A conversation between Sarah Manguso, 2008 Fellow in Literature, and Mark Danner, 2008 and 2011 Heiskell Visiting Critic. Writing Crises will probe how these writers document the effects of violence on individual and social bodies. Where do the political and the autobiographical overlap in translating what we see into what we write?
Tuesday Talks is an online series curated by the Society of Fellows of the American Academy in Rome featuring prominent leaders in the Arts + Humanities.
Explorations: Fellows who were at the Academy at the same time reflect upon the subject of their research and art.
Mark Danner is a writer and educator who has covered foreign affairs, war, and politics for three decades. He has written about wars and political violence in Central America, Haiti, the Balkans, and the Middle East, among other stories, and has covered every presidential election since 2000. A longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, he is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and many other publications. His books include The Massacre at El Mozote, Torture and Truth, Stripping Bare the Body, and Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War. He is currently Class of 1961 Distinguished Chair in Undergraduate Education at Berkeley, where he teaches in the Graduate School of Journalism and the Department of English. His work has been recognized with a National Magazine Award, three Overseas Press Awards, a Guggenheim, an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, and an Emmy. In 1999, Danner was named a MacArthur Fellow. markdanner.com
Sarah Manguso is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet, and the author, most recently, of the novel Very Cold People. Her nonfiction books are 300 Arguments, Ongoingness, The Guardians, and The Two Kinds of Decay, and her other books include the poetry collections Siste Viator and The Captain Lands in Paradise and the story collection, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape. Her work has been recognized by an American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Rome Prize. She grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at Antioch University. sarahmanguso.com
Full Text: Writing Crises – the Broken Self and the Broken World
Mark Danner and Sarah Manguso
Phu: Okay, thank you, everyone, for joining us. As way of an introduction, the Society of Fellows, which is organizing this event, is a century old organization whose community of over 1,100 members is comprised of fellows who have completed a Rome Prize Fellowship, an affiliated fellowship or residency at the American Academy. The Academy is a container of ideas in a building on top of a hill overlooking Rome. I’m Phu Hoang. I’m the president of the Society of Fellows. We’re a platform to exchange ideas with fellows after returning from Rome. We produce cultural programs, share alumni content, and foster networks for both collaboration and mentorship.
Tuesday Talks is an online conversation series that features the work of leaders in the arts and humanities. This evening’s discussion is with Sarah Manguso, 2008 Fellow in Literature, and Mark Danner, 2008 and 2011 visiting [high school] critic, and they’ll be presenting their ideas in a discussion under the title “Writing Crises: the Broken Self and the Broken Word.” This is part of a Tuesday Talk series called Explorations. It highlights fellows are at the academy [at one time] reflecting upon their subsequent work.
And Tuesday Talks is curated by our wonderful Molissa Fenley, 2008 Fellow in Design, and co-chair of our programs and events committee. For our guests, please feel free to use the Zoom chat to compose questions that we can ask at the end, or you can just turn your videos on at the end, but for now please turn your videos off and mute your audio.
Melissa Friendly is a 2008 Fellow in Design. She is a choreographer and performer with her own group, Melissa Fenley & Co. Her work has been presented throughout the United States, South America, Europe, Australia and Asia. In New York her work has been presented at Central Park Summer Stage, the Kitchen, City Center, Alice Tully Hall, and Lincoln Center out of doors, as well as our very own Salone! this past fall. She has been on the faculty of Mills College, and in addition to a Rome Prize has also been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Mo, please take it over everybody.
Molissa: Hi there, everybody. It’s great to be here, and I’m really happy to be introducing Mark Danner and Sarah Manguso. They were at the Academy when I was, and I really had a great time knowing them, and I’m very happy to see their lovely faces again. Sarah Manguso was a Fellow in Literature in 2008. She is a fiction writer, essayist and poet, and the author most recently of “Very Cold People.” Her nonfiction writing is extensive, “300 Arguments,” “Ongoingness,” “The Guardians,” “The Two Kinds of Decay,” and her poetry collections “Siste Viator” and “The Captain Lands in Paradise,” and her story collection “Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape.” She is presently in Santa Monica. She has a Guggenheim. She grew up in Massachusetts and she teaches creative writing at Antioch. Welcome, Sarah.
Mark was at the Academy when I was, too, in 2008, and I remember dancing for him in the studio. That was super fun. He is a writer and educator. He has covered foreign affairs, war and politics for the past 30 years. He has covered every single presidential election since 2000. He’s a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker. He’s a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and his books include “The Massacre at El Mozote,” “Torture and Truth,” “Stripping Bare the Body,” and “The Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War.” Golly, aren’t we ever?
He is currently Class of 1961 Distinguished Chair in Undergraduate Education at Berkeley, where he teaches in the Graduate School of Journalism and the Department of English. He has been recognized by an amazing array of awards, including the MacArthur. So I’m handing it over to the two of you. Thank you so much for being here.
Sarah: Thank you so much for hosting us, Mo. I’m so thrilled to get to talk, or basically get to listen to Mark.
Mark: Oh, come on.
Sarah: And so I’m just going to seize the lectern and begin with a question for you, Mark, if that’s okay. And this is something I wonder about my own work, which is I think cosmetically different from yours, but has a couple of really deep shared qualities. So this is what I wonder. Does your ability to work, does your very ability to work require crisis?
Mark: Goodness. Wow, that’s a very hard question. While I fumble to think about it in the background of my head I’m going to thank the American Academy, and Phu and especially the divine Molissa Fenley, who I remember like yesterday dancing for me in her studio. I’ll never, ever forget that. It was just wonderful. And it reminds me so vividly of the time at the American Academy and how absolutely wonderful that was. So it’s a pleasure to be here.
I should also say that I’m particularly grateful to be invited because it gave me an excuse to just sit down and reread Sarah’s astonishing work, including her recent novel, which I had not yet read. And I’m left kind of tingling and vibrating from it. And I too in reading it was kind of possessed by the question of what we have in common, because crisis, it seems to me, is very much part of both of our world views. But mine is, in a funny way, the average definition of crisis, the external crisis, the bloody crisis, the crisis in Ukraine, the crisis in Haiti, the thing that you get on a plane and run off to cover if you’re a foreign correspondent.
Sarah’s work is very different because it seems to me it’s focused not only on a more personal idea of crisis, but in a sense its whole definition of crisis is much more of the day-to-day, that we have embedded in us a kind of idea of crisis, that we develop the underpinnings of our adult crises when we’re children, which is very much part of “Very Cold People,” I think. And then also crisis can come to us completely unbidden, completely without any sort of foregrounding, like which is described so vividly in “The Two Kinds of Decay,” which I just reread. I read it first at the Academy when Sarah had it in galleys, I vividly remember, and I just now this week reread it.
So to get finally to that question, what captures me about crisis. It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about that this week because I realize that I’m walking around with a great deal of guilt, and that guilt has to do with Ukraine. And it’s a personal guilt. The guilt is I’m not in Ukraine. And why is that? I’d like to say that there’s an elevated reason for that. That elevated reason is I feel it’s very close to my life’s purpose to write about war and write about, in particular, human rights, what are called now human rights violations, but are very much the product of every war, which is the kind of killing of civilians, the massacres of civilians that we’ve seen in Bucha, that we’ve seen over the last few weeks, and that I’ve been writing about for 30 years.
But if I strip that noble idea away I start to realize that there’s something very deep in me that is simply drawn to crisis, that finds it somehow the key to the world. That is, when things come together and clash, when people are fighting, it is, to quote the title of one of my books, it strips bare the body. That was a quote from a Haitian president who was overthrown in a coup, and he said political violence “strips bare the body, the better to place the stethoscope and hear the life beneath the skin.” And the assumption there is when a political crisis happens you really see a cross section of the society, not only of the society, but of people. People in distress are more real as people than people living their day-to-day lives.
And as I say, in a sense Sarah’s work contradicts that notion, that notion that people have to be under stress. In a sense her work—and I’ve learned this from her work—finds the crisis at the heart of what seem to be placid, everyday lives. And that fascinates me. It makes me feel almost banal because I feel like I’m running after ambulances. One needn’t run at all when the material is actually in what seems to be an unremarkable suburban street, which is what her work so beautifully excavates. So I’m feeling slightly banal, Sarah. Help me.
Sarah: Oh, no. You’re anything but banal. I would love to seize upon two things that you’ve said that both seem like very fertile areas for discussion, the first of which reminded me of something that you said the last time we were just informally talking about what we were going to talk about, and you said the best time to observe the United States is not when people are reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. And as you were talking about that, you know, sure, you can call yourself an ambulance chaser, but it sounds very much to me that the impulse to go to the crisis is a deep knowledge that crisis is where the information is. Crisis reveals. Crisis strips away whatever obstacle we’ve placed in front of the violence which has always been happening.
And so yeah, so crisis being where the information is is something I’d like to put a little bit of pressure on, but I also don’t want to lose this other really wonderful thing you said, which is that there seems to be a vast gulf between the kind of work that goes to the crisis and the kind of work that simply looks around where it is and observes what is already there. And it seems to me that that apparent conflict is really just all about what we name violence, what we name crisis. If it’s normalized is it still violence?
This is something I’m working on now. I’m working on a book about domestic abuse, and one of the ideas that I’m grappling with is just the sheer banality, the commonness of domestic abuse, just does that render it—it’s normalized, but does that render it non-abuse? Does it render it nonviolence if it’s already everywhere? And my argument is no. It’s still violence even if it’s happening in every heteronormative marriage.
And so at the same time I really, I sort of idolize you and your legacy of having followed the hottest spots in the world and shown us what was there. So yeah, maybe we could go in either one of those directions: violence as information or violence being dependent on what we call violence.
Mark: Well, I think both of those are really fertile points. The first one, I’m thinking about that. I’ve been thinking about it ever since starting to reread your work because I start to think well yeah, violence is information, but when it’s out in the open, when you’re looking at a war, or to go back to the U.S., the point about don’t look at Americans when they’re reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, look at them when they’re torturing. During the war on terror the idea that the United States would torture under color of law, that is, it would be made legal, struck me as intensely revealing of what the country is. Not that it’s necessarily corrupted, but that it legalizes things of horror.
And that, of course, goes back to that point about normalization, which I think is really true. And I think your work—I mean, I just read “Very Cold People,” and it seems to me there’s a premise there—I mean, it’s terrible to talk about a premise, it’s a work of fiction—but these are ordinary lives—
Sarah: It’s not terrible.
Mark: Well, these are ordinary lives that deeply affected me because the town you were describing is like the place I grew up, especially the snow. The descriptions of snow and growing up in snow, it was intensely evocative for me, and yet—
Sarah: You’re from Utica, is that right?
Mark: I’m from Utica, New York, yeah, so it was very evocative. And even the different streets and the special street, and the one that had the oldest families and all of this, there were very direct parallels. But by the end of the book you’re seeing that all of these lives, the most ordinary kind, have violence or abuse behind them. Not all of them, obviously, but some significant number of them.
And when you just made that comment I was thinking back. I took a course on intellectual history in college and the instructor recounted Freud, maybe an apocryphal theory, but Freud coming up with his Oedipus complex, and he came up with this, according to this professor, because he found again and again that the women who he was seeing had been abused as children, and he eventually simply had to reject that idea that this was so pervasive and had to class it as a fantasy that they had as children.
Of course a number of years ago Jeffrey Masson, who was here in Berkeley, he basically attacked Freud on these terms, that he had suppressed the reality of sexual abuse of children in favor of his theory about projection and the Oedipus complex. But I recall that he was pressing on exactly, in effect, Freud was pressing on exactly the terms you just put forward, which is that if it’s normative, if it happens to everybody, how do we account for it? How do we account for it? How is that possible?
And as I say, that’s what makes me feel a little banal. You say the information is where the violence is, but in fact one could say that the easy information is where the violence is. You run after the ambulance, you run after the wars, you run after the torture, but in fact you find much the same thing if you’re willing to dig as deeply as you dig into ordinary lives.
Sarah: That’s incredibly complimentary because I think of my work as just…really just a 25 year ongoing retreat into myself. And we can glorify each other’s approaches. I love that they’re so different and that our work histories are so different. The setting of my novel “Very Cold People,” for those who don’t know, is Massachusetts in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and it’s narrated by a girl named Ruthie who we see through childhood and adolescence.
And yeah, that very intellectual conflict between what to do with violence if it’s everywhere, does that make it no longer violent, that is in fact one of the premises of the novel, and one of the things I wanted to expose in a small, highly patriarchal, conservative, traditional colonial American town. When abuse rises up and is witnessed, the victim of that abuse is told that this is a rare, weird, once in a lifetime experience, and that you shouldn’t even talk about it anymore, it’ll never happen again.
And something that I recognized really only once I was out of this town that I grew up in—the town in the book is an imaginary place, but it is, of course, perfectly realistic to say that my experience growing up in Massachusetts informed the work. After I left Massachusetts I recognized just the absurdity of this argument, which is that every girl I knew in the ‘80s in this town had some kind of sexual violence inflicted on her. And I say girl because we were girls. This isn’t like a young woman situation at all.
And so part of this narrative that I was trying to get out from under was the narrative that if it happens to you, if it’s truly abuse, it’s rare by definition. And even if it’s prevalent, even if it’s near universal, the fact that if you call it violent it must be rare, for we would not be able to accept the alternative, which is that it isn’t. And of course that’s exactly the narrative that Freud and others have used in order to minimize violence. But yes, I think violence is normalized, but it’s once you go from normalizing it to minimizing it that real serious social problems arise. I’d like to ask you about this is kind of—
Mark: Can I, before you—
Sarah: Oh, sure, go ahead.
Mark: Before you do, let me just interject something, which is what you just said reminds me so much of Joan Didion’s line “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” We tell ourselves stories in order to live. And one of those stories is this is really unusual. This is abusive and against the grain of normality. Since it’s against the grain of what we define as normal, it must be rare.
And there’s a public side of that, too, in which we’re sitting here, you know, the past week we’ve been talking about Bucha, this suburb. It’s a wealthy suburb to the north of Kyiv. And I’ve been watching this and reading this intensely, and thinking I should be writing some of these pieces. The Russians basically, they occupied it, they were fine at first, and then they got frustrated, and they didn’t have food, and they didn’t have this, they didn’t have that, and they started shooting people and raping people.
And I look at this now after covering this sort of stuff for 30 years, and I just look at the way it’s treated and I think—I don’t want this to be misinterpreted—but this always happens. Wars…this is what people do in wars. This is what armies do. Do some armies do it more than others? Yes. But the American military in the first month in Iraq killed 3,240 civilians. That’s the best estimate we have. And when they came into Baghdad, if they saw someone on the street they shot them. They killed about 2,000 people in Baghdad. Nobody here knows that. And it doesn’t mean that we can’t criticize the Russians because we have dirty hands or anything like that. It does mean that war kills lots of civilians.
And we define this, just as Joan said, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. So we tell ourselves that actually there’s war that doesn’t do that. This is illegal war. That kills lots of people. But there’s the kind of wars that we can fight that only kills soldiers. And this is a story that we tell ourselves in order to live. And I think you just gave a great example of a story we tell ourselves in order to live, which is that oh, you’ve been abused? Oh, that’s a horrible thing. We’ll help you get over that. But of course that defines you as different than anyone else, which is simply not true.
Sarah: As you were talking about Bucha, I couldn’t help but remember Abu Ghraib. And what really characterizes that moment in American history for me isn’t remembering the terrible images that we all saw, but the fact that everyone was pretending that this was the first time anything like that had ever happened because we finally had easily transmissible video data that we could all email to each other losslessly and was on the internet. And I don’t think I’m a particularly politically sophisticated person by any means, but it just seemed so abjectly…it just seemed so idiotic to argue that everybody needs to be punished. Once the people in the prison were punished then everything was going to be okay from that point forward.
And of course you of all people, I can only imagine how…I mean, how did you…? Well, I… How did you deal with that? And how do you deal with it now? Has it become easier or more difficult? Do you think people are becoming more politically sophisticated as information is more, I don’t know, transmissible on the internet? Are we becoming dumber?
Mark: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I know that… I think what you say is really true about Abu Ghraib, that—and it goes right down to the punishment, that this happened in front of the world. The only people who were punished were the ones in the photographs. The ones who designed that abuse, the ones who ordered it, were never punished. And the Pentagon and the American government did something that bureaucracies do, which is you divide up abuses into little packets. You do eight reports, not one report, but eight, and that lets you let everyone off the hook, essentially, except for the people who were photographed.
But I think the question about are we stupid or are we more sophisticated is a really interesting one because I think first of all there’s something very deep in us that’s drawn to violence. I think that’s a fact. If you look at “The Republic,” at Plato’s “Republic,” there’s a little scene in it where Socrates is talking about the division of the will, and they’re citing somebody who’s walking up by the executioner, and there were all these corpses lying underneath the gallows. And he didn’t want to look at them, and he didn’t want to look at them, and he finally said fine, look at them, and he looked over at the corpses. Take your fill of the corpses. So even at that time they recognized that violence had this inherent draw for people, but also that it was something to be ashamed of. So I think it has these two sides.
But I also think as we consume it more and more, as we consume these images, they all simply—you know, it’s very hard to be shocked in any way. The shock function—I mean, I was shocked by Abu Ghraib. I don’t feel shocked by Bucha at all. Maybe that has to do with my age and not the kind of information we send around.
But I also think the other thing to add is authority now is free—I’m sorry—images are now free. There’s no authority of images, there’s no authority of information, which means these are used in all kinds of contexts. They’re used to denounce the Russian government, they’re used to denounce the Ukrainian government. If you look at the incredible propaganda from the Russians, they’re used to show that the Ukrainians are killing people in order to frame the Russians. I mean, it’s this astounding information age in which you no longer have these institutions like the New York Times and others that reigned over information. I’m sorry, I’m going kind of far afield here, but—
Sarah: No, please keep going. I’m really enjoying it.
Mark: No, you go.
Sarah: Oh, okay. I think I remember reading about that moment in “The Republic” as I was reading the introduction to “Stripping Bare the Body.”
Sarah: You were writing about Iraq and you were talking about these twin compulsions to turn towards the spectacle of violence and to look away. And I think you said, the example is that Iraq remains violent and unstable and a place of terrible violence, but the American gaze has moved on. And can you talk about not necessarily Iraq, but can you talk about those opposing compulsions and how maybe you think they’re working now with Ukraine, or with other, more recent conflicts?
Mark: I think it has two aspects. One is our search for entertainment that has a certain morally edifying cast to it, that we’re looking at a conflict about good and evil and it lets us look at something violent and feel that we’re edified by it, basically. But there’s also the fact that we—we being Americans—are so powerful that we’re able to do things like Iraq and then just leave. The Iraqis are still suffering, just like the Nicaraguans are, and the Salvadorans, and you name it, the Vietnamese.
But we’re able each time, the spotlight focuses on one of these places, everyone learns about it, journalists go there, the intelligentsia argues about it, and suddenly the spotlight goes on and the devastation is left in the darkness. And we are able to do that. We are able to be so blithe—blithe is always the word I think of—because the U.S. is so powerful that the rest of the world needs to know about us and we don’t need to know about them. I mean, I always thought that about Haiti. The Haitians know about the U.S. because the U.S. works its will on Haiti. But Americans don’t know about Haiti.
Sarah: Do you think it’s a uniquely American trait to be more likely to look away from violence than to look at it, or does everybody just not want to be personally implicated or to have their nation implicated in—
Mark: I think it’s a trait of empires. I think it’s a trait of power. But I want to get back to what you’re working on now because it seems to me power and abuse and knowledge, public knowledge, are all deeply intertwined in the project that you’re working on and in your novel. I mean, partly here it’s about the exercise of secret power and the ability of those in power to keep what’s going on secret so that the signs in “Very Cold People,” the signs of abuse only come out as someone’s suicide, they only come out as somebody’s drunk driving, or drunkenness. They only come out because the power of the relationship—at least that’s how I interpreted it.
Sarah: No, you’re absolutely right. Something that I’m writing about now more directly is reactive violence, so the response to chronic or long-term abuse or violence inflicted on a victim can look like violence. And not to drag this entire conversation directly into the gutter, but the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trials, and all of the narratives that we’re all—well, maybe some of us—are projecting onto that conflict have to do with who we think gets to be a victim, who we think gets to be violent, who we think gets to be a believable witness, and who is crazy and unstable, and whose narrative is therefore rejected.
These are all things, you know, this work is very much in progress, and it’s also a novel, so I don’t want to talk about it too much because that thing can happen where you just talk it out of existence. But I, like you, it sounds like, I’m very interested in just who gets to narrate, who gets that authority.
And there is this craft question that I wanted to ask you earlier, and I think it’s almost still relevant. It does have to do with narration and it has to do with violence and spectacle. And something that I’ve always wanted to ask you is how do you write about horror and elevate it above sheer spectacle, elevate it above the entertainment that you were describing before as an opportunity to kind of identify with the pure good fighting of pure evil? How do you do it when you’re surrounded by dead bodies?
Mark: I think that you have a good editor. Because while you were asking that question I was thinking of this particular scene. The first really long work I did on foreign policy and violence was about Haiti in The New Yorker, and I had this wonderful editor, legendary editor, Robert Gottlieb, who’d been editor at Knopf and is just an extraordinary, wonderful, brilliant talent, who’s still with us, thank God.
And I was just…there was part of the text where it was kind of this night terror section. It was like Ulysses in Nighttown was kind of how I thought of it, where the city of Port-au-Prince rose up at night beating on pots and rose up and tried to kill some of the people who had been preying on them, particularly the Tonton Macoute, these militia members, and the police. And we walked out in the darkness and these people were all armed, they all had machetes. It was incredible looking in the darkness.
And we came to a square where people were gathered around, and as they separated we saw this, what I realized at length was a car, was a Mercedes, but it had been pounded into rubble, and on top of it was a corpse that had just been killed, and the hands had been cut off, the feet had been cut off, and the head had been smashed, hit several times with machetes. And I described it in my manuscript as from the top of the head came a flamboyant ruffle of pink brains, something like that.
But I remember it was ruffle, and brains, and I remember Gottlieb sitting there next to me and saying you can’t say this. And I said but that’s exactly what it looked like. And he said yes, but you’re calling attention to your own writing in the cause of upping the amperage of violence, of someone who’s dead. And I remember it just so struck me that he was trying to tell me that all I had to say was what it looked like, insofar as I could. Insofar as I could establish a window that would show it, that was all I should do. I shouldn’t call any attention—
Sarah: Was it the word flamboyant?
Mark: I think it was flamboyant. And I think pink we also cut out.
Sarah: Oh, I’m…okay.
Mark: But I think we just, we sort of honed it down and neutralized it, to some degree. And I really learned from that because I was in Sarajevo when the so-called market bombing happened. We arrived just afterwards. There were 68 corpses and just a lake of blood. And how do you…? I fell into it. I slipped and fell on my back in this blood.
Mark: How do you describe that without seeming exploitative? Perhaps you can’t. In other words, you are exploiting it. But to describe it, it seems you have to be as neutral and specific as possible, and unself-conscious.
Sarah: I love hearing the nuts and bolts, especially the Gottlieb conversation. Do you remember how it eventually ran in The New Yorker?
Mark: It definitely ran as he cut down in that way.
Sarah: So no flamboyant, no pink. Ruffle, or was that too…?
Mark: I don’t think there was a ruffle.
Mark: I don’t think there was a ruffle. But you know, it’s amazing to me that you love hearing that just because in a sense the entire method of “Very Cold People” has to do with, it seems to me, in a very specific way, with suppression, with that kind of suppression. That is, that where the characters are going is submerged beneath very particular perceptual descriptions of the everyday, and there’s a suppression of what’s going on that is only revealed, and very modestly, at the end, in the last ten pages of the book.
And the act of suppression itself—I mean, it might not be right to say suppression, but repression, I don’t know. It’s devastating for the power. It means that the book has a kind of revelatory power that’s built out of this world of description. There isn’t a plot, per se. There’s a passage of time, which I deeply—I mean, I’m sorry to talk this way in front of all the people who haven’t read it. The solution for them is to read it, like instantly.
Sarah: Thank you, Mark.
Mark: But do you know what I mean, talking about repression?
Sarah: I do, I do. And in fact I feel moved to talk about something I’ve never talked about before in a public forum. And just before I do that I will say in response to your reading of “Very Cold People,” which I think is very apt, it is characterized by repression and omission and silence in all of the meanings of the word cold. The first thing I will say is that it was very easy to write because all I had to do was remember what I saw and all that I perceived, which was characterized by many, many omissions and silences, a lot of information that was kept from us, that was kept from me individually, that was kept from all the girls. And so it was very easy to tell that story from the point of view of a girl who doesn’t really know what’s going on.
And so this is what I haven’t talked about before. And as you were talking about editing your piece with Gottlieb it reminded me of the other book that you were kind enough to bring up a few minutes ago, my memoir, my first memoir, “The Two Kinds of Decay,” which is about a chronic illness that I had in my 20s. A lot of it takes place in hospitals. And as I was writing that book I made decisions to omit certain things from it. You know, you can’t include everything, especially when you’re 33. There’s only so much that’s interesting.
But I made a choice not to include, I guess, the flamboyant pink ruffle that would have been louder than everything else in the book. And the moment that I, or the scene, the event that I chose not to include was a scene in which violence is inflicted on me in a hospital. And I included it in my novel because it finally felt, or I finally felt that it had a setting, it had a narrative form in which it wouldn’t be the loudest word, it wouldn’t flatten everything around it.
And so, you know, there’s always the danger of sharing something like that and then having people say huh, I knew all the novels were just memoirs, or I knew all memoirs were just a pack of lies. And those things are true. But there are some vast seas of information that sort of flowed into both books, one of which is decidedly nonfiction, and the other of which is decidedly fiction. And yeah, that’s what your Gottlieb anecdote reminded me of.
Mark: That scene, you know, I can’t imagine that in the other book. I mean, having just reread the other book and having just read the novel, and knowing exactly the scene you’re talking about, it’s in the right place. I mean, I can’t imagine it—
Sarah: I’m glad you think so.
Mark: It couldn’t have been in the other book. And in fact it would have flattened everything else.
Mark: The success…I mean, for me as a writer one of the interesting and fascinating and enviable things about the novel was the modulation, was the kind of patience of it. It’s an incredibly patient book when you find out where it gets to, if I can put it that way, that the pace of it is just brilliantly modulated. As I say, there isn’t really a plot in the normal sense of a plot.
And I had great envy for that because just to get—here’s a parallel. My first book was called “The Massacre at El Mozote,” and it had, at its heart, this mass killing of a thousand people. Okay, you sit down to write it for The New Yorker, here’s the first question you have. Where do you put the massacre? In other words, if it’s supposed to be a two part piece does the massacre come at the end of the first part?
In other words, you have these basic constructional concerns, which I think most people who read it don’t even think about. But you realize that one of the things you’re doing is working with the emotions of your reader. And of course you’re sort of not supposed to think that way. I mean, the myth, what we tell people we do is we write it as it has to be written. But in fact you’re making these decisions all the time—where does the massacre go.
And the editor at the time of The New Yorker, Tina Brown, in a sense solved my problem by publishing it all in one piece. And then where does it go? I could put it at the end of the second act, basically, in Hollywood terms. But in fact this is what, if you’re writing and using material that will make the reader’s heart beat and will disturb the reader, you either subliminally have that in mind or you actually, in my case with The New Yorker, where I had to think about the parts, you have to take that on the surface and make decisions about that.
And I think the story that you just told about “The Two Kinds of Decay and “Very Cold People” and that scene is very indicative of that, that we have this notion that we’re telling it as it happened, but in fact it’s this delicate construction that we want to end up, we want—I mean, obviously it’s a delicate construction, but do you know what I’m saying?
Sarah: Absolutely, yeah. And as I was thinking about your “El Mozote” piece I was thinking were you equally worried about oversimplifying—just projecting a perfect, you’re talking about this two act thing with the movie metaphor, which under Tina Brown I think is again very apt. I was an intern under Tina Brown at the magazine.
Mark: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Sarah: Yeah. No, nobody does. But there are these…I at least have these two opposing worries, one of oversimplifying things into like just a digestive biscuit of narrative, and of just creating an impossibly complex mess that is utterly indigestible and is, I mean, it’s the opposite of all kinds of entertainment.
Mark: There’s a third risk, though, and that’s melodrama.
Sarah: Oh, yeah.
Mark: I think I risk—
Sarah: Okay, there are many risks. I guess what are you most anxious about when you’re trying to translate the chaos of Sarajevo, marketplace massacre, into narrative for consumption?
Mark: I think to do justice to the complexity of it, that I fear good and evil. I fear these ideas of good evil because I feel like they are, in effect they’re kind of myths that allow us—you know, it’s another kind of myth that we began this discussion by talking about, the myth of the rarity of abuse, the myth of the rarity of war crimes. And good and evil is another myth, it seems to me.
The wonderful thing about reporting, there’s a voluptuous pleasure in reporting, and that is you sit here and you say I’m going to go to Ukraine. I want to report. And so you read every goddamn thing you can read on Ukraine, and you know exactly what’s going on, you know what the issues are, and you know everything about Ukraine.
Then you get on a plane, you arrive in Ukraine, you spend a day and a half and you reach this point, after talking to people, and staying up all night, and reporting, and getting in a Jeep, and doing this, and doing that, and doing that, you reach this voluptuous, gorgeous point, like slipping into a warm bath, where you have no idea what’s going on.
Mark: You have no idea what’s going on. And then you can start. You realize that everything you read before was predigested and you don’t know anything at all. And that’s what I love about reporting, that feeling of voluptuous ignorance.
Sarah: Thank you so much for that. I’m so glad to know that, especially now that for some reason, like clockwork, at least once a year on Twitter writers just sort of loom up and start debating the write what you know versus write what you don’t know. And every time I see people taking a position that we should write what we know or we shouldn’t write what we know my only thought is that we don’t know anything. Like that very argument takes for granted the assumption that we all know a lot. Who are those people who know anything?
Sarah: I don’t know anything. All I do is write about myself. I still don’t know anything. Thank God. Because this work is somehow just endlessly sustaining and still interesting.
Mark: The rule of thumb is to me the closer you get the less you know. When you’re—
Sarah: I believe that.
Mark: —at a distance from something, when you’re at a great distance, when you’re sitting in Berkeley reading about Ukraine you can know everything. But when you’re in Ukraine you don’t know shit.
Mark: You know, it’s really astonishing because the full complexity, the sense impressions, the voices, what you’re doing day-to-day, what you’re eating, who you’re talking to, the person who’s driving you around, all of these things are entering into this enormous blizzard of sense impressions. And to get some sort of sense out of it is this willful act of construction. It isn’t an act of recording.
Mark: And I think that’s true of…I mean, maybe it’s true of you, too, that you think you’re trying to understand yourself, but you’re constructing yourself. You’re constructing this self in your work.
Sarah: Oh, yes, very much so. And as you were describing the blizzard of sense impressions and the fact that there is nothing to—I forget the word you just used a moment ago—but you don’t just sort of turn your eyeball onto it and take a recording. It reminds me of the photographer Tim Davis, who was at the Academy with us in ’07 and ’08, and who was the first photographer to teach me the phrase “making pictures” rather than “taking pictures,” because to say that you take a picture just removes all agency and artistry and all of the impossibly mediated ways in which a photographer makes a picture. Like a camera is a machine, but it is not what’s doing the work of making the art out of what’s in front of it.
Mark: Yeah, similarly with telling stories. In fact we make stories, we don’t tell them. I remember Tim—didn’t Tim make a Soviet cosmonaut? Am I making that up?
Sarah: I think that was Daniel Bozhkov, maybe.
Mark: Oh, gosh.
Sarah: Yeah, he is the sculptor. Yeah, he made the—
Mark: Yeah, you’re right.
Sarah: I forgot about the cosmonaut. Yeah, just slightly larger than…just offputtingly larger than life size, like—
Mark: That’s right, exactly.
Sarah: —just a little bit too big.
Mark: In the uncanny valley.
Sarah: Yeah, very much so. I want to make sure we give people an opportunity. I haven’t looked at the chat at all, but I’m going to do so now. Let’s see. Vivian asks I’m interested in Sarah and Mark’s comment on they’re making art of violence, how it affects them, and what keeps them moving forward. Vivian, I’m glad you asked that because something that I was sort of keeping in my pocket that I really wanted to ask Mark was do you ever find that your personal crises make their way into the work, either in some temporary form that gets edited out or do you ever feel that you’re kind of self-excavating as part of the work?
Mark: That’s such a good question. And you know, I’ve never really been able to sort that out. I mean, I’ve often been asked, like at book, you know, at readings and things how does this affect you personally, basically. And I’ve never really felt confident to try to answer that question.
Whenever I’ve been in violent situations I find I get very calm. It’s paradoxical. But it’s happened enough that it seems to be my normal reaction. We were almost macheted in Haiti by this group that were closing us in and were going to kill us, and I felt this incredible sense of calm, and also a sense of narrative pleasure because I thought all week we’ve been watching people get macheted and chopped apart, and what a perfect ending this is. We’re about to get—
Sarah: Oh, my gosh, Mark.
Mark: —macheted. But I remember thinking that. I didn’t feel fearful at all. I just felt of course this is the end. I mean, of course this is how it would end. This makes perfect sense. And in the aftermath I didn’t feel any sense of collapse or any sense of great fatigue or anything. So I’m not sure really how it…you know, I’ve never felt damaged personally by these things.
I’ve lost a lot of friends in places I’ve reported, and that is very jarring and is very painful, and particularly children who have been killed. I mean, there’s something beyond…in that sense there’s a kind of absolute framing of justice and injustice that is close to good and evil that pains me greatly. But I’ve never felt it’s affected me personally in a permanently damaging way. And maybe I’m completely wrong.
Sarah: No, I don’t think you would have made all of the work that you have if it were an exercise in self-punishment or if it felt bad to do.
Mark: How about you?
Sarah: Well, I mean, I’ve never seen anybody get macheted, but—
Mark: I’m talking about your—
Sarah: Yeah, in the personal excavations that I do, writing about trauma, which I think more people are kind of having literary and critical conversations about as a pursuit, yeah, all I can say is that it feels better to write it than not to write it. And if it felt bad to do then I don’t think I would be doing it. Certainly the world doesn’t need anybody’s work. But we’re moved to make this work. You know, as artists we’re moved to make work from some other drive, for some other reason.
Mark: But to push you a second, do you feel that when you’ve written something you’ve resolved something that was unresolved?
Sarah: Absolutely, yes. Yes. I think I may have even been talking with you about this at the Academy, but it was very soon after “The Two Kinds of Decay” came out, which was my first directly autobiographical book, it was soon after that that I realized I didn’t remember anything in the book anymore. And I had written the book from memory about a period of time that had been finished for seven years. It was a fixed duration in my 20s and I was in my 30s when I wrote it.
And it really surprised me that the information seemed to have exited my working memory into the object of this book and that I no longer needed to think about it. And that’s happened with every single one of my books ever since. And I now see it as part of the process, and maybe the very reason for my doing it in the first place, to get it out of me. The point of telling a story is to get it out of you. Can I—
Mark: But it’s interesting—
Sarah: —say that?
Mark: Yeah, I think you can. But the interesting point to me is those seven years, which by the way is a very Biblical number.
Sarah: Isn’t it? Yeah.
Mark: Yeah. So you needed seven years of fallowdom for—
Sarah: I did, yeah. Seven years of trying to be a poet and just biding my time before I could write [real].
Mark: You write that. At the beginning of the book you do write about that period that you haven’t written about it, the delay.
Mark: Right at the beginning.
Sarah: Yeah. Well, I have now.
Sarah: It looks like we have another question here. Does a sense of your fiction find its way into your nonfiction? Getting back to the idea of normalization, where abuse becomes normalized, does it kind of fictionalize that? That’s a really interesting question. Yeah, so it… I recognize this is directed to me, but I’m drawing a blank. Does this make you think of anything, Mark?
Mark: It makes me think of what to ask you. What do you conceive of as the difference between fiction and nonfiction in your own work?
Sarah: In my own work? Oh, God. I was just talking to a class of novelists at NYU yesterday, and we were talking about what had happened to me in order to turn me from a poet into a nonfiction writer, into a novelist. And the thing that I told them was I realized there’s no such thing as a novelist. There’s just me writing the next book that happens to be a novel or whatever. And that was, I mean, that was one of the most freeing thoughts I’ve ever had, and it had a wonderfully calming effect.
Mark: So the only real effect is where it is in the bookstore.
Sarah: [Laughs.] Yeah. How much you get paid for it.
Mark: Yeah, but I mean I’ve often thought that, that it’s very strange, you know, if you look at Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book “The Emperor” or “Shah of Shahs” and then you look at, say, “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron, in which it’s a roman a clef in which the whole story is known to half of Washington, right, which of those is more fictional? One is supposedly written on facts and goes in the nonfiction section, one is in the fiction section, and yet they should change places. It’s very strange, these genre divisions that we make, I think.
Sarah: A writer told me that in Germany bookstores are arranged into two categories—maybe somebody in the audience can vouch for this—literature is one of the categories and the other one is “other.”
Sarah: And “other” has just everything from joke books, to city maps, to, you know.
Mark: I like that division.
Sarah: I do, too. Because of course we think of ourselves as producing literature.
Mark: Yeah. Well, I want to say writing is writing. You have to sit down—I think of it more as a thing that you…what you do when you make it. You sit down and you’re in front of—I mean, my whole life it’s been first writing on the page, and then the typewriter for a long time, and now this. And it’s a question of sitting down every day, or most days, if you can do that.
Mark: What do you think?
Sarah: I think my gears are slowing a bit, but can we just take—it looks like Roy has put a question into the chat. When you were—this is for you, Mark—when you were discussing Bucha and Abu Ghraib I thought also of George Floyd and how phone videos are helping to bring people to justice.
Sarah: Can you comment on that? Is it fighting that normalization of violence or fueling it? And I love that Roy, who I remember as just this shining presence of positivity at the Academy, has the sort of, the hopeful question at the end.
Mark: It’s a great question.
Sarah: It feels so perfect.
Mark: It’s a great question, and Roy’s watercolors, you know. What is that little villa he was in? I can’t remember where. He had the best place, as I recall, at the Academy.
Molissa: Casa Rustica.
Mark: That’s it.
Sarah: Oh, that’s right.
Mark: It was beautiful. Thank you, Roy. Yeah, I think…you know, this goes back to the point that Sarah originally made, I think, about normalization, that it’s not as if these things with the police hadn’t been going on forever, it’s that suddenly they’re being photographed, and they’re being shown. And there’s still a struggle about whether indeed they’ll stop or not. I mean, so we see them and we see them, and there’s less—the positive way to look at it is to say the stuff is finally becoming…it’s being put in front of us, it’s being shown to us, and the society can decide whether it wants to stop it.
The negative way to look at it is to say that since the first ones of these videos were shown to us to the most recent one, which was in—where was it the other day? The young man being shot in the back of the head at a traffic stop. I just saw the tape. It’s causing significantly less talk, obviously, than George Floyd did, which was a unique tape, in a way, because it was real time. In other words, the violence took place over eight minutes. The violence was not the violence when you’re hitting or shooting, the violence was sitting. I think that was a unique artifact, in a way, that sitting on him, not moving, slowly killing him.
But so I guess I prefer to put myself on the positive side and say that the information—and in general I think when people say what do you do or what’s your principle of telling a story, I say to tell what happened, because journalism students are always like well, what if you tell about a human rights abuse and nothing’s done? And I say if you judge your work by whether something’s done about it you will go mad because you’re defining yourself as a failure, because you don’t immediately change the world.
You have to think of yourself as adding to the store of information about the world’s reality, that you’re showing it, you’re making people have to cope with it. And I guess I think, to go back to Roy’s question, that those images are making people cope with it. And the fact is when we say that we risk them coping with it in a way that essentially changes nothing. That’s the risk. But at least they have to cope with it. What do you think, Sarah?
Sarah: I think that was the perfect answer. Yeah. And to respond to your journalism students, I just want to say that’s somebody else’s job. I mean, if you want to be working in policy, you can go and do that, but if you’re being a journalist, just know the limits of what you’ve taken on. I mean, it’s a huge undertaking, but it’s not everything.
Mark: Yeah, it’s not everything. That’s a good… I think I’m going to repeat that little capsule.
Mark: It should be over the door of the journalism school.
Molissa: I want to thank you both so much for this. Golly, I’ve been writing notes the whole time, and I’m going to have to send you a bunch of emails and ask my questions.
Mark: Well, it’s been such a pleasure, and I have such affection for the Academy. And it allows me to remember the great evenings in the Cryptoporticus playing ping pong with Sarah, which is actually her true talent, not writing at all.
Sarah: You are most kind. I am…I have a terrible top spin that I’m still working on, but thank you. It was such a pleasure to talk with you in this and any other forum, Mark. Thank you so much for hosting.
Phu: Thank you both so much.
Molissa: Thank you, thank you.
Phu: Thank you, everyone. Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Mark. It was amazing.
Mark: Good luck, all.
Molissa: It’s all recorded.
Mark: Oh, great. Great to see you, Laurie and Vicky. Great to see you, Roy. And you, Molissa. I miss you.
Molissa: I miss you, too.
Mark: Come out and walk with me. Come walk with me.
Molissa: I know, I know. Well, I have to tell you the fish story.
Mark: I know. I need to hear the end of the end of the fish story.
Molissa: I’ll tell you.
Mark: Please do.
Sarah: I’m going to have to miss the fish story, but—
Molissa: I can’t tell it now because it’s just too long and crazy, but I’ll have to write.
Mark: Sarah, that was great.
Molissa: It was great. Thank you so much.
Sarah: Both of you please come to L.A. and we can walk on the beach.
Mark: That’s a deal.
Molissa: Yeah. Well, we’re just in Summerland, so…
Roy: Yeah, we can do that.
Sarah: Oh, yeah. Okay.
Molissa: Yeah, you can come down to us. Oh, man.
Sarah: Okay, we’ll figure out how to make it happen.
Molissa: Everyone’s saying thank you in the chat, I just want you to know.
Sarah: I see it. This was great. Alrighty.
Molissa: Okay. Bye-bye, everybody.
Sarah: Have a good night, everyone.
Molissa: Thank you.
Mark: Love to all. Bye.
1:05:06 [End of recording.]