"I’ve got a million head games I play to keep myself intact": On "Deadwood," weed and other essential tools of the writing trade

Authors of 6 new books discuss good habits, bad reviews and the creative weight of loneliness, nostalgia and ghosts


Teddy Wayne
April 22, 2015 2:58AM (UTC)

The new spring books are here, and I posed a series of questions – with, as always, a few verbal restrictions – to Elisa Albert (“After Birth”), Kate Bolick (“Spinster”), Stuart Archer Cohen (“This Is How It Really Sounds”), Heidi Julavits (“The Folded Clock”), Kelly Link (“Get in Trouble”) and Jacob Rubin (“The Poser”).

Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?

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ELISA ALBERT: Trying to be a good parent after having had bad ones.

JACOB RUBIN: Loneliness, misguided attempts at being loved; showmanship; a misapplication of good energies; The Pictures; fame; psychoanalysis.

HEIDI JULAVITS: Mortality, gossip, "The Bachelor," time, sharks, marriage.

STUART ARCHER COHEN: Namelessness.  Chinese Gardens.  The world extreme skiing champion circa 1992. Snow.  Fire.  Misguided aspirations.  The mystery of other people’s lives.  The mystery of one’s own unlived lives.  Home.

KELLY LINK: Ghosts, doppelgängers, terrible boyfriends, and people with supernaturally poor impulse control.

KATE BOLICK: Talking to ghosts (sort of — more like one-sided conversations). Social loners, grande dames, working girls, bohemians and cat ladies. The ever-presence of history. Creative domestic arrangements. The surprising similarities between the turn of the last century and the turn of this new one.

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Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book? 

JULAVITS: I am married to, and friends with, many of my influences. I like my influences live and in my face.

BOLICK: "Let them be sea-captains, if they will.” Washington Square Park. A pink silk peignoir. The Lowell Offering. Title IX. Antique undergarments. The films of Chantal Akerman, Catherine Breillat, Agnès Varda. Salt air. A dangerous nostalgia for where I’m from.

RUBIN: A dusty apartment, a broken AC, a very large moon, eavesdropping on two comedians sharing a hamburger, Central Park; Wyoming; joy.

ALBERT: Winter, TMJ, the music of Kristin Hersh, the Gits, trying to get something accomplished at night after the baby’s asleep then being unable to get up in the morning, breast-feeding, terrible parties, everyone giving birth surgically, the kind of too-hard massage to which you submit because you consciously or unconsciously want the shit beaten out of you in hopes you’ll feel better afterward but you feel worse.

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COHEN: The gradual winking out of my alternative lives, such as living in Shanghai or Buenos Aires.  The exhilarating, very dangerous beauty of winter mountains.  The infinity of Chinese Gardens and how they model existence.  Some unusual mosaic narrative strategies I’d encountered.  My wife.

Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?

LINK: Bed rest. A year and a half of close observation of hospital culture, hospital routines. Watching television with poets. Talking about romance novels that I haven’t read. Some other stuff that I don’t remember.

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RUBIN: Weight gain; weight loss; gluten; absence of gluten.

ALBERT: Expat fantasy writing fellowship in Holland, exhausted with baby, lost, lonely, riding the bike aimlessly, remembering how fucking much I love marijuana, losing touch with a lot of people, making a new home in Albany, loathing it with a passion, being a bitch, making new friends, practicing Ashtanga like my life depended on it, slowly coming to like Albany just fine, baby turning into a kid, marveling, lot of knocking on wood, hashtag grateful.

COHEN: Creative exhaustion and emptiness.  Vast and sometimes bewildering foreign travel.  Tiresome business details.  My sons becoming teenagers.  Snowboarding.  Winter.  Sitting around the stove.  Another winter.  Fire.  More winter.  More fire.  Climbing the mountain in the dark.

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JULAVITS: I was in pain and then I wasn't. I was writing a novel and then I wasn't. I was in New York, Maine, Berlin and Italy.

BOLICK: Hildegard of Bingen on repeat. (Ditto Jeremy Denk’s "Goldberg Variations.") Iced coffee. Nebbiolo. “Deadwood,” “The West Wing,” “The Americans,” "Broad City." Never leaving Brooklyn. Naps (#thedailynapreview).

What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?

COHEN:  There’s three kinds of reviews: good reviews, bad reviews and I’m flying down there to kick the crap out of you.  From the latter category, “Noxiously self-satisfied” comes to mind.  And, “... shaking his chubby little fists at the world.”  The NYT pissed on my last book pretty relentlessly for 842 words.  How much space have you got?

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ALBERT: Riot-grrrl seems like a lazy-branded, vaguely condescending catch-all for “not a complacent dipshit.”

RUBIN: “Zany” or “quirky.”

LINK: No lie. I don’t actually care at this point how anyone describes my writing. Mostly I just think: Fair enough. Or: Huh. Interesting.

BOLICK: I read negative reviews while squinting with one eye shut, so I can get the gist without going blind. A bonus result is that I can’t remember the worst barbs.

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JULAVITS: This requires me to look up old reviews and I think I am just not able, emotionally, to do this right now.

If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?

RUBIN: Playing the 4 for any NBA club.

ALBERT:  Midwife/folk musician.

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LINK: Geologist. Or country music.

JULAVITS: I would return to waitressing, or something that resembles waitressing—I sometimes dream of having a career that stops at the end of each shift, and as a result enjoying an uncomplicated distinction between the working self and the non-working self. Then I think I'm lucky that working and being are never not coexisting, that both of those parts of my brain are always, to some degree, active.

BOLICK: Physician.

COHEN: I guess I’d be wandering around South America and Asia trading with Indians, expats and all manner of interesting people from foreign cultures.

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What craft elements do you think are your strong suit, and what would you like to be better at?

RUBIN: I think I have an ear for dialogue and a knack for metaphor and simile. Figuring out a plot, however, is a whole other story.

JULAVITS: Sentences and sentences.

COHEN: My aspirations change with every book, so it’s a moving target.  Right now I’m satisfied with my ability to manage complexity, to keep the story moving and engaging, and characterization.  I want to get better at using the future tense and the second person, but still make it feel simple, transparent and non-literary.  (Probably will fail.)

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ALBERT: Strong voice and language, less strong at like setting things on Mars but in the Victorian era with texturing about my great-great-grandparents’ dietary and political proclivities gleaned from their correspondence.

LINK: Strong suit: compression. Wordplay. Getting a certain subset of readers to go along with whatever weird thing it is that I want to do in a story. I’d like to be better at getting my ass in a chair and getting work done on a daily basis.

BOLICK: No matter how much research I’ve done, or how often my editor tells me my perspective is valuable, I struggle with feeling I have the right to say anything, which could be the internalization of a certain kind of feminine conditioning, or temperance against being a blowhard; either way, finding the courage to overcome my self-critical mind often delays my discovering the point I’m trying to make, and I’d like to be able to navigate that process more quickly and less torturously.

How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?

BOLICK: See above.

ALBERT: I don’t.  Waste of energy.

JULAVITS: Yesterday, in the park, my friend and I spoke about grandiosity. How grandiosity is most useful if it's layered over (or under) doubt and self-loathing. I think many writers, psychologically speaking, are like a chafing dish of Mexican party dip—alternating swaths of hope and negativity, confidence and insecurity, canned refrieds and grated cheddar.

COHEN:  I’ve got a million head games I play to keep myself intact psychologically.  One of my foremost is from Bushido, Japanese samurai philosophy: “They can’t kill me because I’m already dead.”  Hope sustains you.  Hope is the enemy.

LINK: It is more or less a mystery to me that anyone has any kind of interest in what I have to say. Most of my career has been a surprise to me.

RUBIN: Every morning I stand in front of the mirror and say, “You’re an abject piece of shit, now go get ‘em!”


Teddy Wayne

Teddy Wayne is the author of the novels "Loner," "Kapitoil" and "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine."

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