08/05/14 10:00am

GraeberTHEGOODNURSE(TP)Back in the early 80s, when the 12-year-old Charles Graeber signed on to sell Tootsie Rolls door to door for the American Kidney Fund, he never could have envisioned that it would one day help him win the trust of a serial killer. But it may very well have been hearing about this simple act of altruism that led Charles Cullen, a so-called “angel of death,” to grant Graeber access after denying it to every other reporter who’d come before him. 

In 2005, Graeber, an award-winning freelance journalist who lives in Williamsburg, stumbled on a newspaper article detailing Cullen’s thwarted attempts to donate a kidney. This was the writer’s first introduction to the case of the New Jersey nurse now believed to be one of the deadliest serial killers in American history, and the man’s crimes were indeed shocking. Using IVs spiked with lethal amounts of insulin, among other drugs, Cullen preyed on what is now estimated to be as many as 400 patients. Still it wasn’t so much Cullen’s horrific past that grabbed Graeber as it was the ethical dilemma at the heart of the article. Was it morally defensible to deny a killer the power to commit a potentially life saving act, even one as monstrous as Cullen?

Graeber was troubled enough by the question to reach out to Cullen in jail. In the letter he wrote he mentioned both his stint as a volunteer for the AKF and the time he’d logged as a medical student and researcher. He assured Cullen that his primary interest was in seeing the greater good prevail, not in holding him accountable for his past. Cullen seemed to believe him. The two men struck up a conversation that lasted for years, years in which Graeber’s interest in the man became more pointed and personal, ultimately resulting in a book, The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder.

In The Good Nurse, Graeber tells the story of Charlie Cullen’s transformation from deeply troubled young man to unbridled predator in vivid, unflinching prose reminiscent of true crime classics like In Cold Blood. But the book isn’t just a portrait of a man turned monster, but also of the repeated failure of the hospitals that employed him to stop him even as evidence of his misdeeds mounted.

Last year The Good Nurse garnered critical acclaim and made a number of best-of lists, including the BBC’s Top Ten Books of 2013 and Stephen King’s “Best Books I Read This Year.” I interviewed Graeber prior to The Good Nurse’s paperback release last week. We talked about the genesis of the book, his privileged relationship with Cullen, and the particular challenges of reporting credible and compelling narrative nonfiction. (more…)

06/18/14 9:00am

Author Emma Straub. Photo: Jennifer BastianEven as someone familiar with Emma Straub’s oeuvre, I came to her new novel The Vacationers not knowing quite what to expect. Straub, you see, is a shape shifter, as apt to write a story about one pampered Brooklynite’s encounter with a pet psychic as she is to dream up a novel about the Technicolor life of a fictional Hollywood screen legend or to reel off a frank personal essay on the tragedy of growing up normal. Like all good writers, Straub has a touch of the telepath about her and the roving intelligence to make good use of her powers. And in her new novel, she has landed on the perfect vehicle for showcasing her talents.

The Vacationers follows a group of well-heeled Manhattanites trying and failing to outrun their problems on vacation in Mallorca. This fertile set up offers Straub everything she needs to shine: an idyllic island replete with jewel-toned Mediterranean beaches, dramatically striated cliffs, and amazing food, and a Pantone color wheel of characters that includes everyone from melancholic old marrieds to surly teenagers to bohunk personal trainers and fading tennis stars. Take these ingredients and add Straub’s warm, incisive wit and you get a concoction that manages to be light and airy without being in any way insubstantial. The book is peppered with acute observations that shine a light while never threatening to set a fire. But the book is probably most memorable for the sheer pleasure it offers—the humor! The food! The backhand and foreplay! In a period when many of us could fret from morning till night without ever coming close to exhausting our backlog of worries, there is something refreshing about encountering a book so firmly rooted in optimism.

I had the opportunity to chat with Straub (who, full disclosure, is a former teacher of mine) about her long history with the book’s main characters, The Post family, her feelings about food and other delightful topics. Her next reading in Brooklyn is at Prospect-Lefferts Gardens’ Inkwell Cafe, June 24. (more…)

05/29/14 10:00am
Julia Fierro's debut novel, Cutting Teeth, is a vivid, wryly observed study of the hothouse of 21st century parenting.

Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, is a vivid, wryly observed study of the hothouse of 21st century parenting.

You hear the phrase “long-awaited debut novel” thrown around a lot these days, which is ironic given that it’s become something of an oxymoron. More and more reliant on bankable household names to meet its meager bottom line, today’s book industry tends to be wary of the humble debut novelist. And the writers who do elicit genuine excitement are far more likely to be the precocious than the long germinating type. All of which makes Julia Fierro’s new book Cutting Teeth a rare literary beast—a first novel that’s been hotly anticipated by industry insiders for months, by an author who’s honed her craft for years. The heat surrounding Cutting Teeth can be chalked up in large part to Fierro’s subject: the trials and travails of modern parenting, an issue so relentlessly fascinating, so deliciously divisive that the book seems destined to land on sandy blankets across America this summer. But it’s safe to say that at least part of the interest surrounding the novel is due to the author herself. This may be Fierro’s first published novel, but she is no stranger to the publishing world.

If most of us struggling literary types fall squarely into either the MFA or the NYC camp these days, Fierro happily straddles both worlds. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the founder of Brooklyn’s own Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, Fierro has emerged in recent years as a doyenne of the literary scene. Her social media conversations read like a Who’s Who of Literary America and her writing school (which, full disclosure, I’ve attended) has increasingly come to function as a sort of high-end clearing house for up-and-coming writers. Some of her recent instructors include Emma Straub of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures fame, critical darling Adam Wilson, and Ayana Mathis, whose novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was an Oprah Book Club 2.0 pick.

Given Fierro’s literary stature, some may find it surprising that this is her first novel. But it becomes easier to understand when you see how much energy she devotes to nurturing the talents of those around her. At a recent reading, Fierro was introduced as “the mother of literary dragons,” but it might be more accurate to call her Brooklyn’s literary fairy godmother. To those who know her she is a nurturing force: the first person to praise the work of promising newcomers, to dole out a much needed hug or to provide a key reference to an agent or MFA program.

Fierro’s ability to draw normally reclusive (or at the very least awkward) writers out of their shells and into conversation with one another begs comparison to another literary mother hen from a different era, Gertrude Stein. But unlike Stein, Fierro seems less concerned with reinventing the form than with stretching our sympathetic imaginations. This fierce urge to connect, which animates her life and teaching, comes through on every page of Cutting Teeth.

Set in Long Island, Cutting Teeth charts the mounting tensions between six Brooklyn parents (and one long-suffering nanny) marooned together in a ramshackle beach house for the weekend with their children. Over the course of the book, Fierro seamlessly shifts between one perspective and the next until her readers are close enough to recognize themselves in each. A literary dramedy about love and family and all of the fantastically messy stuff in between, Cutting Teeth has been dubbed “a Mommy book” by some, but it is better understood as a vivid, wryly observed study of the hothouse of 21st century parenting.

I spoke to Julia Fierro in early May about the genesis of her book, the taboo against overt emotion in literary fiction and the trouble with genres.

More summer reading recs>> (more…)

02/17/14 2:00pm
Peter Mountford will discuss his latest book, "The Dismal Science," with Sam Lipsyte at Community Bookstore on Wednesday. Photo by Sarah Samudre

Peter Mountford will discuss his latest book, The Dismal Science, with Sam Lipsyte at Community Bookstore on Wednesday. Photo by Sarah Samudre

Sometimes the name of a book alone can tell you a lot about its author. It doesn’t take a genius to intuit that the man who wrote War and Peace, for example, suffered from no shortage of ego or ambition. Likewise, before I had even cracked open Peter Mountford’s new novel, The Dismal Science (February 2014, Tin House Books), I understood a few things about him. He was not a writer apt to talk down to his audience. (No one who doubts his readers’ critical faculties names a book after one of the world’s most inscrutable disciplines: economics.) And I knew Mountford had a sense of humor. Let’s face it, anyone who puts the words ‘dismal’ and ‘science’ right there next to each other in the title of a book aimed at a general audience understands black comedy.

02/03/14 3:00pm


Cari Luna reads from her book "The Revolution of Every Day," about squatters in the mid-nineties, this Thursday at Pete's Candy Store

Cari Luna reads from her book, The Revolution of Every Day, about squatters in the mid-nineties, this Thursday at Pete’s Candy Store

There are so many reasons to admire Cari Luna’s debut novel The Revolution of Every Day (Tin House, September 2013), the story of a group of radical “homesteaders” who transformed a collection of abandoned tenements in the Lower East Side into a thriving squat community in the mid-nineties. First, there is the smooth, rhythmic beauty of Luna’s sentences, which steadily lull you in like waves lapping at the shore. Then there’s Luna’s holographic resurrection of the squats themselves, which despite being destroyed more than a decade ago, still figure heavily in the mythology of a certain class of New Yorker. And then there’s her utter lack of cynicism—the belief at the heart of the book that redemption is a choice we can all make no matter how far we’ve strayed from our best selves. But the thing that really had me pinned to the page while reading The Revolution of Every Day was Luna’s New York, a city she renders with such loving, careful specificity that it becomes a character in its own right. As a recent expat, her reverent evocation of the city’s grimy, cigarette studded sidewalks, its cat-calling neighborhood boys and death defying delivery men, halogen lit bodegas and swelling crosswalks, had me choking with nostalgia.

Those who’ve already read Revolution will not be surprised to learn that Luna was born in Manhattan and cut a fast trail back there from New Jersey when she left home. Nor will they be shocked to learn that she started off a poet and honed her fiction writing skills at Brooklyn College under the tutelage of Michael Cunningham. In anticipation of her upcoming reading with Brendan Kiely at Pete’s Candy Store on February 6, I talked to Luna about the parallels between her own life and her characters’, her research process, and her decision to let go of the New York of her youth and set off for the greener pastures of Portland, Oregon.

Orli Van Mourik: The Revolution of Every Day is often described as a political book, because it deals with the fallout of the “Disneyfication” of a city that was once a subcultural hotbed. But I really read the book as a love letter to a lost New York. Did you set out to write an overtly political book?

Cari Luna: There’s definitely a political aspect to it, but politics aren’t its primary concern. What I’m most interested in are individuals and their stories. The Revolution of Every Day is character-driven, and the squats are the world the characters move through. But yes, it’s a love letter to the New York I felt I’d lost, and a Dear John letter to the version of New York I’d found myself in in the fall of 2005 as I began writing the book. I started writing the book very early in my pregnancy with my first child, and because of that I was preoccupied with the idea of home, and what it would mean to raise a child in New York—particularly a New York that was drastically different from the one I was born in in 1973. And so it started out as me trying to understand how New York had changed, trying to understand gentrification and what it had done to the city. And that led me to set it in the squats.  (more…)

11/15/13 12:03pm
The authors interviewed (clockwise from left): Lydia Millet, Roxane Gay, Ayelet Waldman, Julia Fierro, Adelle Waldman

The authors interviewed (clockwise from left): Lydia Millet, Roxane Gay, Ayelet Waldman, Julia Fierro, Adelle Waldman

It all started with Jonathan Franzen. Specifically, the publication of Franzen’s novel Freedom, a book that so hijacked the attention of critics throughout the 2010/2011 book season that Franzen’s face was everywhere—even under a Los Angeles Times headline announcing that author Jennifer Egan had beaten him out for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Sick of watching “white male literary darlings,” like Franzen, get all the good press, authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult took to Twitter to announce that they were suffering from an acute case of “#Franzenfreud.” The term tapped into a deep well of resentment, and female writers of all persuasions soon joined them online, venting their frustration with the ongoing marginalization of women in the industry and demanding answers. In the intervening years, thanks to the power of social media, what started as an upswell of anger has begun looking more and more like a movement.

This is, of course, not the first time the literary establishment had been charged with sexism. Women have been trying, with little success, to draw attention to these issues since Virginia Woolf’s era and before. The most famous recent example is probably writer and critic Francine Prose’s seminal 1998 Harper’s essay “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” one of the most lucid and compelling case studies of literary gender bias ever written. Given that Prose was writing at the turn of the twentieth century, you might expect that her efforts met with more success than Woolf’s, but you’d be wrong. Despite the elegant logic of her arguments, Prose’ piece generated little more than ire from the editors of the day. In fact, Harper’s was so concerned about her reputation after the article’s publication that the magazine hosted a special dinner to help her placate offended editors and “salvage what remained of [her] career.”

Today, there are still plenty of people in publishing who rankle at the first mention of sexism—people who dismiss concerns like Weiner and Picoult’s as paranoia and “belly-aching.” But in the social media age, these people are no longer able to drown out the chorus of discontent. And now, unlike in earlier eras, those advocating for change have a growing storehouse of data to back up their claims. Stats charting the disparity between the contributions of men and women in major periodicals are being compiled by a variety of organizations, most famously by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, the group behind the widely lauded VIDA Count. There is reason to believe these numbers are making a real difference, with organizations, like Tin House and The Boston Review, now making verifiable efforts to level the playing field for women in response to VIDA’s findings. That said, we still have a long way to go. According to the 2012 Count, many publications are still falling woefully behind when it comes to reviewing and publishing women, including, sadly, Harper’s itself. (In 2012, the magazine had just three female book reviewers compared to 28 men, and it ran reviews of only 11 works by women as opposed to a whopping 54 by men.) Still we are on our way.

It’s worth noting that not all female authors are eager to join the online fray. After The Rumpus recently ran a diatribe by writer Suzanne Rivecca on male reviewers’ squeamish view of Mary Gaitskill’s unvarnished sexuality, Gaitskill was quick to run to the defense of male critics. “I don’t know why the three guys quoted by Rivecca got so bitched up about my writing, except that they’re critics and that means that sometimes they gotta bitch. But that’s got nothing to do with their being men,” Gaitskill wrote in her response, thereby fortifying herself against potential charges of “belly-aching.” Having reached a stable plateau in her career, her reputation cemented, Gaitskill has no horse in this race. Or perhaps Gaitskill honestly believes that gender doesn’t enter into the equation when it comes to the interpretation of literature (though this is hard to countenance). Either way, these issues are complicated. What looks to one person like discrimination can appear to another to be the natural byproduct of a fully functioning meritocracy. But the data suggests otherwise and, these days, more and more women are freely discussing what they view as the sexist tilt of the industry. Man Booker Prize Winner Eleanor Catton, for instance, went on record during her recent press junket as saying that she thinks her ideas are given short shrift by interviewers because she is a woman. Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees with her.

The ecosystem of women writers is a diverse and multi-layered, home to an array of species with conflicting beliefs and needs. While many of us want to improve access and opportunities for female writers, our priorities and passion projects can vary wildly. To help dig deeper into some of these complexities, Brooklyn Based invited five female writers—novelists, essayists, and teachers, some of whom have earned major awards, others who are relatively new to the game—to give their take on sexism in publishing.

The Participants: Julia Fierro, Roxane Gay, Adelle Waldman, Lydia MilletAyelet Waldman (more…)

01/04/13 12:07pm

A Sackett Street class being led by instructor Heather O'Neill (far right) at her home in Carroll Gardens.

A Sackett Street class being led by instructor Heather O’Neill (far right) at her home in Carroll Gardens.

Two years before her name started making regular appearances in glossies from Oprah to Entertainment Weekly—back before Flavorwire named her one of New York’s 100 most influential living writers—Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, baked me oatmeal cookies. We ate them sitting around a low-slung coffee table in her father Peter Straub’s gracious Upper West Side townhouse while discussing the narrative merits of Twilight with five other writers. Opinions varied, but everyone agreed that the cookies were excellent. Straub was delighted. It was her first evening teaching for Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and she wanted us to feel at home. The fact that I actually did surprised me—and not just because I happened to be sitting in the den of one of America’s foremost horror writers. What really surprised me was the idea that a workshop could be so damn pleasant.

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06/24/11 6:37am

A Conversation with Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

A talking monkey, interspecies canoodling and a hot tub three-way gone wrong hardly seems like the stuff of literary fiction, but somehow in the hands of Brooklyn novelist Benjamin Hale that’s just what it becomes. Better still, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, 2011), Hale’s impressive and affecting debut novel, is a rip-roaring read (no small feat for a book that weighs in at just under 600 pages). Bruno, Hale’s protagonist, is a chimpanzee savant who acquires language and uses it to great effect to relate the story of his life—a tale with all the humor, tragedy and sweep of a Dickens’ novel.

Born into captivity, Bruno lives in unspoiled innocence at the ape enclosure at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo until he’s chosen to participate in a series of language experiments at the University of Chicago. In short order he loses his taste for the uncivilized life, starts wearing pants, learns to speak and launches into a torrid love affair with one of the bipedal members of the great ape family (yeah, a real human woman). But this is just the beginning of Bruno’s journey, which ultimately leads him to wrestle with questions that have haunted philosophers for centuries: what separates man from animals? Is language the key to humanity? Does the gift of culture outweigh the loss of innocence?

Hale, a recent graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, is a relative newcomer to the literary scene, but he’s already got all the bravado of his heroes Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Likening his unlikely narrator to Nabokov’s great misfit Humbert Humbert, Times’ reviewer Christopher Rhea said of Bruno, “[he] has some of Humbert’s erudition and much of his arrogance.” And like Bruno, Hale is impish, engaging, and ready to hold forth on any number of topics. Brooklyn Based sat down with him recently to discuss the book, animal cognition, Shakespeare, James Franco, and where humans should fall in the cosmic pecking order.

What came first, the character of Bruno or the idea that primates may be more like humans than we care to admit?
Bruno came first and the themes came afterword, but not long afterword. When I first started writing the book—at the absolute beginning—it was a joke. At the time, my girlfriend lived in Chicago and was a grad student in architecture, which meant she was always bent over her computer working. She lived in this basement apartment in Lincoln Park and when I was waiting for her to finish work I would walk across the street and go to the Lincoln Park Zoo and just hang out all day.

They have this really fantastic primate exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo—and the zoo is free, which is a cool thing and was especially good for me because that was about what my budget allowed at the time. I would sit there, especially in the winter when there was nobody else around and watch the chimps all day long and try to do the Jane Goodall thing. And sometimes when the chimps weren’t doing anything, I would bring a book to read. At one point I was reading Portnoy’s Complaint—this brash, noisy memoir about this perverted, neurotic, angry man complaining about his claustrophobic childhood. The energy and the humor in the writing was so electric, I just looked up at the chimps and the idea was born. I wanted to write Portnoy’s Complaint—only with a chimp.

I didn’t even really plan on showing it to anybody and then I came up for workshop and that was the only thing I had, so I submitted it and Sam Chang [the director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop] suggested I keep going with it. Three years later I finally finished it.

So Portnoy’s Complaint was the initial kind of seed of inspiration, but over the course of writing it, I let myself be influenced by all these other things, like Tristram Shandy and Saul Bellow and Nabokov and Gunter Grass, particularly The Tin Drum.

Your book seems to suggest that the line separating human consciousness from apes is much finer than many of us believe. What do you think about the field of animal cognition?
I think it’s a really important thing. The idea that an animal can have consciousness—can have intelligence, emotions, an inner life, morality, altruism—that’s really important. Human exceptionalism has been taken for granted for a very long time. Take Descartes’ Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain of Being is this linear, teleological ordering of all manner of life that ascends in steps of perfection. So it starts with Satan at the bottom—the most imperfect being, above that is demons, and then there’s, like, rocks and trees, and then there are animals. In the lower tiers you get, like, fish and in the upper tiers you get mammals, and the animals that humans are particularly close to, like horses and dogs, are at the top. After that come humans on their own separate, discrete plane and then angels and then God.

This straight up and down teleological ordering was a direct reflection of attitudes about animals and it was heavily influenced by theology. You take away human exceptionalism and all theology just falls apart, because heaven is a human heaven. This was a big problem for Descartes and his solution was just to flat out deny consciousness to animals, to draw a circle in the sand around human beings and say, only these animals have consciousness, and therefore souls, and all other animals, we have to assume that they’re just, basically, totally instinctual automatons.

That solution to the problem of animal consciousness stuck around in Western thinking even after Darwin, though Darwin himself did not think that way. In Origin of the Species and the Descent of Man Darwin talks a lot about moral behavior in animals and about social behavior and what amounts to the underpinnings of animal consciousness. The people who came after Darwin, the major popularizers of Darwin, particularly T.H. Huxley, were still stuck in the Cartesian paradigm of animals not having consciousnesses and that sort of thinking has affected popular understanding of evolution ever since.

You clearly did an enormous amount of research for this book. What were some of the most interesting stories you stumbled on?
The world of animal language, particularly ape language, is small and much of it revolved around a professor named Bill Lemon. Bill Lemon was this wildly eccentric guy—head of the psychology department at the University of Oklahoma—who was really interested in cross fostering experiments with chimpanzees. And the stories that came out of Norman, Oklahoma in the ‘70s were absolutely bizarre.

At some point in Roger Fouts’ memoir about working with chimps, Next of Kin, he writes that Norman, Oklahoma in the ‘70s must have held some sort of world record for “town with highest number of chimps being raised as human children,” because Bill Lemon would get all his colleagues and grad students and patients to do these cross fostering experiments with the chimps.

The result was that people would raise these chimps until they were about five or six years old—until they would get too big or too unruly to have around the house—and then they would send them back to Bill Lemon’s farm on the outskirts of town. The farm had this big, artificial lake with an island in it where the chimps were kept. So in the end, Lemon had this island full of neurotic, poorly socialized, screwed up chimps that had all been raised as human children.

Did any of the stories you drew on change the way you think about how the human brain works or how animals think?
I think the story that most profoundly affected me was something that I saw as a kid that stayed with me for years and years. It comes from a Jane Goodall documentary, People of the Forest. There was a chimp named Flint that was, basically, like this mamma’s boy chimp. He had this neurotic, unhealthy, obsessive attachment to his mother and he clung to his mother’s back for far longer than chimps usually do. Chimps usually quit when they’re five years old, but he kept clinging to her back for so long all the other chimps wanted nothing to do with him. And she let him! They just had this connection. When he was an adolescent, his mother died just because she was old, and he couldn’t accept her death. He dragged the body around with him for weeks afterwards. He refused to eat and he refused to sleep and he, essentially, just wasted away. Jane Goodall found him by the creek still holding his mother’s body, dead himself.

When I saw that I was just so haunted and disturbed by the idea that an animal could let his emotions get in the way of his evolutionary imperative to live. I think it says something really profound about animal consciousness: that a chimp can have an inner life, that they can be just as crazy as a human being.

Bruno has a really unusual and winning mix of high and lowbrow interests. There’s nearly as much talk about Sesame Street as there is about Shakespeare in the book.
When writing deals with pop culture, or with what’s perceived as low culture, I love it when it embraces it enthusiastically. This is one of my favorite things about Pynchon. In a Pynchon novel, you’ll read all these references to literature and history and, you know, Wittgenstein and philosophy, but he’s just as in love with King Kong and the Marx Brothers and cartoons.

My sense of humor is just as much influenced by stuff like Nabokov and Wittgenstein as it is by Ren & Stimpy and I wanted the Ren & Stimpy in there too. I can’t help the fact that I’m a young person who grew up in the late twentieth century. My brain is just as influenced by pop culture and Sesame Street and cartoons (maybe way more so) than all the sort of higher brow stuff that I read later in my life. I love that stuff and I wanted to treat it with respect.

My favorite way to look at Shakespeare is just as the trashy entertainment of the day. Of course, that doesn’t make it any less brilliant. One of my favorite aspects of Romeo and Juliet is that he sneaks a masturbation joke into Romeo’s dying line. After finding Juliet in the tomb, he’s stabbing himself over and over in the stomach and saying ‘I die, I die, I die.’ In Elizabethan English ‘die’ was slang for la petite mort, or the “small death” [an orgasm]. Shakespeare was the kind of writer who would drag you through this whole tragedy and then slip a jacking off joke into the final line of the hero’s demise.

The book includes a couple of graphic sex scenes, including a chimp and a human making love, that have generated a lot of conversation and even some condemnations. What are some of the funniest or most memorable reactions you’ve gotten?
One of the earliest readers of this book was Margot Livesy—she wrote Eva Moves the Furniture. I submitted the book for a prize and she was judge, so she read it and she wrote this summary for the prize that said “the sex scenes are inevitably repulsive . . . the story veers at times into the grotesque.” And when I first read that my reaction to it was, “Your mom veers inevitably into the grotesque.” [Laughter.]

So you didn’t experience it as grotesque as you were writing it?
For me? Yeah, I get that it’s grotesque—and I did that on purpose—but I wanted that pivotal scene she was referring to in there right from the beginning, so by the time that I was actually writing it I was so inside Bruno’s character that I wasn’t even thinking of it as bestiality.

You suffer from a condition known as Prosopagnosia or “face blindness.” Has this made things like networking awkward?
It’s not usually a problem, no. It can be funny at times though. One example, the actor James Franco applied to all these MFA programs and he applied to Iowa while I was there. He came and visited before actually applying, which is just not a normal thing. It’s like this sacred brotherhood thing. Everyone who was teaching there that semester said he couldn’t sit in, except Ethan Canin. Ethan has, like, your grandfather’s knowledge of pop culture. He had no idea who Franco was, so he said, sure, come on in.

So one day I walk into the building and there was this guy and I didn’t know who he was, and I thought, who is that guy? And I thought, that is probably the most handsome man I have ever seen in person, and so immediately, of course, I hated him. So I went to my workshop, which was being taught by Ethan Canin, and there’s the guy and I still can’t place him, but I know he looks familiar and then I finally figure it out: he’s Harry Osborn from the Spiderman movies. Anyway, my friend Jim was being workshopped that day and he was late and it was a congenial enough atmosphere that when somebody was late we’d call them up, so my friend Nemo called him up and got his voicemail and Nemo looked right at James Franco and said, “Jim, come to class. This is as close to fame as you’re ever going to get.”

Speaking of Franco and apes, did you know that Franco is set to star in the upcoming Planet of the Apes movie? Do you plan to see it?
Yes, I did know that. No, I don’t plan to see it. James Franco irritates me so much I couldn’t even watch the Oscars.

What’s your favorite thing about being a Brooklyn writer?
I came to New York, and Brooklyn in particular, because that’s where the action is, as far as literary culture in America. It’s a lot of fun to meet other writers, keep up with the whole conversation of contemporary literature and all that. If you were a writer in the 20s, you’d go to Paris, now you go to Brooklyn.

What are you working on now? What’s next?
I’m working on a bunch of things at the moment. I just published a long story/short novel in Conjunctions, which is the last piece of fiction I wrote that I’m really happy with. Ever since February, between teaching, touring, and various other stuff, I haven’t had much time to write fiction. I’m really looking forward to getting back to it this summer. I spent all last year writing another novel, and wound up with a big gloopy first draft that still needs a lot of work. It’s about a wine critic and his pot dealer. It’s about addiction, depression and remorse. It’s my stoner comedy. It’s kind of like Cheech and Chong, except everybody’s miserable.

06/14/11 8:19am

Introducing the first essay, by Orli Van Mourik, in an occasional series called “Lost & Found.” If you have an essay lying in wait on your desktop, email us. We’d like to give it a home.

People have strong feelings about Oprah. It’s not popular in my artisanal coffee slurping, scarf wielding, Times’-subscription-wall-jumping set to admit that, but that doesn’t make it any less true. There are few true Oprah agnostics. You either love her or you hate her or you’re just flat-out astonished at her audacity. And there’s no shame in that. Oprah became a cultural phenomenon before many of us had our first drink, cast our first ballot, or did our first walk of shame. When I was a latchkey kid, Oprah was the comforting voice in the background jabbering away about Autism and master cleanses, and she remained a pedantic presence in my life long after I stopped regularly watching her show. Sometimes I resented her. When her now famous Book Club started invading the arty (read: pretentious) independent bookstore I clerked at in the early aughts, it was all I could do not wrestle the cheesy schlock she was peddling out of the hands of unsuspecting customers. But as my twenty-something solipsism faded, I found my affection for her returning. Can you really fault a woman who managed to get Anna Karenina flying off the shelves in 2004?

Most people would have opined themselves into irrelevancy a couple of decades back, but not Oprah. Her influence can still be felt in virtually every corner of our lives. Her advice on topics as freewheeling as marriage counseling, money management and Third World development still inform the opinions of legions of the country’s viewers. She is an opinion maker in the old school sense of the term and people from all walks of life listen to her. Beef futures plummeted when she swore off burgers. And when it turned out that Oprah-ordained author James Frey was more of a fabulist than an outlaw, the relative veracity of memoirs became a hot topic at dinner tables across the country. Hell, even Jonathan Franzen stands up and takes note when Oprah speaks and that dude’s like the anointed one.

Is this a good thing? Yes. Even if you, like Franzen, happen to find Oprah’s tastes a little too, well, bourgie, she has been a force of good in America, working to bridge the ever-widening psychic divide between the rich and the poor, the white and the non white, the heartland-reared god adulators and the effete, ironic trend monkeys on the coasts. In an era when American culture is becoming increasingly atomized, when people seem hell-bent on splintering off into tinier and tinier sub-groups premised on some fleeting or just plain addle-brained affiliation with a popular cause, musical genre or dietary fad, Oprah has served as a democratizing force. Her good intentions, infectious enthusiasm, and down-home posturing helped all of us remember that we are—like it or not—more the same than different. Some of us can’t wear skinny jeans and others would rather build a bunker in the hills than vote Democrat, but we’re all participating in a shared experiment founded on the notion that we have the right to improve ourselves. (If there’s a secret to Oprah’s astronomical success, it might be her ability to tap into the bedrock hopes and fears that keep us all feeling strivey. And what, really, is more American than that?)

People with this kind of social influence are becoming something of an endangered species. With the country deeply fractured along social, political, and economic lines, our shared sense of identity is strained to the breaking point. This makes it increasingly difficult for any one person to speak to or for all of us. Once upon a time, America was full of opinion makers and public intellectuals—people from Woodrow Wilson to Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter Cronkite who helped shape our attitudes and fortify our belief in our shared cause. We saw them on the nightly news and heard them on the radio and read them on the opinion pages of our favorite newspapers. But that’s not the case anymore. There’s certainly no shortage of self-appointed experts out there, but few of them are interested in bringing us together. The loudest voices now permeating American airwaves—the Rush Limbaughs and the Glenn Becks and, yeah, let’s just go ahead and say it, the Keith Olbermanns—are far less invested in awakening our better angels than they are in grinding their respective axes down to nubs. We no longer have a Murrow for every McCarthy. So for suture, for relief, for a good long cry, many of us turned to Oprah. And now we don’t even have her.

Now I’m not asking you to agree that Oprah is a public intellectual, though I think an argument can be made that she’s been one of the twentieth century America’s savviest purveyors of cultural values. All I’m saying is that we should acknowledge her importance as a unifier. Her life in the public spotlight was spent digesting and disseminating the best high, low and mid-brow culture had to offer and then presenting it to her audience—red and blue staters alike—in a tastefully wrapped package secreted away under their seats until the big reveal.

Oprah was no snob and that gave her enormously broad reach. Not only did her status blindness promote a more tolerant and inclusive attitude among her viewers, it allowed her to be truly Catholic in what she chose to highlight on the show. And her tastes we often spot on, appealing to people cutting across race and gender lines and socioeconomic brackets. Even if you’ve “never” (Come on, really? What were you in the Peace Corps? Yeah, dudes—I’m talking to you.) watched her show, there’s no way you’ve escaped her influence. You can feel Oprah’s echo everywhere. A surprising number of our country’s most popular experts have been handpicked and groomed by her, from Dr. Oz to Dr. Phil to Suzie Orman. And many of her “Favorite Things” are likely to be yours as well. (Enjoying your Kindle? Your iPad? Your Flip? Yeah, chances are she got there first.) You may dislike Oprah for lowering your cool quotient by appropriating your shiny new status symbol, but by democratizing the fetish objects of the elite she wrested these things from the paws of the few and made them accessible to the many. She did a lot to help flatten the artificial barriers we erect to distinguish the “us” from the “them.”

Don’t get me wrong, Oprah’s no saint. In addition to being a bridge-builder, she’s a preening, sanctimonious, take-no-prisoners self-promoter. In other words: the quintessential American. This may be one of the reasons she evokes such strong feelings in all of us. But if you still maintain you could care less about Oprah, don’t make the mistake of writing her off as just another talk show host. Give her the credit she’s due. She has been an icon for as long as many of us can remember—not ‘a’ household name, but the household name. Few before her have managed to spread their gospel as widely or with as much jaw-dropping success. And if Oprah has been a little too successful at pulling herself up by the proverbial bootstraps for some people’s tastes, no one can argue she hasn’t tried her damndest to yank the rest of us up after her.

Even if you hate Oprah’s “Me first, you next” doctrine, you can’t deny her status as one of America’s most enduring cultural touchstones. Much has changed over the last three decades, but Oprah (dress size not withstanding) has remained largely the same and there’s something incredibly comforting about that—something that made a lot of us keep coming back for more. Part of me fears that May 25 marked the end of more than just The Oprah Winfrey show; it marked the beginning of the end of a type of collective cultural experience that transcends our differences and reminds us of what we share. What will we gather around now that there’s no Oprah couch to jump on?

10/29/10 12:56pm

If you’re not aware of the breeder-nonbreeder infighting in this town, well, we’re not sure where you’ve been hiding. But a recent essay sparked a response from one of our BB Kids writers, and that in turn elicited another parent’s take on the stroller wars.

Dear Parent Hater,

I don’t know you, but I know your kind. I know, because once I was you. Back in my childfree days, I remember playing chicken with a particularly vengeful-looking mommy on a narrow stretch of Hicks Street. I was walking one way; she was walking the other. We locked eyes and barreled toward each other. Sure it felt petty, but I just wasn’t willing to be bulldozed for what felt like the twentieth time that day. Was it so much to ask to be able to walk in a straight line from here to there without having to dodge a sea of Maclarens? No, it was not. I ended up getting wedged into a planter studded with decorative lettuce. Mommy dearest screamed past me, the acrid scent of righteous indignation wafting off of her.

When I got home that night, I spent at least twenty minutes ranting at my then boyfriend now husband about the hazards of childbirth. “Why is that pushing out a shorty makes people feel like the world owes them something?” I asked. He shrugged and resumed playing Need for Speed: Underground. I vowed never to become “one of those moms.” I would never be a sidewalk tyrant; I would never treat my favorite patisserie like my living room. I mean really, how hard could it be to exhibit good manners? Enter baby.

Okay, so here’s the thing. I’ve read all of the essays—the apologia and the rants—and what no one seems to be acknowledging is the obvious: it’s fucking hard. I’ve only been a parent for a year and a half now and I’m here to tell you, raising a child in the city is not for the faint of heart. Yes, being in New York has its undeniable benefits: rich cultural amenities, a many-hued and multifaceted population, yada yada yada. (You don’t need me to tell you this. This is why we’re all here, right?) It also offers an array of practical challenges that threaten to transform parenthood into a full contact sport. To all the parent haters out there, I say this: you try pasting a smile on your face after schlepping your 25-pound kid and your own weight in groceries up two flights of piss-slick subway stairs with people bouncing off you from every direction like angry billiard balls. You try piloting a stroller and a grocery cart through Trader Joe’s without occasionally blocking peoples’ path. You try “subtly” navigating a stroller past someone gabbing away on his cell on a turn-of-the-century Brooklyn block. It’s next to impossible. It’s easy to sit in judgment of all the “entitled” parents out there when the hardest logistical challenge you face is squeezing your ass onto an over-packed subway car at rush hour. Now summon up the irritation you feel at that moment and multiply it by about a thousand. That will give you some sense of the physical hurdles and minor indignities people suffer through every day to have a family in New York.

Now I know what you’re going say, nonbreeders. You’re gonna say: no one told you to have kids, lady. And you’re right. It was my choice to breed in the most populous (and stinky) metropolis in the States. A place conceived and built before things like elevators and two-lane streets came into vogue; a place where a one-bedroom apartment sells for more than my grandfather earned in a lifetime. I took on that challenge and no one else should pay the price for any resulting discontent. There’s no excuse for being a shithead. Because of this I make every effort to mind my Ps and Qs when I’m out with my daughter and to be ever mindful of how much space we’re taking up. I’ll admit that I’m not always the paragon of civic virtue I set out to be. (There have been a couple of bared teeth incidents involving doors smacked shut in my daughter’s face, and some aggressive stroller maneuvering on narrow walkways commandeered by couples sauntering hand-in-hand.) But overall I feel like I’m more conscious of my fellow New Yorkers post-child bearing than I was prior to it. I never would have turned my back on an old lady in need, but now I’d be hard pressed not to fling my purchases to the ground and run to her aid. Why? Because now I’ve personally experienced that type of powerlessness. I can still reach the highest shelf, but stick me and my stroller in a subway station with more than four flights of stairs and no volunteers and I’m a lame duck.

Nothing has brought home the meaning of the word community to me like trying to raise a tiny human in a big city without any immediate family at hand. I’m a better, more engaged citizen now than I ever have been. And I know I’m not alone. Which is why I maintain that the smug parents so oft conjured up in anti-breeding epistles are the exception to the rule. I’d be willing to lay down money that Daryl Lang’s nemesis, Mr. Potato Chips, was an asshole long before he ever got around to procreating. Replicating his genetic code just intensified his condition.

So if the vast majority of us are doing the best we can, where does all the hate come from? Are a handful of bad-mannered narcissists poisoning the atmosphere for the rest of us parents? Maybe, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Part of the ire leveled at today’s parents is the result of sheer volume. What you rarely hear about in the context of the breeder vs. nonbreeder debate is that we’re in the throes of one of the biggest baby booms since WWII ended. There are kids literally everywhere you look. It’s wall-to-wall strollers out there. Playgrounds are being erected faster then skyscrapers. You can’t spit without it landing on the helmet-clad head of a boy on a Razor scooter. And this upsurge in under-fives is upsetting the delicate equilibrium of the five boroughs. It’s putting a strain on already strained resources. It’s crowding sidewalks, clogging up lines at the grocery store, and claiming your seat on the subway. And it’s annoying. I’m annoyed and I’m part of the problem.

Just like that, parents have become the easiest target for disgruntled city dwellers everywhere. Part of the irritation is justified (that double stroller really does take up as much space as a Smart Car) but part of it is circumstantial. This city has always been filled with families, but it wasn’t built to accommodate hordes of them. And now that the middle-class parents who traditionally decamped for the suburbs are staying put, we all seem to have reached some kind of civility tipping point. Blame it on crumbling infrastructure or the “me-first” culture of the moment. Either way the fertile folk among us aren’t the only culprits. Still nonbreeders seem to think that the answer to this conundrum is to a) browbeat families into shrinking into the background, or b) drum them out of the city.

But both of these responses are wrong headed. Because guess what? New York is full of people, and when people reach a certain stage in their lives they have a tendency to make new people. (You did get that whole Birds and Bees lecture, right?) You cannot reasonably expect these newly hatched families to stay home all the time or quietly lurk around the edges of civic life, speaking in hushed tones. I’m sorry if we’re disrupting the lifestyle to which you, the single and unburdened, have become accustomed, but it’s my world too. Now I think we can all agree that dragging a kid out to the bar every night is not in anyone’s best interest, but please spare me the nasty looks next time I duck into my favorite dive for an afternoon beer with my family. And rest assured, I didn’t bring my daughter in there because I’m “acting out” or trying to curtail your free expression. I’m there because I need a drink and that beer you paid $8 bucks for will cost me $28 if I get a sitter. I’m sorry you find my family irksome, but I don’t remember signing anything when I moved to Brooklyn stating that I’d stop frequenting my favorite establishments the second I gave birth.

You have the right to your life, certainly, but so do I—and so do the other people out there toting their broods around, so get used to it. The only other option is to round us up and transport us to the suburbs, which sounds good until you contemplate the urban havoc wrought by so-called “white flight” two generations ago. Try renewing your liberal credentials after you’ve forced all the gentrifiers to trade in Kings County for Monmouth.

It seems like there are plenty of people out there willing to plead the case of disgruntled nonbreeders and a slew of parent-apologists playing attack and defend, but there don’t seem to be many people willing to step up and declare their right to have kids in the city without being made to feel like social pariahs. I mean, it’s not like we’re huffing glue here, people. These are babies we’re talking about. They might be disruptive, even a little obnoxious, but they’re pretty innocuous in the scheme of things. Some people even find them cute.

So go ahead and resent us—you’re a New Yorker after all, it’s practically part of the job description. But don’t vilify us. Trust that most of us are trying to tread lightly and if we sometimes screw up, well, it’s possible that you too occasionally behave in a less than neighborly fashion. Strong-arming your way through a pack of distracted mothers is no fun, but neither is getting manhandled when your teething toddler squalls in line at a Starbucks. Sure, your life’s no picnic, but at least you have the benefit of something approximating a good night’s sleep. Plus I’m guessing you don’t spend your days bagging up someone else’s poop. You’ve got that going for you.

Orli Van Mourik is a writer, a mother, and a budding curmudgeon. Photo by Tracy Collins.