Riding with the Ghost

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Y2K

Are you prepared? my mother says,
shelving canned beans in our fallout shelter. ​​

The racks are full of toilet paper and gunpowder,
one to wipe our asses before ascending into heaven,

the other to blow the head off whatever else crawls out
from the grave. I could’ve gone out with friends

and drunk whiskey in a field, gotten laid,
but I helped my father board up the windows

to the storage shed. We spray painted the doorjambs red
in case the Holy Ghost couldn’t find us. I’d rather see Christ

pick his teeth with a sword than watch him pass judgment
on this computer glitch. My mother flips through her testament,

looking for a secret to keep us safe in these last seconds.
The midnight hour comes upon us with an explosion

of fireworks that tears across the curtain of sky.
My father snores in the easy chair with a pistol in his lap.

I slip out the back door into a world
changed by snowfall, yard like a new promise.

Long Before You Know What Love Means

You sleep under bridges for the hell of it
and drink with the vets at the river,
who got kicked out of the Jesus house.

Warmed by the fire from a burning trash can,
you pretend to be broken-down, think it good
to learn from that company of misfit men.

You ward off the news of your brother, who traded
freedom for a jumpsuit at the county jail. You spend
long nights busking in the rain for money.

Before sleep will come, you hear the frightened
mumbling of the men with ticking dreams
that keep riddling them into the nightmare sun.

You can’t make out what any of the graffiti say,
splayed up code on concrete. If only a secret
rested in the writing on the wall for kings such as these.

Riding with the Ghost

-for Jason Molina

I did whatever it told me, I drank
that wine down like sweet poison.
I walked the empty park all night
and tried to weep the Lord into being.
The only answer I receive—a call
from a wife left at home who says
The pills, I know it’s just the pills.

But I didn’t want to sleep on the floor.
When I heard the slam, the lock click,
I pissed beneath a stairwell, turned
my collar up to the cold damp wind.
Dodging the cop’s lights, I huddled
in shadow underneath the oaks, mud
on the sole of my slick dress shoes.

Tonight, I see a road brushed in starlight
that leads to a home I won’t return to.
I hang my necktie on a branch. Rain shifts
across the asphalt like new fallen ash.
Oh, ghost on high in the great dark trees,
come down, scrub my coward heart clean.

I’ve searched for so many ways to die.

Blackout, Late Summer

It’s midnight, the heat
of Mississippi just now
bowing low near the bed.

I light a candle, listen
to dirt daubers scratch
the woodwork, imagine

their thin, small bodies
patching pipe organ nests.
What a small symphony

these insects pull down
from the rafters like black
violins to hum the veiled dark.

I’ve seen the work they’ve laid
out while I slept, knocked down
the dirt pocked high with a broom

or a hose. I hold the candle
up, watch them dart and let ​​​
the wick burn down low.

I think of my wife in bed,
her body laced in moonlight.
She twists the cigarette, blows

a plume of smoke that blooms
in the ceiling fan. How swift
the procession at night. Here,

the language of lying down,
every hand left wanting,
a bed, a spirit, a home.

Moon Over Sonoma County

The woman you love
waits in the orchard.

She says, Pour another
glass of wine for me.

You look to the sky,
thick as the bright sea

can only think to ask:
why has the rain left?

Moon, you are not mine
to have but to behold.

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LIFE IS SCHIZOPHRENIC: AN INTERVIEW WITH LISA HOWORTH

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 In 1979, in Oxford, Mississippi, Lisa Howorth and her husband Richard founded Square Books, one of the greatest bookstores in the United States. In 2014, Lisa’s first novel, Flying Shoes, was published. Jack Pendarvis visited Lisa at her house. Richard was on the couch, finishing a sandwich. Then Richard left.

 

howorth-shoes_300

LISA: Is he gone?

JACK: Ha ha ha ha!

LISA: Is he?

JACK: That’s going to be the first thing in the interview.

LISA: Ha ha ha! He’s gone! Quick!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Uhm. So… Theresa said when y’all were shooting pool the other night you had a…

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: … package of raw chicken in your purse. Ha ha ha!

LISA: Is that so unusual?

JACK: Did you…

LISA: Housewife and mother?

JACK: Did you cook it?

LISA: Well… we cooked some of it.

BOTH: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! (pause) Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: It was a variation on the old Portnoy’s Complaint tactic.

JACK: Oh no!

LISA: No, shit, we ate it. I couldn’t just leave it out in the Volkswagen.

JACK: Right.

LISA: It was like nine thousand degrees.

JACK: Uh… well, let’s talk about your book. It’s great!

LISA: Thank you.

JACK: I love everything about it. Uhm… How long’d you work on it?

LISA: Well, I started it in another form, and… not really seriously able to work on it… in the early 90s, really, but, mm… I just couldn’t do it. I was working at the time… and kids, and bookstore, and… you know, I’d take it out and work on it a little bit and put it back up. And then in 1994, my brother—one of my other brothers—discovered all this stuff about this crime in our family, which sort of changed a lot of things for me, and… I just didn’t do much with it for a while. Let it sink in. And I’m sure, to a certain extent, there was a lot of avoidance, not wanting to… thinking it was going to be mostly about this crime and not wanting to go back and have my soul stuck in that forever. So, anyway, it wasn’t until I got a McDowell fellowship in 2007 that I really worked on it, so it was really about… really getting it off the ground, it was really about five… five years.

JACK: That’s not bad!

LISA: It seemed really slow. Ha ha ha ha ha! It seemed… interminable.

JACK: Well, it’s about so much more than you thought it was going to be about, right? And the other night you were… we were talking about how, uh, in a large degree… you brought this up. That it’s a portrait of Oxford, right?

LISA (very long pause): Correct. Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: All right! The interview’s over.

BOTH: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: But did you feel any… did you think about Faulkner while you were…

LISA: Writing?

JACK: Yeah!

LISA: Yeah, you think about it. You think… I mean… You think, God, don’t let me do anything Faulkneroid.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: Or somebody’s going to accuse me of that. But I also kind of wanted to put a few little… uhm… I don’t know, it’s cheesy to say, homages, but there are a couple. I mean, it’s Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha, right? We’re talking about the same crappy little postage stamp. So I used a couple of Faulknerian names, but of course Faulkner uses a lot of names of people who are really here.

JACK: Right.

LISA: And they’re still here! So… I didn’t feel like that was too cheesy. And I threw in some honeysuckle and crap like that…

JACK: Ha ha ha!

LISA: That the Faulkner people would recognize, and appreciate, I hoped, and not take me down for doing… yeah. You can’t do it without thinking about him. Can YOU?

JACK: I don’t… care anymore.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: But, uh, honeysuckle. Yeah! There’s so much beautiful nature writing in the book, that’s one thing I loved about it.

LISA: There’s lots of flora and fauna.

JACK: That’s beautifully done, and the history parts… I mean, the old history.

LISA: Thanks.

JACK: … with William Byrd. Great, and real unexpected. I mean, it’s such a surprising book in so many ways. Two of my favorite chapters, that could really stand alone, is when Teever is getting some help for his foot, and he’s hallucinating in front of the fire and all that stuff, you know? And I also love the ice…

LISA: Are you sure he was hallucinating?

JACK: No, no, not sure at all!

LISA: Ha ha! It could have been magic realism!

JACK: Right. It could HAVE been!

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: I was wondering. Ha ha ha! And also, yeah, yeah, forgive me. And… the ice storm, the aftermath of the ice storm, and I want to say the character’s name is Jack, but now I’m afraid I’m projecting onto that rough-and-tumble war correspondent and would-be novelist.

LISA: Jack Ernest.

JACK: Yeah! So… uh… hey! I just thought of this. Was that a play on The Importance of Being Earnest? At all?

LISA: Uhm… not so much. Although he, uhm, when I was writing him I got so involved in him and there was a lot of crap to do with him that I knew I couldn’t put in the novel, and maybe he shouldn’t have been there at all. But, uhm, I wrote a short story about that character called “Importance.”

JACK: Mm!

LISA: And it was kind of about that. But really I’m not so sure that came through in the novel. Really it was kind of the identification with this bravado, this Hemingway crap. You know, his novel’s called what? It Tolls For Me? Ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! But, I mean, those two chapters are interesting to me because Mary Byrd is—your protagonist—is not in either of those chapters, really, so…

LISA: That’s true.

JACK: And I love the scope. That’s another thing about the novel I love, the scope of it and the variety of characters that we get to spend time with. And you were saying, you were wondering if he should be in the novel at all, but… to me that’s one of the things that’s so good and fascinating about the book.

LISA: Well, thank you, but I think, uhm… I did sometimes feel like I was writing two books.

JACK: Mm-hm?

LISA: And I have gotten some criticism.

JACK: Screw that.

LISA: But maybe that’s what I should have…

JACK: What’s wrong with that? People should say “Thank you! Thank you for these two books!” If that’s…

LISA: I mean…

JACK: … the case.

LISA: To me, it still rang true. I… you know, life is schizophrenic. At least for me. I feel like I’ve got several different lives and those two characters were very much a part of the protagonist’s, Mary Byrd’s, life.

JACK: Mm-hm?

LISA: And very much in her head. And Jack Ernest is in the… he’s trying to… he’s chasing, he’s bird-dogging her around, all over town, trying to get laid. And, uhm… and… he brings a certain dimension to her personality and…

JACK: Right.

LISA: … her life, the way she acts, that I thought was really useful to the book. That she’s very much imperfect and sketchy.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

LISA: Ha! And unstable, that she’s attracted to somebody like that. And Teever, he goes off on his own, and he’s not so connected to her. But…

JACK: He thinks about her a lot.

LISA: He thinks about her, and he’s always looking for her to bail him out or help him, or he thinks often that he’s helping her, which he is in his own crazy way.

JACK: Well, the funeral scene, that’s a beautiful…

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: That’s a beautiful instance of…

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: Him helping her, I think, or them helping each other.

LISA: Yeah. he’s finally the one to which, sort of surprisingly, maybe, she finally kind of breaks down and unburdens all this crap that’s been sort of haunting her.

JACK: Mm-hm.

LISA: And only to him, who’s somebody totally inappropriate and…

JACK: And who, as you say, is apart from… apart from society, even, in a lot of ways.

LISA: Yeah, those two guys are the other? And she’s very much engaged with the other. For whatever reason.

JACK: Well, I mean, you are, too…

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: … as a writer, you know. Uh…

LISA: I love me some other.

JACK: Ha ha ha! One thing I love, and I was talking with you about this the other night (clears throat)… this is silly, but I think it’s gonna to get to something that’s not silly… When Jack Ernest makes his, uh, makes that long speech to these kids out of…

LISA: Oh yeah. Ha ha ha!

JACK: Out of Batman Returns. I mean, that was like a Henry V moment, almost.

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: Right? And, uh, but I love… what I’m getting at is I love the way you use pop culture. Have you…? You’ve seen quote-unquote “literary writers” that look down on using actual popular culture in their work?

LISA: Oh, yeah.

JACK: I find that perverted.

LISA: Ha ha! How can you live without noticing?

JACK: Ha ha!

LISA: I mean, you know!

JACK: They seem to think it’s cheating somehow, which it’s… it’s… allusion, you know?

LISA: Why would it be cheating?

JACK: Mm. Maybe they consider it shorthand or something? But I don’t think it’s that at all.

LISA: Oh, that it’s kind of using devices to just… but so is anything else! So is using plants, and anything you use to evoke a mood or a time or a character’s, you know, being… it’s usable, totally legit.

JACK: I agree! In fact, the thing that, uh… the thing… oh. Look, when I… uh… but when I cried at the end of the book, it was the scene when she’s dancing. And what was effective about the dancing at the end of the book was that it was… there were certain dances, the pony and the… what else?

LISA: The Monster Mash…

JACK: Yeah!

LISA: … and the swim, the monkey…

JACK: The swim! I almost tried to say “the swan.”

LISA: Ha ha!

JACK: I made up a new dance in my brain, the swan.

LISA: That would have been good for William Byrd.

JACK: Doing the swan?

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: Is he related to the comp… the British composer William Byrd? Is there any…?

LISA: I can’t… you know, I used to know that. I used to know everything about him, and now it’s kind of gone away.

JACK: Where did it go? It went into the book, I think!

LISA: You know, the brain cells are dropping one by one. Ha ha ha! I think they were all related at some point. But his father, his own father, was a gold… He might have been a farrier, but called himself a goldsmith.

JACK: What’s a farrier?

LISA: Uhm, you know…

JACK: Rowing people back and forth on a ferry?

LISA: Like, has to do with ferrous. Shoes, horseshoes. Shoeing horses.

JACK: A horseshoe..er.

LISA: A horseshoer.

JACK: He shod horses!

LISA: He shod horses, don’t he?

BOTH: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Uhm, wouldn’t that be a blacksmith, or would a blacksmith employ a farrier?

LISA: That’s what I’m saying… so many people came over…

JACK: Oh, I see! An ironsmith. Like ferrous. Iron!

LISA: Yeah. I think he did more practical metalwork.

JACK: Ah.

LISA: But kind of… when he came over here, like a lot of people, they wanted this pretense of aristocracy, that they were somebody in the Old World, so they kind of pumped up their credentials in lots of ways. I could be talking out of my ass. I’d have to go back and look.

JACK: Well, that’s fine, we don’t factcheck at this…

LISA: Thank God!

JACK: … publication.

LISA: Anyway, to quote Barry [Hannah], “I fucking hate facts.”

BOTH: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: He told me that when he was working on that, uh, Johnny Cash article for Spin?

JACK: Right.

LISA: He said, “Man, this would make such a good book but it’s gotta be, you know, a real nonfiction piece.” He said, “I fucking hate facts.”

JACK: Ha ha ha! Mmm…

LISA: Uhm… so this was leading to something, you said.

JACK: No, well…

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: No, I think…

LISA: Ha ha!

JACK: In my mind I got there, but maybe I didn’t.

LISA: Uhm…

JACK: Oh! Let’s talk about Deliverance.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: That makes a huge appearance… not a huge appearance, I’d say half a page.

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: And it’s in one… it’s almost like a poem, made up of lines of dialogue from the movie Deliverance.

LISA: Yeah, uhm, yeah, that’s something that’s taken from my own brothers. I have Jack Ernest and his goofy buddies playing cards during the ice storm, they’re playing bourrée, and for every negotiation or play that’s made, for every hand, there’s a line from Deliverance—ha ha ha ha!—that somehow is perfect. And I took that from my three brothers, who only speak…

JACK: Ha ha ha!

LISA: … to each other, or to anybody, if they can get away with it, in lines from Deliverance. Or to my mother, we’re eating dinner, “This corn’s special.”

JACK: Ha ha! That’s spread to our house now.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha! Oh no.

JACK: Theresa and I say that all the time because of you.

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: And, uh…

LISA: “Don’t say anything, just do it.”

JACK: That’s another popular one! Although when you think about it in context, it’s horrible. But… it’s very handy in real life. And “This road don’t go to Aintry” is the other…

LISA: That’s a favorite in the car.

JACK: And “Give the boy a dollar…” What’s it?

LISA: Well, you know, one of my brothers pointed out I had that wrong. And I don’t know if I was using something out of the movie, ‘cause there’s stuff in that horrifying scene…

JACK: Oh, Lordy.

LISA: … Ned Beatty scene in the movie that’s not actually in Dickey’s book. Like, “Squeal like a pig” is not in the book.

JACK: Right.

LISA: And I didn’t use that. But my brother said it’s not “Give the boy a dollar, Drew.” It’s something else. But I haven’t gone back to check and fix that. But coming from my brothers, who are pretty reliable on the text of Deliverance… it’s like talking to Lee [Durkee] about Shakespeare. They’re on the money all the time, so I’m sure they’re probably right.

JACK: Maybe I shouldn’t out this about Lee, but we were talking about when we—ha ha ha ha ha ha!—cried at the end of the book. But we cried at different moments. But anyway, you make all the men cry in Oxford.

LISA: Y’all are lying.

JACK: No we’re not! Why would we even admit that out loud? We’re manly like Jack Ernest.

LISA: Yeah, but you’re a little bit gay.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: You know, all y’all are. Ha ha ha!

JACK: You mean men in general? Or just men in Oxford?

LISA: Real men are a little bit gay. Let me say that.

JACK: William Gay?

LISA: No, not William. I never really knew William all that well, you know? He was, uh… I think he perceived there was a class thing there that…

JACK: Which way did it go? Ha ha ha!

LISA: Ha ha ha! I know! Of course, he was a hard person to know. And also there was a thing, he and Larry… Or Larry.

JACK: Brown?

LISA: Yeah. Felt uncomfortable with some of the stuff he wrote.

JACK: Oh, should I…? I can put that in this thing, can’t I?

LISA: Sure!

JACK: Or… I don’t want…

LISA: Larry talked about it.

JACK: Well, I mean, uncomfortable how? I’m just curious, not that we need to go off on it.

LISA: That’s right, they’re both dead, so who cares, right? But I think he thought that William Gay was too derivative of Cormac.

JACK: Oh. Well, see, you know, I haven’t really read much Cormac McCarthy, is that a terrible thing to admit?

LISA: I’ve always really liked Cormac, and thought he was a great writer, but… there was something a little bit bloodless about his characters.

JACK: Bloodless? All they do is chop people’s heads off!

LISA: Well, that’s not exactly what I’m getting at. They weren’t really flesh and blood to me all the time. I mean, nobody ever stopped to take a leak.

JACK: Do any fictional characters ever stop and take a leak? Hamlet never takes a leak! “Pardon me.”

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: “To be or not to be… wait a minute. Hold on.”

LISA: That’s probably not true.

JACK: You know, you’re right.

LISA: In Chaucer, certainly there was…

JACK: Oh, they farted a lot.

LISA: … effluvia involved. Ha ha ha!

JACK: That brings us back to your book. Ha ha ha ha ha! But you’re so good with cursing, too, and the… uh… uh… earthy side of life, shall we say. Are you a champion cusser?

LISA: I can cuss. I mean… I love cuss words.

JACK: But you do it in a very literary… no… that sounds like an insult. But in the book, it’s poetr… it’s almost poetic, the… uh… the flights of, the flights of cursing.

LISA: Well, you know, I think there’s something really wonderful about cursing, which isn’t just… cursing. It’s vernacular speech.

JACK: Right.

LISA: That I hear a lot around here.

JACK: Right. I think that’s an important distinction. It’s not just cursing. But! Uhm, but, people can do it in a really artificial way that robs it of any impact at all. You know, people who are trying to imitate Quentin Tarantino, or trying to imitate David Mamet, I suppose.

LISA: Or David Milch. Deadwood, which I think is sort of lampooning things. I don’t know. What was I just reading about Scottish writers, where was that? About James Kelman. I just read it. It was a James Wood article, and he was talking about how there were something like four thousand occurrences of the word “fuck” in this little novel. I’m not sure if it’s this new one… it’s used almost gratuitously, but… and I don’t know about Scottish vernacular, really.

JACK: I think they like the “c” word a lot. This is based on…

LISA: They do.

JACK: … movies I’ve seen.

LISA: Yeah! Well, I don’t know much more than that. I’ve never even been to Scotland. To the airport, maybe. But… those words are so useful. I mean, think of the meanings of the word “fuck.” In fact, there’s a book about it. It’s called The F Word, by… shit. What’s that guy’s name? Sheidlower. Jesse Sheidlower, who, I think he did the revision on the American Heritage Dictionary. I don’t know. He’s a…

JACK: Wow!

LISA: What do you call those guys?

JACK: I don’t know. Roy Blount was one of those too, wasn’t he? Didn’t he write for American Heritage?

LISA: Etymologists, I suppose. Anyway, “fuck” has so many uses.

JACK: Was James Wood saying that in a disapproving way? ‘Cause…

LISA: No.

JACK: I can just imagine James Wood with his little calculator and his little glasses, counting all the words.

LISA: No, he was just talking about it. And, uh, he just made some points about why… is this useful? Does this work? I don’t think he comes to any conclusions. Maybe I didn’t finish the article.

BOTH: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Well, who’s ever finished a James Wood article?

LISA: It’s right here, we could read it.

JACK: I’ll just transcribe it into the text of the interview. Job finished.

LISA: But I tried not to use it gratuitously, and I took a lot of “fucks” out of there, I gotta say. In Southern vernacular especially, there’s so many wonderful ones that I never had heard.

JACK: Let’s talk about that a little bit. You came down from where when you first arrived in Oxford?

LISA: I was coming from San Francisco.

JACK: But that’s after long travels.

LISA: Right, right. I grew up in D.C., in the suburbs of D.C.

JACK: So you’re coming from San Francisco, you land here in Oxford in what year?

LISA: ’72.

JACK: I knew that. According to legend you’re driving a hippie kinda microbus?

LISA: Oh, God! That’s so embarrassing now. I had a ’62 VW camper with a sun painted on the front and a rainbow on the back and clouds on the side. I mean…

JACK: Oh, beautiful.

LISA: Is there any bigger cliché? Ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha! Well, it worked.

LISA: Did it?

JACK: I don’t know.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You’re still here. So I don’t know. Maybe it didn’t.

LISA: I didn’t get killed. I remember when I first came and moved into this house on South Lamar… it’s 1003 South Lamar. It’s a huge McMansion. But it used to be an old decrepit Victorian or turn of the century house, and all the kinda underground people lived there. And they all decided I was a narc. Maybe because the bus was so obvious.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: Like something a narc would have, to fool people into thinking…

JACK: Like The Mod Squad? They would… ha ha!

LISA: Exactly.

JACK: Arrive in the…

LISA: Fool people into thinking he was a… freak. Like everybody else. But you know, the words, they stuck with me, the words that I would hear. And some of them I got from Richard and his brothers. Not necessarily cuss words, but things like, uhm, sexual words, like “mossyjaw.” And “dirtyleg.”

JACK: Is… mossyjaw one word?

LISA: I think so.

JACK: Is that how you spell… it sounds like a Joycean… that’s almost Joycean-sounding, isn’t it? Mossyjaw?

LISA: Well, I mean, Ireland?

JACK: Mm-hm…

LISA: The South? There’s a lot…

JACK: I’m afraid to ask about mossy…

LISA: Ha ha!

JACK: I think I can guess. But… What about dirtyleg?

LISA: It’s the same thing.

JACK: Oh…

LISA: I mean, it’s almost the same thing. It’s… skanky hos are dirtylegs… or dirtlegs.

JACK: Wh… ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! That’s really… really… bad.

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha!

LISA: Somebody needs to research those words, go to the OED, and I’m sure they go back to Elizabethan England.

JACK: You know that guy… uh… oh! Vance Randolph…

LISA: Yeah!

JACK: … did those, those lexicons of… where was he? In the Ozarks. And they’ve got wonderful things, about the same sort of things, a lot of sexual euphemisms…

LISA: What’s the one that’s so crazy, that’s used for so many…?

JACK: Red onion?

LISA: Never heard that one.

JACK: You never heard red onion? That’s from a Vance Randolph book.

LISA: No… it’s another word for the female genitalia. But it’s also a word… God! I wish Richard was still here. Maybe I’ll come up with it. But it’s a word for something else in normal…

JACK: Satchel?

LISA: No! Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Jack!

JACK: These are Ozark…

LISA: I’ve heard that one.

JACK: Ah…

LISA: It’s not cooter, it’s not cooter, but it begins with a c. Goddamnit! What is it?

JACK: Oh dear! How did we get down this road? Sorry.

LISA: Ha ha ha! It’s a well-traveled road.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: For you and me.

JACK: Well, uh, so. What about touring for the first time? How was that?

LISA: That was fun and really interesting. Every stop I’d make there’d be some weirdo from my past crop up and really freak me out. Two old boyfriends showed up in D.C., one of whom, there’s a character kind of based on him in the book but I don’t think he has any idea and I sure didn’t tell him.

JACK: They say people never do.

LISA: Don’t recognize themselves…

JACK: Do you find that people, because it’s obviously based in this town, in large part, do people seem to want to sort of…

LISA: Oh, yeah.

JACK: … sit down and map out who’s supposed to exactly represent whom? That’s not the way writing works, though, is it?

LISA: No, it’s not. And it’s funny because I just was reading the poet and now novelist Ben Lerner? A young guy?

JACK: I know… I know the name. What’s… what’s his…?

LISA: He wrote a lot of poetry books and of course I don’t read a lot of poetry, so I can’t speak intelligently about that, but his breakout novel was Leaving the Atocha Station. I haven’t read that one, but his new one that’s not out yet, I think the title is 10:04. And, uhm, it’s pretty amazing, and a lot of it is obviously autobiographical, but a lot of it is what he calls “virtual.” And there’s a lot of shapeshifter, timeshifting…

JACK: Mm-hmm…

LISA: And reality shifts and stuff, and he talks about literary New York a lot, and people are always trying to pin down who this person might be and that person might be, and he said that, you know, it surprises him, and surprised me, that people don’t get it about fiction.

JACK: And not only that but smart people, and even people who write fiction sometimes…

LISA: I know!

JACK: It’s amazing what people will assume is something you took out of your own life.

LISA: It’s a little bit… it’s not insulting, but it’s a little bit like, “You think I’m not capable of making crap up?”

JACK: Yeah! That’s right, that’s right.

LISA: Of course, you do have… this guy Ben Lerner talks about “memoir disguised as fiction.” And of course, you do have personal experience in there, and memoirisitc elements, but those are just your points of departure, you know, they’re not… I guess it’s just a natural human thing that you wanna… I mean, people around here are still trying to figure out who are the Snopeses… not to compare myself to Pappy.

JACK: Why not?

LISA: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: He’s dead too.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha! Fair game. But you know, I guess it’s just normal. People want to know what you actually experienced.

JACK: You have to almost enjoy that people are going to do that while you’re writing. You can write something really shocking and while you’re doing it kind of anticipate the joys of people thinking it’s something you really did.

LISA: And those things, because I do have this true crime at the heart of the novel, which… it’s not the novel… I do deal mostly with facts and stuff… it was a real relief, and the thing I gave myself, to make up these other characters and these other events… enjoying that. It’s fiction! You can write whatever you want.

JACK: You mentioned recently to me that because there’s a crime element to the book that people assume it’s going to be a plot-driven crime novel, but you didn’t worry about that at all while you were writing it, did you?

LISA: I… I did worry about it, because I knew there would be people who’d be disappointed. And when I became aware of the fact that that was going to be the hook that my publisher would be pushing… and… uhm… I did worry about it, but I still, somehow, I had enough faith in what I thought I was doing that I just kept going.

LISA CONTINUED: And you know, again, Barry was such a huge influence on me. Not that I tried to write like Barry, but one thing that he used to always say: “I know I’m not strong on plot. It’s all about character to me.” To him. And I just feel like if you do the characters well enough, the story is there, and it doesn’t matter if it’s bang, bang, bang. But you know, another thing about plot… you know the classic form of the narrative is supposed to have all the things you learn in English class, and the denouement and all that. But you know, life doesn’t follow an eighth-grade English-class trajectory.

JACK: Or if it does, that’s really sad.

LISA: Yeah, and even if you have a plot, plots don’t end up resolving themselves. You know what I mean? In life, they don’t necessarily have a Hollywood ending…

JACK: Or an anti-Hollywood ending.

LISA: Right.

JACK: Or an ending. Well, they do have an ending.

LISA: They do have an ending. I don’t know, so I just kept on keeping on, mainly with characters and stuff, and hoping…

JACK: I’m learning the value of structure more now that I’m writing for this cartoon show where things are in a really very serious… I mean, you know, you can’t tell when you’re watching it, but underlying that seemingly wild, uh, stuff that’s going on, there’s a really strict kind of three-act structure, and that’s very helpful, although I don’t think I’ll ever apply it to my own stuff. I’d like to try, but… I’m weak on that.

LISA: I admit it, I’m really weak on structure, and I don’t get it.

JACK: How would you describe the structure of the novel?

LISA: Structure was [raspberry sound].

JACK: Oh, that’s not true. I don’t think that’s true at all. I mean, I’m not smart enough to sit down and draw you a diagram…

LISA: It has some structure, but I needed a lot of help. I begged my editor for help.

JACK: Tell me about that process.

LISA: You know, at one point, and I wrote the whole thing by hand like a total idiot, and at one point it was all out, in the next room, on the floor, the way I had written it. But I knew the structure was weak and I knew it could work better. So for about a week I just shuffled papers around on the floor. So I had the narrative flowing better, and there were places where it didn’t work so I had to go back and fill in some gaps and do some knitting and stitching and repair work.

JACK: And you try to make that look… you don’t let the seams show if you can help it, right?

LISA: That’s right, and some probably do show, but I did it the best that I could.

JACK: It’s not like any other book I’ve ever read, and you can’t say that about too many books.

LISA: Well, going back to what you were saying about the script, I want to say, uhm, about following script structure and all that… I want to get better at that and I’ve thought about taking a scriptwriting class. I do not think in a linear way.

JACK: I don’t even bother trying to write anymore, because what’s the point?

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Jack!

JACK: But as much as I’ve learned about structure from doing this new kind of work, I’m not sure it translates over into fiction. I don’t think I could use it in my fiction. I’m not sure how. It seems like a different part of my brain doing that.

LISA: Yeah! I agree!

JACK: So are you thinking about writing something else, can I take that from…?

LISA: Oh! Yeah. I’ve got tons of stuff I’d like to write if I can live that long.

JACK: Are you working on anything?

LISA: Well… I’ve got too much homework stuff right now. My book just came out in England this week.

JACK: Oh!

LISA: So I’ve got some, you know, some writing stuff to do.

JACK: Why do you have to write something because your book came out in England?

LISA: Uhm, I have a two-thousand word essay to do for Bookanista, which is a blog over there that I know nothing about, but my UK publicist wants me to do something on why there seems to be so much good writing coming out of the South.

JACK: Oh, that’s a fresh topic. Ha ha!

LISA: I know. There are no fresh topics, I’m afraid. I just do what they want me to do, and…

JACK: Why don’t you write an essay about why there’s so much bad writing coming out of the South?

LISA: Now there’s a good idea. That’s one I’d like to do.

JACK: That’s our dirty little secret.

LISA: That reminds me. Another thing about scripts, although I’d really like to get better about writing structure and thinking that way, it is, like you say, using another part of my brain that’s not very well developed. But I also… lots of times I feel like so many writers now, younger writers especially, tend to rely on the way scripts look. They’re thinking maybe in terms of film.

JACK: I understand why. When you’re writing fiction you’re working in this… really antique… ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: … kind of, you know… You say you wrote your book longhand. What other profession can you think of where you’d be allowed to do such a thing, uh… like, like some kind of monk?

LISA: I grew up with the big, kind of—may I use the word?—kind of sloppy novels of the 60s.

JACK: What are some of those novels? Were they influencing you with Flying Shoes?

LISA: Yeah. I mean, yeah! They were character-driven novels, like all the Jewish writers.

JACK: Like who?

LISA: Heller…

JACK: Oh! Heller, my favorite.

LISA: Bellow, Malamud. They’re all about characters. Maybe they didn’t go anywhere… I mean, they did. But those guys were brilliant.

JACK: Did you like Norman Mailer?

LISA: I liked some of Norman Mailer, but, uhm…

JACK: Philip Roth, you mentioned him when we first started talking. But he’s got… I don’t know. I feel like he’s a master, though. I think structure would almost be second nature to him.

LISA: Yeah, I don’t want to compare myself to any of those people. But those are the novels that influenced me. By “sloppy,” I mean… that wasn’t a good word. Loose?

JACK: Not loose or sloppy, it sounds like we’re talking about dirtyleg. Ha ha ha! Not loose or sloppy, but I would say… bountiful. Like you can’t contain… and that’s what I like about your novel, that it feels like there’s so much… it’s got everything in it, and that’s a feeling I like from a novel: that it’s got a whole world in it.

LISA: Oh, good. And there were other writers, like Kerouac and Kesey that I was reading and really heavily influenced me… Tom Wolfe…

JACK: Why do people not like… I don’t know, maybe people do like Kerouac. Is he…?

LISA: I liked Kerouac. And I liked that he was just kind of… you know, it was sloppy. But everybody’s life back then was sloppy. And nobody knew where anything was going.

JACK: I’m reading The Dharma Bums right now and I’m really enjoying it. It’s so funny, because he’s so cute… and one thing I like about him, and I know this is artifice, he’s doing this, I think… but he just seems like a little boy. He’s so excited about everything, that it almost feels… you’re almost embarrassed at how sweet he is.

LISA: Exactly.

JACK: You know, and at the same time he’s kind of abusive towards women. You know. The whole oeuvre, is that a word? Ha ha ha ha! Yeah. But at the same time he’s like, “We’re eating pudding!” I just read a part where he’s like, “Oh, mmm! I’m going to eat some pudding!” You know? Where he’s so excited about chocolate pudding. In On the Road  they break into a kitchen and he puts his arm into a tub of ice cream.

LISA: See, I loved all that stuff, the hedonism. That’s what I grew up reading. I also read a lot of nonfiction, Civil Rights stuff. But I was very influenced by those character-driven novels.

JACK: Well, you’ve written one now. Is it a big relief?

LISA: It’s a huge relief. But, you know, it wasn’t the kind of woo-hoo moment I thought it would be.

JACK: If I may say so, in the months leading up to the publication, you seemed almost, uh, what’s the word? You seemed… well, you didn’t seem that excited.

LISA: You know, it was just so postpartum or something. I mean, there were a lot of reasons for that. I did feel really flat. I thought, “Hmm. I don’t feel that great. I’ve exposed my family to this crap again, this tragedy. And I’ve made money off of it.” And… I… there’s no way you can really do something like that justice. I don’t care how good you are, I just don’t think you can really express… that kind of horror. So, I felt… and I just… and my brother’s still dead. You know? And we still miss him. You know?

JACK: In a way, when you write a book, you are trying to put some kind of structure… when you write any book, you’re trying to grab, trying to get something between those covers that in some way approximates life, and that’s a way of trying to put structure on life, I guess.

LISA: But I, you know, uhm… I didn’t realize Virginia Woolf had influenced me as much as she did. I read her stuff a million years ago, and I didn’t really remember it. But then my editor said, “Your book really reminds me of Mrs. Dalloway.” I couldn’t even remember it. But I went back and read it and I was like, “Wow!” It’s all in this woman’s head, in a much more compressed way than I did it, time-wise.

JACK: Unless I’m crazy, doesn’t Mrs. Dalloway, like your novel, also go off into other characters’…

LISA: Yeah! I think for the time it was really kind of revolutionary. It’s not for me, now, but… and that obviously affected me in some way, that you could write… and Joyce, and those people… you can write what’s in people’s heads. That is worth talking about. And even if it’s not acted out viscerally…

JACK: It’s funny, it still seems revolutionary to people, I think. Because they’re doing it a hundred years ago…

LISA: I know, isn’t that crazy?

JACK: People can still get bent out of shape looking at Picasso. People can still be shocked by Charles Ives or Stravinsky, or reading Gertrude Stein or Joyce, and you think, that’s pretty powerful. To still be able to make people uncomfortable.

LISA: Another thing that influenced me, like an old nineteenth-century person, I was a huge letter writer, and I had friends who were letter writers, and we had these big correspondences, all of which I kept.

JACK: Oh, that’s great!

LISA: And that, to me, that was a huge influence. Being able to write a letter to somebody, and embellish it…

JACK: Do you still write letters?

LISA: Not that much. Like every other idiot it’s email. I just heard from a really close friend from twelfth grade, who I’d known since sixth grade. We were really close in high school. She lives in Chicago and she’d seen the book. She got in touch with me—we’d been out of touch. And I just wrote her back a ten-page, actual letter.

JACK: Wow!

LISA: She was one of the people I corresponded with after high school, when I was on the road, and on the bus, whatever. And that was so much fun. I just don’t do it anymore. And it wasn’t just that: in a way, maybe this is related to cell phones, but I also kept all—you’re too young, probably, to remember this, but in junior high school, girls wrote notes in class constantly, and passed them back and forth.

JACK: I’m not too young to remember that!

LISA: Well, I have hundreds. I’ve saved them all. Hundreds of those notes, still saved. Ha ha!

JACK: Thinking of Kerouac, large parts of On the Road are Kerouac taking letters he got from Neal Cassady and just sticking them in the book, you know. There’s some curious connection between letter writing and novel writing.

LISA: There is, and I fear for it, because it’s not the same. Now you have people composing novels on their cell phones and stuff.

JACK: That’s all right, I guess. I’m sure somebody was upset when…

LISA: I guess it is! But it’s just so different. And another thing that worries me is literary manuscripts. Where are those going to be?

JACK: Yeah, who cares?

LISA: I care! I care. I love… I worked, when I was getting my degree in library science at Chapel Hill, I worked in the rare book room there. I wanted to be… I needed a job. I knew I wasn’t going to support myself writing, at least not right away… and I wanted to be a… a… a literary manuscripts librarian, you know, or an archivist. And I would read all this crap down there, it was kind of in a dungeon… and you know, you’d see little notes and doodles and stuff in the margins. Grocery lists, and who’s coming to the party this weekend, or some idea that you know is about two chapters ahead but you’re afraid you’re going to forget it—you just write it in the margin. My manuscript’s full of that kind of stuff, and maybe there’s a way people do that on the computer now, but…

JACK: Mmm…

LISA: I don’t think so. I miss… I think those things tell you a lot about a writer that we aren’t gonna…

JACK: But do we need to know anything about writers? That’s the question.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You know?

LISA: That is a good question. I like it. It’s the voyeur in me.

JACK: One of my favorite times was when we had a friend who was working at the Ransom Center…

LISA: In Texas…

JACK: And she said, “Whose stuff would you like to see?” And I said, “I don’t know, James Joyce.” And she brought out a box of his letters. They were in Italian, so I couldn’t read them…

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: But I got to touch ‘em.

LISA: Yeah! It’s like porn for me.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

LISA: It really is. So exciting. I remember finding a poem at Chapel Hill in some box, you know. It was a manuscript of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that nobody knew about, boxed in a bunch of junk, and I was like…

JACK: What?

LISA: And I was just shaking, I was trembling, and I took it to the archivist, and…

JACK: Wow!

LISA: And it wasn’t supposed to be there. He’s so contemporary and fresh. And very few poets have ever reached me. But he always did somehow. I don’t know how we got off on that. Ramblin’ Jack! Do you remember Ramblin’ Jack Elliott? He just died.

JACK: He did?

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: Like everybody else.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha! You were asking me this the other night and then you told me to shut up because you were going to ask me about it today. It was about male characters.

JACK: And writing from the point of view of male characters!

LISA: Right. And that is something… you’re not the only one to mention that to me. It came very naturally because I had nothing but brothers. And I married into a family at a very early age, 22, of nothing but brothers.

JACK: Mm-hm.

LISA: I kind of grew up with all those Howorth things. Boys. And, uhm, and I always… uh… I had… my mother was one of four girls, and no brothers. And they were so… they were close but they were so vicious with each other. And I think I had a natural, uh, not a fear, but a hesitancy about women… getting close to women. I was insecure.

JACK: How did you describe them? They were…

LISA: Vicious!

JACK: So… how were they vicious? Just verbally?

LISA: Vicious the way girls are often vicious.

JACK: How is that?

LISA: How is that? (long pause) I think girls and women are very judgmental about one another. And I think a lot of the times it’s in an instructive way, like mother to daughter.

JACK: Ah!

LISA: And I’m sure I’m guilty of it if you ask Claire and Bebe. But my mother was certainly that way, and her sisters were that way. Very critical. Sometimes meaning to be constructive, but other times not. And my experience with the boys in my family was: they didn’t give a flying fuck about emotions and discussing… and dressing properly, or saying and doing the right things… they were so much more natural and, it seems to me, comfortable in themselves. In a lot of ways, more upfront about stuff. I just think there are issues between women that are hard sometimes. And I’ve always been attracted to women who are kind of boyish, guyish. I’ve always felt less likely to be judged and that I can be more myself with guys.

JACK: But guys are judging women.

LISA: Well, they are, and I write about it. I try to write about the horrible things that guys think about women and say about women when they’re just being themselves. And of course, women can’t get away with that kind of stuff. And I also… there’s a thing. I really wanted to write like a guy. You just don’t see a lot of novels written by women where characters do use bad words and talk terrible sex talk and all that stuff. But girls do it. But it’s just… I think a lot of women writers are kind of afraid.

JACK: Well, maybe they’re afraid they’re going to be judged!

LISA: Exactly!

JACK: Well, you did a great job on those male characters.

LISA: Well, the Teever short story… he’s a character who I realized is too much in the book and I excised it.

JACK: Do you have a lot more Teever material?

LISA: I do! I have a short story but I never could sell it.

JACK: Have you thought about…? You don’t want to go back, or do you have that desire to be like Faulkner and revisit the characters?

LISA: No, I’m done. I’ve got a bunch of new stories.

JACK: Do you want to publish a book of short stories?

LISA: No, because nobody really wants those anymore.

JACK: Tell me about it, sister!

LISA: I know! I do think I’ve got a couple that if I sit down and let go, could turn into novels. I’ve got two, I think.

JACK: I look forward to that. Your next novel.

LISA: Yeah. If. If… I don’t… kick the bucket. The old bucket.

JACK: And even if you do!

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