Talk Show 19 with David Ebershoff, Sheridan Hay, Amy MacKinnon, Kirsten Menger-Anderson & Roxana Robinson
David Ebershoff newest novel, The 19th Wife, is a New York Times bestseller. Visit David at www.ebershoff.com.
Sheridan Hay’s first novel, The Secret of Lost Things, was a finalist for the Borders Original Voices Prize in fiction, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a Booksense Pick and in hardcover was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. Translation rights have been sold internationally to ten countries. Sheridan conducts a Great Books seminar for the Mercantile Library in New York, and in the fall will lecture on Herman Melville. She holds an MFA from Bennington College and lives in New York. Visit Sheridan at www.secretoflostthings.com.
Amy MacKinnon is the author of the novel Tethered. A former congressional aide, she is a freelance writer whose commentaries have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Seattle Times, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Sacramento Bee, Patriot Ledger, and on National Public Radio affiliates and This American Life. Ms. MacKinnon began her writing career at the age of 11 when she wrote the Father-of-the-Year Committee in New York City, nominating her Dad. He won. She lives outside of Boston with her husband, their three children, two cats, and English bulldog, Babe. Visit Amy at www.amymackinnon.com.
Kirsten Menger-Anderson is the author of Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain, a collection of linked short stories. Her fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, the Southwest Review, Post Road, and many other journals. She currently lives in San Francisco with her husband, daughter, cat, and guinea pig. Visit Kirsten at www.kirstenmengeranderson.com.
Roxana Robinson is the author of three earlier novels and three short-story collections, as well as a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Four of these were named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, Best American Short Stories and Vogue, among others. She has received Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. She teaches at the New School in New York. Visit Roxana at www.roxanarobinson.com.
––Name something others believe is true, but that you personally doubt.
Ebershoff: I don’t believe the book is on the verge of extinction. That’s the chatter in publishing these days: that the book is doomed. A recent newspaper story quoted an editor from a major publishing house predicting we’d all be out of business in eighteen months. After that, the industry would shut down. Last week a reporter called me. He was writing a story about the mood in book publishing these days. He asked if I was hearing any gallows humor in the halls of Random House or at lunches with agents or when gabbing with other writers. He’s a good reporter, and it was an honest question. I told him I don’t believe the book is going away. True, the future of the book is uncertain, but that’s not the same as wheezing on life support.
Hay: Many people believe in an afterlife or, at any rate, in something other than this world. I do not. There is of course a religious sensibility that can sustain one through trials, but I’m particularly doubtful about those who speak to the dead—at least, the ones the dead “answer.” I speak to my dead all the time, but the only answers they give are the same ones they gave in life. The way they “answer” me, in so far as those answers change, mark alterations in my own way of thinking. Contemplating those I have lost is a way to measure a movement away from, for example, anguish. It is my wish for them that informs my thoughts, not their imagined return. I am particularly dubious about those with whom the dead “communicate.” Invariably, the messages from the “other side” are rather asinine. They are rarely illuminating or wise. Just because they’re dead, I suppose, there’s no reason to suggest that they’re any smarter or more articulate than they were in life. But why is it that every translated report from the nether world is inevitably banal?
MacKinnon: Group thought tends to frighten me, so I often find myself at odds with the majority point-of-view on any number of truisms: religion, politics, soul mates. I yearn to believe in something, anything, that’s wholly constant and omnipotent and benevolent in any of these categories. Of course the most controversial is a higher power—call it what you will, God tends to be the most common reference in these parts—but I doubt there is such a thing. I suspect it’s more complicated than that. And I know the same is true for love and politics. What I do believe and try every day to practice (and fail at every day) is something that’s found across the spectrum of beliefs: the Golden Rule. That alone is pretty powerful.
Menger-Anderson: I doubt that the disinfecting wipes at the front of grocery stores do any good for the average person. And while I’m on the topic, I don’t believe that the pervasive use of hand sanitizer is helping society much either. And I don’t believe in those “protect your baby” contraptions that nest in the folding child-seats of shopping carts like giant diapers protecting fully clothed children from the perils of what is more or less the same stuff found on playground equipment. I doubt them all.
Robinson: The green flash. I know it doesn’t exist. Why would it? Why would there be a sudden streak of emerald light, flaring along the edge of the ocean horizon at sunset, in the tropics? Why on earth would that happen? Even if there were a reason, if there were some obscure scientific law governing this sort of unlikely optical event, it would still be impossible for me to believe. Because apparently it doesn’t happen every evening at sunset, it only happens at certain times. But its appearance is not dependent on season or on weather. It doesn’t matter if it’s cloudy or clear, winter or summer. The green flash happens, apparently, only on evenings when I’m not watching. Is that a scientific explanation for anything? Is that the Eisenberg theory?
Ebershoff: There is plenty of evidence pointing to the book’s demise: studies showing Americans reading less; a flat-to-down trend in book sales; bookstores closing; the competition for leisure time coming from not only movies, television, and music, but now from the ever-expanding internet; and the emergence of the e-book, with all the dislocation it will inevitably bring to our industry. For many people, these are enough reasons to believe the book has only a few last gasps, but I don’t believe that.
Hay: There is obviously a deep and inherent need to believe—to wish—that this isn’t all there is. That we persist in some fashion—that there is not a limit to what we can experience. I think the fact that there is a limit to our lives, to our consciousness, is exactly what grants value to the rest. Perception and its relation to time must be central to mortality; must be a clue to how one can “find the mortal world enough.” It isn’t weak mindedness that drives much of the wish to believe that something of ourselves persists beyond life. I think it is driven by a deep need to avoid pain—the pain of loss.
MacKinnon: Everyone needs to believe in something greater than themselves. I certainly do. We want to believe that if we follow the rules, we will be spared or rewarded, that our faith in the party or the god or a lover will be met with the response we seek. It’s too difficult to think otherwise, too hopeless. It would be an enormous comfort to know that we were taken care of and loved unconditionally by something, that politicians truly cared about their constituents—and some do, some of the time—that true love is a state instead of a fluid state of mind.
Menger-Anderson: I think people like to believe that they have control over their environment and bodies. We like to think that we can protect ourselves and that a bottle of hand sanitizer (or a free wipe at the store) is an inexpensive way of insuring that we will not get sick. We want to believe that germs can be wiped away, that we can conquer disease before it even strikes, and that we can contribute to our own well being.
Robinson: Other people feel a need to believe in this for the same reason they believe in all beautiful otherworldly phenomena, like the Tooth Fairy. Why not believe in the Tooth Fairy, if you can? I think people simply long to see it: a vivid bloom of luminosity, mysteriously lighting up the cusp between day and night, vitality and darkness, being and non-being. Oh, you know what I mean. It’s gorgeous and unknowable: of course they want to see it.
Ebershoff: I’ve thought a lot about it, but I have never believed the book would disappear.
Hay: I did at one time believe in the existence of some other realm. As a child, I believed I had seen ghosts, had felt the presence of something like a spirit, even that inanimate things could speak to me. After my mother’s death, I felt she kept me company as I wrote my first novel, and that my grief over her loss infused what I was writing. I heard her and felt her. What I heard was my own wish for her return. But the memory of someone we loved deeply can be excellent company; can enliven ones imagination. Gone but not gone—memory working to make the lost person’s presence more palpable than ever. Of course we are haunted: the need for an ethereal visitation seems unnecessarily theatrical.
MacKinnon: I used to believe in everything and just about everyone. But time and experience has a way of eroding such optimism. One holdover from my youth that is pretty much unshakeable is that love and determination can change the world.
Menger-Anderson: I believe in sanitizing medical implements and I have been grateful for the hand sanitizing soap that I use when I visit the hospital. In addition, I admit to accepting hand sanitizer on two occasions: once from a good friend, whose father is a doctor, and once from a woman about my mom’s age, who squirted the stuff on my hand, which I extended despite my worry that the potion would wash away my mosquito repellent and I’d end up with malaria or dengue fever (we were in a tropical rain forest at the time). In both cases, I said thank you, but I felt like I was failing to stand up for my immune system, which looks out for me all the time, not just on the occasions that I (or in these cases, other people) think to pull out wipes or sanitizer. Basically, I have always doubted super market wipes and the little bottles of sanitizer I find on the shelves. I’ve doubted them from the beginning. I’ve never given them a chance.
Robinson: When I was first told about it I was credulous. I believed it might exist. I was told about it by people I trusted, people who said with conviction that they personally had witnessed it. But how long can you believe in something that only happens the minute after you’ve gone inside to get your sweater? And whom can you trust, really?
Ebershoff: When this subject comes up—and it comes up a lot lately—we often lose sight of what we’re really talking about, and therefore what we actually fear losing. We confuse the book (an object) with reading (an experience). Stripped of meaning, the printed book is merely a technology—the codex. Around the time of Christ, the codex began to replace an earlier technology, the scroll. The Roman epigramist Martial was one of the first writers to make use of this new technology. For some two thousand years, the codex, and its 2.0 release, the printed book, have served writers and readers remarkably well.
Reading, by contrast, provides an experience that humans, as far as we can tell, have always craved. Reading entails imagining, learning, and seeing what we can’t see through language. If the impulse to imagine, to learn, to see the unseeable weren’t vital to being human, then Homer would never have written (sung?) The Iliad and The Odyssey, and whoever bothered to pass them down through the centuries would never have done so. These great epics began their lives, of course, as songs or spoken poems, living on the tongue for centuries before Homer—or whoever—transferred them to the scroll. But just because they weren’t books in the modern sense, doesn’t mean that those who first heard or read The Iliad and The Odyssey experienced them in ways that are fundamentally different from how we experience them today. I have to believe that when I open my Penguin deluxe edition of the magnificent Robert Fagles translation, I experience The Odyssey in a way that connects me with breathtaking directness to its original audience. Despite the changes in the mode of delivery—from the tongue to the scroll to the codex to the $16.00 paperback with French flaps and a rough front—the desire to find out what happens next in Odysseus’s long journey home remains constant and inextinguishable.
And so even if the codex goes the way of the scroll, reading won’t enter history’s graveyard. I don’t make this statement with a blithe disregard for what will be lost. Like many book people, I take great pleasure in a book that is physically beautiful and well-made. I appreciate the designers and craftspeople who, through their labors, make a book a book. I’m grateful there are so many people who have devoted their lives to designing, editing, publishing, and selling an actual book we can hold in our hands. (To say nothing of my awe for the writers who write them!) Like many others, I, too, would lament the disappearance of the thing we call a book. But even if the physical object were to disappear (which it won’t in my lifetime, or yours), the impulse to tell stories through language and the impulse to understand our world through language won’t expire. As long as that impulse survives, reading, or an enhanced variation of it, will also survive. Ultimately, this matters the most. The Odyssey hasn’t lasted all these years because of the papyrus Greek scholars copied it onto. Hasn’t The Odyssey earned the right to say, Relax, I’m not going anywhere. Maybe the scrolls are disintegrating in the museum, maybe even books have begun to look a little quaint, but Homer’s epics are astonishingly alive. I believe that as much as I believe anything.
Hay: It feels superfluous then, to imagine the dead floating about watching over lives when they no longer own life themselves. I have come to believe, after the deaths of other people I have loved, that the experience of mortality is transformative; that there is a more dramatic and deeper truth than the fantasy of life after death. Death transforms life—the point is that there is an ultimate limit. If life were limitless the power to be altered by loss would not exist. And I know that it does because it has happened to me repeatedly.
MacKinnon: How to explain earthquakes and pain, famine and sociopaths, the constancy of corrupt leaders and stillbirths? At its most basic level, life demands blood. One must die so another can live. That’s how nations are born, sometimes children, that’s the way we eat. The world is littered with omnivores.
Menger-Anderson: I don’t believe that people can truly protect themselves from disease by wiping down shopping carts or occasionally dousing themselves with sanitary hand fluids. The other day, I read that most US currency has traces of E.coli (some of which are undoubtedly harmful) in addition to cocaine (according to the cited study, U.S. currency has more cocaine on it than any other currency). My point is not that touching money directly leads to death or disease or drug addiction, or that we clutch money for as long as we do the handles of shopping carts. My point is that everything is covered in bacteria and viruses, and that as we walk through a world full of germs, wiping down a cart or applying hand sanitizer before a meal but not after we pay for it feels like the first step toward a rigid life full of hand-sanitizer application, wipes, and paranoia.
Robinson: I doubt that it exists because, although I’ve dedicated so much time to its research, I have never been rewarded by any evidence. I’ve stared deep into those tropical sunsets, over and over, I’ve watched the great glowing orb of the sun slip over the edge of the earth, turn molten red, the whole thing, over and over. Not a touch of green. Well, why would there be?
Ebershoff: Nothing, I hope. Or let me amend that: I’ve always thought of reading to be as magical and wondrous as time travel. I can open The Odyssey and find myself instantly bobbing on the ancient, wine-dark sea. So I guess I should say until we can time-travel, I don’t believe the book—or whatever we will call it in the next centuries—will disappear.
Hay: Well I am convinced the dead persist, just not in the way that is regularly depicted. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, for example, illustrates the power of the dead over the living. The memory of someone lost is often behind imaginative and creative acts. Loss can be an opening. The dead stand in for what little knowledge we can have about time. There is a sense of liberation to be had from the experience of loss; a reminder of the limit we will all come to. The dead do send the living messages—by their silence. They silently indicate that we must find freedom within the confinement of time. They tell us without speaking that the past is gone, even while they signal its value. They tell us not to be afraid of losing and they do all this while they have ceased to exist. The question is, why isn’t that extraordinary and supernatural enough?
MacKinnon: Every day I’m convinced I’m wrong. Every single day I want to be proven horribly mistaken. Sometimes it happens. In terms of soul mates, there are my children, I’m convinced we were destined to be together. Politicians? I’m still skeptical. A sign from above? Well, there is this: My husband and I were shopping when I told him of this novel I had just started, how the protagonist’s name eluded me for weeks. As we walked into an antique shop, I told him that her name finally came to me: Clara Marsh. After browsing a few minutes, I spotted an old envelope leaning against a candlestick, a one-cent stamp in the upper hand corner. When I picked it up, I knew there was something more at work here, more than I was privy to. The envelope was addressed to Clara Marsh. It had to be a sign.
Menger-Anderson: If my local Safeway or Whole Foods conducted a study comparing the incidence of things like harmful E.coli and salmonella among shoppers who use sanitary wipes on their carts and those that do not, I would consider the evidence and perhaps shift my strong and admittedly poorly informed position on this issue. Without access to such data, however, I am happy to assume that the results would show no statistically significant hand-wipe advantage (and I suspect that even if I saw hard evidence, I’d be reluctant to change my ways). Feel free to bring up my pig-headedness the next time I call in sick.
Robinson: If I saw the green flash, or the Tooth Fairy, then I’d be convinced. I’m hoping it will happen, actually, because I believe in the fantastical as a part of our lives. Look at Aurora Borealis: I believe in that. But do you want to know something? The thing is that I’m disappointed that I’ve never seen it. This is not a purely objective, scientific response, I know that. I’m kind of hurt, if you want to know. Because why not me? I’d be so good at watching it. I’d be riveted. I’d watch the whole thing—the sudden pale-green glow, the gradual—or swift, who knows?—fluid arrival of that wild unexpected color into the rich roseate landscape of sunset. I’d watch green flow magically into the sky, turning it into a sunset we’ve never dreamed of. I’d love it, I’d be spellbound. And I’d be such a proselytizer. I’d tell everyone it existed. Everyone. And I’d tell everyone to put their teeth under their pillows.
Jaime Clarke is the author of the novel WE’RE SO FAMOUS, editor of DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME: CONTEMPORARY WRITERS ON THE FILMS OF JOHN HUGHES, and co-founder of POST ROAD, a national literary magazine based out of New York and Boston.