At the tail end of 2017, The Believer went to Wordstock, Portland, Oregon’s literary festival. This was a year the U.S. president called the press “the enemy of the people”; his administration forbade the Centers for Disease Control from using the words evidence-based and science-based (alongside transgender and vulnerable); and fake news became popular for despots worldwide. (“There is no such thing as Rohingya,” said a Burmese security officer in relation to the people there who are undergoing genocide. “It is fake news.”) This got us thinking about facts and truth and the literary imagination. This can be an exhausting topic, one that tips quickly into maddening vagaries. So we thought we’d get super specific. We asked a variety of writers—two poets, a songwriter, a literary journalist, an essayist, and a novelist—to discuss a fact that appears in their work. We took it from there.
—Joshua Wolf Shenk
MORGAN PARKER: A fact? I have many facts.
THE BELIEVER: Yeah, we want to identify a fact from your work to begin the conversation and we’ll take it off from there.
MP: A fact. Like, a conclusion? Like, a statistic?
BLVR: I could tell you more about what I mean. But I’m curious—what is a fact to you?
MP: OK, it’s poems, so all the facts are also not. A fact is: I came up with the title of my book [There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé] in the bathtub. That’s a fact—a true fact. A fact is: I wrote this book with Beyoncé’s name in it and no poems are about Beyoncé. That’s a true thing. I don’t know. Like an objective fact? I don’t know, man. Facts almost don’t even enter the realm of poems.
BLVR: It’s not a category you think about very much.
MP: Not really, and honestly, when I teach, I tell students—I talk a lot about emotional truth, so often the thing that feels most true isn’t the fact of what happened. I almost distrust fact and these long-held, I don’t know, structures and institutions, I guess. Part of my project is to make my own myths. It’s a lot of rewriting and reimagining. Because I always say the craziest thing about the transatlantic slave trade is that so much history was lost. Names, birthdays, every/any kind of fact—I was never afforded that, you know, historically. Facts are white. It almost feels like facts don’t belong to me. So people of color created their own myths. We don’t have facts, so we’re making it up. Also, because nothing is true, because nothing has been written down, then everything is true. If I say it, then it becomes a fact. I can’t believe otherwise, if that makes sense. When I say that Beyoncé is president, I can just say that, you know? I’m allowed to say that. I’m allowed to claim things for myself, so what I’m trying to do—and not just in that book but just in my body of work—is name my own world and the pieces of it.
BLVR: So if you were reading People and saw that Beyoncé had just given birth and named her child such and such—or wore a blue sequined dress to such and such a thing—does that kind of material reality register with you? Or do those inputs become mixed up with your imaginary reality?
MP: The second.
BLVR: What is it like for Morgan Parker to read the newspaper?
MP: It all feels imaginary—that’s the thing. It’s weird. I’m getting all of this input, and who’s to say that one thing is true? It’s 2017 in America—fucking reality TV is the president, et cetera. That’s what we’ve got. So it’s not so crazy for me to think, OK, what’s the difference between People and fucking The New York Times? There isn’t [one] really anymore. So I know it’s hard for folks to shake those institutions and be like, “Nothing is as solid as you think.” That’s scary. But it’s always been true, from the beginning of America. My process of growing up and becoming has been figuring out that a lot of what I’ve been told is wrong. So, in that case, it really is this kind of undoing of that stuff. And also building on top of that. Where do I go from there? If you have a blank canvas, it’s about the kind of audacity to tell stories for yourself. Poetry is storytelling, in this particular way— even when there isn’t narrative, it is about telling stories. It is a communicative thing. It’s supposed to be spoken, supposed to be performed. I feel like that really is what I’m trying to do— tell my own story in my own words. That is a luxury.
BLVR: When I wake up from a dream, I know that that’s true. I don’t know what input is creating what and how those forms correspond to any concrete reality, but I know that it’s a true thing I need to interpret and make use of as best I can. Is that a decent way of describing your creative consciousness?
MP: I suppose. I mean, there are a lot of things that go into it—memories, dreams, media; TV, movies, songs, conversations, other people—all these things make their way into my work. It’s all bubbling around and interacting. So I can easily start from “OK, here is a conversation that I had with a friend,” to a line I hear on the TV, and it’s all kind of floating around, and then there’s a memory from when I was a kid. It’s all on the same plane.
BLVR: Can you give an example?
MP: Yeah. I think about this poem-type essay thing called “A Brief History of the Present” that [I wrote and that] was on Lit Hub. It was about a year since Michael Brown’s murder and I was watching In the Heat of the Night. And I was reading the New Yorker profile of Darren Wilson, which I found ridiculous; it’s like this sad story about this guy, like, “Oh no, he can’t get a job.” I’m watching Sidney Poitier being not arrested but beaten by this cop and I’m thinking about Rodney King. And the day before, I had this phone conversation with Jericho Brown about this, so it’s all—it kind of all builds. Sandra Bland had happened really recently. So Sandra Bland was there.
BLVR: [Quoting the poem] “There’s no way she didn’t hang herself, dumb brown martyr.”
MP: There’s a lot of voices. Sometimes it’s my voice. Sometimes it’s outside voices. So this is an example of [points to a line in the poem: “His blue eyes sparkle. He is a man who shot a boy. No, a suspect. Boy”]. It moves from this profile to the cop in The Heat of the Night saying “boy.” So all these things are coming into play and building on top of each other and jumping around. I’m interested in connecting all those dots. Often when I start a piece, I have this feeling that these things go together but I don’t know how. Writing is connecting the things.
BLVR: Is rhythm the glue?
MP: I guess so. Probably sound. I talk about it in terms of mood. Sometimes I talk about it in terms of color. It really is as simple as being like, I want to write about this one memory I have of going grocery shopping and I want to write about this picture of Diana Ross and I want to write about this news story. Like, for some reason I want to write about all these things together. And so it becomes this kind of connecting the dots of those things.
BLVR: Does “A Brief History of the Present” have a color?
MP: Probably. I’m not sure what it is yet. I haven’t arranged this book yet; that’s usually when I’m kind of thinking about colors.
BLVR: This is probably a ham-handed metaphor, but I had the image when you were talking before of a radio dial, like an old-fashioned radio. You know the thing they do in movies when they’re trying to capture the moment and you hear the different stations up and down the dial?
MP: I was recently talking to a TV person and she said, “You know, your book is like channel surfing but you’re on every channel, just in different outfits with different voices.”
BLVR: Do you know the comic Maria Bamford? I’m interested in people who can hold varieties of channels, speak all these different voices, and not be mad.
MP: Well, the not-being-mad part is up for debate. Who knows? Maybe I’m crazy. But it’s damn good poetry.
BLVR: You’re making it into art. And other people are like, “I feel more real and human by virtue of what you’re articulating.” To me, madness is a reality no one else can understand. But I imagine there are moments when you become flooded and you’re not able to hold it all. I was moved to hear you talk about the contradiction of being put on a pedestal—and also dehumanized. To hold those realities requires a lot.
MP: It’s a lot. I have a good therapist. And that’s something I focus a lot on in my work and that helps, ’cause then it becomes not a feeling but something that I’m trying to tease out. It was easy to talk about it in terms of Beyoncé, right? There’s this image of a black woman who is at once hypersexualized but also looked down upon because of that. So how are both things true? And how do these false binaries apply to our interpersonal relationships? I’m really interested in complexity and multiplicity.
BLVR: If someone said, re: Sandra Bland, “This woman definitely killed herself. It’s what the police say. It’s what the authorities say,” would that trouble you?
MP: It does! That happens all the time. It’s hard for me to believe anything. For good reason, man. My fucking ancestors were kidnapped to do someone else’s work. Straight up, that is what happened. Forgive me. Like, why should I believe you? Why should I believe anyone? It’s hard to take anything at face value, because what are we building off of? Where is the trust? So I think that’s something that I’m investigating. I think it’s OK to own that mistrust and that disbelief. I think that’s something that only becomes bigger the less we talk about it.
BLVR: So you have that mistrust. By naming it, you can say to other people who have the same experience, “You are not crazy for having a radical mistrust of the world,” and, therefore, move into a place of truth and sanity. I guess these things are entwined in my mind—truth and sanity. For me, as a kid, it was the denial of facts that made me crazy. I thought, If only I could get to it, to the original thing, something at the bottom of that trunk. You’re saying that, in your history, you could dig to the bottom of the trunk and there’s just the bottom of the trunk. Someone burned those papers.
MP: The papers aren’t there. They’re not there. I also think I spent too much time following instructions to dig in the trunk. Now I feel like an idiot because I’ve wasted all the time looking and found nothing. And it’s kind of like, “Wait a minute, you’re not going to catch me spending more time digging. I know the deal. Instead of doing that, I’m going to do this other thing.” But also, I’m a woman and I’m a black American. That’s a reality. All women, all people of color are familiar with being told, “No, you’re wrong,” or, like, “This is true,” and it’s a crazy reality. The kind of gaslighting. We’re seeing this with a lot of women coming forward about sexual assault. Other people are saying, “No,” and someone’s saying, “But this happened to me,” and people are saying: “No, it didn’t.” It’s wild! So what is fact? Facts aren’t for me.
THE BELIEVER: Did you get the prompt?
DAVID GRANN: I was told it was something to do with facticity in the current age.
BLVR: We’re asking a variety of writers—novelists, poets, songwriters—to bring a single fact that has appeared in their work.
DG: The fact that comes to mind is a discovery I made while researching my book Killers of the Flower Moon, which was about the murder of the members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s. Because of oil money under their land, they were being murdered one by one. The FBI reported the death toll to be about two dozen, a bit more. I spent time in a branch of the National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas, which is this enormous building. It looks like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s this warehouse that could fit airplanes. And I had asked to pull the guardian papers.
Let me explain: because of deep prejudice, the US government had passed legislation requiring many Osage, who were millionaires, to have white guardians to manage their money. So this was deeply racist and also really led to a criminal enterprise, because many of these guardians swindled money. When I was at the National Archives, I was pulling boxes about the guardians and I found a booklet that listed the names of the guardians and the Osage whose money they oversaw. If one of the Osage had died, somebody had just written the word dead next to their name. And that was it. So I noticed that under one of the guardian’s names [there were] about five Osage, and next to one of the names, “dead.” Next to the next name, “dead.” “Dead,” “dead,” “dead.” All five—dead. I was astonished by this, so I began to look at some of the names of the other guardians and I noticed that one guardian had about eleven Osage whose money they managed, and 50 percent—about half of them—had the word “dead” next to [their names] and on and on it went, which defied any national death rate. This spanned just a few years.
I began to investigate some of these deaths and found evidence of poisoning or murder or theft. This booklet really was just a bureaucratic document, almost antiseptic. But it opened me to a systematic murder campaign. The old story is that the FBI investigated a series of murders and they captured the mastermind. But this was really a story about a culture of killing in which there were many perpetrators, in which so many people were complicit. And the death toll was much higher than anyone would have claimed.
BLVR: What do you reckon was the total?
DG: It’s impossible to come up with a firm number. In many of these cases the witnesses, the suspects, and obviously the victims are deceased. You’re trying to open cold cases years later. But the best estimate would be in the scores and even perhaps the hundreds.
BLVR: This opens a curious relationship, because learning something led you to a potent not knowing. For me, this is often the whole point of the research—to get to the thing that can’t be known, and that we don’t yet know, or that we might know if the documents weren’t destroyed. I just kind of want to get to that wall, and feel all around it, and that’s the moment when I feel ready to write.
DG: I have spent most of my life investigating, reporting investigative history, and, you know, chasing facts. I also write about investigators a lot, and the thing you learn from experience is to be wary of tunnel vision. I reported a story about Cameron Todd Willingham, a man in Texas who was executed for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three children. Subsequent investigation and evidence would reveal, overwhelmingly, that he was innocent. Really, all the scientific evidence turned out to be bunk. The investigators locked in on a theory and then everything else fit that and it led to the most devastating consequences. When I was younger, I had visions of Sherlock Holmes—that you could, through the powers of rational inquiry, kind of make sense of everything and explain everything and have these kind of perfect, logical explanations for everything. And in most cases, it’s just not possible, unless you were a direct witness and you saw everything happen; it’s very hard to do that. And so I think it’s really important in pursuing these facts to (1) Be open to contrary facts, and (2) accept some of that unknowability.
To go back to Killers of the Flower Moon, when I saw there were so many unsolved cases, as a narrative storyteller I thought, Wow, that’s a real problem. But the unknowability became one of the central themes of the book.
BLVR: History is often the story of historians. I have had this troubling experience over and over again of reading something entirely authoritative—and then you look at the footnotes and, if you know the primary material, too, you see the wild fictions that this person is engaging in. And that an ordinary reader would never know.
DG: I don’t always have the time when I’m reading to go check primary sources. But when I’m researching, it’s critical. It’s a history professor joke that a falsehood repeated three times in a book becomes fact in different books. I did a story about grappling with this question of doubt. It dealt with a case of a Sherlock Holmes scholar—probably the world’s most famous Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes scholar—who was found garrotted in his apartment, mysteriously garrotted, and all of these Sherlock Holmes scholars and buffs and Conan Doylists took up the case to try to figure out what had happened to him. At the end of the piece, I gathered all the evidence and constructed a strong circumstantial case about what had happened. But I remember talking to the sister of the dead man. And she said, “Unlike in detective stories, we have to live without answers.” I think that is so true to life. And to reporting. I’m not a postmodernist. I believe in facts. I believe in objective truth. But getting to that truth can be obscured and confusing and bewildering, so allowing for that space of doubt, I think, is important to life. I grew up wanting to be Sherlock Holmes. Now I think of myself much more like a Watson.
THE BELIEVER: You got the prompt?
RACHEL KHONG: I was trying to decide between a few different ones.
BLVR: Probably go with the first thought.
RK: OK, it’s on page 179 [of Goodbye, Vitamin]. When you get a kidney transplant, they leave your original kidney in your body, in your pelvis. They don’t bother taking it out. They shove another kidney in there.
BLVR: Wow. Where did you encounter that fact?
RK: My husband told me. Much like the character who recites this fact in the book, he has trouble sleeping at night. So he reads a lot of internet, Reddit, just lists of facts. One night he told me and I was disgusted and shocked and wowed by it. We immediately texted our doctor friends to ask if it was true. They said yes, it’s true.
BLVR: When you see a fact that’s going to make its way into your fiction, do you know it in your body?
RK: I think so. If it’s something I can’t stop thinking about for a few days or weeks. I spend a lot of time thinking about organs and things—just about all the stuff that goes on in there. Like squishes around in there. I always wonder, Does everyone have the same. Does everyone have the same-size stuff? Do we have the same-size lungs? Probably not. But I don’t know. I wonder.
BLVR: Someone who is six foot one and someone who’s five foot something—are their organs different sizes too?
RK: But the thing with this fact is that it made me think, Maybe, who knows if it’s all so squishable and you can just kind of put it in there—put extra things in there? Maybe there is just a lot of extra room for stuff.
BLVR: So you had this visceral reaction, but then you wanted to find out if it was true. I’m curious about this, especially coming from my conversation with Morgan Parker, which began with the reality of her feeling of mistrust. You’re a fiction writer, but you have this fact-checker’s orientation—let’s see if this is a verifiable reality?
RK: I make up a bunch of shit, so it’s important that the facts reflect real life. What would have been the purpose of me making up that you shove more kidneys into your body, in a book that is about real life?
BLVR: It’s also a book about memory and dementia, where there’s an acute sense that something essential is being removed from us. You’re preoccupied with memory. I’ve heard you say you have a primal fear of losing your memory.
RK: My own memory is crappy. I can’t remember so many details. And the things that do stick are these ridiculous things that have no real value to me as a person trying to make sense of her own life. Yet the random facts you remember do make you who you are in some way.
BLVR: How does the kidney transplant factor in the narrative?
RK: The main character, the narrator, is out drinking with a love interest of hers—one of her father’s students. And she has sworn to him that she’s going to drink, but not to despair and not to excess. But there’s a point where she sort of starts to turn, and she’s feeling bad about lots of things in her own life. Theo, the guy she’s drinking with, is like, “Hey, wait a second.” He notices the dark shift. “You promised you weren’t going to do this, not going down this road of despair.” So to distract her, he starts rattling off these facts. And one of them is the kidney fact. She tries to one-up him. And she remembers that her ex told her that the inventor of the windshield wiper invented it because he was hit by a champagne cork on his wedding night. He was blind in one eye. He had this idea to model the wind- shield wiper off of the way that we blink, instead of a more regular rhythm. So she’s giving him that back. He says, “Actually I knew that, and also did you know that he tried to sell it to these car companies? The car companies never officially bought it, but they just put these wipers in anyway. So he spent the rest of his life trying to sue the car companies and nearly ended his life. It got so messy and tangled and there were so many lawsuits that his wife—the wife he had married on the champagne cork night—divorced him.”
BLVR: I love that. I love this woman on quicksand, and her father has dementia, and here is a character who is like: “Pay attention. Feel your feet on the floor. Feel the texture of your shirt. This is our shared reality.” It’s almost like the fact of the kidney is like a life preserver. Grab onto this and I’m going to hold on to you, and we’re going to be in a world we share together, rather than you drowning in the sea of your own private experience.
RK: This is why it was important for that fact to be true, because it extends to the reader. As the character is spiraling into despair, as you may be spiraling into the despair, reader, here’s this thing that we actually all share as humans.
BLVR: Morgan Parker has a strong and poignant experience of facts that’s sort of the opposite, though it proceeds from a similar place, I think. For her, the key thing is to identify with the reality of distrust and alienation. I was moved by it because, for me, distress and alienation have led me into a pursuit of these concrete aspects of our shared world. But all these conversations have resonance between the private and the communal, and the searching after a connection.
RK: I think you’re right to say that the reasons for either running from facts or clinging to them is out of this shared desire to just make sense of who we are and connect to one another. But where are those connections? I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like everyone’s experience is so distinct and so individual and it’s so difficult to communicate that. It would take years; it would take ages.
BLVR: It’s the infinite unknown, really. You can never get to the bottom.
RK: For me, what’s interesting is not putting my finger on a lot of the things that I wanted to talk about. Let me rephrase that. In one sense, the book circles around these ideas, around the things that each of the characters is struggling with. They’re not really addressing it directly or saying, “This is what I’m feeling,” or “This is what is going on in my life.” Because in a sense, it’s impossible to articulate—everyone is bringing so much baggage to the table. But on the other hand, I also wanted to have those shared—this is how water feels; these are the things that we do have in common. Something else that comes up in the book is that she’s always thinking about how different everyone is in terms of physical form. Everyone’s walking around in these very different-looking bodies. We are born humans and we breathe the same way and we don’t breathe like fetuses. I wanted to talk about the concrete and the nebulous—the very individual but also common feelings that we all have but that can’t be talked about as directly.
BLVR: For sure. That’s the project of literature—to try to build that bridge between the known and the unknown, the private, ethereal, and what is shareable and, ultimately, building these bridges, helping people have an experience of being recognized and seen.
RK: It’s an interesting time to be talking about facts.
BLVR: This morning my Lyft driver told me that eight witnesses to the Las Vegas shooting had all been murdered. Eight people who knew things—that was the tenor. I said, “Oh, where did you read that?” She said, “Oh, it was a link on Facebook that I clicked on.” How does this moment affect you as a writer?
RK: It’s depressing. It was already hard to get people to read literature, and things have become: this is good; this is evil; this is black; this is white; this is true; this is not true. There’s no nuance. There’s no concession that things might be complicated and this person might not be all evil, this person might not be all wrong. I think that this project of empathy and understanding seems more challenging. There are more hurdles because people are mad, and rightly so: there are reasons to be super angry. But I feel sad that approaching one another in this more human way is being lost a little bit. Even hearing that story about the Lyft driver—hearing that, kind of almost judging her for it, or feeling immediately like, “OK, you don’t think what I think”— that feels sad to me.
BLVR: My take is that our reality is so overwhelming, so we need to construct a story that is much simpler, that adheres to common archetypes of an identifiable bad, a personified bad, the FBI or CIA or whoever is murdering these people, whoever knows something, they know the truth, like The X-Files, they can’t handle the truth. When, in fact, the truth is quite hard to narrativize.
RK: That’s a good distillation.
BLVR: I want to come back to how you use facts. A reporter will go gather the string that they need, then knit it into a quilt. Is there a parallel to the way you write fiction?
RK: I don’t feel that I have knit anything. It was more like: here’s the quilt; now I’m trying to unravel it to see what it’s made of. What does it mean to be a human with imperfect memory, to interact with other humans with imperfect memories? What does that mean for our relationships with one another? What does that mean for the narratives of our own lives? Writing it was more like, I’ll write this part and see if I can make sense of it in some way. And of course you can’t, because these ideas are so big, nothing makes any sense. We want a simple answer: that the witnesses got murdered. I come from a sort of distrust of narrative. It’s interesting because it is a weird balance. It does need to have some kind of arc, to keep people afloat. At the same time, I’m not writing a thriller that has some kind of Now we learn who the murderer is!
BLVR: Perhaps one distinction between genre writing, or pulp, and literature, is that literary writers use form as a bridge to the unknown. I also want to mention that my own mother is in advanced dementia, so your work to frame this reality—which maybe is defined by the feeling that we can’t frame it—feels especially urgent to me.
RK: There are just so many things about being human that don’t make sense. And now, this is such a crazy, unprocessable time. But we’ve always been this way. Religion makes some sense of things. Extreme diets make some sense of things. But… every- thing goes to shit and we die. [Laughs.]
BLVR: And that’s a wrap.
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER: There are many, many facts in my poems. I’m super attracted to the energy of the fact and the poem as a place of using the energy of real-world truth by turning it around and repairing it. I have this poem in my most recent book called “Your Eyes Are the Color of a Lightbulb Floating in the Potomac River.” Basically, it was as simple as looking at a light bulb and being like, How the fuck does this thing work? This was the time when we were transitioning from regular light bulbs to flourescents, so that’s also part of it. I realized that I have equal lack of knowledge about how either one of them works and why one is better than the other.
THE BELIEVER: Would you read it to me?
Just when it is time to say goodbye
I think I am finally understanding the lightbulb
but not milk or NAFTA or for that matter
paper money let’s not get into my stove top coffeemaker
I don’t even get how this book is fastened or why that orchid
seems happier or at least its petals a little whiter
when it is placed right up against the window
or how certain invisible particles
leave the wall and enter the cord and somehow make
the radio make the air become
Moonlight Sonata or Neighborhood #3
basically a lamp is a mechanism
to shove too many electrons into a coil
or filament a lightbulb i.e. a vacuum surrounds
the first filament was made in 1802 out of platinum
as soon as it was made to turn deep untouchable orange
the air took the electrons away
which left it charred like a tiny bonfire
just like ones we have all seen when we squint and hold
the glass bulb that no longer emits
soft white light when we flip the switch
I wonder if my fear this morning sitting in the dark
and listening to music is anything like
the inventor of the telephone growing deaf
and knowing all those poles and wires
were starting to cover the land and someday everyone
would be able to get exactly what they want
MZ: Reading it, I remembered that Alexander Graham Bell was deaf, became gradually deaf over the course of his life. That’s a fact that I’d forgotten I’d learned. Often over the course of writing a poem I’ll get interested in something and start looking up things, trying to figure it out, and somehow that energy can sometimes enter the poem.
BLVR: I came to feel in those first few lines that not knowing was the subject and then there’s a turn toward, “Let me learn, let me understand, let me try to discover.” Is that a trajectory you often find yourself following?
MZ: Well, it’s like life, right? You want to understand, you want to figure something out, it’s like, that’s just a basic human impulse, if you’re faced with something you don’t know, whether it’s a fact or a person or just a situation. But I am interested in negation, in the vacuum, in the absence of things and what happens when you pull back all your knowing and you let this space get created and then what rushes in—that’s interesting to me as a writer. I think that’s probably true for a lot of artists—just like clearing away everything and then what comes up, and what starts to happen. For me it is often about how little I understand about the mechanics of our lives. I don’t know how a car works; I don’t know how electricity works, not to mention a fucking cell phone, are you kidding me? No idea. The internet? Sometimes it’s comical.
BLVR: Let’s talk about the vacuum. In that image, there’s both absence and presence and an absence that gives rise to a presence and a kind of not knowing that almost becomes a pure condition for a vital knowing to enter. You discover that the light bulb functions, in fact, by creating a vacuum.
MZ: The things are almost like allegories for each other. That was, of course, not planned, but yes. The first time they figured out that thing with the filament, it just burned up right away because it wasn’t surrounded by a vacuum. So that’s what the light bulb is: if it’s not contained, it’ll just burn up right away. The poem itself could be said to be this place where that not knowing can safely be explored or sustained.
BLVR: If I assigned a Believer fact-checker to your poems, would the manuscript have mostly checks—or a lot of circles and questions marks?
MZ: Mostly checks. With the personal things, there’d be a lot of inaccuracies. I think as the poem starts to move, it’s not “me”— it’s more emblematic of something. Often I do treat reality like just material for my poems—like I don’t care if something is accurate. That freedom is essential. But on the other hand I’m so into accuracy. I might just have completely mutually exclusive ideas about this thing. You know? I’m not really sure what to make of that.
BLVR: Somehow it feels like this contradiction that you’re identifying—between a kind of disregard for facts and a devotion to them—brings to mind the same image of negation and presence. Creating is about getting to that place of emptiness for the essential thing to arise. That’s one reason why it’s associated with psychic collapse: because often the only way one gets to that emptiness is through despair.
MZ: That’s a tough train to ride, though. But I know what you mean; it’s an obliteration, kind of, to create that space. A canonical text for poets is John Keats’s “negative capability” letter, which he wrote to his brother in 1802, and he talks about the state of negative capability, being in a place “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” That’s the famous part. But there’s another part where he says, “With a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” For me, it’s really about this sense of beauty for myself, and if I find it beautiful to change the fact, I will. But often I find accuracy to be quite beautiful.
SARAH MANGUSO: This is difficult, because I feel that I’m supposed to talk about something that’s politically relevant or relevant to political writing, because more and more that seems like the right kind of writing to be doing right now, or to have done, and I haven’t really done it. I haven’t published a political book. My most recent book is called 300 Arguments, and there are three hundred pieces. That’s a fact, but it’s not interesting.
OK, I can talk about the first page of a book I wrote called The Guardians, which is about a friend of mine who died. He threw himself in front of a train, and the first page of the book quotes the first newspaper report: “a male person was struck by a train.” They didn’t yet have the fact that he jumped, or his name, just that the train hit his body. That’s the origin point of the book—that point of violence. It’s a fact but it’s not.
The experience I wrote the book in order to manage or understand was the fact that there were ten hours during which my friend Harris was unaccounted for. He was in a psychiatric ward in a hospital in Manhattan, and he was signed in, and then, at some point, he disappeared. He eloped from the ward. And people were looking for him—those of us who were in New York looked for him. We walked around and looked for him. Nobody found him and the day passed into night and he was already dead but we didn’t know. It was two days before he was found. His body was identified. You know, it became reasonable to start checking hospitals, and his parents found him at a hospital in Queens. So there are many facts that could be gleaned from the police and from the hospital and from journalism and from anecdotal stories of the rest of Harris’s people who had been participating in this missing—this unknowable—ten hours, but the ten hours are just gone. Well, it’s not that they’re gone—just that they’re unimaginable. No one can ever know what happened. And it’s a long time. I just found myself thinking about that time. It’s untouchable. There a lot of things in life that are like that, really.
THE BELIEVER: Do you feel drawn to know more?
SM: One can’t help but be curious, but there’s—they belong to Harris. I was talking with my students yesterday back in LA about being truly alone and how rare that is now. Many of my students were born in the ’90s, after the internet. They say it’s great to not ever have to be alone, because there isn’t that experience of being that only kid in a town who is the only one way or wants to do one thing. Which I guess is inarguably good. I wrote this book in 2008, and those ten hours belong to this mythic kind of time that’s really rare now and that you really have to make an effort to have. I find people talking about it almost as an—it’s a kind of almost self-congratulation effort for (a) being able to recognize that this time is rare and important, and (b) being able to achieve it.
BLVR: I have in mind the image of the holy of the holies, the inner chambers of a sanctuary to which, beyond a certain point, one cannot be admitted. Some kind of vessel that does exist— you can recognize its existence, and yet it’s inaccessible, set apart from the ordinary, usually with some kind of power. That is the origin of the term holy—“set apart” “other than.” Your work seems to hover around/between the edge of the shared and the withheld. Your work about keeping a diary that does not actually include portions of the diary: the reader of the book feels a poignant tension—that we’re dwelling in the relationship to a text that is in some other space, offstage. So I’m really intrigued by this image of your friend. The other thing that is really striking about it is that there are these two parallel experiences, one where the presence of this very particular suffering is known but his whereabouts are unknown, and simultaneously, to the people who are recording the death, the whereabouts of some anonymous person is known, but the particularities of this person are not known.
SM: I never really thought about it in terms of which facts were accessible by which people at what time, but you’ve made me see that that’s exactly what was going on. There were these barriers to entry—this information that was kept secret from some but not others and vice versa, and that was the crazy problem of living though that.
BLVR: It also makes me think about the way you describe the impossibility of capturing experiences. I don’t know if you call it “graphomania”—sort of the relentless drive, a kind of fire hose coming into a small opening that you could never actually get to. Some people would say, “OK, well, then my work is to get to it.” It seems like an aspect of your work is to account for the reality of it not being able to be gotten to.
SM: Sure. It’s a sign pointing to something that happened. That’s what language is. I don’t feel depressed by that—I don’t feel bereft of having the tool to finally contain the world. I get that I am utilizing a tool and there are limitations to using a tool. Perhaps they are different from the limitations we imagined the tool to possess, but I like that it’s a sort of impossible dream to contain the world in writing, and it’s not really my dream anymore. That’s what [my book] Ongoingness is about. I no longer feel that need to contain everything in words. That didn’t cause me to stop writing, but it changed my relationship to writing. I think I’m a less desperate but no less interested writer. I’m also writing a novel for the first time, which I think had something to do with understanding those worlds as not really intersecting—the real world and the world as depicted in language.
BLVR: The next question may be distinctly unhelpful, but I’m curious about the bridges between your nonfiction practice— your practice in aphorism, essays—and the fiction. What are the differences and the resonances?
SM: Well, fiction, the form of the novel, is something I hadn’t found necessary [to try] until this point. There came upon me a subject, some new material, and I had to make parts of it up. I’d just never really had that need before, and it really does seem like part of the continuous experience of being a writer. It doesn’t seem to me to be as much about genre as much as [that], in the moment of making something, the form comes to be the thing. One of my favorite poets, Donald Justice, said his process was to “find a form and fill it completely,” and that’s just absolutely opposite from the way that I think I work. It’s just, go start in chaos and come to discover where that’s imposed itself on what I’m doing with only very hesitant acts of will on my part. Things looks different—it’s a collection of small things, or it’s one long thing, or it’s a poem, or it’s prose or verse. I try not to get too self-conscious about that.
BLVR: It makes me think of the form of your most recent book and how much is off the page, how much is—I was about to say “withheld,” but my question is actually whether there is any kind of consciousness around withholding or whether you were simply presenting that which appears to your writing consciousness. Is there a deliberate shaving and sculpting and offering of a fragment?
SM: Oh yeah, it’s definitely crafted, composed—it’s not meant to look like something I just typed.
BLVR: Yes, I’m trying to ask, in the act of composition, is there a deliberate act of withholding? A shaving off the top of the iceberg, letting the rest of the iceberg sort of drift away?
SM: I’m not trying to be coy—that’s one of my least favorite qualities in writing and in human people. I was recently accused of being severe in a negative review that I actually sort of loved. “Severe”—that’s fairly accurate.
BLVR: What is the opposite of coy?
SM: Coy is “I know something, and I want you to know that I know it and I want you to know that I’m not going to tell you.” That’s coy. Severe is “I’m gonna tell you something and I know it might not be enough for you and you’re just going to have to live with it.”
CARSON ELLIS AND COLIN MELOY
THE BELIEVER: Colin, your new book [The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid] springs from a true story about your fascination with the pickpocket performance artist Apollo Robbins, and with a book from the ’50s that’s saturated with the sociology of pickpockets. And, Carson, to illustrate this world, you wanted to go there—to the South of France, to see the reality you’re representing. Could you talk about that impulse to create fiction from the actual? Is that a common progression in your work?
COLIN MELOY: I’m excited about that line between truth and fiction. Some of the best stuff messes with that distinction. When I was twenty-four or twenty-five, I went to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA with my sister, Maile. I had just started to develop my voice and approach to making art. That place bowled me over because I remember walking around it and telling Maile, “I don’t know what’s happening.” And she was like, “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Some of it’s real and some of it isn’t. You have to determine it yourself. It’s a fun game but also a place to ask, “Why wouldn’t that be real?” It felt like a safe space for toying with reality. That sense made its way into my music.
And also certainly into this book. I didn’t want to write a historical novel. I wanted to feel it was set in Marseille in 1961 but to toy with it. My son Hank is really into subjunctive history books—you know, alternate history, where the Confederates won the Civil War, for example. This sets a light to the reader’s imagination, so clearly the rules are elastic and it’s suddenly more exciting and the world feels more tangible and interesting and engrossing.
BLVR: OK, on the Museum of Jurassic Technology, so I can understand the frisson and the excitement, I want to ask: if someone at the end of your visit had said, “By the way, I can hand you a little book and it’s footnoted and it will tell you precisely what is from the encyclopedia and what is imagined,” would you look? Is the pleasure the not knowing?
CM: I did read the Lawrence Weschler book [Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders] afterward; it tells you some of that stuff. It’s interesting to see where they broke the rules and where they stuck to it. That’s part of the reason you would go there.
CARSON ELLIS: If you don’t know what’s real, and you don’t know what’s imaginary—it takes the focus off facts or not-facts and puts the focus on museums and curation, and how one observes things in museums. It’s kind of like the citations in [George Saunders’s book] Lincoln in the Bardo. You realize the story isn’t about whether it’s true or whether it’s not true.
BLVR: But it’s similar, too, in that the springboard for Saunders is a story that hovers around the edge of myth but that many people believe is true: that Lincoln did go several times to visit the crypt that held his dead son Willie.
It’s interesting, Carson, because the book of yours I know the best is Home, which I’ve read to my son many times. It begins very concretely, very specifically: “This is he home of a Slovakian duchess. This is the home of a Kenyan blacksmith.” And the drawings have a documentary feel. Then there’s a moment when it leaps into the fantastic: “A Moonian lives here.” The distinction is pronounced and wonderful. But it definitely feels like a sprung floor that you’re sort of leaping from into the ether. Is that similar to how you made this book, taking all these details you are making use of to the point where you need a glossary?
CE: I just like that feeling. What it feels like to feel like you “get” the mechanism of a thing you’re reading—and to find out you don’t get it. To have the rug pulled out from underneath you, and then you have to rearrange your thought process around this new thing where you’re like, “OK, it’s not homes that people live in necessarily. Maybe it’s homes that people and mythological figures live in; maybe it’s also animal homes. OK, it’s just homes.” Then at the end, I’m actually in this book.
BLVR: I was about to mention that—that it ends by returning to the most concrete place you can return to. But the last couple images are very interesting, because the last image is from the bird’s perspective, right?
CE: I show someone from behind, sitting in a studio, and it says, “An artist lives here.” There’s a bird flying by the window and I’m painting that bird into a larger illustration that is the illustration on the first page of the book. And then also the room is sort of filled with things from all the other homes in the book. So it’s sort of about homes, but it’s also sort of about being an artist and where you draw your inspiration from, what homes you’re constantly returning to and constantly obsessing over— even kind of fetishizing.
BLVR: To come back to your new book: did the historical details lead you to a fictional situation—or did you go back and forth between what you were discovering imaginatively and the historical facts?
CM: Once I’d established the setting, I felt pretty free. It’s not like any sort of historical events were really going to have any bearing on the action. The closest maybe is a soldier on leave from the Algerian War. And from that point on, it was just finding pieces of history that we could seed in there just to give it a better sense of the setting and time. And then I think about three-quarters of the way through the book it kind of goes off the deep end and all of the sudden they’re going through Colombia to this School of the Seven Bells on top of a mountain.
BLVR: Which is a real myth.
CM: Yeah, it’s apocryphal, an idea of a place where pickpockets go to become masters. Maybe the School of the Seven Bells is just in the back of a grocery store in Bogotá or something like that. But I imagined it like a proper academy.
BLVR: Have your songs also emerged from little pieces of concrete material in the world—from newspapers, et cetera?
CM: The stuff I read definitely finds its way into the songs. Something like “The Shankill Butchers,” on The Crane Wife. This was a very real thing—and a very gruesome thing. Protestant radicals in Ireland who were basically murdering Republican radicals.
When it was happening, it took on a sort of mythical status. Parents would tell their kids, “Eat your vegetables or the Shankill Butchers are going to come and get you.” It becomes a sort of bogeyman. That interests me the most—when these real-life things take on the facet of fiction. Or there are cases like The Painted Bird, the book by Jerzy Kosinski, which he initially described as autobiographical, the story of his wandering after the Holocaust and searching for his deported family. When it turned out that Kosinski didn’t share the boys’ experiences, it was a scandal. But I wonder if this is a case where you have the Holocaust, where the circumstances are so horrific that it couldn’t help but tip over into almost a folktale.
CE: The true story is so horrific that it’s like fantasy, so why stick to the facts?
BLVR: Do you think you’re investigating the common aesthetics of myth and fact? Was that part what drew you together as artists and collaborators, as friends and lovers?
CM: We met each other in that time—in your early twenties, when all of a sudden the fireworks are going off and you’re free from college and you’re making your own way and you feel a responsibility—or a drive—to carve out your own place. And willfully getting excited about things. I think Carson and I shared a lot of the same, like, Whoa. We would get really excited about a lot of the same stuff.
CE: We were excited about romantic images of historical facts. We were super interested in communism in our early twenties. We would get fixated on periods and movements.
CM: Soviet realist paintings and stuff like that.
BLVR: And was that related to the naming of the band?
CM: That was the beginning of my Russophilia which has not abated.
CE: That’s what I think about when I say “fetishizing.” I fetishized Russia, which is such a complicated place with such a weird and difficult national and cultural identity and yet I love it. And we actually went to Russia for month when we were pretty young—we were twenty-five and we went there very naively, and so the Russia of our romantic fantasies, Soviet Russia or the nineteenth-century Russia of the novels we were reading, came into direct conflict with the real Russia that we visited because it was a hard place to travel in and scary. And we saw really horrible stuff there.
BLVR: It’s telling that you would undertake that journey and welcome the imposition of the actual on the romantic.
CM: We were also taken by the reality of the grimness of it, fascinated by that.
CE: And the tumultuousness of it.
CM: That was in 2001.
CE: We went right after September 11. In fact, while we were over there, our Russian airline went out of business.
CM: It was actually a Swiss airline.
CE: But also what we saw there, depending on where we were—a lot of stuff that reinforced and fed those romantic Russian fantasies. We went way out into Siberia and went into a little town where there’s just a bunch of wooden houses on a lake with a church with people begging in front of it and it was kind of like we had time-traveled into a Dostoevsky novel. So it was a mixed thing. But it definitely fueled things; it didn’t temper them.