Talk Show 25 with Brian Evenson, Lev Grossman, Elizabeth McCracken, Karen Shepard, & Gary Shteyngart

Jaime Clarke


TALK SHOW 25: Irrational Fear

Brian Evenson is the author of seven books of fiction, most recently The Open Curtain (Coffee House) which was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an IHG Award and was among Time Out New York’s top books of 2006. He lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, where he directs Brown University’s Literary Arts Program. Other books include The Wavering Knife (which won the IHG Award for best story collection) and The Brotherhood of Mutilation. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Fremon and Jacques Jouet. He has received an O. Henry Prize as well as an NEA fellowship. A novel, Last Days, and a new collection of stories, Fugue State, are forthcoming in 2009.  Visit Brian at

Lev Grossman is the author of The Magicians, a novel, which will be published this coming August. His other novels are Codex and Warp. Grossman is the book critic at Time magazine, and he lives in Brooklyn, NY.  Visit Lev at

Elizabeth McCracken is the author of the story collection Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry?, the novels The Giant’s House and Niagara Falls All Over Again, and a memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Visit Elizabeth at

Karen Shepard is a Chinese-American born and raised in New York City.  She is the author of three novels, An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, and, most recently, Don’t I Know You? Her short fiction has been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Bomb, Ploughshares, Failbetter, Glimmer Train, Mississippi Review, and Southwest Review, among others. Her nonfiction has appeared in More, Self, USA Today, and The Columbia Companion to the 20th Century American Short Story, as well as other anthologies. She teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, where she lives with her husband, novelist Jim Shepard, their three children and their one very strange dog.  Visit Karen at

Gary Shteyngart is the author of the novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, which was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times Book Review and Time magazine. He has been translated into over 20 languages.

––Name an irrational fear you suffer.

Evenson: When I was young I was basically afraid of everything:  I used to be intensely afraid of the dark and would wake up screaming; I refused to get out the car when we would drive through the mountains because I was afraid I might accidentally fall off a cliff.  All those fears seem fairly rational to me, which is probably why they’ve mostly faded into the background.  But I still find myself dealing from time to time with a certain fear of raw or rare chicken on the bone.  I don’t have the same fear of pork or lamb (which I often eat very rare) or beef (which I’m not adverse to eating completely raw).  I don’t mind very rare duck.  I eat all kinds of sushi.  I’ve eaten odd things like pig’s ears and tripe without batting an eye.  But chicken, either raw or rare, and on the bone, is almost more than I can stand.  It’s particularly bad when someone is separating a raw chicken into parts; the sound a chicken leg’s joint makes popping out of its socket is a terrible thing.

Grossman: I have a morbid, irrational fear of the sight and sound of other people eating and drinking. I wish I were joking, but it’s true. It’s a phobia. I don’t even think it has a cool name. When I see another person eating or drinking, I want to run away.

McCracken: I have a few, including dead mice, cannibalism, and amusement park haunted houses.  I also have an ethnic hatred of elves.  (I hate elves.  But I do not fear them.)  But I am most famous among my friends for my fear of skunks.  It seems a perfectly reasonable fear to me, but I have been assured otherwise.

Shepard: Every time my best friend backs out of her driveway, she is sure she is going to run over her cat.  She fears she won’t realize she’s done this.  Hours later, she will return home to discover her cat’s lifeless body, flattened into her tire tracks.
She would like to buy her nephew a house, but she is afraid that he will burn it down and die in the fire.
When she hires a catsitter, she is afraid that the sitter will be raped, tortured and killed by a psychopathic intruder.
I, on the other hand, am afraid of having my belly button touched.
This is one of the differences between us.
When I told her about this assignment, I said, “I’m supposed to write about an irrational fear.  But I don’t have any irrational fears, right?”  She was silent.  “Do I?” I insisted.  “I’m not forgetting something, right?  I just don’t have them.”  She told me to shut up.
But it is true that if my small children, crawling all over me, get close to touching my belly button, I shudder.  I’m not worried about the casual, brush touch.  But that’s a precursor to the firm intrusion I am worried about, the way the bad guys in the movies let you know what’s coming next by brushing the blade of their knives gently against their victims’ throats.

Shteyngart: I have an irrational fear of giant flying insects, such as the American water bug.

––What was the genesis of this fear?

Evenson: Probably I was told frequently in childhood that raw chicken carried disease, but I was told the same thing about pork, for instance, and am not afraid of pork, which is what makes me think the fear is highly irrational.  And I don’t have the same fear or reluctance with, say, boneless chicken breasts.  It’s something specific to the relation of the bone to the chicken.  It has something to do with the way the bone itself looks and with the weird blueness you sometimes get around the joint and the way there’s always a particularly disgusting vein running along the bone and the way the blood girdles the bone.  It may also have to do with my mother cooking a lot of teriyaki chicken when I was growing up and with my suspicion that she never cooked it long enough.

Grossman: I could go on and on. The current thinking is that phobias are a kind of hybrid phenomenon––they’re fundamentally a neurological problem, straight-up lousy cerebral wiring, but they do also have meanings associated with them. There’s some kind of symbolic payload on board. I’m pretty sure mine has to do with my family. More than that I don’t want to say, and you probably wouldn’t want to hear.

McCracken: As far as I can remember, I was an ordinary child, able to watch Pepe Le Pew cartoons without breaking a sweat.  (This is not true of cartoons that threatened cannibalism.  You know the kind: desert island, mask-wearing natives, big iron pot—where did that iron pot come from, huh?—Bugs Bunny up to his waist while the chief mask-wearing native slices carrots into the broth.)  But one summer I rented an apartment in Provincetown, a place I’d always experienced as skunk-free, and the town was crawling with them.  Someone explained to me that a virus had wiped out the Cape Cod skunk population some years before this.  Now the skunks were returning.  I wish I could have found some romance in the notion, but instead I was scared stiff.  One late night I looked out at the backyard and saw a dozen skunks and wondered whether I would be able to walk around Provincetown at night again.  I hate skunks for the same reason I hate haunted houses: I cannot bear the feeling of wondering whether I am about to be startled.  Skunks seemed horrifically unpredictable to me.  My fear was made worse by all the skunk facts people passed along.  Skunks, I was told, were hard of hearing, and nervous, and your best defense against them was clapping in a rhythmic, warning way.  Also, they did not like the smell of dirty socks.  Also, if you had been sprayed, the solution was not the fabled tomato juice, but boxed douche, like Massengill.  I had a diptych vision of myself.  Before: clapping, eyes darting, a gray garland of filthy tube socks around my neck.  Afterwards: pulsating with stink marks at the Provincetown A & P, my little plastic shopping basket heaped up with boxes of douche.

Shepard: Who knows where this fear comes from?  I don’t like to put my analytical mind to it, because to think about why it bothers me so much would involve thinking about the touch itself, and to do that would involve an imaginative journey that I’d prefer not to take.  Instead, I wear many layers of extra long shirts.  My hands hover, the Secret Service agents of my body.  I grab the wrists of my husband or our children, my voice lowering to that tone of warning peculiar to mothers and wives.  “Don’t,” I say.  “I’m serious.” 

Shteyngart: The fear began when I was a small child. I was living in Russia and was given an illustrated children’s book in which a young boy and a girl were being unprincipled communists and as punishment they were made really tiny by some party committee. Then they kept being attacked by Gigantic Flying Insects. I remember at one point turning the page of the book and finding that an ACTUAL gigantic flying insect had been squished between two pages, the meat of its body covering an illustration of another such insect. I thought I was, like, going to die, you know?

––How do you manage this fear when it surfaces?

Evenson: If I can, I try to keep it from surfacing.  I avoid raw chicken when I can, though sometimes, in an act of bravado, I’ll actually find myself in a position where I have to roast a chicken.  I arm myself with lots of paper towels and try to touch the chicken as little as possible.  If I’m served undercooked chicken at a dinner party I eat what I can and then try to figure out a way to get the bone off my plate, or position it so as to be exposed to it as little as possible.  Sometimes a certain nausea starts to rise and I leave the room.  At the same time, if the chicken is cooked well, even if it’s on a bone, it doesn’t bother me: I like to eat it.

Grossman: For the first 30 years of my phobic life I deployed a series of escalating procedures to deal with it. When confronted with somebody eating or drinking, my first line of attack would always be to flee the scene—I would cross the street, change seats, hit the bathroom, change subway cars, awkwardly bail out of the conversation, do whatever I had to do. If I was stuck near the person eating––if I was, for example, sitting next to them on a plane, or riding in a taxi driven by them, or in the middle of negotiating a divorce settlement with them––I would engage in various “surreptitious” behaviors to try to distract myself and/or drown out the eating-noise. These would include things like listening to an iPod or sighing heavily or vigorously scratching my head and ears. Though sometimes I would just completely lose it and cringe and cover my ears. If you ever have dinner with me you’ll notice that I tend to eat my food in perfect sync with you—you take a bite, I take a bite. You sip your wine, I sip mine. That’s to minimize the risk of my actually hearing or seeing you eat. Once you notice this it will probably start to annoy you, but I promise you it’s necessary. We’re both better off.?  (I should clarify something: not every instance of somebody eating or drinking activates the phobia. There is a set of mysterious, secret (even from me) rules that govern it. I can often get away with eating in restaurants or going to dinner parties, for example; in fact going to restaurants and dinner parties is one of my greatest pleasures in life. I also love to cook. Go figure.)?  Now I’m in treatment for my phobia, so I have a series of mental exercises I’m supposed to do to manage it. One of them involves envisioning the fear as a creature––it’s kind of like the gremlin in The Twilight Zone, which only William Shatner could see. If I can control the creature—force it to obey, mentally order it to back off—the fear subsides. This actually works, sort of. Though I still wish I could just shoot the creature like Shatner shoots the gremlin.

McCracken: Well, I clap a lot.  I also have a hard time walking past a spot where I have previously seen a skunk.  I have not been reduced to laying in large supplies of douche just in case.

Shepard: When they gang up on me, I am helpless.  One pins my hands.  Another lifts my shirt, our youngest waves one finger at me, and then presses it firmly into the folds of my inny.  I writhe.  I screw my eyes shut.  I sweat.  I am such a freak about this that my family gives up, takes pity and leaves me to my insanity.

Shteyngart: I don’t. If a water bug flies into me in an apartment I will never enter that apartment again. Some Romanians came by and sealed off my own apartment completely so that nothing can ever enter it.

––What would you give up or trade to vanquish your fear?

Evenson: This is a hard one.  When it’s manageable I don’t think about it much.  When it’s not, that’s the time to catch me.  I’ve been known to give someone $5 to let me move my chicken bone onto her plate.

Grossman: What do you need? Chocolate? I would give up chocolate. Not sex, though. Something in between chocolate and sex.

McCracken: My so-called friends have, upon hearing of my fear, given me a lot of skunks—stuffed skunks, hand puppets, figurines.  I would give up my entire collection.  Luckily, no-one gives me elves.  That would be intolerable.  I really hate elves.

Shepard: I would give up many things to vanquish my fear, but nothing of real value because as my best friend would be sure to point out: everyone everywhere has irrational fears worse than mine.  I know this, so this is me, shutting up.

Shteyngart: I don’t want to give up on this fear. It’s a part of who I am.

––Name an irrational fear worse than yours.

Evenson: As irrational fears go, it could be a lot worse in that, unless one works for Tyson’s, one doesn’t have to frequently interact with raw chicken.  There are a lot of fears that would be much worse.  I think agoraphobia is a lot worse.

Grossman: If you have a phobia—and I’m always surprised at how many people do—then you’ll have the same gut reaction I do: THERE IS NOTHING WORSE. But I know that’s not true. I pull rank on people who are afraid of flying, since most of them don’t fly every day, whereas I see people eat every day. But somewhere out there there’s probably somebody who’s afraid of breathing, or blinking, or the sound of their own heartbeat. That would be worse.

McCracken: Cats?  Toddlers?  Canned baked beans?  Boxes of douche?  Plenty, probably.

Shteyngart: Some people fear mammals like hamsters or beavers. Those are ridiculous fears because these are all nice animals who mean you no harm.