Category Archives: Emily Barton

How Are Things in Mandragora?

[NB: Before I left Twitter—having barely been on Twitter—I was inept at Twitter. Which would have been obvious to anyone who ever read how much (or rather, how little) I wrote there. The inability to edit, among other things, was a deal-breaker for me. Anyway, before I quit, I wrote a few last Twitter threads that I never posted. This is one. The date/time stamp for this post is retroactive; I’ve set it to the day I gave up on editing this particular post in TextWrangler.]

Emily Barton’s first novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron, is set in the village of Mandragora on an unspecified island in the Outer Hebrides. Chapter Two begins: “Our ancestors crossed the great body of water that lies between Scotland and ourselves in paper boats…”

But which island? It’s not important for the purposes of the book; but recently, Rick Wilson (a Floridian GOP media guy whose writing I, a liberal Yankee Jew, greatly admire) retweeted a note from Londonist about the map of Fictional Britain.

Fake Britain! Brilliant! I checked: Was Mandragora on it? It was not. Could it be? “[W]e’d love to hear suggestions for additions or corrections,” the map’s description noted. So I wrote.

In the UK, Yves Gundron’s publisher was Canongate Books; I mentioned in my email that The Scotsman‘s review was quite apt: “Like a saccharine-free prehistoric Brigadoon.”

Matt Brown from Londonist kindly replied to say that he’d be happy to add Mandragora to the map. But is the village on a coast or inland? he asked. An excellent question! On p. 33, Yves Gundron writes:

We know our mountains to the east, our mountains to the west, our mountains to the north, and our mountains to the south, and none of us, save Mandrik [Yves’s brother], has sought what lies beyond.

So the geography of their valley helps explain their isolation as a medieval village—changed by the arrival of Ruth Blum, the American anthropologist.

As a side note, the novel—especially the ending, where the device of story being in the form of a false document allows the reader to see the impending disaster that Yves himself cannot see—keeps being tragically relevant.

I starting poking around on Google Maps. Could there be a real island that fit the needs of the fictional island? The dot in the blue sea that jumped out immediately was the island Hirta, in the small archipelago of St. Kilda.

Neel Mukherjee, writing for T Magazine:

St. Kilda […] is one of the outermost outposts of the British Isles: Beyond it to the west lies the North Atlantic in an unbroken stretch until Newfoundland. The main island, Hirta, was inhabited until 1930. Beyond the reconstructed main village, which is just a row of half a dozen houses, the island is dotted with scores of cleits, stone storage huts with turf roofs, that characterize the St. Kilda archipelago.

Plus sheep, and “seabirds (and their eggs) for food“! This is promising!

But why is it uninhabited?:

The medieval village on Hirta was rebuilt in the 19th century, but illnesses brought by increased external contacts through tourism, and the upheaval of the First World War contributed to the island’s evacuation in 1930.

Mostly uninhabited:

St Kilda was bequeathed to The National Trust for Scotland by the 5th Marquess of Bute in 1957,” who leased land “to the Ministry of Defence as a radar tracking station for its missile range on Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.

In reality, “[t]here are no trees” on Hilda, writes Mukherjee. (There are in the novel.) “[W]hat can survive being buffeted by the North Atlantic winds from all sides year-round?” And Ministry of Defence staff would obviously notice a medieval village.

And it’s small. 2.5 square miles, a fraction of the size of the island where a very real uncontacted people in the news recently make their home.

But for the purposes of Fake Britain: A Map Of Fictional Locations In England, Scotland & Wales, I asked Emily, and she gives Hirta her approval.

Last question: Where is Mandragora relative to Laerg, a “fictional island […] which features in the 1962 novel Atlantic Fury by Hammond Innes” and is “closely based on Hirta”? In the same spot? Or nearby?

Matt, in the end, smartly made them separate, but near each other. Since these are simultaneous overlapping realities, no one from Mandragora would never have encountered anyone from Laerg, and vice versa.

PPS By the way, if anyone at Canongate Books ever reads this, The Book Of Esther—called a “glorious mash-up […] breathtaking in its ambition and scope” (Chronogram) and a “wild pageant of tumult and valor” (Booklist), a novel “as addicting as a Jewish Game of Thrones” (NYTBR)—has no UK publisher.

At least, not yet.

The Way We Live Now; or, The Year of Living Autobiographically, Part III

From October 2011 to October 2012, I wrote The Year of Living Autobiographically; four years later, from October 2015 to October 2016, I wrote a kind of sequel, which for the nonce I’ve been calling The Year of Living Ignominiously. (As I wrote here and here, it’s on a back burner.) And right at the moment—eight years after the first project, four years after the second—I’m in the middle of writing what I guess will be the third part of a trilogy.

I’ve been telling my students in the past few weeks—in our last in-person classes, which all ended on Friday 3/13, and in a few test runs I’ve set up with my students using Zoom this past week—to observe the world around them as it changes, and to take notes. Social media can be a good way to stay in touch with friends, and it can be a good conduit for accurate and trustworthy news from reliable sources. But social media, I’ve tried to remind them (this is nothing new, obviously), can also be a firehose of rumors, and it can be a crutch—one that so thoroughly reinforces our performed, public selves, that we forget or neglect our private selves. Take private notes, I’ve said. Keep a diary, a journal, a notebook, James Comey–style contemporaneous notes, whatever you want to call it. Think Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”; think Nora Ephron’s mom’s mantra that “everything is copy.”

Emily and I are trying to do good where and when we can; we’re trying to teach our students, and raise our sons, and be useful citizens if we can—of this town, this state, this nation.

And I’m trying to follow my own advice. In case you’re curious about what the work that might eventually be called something like The Years of Living Autobiographically: Book III is going to look like, here are the 21 entries I’ve written over the past few weeks. I’m following my same absurd self-dare as before: for one year, write one status update per day that’s precisely 420 characters long—no more, no fewer. (See previous posts on this: The Year of Living Autobiographically; Praise; More Praise.)  This time, though, for reasons that I can’t explain other than following instinct (and perhaps borrowing from my friend Jessica Anthony in her brilliant new novel Enter the Aardvark), it’s all in the second person.

Sat 29 Feb 2020
Do you want to see how I know there’s a hole in my dishwashing glove? you asked Emmett. Of course he did. You folded back the cuff, made a seal with your lips, inflated it with your breath. Then you gently squeezed, aimed a wobbly yellow pointer finger at Emmett’s nose. A small hole at the tip; enough to flood them with water, enough to pinpoint air. Toby needed to feel it as well. What a marvelously dad thing to do.

Sun 1 Mar 2020
“Why do we wear a kippah?” asked the rabbi. “Because it’s cool,” one girl said, to the rabbi’s delight. “Because you can,” said Toby. Emmett’s morah: “That’s my favorite answer so far.” “That’s a serious answer,” the rabbi said. “I don’t know if you even know how serious an answer that is.” It’s a reminder to be humble, she said. “I wear it to remind myself to be humble when I’m doing something that I think is holy.”

Mon 2 Mar 2020
An overheard fragment, a student’s phone conversation—”your arteries, your heart, a lot of pressure around your heart, so you can suffer complications from that. But I was on an Internet forum, and a lot of people were saying”—was she talking about COVID-19? Remember Rabbi Bunim: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one write, ‘I am a speck of dust.’ On the other, ‘The world was created for me.'”

Tue 3 Mar 2020
Your hands are dry from frequent washing. It’s tough, in these early days after the shortest month, to twist the knob to advance the date on your watch. A cold rain turned to steam as it hit the walkway by Warner. “Journey of the Magi”: a convert’s midrash on “We Three Kings”? Your students, unversed in Matthew. Rain at sunset; rainbow in the east; a tornado-yellow sky; then hail, gone before you could photograph it.

Wed 4 Mar 2020
Your friend, on leftist rage: “The horse you ride to victory—you don’t keep stabbing it in the eyes.” Later, you asked your students if they were doing okay, or afraid—you meant COVID-19—and one mentioned Biden. What did she mean? Biden has dementia, she said. She learned this on Twitter; it’s an open secret. She’d been proud to cast her first vote for Clinton, even though, your student said, she’s a “lizard person.”

Thu 5 Mar 2020
Your student, a “Bernie bro,” said she had you pegged as a “Warren bro.” Senator Warren, today: “If you say, yeah, there was sexism in this race, everyone says, ‘whiner.’ And if you say, no, there was no sexism, about a bazillion women think, what planet do you live on.” You want not to cry; you want cookies for dinner; you want to torch the subliminal civilization-scale erasure of the very idea of matriarchal power.

Fri 6 Mar 2020
Last night at the Feve, Emily introduced you to one of her students. He reached out to shake your hand. Wait, you said, let’s practice for Coronavirus. “Do you have it?” he said, his voice a bit panicked. No, no, you said, but we need to practice social distancing, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion to put one’s hands over one’s heart in greeting. He liked this idea; this was what you both did.

Sat 7 Mar 2020
In office hours, a student yawned almost every time you spoke. He also picked his nose. As he got up to leave, he reached out to shake your hand. Wait, you said, let’s practice alternatives. There’s putting your hands over your heart, and then there’s this: you held up the priestly blessing. He didn’t recognize it as Jewish, but Vulcan. “Live long and prosper,” he said, “I like it.” “Live long and prosper,” you said.

Sun 8 Mar 2020
As she introduced the Purim Shpiel, the rabbi encouraged everyone to eschew shaking hands. Later, a fellow Hebrew school dad reached out to shake yours. You proffered an elbow. He bumped it begrudgingly. “You must be from Oberlin,” he said, with a dismissive smile. Meaning, presumably, that taking science seriously requires leftist inculcation. L’esprit de l’escalier still hasn’t arrived. “It’s true, I am,” you said.

Mon 9 Mar 2020
Part of Emmett’s homework: “Explain how the unfair laws described in the introduction of the book had an effect on Thurgood Marshall’s life.” His answer: “He was soper mad at the white peapole ho did not alaw brown pepole to go to thar restrants.” True. Fair enough. COVID-19 is now in Ohio. Three cases, Cuyahoga County. Not yet a red dot on the Johns Hopkins University map. The governor declared a state of emergency.

Tue 10 Mar 2020
Outside your office, a coughing fit, then hawked-up sputum, then quiet. The U.S. has 971 confirmed cases. You sent Emily a Crimson lede: “Harvard Moves Classes Online, Asks Students Not to Return After Spring Break In Response to Coronavirus.” “Holy shit,” she replied. “Crap.” The list of Ivies charting the same course grows: Princeton, Yale, more. Then an emergency confab, and Oberlin, after break, will follow suit.

Wed 11 Mar 2020
Your children’s bus driver says the schools might close. Someone’s been swiping hand sanitizer dispensers from Peters Hall, the building manager said. Probably selling them on the black market, he joked. Word of mouth: hoarding toilet paper; student riots in Dayton; a Facebook group for unsanctioned spring breaks. The cause of your sacroiliac pain, your chiropractor determined, is your unconscious fear of turning 50.

Thu 12 Mar 2020
Cuomo: Broadway ordered dark. DeWine: a three-week “extended spring break” for all Ohio schoolchildren, starting next Tuesday; Oberlin students gone by then too. Tom Hanks infected; baseball delayed; Disneyland closed. One receptionist at your doctor’s office: “We’re gonna have to start making our own toilet paper!” The other receptionist: “Ew.” Driving home, a cheddar-cheese Combos bag, empty, scuttling in the wind.

Fri 13 Mar 2020
You stopped by the Boys & Girls Club, looking for Toby. They’re also shutting down. Our lives are upended, “but I really think it’s the right decision,” you said. “It absolutely is the right decision!” said one of the teachers, wiping down tables. “We gotta stop the spread!” Faculty and staff are pulling together, but in ordinary times, a dean told you, “there’s usually a pervasive hermeneutic of suspicion going on.”

Sat 14 Mar 2020
“I have the sense of being unmoored from responsibility,” Emily said. “It’s like a storm with no storm,” you said. “It’s like waiting for a tornado,” she said. “Exactly,” you said. Emily: “I guess I’ll put on some socks and do some knitting? That sounds like a pretty good plan, right?” It did. Spain joins Italy on lockdown; first case in Lorain County; patient surge “threatens to swamp U.S. hospitals”; at dusk, snow.

Sun 15 Mar 2020
California: all seniors must shelter in place. Ohio: all restaurants closing, except for take-out. Your knuckles now sting when you wash your hands with warm water. Cleaning the natural keys of your loaner Steinway, using a non-bleach disinfecting wipe, is easy, but what about the sharps? “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Amazing Grace,” up and up, octave by octave. Pope Francis walks the Roman streets alone.

Mon 16 Mar 2020
France on lockdown. DC shuttering. San Francisco: everyone must shelter in place. First case of COVID-19 on the Oberlin campus; an employee in the dining hall, who last went to work on Wednesday. Your department chair: “Everything is radically unmoored right now.” No atheists in foxholes, no libertarians in pandemics. Your sister, on the phone: “Are you hoarding toilet paper and pasta like all other white Americans?”

Tue 17 Mar 2020
Cemetery ramble: Toby in-line skates, Emmett scooter. In the IGA, you sidled toward the granola bars; a woman who’d been a yard from you stole even further away. Was the man behind you at checkout, the one buying a case of ramen, wearing blue scrubs? Italy: “morgues are inundated, coffins pile up.” President Ambar shared a poem: “What if you thought of it/ as the Jews consider the Sabbath—/ the most sacred of times?”

Wed 18 Mar 2020
You parked on Main, but the Feve’s front door had a note: pick up all takeout at the kitchen entrance. You drove around back in the rain. A chalkboard sign pointed the way. You entered, approached the bar. A man was ahead of you, also picking up takeout. He held up his hands to protect his face. “Stay away from me!” he said, then he relaxed. “Just kidding,” he said. “It’s all good,” you said, stepping out of his way.

Thu 19 Mar 2020
“One of the things we can do for each other is extend each other grace,” President Ambar said, closing the remote faculty meeting. “Even as we do this difficult thing. We will all be the better for it.” President Bacow, in an email: “The Talmud says that to save one life is equivalent to saving the entire world”; when we’re through this, “there will be no way to calculate the number of lives your actions have saved.”

Fri 20 Mar 2020
National Guard deployments; U.S. land borders closed to nonessential travel; Italy’s death toll exceeds China’s. These headlines are written by a child mimicking the opening montage of a crap disaster flick. Breakfast: margarine on Triscuits; lunch: Laughing Cow on Cheez-Its. Emily at IGA: “There is no fucking toilet paper, flour, bread, or pasta sauce.” The joy of “Seven Nation Army,” you on piano, Toby on trombone.

Good News: Oberlin

Emily and Tom and the boys at Oberlin

Here’s a roundabout way to tell you some good news: 31 years ago, in the summer of 1987, I visited Oberlin College for the first time with my dad. It was, around that time, my first choice. My college counselor had only recently started working at my high school; he’d been an admissions officer at Oberlin, his alma mater, for a number of years before that. In other words, when Carl said he thought you should go to Oberlin, it wasn’t interchangeable for him with, say, Reed or Hampshire or Kenyon or Brown or Wesleyan. It meant more.

I got an acceptance letter from Oberlin, but I also got one from Harvard, where I ended up, and where I met Emily. She and I fell out of touch for 16 years, then reconnected, then got married.

Which leads us, 11 years later, to our wonderful news that Emily is joining Oberlin’s creative writing faculty as a tenure-track assistant professor. And I’m still pinching myself, but I am delighted to say I will also be teaching creative writing this fall at Oberlin as a visiting assistant professor.

Emily and Tom and the boys at Oberlin

I haven’t figured out yet how to reach Carl (or if he’s still alive). Odds are, three decades and hundreds of advisees later, he doesn’t remember me. But still, I want to let him know that in my roundabout way, I finally got to Oberlin.

It just took 31 years.

A Note on Notes, an Update on Updates, a Work in Progress

—When I feel not totally certain of what the point of having my own website is, I remind myself that it seems kind of useful to have your own bibliography and your own bio in one place (for the odd person out there who might be asking the Google “I loved this story in Fence but what else has Tom Hopkins written? I must know”), and which is worth a few bucks a year to maintain, I think.

—My tag line (up there in the upper left hand corner) is currently “sporadic news and occasional updates,” but it’s really pretty damn sporadic and occasional these days. In part, I guess, because I don’t send out stories all that much anymore—I only have a couple pieces out at the moment—so it’s been a while since I had one of those lovely phone calls or emails from an editor letting me know they want to publish something I wrote.

—On very rare occasions, I tweet; slightly more frequently, I post photos to Instagram [N.B. Links removed; no longer extant].

—The best and most exciting news we’ve got these days is that The Book of Esther is out in paperback as of 8/22. (I posted a square-cropped version of the following to Instagram on 8/1.)

a box of The Book of Esther by Emily Barton

—Did you see that the novel was in last Sunday’s Paperback Row? (Quoting: “For her novel, Barton imagines a thriving Khazar kingdom in the throes of World War II — crafting a world and a story that are, as our reviewer, Dara Horn, said, ‘as addicting as a Jewish “Game of Thrones.”’”) (I posted a square-cropped version of the following to Instagram on 8/27.)

—Did you see the “5 Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books Inspired by Jewish History and Culture” post in Unbound Worlds last Thursday? Or the Begin in Wonder review?

—In other news (and this is also a contributing factor to why I have absolutely no short-story news), I’m writing a novel. The way I described it to Emily was “an autofiction wrapped in a writing dare wrapped in a false document”; in an email to a writer friend and mentor, I wrote this: “one shorthand way to describe it would be Knausgard meets Nabokov, although I should hasten to add 1) I haven’t read Knausgard and 2) that sounds more highfallutin than I think this thing actually is.”

I’m realizing now, though, that it’d be slightly more accurate than Knausgard-meets-Nabokov to call it John Cheever meets Anne Lamott meets Sarah Manguso meets Jenny Offill.

I’m going to try, if I can, to write progress reports on how the novel is going in this space on a regular basis, but I may completely fail to do so. The novel may fail; the reports about the novel may fail. (Again: what’s the point of having your own website? Whatever you want the point to be. The age of blogging may be long gone, but I’m trying to keep the fierce digital individualism of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget as my lodestar here.) We’ll see.

—In other writing news, I also wrote a sequel to The Year of Living Autobiographically, but it may be just too damn dark to share. I think it might be called The Year of Living Ignominiously. It’s definitely on the back burner for now.

—I don’t have anything smart to say about this, but like most people I know, I’m thinking about mortality a lot these days; in my case, one of the specific ways I’ve been thinking about mortality is the fact that one of my childhood friends died suddenly this past January. I knew he wrote, but I discovered at his memorial service that Brian Shea wrote a lot, and published his own work [N.B. Link removed; no longer extant]. I am full of awe at the same time that I am full of grief.

Here’s a picture of me, age forty-seven, and Toby, age nine. I was nine when I met Brian. This is Toby and me at Brian’s memorial in June.

Toby and me in Maine

Brian also was a frequent contributor to The Good Men Project. I really want his essays there to become a book. I don’t quite know what I can do to make that happen, but for now, I’m leaving this link here, to create one more thread in the universe to his words, and I’m remembering what Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark, that we don’t know what the outcome of our actions will be, but we sure as hell know what the outcome of our lack of actions will be. (Timothy Snyder makes much the same point at the end of On Tyranny.)

More soon, I hope. Onward.

LEGOs: an Essay, by Tobias Hopkins, Age Eight

LEGOs are fun. If I got a brand new box of LEGOs, I’d open the box, then I’d open the bags that are inside of it. Then I’d pour out the LEGOs, but I wouldn’t sort them. It’s a little more fun to just look for the LEGOs, to dig through them. If you sort them, then everything would be with other pieces that are the same color, and it would be harder to find them, because they’d blend in.

Then I’d open up the instructions and I’d start building with what it says. It can be kind of hard, because the instructions don’t have any words, they just show you pictures. Sometimes the pictures are more like diagrams. I look at the picture of the LEGO piece I need, and I try to find it. Then I look at the picture of what that step should look like after I put the LEGOs together. Then I put them on the actual structure to do that step.

Sometimes it doesn’t go exactly right and I have to redo it. Sometimes I haven’t done exactly what the directions showed because it’s hard to tell what the directions are showing. I redo it if it’s not correct. It can be frustrating if you get a step wrong, but then it’s really fun once you get it right.

When I do it the right way, that feels good. If you get the directions correct, then you just move on to the next step. It keeps on going like that.

As you keep working on the kit, it gets bigger and bigger. At first it looks like a couple tiny pieces, and then it starts to look like what it’s supposed to look like. It looks better as it grows. When I built a treehouse, I started to be able to put more parts on it that moved in interesting ways. But not all LEGOs can move, and that’s okay.

Each step that you take when you’re building a LEGO set gets more exciting, because each step gets you closer to being able to play with it. And when I finish it, I feel really great about it. I feel proud that I followed the directions and made something that looks good.

A LEGO dragon that I built, after I finished, I took it apart so I could build the same thing again. I left some of the pieces together, like the head, and some pieces I had to put together from scratch, and I put all the parts back together. Some LEGO kits, after you build them, you just play with them.

If there’s anything that moves in a finished LEGO set, you can move that around. If there are humans involved, you can play with the humans by moving them around and having them do different things.

We also have a box of LEGOs that are all different kinds of pieces that can let you build a lot of different kinds of things. It used to have directions for how to build a fire truck, a house with a dog inside of it, and a few other things, but I ripped up those directions one time when I was really frustrated. So now when you use that box of LEGOs, you do things that you want to do, and you can’t use instructions, which also turns out to be kind of fun. I’ve ended up making things like a giant box thing on wheels, a swimming pool, and a couple different kinds of cars.

I like doing both kinds of LEGOs, but I prefer the ones with instructions. Then you get to play with things that have a lot of cool stuff and that actually look like real things.

I hope you enjoyed my story about LEGOs. (If you’d like to learn more about LEGOs, go to Wikipedia. On the LEGO website, you can see many different kits that they make and you can do games and stuff.)

—Tobias Ezekiel Hopkins
Kingston, NY
26 March 2017

A note from the publisher—that is to say, me, Tom, his dad: Toby wrote this essay for a publication class he’s been taking before and after the school day. This story will be included in an anthology that his teachers will be publishing at the end of the school year with CreateSpace; the book will serve as a fundraiser for the school. Once the anthology is published, I’ll add a link to the book’s buy page here.

While Toby did not type the essay, his mother, Emily, served as his transcriptionist, or stenographer. As a writer and writing teacher herself, she made no attempt to “improve” the work during its composition. A few times, she encouraged the author, in Socratic fashion, to prefer the specific to the general. The ultimate choices of words, sentences, and paragraphs are very much the author’s own.

The Rubber Band

Emily and Toby and I wrote a poem. No day is ever perfect, and yesterday had its problems. But: we wrote a poem! (Which is perhaps especially awesome because of this: Emily and I were in the same section of David Layzer’s Space, Time, and Motion class in the fall of 1989, and our section leaders allowed us to cowrite an epic poem for our final paper. Emily and I both lived in Adams House. She would come over to my dorm room in E-11, where we typed it all out on my Macintosh SE. We wrote it in botched heroic couplets. It was about Aristotle, Kant, Alice in Wonderland, Hume, Plato, Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Reimanian geometry, Milton, Henri Poincaré, Einstein, and Virgil, among other things. It was terrible; it was glorious.)

If you put a word by itself on a line, Toby said, then you draw special attention to that word, and the reader pays special attention to it.

I love the poetry unit! I want to live in the poetry unit always.

The Rubber Band
by Toby, Mommy, and Daddy

streche    streche
Don’t let your brother eat that!
slingg—shot
Stretched wide in an O
FouR  EDGES
An infinite beige   rectangle
HLDS together tie-die   shirts
FIGUR    ATE
Cat’s cradle, a bundle of mail, preserver of bread
a    zero
a mouse bicycle inner tube
a   ginee   pig    guiTAR
The hairband of last resort
A    TITE    BRASLIT
Get enough of them, make a ball
thay    geT    OLD
THAY     get rough
little spaghetti
Ever-changing shape
BRAIDED
Tiny digeridoo
ants use them to power their
PROPELLER PLANES
and     it     SPRINGS     A N D     SPRINGS
A N  D    S    P     R      I        N         G           S

The Rubber Band

Good News: Ten Things About “The Mohel Mulligan”

2014.08.17 Mohel Mulligan copies

Ten things about “The Mohel Mulligan,” published last week in the Chicago Tribune‘s Printers Row Journal fiction insert (hooray!):

1) The story, in its very first draft, was titled “It Takes Balls to Be a Dick.” This was something I said to a bunch of fellow musicians after a show at CB’s 313 Gallery. (When was this show? Maybe the Marc Rosenthal / Gloria Deluxe / Holly Ramos show on Saturday, 18 March 2000? (“[A]fterparty at Parkside Lounge,” says my calendar. I have vague memories of this being an amazing night.)

The line was the punchline to a story I don’t remember. I wrote it on an index card and put it in my mother’s old recipe box, where, pre-Evernote, I stored loose phrases and quotes and ideas. Starting grad school, I thought I should use it as a title for a short story. I’m glad I didn’t.

2) I workshopped the story twice at NYU. In workshop, it was titled “Blind Date.” Like me, the story is a lot more Jewish than it was ten years ago.

3) The draft I submitted to the Printers Row Journal was the thirteenth. It was the twenty-ninth time I’d sent out the story. (I’m grateful to Dan and Nicole and Jamie for encouraging me to keep sending it out.)

4) The story is an homage to / riff on Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s the same basic setup: four people drinking and telling stories. The narrator is named Nick; the husband of the other couple is named Mel. Terri and Laura become Abby and Molly.

5) Riffing/signaling-of-riffing in the opening two sentences:

Carver:

My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.

Me:

My new friend Molly had been praising the baby. She wanted to be a pediatrician, so I thought that gave her the right.

6) This is a completely fictional story. But it’s based on something that actually happened to me—a weekend-long blind date, at my date’s friends’ beautiful vacation house—which occurred on a weekend on which the sixth of July fell on a Sunday in 2003.

The real-life conversation that inspired the conversation of the story occurred on that Sunday.

The publication date for the story is the sixth of July, which fell on a Sunday in 2014.

7) The insert says $2 on it, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how you’re supposed to buy a copy. They may only be available in analog form, in Chicago, purchased with physical dollars. (Kicking it old school, Trib! This could potentially explain why the story does not yet exist at all on the Internet, according to Google. I don’t mean at all for this to sound disrespectful, but it does inspire a contemporary version of the if-a-tree-falls question: If a story is published in print, and no mention of it occurs on the Web, was it ever actually published?)

8) Emily will give some copies away on her Facebook author page. Which is an awesome reason to “Like” Emily Barton, if you haven’t clicked that button already.

9) The story-within-a-story is about a circumcision gone horribly wrong. I’ve been tempted, for a decade, thinking about that and thinking about Carver, to retitle the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Cock.” I’m glad I didn’t.

10) Film rights are available.

Fifteen Thoughts on AWP

1) Emily’s joke: For AWP, we stayed at The Lenox, which is a member of the Saunders Hotel Group. At first, the hotel seemed like a near-future dystopia, with a lot of scary TradeMarked MidCaps (TM). Also, everyone there, like, uptalked? But halfway through our stay this totally surreal thing happened, which, by the time we checked out, via that surreal thing, totally redeemed our faith in humanity.

2) The view out our hotel window.

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3) I thought that Facebook and AWP would be an interesting combination. I had the idea that everyone would use the former as a tool for managing the latter. As in, if you were at the Bloof table, you would write “I’m at the Bloof table,” and then your friend who happened to be over at the Small Demons table would see that, and then wander from Small Demons over to Bloof, and then say hi, which is what’s so great about AWP, saying hi to all these wonderful folks.

But it didn’t seem like anyone was doing that. It seemed like everyone I knew on Facebook who was also at AWP wasn’t writing much of anything on Facebook. Presumably because they were too busy saying hi to other wonderful folks?

Or maybe the appropriate digital tool for what I’m talking about is Twitter?

4) I’m sure some people had all kinds of judgemental thoughts about us wheeling around a boy who’s four and eleven tweflths in a stroller meant for a much younger child. Perhaps they thought we were spoiling him; maybe they thought we fit some preconceived idea of modern parenting that they’ve decided they hate.

But I tell you what, the Micralite Toro is an amazing machine. You can push it with one hand. You can put all your coats on it, instead of checking them for three dollars per coat at the coat check that doesn’t allow you to combine coats. At the convention that doesn’t have child care. Or a play area. Or any comfortable chairs. Did you see everyone lining the long hallways, sitting down, napping on each other, checking their phones, reading, resting in the only place there was to rest? It looked like an airport in a snowstorm. A conference and book fair together mean walking many miles over the course of the day. Which is tiring for people of every age.

I highly recommend the Toro. They should make a grownup version.

Maybe they already do; it’s called the Segway.

And the Husqvarna ear muffs. Next year, we’re starting a fake literary journal and selling branded Husqvarna ear muffs as swag.

5) I miss tabling. I think I’m good at it. I love standing behind a table and talking to people all day. Maybe not every day, but certainly a couple of times a year. I love teaching, but I also hope my work someday means tabling conferences. I hope it doesn’t sound pathetic for someone in his early forties to say such a thing.

6) The woman who was running the TriQuarterly table on Saturday morning was not a nice person.

7) Bloof!

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8) Perhaps I just think I’m good at tabling because at AWP, there are so many people who are incompetent at it. Why go at all, why spend money on a table, if you, the editor, are not going to go yourself? Why send your socially challenged editorial intern? And if you’re the socially challenged editorial intern, why are you hiding? Why not say hi to someone and possible learn something about the world?

9) Sven Birkerts is awesome. First thing in the morning, he’s sitting behind the AGNI table. He’s a major public intellectual and he’s also trying to sell you a damn lit journal. That’s how you do it, man.

10) I’m sad I didn’t get to meet Michael or Jamie in person. I’m glad I got to finally meet Stephen. I’m glad to’ve seen Jed, Bruce, Hannah, Rach, Richard, Jess, Dan, Shanna, Sam, Brendan, John, Rick, Laurel, Laurel.

11) I’m sad we didn’t run into Maud or Alix. Whenever we go on a trip, we set up a few timers on the lights in our house. Our first floor timer, when we’re not traveling, lives tucked into the top shelf of the right-most fiction bookshelf in our living room, next to Babylon and Other Stories and The Missing Person. So when we go on trips, we think about Alix.

12) Fucking Facebook! It’s a flood of so much in medias res. If all we get are updates, which is the same as “and then this next thing happened to Joe,” but we never get the first part, the beginning of the story, the introduction of the plot, the “once upon a time, there was a guy named Joe,” then how are we supposed to follow?

13) Is it a conversational medium, or a broadcast medium? Is it supposed to be the former, but then becomes the latter? It feels like we’re all in a room, all of us talking, none of us listening.

To put it another way: if you and I are “Friends,” and we both write status updates, and I’ve hidden you from appearing in my “News Feed,” and you’re hidden me from appearing in your “News Feed,” then what the fuck are we doing?

Oddly, blogging, which seems like it starts out more as a broadcast medium, has more potential to be a conversational medium. (For old people.)

So right now, I’m writing this; I think there are about two or three people who will read it; I’m curious what those two or three people will have to say, the next time I see them.

14) Once again, I’m so ready to bail on the whole thing. Facebook, I mean, not AWP. I love AWP. I love seeing people. In person. It’s so good.

15) Friendly’s, on the way home.

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Emily Barton in the NYRB

(New year catch-up post, five of five.)

About three years ago, a completely amazing review of Brookland was published in the New York Review of Books. It was more than just a review, really; it was a 3,500-word consideration of both Brookland and The Testament of Yves Gundron. The article was originally password-protected on the NYRB site, but as of this past April, it’s freely available: “The View from the Bridge,” by Christopher Benfey (NYRB Vol. 53, # 13).

Benfey closes with the following paragraph (I’ve taken the liberty of adding a direct link to footnote number five here—which might look a little funny if you were to print this page, like an endnote to an endnote):

In her first two novels, Emily Barton has taken on for herself Crane’s self-appointed task to “absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles, and all other human associations of the past.” But something else is at work in Barton’s finely tuned vision, it seems to me, though I raise it with some hesitation since it is nowhere explicit in Brookland. I mean the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath, coinciding with the period during which Barton, living in Brooklyn, wrote Brookland. The Brooklyn Bridge itself was rumored to be on the list of potential al-Qaeda targets, with Osama bin Laden reportedly threatening to bring down “the bridge in the Godzilla movie.”[5] Barton appears to be alluding obliquely to the attacks of September 11 in her references to the “twin towers” of Prudence Winship’s bridge, in her attention to the “retaining wall” of her father’s distillery, which is also the site of his death, and in her notion of the bridge as a monument to the dead. Whatever we make of these apparent allusions, Emily Barton has written a moving testimonial to the dead on both sides of the river.

Benfey teaches at Mt. Holyoke, and, wonderfully, came to Emily’s reading at Amherst this past spring. I was hanging out with Toby back at the hotel, but I’m pretty sure this idea—that the novel is, allusively, about the beautiful and terrible view from Emily’s old apartment in Brooklyn Heights—didn’t come up at all at the reading; but as to the question of whether or not Benfey’s idea is right on the money, I can safely say: Yes.

I’m still working on my argument that both Brookland and Testament are crypto-steampunk—but that thesis might take a while to work its way into print.