General blog posts

To Connect Over Shared Stories: Chris Cander’s Whisper Hollow

By Cassandra Neace

When I received my copy of Chris Cander’s WHISPER HOLLOW, I turned it over to read the description on the back. When I saw that the story takes place in West Virginia coal country, my first reaction was to question the title. As someone who spent her summers as a child in those same hills, I can say with certainty that no one says “hollow.” It’s holler. Period.

That one inconsistency put me on guard. Luckily, Cander accounts for it early on, when a recent immigrant reflects on how the local speech differs from the English she studied in school back in Germany: “Even Whisper Hollow…was pronounced in a way that suggested something unpredictable.” That sentence did the trick. It kept me reading.

When I spoke with Cander, I told her about my initial reaction. She laughed. We ended up talking about shared memories of childhoods in West Virginia and the stories that we heard from our relatives. Those stories are reflected throughout WHISPER HOLLOW, both in its chronicle of the daily hardships faced by those who make their living from the mines and in the more dark and unpredictable elements of the story.

The story begins in darkness. A young girl, Ruth, is killed in an accident just before the birthday she shares with her twin, Myrthen. It is an event that has long-lasting repercussions. Much of what happens in the book is driven by Myrthen’s guilt, albeit indirectly. It leads to the death of thirteen miners. Their loss is serious blow to the town, and particularly to Alta, who loses her husband, her son, and the man who she loves in secret. That is not a spoiler, either. It is just the way that Cander works.

Cander explains that she likes to give away a lot right up front. It is not meant to be a book full of surprises, but one that looks at the fallout from an event and examines how people recover. Cander sets this artistic challenge for herself with each work. She focuses on telling a story when something bad has already happened, then works to unpack that event and all of its associated baggage.

The strength of Cander’s storytelling lies in her attention to detail. She spends a great deal of time focusing on the daily life of characters. The reader comes to know them, to understand them and the choices that they make. The characters feel familiar. As I read, I felt as if I were sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ house listening to them talk about the old days with their brothers and sisters, and in my earliest memories, their mothers. Whisper Hollow could have easily been one of their stories.

I was meant to be interviewing Cander the afternoon we spoke. Instead, she picked my brain about my family’s history and how and where it may have overlapped her own. We talked about the holler my grandparents called home and how time there moves a little slower than in the rest of the world. It was a unique experience for both of us, reader and author, being able to dissect the novel and our experience with it in that way.

My wish is that we will get to do it again sometime, to connect over shared stories. Maybe it will happen while we are both browsing the shelves at Brazos, she with her son in tow. From what I hear, he is a big fan.

Cassandra Neace is a recovering educator, a Book Riot contributor, and an unapologetic binge-reader. Her most recent binge-reads have involved short fiction from across the spectrum, science fiction written by women, and all of the books she read under duress in grad school. She figured they deserved a second chance. When she’s not reading books or writing about them, she works for a local graphic design firm.

Whisper Hollow Cover Image
ISBN: 9781590517116
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Other Press (NY) - March 17th, 2015

Whatever Suits the Show: Houston’s Main Street Theater

By Annalia Linnan

Here’s the scene: it’s 1975, and Rebecca Udden and some friends want to do some theater. None of them can (or want to) do it full time, but they have enough players to stage some quality (albeit modest) shows. They set up in Autry House, the refectory of the Episcopal Church right across from Rice University. Like the troupe, the space is quirky but functional: each performance involves converting the cafeteria to a stage then back again. Such are the humble beginnings of Main Street Theater.

Does this sound idyllic? Well, the way I hear the tale is less so. It’s February, and Capital Campaign Director Joe Kirkendall and I are on the patio at Under the Volcano, speaking in radio voices and leaning close to my phone in hopes the hissing hip-hop music doesn’t bleed into the recording. In the moment, all we can do is shrug, but thinking about it later reminds me of what Main Street has always been about: doing the best with what you have.

When Main Street switched locations during the ‘80s, its new home was originally a dry cleaner’s. Udden and some volunteers “gutted it,” converted it into a theater, and were running shows by 1982. Two years later, Udden adopted the building next door to add patron restrooms, and that is where Main Street has been ever since, in what Kirkendall calls “these two little oddball buildings stuck together” at the corner of Times Boulevard and Kirby Drive.

Thirty years later, Main Street has become “one of the major theatre organizations in Houston," according to Kirkendall. Though known for its intimacy--the cozy house seats a mere ninety-nine patrons--Main Street has “expanded from just doing main stage shows, [adding] a very active theater for youth division that serves more kids in Houston than any other youth theater organization.” In fact, Main Street’s education program includes not only the Times Boulevard location but satellite locations via in-school workshops and summer camps available throughout Houston and Bellaire.

On the surface, all seems fine, but like a well-loved teddy bear, there comes a time when good ol’ TLC is not enough: repairs must be made. That’s where Kirkendall comes in, though (admittedly) it’s been a long journey. In 2008, Main Street fashioned a capital campaign to buy their buildings and begin renovations. But then--you’ve heard this one before--the recession happened. However, with help from the Houston Endowment and the Brown Foundation, Main Street restarted its campaign a few years ago. At the time, Kirkendall had recently moved back to Houston and did not anticipate becoming head of the project.

“You know, I just happened to be here,” Kirkendall says. And it’s true--he moved away for a number of years then returned to work for Main Street--but his pride is such that he makes his degree in interior design and background doing fundraising for nonprofits seem incidental. But they’re not, and this is how you can tell: for the past two years, Kirkendall has worked closely with the architects to refine the plans for the building.

The goal is to make the changes Main Street needs while maintaining its general feel. “[Udden] built the theater on a tight budget, and we’re doing this project on a tight budget,” says Kirkendall. “It’s gonna look like Main Street theater--it’s not gonna look slick.” And what does Main Street theater look like? Unlike Alley Theater and Stages, Kirkendall describes Main Street as “a little rougher around the edges. It’s a little more, you know, like a concrete floor and an exposed stud.”

In other words, though big changes are being made--the new building will have a second floor, a new classroom, and an elevator -- they’re being made from the inside, for function more than anything flashy. As proof, the theater itself is not going to be any bigger. The seats will be reconfigured--and even movable!--but the biggest change regulars will notice will be the absence of the two I-beams that have always sat in the middle of the playing area, which will provide the theater with much more flexibility.

“In the renovated theater, we will be able to move [the seats] any way we want,” Kirkendall says. “So a director will be able to say, ‘Well, you know what? I kind of would like to have all the seats over here in the corner looking at that facing corner’ or ‘I’d kind of like to make kind of a little proscenium stage at one end.’ You know, whatever suits the show.”


When I try to contact Udden via email for an interview, I receive this automatic message: “I am working remotely from Prague for several weeks, but I read and respond to email every day. Just know that I am seven hours ahead of Houston, so my response to you is likely to come the next business day. If you need immediate assistance, please email Shannon Emerick.”

I assumed the worst--Prague, several weeks, seven hours ahead--but she wrote me back five hours later, offering to Skype or answer questions over email. Based on her track record, I imagined Udden as intense and meticulous. In actuality, she is generous, enthusiastic, and rarely uses the word “I.” Instead, she uses “we,” making it clear she views Main Street as a family more than her personal darling.

“Yes, I’ve been the ‘leader,’ but I’ve never taken the theater in a direction that the company didn’t already want to go,” Udden writes. “Main Street Theater is an artistic home for a large group of people who come and go but always come back.”

With the renovations at the Rice Village location, and MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theatre Center Houston) building in the works, Udden feels like this is Main Street’s time to shine. “You can’t look at Main Street’s future without considering how we got here,” says Udden. “This has always been an organization that has moved forward because the of the artists that have been committed to it.”

Kirkendall agrees. “It’s been very cool to see local arts foundations and individual donors who have stepped up and said, ‘Main Street has really made a difference for me and I want to give back. I want to help it in its future,” he says. “You know, they’ve seen: [Udden] has run a tight ship for forty years, and they want to see this institution continue.”

After five years of plans and dreams and disappointments, renovations started earlier this month.

Learning to Play a Different Instrument: Jill Alexander Essbaum on HAUSFRAU

by Benjamin Rybeck

Before I call Jill Alexander Essbaum, I know just a handful of facts about her. I know that she grew up in the Houston area and remains a huge (read: sort of frighteningly rabid) Rockets fan. I know that HAUSFRAU, out 3/17, is her first novel after publishing several collections of poetry on small presses. I know that most of what’s written about her poetry highlights its “erotic” aspects (and I have, in fact, read some of this poetry, including this one, which will turn on the surrealist in your life). And I know that, in an email exchange, she challenged me to ask questions she has never heard before.

But immediately before she picks up the phone—I mean, seriously, the phone is ringing in my ear—I find one particular fact about her that excites me more than any of the others: she’s a Nick Cave superfan.

“Favorite album,” I say, which sounds less like a question and more like an initiation.

It’s not easy, and she takes her time with the answer, thinking about it before saying, “No More Shall We Part…it plays like a novel. It’s so different from, say, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!, which I didn’t like until I saw him on tour.” Her favorite songs, though? “Stagger Lee” and “Deanna.” “What’s your favorite?” she asks me.

“I came to him on No More Shall We Part,” I say—which actually, I realize after I hang up the phone, is a lie: I first fell in love with Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus on a long drive from Tucson to Denver. I confess to her that I prefer mellow Nick Cave to fire-and-brimstone Nick Cave.

“Angry Nick gets me going,” she says, referring to him by his first name (always) in the same way that a handful of my friends refer to the artists they love most: with familiarity, as though they’ve invited them into their homes many times, so why not use their given names? “But when he’s gentle,” Essbaum says, “he really scratches an itch in me.”

She tells me that she dedicated one of her books of poetry to “Nick,” not just because he’s awesome, but because he helped her think about new ways of writing her own work without abandoning her preoccupations and obsessions—“to move in a direction that’s not my usual way, and if it works, great, but if it doesn’t, you leave and move on. Else you start to parody yourself or get used to your own gimmicks.”

Another artist she relates to, for similar reasons, is PJ Harvey. “Her album White Chalk deeply affected me. For that album, she learned to play piano.” And so, in writing HAUSFRAU, Essbaum “learned to play a different instrument too. I feel good about trying new things.”

How about Nick Cave’s novels—has she read them?

“Moving on…” she says after a pause so deep it makes me think she has ended the call.

I ask her which of her loves is greater: Nick Cave or the Houston Rockets?

“I’ve loved the Rockets longer,” she says. “They fill different needs in my life.” She tells me about her history with the Rockets when she was going to Alvin High School. She used to go to the games with her dad, but when he passed away, she didn’t have anyone to watch basketball with. Later, she and her husband discovered, after a year of marriage, their shared love for the Rockets, so they started following the games together. “It was killing us,” she says. “I screamed, yelled—ate a lot of throat lozenges.”

The point? “[Nick Cave and the Rockets] both get out some aggressions.”

If my conversation with her is any indication, these outlets for aggression seem to be working, for she comes across as the least aggressive person on the planet. This is not the same as saying that she’s timid, because she isn’t (even though she tells me she’s a shy person), but that she seems measured and not prone to heated thinking.

If only Anna, the protagonist of HAUSFRAU, was the same. The novel—which seems like a modern version of THE AWAKENING or MADAME BOVARY—focuses on the perfectly mundane marriage between Anna and Bruno, living with their three young children in a comfortable suburb of Zürich. An easy life, right? Perhaps, but Anna doesn’t let it be. Instead, she finds other outlets—some harmless, like her German lessons, and some less harmless, like the series of lovers she takes on. (Does Anna just need to listen to some more Nick Cave?)

As I read HAUSFRAU, I found myself relating to Anna—not because of her actions, but because her feeling malaise is a universal one. After all, sometimes everything seems okay, yet you can’t shake the dread or the melancholy. Does anyone else feel this way? Do I just sound desperate? Should I be worried that I identify with Anna?

“I don’t think so,” Essbaum says. “One of the attractions of the book is that we recognize ourselves in…well, maybe not the way that Anna thinks and the things she does, but in the way that one choice becomes the next choice becomes the next choice.” In other words, many of us don’t live lives as extreme as Anna’s, but we can relate to one fundamental fact: “Our choices really do matter.”

One of HAUSFRAU's most fascinating characteristics is that, even though the book focuses on Anna, the third-person narration ensures that the reader is kept outside her head in certain ways. For instance, we may know her feelings about certain matters, but we never really know why she comes so close to detonating her happy life—not exactly.

The book wasn’t always like this—not in its first draft, anyway, which Essbaum wrote in first person present tense, a choice that any writer knows leads mostly to agony. “The tone was quite different. Anna had more pizzazz and snark to her voice. She was more devil-may-care. She flaunted herself more.” But every time she tried to write the book, she hit a wall around page 100.

Essbaum’s breakthrough would make a great scene in one of those movies about an artist—the moment when the viewer sees dramatized the inspiration behind a great work. “I was driving from Austin to Houston, and I was listening to nonsense radio, and it hit me in the face: I knew how to fix the book. So I pulled over somewhere around Paige, Texas. I found a park, pulled in, and started writing. I scribbled for an hour and got it!” And what was her revelation? To write the book in third person past tense.

In some ways, it seems like a strange revelation, considering that for a very long time in the history of the novel, third person past tense was the default position from which to tell a story. Not that this was exclusive, but you know what I mean—all those grand authorial works, by Dickens and Austen and Fielding. Certainly the tone of Hausfrau feels old fashioned. “[It’s] written with a higher level of diction,” Essbaum says, “and there are a lot of inverted sentences. It feels old-timey.”

In hindsight, Anna never could’ve narrated her own story, for it would have removed much of HAUSFRAU's levelheadedness. “In first person, there’s too much hysteria…” Here, Essbaum adopts the frantic hypothetical voice of Anna as narrator: “Oh my gosh, my husband has found out about my infidelities, what am I going to do?”

Talking to Essbaum, I suddenly feel like I’m getting a craft lesson. After all, she has taught for many years, and she jokes that her students “say terrible things about me behind my back.” Why? Because when her students don’t choose the best words in their poems, she tells them.

“Look,” she says, “we have every technology at our fingertips. And I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia is the place to go for the final say in informal, but if I’m looking for a specific word that’s going to help me understand how, for example, a lock or a door works, I can type that in. All of a sudden, I’m down the rabbit hole.” It’s a sort of precision arrived at through elimination: you find all the things that don’t work until eventually you find the thing that does. “If I have a word that’s okay,” she says, “why not vet it against all other possible words?”

Essbaum demonstrates this same precision in HAUSFRAU's sex scenes—frank, exploratory moments that don’t titillate but, instead, teach the reader about the characters. One scene in particular stands out to me: there’s a moment, halfway through the book, when Anna comes on to her husband, Bruno, at a dull party, and they abscond immediately, driving home and essentially undressing each other before they even make it through the door, as is always the way in lurid romance novels. But this is worlds beyond that, and what astonishes about this particular sex scene is that Anna and Bruno really get each other, and after reading over a hundred pages about indifference and infidelity, this fact comes as a revelation.

For Essbaum too, who learned, while writing this scene, that “their relationship was very real—the most important relationship in Anna’s life—and it’s undeniable. There’s no question why she’s with him.” Through their sex lives, Essbaum learned about her own characters.

“When you’re writing sex, if the only thing you can manage is ‘the earth moved,’ then you’re not going to be able to explore what intimacy is. And sex is the most intimate thing that can ever happen between two people, and there’s not a single person on the planet who didn’t come about from lovemaking. That’s the single most fundamental thing, and here’s your chance as a writer to explore that moment.” (Though, of course, Essbaum does acknowledge that the book gets explicit: “I didn’t realize how far I went until I heard the audiobook!”)

These questions of intimacy, particularly the intimacy between Anna and Bruno, sit at the center of Hausfrau, the mystery that pulled Essbaum as a writer—and pulls us as readers—through a book that the author seems genuinely excited and grateful to be discussing.

So did I manage to ask her questions that she hadn’t heard before? I don’t know—or at least I’m not saying so here. But as we get off the phone, I do make one promise: “When you get here for your Brazos event,” I say, “I will have a really cool fact to tell you about the Houston Rockets that you’ve never heard before.”

Essbaum seems happy—and now I have to find a fact. Any suggestions?

Hausfrau Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812997538
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Random House - March 17th, 2015

Meet Jill Alexander Essbaum at Brazos Bookstore for the release of HAUSFRAU on Tuesday, March 16 at 7PM.

That Texture of Longing and Loss: A Q&A with Keija Parssinen

by Annalia Linnan


The language in Keija Parssinen’s new novel, THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS, recalls the sensation of walking into the ocean at low tide, the lush sentences moving around rather than against me. Though the novel explores dark subjects, the quality of her prose feels warm, inviting--a reminder that sometimes beautiful writing can feel like home.


Parssinen’s debut, THE RUINS OF US, took place in Saudi Arabia, her childhood home until she moved to Austin, Texas, at age twelve. Now, with her second novel, she turns to the sticky, Tex-Mex, slow drawl glory that is the American South. What emerges is young Mercy Louis, resident hometown hero and up-and-coming basketball star. But summer brings strange happenings, and no one is spared scrutiny--not even Mercy Louis.


Parssinen no longer lives in either Saudi Arabia or Texas--she lives in Columbia, Missouri--but her message is clear: home is the place that always pulls you back.




Brazos Bookstore: Though you've spent your career publishing fiction, the prose in THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS shows you're still very connected to the sound and moves of poetry. A good example is when Mercy illustrates her grandfather's death: "He was fishing at the end of the dock out back of the house when the stroke buzzed through his brain and toppled him into Chocolate Bayou." Have you always been attracted to more imagistic writing?


Keija Parssinen: I'm so glad you think the writing is poetic! Yes, I've always been drawn to imagistic writing, both when I read and write. I came to creative writing through an undergraduate poetry class with Susan Wheeler, and when I moved to New York City after graduation, I sought out poetry communities: the 92nd Street Y, Poets' House, the Bowery Poetry Club. I wrote a ton of poetry back then, some of it good, most of it unremarkable; but that poetic education very much shaped my prose voice, and I'm glad of it, even though it means I have to be extra-vigilant when I edit in order to make sure that my sentences don't feel overburdened with poetry. In fiction, clarity is king, but my favorite writers are still the lyrical ones--Woolf, Joyce, Garcia Marquez, Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides. 


BB: Was finding Mercy’s voice a challenge?


KP: It was a joy to write; it sprang pretty organically from the cadences of my youth--country music and that wonderful Texas drawl, with a Biblical twist.


BB: In this novel, suspense is a key element. Was that outside of your comfort zone?


KP: As most writers will tell you, plot is a bitch--excuse my french--and MERCY'S plot was no exception. I agonized over the plotting, both macro and micro, in this novel, so that I wound up doing about four complete overhauls of the book. Recently, I found my stash of notebooks, and I filled four legal pads, front to back, with outlines and notes about plot. In suspense fiction, where pacing is crucial, the details must lock into place at just the right time or the whole machine feels out of whack. So nailing down the timing, and paring back the interiority that I naturally gravitate toward, were the two biggest challenges I faced. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go write my quiet, interior novel about a single character who never leaves her house!


BB: Mercy's grandmother tells her every night, “Live to meet the end without dread,” and, “Be better than good.” In her locker, Mercy keeps a post-it with other daily reminders such as, “Be twice as good as the other girls,” and “You get out what you put in.” What are the mantras in your family?


KP: What a wonderful question! Parssinen family mantras included:


-Respect the bread! This was something that our French friend, Henri, once told my brother when, as a child, he used a baguette as a sword. We often invoked Henri's mantra when talking about food and how to respond to it.


-Read! We spent Saturday nights at Borders and BookPeople in Austin. We'd all wander away and find a stack of books, then reconvene in the coffee shop to read. Now that means that we're all writers of one stripe or another, of course.


Other than those, though, we didn't really have any mantras. We were a pretty free-wheeling family.


BB: Your first novel called back to your childhood home in Saudi Arabia, whereas MERCY LOUIS tackles the south where you have spent most of your life. What place does memory have when you're thinking about a story?


KP: I started writing THE RUINS OF US with two things in mind: place and tone. The place was, of course, Saudi Arabia, and I wanted the tone to be nostalgic, because I was still processing my feelings of grief at having left behind my childhood home. I adore books like Ishiguro's THE REMAINS OF THE DAY and NEVER LET ME GO that just drip with a melancholy nostalgia. But in MERCY, the tone is quite different. The novel is written in the present tense and so, by its very structure, does not engage much with the past or flashback. However, Mercy's absent mother and her past haunt the story, thus giving it that texture of longing and loss that I seem to gravitate toward.


BB: What inspires you besides books?


KP: I'm inspired by women who aren't afraid to raise hell, like Hillary Clinton, Ann and Cecile Richards, and Wendy Davis; I worked in a school for several years and witnessed day in and day out the amount of energy and love that it takes to educate young people, so teachers very much inspire me. And I'm inspired by climate change activists: it's perhaps the most important work of our time, but so many people, me included, feel hopeless about the situation. I applaud those people working tirelessly for what amounts to the future of the human race on this planet.


BB: If you could do a reading tour with anyone, who would you choose?


KP: Gary Shtyengart seems like he'd be a lot of fun to travel/read with! The cover and title of LITTLE FAILURE alone had me cackling. I'd love to tour with my mentor and one of my first fiction teachers, Julia Fierro, because she is wise and warm and wonderful and knows how to have fun. Plus she has a dark imagination like me, so we could huddle together and watch murder mystery shows on Netflix at the end of each day!

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062319098
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Harper - March 10th, 2015

Preparing the Whirlwind: An Interview with Rikki Ducornet

by Lawrence Lenhart 

Years ago, at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, I saw 1) a nine-foot long human colon, 2) the conjoined liver of Chang and Eng Bunker, and 3) a malignant tumor removed from Grover Cleveland’s hard palate. Weeks ago, at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, I saw 4) an oil portrait gallery devoted to the Soviet space dogs, 5) an exhibit on decaying dice, and 6) a microminiature statue of Pope John Paul II carved from a human hair set within the eye of a needle. Days ago, in Rikki Ducornet’s THE DEEP ZOO: ESSAYS, I saw 7) a red fox carcass burning brightly with yellow bees, “tigering it,” 8) the Dalai Lama’s turds “kept in silver and worn as amulets,” and 9) a hundred fireflies pinned to a ballroom dress.

Like my favorite museums, THE DEEP ZOO is brimful with anomaly, informed by what Ducornet calls the “mysteries of matter.” The clauses revel in their obscurity, the sentences dazzle as “potencies… fall into sympathy with one another,” and the essays cohere with their matrices of association. Ducornet explores art, nature, and politics with even verve; as a poet and painter, each composition ascends to song and tempera, spontaneously synesthetic. The zookeeper herself called from her home in Port Townsend, Washington, to help me suss the sensorial world of THE DEEP ZOO. What follows is a portion of our conversation.


Brazos Bookstore: In the essay, “A Memoir in the Form of a Manifesto,” you recall a neighbor’s farm, how it “offered a sprawl of fantasy and a troublous delight.” He would candle eggs and show you two-headed chicks in jars, and it’s these obscurities and anomalies, you say, that trained you in a “new way of looking.” What was this neighborhood called and how did it predispose you to the kind of inquiry that you shoulder in the book?

Rikki Ducornet: Well, I grew up on the Bard College campus. When that experience happened, I was not on campus, but on the outskirts on a country road—it’s still there, I think—called Annandale Road. There was a chicken farm across the street—in view, unlike most chicken yards today. They would perch in trees, and when I walked across the street to pick up eggs, I would have this wonderful experience of scientific inquiry when the farmer revealed to me not just candled eggs, but his collection of anomalies in jars. I remembered being offered that way of seeing. It was like a key to a great mystery. I’m very indebted to him and very grateful. It did provide a kind of deep curiosity.

BB: At what point did that kind of seeing manifest as written word?

RD: I think the first time I really sat down consciously to write, I was about eight and it was this little book called OPEN DOOR. It was a little book that was devoted to my notion to what it was to live in the world. I also did a lot of writing about my collection of animals—from ivory elephants to large stuffed animals, a couple lions—and I wrote and illustrated newspapers for them. I had this realm in which I informed them of what was going on in their community.

BB: When reading your sentences, there is a kind of deep grammar at play. Each sentence has its own unique scaffolding, and it accumulates something akin to vertigo. I was very attuned to not just how the sentences could be read, but also how they must have been written. To what extent do you anticipate your reader, if at all?

RD: The process of writing, for me, is one in acute isolation. And what I mean by that is I’m not thinking about readers. I’m the first reader. I’m just very aware of that—that I’m writing a book I want to read, writing a sentence I want to read, and in some ways—this may be disappointing and sound really odd—it’s a deeply intuitive process and embodied somehow and has a lot to do with a kind of music. I cannot, as Angela Carter did, listen to music when I’m writing because the music is on the page and I trust that. I’m attempting to write a rigorous music so that it’s very clear and things are in their place. I want to find a way to get that complexity down with elegance and grace, but I don’t want to simplify the ideas to make it easier. I just want to clarify to make it hang together and clear, and I’m doing it initially for myself because I do think writing is a place to think. When it’s acquired a pristine quality on the page, when the meaning rings true, and the vehicle is elegant, I am satisfied. But I can’t even define that elegance. It’s so much to having an ear for it somehow.

BB: In the eponymous essay, you say that the “mysteries of matter” are the “potencies… that inform our imagining minds,” and that for Borges, the potencies take the form of the tiger. Writers seem to gravitate toward this genus, to relay write about it—Blake, Borges, Martel, and Cantwell, to name a few. What is it about an animal like the tiger that resonates with these writers? When a species becomes endangered, does that cultural transmission become imperiled as well?

RD: More and more, I do think that Jung was right on when he spoke of the collective unconscious. I think it is very clear that there are these powers that cross borders of time and space. The tiger is one of the most gorgeous creatures imaginable. People are still in some way affected by its power and beauty.

I think we’re already suffering an acute distress because of these losses. There’s a great difference between being touched by the beauty of something one sees in a photograph, but there’s nothing like the living thing. I think what I’m feeling acutely is the burden of these losses. We share a genetic history with all the other creatures on the planet. We were sparked at the same moment from the beginning and have gone through this long, complex, and fascinating process of evolution. There are conversations that are now silenced, and this goes for the plant world as well. There is a species loneliness that has already reached us and we’re in mourning. I think our species is in mourning.

BB: I want to talk about the political resonances in THE DEEP ZOO as well. For instance, you write about the Chilean coup d'état (on 9/11/73) in a way that anticipates the September 11 attacks. Abu Ghraib is evoked when you have tea with the French wife of an American consul in Algeria, and you learn that she had a maid tortured at a nearby prison. You immediately leave her company, you say, and I wonder what it was that you were leaving behind—discomfort, complicity?

RD: Well, I certainly felt that I would, in some way, have been complicit if I remained in the room. I didn’t leave the room because I felt uncomfortable. I felt angry and I wanted her to know that I didn’t want to be anywhere near her, that her company had become odious because of what she’d done. It really mattered to me. It was no small thing. I actually learned later the maid who had been tortured had been beaten to a pulp and crippled for life. It’s not the only time I’ve actually left a room.

BB: You populate THE DEEP ZOO with many well-known and enigmatic artists—Aloys Zötl, Gaston Bachelard, Jorge Luis Borges, William H. Gass, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Marquis de Sade, etc.—and a few lesser-known ones. Can you talk about the essays that address the works of Margie McDonald, Linda Okazaki, and Anne Hirondelle?

RD: The three artists—those three small essays with the illustrations—are actually artists in Port Townsend and I decided at some point that I was going to publish some little book on local artists who seemed important to me as a way of giving back to the community that I love by responding to the work of people I’m very fond of. When I realized that I was putting a book of essays together, it made sense that I bring those essays into the book and I realized that the book is also a wonderful place for local artists to just simply be artists, to take into account their work and not just because they’re local or women.

BB: Are there any artists of that same ilk who were left out from these essays for one reason or another? 

RD: THE DEEP ZOO does resonate and reverberate endlessly. Things keep sticking to it. There are so many things I didn’t explore. For example, Murasaki Shikibu who wrote THE TALE OF GENJI. That is certainly one of the works that had an enormous impact on me. I could have spoken about a French cartoonist named [Roland] Topor who had a big impact on my humor in my early short stories. There’s something about Topor’s energy that entered into those very dark, small stories. His brand of satire. Elsewhere, I’ve written about Swift. Also, painting has had a big impact on my imagination, and I’ve never really sat down to write about Hieronymous Bosch. Bosch certainly, as has [Francisco] Goya, influenced the way I see when I’m writing. Particularly when I’m writing about violence, there’s this Bosch-y noise and coloration to the work, I think. I often have Bosch in mind when I’m writing about difficult things.

BB: One of the imperatives of THE DEEP ZOO is that writers should “move from the street—the place of received ideas—into the forest—the place of the unknown,” that this latter space is where deep inquiry takes place. What does it mean to have depth perception as an artist? Is there some kind of sensor that detects exactly when you’ve bypassed surface-level inquiry?

RD: I think, in fact, much of it has to do with some kind of intuition that one can go deeper. There are experiences that are very profound and we know that because we resonate in a deep way—not just in our minds, but in our bodies. As a writer, inevitably, one is going to want to return to those places, and I noticed when I became a writer, unexpectedly, that the initial impulse sometimes could be powerful and interesting, but that it really needs to be reconsidered. Every time I would return to a text and pull it through again, I would go deeper. There are exceptions of course, but I found that in order for the writing to really go to a place that’s really interesting and informing and engaging, I would have to pull it through again. In other words, I couldn’t be satisfied with the initial impulse. It’s just a way in.

LAWRENCE LENHART holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His work appears or is forthcoming in Prairie SchoonerGulf CoastAlaska Quarterly ReviewGuernicaWag’s Revue, and elsewhere. Currently living in Sacramento, he is reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.

The Deep Zoo Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566893763
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Coffee House Press - January 6th, 2015

Mexico Is Not One Country: A Q&A with Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

by Mark Haber


BAREFOOT DOGS, Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s debut collection of stories, is unlike anything you’ll read this year. It tells the stories of a single Mexican family, the Arteagas, when the patriarch is taken hostage and the dangers of remaining in Mexico are too vast. Ruiz-Camacho, a widely published journalist, reports on a world disrupted and transfigured. The foreign landscapes of Austin, Madrid, and the suburbs of California--all places to which the Arteaga family tries to adjust--come into a hazy focus. The United States especially, with its innocuous swimming pools and landscaped lawns and a McDonald’s on seemingly every corner, is a soft landing pad for members of the family, but strange and painful in its insipid harmlessness. 


Loss is an important concept in BAREFOOT DOGS, and each story approaches the subject in a new and provocative way. The stories are heartbreaking and funny, accessible and strange; they deal with exile, fate, and grief, all written with aplomb. Each story evokes the sense of losing one’s internal compass--language, culture, identity, class--when one’s family is scattered across the world. The longing for Mexico City, for home, is palpable. There are plenty of books about drug cartels and the violence of corruption, but few examine the aftermath of the people left behind. BAREFOOT DOGS explores the vague and tenuous universe of the displaced family, a universe most of us are lucky enough only to read about.




Brazos Bookstore: Your stories describe, both directly and indirectly, a Mexican family’s diaspora. Did you want the different situations of the Arteagas to symbolize the fates of other Mexicans, or simply to be about a single family?


Antonio Ruiz-Camacho: Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from all social and economic backgrounds have been displaced by the wave of violence that has raged through the country in recent years. Many of them have sought refuge in cities like Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. The circumstances depicted in the book might be particular to the Arteagas, but the sense of dislocation and grief and loss after the disappearance of a loved one, or as a result of forced exile, is, unfortunately, widespread among many Mexicans these days.


BB: An interesting aspect of the stories in BAREFOOT DOGS are the different social classes that are affected by the patriarch’s kidnapping/murder. Was it important for you to show the different social classes--not only the immediate family, but also the housekeepers and the help?


AR: Mexico is actually not one country, but two: the one inhabited by a minority that gives orders and makes the big decisions that set the course of the nation, and the other one, populated by the majority, who follows those orders and must endure oligarchic decisions in which they hardly ever have a say. Nothing describes this duality like the relationship between servants and masters in a traditional middle-class Mexican household. Both ends are bound by a complicated array of intense sentiments–from love to resentment to regret to admiration to envy to desire–that cut both ways. I meant to show the various forms of impact that a life-changing event can have on the different members of the same family--housekeepers included. But of course, as it also happens in real life, the members of the working class usually get the worst part of the deal.


BB:  Were there specific authors who influenced the writing of these stories or short story collections that inspired you?


AR: Right when I started writing the stories that would end up being part of the collection, I took a class at UT with Pete LaSalle called “Metaphysical Messages,” in which we had to read a great deal of material that was not only new but overall strange and unexpected to me, from María Luisa Bombal's NEW ISLANDS to Nabokov's TRANSPARENT THINGS, and even several of Mark Strand's stunning, weirdly playful, ultimately moving poems. The whole experience of reading these works through that lens was inspiring and encouraging and liberating all at once. These works somehow resonated deeply with what I wanted to do in fiction, and sanctioned some of the literary pursuits that, I hope, will come across in BAREFOOT DOGS: to reflect the parallel realities that we often experience in our lives, to capture the emotional import of trauma, and to investigate humans' usually flawed, helpless reactions to the worst possible scenario.


In addition to that, a book I kept coming back to as I wrote these stories, and which, curiously enough, I've found myself coming back to continuously again now as I'm translating BAREFOOT DOGS to Spanish, is José Emilio Pacheco's BATTLES IN THE DESERT. It tells the story of a middle-class eight-year-old Mexico City kid who falls in love with the mother of one of his friends. It takes place in the late forties, right when Mexico was going through a big social and economic transformation and there was a lot of hope about the future in the air--Mexicans at that moment still believed the country was bound for greatness. It is such a short novel--what you might call a novella--but it manages to encapsulate everything that Mexico was and, for better and for worse, still is. Furthermore, it is gorgeously written. Pacheco, who sadly passed away last year, was, above all, a poet, one of the best the Spanish language has ever had. For Mexicans of my generation, the one born in the early seventies, LAS BATALLAS EN EL DESIERTO, as it was originally called, was a must-read. I kept going back to it for inspiration in the use and cadence of language, but also because I was writing about Mexico City from a distance, as a way to remain tethered to the place where my characters originated.


BB: Is it important to you that the reader follow the Arteaga Family Tree while reading BAREFOOT DOGS, or is it something that the reader can choose to overlook and read the stories on their own? 


AR: They're free to completely ignore it. I had originally placed it at the beginning of the book, but I noticed that it could influence readers' expectations not in a positive way, or give the wrong idea about the kind of story that BAREFOOT DOGS tells. So, I moved it to the back, in the hope that the reader would only discover it upon finishing the book. I thought it would be fun, and hopefully intriguing, to have a graphic representation of the family relations that populate the book, and also to pique the reader's imagination. Some of the characters in the family tree don't appear in any of the stories. I sometimes go back to it myself and start thinking about them, wondering what happened to them, how this event changed their lives in ways that remain beyond my understanding and my knowledge.


Barefoot Dogs: Stories Cover Image
ISBN: 9781476784960
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Scribner Book Company - March 10th, 2015

Historian of an Invented World: A Q&A with Reif Larsen

By Keaton Patterson

First, a confession: I put off reading the tome that is Reif Larsen’s second novel I AM RADAR. It had already generated an alarming amount of buzz by the time I heard about it last July, and my interest was piqued by what I knew of the story and its central character, “Radar,” a black boy born to white parents. But, I thought, it’s nearly 700 pages! It’s filled with illustrations, graphs, footnotes, even a selected bibliography--isn’t this supposed to be a novel? When does anyone have time to read a novel like this, let alone write one?

But I only had to pick up this book to know why my apprehension was unwarranted. I AM RADAR is a world unto itself, spanning decades and continents, and including everything from particle physics to ethnic cleansing. Larsen so completely realizes each of the numerous characters that they pop off the page with the eerie lifelike quality of a masterful puppet show. I finished it in a weekend.

After turning the final page, I found myself pacing around my house at midnight, wondering what the hell I had experienced. The story itself was clear, but the meaning felt like some essential truth far beyond my comprehension. “Profound” is probably the best word to describe this book. I can see it being debated for years to come. It raises more questions than answers. So, I decided to put forth a few of my own.


Brazos Bookstore: I AM RADAR is such an ambitious, sprawling novel. What was the kernel that started it all? Did you begin with a certain character? An idea? A vision?

Reif Larsen: I began with a couple of key ingredients, though at the time, I did not have any idea how I would combine them or if the soup would actually work. I started with the character of Radar as this love-struck radio operator in the Meadowlands, what is now essentially part three. I began writing and then realized I had to go back in time and that there were other characters who were going to be involved in the story. So the map began to grow and grow, and though I worried about the scope at times, I also had this morbid fascination whether the book could hold itself together.

I was also very interested in puppets. I had seen this amazing little puppet show down some staircase in Prague. A tiny old man, sitting in a room, reading. That’s all it was. I think it lasted about five minutes and the show was only for one audience member at a time, but something happened during that very singular experience, where this little man who was not alive was more alive than anyone I had ever met. So I wanted to capture this experience on the page, but I soon realized you cannot write about the experience of the sublime like this—you have to write the world around the sublime and let the reader make the last little jump herself.

I had also read about Susan Sontag putting on this controversial production of WAITING FOR GODOT in Sarajevo during the war. And some people said this was a beautiful thing to do, and some people thought this was the most pompous act in the world. So these were the key ingredients. And there were many more of course. I’ve long been interested in humans as essentially wet batteries, and I wanted to explore this notion of radio waves as slow light as well. But most of my stories require me to start writing and make discoveries on the page and then follow these discoveries. I don’t set out with a clear plan.

BB: The narrative structure is so unique. The inclusion of graphs, photos, footnotes, and even a bibliography of actual and invented texts makes I AM RADAR quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I was especially taken with the enigmatic Spesielle Partikler book that features so prominently, providing a kind of hidden history and running commentary on the entire novel. You effectively had to write two separate books that are then grafted together seamlessly. Did this pose any particular compositional difficulties? How did you overcome them?

RL: As with my first novel, the inclusion of graphs and images arose organically from the story. In RADAR, these media act as a kind of language of authenticity, in that through the discourse of their documentation they force us to wonder what is true and what is not true. But as you’ve picked up on, to include all of these documents from a parallel world requires you to know that parallel world quite intimately. I probably should have stopped in the middle of RADAR and simply written my own history book about Kirkenesferda. I did create several cheat sheets about them, just to keep my story straight, but I found myself adding to the legend piece by piece, document by document. I’d written other short stories and essays about Kirkenesferda and so found myself constantly cross-referencing who was who and what happened in what performance. So in a way, I did become a historian of an invented world. And if you spend enough time documenting an invented world, you actually begin to believe in it, which is either scary or wonderful, depending on how you see it.

BB: The elaborate theatrical productions put on by the Kirkenesferda puppeteers center around military conflicts and the human suffering they cause--World War II; the Cambodian, Bosnian, and Congolese civil wars--ultimately becoming political as much as aesthetic creations. Do you believe art is always a political act?

RL: I don’t think I have a good answer to that, which is probably why I wrote this long book. But I do struggle with the perceived purpose of art. Why are we continuously drawn to it? Why do we rearrange our whole lives so that we can make it? Why we will go to great ends to see it? It is not necessary but it is essential, yes? And this is thrown into stark relief during wartime when our most basic needs become threatened. What happens to culture when you are just trying to survive? Some would say it gets thrown out the window, but from my research, I’ve found these beautiful acts of expression in the rubbles of war. Art laid bare. And this haunts me because it somehow raises the bar for those of us making art during peacetime.

BB: I found allusions to works by a number of authors throughout I AM RADAR--Borges, HG Wells, and Pynchon among others. Were these writers and their respective works simply inspirations that you wanted to acknowledge? Or do you see I AM RADAR more as a continuation of the themes they took on?

RL: When you write a novel, you are joining a conversation, a long conversation—whether you like it or not. The novel is a specific kind of vessel with a specific kind of history—it did not come out of thin air. So I think you have to acknowledge this somehow, maybe not explicitly, but in your head, you’ve got to know many people have held the baton before you. And readers enter you into their own conversation: “This book reminds me a bit of…Oh! I loved that book, I read it when I was in the darkness and it saved me...” And because reading is such an intimate act, our experience with a book is a very personal thing, and we cannot help but link it to a particular time in our lives. Stories always have spaces in which we store them. So I wanted to explore this through the character of Charlene, who has had such a tumultuous relationship with books. Books became her cipher through which she viewed everything else. But books have also been my cipher. Borges saved my life. And I like talking back to these people. Acknowledging them yes, but jumping into the game of literature—like a long line of telephone, where the message becomes wonderfully warped and twisted and inflected with bits of us.

BB: You have no idea who we’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

RL: What book brought you back from the darkness?

BB: Speaking of which, Thomas Pierce wants to know: What do you hope happens after we die?

RL: I would love to be reincarnated— but reincarnated as something very non-human, like a lily pad. Can’t really think of anything better than that.

Staff Pick Logo
I Am Radar Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594206160
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Penguin Press - February 24th, 2015

Those Sublime Tiny Details: A Q&A with Jynne Dilling Martin

By Whitney DeVos

In her debut collection WE MAMMALS IN HOSPITABLE TIMES, Jynne Dilling Martin uses poetry to explore life's most difficult questions, making the argument that speculation through art is just as valid as science. "No doctor has a single lab result explaining where we proceed after earth," she tells us in "Some Important Clarifications." In MAMMALS, the precision of an eye sharpened by both empirical observation and the poetic image is coupled with a deft and expansive imagination, one that allows Dilling Martin to range across and collapse a wide variety of scopes, scales, and terrains from macro (universes) to the microscopic (cyanobacteria) and everywhere in between, especially, of course, our home planet: Martin writes, "Earth is the third planet from the sun, and its center holds a billion nickels."

In 2013, Martin was a National Science Foundation artist-in-residence in Antarctica, a post once held by Werner Herzog. While in the midst of researchers and, of course, the antarctic sublime, Martin wrote much of MAMMALS, a book marked by its exuberant celebration of both fragile and hostile beauty, as well as "People, machines, the stars." What happens when all are yoked together, in poetry or in life? "When I think of What the Future Must Bring" imagines how future technological advancement could alter the certainty of human mortality. Yet the inevitablity of death is largely what allows us to derive significance from the transitory and fleeting experience of human life. Ultimately, the poet finds that meaning is best anchored, paradoxically, in the ephemerality of the most delicate moments: "Why not let this planet / and its people spin away. Choose to remember them faintly // and without affection, as characters from a supermarket paperback, / the footing but not the feeling of a dance you once performed."


Brazos Bookstore: Let's start with the title, which is a homophone: when one says "in hospitable" out loud, it's ambiguous as to whether one is saying "in hospitable" or "inhospitable"; its ultimately unclear whether the title is WE MAMMALS: INHOSPITABLE TIMES or WE MAMMALS IN HOSPITABLE TIMES. So, let's talk about both possibilities: what's hospitable about these times, for us mammals, and what's inhospitable?

Jynne Martin: This is a dark note to open on, but we are facing a terribly inhospitable moment for animals of all stripes. Hayden Carruth’s poem “Essay” expresses it head on: “This / has been the time of the finishing off of the animals. / They are going away - their fur and their wild eyes…”

What hospitality exists comes from the flourishes of kindness, beauty and generosity that still persist nonetheless: my brother’s backyard honeybee colonies, the pulsing glow of cyanobacteria, the remarkable scientists in Antarctica working with the wildlife there--animals that cannot migrate any further south, even as the planet rapidly warms.

BB: I'm interested in the tension between the meanings of the title, when it's pronounced orally, and the singular meaning demanded in visual, textual, linguistic representation. I'm wondering if, for you, seeing and hearing represent two different kinds of knowing. Science is of course based on empirical observation: the dominant form of seeing is the privileged over any of the other senses. What kind of possibilities might open up if we considered hearing or listening (or the other senses) rather than sight? Is that what poetry does?

JM: It’s what the most profound art does, isn’t it? For me, you are describing the music of Elizabeth Cotten, or the Caspar David Friedrich painting “Monk by the Sea,” or St John Perse’s ANABASIS. And poetry offers that aural playground which can be so stimulating. I think of those thick, luscious Gerard Manley Hopkins poems, or Wallace Stevens’s “Hymn from a Watermelon Pavilion.” A literal reading of that strange poem would verge on absurd--don’t ask me what the “plantain by your door” is--but it is one of my favorites and makes me shiver every time.

BB: What happens at the intersection between poetry and science? What compelled you to bring these two discourses into conversation?

JM: Poets and scientists share so much: a profound curiosity about the world, a voracious appetite to study its behaviors, unending awe at its secrets. Also we are introverted nerds. Scientists are just the ones who are much better at lab work and mathematics.

BB: I'd like to ask you a little bit about the book's formal qualities. It's written largely in tercets and, more noticeably, couplets. What was appealing about the couplet to you, and how did it provide the best stanzaic mode for organizing the book's content? Is MAMMALS a kind of love letter to the world and/or times?

JM: Much of my poetry (like my brain) is sprawling, exuberant, a little manic, full of leaps; the couplet is a gift from the structuring gods. It puts the screws on that loose energy and creates order, or at least the illusion of order. Disparate images get coupled, associative logic gets structured into an argument, and the ample white space provides a breather amid the long lines.

BB: Your long lines remind me of both Whitman and Marianne Moore, who you cite at the back of the book. Who else is included in your own poetic genealogy, and/or genotype?

JM: Yes, I love poets of abundance and catalogues--St John Perse, too. I also adore funny poets: Stephen Crane, Frank O’Hara, Mary Ruefle. But even more than other poets, I draw from the language, arguments, and details of eclectic reference texts, like the 1910 Smithsonian report, or an 1800's catalogue of New York State asylum life, or the wonderful ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY by Robert Burton.

BB: Could you tell us a bit about your time in Antarctica? What was it like to write poetry in such a landscape? Is Antarctica as bleak and disaster-filled "in real life" as it is in the cultural imagination? How did you do to prepare to for your trip, and what were you reading while you were there?

JM: Antarctica is anything but bleak! It’s like a dazzling nirvana of rainbow light, punctuated by an enormous active volcano, swooping white petrels, and swiftly shifting patterns of ice. The light and weather changes constantly, stretches seemingly into infinity, and is mesmerizing to watch. It looks closer to outer space than something of our own earth. It was such an expansive feeling, that I found to be very stimulating. I had an incredibly productive time writing, helped by immersing myself in polar diaries and journals while down there. The McMurdo Station library proved to be an extraordinary resource, filled with explorer accounts of their diet, cold, desperations and discoveries: the number of times an Eskimo woman must chew reindeer skin until it becomes the perfect texture to make a finnesko. And it was those sublime tiny details–three weeks of a woman chewing a piece of reindeer skin just to sew a single boot, for a long-dead polar explorer–in the face of an enormous Antarctica landscape that I found so staggering and so inspiring.

Whitney DeVos received her MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona. She is currently pursuing a PhD in experimental poetry and poetics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she also teaches courses in literature and creative writing. In between long silences, she writes about death, light, and the Anthropocene. She has never been to Antarctica.

We Mammals in Hospitable Times Cover Image
ISBN: 9780887485961
Availability: Backordered
Published: Carnegie-Mellon University Press - February 3rd, 2015

All Noise, Very Monotonous: A Manifesto on Modern Music

By Annalia Linnan

Good interviews happen when the journalist can get his or her subject to break the script, so that’s my goal when I go to Rice University to speak with Dr. Tony Brandt about Musiqa, a Houston-based non-profit organization dedicated to performing modern concert music. But he derails me first when, halfway through our interview, he asks, “Do you want to take a test?”

Never mind that I haven’t been a student for three years now. What Brandt cares about is this idea in his head, an aural magic trick. He explains as he finds the playlist he made the night before: “So, I’m gonna play you a little bit of two arias from different operas about Orpheus and Eurydice, okay? One of them is going to be them declaring love for each other, and the other one is going to be Orpheus after he has realized he will never see Eurydice again--when he looks back and she disappears.”

Each clip is maybe twenty seconds. The first is slow and minor, a man moaning in the lower register; the second is fast and major, a duet brightened with strings. I know what I’m supposed to say: that the second sample is obviously the love song, since it has a man and a woman and sounds “happy.” So I pick the other one. We’ve been talking for over thirty minutes now, but this is the first time he seems to see me. He raises his eyebrows. “Really? Well, that’s interesting. That’s very interesting.”

Here’s the trick: neither sample is actually a love song. They are both laments. Not entirely discouraged, Brandt explains that this experiment is part of a talk he’s developing for the Jung Center. His mission? To convince his audience that the cliché is not true: music is not a universal language. In other words, Western music is not the only music.

Musiqa would agree. Founded twelve years ago, its priorities are simple: new music, new work, new art. Featured concerts consist of modern classical music paired with another art form, anything from poetry to experimental film. The integration of an additional visual or performative art might seem strange, but Brandt sees it as a way to help audiences break the habit of seeing the same Beethoven symphonies year after year.

He believes that people should risk something when they attend a concert, just as people attending, say, a baseball game risk seeing their team lose. But a baseball game isn’t just about the score; it’s also about the experience of going to the ballpark. Modern music concerts should be the same. “You’re not necessarily gonna like everything you hear on any exhibition of modern work,” Brandt says. “However, you’re likely to [enjoy] something, and just the experience itself can be so inspiring and wonderfully mind-awakening.”

Musiqa’s next concert--on February 26 at the Contemporary Art Museum--will be one such experience. During their eleven-year partnership, Musiqa’s concerts at the Contemporary Art Museum have provided a more intimate environment than the main stage concerts at Zilkha Hall. At the museum, the performers and the audience aren’t necessarily tethered to their designated spaces. “It depends on the layout of the room,” Brandt says, “but that’s also part of the experience. You’re right up close. As close as you can get to a painting, you can practically get that close to the music in those concerts.”

For those unfamiliar, the Contemporary Art Museum does not have any permanent artwork. When a new exhibition goes on display, the entire space resets. Usually, Brandt enjoys the process, watching the rooms change and letting the curators inspire him. However, the current exhibition, DOUBLE LIFE, presents its own challenges, as it includes three separate installations rather than the typical exhibit of various objects centered on a single theme.

Though each of the installations in DOUBLE LIFE is meant to “blur the boundaries between staged narratives and real world encounters,” Brandt thought Mountains of Encounter by Haegue Yang would work best with Musiqa. Inspired by secret meetings between an American journalist and a Korean rebel in the 1930s, Yang’s installation is layers of suspended red venetian blinds illuminated by moving spotlights. To complement Yang’s work, Brandt chose three themes Musiqa would attempt to speak to: audience participation, the union of cultures, and politics.

At the time of our meeting, Brandt and his fellow board members have already chosen the pieces that will represent audience participation (a text-based piece by Lei Liang that involves a soloist and the audience rubbing stones together) and union of cultures (a piece by Arab-American composer Saad Haddad). What I want to know more about, though, is the piece centered on politics by Charlie Halka, Musiqa’s first ever “composer intern,” a position that mixes the honor of an artistic residency with the rigor of an internship.

About Halka, I only know the basics: his main instrument is piano, and he holds a doctorate degree in composition from Rice University. When I ask him about his background beyond that, he explains that he started out as an aspiring concert pianist, switching to composition late during his undergraduate career at Peabody in Baltimore, Maryland. During that transitional period, he wrote mainly from his experience as a performer--what was feasible, what would be easy to rehearse, etc. These days, he’s trying to focus more on sound.

When I ask him about Musiqua, he says he’s been going to their concerts since he moved to Houston in 2009 and was aware of their reputation even before he came. So naturally, when he applied for their inaugural internship season last year and was the chosen composer, it was a personal dream come true. His new piece, “Liaison,” written specifically for the upcoming concert, will be Halka’s third piece with Musiqa. It’s the only piece on the program that will feature all four players--a cellist, horn player, percussionist, and clarinetist.

Thinking on the idea of private versus public conversation, “Liaison” is essentially a series of duets, separated by sections where the ensemble plays together. The instruments, paired in every permutation, aim to sound like one another, whereas the group sections are “all noise, very monotonous,” to the point of being “mechanical,” which Halka says is meant to imitate the sound of a public forum.

The fact that Halka based such a unique piece as “Liaison” on the Contemporary Art Museum’s Mountains of Encounter installation recalls a point Brandt tried to make earlier: that artists are not isolated, but “are alive reading the same newspapers as everybody, living in the same world, and reflecting on what we’re all experimenting. Everything gets so compartmentalized, but often, when you bring the arts together, you begin to see the relevance of each one and how they’re responding to similar things.”

So why is modern music relevant? Like every other art form, it acts as a mirror. It both reflects and projects. Is it perfect? No. Is it always comfortable? No. But that’s the point: distortion is what prompts change.

Staff Chat: Sarah Manguso

The Chatters: Liz Wright (Bookseller and Newsletter Lord), Keaton Patterson (Book Buyer and Beard Model), and Annalia Linnan (Bookseller and Off-Site Captain)
The Book: ONGOINGNESS: THE END OF A DIARY by Sarah Manguso
The Context: Sarah Manguso’s second, baby-sized memoir, following THE GUARDIANS: AN ELEGY 
The Plot: Pregnancy causes Manguso to abandon her other life’s work, her twenty-five-year diary


Liz: Let’s talk about ONGOINGNESS!

Keaton: Sarah Manguso!

Liz: This book is...difficult. I had to move quickly through some parts, because I knew it would be too much if I thought about it.

Keaton: Yeah. For me, the entire weird compulsion she had to record everything was kind of unnerving, even before she started having problems.

Liz: Those compulsive moments really resonated with me. Like when she went out with a friend to another city, and he offered her a ride home, but she said no because she knew she was gonna need all four hours on the bus ride to write in the diary.

Annalia: So neither of you write every day or keep a journal or anything?

Liz: I’ve never been good at keeping a diary, but I do write fiction every day. I’m easy on myself, though. I’m like, “Okay, if you can only manage five minutes today, that’s fine.” I’m not compelled to the degree of Manguso, like I’ll forget everything if I don’t write it down.

Keaton: But even more than that, she said it’s almost like it never happened if she didn’t record it.

Annalia: I’ve been keeping a journal for the last ten years. Unlike Manguso, I’ve never done it on the computer, because I’m terrified of my computer getting ruined. The part of the book that I could relate to but also scared me the most was when she wrote about getting in this conversation with people: “How do you do that? I wish I could write every day,” etc. You know, people admired her dedication, but she said, “People don’t understand that instead of volunteering or doing things for other people or exercising that writing is the thing that I do.”

Keaton: I’ve always kept journals, too. A lot of times, it was basically poetry and story ideas and stuff like that, but recently I’ve tried to record my day and personal thoughts. I try to do it every day, but it doesn’t always work out that way. When I don’t write, I feel guilty, but Manguso felt guilty when she wrote. She saw it as a vice.

Annalia: What do you guys think about the form of the book--that the diary is something mentioned but never seen?

Keaton: I loved it. The short aphorisms of her writing are digestible, but they also compel you to delve into them and unpack them. You know, they enable you to relate to the impact the diary had on her.

Liz: Yeah, it’s the specter. I wouldn’t have wanted to see the diary, I don’t think, because the book is about the experience of keeping the diary, not about the diary itself.

Annalia: I’m glad that we didn’t see it, though there was the part when she talked about how multiple people have read her diary, or at least read sections of her diary--

Liz: That one boyfriend was a jerk!

Annalia: Yeah. One time, a boyfriend went on her computer when she was sleeping and read the whole thing. He told her, and she was completely unfazed! This really surprised me--that she was so free with this thing she was keeping close and constantly thinking about.

Keaton: But she also said that writing was trying to get everything out of her head and out of her, almost like whatever went into the diary was already separate. So I’m wondering if maybe that’s why she didn’t care whether other people read it.

Liz: The trope is always, “Don’t read my diary! That’s, like, my innermost thoughts!” But for Manguso, I wonder whether it was more record-keeping than personal.

Keaton: Personal or not, I liked how she was able to bring out these universal theme--mortality, remembrance, time and how we perceive it.

Annalia: In press I’ve read about this book, some people say it’s about Manguso keeping a diary even through her pregnancy, while others say her pregnancy and her son being born is why she stopped. What do you think?

Liz: I thought her motherhood made her stop. She said she often felt guilty for writing the diary because it was a self-absorbed act. When she had a child, that drew her dedication outside of herself--“this little person needs me.”

Keaton: I don’t think she quit because she had a child. I mean, she wrote that she kept doing the diary, but it changed tone. Instead of her thoughts, it became more of a record of everything that she saw and observed in her son: his intake and outtake, how many steps he took on a particular day, etc. But it’s definitely a psychic shift you go through when you become a parent. Your time stops being yours as you would like. But then again, I don’t know whether we can ever really control our time to begin with.

Liz: That’s deep.

Keaton: Did either of you see anything optimistic in ONGOINGNESS? I kept thinking about Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” when I was reading it, how her diary was the stone that she was pushing, the endless task she was always trying to accomplish, even when she realized that the diary was never going to be complete. She had to come to terms with the ongoingness of it.

Annalia: It’s hard for me to comment because I’m still at the time in my life where I am writing a lot and the future’s pretty open. I mean, I didn’t think it was not optimistic because she never was like, “Conclusion: I wasted my life doing this diary.” If she had said that, I probably would not have been able to finish the book.

Keaton: Foreboding, compulsion, and futility. Joy!

Liz: Yay! No, but it’s a good read. It’s deep.

Keaton: We approve.

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555977030
Availability: Backordered
Published: Graywolf Press - March 3rd, 2015

ONGOINGNESS will be published on March 3, 2015