

Perhaps best of all, since FFF was released, tens of thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of young women and men have started blogs, Tumblrs, Facebook pages, and organizations all dedicated to gender, racial, and class justice.

But let's not be fooled. At the same time that we're seeing this incredible progress, we continue to live ...


The Florist-Assassins

The three men lit up in my mind's eye, with footnotes. They were converging on me — and on the object I was carrying — in a way that had woken some sort of angry territorial lizard in my head. Something about the pattern of their approach, the vectors and the way they would all reach me at exactly the same time, was predatory on the most primal level.

I am fundamentally a gentle sort of person, so I was a bit surprised to find that a part of my brain was working out which of them needed to die first and how to make that happen. Lists of "dangerous parts" I learned long ago were highlighted up and down their bodies as they drew closer, each target point carrying a sense of difficulty versus efficacy. Everyone thinks a blow to the groin is the fastest way to end a fight, but it's unreliable. The target is small, mobile, and well-guarded, and you have to be close in to hit the mark. Worse yet, a minority of men respond to that particular agony with a great surge of ...


In Praise of Rejections: Why I’m Glad It Took Me 10 Years to Publish This Darn Book

When I see my name in print next to the phrase "debut novel," I can't help but picture my hardcover yanking at an ill-fitting cotillion dress that keeps falling off its shoulder. The descriptor seems off somehow — it's right, but not quite that. I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You is my first novel, but I wrote it 10 years ago, in 2003, and in 2013, I completely rewrote it again. In this 10-year span, there have been other works of writing — bound manuscripts too sprawling to deserve any other moniker than "mess," short story collections, unwieldy essays — but none of them ever showed as much promise as my first book, which, instead of "debut novel," I like to think of as "born again."

When I first wrote I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, I was 24 and living in Paris, and I hadn't been writing for some time. Mired in a bad relationship with a Frenchman who had a penchant for drama (he once launched all of my belongings out of our fifth-story apartment, and when he remembered I ...


So Many Books, So Many Writers

I'm not a bookseller, but I'm married to one, and Square Books is a family. And we all know about families and how hard it is to disassociate yourself from them even if you're happy within their bosoms. I do have some bookseller cred: I worked for two years at the old Savile Bookshop in Washington when Richard and I were trying to learn the business, and I helped open the store here in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1979, working for a while when the staff was just Richard, his mother, his aunt, and me. Eventually Richard fired us for a real staff — one that didn't talk back, have lots of opinions about improvements (flowers, rugs, expanding the bridge book section, getting a bookstore kitty), and could make change in under five minutes.

Until Square Books got on its feet, somebody had to pay the bills, and I had a handy library degree (UNC Chapel Hill, '77) so I went to work as a reference bibliographer (you know — the person you used to go to for information before there was Google) at the University of ...


The Other Vampire

It's a wild and thundery night. Inside a ramshackle old manor house, a beautiful young girl lies asleep in bed. At the window, a figure watches — a hideous creature with long fingernails and eyes that shine like polished tin. The girl wakes up, but is too terrified to flee as the vampire breaks the glass and enters the bedroom. He seizes his victim by the hair, drags her onto the bed, and bites her neck.

The story is probably familiar, but the vampire may not be: this is a summary of the opening chapter of Varney, the Vampyre. Written between 1845 and 1847, probably by James Malcolm Rymer, Varney is a forgotten work from the "penny dreadful" genre. A far cry from Dickens and Eliot, the penny dreadfuls were racy, sensational serials, aimed at an urban, working-class audience with limited time to spend reading. They provoked suspicion from Victorian moral authorities, who feared that the tales of crime, violence, highway robbery, and cannibalism might incite class warfare, or encourage the young in antisocial behavior.

Vampires had entered English literature at the beginning of the ...


Why Living Hard Is Way Easier Than Writing Hard

Lately I've found my job requiring me to do frightening things — bouncing around in small planes, jumping off ropes courses, rafting through Class IV rapids, poking away rattlesnakes. In these cases, I was a teacher in charge of students — undergraduates, graduates, writing retreat folk, and so unlike other scary endeavors I get myself into for my own writing (interviewing meth addicts, say), I'm supposed to be the brave and confident one, the one who shows equanimity and grace and leads by example. I'm supposed to have my chin up and my eyes calm.

Well, ah, let's just admit that I can poker face as good as anyone (and we are all very good at it, methinks), and also, adrenaline-based activities aren't really my natural path. Or, as the Greeks say, "Everything in moderation and save thyself" (okay, I made that last one up). Or at least, those are my mantras when the world starts spinning so fast that it nearly flings itself out of orbit, or when vomit seems lodged in the same tube that is designed to carry oxygen to my lungs — which are ...


Of Books on Baguettes

I was chatting idly with my best friend the other day, and as usual, we ended up talking about books and food (this is doubtless a big reason why we are friends in the first place). Sometimes it's one, sometimes it's the other, but in this particular case, it was both of them combined.

"I love book clubs," he said.

"Oh, me, too," I agreed. "A bunch of people sitting around, preferably with a glass of wine in hand, talking about books. What could be better?"

"But there has to be food," he insisted. "There always has to be food at any kind of party. So what food would you serve that would be as stimulating, nourishing, and satisfying to a group of people with different tastes, as whatever book you all had gotten together to read?"

The query instantly made me fantasize about my very own perfect book club party.

It would be on a hot summer's day, cooling down then with just enough of a breeze to wake up the curiosity of the readers involved in the discussion. And the talk itself would be held under some trees in a shady meadow, around five in the evening. There would be wine for those who wanted it — red, white, and a lot of my favorite rosé. There would be sparkling water, with lemon and lime slices, for those who wanted that. There would be discreet little bowls of olives and roasted nuts and cloves of pickled garlic, for those who wanted a bit of a lagniappe before supper.


What’s in a Book Title?

Naming a novel is painstaking, agonizing, delicate. But does the title matter?

It certainly feels consequential to the author. After several years' battle with your laptop keyboard, after 100,000 words placed so deliberately, you must distill everything into a phrase brief enough to run down the spine of a book. Should it be descriptive? Perhaps make it catchy. It has to be expressive, too. And honest. And serious. And amusing. And...

When writing my latest novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (I'll explain that title shortly), I filled a pad with notes on my expanding story: character histories, timelines, plotlines — plus a single sheet of possible titles. The page remained bare throughout my first draft. By the second, I had a dozen possibilities. By the third, the page was crammed with contenders, every line occupied, titles curling up the margins, pushing each other aside, thrusting themselves forth like forefingers poking my breastbone. Some were alright — yet not quite right. Others were perfect — but not for this book. Many were stinkers.

Then, a flutter went through me. I had it.

I wrote this one ...


The Living Landscape: It’s All About Relationships

Last week while looking through a bathroom window, I spotted a male towhee foraging in the leafy ground layer of our garden. Melinda and I delight in the birds that share our home habitat, and over the years, as our place has become more wooded, the avian diversity has continually increased. The towhee meant a lot to me, but not because it was a new bird in our garden. My grandfather, a carpenter by trade, had a series of small Roger Tory Peterson "Birds of Our Land" prints hanging in mitered wooden frames he'd hand-made. The towhee print showed a male bird foraging in woodland duff amidst violets, ferns, and jack-in-the-pulpit, and as a child it was my favorite. That same framed print is now in my office, and looking at its depiction of a scene so like many in our garden, I'm reminded of the infinite capacity of living landscapes to reveal, renew, and enlarge upon relationships.


Umwelt

Following a freak vacation decision in 2013, I found myself hiking an Arctic glacier with other eco-tourists. In this magnificently strange environment, I learned a new and very useful word: umwelt. It means an animal's experience of its surroundings, and a German fellow-traveler taught it to me, following a slightly uncomfortable exchange (perhaps familiar to many writers) in which she politely asked exactly what I was working on. I told her. She frowned. "So... it's all set in a beehive? And everyone in it is... a bee?"

I nodded. My book was still stacks of paper in my writing shed, a distant concept in a distant country. I had no agent, no publishing deal. She took pity on me and asked no more. We clomped on together over the ice, listening to the chafing of our high-tech fabrics. Suddenly she put her wadded mitten on my arm and smiled. "Ah! You are writing the umwelt of the honeybee! Great!"

She told me about the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1920s Germany, who championed the theory, which revolutionized how animals were studied. Before, they had been considered only as passive ...


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