The list below has some of our authors’ new and upcoming publications. Click on the links to find out more about the pieces!
Todd Dillard (episode 7): “The Phases,” an essay forthcoming in Electric Literature; “The Sky in the Bedroom,” forthcoming in Fuzzy Hedghog Press’s anthology Beyond the Hedge Volume 2: Chimeras and Phantasms. You can submit your own writing to Hedgehog Press here.
Em Hammett (episode 34): “When I’m Thirty,” published in the inaugural volume of The Oakland Arts Review.
Emily Pittman Newberry (episode 55): Story Catcher, a journal being used in art therapy for LGBTQ senior citizens. Not yet available to the general public, only through the workshop.
Sarah-Jane Stratford (episode 64): “‘Radio Girls’ Hero Hilda Matheson was a Real-Life Crusader Against Misinformation,” published in Bustle.
Here at The Other Stories, we’re invested in our authors – that is, the authors we’ve featured in the past (and the ones we’ll feature in the future!). We hope you’re interested in seeing what the authors that we’ve interviewed have been up to, as the list below has some of our talented authors’ new and upcoming publications. Click through the links to find out more about the pieces!
Will Heinrich (episode 19): “The Deadly Comedy of the Israeli Border Patrol in the Cave of the Patriarchs” and “Finding Dark Humor in the Plight of the Feminist Artist,” published in Hyperallergic.
Jacob M. Appel (episode 26): Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, a short story collection to be published by Black Lawrence Press in August; The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, to be published by Howling Bird Press in November.
Anne Whitehouse (episode 36): “On the Osa,” first-prize winner of RhymeOn! 2016 sponsored by Loudoun County Public Library; “One Summer Day on the Number One Train,” a winner of the 2016 Common Good Books’ poems of gratitude contest.
[N.B. 2: Early yesterday morning a man born in the USA, where homophobia and transphobia are proudly incorporated into legislation, whose parents are from Afghanistan, which the USA has occupied since 2001, which has fueled the rise of the Islamic State, to whom the man pledged allegiance in a 911 call made after obtaining a permit for and legally purchasing an AR-15, while he was using that assault rifle to kill at least 50 men and women and wound 53 others at an LGBTQ bar in Orlando, Florida—a city in a country in which queer men (and people who’ve slept with queer men) are only allowed to donate blood of if they abstain from having sex with other men for a minimum of 12 months.
This was the largest mass shooting to date in a country that has seen over 1,000 mass shootings since a white man used, in addition to other firearms, a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle to kill 6 adults and 20 kindergarten students in Sandy Hook, Connecticut in 2012. To the Orlando victims and their families, several senators, congressmen, and state governors who have either accepted campaign donations from the NRA, or who support North Carolina’s anti-trans House Bill 2, or both, offered their thoughts and prayers.
The Other Stories’ Editor-in-Chief, Ilana Masad and I offer this interview. In it, Garth Greenwell speaks to the importance of calling himself a queer writer, saying, “I believe that it is the extraordinary power of the literary imagination to communicate experience across difference…in human, authentic ways that can be reparative, healing; that can heal some of the wounds of difference and of privilege.” In the wake of the Orlando shooting I wonder how that could possibly be true, and hope, desperately, that it is. — Gemma de Choisy, June 13, 2016
N.B. 1: I interviewed Garth Greenwell in Iowa City’s Prairie Lights Café on January 25, 2016—just after What Belongs To You had been released and one day before Greenwell left town to start his inaugural book tour. A week or so later, Greenwell’s praises were being sung from the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and pretty much everywhere else. I, meanwhile, was becoming very ill. I didn’t get much work done over the month and a half that followed. But as I transcribed bits of this interview, I had the pleasure of reliving the singularly delightful experience of talking with Greenwell. The man speaks exactly as he writes, with semicolons and parentheses in his voice. And though I hesitate to comment on anyone’s body, he did the impossible with his. Sitting across from me on a wobbly chair, Greenwell—long of femur, broad-shouldered, prone to gesticulation—bent and leaned and otherwise folded himself up until he and I were at eye level. This interview’s editor, Ilana Masad, has also seen him do this. It’s the damndest thing. It’s like watching someone bend under the weight of their own generosity. That’s what his book is like, and that’s what Greenwell is: Generous. — Gemma de Choisy, May 27, 2016]
In the world of literature there is a country called desire, where the winds change direction on the hour. The primary export is fantasy; the primary import, shame. In lieu of an official language there is only gesture. Border patrol is virtually non-existent (all may immigrate), but few ever leave. Many would like to, but the terrain is confusing and largely unexplored—people wander off and start to think of themselves in a brand new country, only to find that they’ve wandered back to the house they lived in when they moved first here, so long ago. Besides that, the exit visa process (if there even is one) is terribly ill-defined, and desire makes identities notoriously difficult to confirm. The air pressure here is much too strong. It is always too hot. And if denizens manage to recall where last they saw their sense of self, they often find it, upon retrieval, destabilized and diffuse—and yet, would you believe it? The country’s highest-selling postcard reads, “Wish You Were Here.”
Garth Greenwell wrote his debut novel What Belongs To You in the dark, very early in the morning, in Bulgaria. Greenwell moved there to teach English at the American College of Sofia, and says that before he wrote his instantly and universally acclaimed first book, he hadn’t written fiction. Pre-Bulgaria Greenwell was a writer of poetry, which is no surprise. His sentences are shaped by commas the way rocks shape rivers. They swing open semicolon hinges, inviting you inside What Belongs To You‘s glittering prose, and then promptly slam shut, locking you inside with the book’s nameless narrator, his paramour, and their many wants.
The story begins in a bathroom under the National Palace in Sofia, where the narrator pays a skinny hustler named Mitko for sex. Mitko fakes an orgasm, badly, and abandons the narrator on his knees in a stall.
As I knelt there, still tasting the metallic trace of sinkwater from his skin, I felt my anger lifting as I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal…had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me…and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.
The first of the novel’s three sections won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was published as a novella, Mitko, prior to What Belongs To You’s release. That portion of the book and the subsequent two sections follow the two men into and through a relationship that is by turns sexual, fraternal, paternal, tender, antagonistic, and ferociously ambivalent. As it navigates sex, love, childhood betrayals, and various of other emotionally violent terrains, What Belongs to You does not ask, but declares: “How helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat.”
Greenwell lives in Iowa City, IA, with his boyfriend, the poet Luis Muñoz. In addition to writing essays for various outlets, he is working on a book that reprises characters from What Belongs to You, this time in short stories.
Gemma de Choisy: I want to talk to you about desire.
Garth Greenwell: Oh, good!
This books seems, in many ways, like an answer to Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. Your narrator and Mitko could be “the lover” and “the beloved”—Barthes’ stand-ins for desirous and desired figures.
It’s so interesting you say that, because I’ve been obsessed with Barthes over the last couple of weeks. I was obsessed with him as an undergraduate, and I read most of the books—A Lover’s Discourse, front and center among them. I’m also reading a really brilliant book of essays by a poet, Brian Blanchfield, called Proxies. It’s amazing, really stunning. And Barthes is one of the guardian angels of that book, I think. I’m also reading Barthes’ book The Neutral, a collection of notes he made for a lecture course he taught.
I haven’t read A Lover’s Discourse in ages and ages, but when I read it, I read it so hard. I think it’s one of those books that loaded in my brain when it was forming itself. So I’m sure it’s all over What Belongs to You. I’m sure.
One part of A Lover’s Discourse that’s stuck with me (and that I see in What Belongs to You) is the section, “On Waiting.” He writes, “Am I in love?—yes, since I am waiting. The other one never waits… The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.”
I remember this! Yes, Yes.
That dynamic seems especially strong between your narrator and Mitko.
True. Mitko is always the one who bursts in. In a lot of ways, this is the person who occupies a position in society of extremely little privilege or power. One of his sources of power is that, that he is the one who gets to appear or disappear.
At one point, you mention another of his small but extreme powers: the power to be pleased.
Right. In fact I’d say that is the source of his power over the narrator. He can be pleased, or he can withhold his pleasure.
Which is as true universally of desire as it is of the marginalized world of Bulgarian male prostitutes.
And I hope that’s true of a lot of things in this book. This is a book about a particular relationship in a particular place that’s framed in a particular way, and the frame absolutely structures and affects the relationship between these two people. But I also think—and the narrator explicitly meditates on this at times—there are ways in which the strangeness or the particularity of the encounter accentuates aspects that the narrator believes (and I share his belief) are common to any relationship between two human beings.
One idea that has been really central to my life as a writer and as a poet (which I was before I was a fiction writer), is from William James in Varieties of Religious Experience. He gives a preemptive defense of his “extreme” method of using extreme cases as a way to claim that something is true universally. And he uses this wonderful metaphor where he says that the extreme case functions like a microscope in science. It accentuates one aspect in a way that makes it visible, that allows us to note characteristics that are common across experience.
That to me is kind of an intrinsic assumption of literature.
Mitko and the narrator are gay, and they’re in a place where that isn’t talked about openly—a fact that, towards the end of the book, is leveled as a threat. Which means that a kind of shame becomes part of the courtship dance. But I wonder, isn’t that part of desire in general?
I guess that’s one of those psychoanalytic insights that to me seems true. We don’t even have to think about psychoanalysis—we could say that the poets are right. Desire is importunate. One of my favorite poems is a little Greek fragment translated by Anne Carson. It says, “Love struck me with his hammer and doused me in a wintry ditch.” I think it’s Anacreon. And I think it’s just exactly right. And what I love about that little poem—and I always taught it to my high school students, because I think it captures the power of metaphor so well—is what it’s an image of. It’s an argument about love, and it’s an argument that love changes and shapes us, because it’s an argument about forging. It’s the image of a blacksmith pounding steel and putting it into water to fix its shape, and that to me captures something about the experience of Eros. It is shameful because, whether or not your object of choice aligns in the way the world tells you it should, it overcomes us. We don’t get to choose it. If you’re lucky, and it does align with what the world expects from you, maybe that can feel frictionless. But I think, for many people—queer or straight or however one identifies—we often desire things and people we shouldn’t desire. And there is shame associated with that, I would say, and a sense of violence against our sense of self, which so often depends upon a sense of mastery or control. Desire doesn’t let us have that.
That sounds like St. Augustine’s kind of love. The idea that love will conquer nothing. It only promises to change you. Love alters.
Absolutely. I love that you talk about St. Augustine, because The Confessions is one of those Ur-texts of my life as a writer, and just of my life as a human being. I think whenever people talk about the kind of writing that interests me most, the narrative/essayistic/discursive/digressive narration of consciousness, I think that all goes back to him.
Speaking of influences, you mentioned on Facebook that you’ve been reading Michel de Montaigne.
He captured a remarkable sense of intimacy with his writing, but there’s something else. There are some (myself included) who think that Montaigne’s writing feels as close as it does because he was writing each essay as if it were a letter to his dearly departed friend, Étienne de La Boétie. What you think of that?
It’s so interesting. Montaigne writes about sex a lot, but the only convincing writing about intimacy in his essays is when he writes about friendship. Thirty years ago people seized on those passages and used them to queer the canon, to claim Montaigne as a writer of queer experience and gay experience. And then there’s a big backlash against that and people say, “No, this is the rhetoric of romantic friendship, and homosexuality as a category didn’t exist then, so this doesn’t have to do with that.” And all of that is true and I think it’s facile to claim Montaigne, who occupied in his society the position of a patriarch, a pater familias, as a queer writer.
Whenever someone uses that argument, that this kind of intimacy was a common thing and that homosexuality as a category didn’t exist as an identity… Well, neither did heterosexuality. And yet, whenever people make that objection, there’s always a way in which they pull that writer back into the fold of these straight male writers. It’s just as false to say he’s a straight writer as to say that he’s a gay writer. In his great essay on friendship, he says that a great friendship requires argument, requires quarrel, like great sex requires scratching. I mean, I think he gives us a way to think about that relationship. I think you’re absolutely right, though, there’s no question to me. He starts the essays after de la Boétie dies, and I think the astonishing thing about that book is that it feels like it’s speaking directly to you with this incredible intimacy. The book filled the space opened up by Boétie.
And if he hadn’t died, then likely no essay. They’d have just talked.
Yes, yes. It’s been wonderful to live with Montaigne over the last few weeks (which I’ve been doing because of this Blanchfield book) and to realize how he is like Augustine. He’s the father of everything people are excited about in Knausgaard or Ben Lerner or in Rachel Cusk. This is all Montaigne! And Roland Barthes. This whole space of the neutral is precisely that space that Montaigne tries to occupy in his essays. That’s something that really interests me, because what I think they’re both trying to do is create a space in which thinking can happen dissociated from power. It’s a space that says, “I want to think but I don’t want to have to be right. I want to think, but I don’t want to quarrel.”
The burden of being correct, in other words. Or the trouble that comes with being so fixed on an idea that you cannot later change your mind, which is a very modern concern. This idea that integrity means having a long history of a static opinion—that’s not something that’s always been a credit to one’s character.
Not at all! And it’s deeply un-American, let us say. If we’re going to claim the great pragmatist insight—
—then we should, as is tradition, be reinventing ourselves—
—all the time! And we should be accommodating of change. I mean, for God’s sake, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself! I am large! I contain multitudes!”
Absolutely. Given this tradition of Emerson and Whitman, it’s horrifying that our public discourse now has become—well, the image that Barthes uses and the idea that he rejects is that of jousting. People are not trying to advance ideas or discourse; they’re trying to knock the other guy off his horse. So reading Montaigne in the [presidential] campaign season has been a really wonderful antidote, because he does open up this space for thinking to happen without that allegiance to being right. That’s the space of Barthes’ The Neutral, I think.
You’re very matter of fact about identifying as a queer writer. Why is it important to claim that for yourself?
It’s important to me for several reasons. I do believe—in a kind of hedged way, with airquotes—in the universal. I believe that it is the extraordinary power of the literary imagination to communicate experience across difference. In that way, I think the literary imagination is aligned with what Audre Lorde said about eros and about the erotic—and I do think the literary imagination and the aesthetic imagination are erotic—that eros can connect us across difference in human, authentic ways that can be reparative, healing; that can heal some of the wounds of difference and of privilege. I believe that about the literary imagination. I believe that because I feel it when I read literature from cultures and experiences entirely alien to mine. Literature teaches me something about myself. I believe in that. I also believe that the only way that happens is through this weird alchemy of the literary imagination; it only happens through the most minute attention to the particular. There’s no other way to get there.
If we disavow the particular, then we are allowing people to use words like “universal” to actually hide the particular experience behind straight white guys, or whatever position of prestige gets coded as the universal. And I think that’s deadly.
That I found Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story when I was fourteen years old in Kentucky saved my life, because it gave me an image of queerness that had dignity when I was living in a place where the only story I was told about myself was that my life had nothing of the sort. So in that sense, it is important to me that there exists an idea of a queer literary tradition, and it’s important to me that I acknowledge my debt to it as both a writer and a human being. And then just historically, I do think it’s true that there are affinities among books, and that queer writers and queer books are speaking to each other.
Now. The danger of claiming a queer literary tradition is that one might essentialize queerness or a style of queerness, and I don’t want to do that. I think one can claim that and say that these are historically constructed styles, but any identity, any community is historically constructed. And that doesn’t mean that those are not life sustaining.
Back to William James, then. The extreme being indicative of the ordinary.
Absolutely. I mean, there’s that wonderful old stoic idea of Terence’s: “Nothing human is alien to me.” And then Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure, God bless him, when he says, “I have the germ of all human iniquity me.” I do think that’s true. I think any human story—not by smoothing away or by looking away from the particular, but by attuning yourself as closely as possible to the texture of one experience—allows us to hear the human voice, to hear what’s common, what we share. We’ve been trained as a culture to hear that universal human voice in texts that come from a place of prestige and privilege. So no one says, “Isn’t it amazing that this story about these two unbelievably rich white kids in Italy can communicate to me in America right now?” No. We just say Romeo and Juliet is a universal story of love. Well, yeah. I agree. And so is Giovanni’s Room.
Bulgaria, in which you novel takes place is so finely and specifically rendered that it is a third character, and a participant in your narrator and Mitko’s romance. It makes their relationship, such as it is, seem more like a menage a trois.
The book, to me, begins and ends in Bulgaria. To me, Bulgaria is the main character. When I went to Bulgaria I’d only ever written poetry. I have an MFA in poetry that I got in 2003. And then I went to Harvard to get a PhD, also studying poetry as a scholar, before I realized I didn’t want that life. I left and started teaching high school and started writing poems. And until I went to Bulgaria I’d never written prose in anything other than a scholarly or critical way, and so something about Bulgaria—well, something about being a high school teacher and then something about Bulgaria—turned me into a prose writer and a fiction writer.
I think the spark of the novel came from the fact that I went to Bulgaria, this very foreign place, and I found these queer communities and queer spaces that reminded me very forcefully of the queer communities and spaces that I found when I was a kid in Kentucky at fourteen. And when I talked to my Bulgarian high school students who spoke to me about being gay, the stories they told me and their sense of the possibilities for their life just absolutely reminded me of being a kid in the American south in the early 1990s.
So that was a way in which there’s sort of foreignness and familiarity holding hands in this place.
When your narrator goes into the bathroom underneath the National Place in Sofia, his language skills aren’t fantastic but he’s able to communicate there in a way he isn’t above ground.
Yes, he understands the code there.
The third language of cruising.
And that I think is true of cruising places. I don’t want to romanticize them; they’re spaces where people treat each other in all sorts of bad ways. But they’re also spaces where people treat each other in astonishingly humane ways. So in that way they’re spaces like any other human space.
But they are particular in that they’re places where difference gets scrambled by desire. And this is another way in which I think desire is importunate and breaks all our rules. When you go to a place like the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture or to an adult bookstore on Eighth Avenue in New York and you go to those back rooms, there are people of all races, all ages, all economic backgrounds. Not to paint those places as free of various kinds of cultural oppressions—they’re not—but anytime you have human interactions you have sparks of various kinds. You have connections of various kinds across difference, across privilege, and that to me makes them potentially radical spaces. A writer I admire very much, a queer writer named Bruce Benderson, has long made arguments about how crucial these spaces are and how crucial it is that queerness not be scrubbed of places like this, which are often spoken of with disdain. And he argues that these are spaces that are full of the potential for radicality, and I think that’s because of these ethical sparks that can happen across difference. That was just as true in Sofia as it was in Louisville when I was fourteen, and I think that makes them more to be cherished. There is this danger, I think, in the new kind of respectability of—we can say queerness, but I think it’s still predominantly “gayness.” But of queerness, too. We have Caitlyn Jenner now who’s teaching the world what a “well behaved” transgender person looks like. I’m glad that marriage equality exists. I think there’s a way in which the respectability of queerness has opened up new possibilities for queer life, and I think anyone who has an allegiance to liberation needs to see that as a win. But. There is also a danger that it is shutting down other modes and possibilities for queer life, and that it is shutting down precisely that radical potential inherent in these spaces that scramble our usual categories of identity.
One of the ways that What Belongs to You keeps the narrator and Mitko away from that, as you put it, “well-behaved” space is that their relationship deals with sex work, something that is still heavily stigmatized.
But as anyone who’s ever been involved with sex work knows, it is still a person responding to other people. Feeling isn’t absent simply because money is present.
That’s right, absolutely.
But there’s something else here, between your narrator and Mitko, that is often true of love that has anything to do with transaction, or in instances where love is not expected—for instance with the historically marginalized or the chronically ill—and that is that love is intensified, as is the fear of losing it, but it also can make love almost indistinguishable from gratitude.
I think you’re right. I mean, I think sex work is a really complicated phenomenon. And I think that it is a really ethically fraught and complicated interaction between human beings. One of the things that interests me about sex work, or about the relationship in What Belongs to You, is that it gives the lie to the idea that money makes things clean, that in some way money scrubs the human trace from labor and from the products of labor. I think shopping at Walmart is [also] a human exchange that we should be aware of as incredibly fraught and damaging, that there is human suffering there that we allow ourselves to imagine money has washed away.
What’s interesting to me about sex work in the novel is that it is a face to face exchange. In that sense, I think the narrator imagines in the beginning of the novel that money scrubs messiness from human interaction. He keeps repeating this word, like a refrain, “transaction.” As if that makes feeling easier! But it’s messy, like all human relationships.
In this particular case, the narrator pays for action, but feeling is inevitable.
Right. When you’re face to face, as opposed to exploiting someone from a distance, like we do just when we breathe in this country, you can’t ignore their humanness. You can’t insulate yourself from feeling.
The premise of sex work is that bodies can be made commodities. Actually, I think that’s the premise of capitalism. It’s very hard for that to happen in face-to-face exchanges. There’s a way in which personhood keeps asserting itself. Certainly for this narrator, but I think it happens on both sides. There’s no question that this relationship is formed and deformed and structured and framed by the transaction with which it begins, and that’s something which the narrator, especially in the third part of the book, has to confront. There’s no unpoisoned ground he can stand on in his relationship with Mitko. But! There are moments between the narrator and Mitko that, to me, seem full of the potential for authentic feeling. And when Mitko says to the narrator in the final section of the book, “You are an istinski priyatel”—“you are a true friend”—the narrator immediately qualifies that in his head and steps away from it and hedges it, but I think the book opens up a space of possibility where that is a true statement.
After their first interaction (transaction) Mitko leaves the narrator literally on his knees, and the narrator realizes he’s grateful for the rude abandonment because he’s been left alone with his sense of fantasy—the essential ingredient of limerence, wherein another person becomes a canvas onto which you project a whole new world. And that, more than money, seems to be the means by which the narrator makes a commodity of Mitko. But then, in the book’s third section, the narrator tries to care for Mitko when he takes ill, and he receives care from Mitko as well. There is a degree of trust that unhinges him, perhaps because he didn’t pay for it and so doesn’t know what to do with it.
I love that you point to that moment at the end of the first scene, their first encounter. I think that is where Mitko is least a person for the narrator. And he’s not available to the narrator’s fantasy in the same way at the end of the book. There’s a sort of real image that has supplanted the fantasy or imposed itself on the fantasy.
And that starts in the first section, when they go on holiday to the seaside and Mitko has the audacity to masturbate twice one morning while the narrator is out for a walk. That was an amazing assertion of self; Mitko refused to deny his own body’s desires for the narrator’s convenience.
Absolutely! He’s saying, “I’m a person, I’m a person.”
Tell me about writing Mitko. That novella, even though it became the first section of your novel, is so different from What Belongs to You.
Good! [Laughs.] I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote any part of this novel, and I had no conception of it as a novel until all three parts were written. It took a long time. Mitko was the first fiction I’d ever written. The whole book was written in Bulgaria, while I was there. It was written really sentence by sentence, clause by clause. I was feeling my way forward in the dark. And it helped that I wrote the book mostly physically in the dark, in the mornings before going to school to teach. I had run away from any sort of public career as a writer. Part of what made me leave Harvard was feeling like poetry was being turned into a profession. That to me is toxic. And in Bulgaria I found this place in which writing could be what it has to be, which is the most intense privacy. Being in this place, speaking another language, English itself became a kind of privacy, especially when I was working on this. I taught in English, but on breaks I would sometimes go days without speaking it.
I went years without showing a page to anyone. And so the novel emerged sentence by sentence, step by step. What I kept saying to myself, the only rule of writing fiction that I had, since I’d never been in a fiction workshop before I came to Iowa, was “be patient.” Don’t try to think ahead, don’t try to think about where the scene is going; instead just be true to this moment and observe it as closely as you can and allow the sentence to take you forward step by step.
In poetry I couldn’t do that, in part because I’d done so many workshops in poetry. In prose, I could trust the music of the sentence.
I think that’s where the feeling comes from: punctuation. Punctuation is musical. You can think about it in the same way one might while reading sheet music. When you look at sheet music you know when it will be staccato, you can see the adagio, you can point to the precise moment on the page when the music will make you feel like you’re in love now, now sad, now terrified. The second section of your novel, the middle section, is a solid paragraph, and for that reason it made me feel panicked to read it. It mimicked shock, which was perfect because the narrator was walking through Sofia in a fugue state after having received tragic news. There is no breath.
To me, what you say is exactly right. My first training in art was in music, was in singing. Syntax to me is exactly as you say, it’s a notation of emotion. There’s a way in which I think of syntax, of the texture of a sentence, as being like the musical texture in opera, say, where it gives you the emotion. I love that you say that, that’s all that I hoped.
A great deal has been made of your semicolons.
I love semicolons because they allow for a kind of expansiveness without imposing the kind of logical relationships that subordinated syntax imposes. Subordination is all about ranking, about making one experience primary and other experiences secondary. Semicolons allow you to suspend that hierarchy.
It’s a beautiful coincidence that they look so much like hinges. It’s difficult for me to separate punctuation from the very shape that it implies. They are the closest thing our [not Cyrillic] alphabet has to pictograms. I think about what em-dashes and colons look like, about what they tell people about the text that follows.
I couldn’t agree more.
You dwell in the world of poetry still, at least a little, right? Your boyfriend, Luis, is a poet.
He is, he is a wonderful poet.
A big time poet in Spain!
He’s a fancy poet, it’s true! I was just down in Chile for the first time and I had dinner with a group of gay writers. When I got there they were pouring drinks, and on the kitchen counter of this very fancy apartment they had laid out first editions of Luis’s poems.
I haven’t written a poem in probably six years . I really felt when I wrote Mitko, well—I just felt that it was better than my poems. It kind of demolished them in a way. I was able to access surprise in prose in a way that I hadn’t been able to in poetry, for whatever reason. So I haven’t written a poem since then. I still taught poetry and I read poetry, but I had gotten to a place where I wasn’t spending two hours analyzing a Shakespeare sonnet anymore. And then I met Luis! And Luis is astonishing. He’s astonishing for his own poems, and also for his knowledge of the canon of Spanish-language poetry, both peninsular and Latin American. He’s introduced me to some poets that just struck like revelations to me, especially the Spanish poet Luis Cernuda, whom I had never read before and who is a great gay poet.
The thing that really made me feel close to poetry again was translating Luis’s poems. Because this was very early in our relationship. Like, weeks into our relationship. I didn’t speak any Spanish. His English was not good at all. And so when we worked on translating his poems, we had to talk about every word in this very exhaustive way. I remember, we would have both of our computers open and we would have dozens of tabs open where we would see different examples of the use of a word, or images to express something, or videos to talk about a particular movement. And we would spend hours on a single line and he would talk exhaustively about what he was thinking or the particular, not meaning, but feeling of a word.
Wow. No wonder you fell in love.
That was falling in love with him. It was wonderful. When I worked on the English versions of those poems I was using all these muscles I hadn’t used as a writer for a long time, because I was thinking about form in a way you don’t think about form in prose. I don’t count syllables when I write sentences [in prose]. But I do in poetry. And I think about metrical feet. I don’t think about feet when I write a prose sentence. I write aloud, and I think about music, and I care a lot about rhythm, but I don’t think about feet. But working on Luis’s poems, I did. It felt wonderful. It made me feel closer to poetry than I’d felt in years and years. Luisiño.
At the end of What Belongs to You, your narrator has a boyfriend, R. I hear those two characters aren’t done yet.
That’s right. The container of this novel was not big enough for everything I wanted to think about in relationship to Bulgaria and in relationship to the experiences I had there—and in relationship to this narrator, too. The novel doesn’t really talk about teaching, for instance. There’s this relationship in the third section that’s very important, though we don’t learn much about it, with this guy named “R.” So the book I’m working on now is a collection of stories that very much fall into the interstices of What Belongs to You. It’s the same narrator, and about half of the stories are about R. and this relationship, and about that world that R. makes possible for the narrator, which is so very different from the world he occupies in the first section of What Belongs to You. It feels like a companion volume to the novel. It’s the same world.
Could you see it perhaps collected with What Belongs to You as a longer version of the novel, in the same way that the novel was a continuation of Mitko?
That’d be interesting. I don’t want to make any claims about the book I write after this; maybe I’ll write a fantasy novel, I don’t know. But I do love writers whose work feels like one enormous project. Proust feels that way to me, Sebald feels that way to me, Javier Marias feels that way to me. And I like that, that way in which there’s something artificial about putting covers around a particular group of pages. Well, that’s true and not true: in What Belongs to You I certainly tried to think about the novel as a form, and there are echoes and symmetries that I hope make it complete in and of itself. So I don’t want to say that it’s an arbitrary collection of pages. I don’t think it is. But! It does seem to me that there’s something kind of arbitrary about saying that this territory of thinking or of experience is complete, and now I’m moving into a wholly other territory. That’s not how life has worked for me, and it’s not how my mind works.
How do you write now? Do you still write in the dark?
That’s a really good question. The scary thing about having this book be published is that I feel farther away from a kind of sustaining writing practice than I have felt in years. I feel like I’m working a lot, but I feel very far from the privacy that for me is necessary for real writing. There’s a way in which publishing a book, to me, is diametrically opposed to writing. Publishing a book, I mean, it’s public. I have a publicist. I have to work on this public face, I’m going to go do these readings—and I want to be as good an ambassador for my book as I possibly can, I want to do everything I can to give this book a life in the world, but I know that between now and May I’m not going to be writing fiction. I know that I’ll have my notebook. I’ll be taking notes. Hopefully I’ll be stocking up the way that one does. I hope it will be a meaningful fallow period where ideas get mixed up and worked around. But I am beginning to think about when this very frenzied public phase is over, I’m going to have to do something to get back to that private space. I think that probably will involve going somewhere far away.
We’re giving one lucky winner a copy of Joe Okonkwo’s Jazz Moon. You can listen to and read an excerpt in Episode 61, where we feature Joe’s work.
Joe Okonkwo is a Pushcart Prize nominee who has had stories published in a variety of print and online venues including Promethean, Penumbra Literary Magazine, Chelsea Station, Shotgun Honey, and Best Gay Stories 2015. In addition to his writing career, he has worked in theater as an actor, stage manager, director, playwright and youth theater instructor. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York. Jazz Moon is his debut novel.
The Other Stories’ Social Media Intern Melissa Francis reached out to our authors to find out what they’re up to.
Some of the talented authors that we’ve featured on our podcast have new and upcoming publications:
- Jacob M Appel (episode 26): “The Homely Girls” published in Ascent; Coulrophobia& Fata Morgana, a short story collection to be published by Black Lawrence Press in August.
- Levi Andrew Noe (episode 48): “Cadence” published in Scrutiny Journal.
- Zachary Tyler Vickers (episode 28): “Finkle, Frigup” published in The Iowa Review; “Braille Lessons for Very Tall Children” published in Booth Journal; and “The Seamster,” forthcoming in DIAGRAM.
- Ríona Judge McCormack (episode 47): “Backburn”, winner of the inaugural Galley Beggar Press Short Story Award; “The Kiss” (audio), shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story Award; “Fifteen Silver Shillings”, joint winner of the HISSAC Flash Fiction Prize.
- Mary Rose McCarthy (episode 44): “They Know Not” forthcoming in Cork County Council’s From the Well anthology; story shortlisted in competition of the same name.
- Katherine Vondy (episode 4): “The Harbor, In Winter” published in Cobalt Review.
- Anne Whitehouse (episode 36): “A Fire in Winter” published in The Greensilk Journal; “The Secret”, and “One Summer Day on the Number One Train” published in By & By Poetry; “Grout Pond” published in Agave Magazine; “Preserves” and “The ‘E-E-E-E-E-E’” published in riverbabble; and “My Last Spring in My House and Garden”, and “A Few Things I Learned From My Mother-in-Law”, published in The Basil O’Flaherty.
- Kit Haggard (episode 17): “Poppies”, forthcoming this month to be published by Okey Panky; “Kiss”, published in Hypothetical People: Writing and Art from the Booksellers of Greenlight.
- Eric Silvera (episode 13): “Skinny Mirror”, published in Five2One Magazine; “Festival”, published in The Poeming Pigeon.
- Craig Fishbane (episode 42): “Cordoba”, published in A Quiet Courage.
This week, we featured an excerpt from Rebecca Strong’s novel, Who Is Mr. Plutin, published by Curiosity Quill Press. And because both Strong and her publishers are awesome, we’re giving away her book to one lucky entrant to the contest below! If you don’t win, don’t worry! You can buy Who is Mr. Plutin here!
From the Curiosity Quill Press’s websites, a quick description of Who Is Mr. Plutin:
Yesterday Vika Serkova was in New York, eating takeout alone in her closet-sized apartment. Today she wakes up with a wedding ring on her finger, next to a man who claims to be her husband. In a designer flat in St Petersburg, Russia. Huh?
Her new reality is full of surprises. She owns only stilettos but can’t take a step in them without falling. People around her seem to think she’s lived in Russia her entire life. Her daily routine includes thousand-dollar spa visits with caviar and Dom Pérignon. And her husband is a handsome oligarch who buys her jewelry without any occasion. This new Russian life seems to be as different from the old American life as two countries’ views on Crimea.
Has reality blown a fuse? Vika won’t worry about it now that she is a living Cinderella story. At least not until her husband drops an ultimate bomb about why she’s forgotten everything, about the work she does with her father, and about her current assignment for the Russian President. The assignment, which, as she discovers a day later, sets her against her husband in a conspiracy big enough to cost them not only their Breguets but very possibly their lives. To save herself and the family she is beginning to remember Vika needs to fool them into defecting. A perfect plan but only if she can manage it with her Russian memory MIA and her opponents set on destroying each other even before Vika’s manicure dries.
Fun and fast-paced, WHO IS MR. PLUTIN? is set in modern day St. Petersburg, Russia where your chances in life are only as good as the car you drive, the clothes you wear, and the people you stay away from.
Review by Caitlin Murphy
I love a good literary road trip. From Tolkien’s Middle Earth to Kerouac’s America, there is something undeniably appealing about them. To me, they’re a modern take on the quest narrative or coming of age story, serving as a vehicle through which characters are developed for the better, returning home wiser, stronger, and changed. When Kody murders his girlfriend’s parents, fleeing with her on a road trip across America, it is immediately understood that the characters of Bud Smith’s novella I’m From Electric Peak are not to be redeemed. Instead, Smith subverts the trope in such a way that highlights a dangerous tension between the dynamics of power, blind faith, and a sense of a knowing, inevitable collapse.
Told through Kody’s perspective, I’m From Electric Peak begins with the cold blooded murder of Teal’s parents in retaliation for their decision to send their daughter to Italy in an attempt to keep the teens apart. The reader learns shortly thereafter that Teal was pregnant, forced by her parents to undergo an abortion, a loss which Teal feels acutely throughout the narrative. Where Kody takes this personally, it becomes clear that for him, his desire to “rescue” or “avenge” Teal is more about maintaining his ability to control her. The road trip is exclusively about his plans for their destination and life together. While Teal goes along with Kody’s whims, she is simultaneously pushing against him and his control with a growing intensity throughout the novella. This dynamic is coupled with a growing intensity of Kody’s violent thoughts and intentions, all of which culminate in a standoff which won’t be spoiled in this review.
The world of I’m From Electric Peak is claustrophobic, tightly centered on Kody and Teal’s adventure, fueled by Kody’s toxic idea of love as two people alone in the world. Their twisted intimacy, combined with a series of constrictive settings and Kody’s possessive violence, creates a constant sense of extreme unease and fragility for the reader. There is a very real threat to not only Teal’s safety, but to anything she cares for, ranging from her brother to her own agency. In turn, the possibility of tragedy becomes as much a character as any of the others within the narrative, and this is something Smith handles brilliantly. For me, the most striking thing about I’m From Electric Peak was the role of power and faith throughout the narrative. Where Teal finds a necessary faith in Elvis, a connection associated with her home and her family, assigning the experience of visiting Graceland with religious significance, Kody believes exclusively in himself and his perceived love for her.
Where Teal identifies the extent to which the men in her life have dominated over her and her wishes, recognizing that Saint Dymphna, a woman compelled to marry her father only to be murdered by him, is “a lot like [her]”, Kody is seemingly affronted by her lack of faith in him as an absolute figure of control. As Teal begins to gravitate toward a sense of faith as a belief in herself and her sense of home, the more danger Kody poses to her, and the more urgent a need for resolution becomes.
I’m From Electric Peak is not the kind of book you read casually, or purely for pleasure. While there are many interesting, and thought provoking aspects to the novella, the story is ultimately told from the least compelling character’s perspective, leaving some of the most interesting questions or plot points under utilized. Instead, the reader has to be willing to engage with the narrative on a critical level to fully appreciate the symbolism and language Smith has to offer. If you’re looking for a read to spend days contemplating, give I’m From Electric Peak a read for the metaphors, a thoughtful portrayal of power and toxicity, and for Teal Cartwheels.
Caitlin Murphy is a writer, editor, and reader based outside of New York City. She probably wishes you’d ask her about knights in literature. You can find her on Twitter @MsCaitlinMurphy
Tor Books has kindly agreed to let us give one of our wonderful listeners a copy of Brandon Sanderson’s The Bands of Mourning. Below you’ll find the details to enter, and the first chapter!
THE BANDS OF MOURNING: Chapter 1 Excerpt
By Brandon Sanderson
Waxillium Ladrian hurried down the steps outside the bar-turned-hideout, passing constables in brown who bustled this way and that. The mists were already evaporating, dawn heralding the end of their vigil. He checked his arm, where a bullet had ripped a sizable hole through the cuff of his shirt and out the side of his jacket. He’d felt that one pass.
“Oi,” Wayne said, hustling up beside him. “A good plan that one was, eh?”
“It was the same plan you always have,” Wax said. “The one where I get to be the decoy.”
“Ain’t my fault people like to shoot at you, mate,” Wayne said as they reached the coach. “You should be happy; you’re usin’ your talents, like me granners always said a man should do.”
“I’d rather not have ‘shootability’ be my talent.”
“Well, you gotta use what you have,” Wayne said, leaning against the side of the carriage as Cob the coachman opened the door for Wax. “Same reason I always have bits of rat in my stew.”
Wax looked into the carriage, with its fine cushions and rich upholstery, but didn’t climb in.
“You gonna be all right?” Wayne asked.
“Of course I am,” Wax said. “This is my second marriage. I’m an old hand at the practice by now.”
Wayne grinned. “Oh, is that how it works? ’Cuz in my experience, marryin’ is the one thing people seem to get worse at the more they do it. Well, that and bein’ alive.”
“Wayne, that was almost profound.”
“Damn. I was aimin’ for insightful.”
Wax stood still, looking into the carriage. The coachman cleared his throat, still standing and holding the door open for him.
“Right pretty noose, that is,” Wayne noted.
“Don’t be melodramatic,” Wax said, leaning to climb in.
“Lord Ladrian!” a voice called from behind.
Wax glanced over his shoulder, noting a tall man in a dark brown suit and bow tie pushing between a pair of constables. “Lord Ladrian,” the man said, “could I have a moment, please?”
“Take them all,” Wax said. “But do it without me.”
“I’ll meet you there,” Wax said, nodding to Wayne. He dropped a spent bullet shell, then Pushed himself into the air. Why waste time on a carriage?
Steel at a comfortable burn inside his stomach, he shoved on a nearby electric streetlight—still shining, though morning had arrived—and soared higher into the air. Elendel spread before him, a soot-stained marvel of a city, leaking smoke from a hundred thousand different homes and factories. Wax shoved off the steel frame of a half-finished building nearby, then sent himself in a series of leaping bounds across the Fourth Octant.
He passed over a field of carriages for hire, rows of vehicles waiting quietly in ranks, early morning workers looking up at him as he passed. One pointed; perhaps the mistcoat had drawn his attention. Coinshot couriers weren’t an uncommon sight in Elendel, and men soaring through the air were rarely a point of interest.
A few more leaps took him over a series of warehouses in huddled rows. Wax thrilled in each jump. It was amazing how this could still feel so wonderful to him. The breeze in his face, the little moment of weightlessness when he hung at the very top of an arc.
All too soon, however, both gravity and duty reasserted themselves. He left the industrial district and crossed finer roadways, paved with pitch and gravel to create a smoother surface than cobbles for all those blasted motorcars. He spotted the Survivorist church easily, with its large glass and steel dome. Back in Weathering a simple wooden chapel had been sufficient, but that wasn’t nearly grand enough for Elendel.
The design was to allow those who worshipped full view of the mists at night. Wax figured if they wanted to see the mists, they’d do better just stepping outside. But perhaps he was being cynical. After all, the dome—which was made of segments of glass between steel supports, making it look like the sections of an orange—was able to open inward and let the mist pour down for special occasions.
He landed on a rooftop water tower across from the church. Perhaps when it had been built, the church’s dome had been tall enough to overshadow the surrounding buildings. It would have provided a nice profile. Now, buildings were rising taller and taller, and the church was dwarfed by its surroundings. Wayne would find a metaphor in that. Probably a crude one.
He perched on the water tower, looming over the church. So he was here, finally. He felt his eye begin to twitch, and an ache rose within him.
I think I loved you even on that day. So ridiculous, but so earnest.…
Six months ago, he’d pulled the trigger. He could still hear the gunshot.
Standing up, he pulled himself together. He’d healed this wound once. He could do so again. And if that left his heart crusted with scar tissue, then perhaps that was what he needed. He leaped off the water tower, then slowed by dropping and Pushing on a shell casing.
He hit the street and strode past a long line of carriages. Guests were already in attendance—Survivorist tenets called for weddings either very early in the morning or late at night. Wax nodded to several people he passed, and couldn’t help slipping his shotgun out of its holster and resting it on his shoulder as he hopped up the steps and shoved the door open before him with a Steelpush.
Steris paced in the foyer, wearing a sleek white dress that had been chosen because the magazines said it was fashionable. With her hair braided and her makeup done by a professional for the occasion, she was actually quite pretty.
He smiled when he saw her. His stress, his nervousness, melted away a little.
Steris looked up as soon as he entered, then hurried to his side. “And?”
“I didn’t get killed,” he said, “so there’s that.”
She glanced at the clock. “You’re late,” she said, “but not very late.”
“I’m … sorry?” She’d insisted he go on the raid. She’d planned for it, in fact. Such was life with Steris.
“I’m sure you did your best,” Steris said, taking his arm. She was warm, and even trembling. Steris might be reserved, but unlike what some assumed, she wasn’t emotionless.
“The raid?” she asked.
“Went well. No casualties.” He walked with her to a side chamber, where Drewton—his valet—waited beside a table spread with Wax’s white wedding suit. “You realize that by going on a raid on the morning of my wedding, I’ll only reinforce this image that society has of me.”
“That of a ruffian,” he said, taking off his mistcoat and handing it to Drewton. “A barely civilized lout from the Roughs who curses in church and goes to parties armed.”
She glanced at his shotgun, which he’d tossed onto the sofa. “You enjoy playing with people’s perceptions of you, don’t you? You seek to make them uncomfortable, so they’ll be off balance.”
“It’s one of the simple joys I have left, Steris.” He smiled as Drewton unbuttoned his waistcoat. Then he pulled off both that and his shirt, leaving him bare-chested.
“I see I’m included in those you try to make uncomfortable,” Steris said.
“I work with what I have,” Wax said.
“Which is why you always have bits of rat in your stew?”
Wax hesitated in handing his clothing to Drewton. “He said that to you too?”
“Yes. I’m increasingly convinced he tries the lines out on me.” She folded her arms. “The little mongrel.”
“Not going to leave as I change?” Wax asked, amused.
“We’re to be married in less than an hour, Lord Waxillium,” she said. “I think I can stand to see you bare-chested. As a side note, you’re the Pathian. Prudishness is part of your belief system, not mine. I’ve read of Kelsier. From what I’ve studied, I doubt he’d care if—”
Wax undid the wooden buttons on his trousers. Steris blushed, before turning around and finally putting her back to him. She continued speaking a moment later, sounding flustered. “Well, at least you agreed to a proper ceremony.”
Wax smiled, settling down in his undershorts and letting Drewton give his face a quick shave. Steris remained in place, listening. Finally, as Drewton was wiping the cream from Wax’s face, she asked, “You have the pendants?”
“Gave them to Wayne.”
“You … What?”
“I thought you wanted some disturbances at the wedding,” Wax said, standing and taking the new set of trousers from Drewton. He slipped them on. He hadn’t worn white much since returning from the Roughs. It was harder to keep clean out there, which had made it worth wearing. “I figured this would work.”
“I wanted planned disturbances, Lord Waxillium,” Steris snapped. “It’s not upsetting if it’s understood, prepared for, and controlled. Wayne is rather the opposite of those things, wouldn’t you say?”
Wax did up his buttons and Drewton took his shirt off the hanger nearby. Steris turned around immediately upon hearing the sound, arms still folded, and didn’t miss a beat—refusing to acknowledge that she’d been embarrassed. “I’m glad I had copies made.”
“You made copies of our wedding pendants?”
“Yes.” She chewed her lip a moment. “Six sets.”
“The other four didn’t arrive in time.”
Wax grinned, doing up the buttons on his shirt, then letting his valet handle the cuffs. “You’re one of a kind, Steris.”
“Technically, so is Wayne—and actually so was Ruin, for that matter. If you consider it, that’s not much of a compliment.”
Wax strapped on suspenders, then let Drewton fuss with his collar. “I don’t get it, Steris,” he said, standing stiffly as the valet worked. “You prepare so thoroughly for things to go wrong—like you know and expect that life is unpredictable.”
“And life is unpredictable. So the only thing you do by preparing for disturbances is ensure that something elseis going to go wrong.”
“That’s a rather fatalistic viewpoint.”
“Living in the Roughs does that to a fellow.” He eyed her, standing resplendent in her dress, arms crossed, tapping her left arm with her right index finger.
“I just … feel better when I try,” Steris finally said. “It’s like, if everything goes wrong, at least I tried. Does that make any sense?”
“As a matter of fact, I think it does.”
Drewton stepped back, satisfied. The suit came with a very nice black cravat and vest. Traditional, which Wax preferred. Bow ties were for salesmen. He slid on the jacket, tails brushing the backs of his legs. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he strapped on his gunbelt and slid Vindication into her holster. He’d worn a gun to his last wedding, so why not this one? Steris nodded in approval.
Shoes went last. A new pair. They’d be hideously uncomfortable. “Are we late enough yet?” he asked Steris.
She checked the clock in the corner. “I planned for us to go in two minutes from now.”
“Ah, delightful,” he said, taking her arm. “That means we can be spontaneous and arrive early. Well, late-early.”
She clung to his arm, letting him steer her down the side chamber toward the entrance to the dome, and the church proper. Drewton followed behind.
“Are you … certain you wish to proceed?” Steris asked, stopping him before they entered the walkway to the dome.
“Having second thoughts?”
“Absolutely not,” Steris said immediately. “This union is quite beneficial to my house and status.” She took Wax’s left hand in both of hers. “But Lord Waxillium,” she said softly, “I don’t want you to feel trapped, particularly after what happened to you earlier this year. If you wish to back out, I will accept it as your will.”
The way she clutched his hand as she said those words sent a very different message. But she didn’t seem to notice. Looking at her, Wax found himself wondering. When he’d first agreed to the marriage, he’d done so out of duty to his house.
Now, he felt his emotions shifting. The way she’d been there for him these last months as he’d grieved … The way she looked at him right now …
Rust and Ruin. He was actually fond of Steris. It wasn’t love, but he doubted he would love again. This would do.
“No, Steris,” he said. “I would not back out. That … wouldn’t be fair to your house, and the money you have spent.”
“The money doesn’t—”
“It’s all right,” Wax said, giving her hand a little squeeze. “I have recovered enough from my ordeal. I’m strong enough to do this.”
Steris opened her mouth to reply, but a knock at the door heralded Marasi sticking her head in to check on them. With dark hair and softer, rounder features than Steris, Marasi wore bright red lipstick and a progressive lady’s attire—a pleated skirt, with a tight buttoned jacket.
“Finally,” she said. “Crowd is getting fidgety. Wax, there’s a man here wanting to see you. I’ve been trying to send him away, but … well…”
She came into the room and held the door open, revealing the same slender man in the brown suit and bow tie from before, standing with the ash girls in the antechamber that led to the dome proper.
“You,” Wax said. “How did you get here before Wayne?”
“I don’t believe your friend is coming,” the man said. He stepped in beside Marasi and nodded to her, then closed the doors, shutting out the ash girls. He turned and tossed Wax a wadded-up ball of paper.
When Wax caught it, it clinked. Unfolding it revealed the two wedding pendants. Scrawled on the paper were the words: Gonna go get smashed till I can’t piss straight. Happy weddings ’n stuff.
“Such beautiful imagery,” Steris observed, taking Wax’s wedding pendant in a white-gloved hand as Marasi looked over his shoulder to read the note. “At least he didn’t forget these.”
“Thank you,” Wax said to the man in brown, “but as you can see, I’m quite busy getting married. Whatever you need from me can—”
The man’s face turned translucent, displaying the bones of his skull and spine beneath.
Steris stiffened. “Holy One,” she whispered.
“Holy pain,” Wax said. “Tell Harmony to get someone else this time. I’m busy.”
“Tell … Harmony…” Steris mumbled, her eyes wide.
“Unfortunately, this is part of the problem,” the man in brown said, his skin returning to normal. “Harmony has been distracted as of late.”
“How can God be distracted?” Marasi asked.
“We’re not sure, but it has us worried. I need you, Waxillium Ladrian. I have a job you’ll find of interest. I realize you’re off to the ceremony, but afterward, if I could have a moment of your time…”
“No,” Wax said.
Wax pulled Steris by the arm, shoving open the doors, striding past Marasi, leaving the kandra. It had been six months since those creatures had manipulated him, played him, and lied to him. The result? A dead woman in his arms.
“Was that really one of the Faceless Immortals?” Steris said, looking over her shoulder.
“Yes, and for obvious reasons I want nothing to do with them.”
“Peace,” she said, holding his arm. “Do you need a moment?”
Wax stopped in place. She waited, and he breathed in and out, banishing from his mind that awful, awful scene when he’d knelt on a bridge alone, holding Lessie. A woman he realized he’d never actually known.
“I’m all right,” he said to Steris through clenched teeth. “But God should have known not to come for me. Particularly not today.”
“Your life is … decidedly odd, Lord Waxillium.”
“I know,” he said, moving again, stepping with her beside the last door before they entered the dome. “Ready?”
“Yes, thank you.” Was she … teary-eyed? It was an expression of emotion he’d never seen from her.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Forgive me. It’s just … more wonderful than I’d imagined.”
They pushed open the doors, revealing the glistening dome, sunlight streaming through it and upon the waiting crowd. Acquaintances. Distant family members. Seamstresses and forgeworkers from his house. Wax sought out Wayne, and was surprised when he didn’t find the man, despite the note. He was the only real family Wax had.
The ash girls scampered out, sprinkling small handfuls of ash on the carpeted walkway that ringed the perimeter of the dome. Wax and Steris started forward in a stately walk, presenting themselves for those in attendance. There was no music at a Survivorist ceremony, but a few crackling braziers with green leaves on top let smoke trail upward to represent the mist.
Smoke ascends while ash falls, he thought, remembering the priest’s words from his youth, back when he’d attended Survivorist ceremonies. They walked all the way around the crowd. At least Steris’s family had made a decent showing, her father included—the red-faced man gave Waxillium an enthusiastic fist-raise as they passed.
Wax found himself smiling. This was what Lessie had wanted. They’d joked time and time again about their simple Pathian ceremony, finalized on horsebackto escape a mob. She said that someday, she’d make him do it proper.
Sparkling crystal. A hushed crowd. Footsteps on scrunching carpet dappled with grey ash. His smile widened, and he looked to the side.
But of course, the wrong woman was there.
He almost stumbled. Idiot man, he thought. Focus. This day was important to Steris; the least he could do was not ruin it. Or rather, not ruin it in a way she hadn’t expected. Whatever that meant.
Unfortunately, as they walked the remaining distance around the rotunda, his discomfort increased. He felt nauseous. Sweaty. Sick, like the feeling he had gotten the few times he had been forced to run from a killer and leave innocents in danger.
It all forced him, finally, to acknowledge a difficult fact. He wasn’t ready. It wasn’t Steris, it wasn’t the setting. He just wasn’t ready for this.
This marriage meant letting go of Lessie.
But he was trapped, and he had to be strong. He set his jaw and stepped with Steris onto the dais, where the priest stood between two stands topped with crystal vases of Marewill flowers. The ceremony was drawn from ancient Larsta beliefs, from Harmony’s Beliefs Reborn, a volume in the Words of Founding.
The priest spoke the words, but Wax couldn’t listen. All was numbness to him, teeth clenched, eyes straight ahead, muscles tense. They’d found a priest murdered in this very church. Killed by Lessie as she went mad. Couldn’t they have done something for her, instead of setting him on the hunt? Couldn’t they have told him?
Strength. He would not flee. He would not be a coward.
He held Steris’s hands, but couldn’t look at her. Instead, he turned his face upward to look out the glass dome toward the sky. Most of it was crowded out by the buildings. Skyscrapers on two sides, windows glistening in the morning sun. That water tower certainly did block the view, though as he watched, it shifted.…
Wax watched in horror as the legs under the enormous metal cylinder bent, as if to kneel, ponderously tipping their burden on its side. The top of the thing sheared off, spilling tons of water in a foaming wave.
He yanked Steris to him, arm firmly around her waist, then ripped off the second button down on his waistcoat and dropped it. He Pushed against this single metal button, launching himself and Steris away from the dais as the priest yelped in surprise.
Water crashed against the dome, which strained for the briefest of seconds before a section of it snapped open, hinges giving way inward to the water.
Copyright © 2016 by Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC
Sanderson grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. He lives in Utah with his wife and children and teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University. In addition to completing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, he is the author of such bestsellers as the Mistborn trilogy, Warbreaker, The Alloy of Law, The Way of Kings, Rithmatist, and Steelheart. He won the 2013 Hugo Award for “The Emperor’s Soul,” a novella set in the world of his acclaimed first novel, Elantris. For fascinating behind-the-scenes information on Brandon Sanderson’s work, visit him at www.brandonsanderson.com.