author interview: Jeannie Vanasco

Jeannie Vanasco is the author of the memoirs The Glass Eye and Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl (both published by Tin House Books). Her work has appeared in the Believer, the New York Times Modern Love column, Tin House and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, Md., and is an assistant professor at Towson University.

Both your books give the impression that you leave it all on the page, that Jeannie Vanasco the person is the same as the character.

photo: Theresa Kell

A lot of memoirists talk about the character on the page as a persona. It’s something I talk with my students about. It can be helpful to see oneself as a character. The idea is that people are capable of change, so the person who writes the book two, five years later might be very different from the character who experienced these events. With The Glass Eye, the meta sections were where I felt the distance between the writer and the character narrowed. I wanted that immediacy. With this book, I feel like more of my personality came through, maybe because there aren’t isolated meta sections. The moments where we’re inside my head run throughout the narrative. With The Glass Eye, I was sectioning off narratives and scenes, and then present-tense craft sections preceded each chapter.

I don’t see the character on the page in this book as being different from who I am. Obviously it was deliberately crafted, and edited, and I wanted it to have that feel of immediacy, as if it were occurring in real time (and a lot of it was). But I think there was less of a persona with this book. And that’s what was so scary about writing it.

Even without considering the subject matter, that does sound scary.

Absolutely. I approached it as an interesting intellectual exercise: I will examine the nuances of the language surrounding sexual assault. I went in with that very craft-y mindset, and then as I was working on it, I would be out somewhere and suddenly start crying. What’s going on with me? I think it was because I was pushing away the emotions, intellectualizing. This book became a lot more emotional than I thought it would.

But it did give me control over the narrative, to see Mark as a character on the page. I came to see him as three different characters: the very close friend he’d been, and then the 19-year-old boy who carried me down into his basement room and raped me, and then the 34-year-old who felt, it seemed, remorse for what he did. What I realized in working on it is I wanted so badly to see the 34-year-old Mark and the teenaged Mark I’d been friends with as the same. And the guy who committed that act–he was a character, not the Mark I’m in conversation with. Having that craft perspective helped me work on it. But then I would have to remember that this happened to a real person, not a character. It happened to me. I think that’s what made the book so difficult. Trying to have mastery over the material and then also being able to let go. To recognize that this is a messy thing that I’m writing about. It’s difficult to find that balance between the writing of the book and the living of it.

What impact has writing the book had upon your mental health?

I think writing the book was therapeutic. It’s interesting because as a student of nonfiction writing, I was told this is not therapy, what we’re doing, it’s not therapeutic, as if it makes something not artistic to even think about it in those terms. I do think this gave me some, maybe not resolution, but what happened doesn’t obsess me the way it did. I used to have nightmares. I definitely feel like I can talk about it in a way that I didn’t think I could before.

Part of the reason I wanted to talk to Mark is that women are so rarely believed. I wanted him on record. Because when I was on tour for The Glass Eye, I was occasionally asked, “How do you know that what happened really happened?” Because I write about psychosis. That became a little frustrating. I understand where the question was coming from, but I was feeling very much dismissed as a narrator. Part of the reason for the meta-ness in that first book is to show that I get that concern; but are any of us really reliable narrators? So I wanted to preempt that, because if I have him on record then hopefully I won’t get those questions, how do you know it happened this way, because I’d have him admitting to it. I’m sure there will be some questions that may be upsetting, but I’m not sure they’ll be questions I haven’t already asked myself.

There is that self-referential quality, that meta-ness, to both your books.

For so long I was afraid to tell. Thinking of the balance between showing and telling, I knew that telling was important. I feel that to just show can lead to a tonally cold narrative. You need some of that intimacy of telling. The meta-ness helped me feel more comfortable outside of writing scenes. This is such a difficult subject, and I didn’t even know all my thoughts and feelings. I really need to think on the page.

With nonfiction, I think sometimes people are resistant to that self-referential meta-layering. I think of meta-ness as just telling. Because unless you’re doing something really experimental, you’re not trying to pull one over on the reader, trying to get the reader to forget that you exist. So it doesn’t seem to be really risky with nonfiction, because of course the reader knows I’m working on this book. To pretend that that process isn’t a part of writing this book seems artificial.

The Glass Eye arose out of a promise to write a book. So writing the book seemed relevant to the plot. And with this book, the book’s very existence was a huge part of reaching out to Mark. And so that meta-ness made sense. There were other ways I could have done it, but it would have felt artificial to me to try to avoid acknowledging the existence of the book. So I think given the starting points of both these books, it made sense to weave in the process of writing them.

Women seem the most obvious readers of this book, but it feels like one men need. What audience do you have in mind?

I would love it if men and boys would read this book. With The Glass Eye, the readers I would most often hear from were women in their early 20s who would tell me, “I love The Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted and this book,” and I was like, okay. Twenty-something sensitive bookish women undergraduates? That’s my audience. But I am hoping this reaches a male audience. Recently I was on a plane going to a book festival, and I was seated next to this couple. And he saw that I had a pen and a notebook open and he said “Oh, are you a poet? You’re staring off very thoughtfully!” And I said, “No, I write nonfiction.” And I thought, I know the perfect way to shut down this conversation. I’ll tell him about the second book. And he got really engaged–they both did. We were talking, they were asking me questions, and then at some point he said [referring to his partner], “She’s really into #metoo.” And he’s not? It’s interesting. I think some men see themselves as outside thinking about the #metoo movement or feminism, that they don’t fully see themselves as playing an active role. So I’m hoping that men will read this and think about the way they should be more active. To think about their own past experiences, and looking the other way when a friend of theirs makes a sexist joke. As if these things don’t matter.

author interview: M. Randal O’Wain

Following my review of Meander Belt, here’s M. Randal O’Wain: A Strange Thing.

M. Randal O’Wain holds an MFA from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Originally from Memphis, Tenn., he now lives in southern West Virginia. His essays and short stories have appeared in the Oxford American, Guernica, Pinch, Booth, Hotel Amerika and storySouth, among others. He is the author of the memoir Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South, a collection of essays that reflect on how a working-class boy from Memphis came to fall in love with language, reading, writing and the larger world outside of the American South. Meander Belt ($19.95) was recently released as part of the American Lives Series from the University of Nebraska.

photo: Saja Mantague

In your preface, you write about privileging verisimilitude over accuracy. What does that mean?

Accuracy is fact, right? It’s information, it’s irrefutable. But we already know that memory is inaccurate. So to ask how could you ever know what is real, what is not real, how you can depend on your own memories… to me, that’s a boring conversation. We’re trying to get to the heart and guts of the experience, the human condition, and not a verbatim account of truth.

I heard Kevin Brockmeier read from his memoir A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, about being in the seventh grade. Inevitably, when you write a memoir that uses the techniques of fiction rather than digressive or expository techniques, people will ask this question: “Well, what about dialogue? Is your memory that good?” And his answer was amazing. He said, “You know, pretty often I get asked that question, but nobody ever asks me how I remember the sun motes falling through my living room as I’m laying on my back staring out the window. Nobody ever asks me about those specific concrete details that are just as ‘inaccurate’ as dialogue.” Because we just sort of buy those as being an acceptable form of essential truth. And he said, “I remember some dialogue, and I remember some details, but really what I’m trying to get at is what it was like to be a seventh grader, afraid to go outside or afraid to get up off that floor.”

The story presents itself as it is. Either as inhabited space, one that might require techniques of fiction, or as a cerebral space, one that you turn over as a three-dimensional object, that you work with in your mind. Then the exciting part for the reader is watching the writer turn it over. Or if it’s an inhabited space, the exciting part for the reader is watching it go by, as if it were cinema. Those are very different feelings. Meander Belt I felt the whole time in my guts. If I were to write it in a way that might come off as more essayistic and therefore more true, I suppose, it would seem so wrong. Because it wasn’t a cerebral book. It’s a bodily book.

How did this collection come to be?
I read Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now and Harrison Fletcher Candelaria’s Descanso for My Father (also an American Lives book)–those three collections were so impressive. I just loved them. That was how I wanted to write this story. But I was convinced by an agent to turn it into a memoir. I tried for a few years, and failed terribly. When I turned in the final version of the memoir, she dropped me. She said that it wasn’t a book that she wanted to read. And that was hard. That was devastating. But it was also freeing.

I’d been publishing these essays throughout the time of working on that memoir, just to kind of stay in the game, keep my foot in the door, test things out. “Arrow of Light,” “Rain over Memphis,” “Thirteenth Street and Failing” were early, standalone essays. And then there were others I started pulling out and changing. When the agent dropped me, I was like, oh, I’m free! And I went back to the original intent, and it flowed very easily.

What I’ve learned, what I have to say over and over again to myself, is to trust myself. I gave too much of my trust to a business relationship. Someone who didn’t know my work as well I did, or my intent. Obviously we need the gatekeepers and go-betweens, like agents, but maybe we put too much trust in them. It’s just a business relationship. Not an artistic relationship.

These essays draw on intimate and often painful details. How do you care for yourself through that process?

Those details are painful at first, and then you get them on the page, and they become something else. They become something that’s beyond you. The saddest thing for me was that they didn’t hurt anymore. That the book doesn’t hurt. I miss it hurting. I extracted, mined very personal details that then were not a part of me anymore.

I don’t know if there’s ever a way to fully take care of yourself. It’s a strange thing to turn memory into art.

What did you learn in writing this book?

That I never want to write about myself again. It was so difficult. There are so many constraints, going back to your initial question about truth. I wanted to tell the truth. And that meant having to talk to family members, to talk to them again and again, to make my poor mom go over it again and again.

There are people out there who keep writing memoir! Memoir after memoir after memoir! What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you ever heard of the autobiographical novel? Make shit up! The mining of memory, that whole process is very challenging. At times it can feel like you’re just this egomaniac, and there are so many other things that a writer can look at besides themselves.

Even though I use a lot of techniques from fiction, I learned a lot about telling the truth. What it means to be vulnerable. So many times I tried to make an excuse for my behavior or apologize for my behavior, but I learned just to let it stand. To be okay with letting it stand. This was helpful for me as a writer and as a person. We’re better off if we can be honest with ourselves about how fucked up we are as well as how good we are.

movie: The Pieces I Am (2019)

Transcendent, not that I’m surprised.

This documentary of the life of Toni Morrison was released shortly before her death, which has helped it make an even bigger splash, although it was doing fine anyway. My dear friend Liz told me I needed to see it, which pushed me further (I was already interested). I was so glad to get a chance to see it locally at a micro-theatre here in Buckhannon, West Virginia.

For starters, check out that image above. The collage of Toni’s face is built up in an opening sequence that shows many faces of Toni Morrison as she ages, and as a portrayal of the creative process I found it moving and thought-provoking. The rest of the movie followed suit. I loved that they mostly let Toni speak for herself. A “present” Toni sits against a blank backdrop and speaks directly into the camera throughout the film. She is dressed in black, white, and gray, highlighting her beautiful gray hair. She speaks with humor and wisdom, and as she talks, we see images and film clips from her life. Friends and contemporaries including celebrities (Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey), other artists (Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley), and college professors (Farah Griffin, David Carrasco) also speak to the camera; a voiceover reads from a few articles, like nasty racist criticisms of Morrison’s early work. But mostly it is Toni’s own voice that tells of her life, from the melting-pot steel town on Lake Erie where she was raised (Lorain, Ohio) to Howard University to Cornell, to teaching, marriage and divorce, raising two boys, and her influential career as an editor at Random House… and of course writing 11 world-changing novels in 45 years, along with children’s books, short fiction, drama, nonfiction, and an introduction to The Oxford Mark Twain‘s edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that I’d love to see.

The impression of Toni Morrison that I take away from this film is an entirely take-no-shit, strong woman who we might describe as brave, but I think her own view would be that she was not so much a brave woman as just doing what needed to be done, and what was right, without thinking twice about it. Of course that is brave, but it seems to have just come so naturally to her.

It was nice to see her celebrated not only as an earth-shatteringly talented, singular artist, but also as an incisive, gifted editor, who dragged Angela Davis’s memoir out of her and put Muhammad Ali in his place during the editing of his. I enjoyed the story of her Nobel Prize and the delightful party she so enjoyed in Sweden. In short, I found a rich and rounder portrait here than I think I’d seen of Toni before now.

Although I knew it before, I feel again what a loss we suffered this year when she died, and I feel how lucky we are to have her work in the world. I’m so glad I saw this movie. Don’t miss it. There are lots of ways to watch at home, so you’ve no excuse.


Rating: 9 dolls.

movie: Wonder Boys (2000)

Quick review here… as I got ready to start my new teaching job, a friend said I should watch this movie I’d never heard of. There were a few moments that were silly enough that I rolled my eyes briefly, but overall I have to say, this was hilarious and moving and yes, recognizable. I’m pleased I spent an evening this way.

Great cast with Michael Douglas as the maybe-slightly-washed-up writing professor, Tobey Maguire as weirdo student, Katie Holmes as higher-achieving student who wants to sleep with her professor, Frances McDormand as chancellor who really is sleeping with the professor, Robert Downey Jr. as his editor, and more. (I had to double-check my memory but yes, Tobey Maguire was Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby movie. The two roles echo each other a bit.) The plot has it all: an admired novelist struggling to complete his second novel; jealousy of a talented student; academic office politics; sex and betrayal; industry and professional bullshit; a louche Robert Downey Jr. Like I said, there was a bit of silliness, but there were a lot of laughs. Several times I scared my little dog with sudden loud belly laughs. I was as surprised as he was.

Oh, and it’s marketed as a rom-com… I was less taken with the love story than that, but there was so much to hear to admire.

And no, to answer Barrett’s question, I do not intend to be this close with my students. More boundaries, please.


Rating: 7 dogs.

on stories

Stories live, especially when they are freed from the chains imposed on them by the written word. Even within those chains, there is freedom of movement. I have written two novels from the strange space of unknowing which grows around you when a story approaches and makes demands. I have had demands made of me by magical goldsmiths and pagan gods and black cats, and after a while you learn that there is nothing to do but open yourself up. There is nothing to do but be open.

–Paul Kingsnorth, Savage Gods

I will tell a story. I must tell a story. My greatgrandfather Timmy Cooney told stories. He walked and told stories. That’s what he did all his life. He couldn’t stop walking after the Hunger. He walked and walked. There are stories in the air as thick as birds around me, he would say. I will save those stories from starving, he would say. I have a great hunger for stories, he would say. He always walked west. That was his way. To the west was Tir na nOg, the Country of the Young, the Country of the Blessed, where no one ever grew old and no one ever was hungry. It was near to you when you heard bells, he would say. Some people said it was under a lake and some said a river but Timmy Cooney said it was under the great ocean to the west. Sometimes he saw it shimmering there. He would stand ar chostai, on the shore, and sing and tell stories. He said you could reach that country on the back of a white horse. You could live there for a hundred years and it would be the blink of an eye here. You could come back but woe to you if your foot touched the ground. You had to stay on the white horse. That horse would take you from one country to the other. It was a very good horse. There are more holy horses and holy countries than we will ever know, he would say. The way to find those countries is by telling stories. You can eat stories if you have to, he would say. A good story is a very good thing to eat. If you have a true story and some good water you will be all right, he would say. He would sit and listen to people for a long time without moving. He wanted to hear their true stories, he would say. If people die young their stories haven’t been told enough and there is no rest for them, he would say. Their stories are too hungry. I will save those stories from starving, he would say. Sometimes he would tell stories about stories. The stories of children are green, he would say, and the stories of women are blue, and the stories of men are red. You can walk right through a story on the road or in the woods and only hear one word from it, he would say. Or you can sit down inside a story and hear the whole story. Then the story is inside you. You can eat an infinite number of stories. No one can ever eat too many stories. When you have saved enough stories from starving then you will see Tir na nOg, the Country of the Blessed, where no one ever grows old and no one ever is hungry. Geabhaedh tu an sonas aer pighin, he would say, in that country you will find joys as common as pennies, as thick in the air as birds around you.

–the voice of Owen Cooney in Brian Doyle’s Mink River


Doyle has written some astounding lines about stories elsewhere, too, for example in The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World, but I do not have those in front of me now. There is still a world of Doyle to be explored, which is small consolation for the loss of the man and the stories he had yet to tell, but I will study what we have here and be grateful. I have a great hunger for stories.



Edit: After finishing this post, I came across this weird, delightful article about the stories Gabriel García Márquez carried around with him. I love collections and I love stories, and I love the weird and delightful, and I thought these belonged here.

White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imaginationby Jess Row

This tough, serious essay collection considers whiteness in American fiction and culture, and the inextricableness of the two, with exhortations for change.

Jess Row (Your Face in Mine) takes on ambitious material with White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination. He points out a societal need for reparative writing, examining the role of imagination in real lives, both in “straight” fiction (novels, stories, films, plays) and, in a larger sense, “in which our collective life is a series of overlapping fictions, fantasies, dream states.” The first kind “reflects and sustains” the second, so that novels are never “just” novels, but rather serve to uphold institutions and ways of thinking that have consistently and systematically hurt nonwhite Americans. The title refers both to the real estate pattern of movement known as “white flight,” and also to flights of fancy, such as imagining that ignoring race and racism means they’ve gone away.

In seven essays, this book argues that imagination is as much part of the problem as real-world actions and prejudice. Its main concern is whiteness, in and out of fiction; when it examines specific marginalized groups, they tend to be African Americans and Native Americans. Row undertakes close readings of Marilynne Robinson, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Dillard, Richard Ford and more: these white writers may be among his own past literary heroes, but they nonetheless come under scrutiny for the whiteness, or sheer emptiness, of the spaces they create. On the other hand, he examines James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Chang-rae Lee, Colson Whitehead, Amiri Baraka and Ta-Nehisi Coates for the examples they offer of more inclusive fictional spaces. Row consults music and films, as well.

In challenging ways of writing–even, for white writers, the choice to write at all–Row is careful to acknowledge that, as a white man, he can merely ask questions and grope for progress, rather than offer a solution. He also mines personal material, including his childhood in the Black Hills of South Dakota, land that by treaty belongs to the Lakota and is illegally occupied by white people (like Row’s own family).

This intelligent collection is often deeply engaged in realms of philosophy and literary theory; it approaches an academic writing style. Its subject matter may be discomfiting for white readers and writers, and readers less familiar with Wittgenstein, Derrida or Edward T. Hall’s theory of proxemics will likely find this book challenging. There is something for every reader, however, in the message that fiction not only reflects but acts upon real life, and that each of us is obliged to act for justice, in reading and writing as in life.


This review originally ran in the July 2, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 references.

author interview: Tim Mason

Following my review of The Darwin Affair, here’s Tim Mason: You Have to Bring the Stage to Them.


Tim Mason‘s plays have been produced in New York City and around the world. He has received the Kennedy Center Award, the Hollywood Drama-Logue Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Rockefeller Foundation grant. In addition to his dramatic plays, he wrote the book for Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, which ran for two seasons on Broadway and tours nationally every year. He is the author of the young adult novel The Last Synapsid (2009). The Darwin Affair, out now from Algonquin Books, is his first adult novel.

photo credit: David Kelley


What about this history captured your imagination?

It began with Dickens, really: my love of Dickens, perhaps his best novel, Bleak House, and the character, the Detective Inspector named Bucket. I always thought, wouldn’t it be fun to write something with Bucket as the lead character instead of just a member of the supporting cast? And when I found that Dickens quite likely based Inspector Bucket on a real London policeman, Charles Field, I felt at liberty to use that fellow, or my version of him, as my lead character. It began with Dickens, and with my father’s love of the works of Charles Darwin.

How important, to you, is historical accuracy in fiction?

I worked very hard to be as accurate as possible, given that it’s a work of fiction. I tried to insert my fiction in the interstices between one historical event and the next. I had some good luck: when I first began work on the notion of the novel back in 2009, I was having dinner with a friend, a British expatriate in New York. And she said, well, if you’re doing anything Victorian, you should be in touch with my friend in London, Jane Hill. I e-mailed this perfect stranger and she, within days, was looking over my first 80 pages and correcting my Victorian. She was a great help throughout. At one point she turned over her house in north London to me while she was traveling abroad, and I used that as a base for research. I had an old friend in Oxford, an archeologist, and he and his wife were able to unlock a door for me at the University Museum, where the famous Wilberforce-Huxley debate on evolution took place. It is no longer open to the public, but I got to scope it out for myself and try to duplicate it in my book.

Also, in 2012, I think that was the year, the diaries of Queen Victoria, which had been transcribed and digitized, were briefly put online and open to the public. That was just a godsend; it was incredible. I had Queen Victoria’s own day-to-day accounting of her time, and the trip with her husband, Albert, to his homeland of Coburg in Germany, including the very real, very serious carriage accident that Albert suffered where he was thrown from a carriage and injured. I saw that as a green light to my fiction. It really happened; my version of it didn’t, but I squeezed my fiction onto historical fact.

Did you enjoy the research process?

I enjoyed it very much. Discovering sources like those I’ve mentioned, and a couple of others–I had a lot of good luck. At a certain point I feel you can’t write until you shut the history book. Otherwise you’ll go on forever researching and, you know, this is not a documentary; this is a work of fiction. I have to be willing to get some things wrong. I do my best to study up on the area I’m pursuing, and then I metaphorically shut the book and don’t look at it while I’m writing. That’s my process. Otherwise I find I’m paralyzed; I couldn’t actually begin the fiction until I looked away from the history.

What do you love so much about Bucket?

For me the Charles Field that I made was attractive. Dickens’s Bucket is also very attractive. He’s probably one of the first-ever police detectives in fiction. Very adept, very sagacious. He’s able to spot character on sight and come to snap judgments that prove to be accurate. I felt he also had quite a lot of moral ambiguity. He does a terrible trick to the poor character of Tom–Tom who’s all alone, a miserable poverty-stricken street boy. So he’s very warm and engaging, and you love him, and then he’s also capable of underhanded dealing. I thought he was very human.

When I came to write my version of Inspector Field, I realized he’s only superficially like Dickens’s Bucket. He has certain patterns of speech that are like Bucket, and he’s sort of a burly middle-aged man and he loves his wife, as Dickens’s Bucket did; but he’s a nicer guy. He has a terrible temper–that’s his biggest failing. But I could embrace him wholeheartedly, even with his temper and his sense of his own limitations. I think that’s very attractive to me. He’s not the omniscient detective. He’s not anything like Hercule Poirot. He’s just groping in the dark and so frustrated because he feels he makes one mistake after another. That feels more like my life.

How was writing a novel for adults different from your past writing experience?

I began experimenting in prose fiction some years ago, around 2000, when a story occurred to me that simply couldn’t be told on the stage. A play can span time, and travel in time theatrically, but this story wanted something different. That’s how my middle school novel, The Last Synapsid, began, and that was just such a slog. I just had to write and write and overwrite. My first draft was over 450 pages long! It took me a long time. I eventually cut 100 pages before Random House bought it and published it, but it was a great education. I could do things in novel form that I can’t do on the stage.

The literature of the stage is pure economy. Action is dialogue. Action isn’t, he goes to the bar and makes a cocktail and returns to the dinner table. Action is what happens from one line of dialogue to the next between one character and another, constant shifting of the balance of power. That makes the dynamic of a play. Well, in a novel, you’ve got the reader, who isn’t looking at the stage but looking into his or her own imagination, and you have to bring the stage to them. And it’s a lot of work, a lot of wonderful work.

What are you working on next?

What I’m working on involves Inspector Field five years before the events of The Darwin Affair, and seven years after. Both a prequel and a sequel. But this one I don’t want to take four years to write!


This interview originally ran in the June 21, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

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