You mentioned in a previous interview once that it’d be embarrassing to talk about Buddhism in that interview. Still, I’m dying to ask you about it.
I don’t remember saying it would be embarrassing. It just doesn’t go well, whenever I talk about it. I do sometimes write about it. The novel I’m working on is set in the bardo, for example.
Can you explain what a bardo is for those of us who don’t know?
Well, bardo literally means in-between. So, according to Buddhism, everything is a bardo, like the moment between this question and its answer is a Bardo. This interview is a Bardo. Our whole life is one bardo. And then when you die at the end of your life, you go through a bardo that is sometimes said to last for forty-nine days, but I think it can be longer or shorter.
That’s a long time.
I guess it has the potential to be really terrifying. A lot of times, you don’t know if you’re dead at first. At first, you might go to your house and see all your family and just feel like they’re ignoring you, and you don’t really know why. But then after some time, you realize that you’re dead. And then you start to look for another body. Depending on your karmic situation, you might be drawn to caves. You might be drawn to cities. If you’re drawn to the city, you’re going to be reborn as a human. But if you’re drawn to caves, you might be an animal. This is like the really theistic version of things, but I’m going to be using that. I guess the less theistic version is just that it’s the dissolution of your conceptual mind. And then its reconstruction is just out of habit. It all comes back. But that’s not what I’m writing. You just asked me to define bardo. So.
Okay, what if we talk about parenting? I feel like that’s so nitty gritty in this way that suddenly becomes so urgent to so many people.
Um you know, I feel so. I feel like all I do is just take care of Ratna these days. We don’t have him in daycare, which is nice, but that’s just what I’m doing. I don’t really feel super sharp right now.
You’re cooking a lot?
Yeah I cook a lot. I cook almost all of our meals. I like cooking sometimes, but I just feel like I was just like the last person ever cut out for this kind of housewife role, but that’s kind of where it’s at right now.
Has your relationship with cooking evolved over the pandemic?
Last year at this time, when we left for India, we would basically get take out dinners like three or four nights a week. I’d make pesto or dal, and I’d be like, you know, I thought I cooked. But now I actually cook two or three meals a day. So you know, I mean, I know how to cook like a mom now. I have to cook for a child’s palate. So it’s like beef stews and spaghetti with meat sauce and stuff like that. And he’s very, very, very picky. I basically just try to make his kid food from scratch. When we were in India, and the pandemic first hit, we were in a small village. And so all you could get was produce and random stuff that you might find at a gas station. All I could make was vegetarian stuff, and Clancy and I liked the food, but my son lost weight and it was really bad. So, now that we’re home, I cook for him, and the food is terrible. I mean, it’s fine, but boring. But anyway, I’m worried that I’m boring you.
I’m not bored at all. But maybe we should also talk about the written word. What are you reading these days? What is an author or book you think is really good that would surprise people?
Since marrying I don’t read like I used to. So my tastes are pretty standard, because I don’t have the patience and investment to find my own things. I remember feeling like Andrea Dworkin was a guilty pleasure in 2004, but now everyone knows she’s a special writer. We published a story of hers in the first fiction issue of Vice. It was about torturing her dog. It was very good.
Let’s see. I used to enjoy Candace Bushnell’s columns, and that of course became Sex in the City, which I never did like. I miss those papers like New York Press.
I remember trying to write a “Scene and Herd” for Artforum, and you told me to read Candace Bushnell.
Did you read Nico Walker’s Cherry?
You said you were reading Murakami.
Yeah. I lost my Kafka on the Shore. I’m really frustrated about it.
No, I lost the book.
Oh, like you literally lost your copy of it.
I had sort of forgotten about Murakami, but then a friend mentioned the movie Burning to me. I watched that and it was a breath of fresh air, because it doesn’t follow the three act structure at all. That three-act structure has really taken root in my mind, and it took a work like that for me to remember that stories don’t have to work like that.
I have been appreciating the way Murakami seems to trust himself to go out on a limb, and let the work decide when it’s going to make sense. Nothing feels forced.
That’s interesting that you feel like the three-act structure’s taken root in your mind. I feel like your stories aren’t necessarily the first that would come to mind when someone says “name a story that uses the three-act structure.” Or is what I’m saying wrong? Is the three-act structure there—at least how you see it?
I don’t think my stories are written in three-act structure. Maybe one is. But most aren’t. Still the idea of three-act structure is in my head a lot, destroying my stories before they really begin.
About Murakami, let’s take Burning the movie. I haven’t read the short story that it is based on. But it has this feeling to it. It feels, to me as a writer, whether this is true or not, like the characters began, and were never asked in a rational sort of way, “Where are you going? What’s all this about? What do you want? Is this interesting?” Instead it was like they were just allowed to go about their daily, slow, boring, pointless business, for as long as it took for some meaning to accrue. I feel like a lot of writers today say, “Oh, I don’t care for structure at all.” But it’s mostly laziness talking. It isn’t this epic trust in oneself that I see—that I project onto Murakami. I once heard that Allen Ginsburg’s guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, asked Ginsburg why he had to bring poems to a reading. He said, “Don’t you trust your own mind?” I think he was suggesting that Ginsburg should just show up to a reading with nothing in his hands and start to speak, and trust that that would be poetry. I get that feeling from Murakami’s work.
Maybe epic trust doesn’t feel like the resonant point to you, so I’m sorry to push it, but I am curious though: when you talk about allowing characters to go about their daily, slow, boring, pointless business—when I imagine doing something like that, it seems to require trust in a reader too, or something. That they’ll stick with the pointlessness or see it being worthwhile. I don’t know that I ever trust readers enough. Like, I’m always trying to win them over. I know that ends up feeling desperate.
I think you have to genuinely forget the reader to write that way. It’s obviously the best way to do it, because you’re just imagining something, when you try to write in an exciting way for a person. But no one has an easy time doing that.
Murakami’s writing is so hypnotic, even if someone’s just eating a bowl of noodles. But one also comes across other stuff where the writer really went for it, and for some reason it just feels excruciating, plodding. To me. I don’t know. Is that because it was laziness? How do you get to the thing that Murakami seems to be doing, but not laziness?
What is an example of everyday writing that feels plodding and pointless?
Let’s see, I read a lot of fan-fiction and sometimes there are like 20, 30 chapters that are just fictional Instagram posts. And it’s fascinating, but then also you really, really cannot take any more, by chapter 38.
I guess I was just wanting to have something concrete so we could look at why this thing was failing. Because I felt like there was this idea that you might be boring if you were long-winded about something. But if you were long-winded and careful about something mundane, it probably wouldn’t be boring in the end. It’d probably be more likely to be boring if you were really careless and quick about something exciting.
But I didn’t want to say that as a rule—it’s not a rule. But I just, I feel like maybe because the process of just describing mundane life is boring. Maybe you’re not bored. Maybe that’s the thing. Maybe you’re not bored. You’re just worried someone else would be bored.
Like, take Safe, by Todd Haynes. It’s not boring at all. Actually it is little boring, but it’s really fascinating too, you know. Most of it’s mundane and it looks like it was really hard to write, you know. That while he was writing it, there might’ve had moments where, he might’ve thought, This is so boring. What am I doing? This is horrible.
But that’s so fascinating, that maybe you can get a sense of his hunch that it would work, through the writing. And I’m like super curious if there’s some other flip side to that. Like if, if you’ve ever encountered a work where you feel like maybe the writer had no idea at all that it was going to be good. Like, it was almost like this uncontrollable thing that they were just going to do, but they probably didn’t themselves even think that there was anything there.
No. Hm. There was this book on Amazon that was recommended for me for some reason. It was this self-published book. Let me see if I can find it. Okay. It was When Clouds Appear as Mountains, by Malcolm Giles. It had some flaws, but I kind of enjoyed the flaws. Like it wasn’t informed by our shared aesthetic rules. But it was—the author spent 10 years writing it, he said, and you could tell this was true. And it was close to his heart.. The book is about the author’s first year in college. He was a major stoner, and he just wrote about getting high on cough medicine, for the most part. Like him and his friends walking around, talking, buying the medicine, taking it, going back to their dorm, hanging out, having so-called mystical experiences. I was so interested, because these stoners never write anything, you know. I feel liked I’d never read anything about what they do before this. I wanted to show it to my agent, but I was worried she’d just see the book’s flaws.
Writing about being stoned—maybe that’s actually a classic example of something that I feel like is not interesting to readers. The experience of a drug trip. Okay. I don’t know. Obviously I don’t want to generalize. There’s obviously been so much great writing about drug trips. But there’s also the classic moment where you recount a trip to a friend—and then realize that no one else cares.
I know. He doesn’t really write about what it’s like. He just writes about getting high and then going to sleep and then waking up and getting high and eating banana bread. But wow. Pretty good.
And so why did you want to show it to your agent?
Oh, cause I thought, you know, more people should be able to read this.
I see. I wonder what about Amazon’s algorithm decided that you would be open to it?
Me too. It had almost no reviews. I gave it five stars, and I was the second person. So I don’t think many people are reading it.
Do you feel like the way you’re thinking about writing these days is really different from back when we hung out more in person—back in the 2000s, whenever that was?
Yeah. I think it’s a little different. I don’t know. It’s hard to even remember. It seemed like fiction was a lot more alive back then. Yeah. Like we’d all kind of read the same book, so we’d be connected through it, but now I don’t feel that way.
I remember this thing you said to me, back then, that you kind of had this weird thing where you could repeat a long a conversation that you’d overheard and then kind of just like, get it down on the page, which really struck me because I don’t think it even seemed like a big thing to you when you were mentioning that you could do that. But it was totally something that like seemed really amazing and foreign and like something I definitely can’t do.
Yeah, I would. I could, I can remember the gist of the conversation. I can do that. I mean, you know, word for word, but maybe it’s because I don’t talk that much.
So do you feel like you’re kind of like the listener in, I don’t know, in situations.
I don’t talk that much. I mean, everybody’s always telling me how quiet I am.
Oh, really?! Well, maybe I tend to talk awkwardly even less than whoever I’m with. So maybe I kind of force you to talk when we’re together.
And also maybe I talk with you because we have a good connection.
So I don’t really connect with that many people. Here in the Midwest—
Can we talk about the Midwest?
Well, I don’t know. It’s like, some moms are really snotty, but I don’t even understand what they’re basing their snottiness on. I genuinely don’t know. Like in New York City, the code is, you know, skinniness, beauty, how well you’re put together—these kinds of obvious things. But here it’s like, I don’t even know where these people are coming from. It’s not what you think. It’s not like blonde in SUV. It’s not that. Clancy and I were at the zoo last week and these women were being really snotty to us and who knows why.
I know nothing about it, but I sort of imagine that when you’re in Kansas City, you have these glamorous jobs and all this cultural capital that is really intimidating.
No, that’s totally not true. We don’t.
Wow. Does any, does any part of you want to like rank, so to speak, in whatever other alternate mysterious rubric is at play?
Yeah, of course. But it’s hopeless.
You know, this is like stuff that happens at the parks stuff that happens at the zoo stuff that happens at Whole Foods. That’s kind of what I’m talking about.
I feel like those encounters—what you’re describing, they have that kind of like the weight I remember feeling when I was like 20 and in a foreign country and I’d have one conversation with some person at the post office. And it would be so fraught for me. How that conversation went would be the be-all-end-all of my day, and how I felt like my future was going to turn out in this foreign country. And I’m sure for the other person, they didn’t remember it even as it was happening.
I think we’re feeling this way, but that I probably know most people feel this way.
At the park, when Ratna was one, he and another one-year-old were kind of near each other. So his mom and I spoke a little, I looked at her son, he looked great. I noticed his shoes were gigantic, like clown shoes. And she saw me notice and she blurted, “His shoes are way too big.” And I just felt so sad that she was going through this same thing that I was going through.