Writing

a few words on depression

0 Comments 27 October 2017

Before I left Brooklyn, I went in to get my annual checkup I get every 8 years or so. The intake nurse asked me if I was on any medications. I told her the only thing I took was Advil and an anti-depressant. She raised an eyebrow and looked at me and said “Forgive me but a young, good-looking guy like you… what reason do you have to be sad?”
I said “If I came in here with a broken leg, would you have said ‘Young, good-looking guy like you… what reason do you have to have a broken leg?'”
She shut up and went back to filling out the dumb form.
I’m glad she said that to me and not to someone else who wasn’t feeling strong enough to give her shit back. But I’m grateful to that intake nurse because she gave me a great definition of depression: sadness without reason.

Writing

Las Vegas and gun control

0 Comments 11 October 2017

Spring of 2007 was not a great time for me. I was living in Greenpoint, working a construction gig, working to finish a record that would never see the light of day, trying to keep my shit together. One thing that kept me from giving up was a dove that had built her nest on the fire escape outside of my kitchen window. The nest seemed totally exposed, perched as it was on the intersection of two outer railings, and I had no idea how she’d be able to raise her young there. Should I open the window and push her nest off so she’d have to find a safer place to lay her eggs? I didn’t know what to do so I didn’t do anything and then one morning, there were two pale perfect eggs in her nest. It cheered me up. I don’t know why, but it did. Everything seemed to be falling apart in my life but this simple magical timeless thing was still happening in front of me. Each morning, I dragged myself out of bed and laid on the floor of my shower until I could stand and then sat at my kitchen table and forced some cereal down and watched this little mama dove sitting on her nest. She watched me back but didn’t do anything. I think she could tell I wasn’t a threat. She just sat there, protecting her eggs, and staring back into my eyes.
On April 16th, a young man armed with two semiautomatic pistols killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. It shocked me and scared me, but I didn’t cry.
A couple of days later, I sat down at my kitchen table, and poured my bowl of cereal. I knew the eggs would be hatching soon and I couldn’t wait. I looked outside. The eggs were gone. The nest was still there, perched defiantly on the exposed corner of the railing, but the eggs were gone. What had happened? The wind couldn’t have blown them out and left the nest intact. Had a squirrel come and eaten them? As I stared at the empty nest, the dove flew up and perched on the railing. She looked at me and somehow I instantly understood the sorrow and confusion I saw in her eyes: What happened? Where are my children? Why?
And yeah, then I cried.
It made me think of my mother and the terror she felt when I had to call her on December 14th, 1992 to tell her that a classmate had shot up our school with an assault rifle, killing a student and a teacher. She drove through the night to come get me and I’ll never forget the relief I felt seeing her climbing out of her Ford Aerostar minivan and running through the snow toward me.
I was 15 then and I’m 40 now and I know that the safety I felt in her arms was a lie but I still miss the shit out of her today and would do just about anything to see her now and feel safe, even if it’s bullshit.
As a parent, it’s your prime directive to keep your children safe. There are a lot of parents mourning children today… and children mourning parents, and brothers and sisters mourning brothers and sisters and friends mourning friends. Gun owners, I care more about their lives than I do about your hobby or your lifestyle or, yes, even your rights and freedoms and your Constitution.

Music

more bad news- never touring again

0 Comments 27 May 2017

My live record came out on Friday, May 26th. It got as high as #2 on the iTunes comedy charts, which was pretty cool. I have a million people to thank but I’m going to limit it to three people here. Thanks to JT Habersaat for dragging me out of retirement. Thanks to Genevieve Rice for saying “No, you’re a comic” and sticking me in the Bird City Comedy Festival so I had to write jokes. Thanks to Josh McClane, without whom the live record never would have happened.

It was supposed to come out a month earlier but wound up coming out on the 8th anniversary of my sobriety. It was a pretty cool day— the president of Invisible Hands Music picked me up in a tiny plane and flew me from Cardiff to York and we didn’t die (barely). It felt pretty triumphant to be making a living playing music in a foreign country on the anniversary of my death and rebirth. I titled the record Never Touring Again because I’m hilarious and because I’ll always tour, right? Well, not so fast.

I have been feeling like dogshit for a while now. Depressed and worn-down and listless… but not just road-weary. Like there’s something else going on. A couple of times, I’ve been walking down the street and had a sudden flash of vertigo, like my head was a fish tank someone just bumped into. It always resolves pretty quickly but that’s not normal. I turned 40 in February and went out and ran a marathon I wasn’t trained for and gave myself a grueling case of sciatica that made my trip out to Bisbee/ Phoenix for Bird City Comedy an odyssey of pain, exhaustion and Advil. As I’m now officially old and haven’t been to the doctor for a while, I forced myself to go in for routine bloodwork.

I met with my doctor before I left for England. Not great news. I’m pre-diabetic and, as my doctor delicately put it, I have “the testosterone of a 70 year old man.” I knew I was at risk for diabetes as it runs in my family and I just lost my godfather to it, but I had no idea I was barreling straight for it. The testosterone thing, yeah, that kinda blindsided me.

First, yes, bring on the dick jokes, ALL the dick jokes. I’ve found out a lot of things about testosterone in the last month. Turns out testosterone is only part of your sex drive, and your sex drive is only part of what testosterone does. Since, after waning for a couple of years, my sex drive has dropped from “obnoxious” to merely “annoying,” at first I was like fuck it, if it means my gf and I can finally watch a movie all the way through at home, then who cares? But low testosterone increases your risk of osteoporosis and heart disease, your memory falters, and your mood tanks. My depression is bad enough without having something else ruining it, and I have too much shit left to do for my head and body to stop working now.

I’m going to fulfill my meager touring obligations for August and September and then I won’t be booking any shows on the road until April or May of 2018. I refuse to go on hormone therapy at 40 (as that means I’ll be on it the rest of my life) and I refuse to just capitulate to diabetes. Instead, I’m going to radically transform my diet, exercise habits, sleep schedule… everything. And I can’t do that when I’m on the road. I’ll be making Atlanta my home come late June/ early July with infrequent trips to NYC and CA to visit friends and family. 

It’s been two years since I’ve had a home of my own. It’s been an amazing experience, I’ve made so many friends and experienced so much kindness. But to keep going at the pace I have been would just be destructive and dumb.

Thanks for supporting live music and comedy and art in a culture that is circling rapidly around the drain. You guys mean more to me than I can say. 

Writing

fixing to die blues

1 Comment 13 April 2017

I have a lot going on right now and a job list that grows longer every day but I’ve spent most of the day just sitting around, waiting for my uncle to die. He’s diabetic— a condition he could have prevented, and then a condition he could have managed— and that has led to congestive heart failure, strokes, seizures, and comas. Against the odds, he made it through the day, but I can’t see him making it through tomorrow.

My mom is the second of seventeen children and Edward is one of her ten younger brothers, number fourteen. In the same way that I don’t remember meeting my mom or dad, I don’t remember meeting Uncle Ed, he just always existed, and in that way, felt kind of eternal. He lived with us for a while in our first house on Dalton Street when I was really little, maybe three or four. I remember him baking bread and I remember him waking us up by tickling our feet, something I relish doing to just about anyone to this day. Yes, I know it’s annoying-to-creepy when I do it now, but when he did it, it was just sweet.

Edward is my godfather and he always reminded me of that— even the last time I saw him when I was 38— and made it clear that there was special bond between us, that he had a responsibility to me that ran even deeper than blood. Much as I rack my brain now, I can’t think of one time he ever yelled at me or was anything less than totally kind to me.

When she was four, Uncle Ed’s daughter Tashina came to live with us. A couple of years later, we adopted her and she became officially what she had already been for a long time, unofficially: my sister. I was just eight when she came to live with us, so I was curious: why wasn’t she living with her mom and dad? I think my mom explained it to me that Tashina’s mom drank too much to take good care of her and that Ed wasn’t able to take the best care of her either and that Ed wasn’t letting her come live with us because he didn’t love her, but because he did. I believed that and I believe that… but I also knew then that it was bullshit, that you couldn’t just make a kid and then pawn her off on someone else. Maybe that influenced my decision to not have children. But Ed still called and visited as often as he could, even after we moved to New Mexico and then New Hampshire, and we were all always delighted to see him. As I got older, though, it became clear not just that Ed couldn’t take care of his kids, but that he couldn’t really take care of himself. And yeah, I’ll admit that I started to find him a little pathetic.

I didn’t see much of my family after I left for school and my family split up when I was fifteen. I did get a birthday letter from Ed when I was probably 23, getting my MFA from Columbia. I had a rough time while I was there and not just because I was dirt poor and my drinking was out of control. I had naively thought that Columbia would be full of life-loving idiots like me from all walks of life. With few exceptions, they were wealthy blue-bloods, somehow both far smarter than I was and dull as dirt. As I hated them for their privilege, I hated my family for our plain roots. When that letter from Ed found me, I was living in a tent I had made in the living room of my Columbia housing (I was illegally renting out the bedroom to save money). I read it laying on a bloody sheet on a single mattress next to a cupboard I’d hauled in off the street that housed my Carlo Rossi and hand-me-down porno mags my friends had exhausted. Ed’s letter was difficult to read because his handwriting was so bad, and even harder to parse due to the poor grammar and spelling mistakes. But the message was clear: he was writing because he remembered it was my birthday and because he loved me and because we had a special bond because he was my godfather. I wept over that letter because I hated my family for being uneducated rednecks, and because I hated my fancy university for making me hate my family for being uneducated rednecks, and because I loved my family and I missed my uncle.

I still have that letter and I would give anything to read it now, but I have no idea where it is. I’ve been living out of a bag for almost two years, all my shit’s in storage in California, and I’m forty years old, crying in my girlfriend’s bed in Atlanta. I love her and I’m glad I’m here, but it’s her town, not mine, and her bed, not mine, because although I’m forty years old, I don’t have a town or a bed. It occurs to me now that I was right as a judgmental little kid— that it’s wrong to bring a child into this world if you can’t take care of them— and that I was wrong as a kid, that it’s a lot harder for a grown man to take care of himself than I thought. I need to be strong right now for my family and for my sister Tashina, who I love to death… and also, let’s be honest, for myself because I have a UK tour coming up and another one in the works and teaching at Yale and finishing the studio record and promoting the tour and promoting the live record and then promoting the studio record and Jesus fucking Christ constantly constantly constantly PROMOTING… but right now, I’d give anything to just be a kid again and let the grown-ups handle this shit.   

Edward was a simple man. He loved his brothers and sisters, he loved his children, he loved his nephews and nieces, he loved all children, he loved his entire family. He adored his First Nation and Metis friends up north and had widely been accepted as one of them. He enjoyed baking bread and fishing and watching hockey and the chuck wagon races. He loved that big black cowboy hat. He was a simple man, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Ed, as you loved me, I love you: purely, with all my heart.

Music

the new old record

0 Comments 28 October 2016

Been AWOL from this blog for far too long. Apologies for that, I’ve been burning the candle at both ends. Much too much new stuff to report– a record of new material in the works, an upcoming UK tour, another cross country US tour just to start. But I’ll try to limit myself to the subject at hand: the new old record, ALCOHOLICA. There are no plans for physical copies so please pick up a digital copy here:

Amazon

iTunes

bandcamp

CDbaby

In a nutshell, this record was recorded in 2000-2001. When it was finished, I wasn’t totally happy with the songs/ performances/ recordings/ whatever, so I decided to shelve it. That decision may have also been influenced by the death of a friend, burnout, my drinking problem, being broke, etc. Listening back to this record this summer, I decided both that it wasn’t worth re-recording any of these songs for the new record… and that it was worth letting these songs out. Here are the credits.

Mishka Shubaly- vocals, rhythm guitar
Allison Langerak- vocals, Wurlitzer, harmonica
Josh Taggart- rock guitars
Erik Nickerson- weird guitars/ slide guitar on Dollar Beer
Martin Nienstedt- slide guitar on My Love is a Gulag
Jens Carstensen- bass, drums, saxophone
Robin Van Maarth- drums
Ethan Marunas- congas
Karen Paris- violin
James Sparber- Wurlitzer, bass, keys
Ryan Zawel- horns

engineered by James Sparber and Jeff Mensch

mastered by Scott Craggs

cover art by Jed Collins

huge thanks to Jeff, James, Allison and everyone who made this happen, both then and now.

Writing

the road

0 Comments 03 January 2016

I sat down to start plotting out tour dates for 2016 the other night and instantly felt not just depression or anxiety but DREAD. Like opening up GoogleMaps to look at a map of the US felt like looking at pictures of orphaned children from war torn countries. I’m not supposed to feel like that, right? Touring is supposed to be fun, right? Living the dream, right?

It hasn’t just been a big year, or a good year, it’s been a great year. I’ve played more than 100 shows and spent most of this year on the road. I got to go to Kenya, which was transformative (funny how you have to go to another continent to get new insight about what it’s like to be black in America). I gigged in England and Ireland for the first time and got to share the stage with the legendary Cait O’Riordan from The Pogues. I toured from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Canada to Mexico: New York, Pennsylvania, DC, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Oklahoma. I played with artists I’ve admired for years, discovered some folks I really admire, and made some friends I’ll probably have for the rest of my life. It was really great. And it really fucking sucked.

This was the first time I’ve done extended touring when I wasn’t totally falling apart a.k.a. sober. Which should make touring easier, right? Yes and no. For the first time, I wasn’t so obsessed with my own pain’n’suffering that I couldn’t bear witness to what other folks are going through. Take it from me: it can get fucking ugly out there. I saw a lot of people from my past, girls who broke my heart, girls whose hearts I broke, people I treated badly, people who treated me badly, people who I love and who love me but somehow we still hadn’t seen each other for ten years. I hung with a friend who moved from a place where he has deep roots to the middle-of-nowhere America because his sister drank herself to death, leaving behind two small children, one of whom is autistic. I hung with another friend who lost his brother: while he was struggling to kick Oxy, the brother shot himself in the head while my friend was sleeping in the room below him. Death, heroin, depression, sickness, meth, Oxy, alcoholism, unemployment, heartbreak, divorce, foreclosure, rape, child abuse… I care about people, I really want everyone to be okay, and I really care about my friends and fans and the people who help us out on the road. It’s emotionally exhausting to flit through unhappy lives like a ghost. We roll in before the show, tired and giddy and sore, you make us dinner or bring us food or come early to buy merch and support or just hang out. The show happens, and it’s good or it’s great or it sucks, but that doesn’t really matter, the show is the least significant part of being on tour. Then after the show, you unfold some sadness for us, either explicitly or just in the way you act. The next morning, we leave. It’s still the greatest feeling in the world—leaving—whether I’ve had the best or the worst night of my life. No higher high. We leave, and we leave you in your sadness. I feel guilty about that. And so I carry a little of it with me. And it adds up.

Inevitably, the day after the show, the messages come in, through Twitter and Facebook and email and text. “Why did you play Dogshart, AR? You should play Boston.” We played Dogshart because lots of people wrote us and said they’d come out. If you book us a show in Boston with a promoter who won’t rip us off, we’d love to play Boston.* “Why did you play North Dogshart? If you had played South Dogshart, I would have been able to make it.” We drove 8 hours to make it to Turdwater. You couldn’t drive the 45 minutes to get to the show? “I missed you guys because the website said 9 so I thought 9:30 but you started right at 9!” We’re more annoyed about it than you are but we’re not in charge… and the website did say 9, right? “Why didn’t you tell me you were playing?” We posted it on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and our websites and the club’s website. Calling/ texting/ emailing every single person we know in the country isn’t feasible. And it makes us want to kill ourselves when we try to do it anyway and you still don’t come out. “The club you played at sucked, why didn’t they turn off the TVs? You should play a different club.” We’d love to play the better club but they wouldn’t have us. “If you guys had played on a Saturday, I would have come out.” We’re on the road seven days a week, and only one of those days is a Saturday. And that’s the day you have your underwater basketweaving seminar so you wouldn’t have come out anyway, don’t lie to me, dude. “I know I wrote to you six times before the show and lured you to come and play the tiny little armpit that is Dogshart but there was a Full House marathon last night and I just got some killer kush and my couch is really comfy. Sorry I didn’t make it out but I will DEFINITELY be at the next one.” You asked us to come and play, you said you’d get a ton of friends out, no one came, the bar left the TVs on and ripped us off and then made us feel shitty that what we do is not more popular, and we had to drive till 3 am because we didn’t even have the place to crash you promised. There won’t be a next one.

This makes me sound like an asshole. And I am an asshole, especially because I’ve used almost every single one of these lines with the bands that I love. I bought tickets to go and see Jesus Lizard, a band I fucking love, and then I stayed home on a Saturday night BECAUSE I JUST DIDN’T FEEL LIKE GOING. I get it. But fucking A, at the level we’re at, we need all the help we can get.

Which is to say: I love you all and I’m so fucking grateful for the support I got this year. I’m grateful to the comics who brought me on tour with them though they’d never met me, comics who suffered in the van with me, comics who booked me shows and gave up their time so I could play and gave up their share of the money or even paid me out of their pockets and made sure I had non-alcoholic beverages within reach at all times. In particular, I’ve gotten a ton of love from comics/ musicians/ performers in Phoenix and Austin so thank you, and you’ll see me again soon. I’m grateful to the bands who let me open for them or who opened for me or let me borrow gear or cut their sets short so I could play who made sure I got paid, chipped in for repairs on the van, etc. I’m grateful that we had an ace photographer/ documentarian with us for some of it to preserve some truly unforgettable times. I’m grateful to the clubs/ promoters/ talent buyers/ bookers who took a chance on all of us. Mostly, I’m grateful to all the NON-PERFORMERS—all the people who feel like they’re not making any contribution but who are totally integral, people without whom, performers would have nothing. You put us up, you hosted house shows, you fed us, you bought a couple tickets and brought a friend, you bought merch, you overpaid for your merch, you just gave us money for nothing, you put money in the tip jar, or you just showed up, sat quietly and listened and laughed and clapped when we moved you. You’re the only reason why we started doing this and you’re the only reason why we keep doing this and we are incredibly, incredibly grateful to you.

Stay tuned. My new book comes out March 8th and I will have a shitload of new tour dates dropping soon.

*Fuck Boston, we’re never playing Boston.

Recommendations, Writing

talking reclamation blues with Elise Blackwell, author of ‘The Lower Quarter’

0 Comments 19 December 2015

I met novelist Elise Blackwell through the Rich Roll Podcast earlier this year, the fount from which all good things seem to come. Her email was phrased carefully so I wouldn’t have to respond… which of course, made me realize both that she was a writer and that she had fielded more than one unsolicited email herself. We started corresponding and, when I asked, she agreed to send me a galley for her forthcoming novel, The Lower Quarter.

I started reading The Lower Quarter at a moment of peak chaos in my life—about to move across the country, struggling to finish my first full-length memoir, living out of my van while touring across the country and around the world, butting up against the limits of my sobriety, obsessing (as usual) about the best way to salvage a life I’ve abused worse than a rental car. The Lower Quarter is a dense book, crammed with emotional information and cerebral information. It’s about a lot of dark things—Post-Katrina New Orleans, art theft, Internet trolls, the evils of affluence, loss of autonomy, addiction, rough sex, rape, enslavement, murder, revenge. A gloss of the plot—a body has turned up in New Orleans, a possible clue to the whereabouts of a European painting missing for years—in no way prepares you for the spectrum of human experience that awaits. The novel is intense but it never becomes bogged down by the darkness that is its main concern. Ultimately, I found The Lower Quarter to be about recovery, about living with damage, and about reclamation. I’m an unabashed fan of the book (I already bought a copy for a friend) so I was pretty excited to Gchat with Elise about it.

M: Apologies if you’ve answered these a million times but… run down for me what the book is about. I could do it, but I’ll probably butcher what you had intended…

E: It’s a literary noir set in post-Katrina New Orleans. The plot spins about a body that is found in a hotel in the lower French Quarter and a painting that’s been missing from Europe for a decade or so. These cause the lives of the four main characters to intersect.

In thematic terms, it’s about restoration and recovery as well as various forms of power relations.

I’d say, too, that it’s also about what it means to live in a body, particularly one subject to power relations and boundaries.

M: “Thought-provoking” appears on so many jackets of books that really aren’t… but I spent a lot of the time I was reading this book actually not reading it, but thinking about it. “The discovery of a body” is an idea that reappears many times in the text in different forms.

E: There are ideas in there, to be sure, though I hope that a reader who wants to read for just story can do that. But, yes, embodiment is definitely one of the book’s ideas.

M: There’s the body of the murdered man. Then Johanna is just a body when Clay first encounters her. Marion is a body worker who seems to discover her own body… but it never feels like you’re cramming ideas into a story or warping the narrative in order to shoehorn these themes into it. It’s sort of a pedantic question… but how the hell did this story come to you? What was the germ?

E: Of course bodies are subject to power of various forms, and the book covers some of them: political, geographic, and sexual. I tried to explore this from different angles with different characters. For instance, the character of Johanna has, in the past, been subject to involuntary sexual power relations as well as confined by political boundaries. Eli has been incarcerated. Marion dabbles in the voluntary exchange of sexual power and is very much a physical being–from riding her bike to receiving tattoos. Clay has a tormented relationship with his own body, which is marred by a physical defect.

The book came to me while on book tour for my second novel, which was set during the Great Flood of 1927. It was a book whose publication history was interrupted by Katrina, and I wound up rewriting it after the storm. When it finally came out in 2007, my book tour started in Biloxi, and there I went on a morning run on the beach and was hit hard by the boundary between the part of the beach that had been cleaned up (near the casinos) and the part that was still a disaster area. The tour continued on to New Orleans. I stayed in an offbeat hotel in the lower Quarter that felt like it could have been in a noir movie, and I had the strong (but possibly totally false) feeling that someone had died in my room. Then it accumulated from there. Johanna was one of the earliest characters, or rather her art restoration studio was. I have a cousin who is an art restorer, and I was drawn to the idea of what it would mean to be someone who restore water damaged things in a water damaged place.

M: None of it feels like riffing on bodies or the idea of the body, though. It’s thinky, but it doesn’t feel flashy. It sits nicely with the themes of restoration/ damage/ ownership/ identity. Johanna’s sense of self is tied to a stolen painting. As an art restorer, she has to walk a fine line between restoring a painting and transforming it. What ‘damage’ becomes essential to a painting or a person? What needs to be undone and what needs to remain?

E: That’s a fabulous question. Johanna’s identity was born during the worst thing that ever happened to her. I’m pretty sure she would give up her identity to undo that thing, but of course she can’t. But I don’t believe in simple psychological formulas. Just about the worst thing I can think of to say to someone who has suffered a tragedy is “Things happen for a reason.” That’s moronic and insulting. Yet people do incorporate their damage and move on.

M: I love that you said that. Probably my greatest gripe with the world right now– more than ISIS, more than fast food restaurants that don’t give you free soda refills– is the phrase “Everything happens for a reason.”

E: A key question in art restoration, particularly of historically important paintings, is whether to hide their damage, to paint over a problem, for instance, and that works as a human metaphor. In the novel, at least three of the characters are what a friend of mine who has been in therapy would call “in conversation with their own damage.”

M: I’ve been listening to too much Dylan recently. Two lines came to mind when thinking about The Lower Quarter. “The executioner’s face is always well-hidden” as we learn almost nothing of the man who arranged for Johanna’s kidnapping and subsequent rape/ forced prostitution. And the line “I can’t be good no more/ honey, cause the world gone wrong.” The people in this book aren’t broken, but they are damaged, living in a damaged world, often damaging each other… but also, seeking something greater, whether it’s freedom or revenge or just forgiveness.

E: I think I didn’t want to make that man important, and Johanna certainly wishes he weren’t important. You’re right that the characters aren’t broken. Clay is probably the closest, and certain readers have loathed him, but I actually have some sympathy for him. He is trying to make something right, in his own way. He has a sense of penance. So, yes, I think each character is trying.

I don’t think that people who have suffered can go back, can restore themselves to what they were before. Transform is a good word, though of course sometimes it’s a negative transformation. Usually, for most of us, it’s mixed. So if you wind up liking yourself, you know that the scar tissue is part of it.

M: I have a tattoo of a woman’s name on my clavicle, a woman who happens to now be married to another man. I haven’t covered it up and I won’t because it would just be cosmetic and it would be in bad faith: oftentimes, our missteps and our bad decisions become who we are. Or at least part of who we are.

E: I think the most dangerous people are those who aren’t frank with themselves. I’m in favor of keeping secrets from other people (or at least there’s a lot of stuff I don’t want people to tell me!), but not from yourself. As for your tattoo, that makes a lot of sense to me. You know who you are.

At the novel’s beginning, Marion doesn’t have any tattoos. When asked if she’s afraid of the pain, she says no (and she’s definitely not), that it’s the fear of commitment.

M: Tattoos are always a little terrifying. Even if it’s something small, you’re absolutely a different person after it’s done.

I feel like I should be grilling you with tougher questions, but most of my questions are just variations on “interesting choice– great job!” I found your decision to keep the villain anonymous or at least undifferentiated to be mimetic of reality. In my experience, people who do horrible, dehumanizing things are rarely snarling, moustache-twisting villains, but normal-appearing people. And they seem to live their lives indifferent to the pain they’ve inflicted.

E: I think that is often the case, which is what makes Clay a more salvageable human than the full villain. As for the villain, I agree. It’s also the case that even people who do really horrible things are complex, and to write the character as a full-fledged character would mean engaging sympathetically with him. He also plays a minor actual role in the book, and what’s important is the action Clay takes and not who the bad guy is. The guy is a rich bad guy. He may well also be nice to elderly people and give to charity. If I wrote a book about him, I’d have to figure out if he had a dog or not–I’m guessing no–but it’s not about him.

M: This is a central question to writing any character, I think: dog or no?

E: Yes, it strikes me as an important distinction. When I found out Rafa Nadal “doesn’t trust dogs,” my tennis allegiances were upset.

M: Genres collide in TLQ, to great effect. In some ways, it’s straight-up detective fiction with a massive wounded-and-bleeding heart. What books or authors do you feel this novel is descended from?

E: I definitely set out to mess around with the tropes of noir, and so Chandler and Hammett were on my mind. I know a guy here who is a great Hammett collector, and I got to meet Elmore Leonard when he came to town ahead of donating his papers to the University of South Carolina library. But in a noir, the detective would have to tell the whole story in some hard-boiled voice, and Eli’s not really the kind of guy to look up Johanna’s skirt without asking. But there are definitely a lot of nods to noir–the setting suggested it strongly–and I did want the story to work at least sort of as a mystery. Not the what, really, but the why. And, to some degree, the who. It’s funny, the book was reviewed in a “mystery roundup” in USA Today, and I tweeted appreciation but also that it wasn’t a mystery. The very kind and generous reviewer tweeted back “But there’s a body! And a missing painting!” And I can’t argue with that. I think there’s also a strong debt, though, to some of the novels of Howard Norman, which blend elements of mystery into literary fiction.

M: When I think ‘Mystery,’ I first think of it as an outdated genre– hand-me-down airport paperbacks, etc. But it’ll always be resonant. So many of us are searching for something lost or stolen. I think what prevents TLQ from being ‘just’ a mystery is that what Johanna is searching for– autonomy, revenge, herself– can’t be carried in a briefcase or hidden under loose floorboards. And it couldn’t be told from one perspective because each of the four major characters is seeking something. Something different, but something lost or stolen, like Johanna.

E: Plenty of folks still read airport mysteries, but I wonder if the choice to read even those isn’t about something deeper. All of the characters in TLQ have been robbed of something. Marion has lost tangible things, including some of her own art and a (very small) inheritance, but also a sense of family and background. She’s searching for a way to belong to a place and a way to connect to other people outside of sexual power. Clay wants redemption, among other things. Eli has either lost or been robbed (depending on your perspective) of some serious time and also the possibility of love. Anyone who is self-reflective is trying to solve key existential mysteries.

M: What’s next for you?

E: I’ve just started working on a new novel, tentatively titled Spa, of all things, and set at a “wellness spa” in southern California. It’s about contemporary relationships with time and money. It started as satire but has become something more serious.

M: “Contemporary relationships with time and money” sounds innocuous. But, having read TLQ, I suspect it’s anything but…

***

Buy The Lower Quarter here

About the author:

Elise Blackwell is the author of five novels: HungerThe Unnatural History of Cypress ParishGrubAn Unfinished Score, and The Lower Quarter. Her work has been translated into several languages, and her books have been named to numerous best-of-the-year lists, adapted for the stage, and served as the inspiration for a Decemberists’ song. Originally from southern Louisiana, Elise now teaches at the University of South Carolina. Her favorite Bob Dylan song is “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”

Recommendations, Running, Writing

A meat eater for The PlantPower Way

2 Comments 29 April 2015

Do you know Rich Roll? If you don’t, you should. I met him two years ago and no one else I’ve met in my sobriety has had a deeper, more lasting, more positive affect on who I am and who I want to be.

His story is incredible. Like me, he is a recovering alcoholic. He’d been sober for years but, on the eve of his 40th birthday, he realized that he was deeply unsatisfied, 50 pounds overweight, and heading for a heart attack. He knew he had to make food his medicine, so he adopted a plant-powered diet (no animal products, no refined foods, all organic and GMO-free) and undertook a radical transformation, culminating in his creation and completion of The Epic Five: five Ironmans on five different Hawaiian islands in less than a week. Incredible? Just short of impossible, I’d say.

Rich is an impressive physical specimen and, knowing his accomplishments, I was expecting a Type-A, performance-obsessed, go-go-go neurotic asshole. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Rich was humble and unassuming, perceptive and thoughtful, so relaxed his presence was nearly hypnotizing. Behind his down-to-earth demeanor, though, was a fierce, probing intelligence and an unrelenting drive. Rich wasn’t satisfied to have unlocked a better, more authentic version of himself. He had an undying commitment to service and he wanted to share what he had learned. Not just with other ultra-athletes or other sober alcoholics, but with everyone.

I fell in love with Rich right away (a love that’s only deepened over the years) so I tried to go plant-powered. Having grown up in a meat-and-potatoes household, I was clueless about how live on a plant-powered diet. I knew what I couldn’t eat, but I had no idea what I should eat, and how to prepare it. I failed, tried again, and failed again.

So I’m really excited about his new book, The Plantpower Way. I’ve already bought two copies as gifts. It’s a cookbook, but it’s much more than a cookbook: it’s about how to live plant-based, how to prepare and enjoy vegan meals, how to achieve complete nutrition from only plants. At its core, the book is about how to eat well—for longevity, for health, for performance, for happiness—and, most importantly, how to enjoy eating well.

Yes, I have mocked vegans. I will continue to mock vegans. But I am genuinely excited about this book and, if you’re like me and you enjoy the occasional bacon cheeseburger and maybe a mountain of Twizzlers, you should buy it. Why? Because we know that cheeseburgers and Twizzlers aren’t good for us (Twizzlers are pretty much the opposite of food). Because we know that we aren’t eating enough plants—fruit and vegetables, but especially greens. And because we know that kale by itself tastes like crap. I’ve had the pleasure of eating Julie’s cooking several times and it’s hearty, satisfying and out-of-this-world delicious. I don’t know if I can bring it the way she can, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I’m not plantpowered and I doubt I will ever go all the way. But just by trying a plantpowered diet, I’ve learned so much about how I eat and what I should and shouldn’t be eating. If you’re a vegan, obviously, you should buy The PlantPower Way. But I’d argue that if you eat meat and cheese, if you eat candy, if you eat delicious Nacho Cheez-its, it’s even more important for you to buy this book and soak up the wisdom within. No, it won’t make your diet perfect, but it will make it better… and isn’t ‘better’ what we’re all aiming for?

Here it is again: The Plantpower Way

Writing

teaching at Yale? really?

0 Comments 04 April 2015

Wow, tons of stuff to report. Just did nearly 40 shows across the country, toured England and Ireland and took a trip to Kenya that was honestly life-changing. And I’m too busy to report it all in detail. But here’s the important thing:

Yes, really. I will be teaching at Yale this summer.

The course is called THE DIGITAL REBIRTH OF LONGFORM.

Here’s the course description:

“As paper publishing houses have consolidated and narrowed their focus to airport thrillers and celebrity tell-alls, the few periodicals that haven’t folded won’t print anything over 2000 words, and web publishing has devolved to Buzzfeed and listicles and Which Star Trek Character Are You? You Won’t Believe What Happened Next! … what’s a starving writer to do? Digital publishing has embraced paper publishing’s red-headed stepchildren: the novella, and nonfiction longer than an article but shorter than a book. We’ll examine and dissect contemporary successes in this in-between length from fiction to memoir to personal essay to long-form journalism. Which topics, what situations, which narrative arcs, which types of stories merit exposition of this length? Readings will include Jon Krakauer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Karin Slaughter among others. Attention will be paid to the entire process, from germination to production to publication to commercial success.”

Effectively, I’m going to do my best to teach you how to do what I’ve done: craft a series of bestselling Kindle Singles, sell over 200,000 copies worldwide and never work a *real* job again.

It’s a huge honor for me. Do me another honor and sign up?

Here’s the link: http://summer.yale.edu/ywc

Running, Writing

#3for31

0 Comments 01 January 2015

I was running with Robin Arzon after Thanksgiving when she threw down a challenge: run 5k every day for the month of December. Do you know Robin? If you don’t, you should.

You know those folks on Instagram, forever posting the inspirational sayings? ‘Inspagram,’ I call it—the pics of clouds or food with some corny inspirational saying superimposed on it—like that’s going to solve the weird old man pain in my back or the parking ticket on my windshield or the new venture capitalist landlord driving me out of my home, the place I’ve lived the longest in my entire life, the slanted, trembling apartment where I went to hell, and then came back. If you can see the SPAM, in ‘Inspagram,’ well, I can, too. At best, that shit is like aspirin or hot coffee or cold beer—it’s a quick fix that’ll keep you going while letting the root problem quietly fester.

Yes, Robin rules Instagram, but her shit’s different. You won’t meet a cuter badass, or a more badass cutie. Great story—she’s a former lawyer who was held hostage at gunpoint, an experience that didn’t scar her as much as it destroyed her capacity to feel fear. She trashed her old life, broke a new trail, and now gets paid to be an everyday superhero (tights and all). Getting diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes after running 5 back-to-back marathons has only increased her drive. Her tolerance for bullshit is lower than mine. She won’t try to sell you anything she doesn’t believe. It may sound like she speaks in hyperbole but that’s just dry reporting on a life lived in hyperbole. When someone like that issues you a challenge, you don’t say no. But I know Robin—she reminds me a lot of my badass trainer Tracy Helsing who was so instrumental in getting me sober—so I suspected it was going to suck.

Human beings are odd. When we encounter something bad, we feel the need to share it with a friend: “Oh man, this carton of milk is really sour—it smells like someone ate asparagus, then peed in it, then left it in a hot car all summer. Here, you smell it.” 5k comes out to 3 miles so I came up with a catchy hashtag—#3for31—and created a Facebook group and tried to rope everyone I knew into doing this stupid thing with me. A lot of you signed up.

I don’t want to say I approached it with arrogance. I mean, I absolutely approached it with arrogance, like I do everything, but I just don’t want to say it. 3 miles is nothing, hardly enough time to even get warmed up! 3 miles a day works out to only 103 miles for the month. I’ve done that in a week. Piece of cake, right?

Not so much. If a bully is picking on you at school, it only takes a split-second of courage to throw a punch and get them off your back. It’s much harder to go from being totally sedentary to running your first race—you can’t just do it once and be done with it, you have to go back to it again and again. Running every single day, shit, that’s the worst. Each day undoes the work of the day before. You do it—good job, gold star!—and then you wake up and, Christ, you have to do it again. Running every day is like trying to change your posture. It’s like trying to change your mind.

It never got easy for me. Yes, Morrissey, it is really so strange: the last mile is not the hardest mile. The hardest mile is the first mile. And what’s harder than the first mile? Lacing up your goddamn running shoes before you even leave the house. I’m a big guy, 220 pounds, and a distance runner. It takes me a long time to warm up, six or eight miles. Once I finally got the hated running shoes on after a long dry ocean of procrastination, there was that first shitty mile where my old, lumbering body was still waking up. Then another. Then another. Then my run was done. Just three miles, but none of them good miles, none where I felt like I was cruising instead of just laboring. Sure, I could run more and sometimes I did—21 one day out in California a couple days before Xmas—but it didn’t matter. The next day, there were still 3 shitty miles waiting for me.

I managed to get sick twice in December. My IT band acted up. My left knee hurt the entire month. I ran with Robin a couple of times, in the freezing rain. I ran with my sister, also sick, who hasn’t mastered my technique of blowing snot rockets and just blew her runny nose on her shirt. I ran with my brother-in-law, Bill, who has no cartilage left in his knees after 26 years spent rucking in the Marine Corps with a 70 lb pack. The day after my big run, I hiked four miles with my old man, coughing and feverish, tottering along behind him though he’s 70 and has had both knees replaced. Mostly, I ran alone, in the cold, in the heat, in the dark, in the blazing sun, my chest aching with each breath, annoyed that these stupid little runs were annoying me so much, hating Robin’s challenge, hating myself for hating it.

But running is reliable magic. Epiphanies have often come to me on long runs, but I expect nothing from runs under 20 miles. Doing this #3for31 challenge, I stumbled on a big epiphany at the beginning of a small run, a puny four- or six-miler: through running, I can understand the relationship believers have with God.

I don’t believe in God. It’s not that I did and then, in a fit of hurt, I decided God was dead to me. Nothing terrible happened to destroy my faith. I’ve just never had it. I remember when I was maybe six, walking out of our house with my shirt off and standing in our driveway. I looked up at the sky, looked at it all around, in every corner and just thought to myself “…Nah.” At times, I’ve wished I believed in God, but I have never come close to believing. I have never been able to understand how people believe.

But, running, I understand how believers feel about God. Running is greater than I will ever be, it is more powerful than I will ever be. Running is invisible and it is all around me. I can never beat it, I can never escape it. I can throw myself at running with all my strength, with all my will, curse it and flail at it. I will never trump it; I will never hurt it; it will never even register the attack.

Running is unconditional. I can ignore it for days, weeks, months, but running is always there waiting, always listening. Running will always be there for me when I need it. Running will always welcome me back. When I have been arrogant, running will humble me. When I have been bad, running will punish me. Running won’t wait for me to be good to reward me; it won’t wait for a new accomplishment; it will reward me for every single attempt I make.

Running is infinite. I can be greedy, gluttonous, take as much of it as I want and there will still be enough for everyone else. Running is mysterious. I am more intimate with running than I have been with any lover. Running knows my body better than any person alive, it knows every part of me. Running through a canyon in New Mexico, so lightheaded from the altitude that the entire world sparkles, moving forward just to keep from falling over; running through the hot California summer, so overheated and dehydrated I am barely moving, the desperately wringing hot, sour juice out of a moldy grapefruit on the side of the road just for some moisture, rinsing my shirt in a mud puddle just to cool down; stumbling into a hotel bathroom, reeking terribly of every possible bad organic smell, swampwater and mud, horseshit and old, wet shoes and fourteen hours of sweat, layer upon layer, every possible body odor, my pruney feet, my crotch, my ass, then stripping down and after a minute of agony when the hot water washes the crusted salt into and then out of each abrasion of my skin, the heavenly scent of clean water and nothing else.

Running listens patiently without judgment. Running keeps my secrets. Running is comforting because it never answers back. Running is infuriating because it never answers back. Running is endlessly sympathetic. Running is endlessly cruel. As much as I have learned about running, I can’t pretend to understand any more than the smallest part of it. Running alone understands all of me. I want to love running. I try, again and again, to love running, but I fail, I can’t. Running is too hard, and I hate it. It doesn’t matter. Running loves me.

 

***

I accepted Robin’s challenge because I’d fallen out of love with running. I’m back. Totally in, one hundred percent, till death do us part.

Did you run #3for31 with me? Andy Andrist did. Last time I saw him, we were shitfaced and doing whip-its in a beer-drenched hotel room in Death Valley. Tina Lipsky did. I had a wicked crush on her in high school but I’ve only seen her one night since I was fifteen and that was ten years ago. Alex Puls did. I’ve met him twice, once when I bought a guitar from him on Craig’s List and once on the floor of MSG when he got me VIP tickets to a sold-out Billy Joel show. I ran with Tim Sweeney once in Toronto, met Scotty Kummer once in a town I hope to never go back to. I’ve never met Erik DeAngelis, who posted a new drawing each day with his mileage. I’ve never met Tamiko Radke, the woman who gave birth to an entire rock band, three brothers who have outshone their influences: Radkey. I’ve never met Heather Belizzi, who sent me a hat that said GRATITUDE.

What’s next? A revelation: this ain’t the end. Robin knew that this challenge would be tough for me, but she knew I could do it. She knew I could do it because she ran 3 miles every day for seven months.

If you know me at all, you know I’m not going to give something up without exacting something in return. I completed Robin’s challenge; now she has to take on mine. The next challenge is #31for31—write for 31 minutes, each and every day, for all 31 days of January.

Are you up to it? Maybe you’ll be too busy, working on running 2015 miles in 2015. I’ll be on tour, doing my own challenge: 35 shows in 38 days. I hope to see you out there.

 

What’s touched me the most about doing this challenge is the people who took it on with me. If you ran #3for31, I probably don’t know you. Some of you, I know your name or your face but probably not both. Most of you, I don’t know at all. You ran in Finland or Mexico or Illinois or Canada or Spain. Most of you, I have zero frame of reference for.

If we meet and you tell me you know me from Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, I will give you a blank look because there are a lot of you out there. But if you tell me you ran #3for31, I will know instantly who you are. Because we are now related in some way. We shared something. We ran alone together, every day, for a long time.

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