Luke Goebel Talks With Lindsay Hunter

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Ugly Girls cover

Luke Goebel: Alright! Hi, Lindsay Hunter. You wrote the book Ugly Girls (great title, by the way) and it’s a jaw rattler. I keep saying it used my heart as a rag. To clean what is the next question…the heart of the world? The heart of all of us? The holy secular heart? I mean there’s a lot to say on this one, and it’s BIG. FSG release. Kind of book everyone will want to read. Mass appeal, all that, killer speed book, craft out of the top of the head, with all the best prose anyone could want, plus the big story, mindblower, like at times I’m reading something written so good I think it’s As I Lay Dying only it’s 2014 or ’15 or ’16 and it’s Ugly Girls and it’s set in this trailer park — other times I’m clearly reading Lindsay Hunter and it’s still set in that trailer park — but it’s like one of those great books you read in school as a kid (though this one isn’t going to be taught in any kids’ schools anytime soon I doubt, not with some of these scenes!) and thought, HOW THE HELL DID THIS WRITER DO THIS? They must just be one of them [sic] magic writer people, one of them [sic] AUTHORS, who sit away in some lonely place of beauty to write this GOLD that just comes out of them, like, erupts, because they live the Earth into its being, and are geniuses, and all that… I’m trying to give you a compliment… say your book is killer… and with a difference from those old greats, because you do things they would have been shot if they wrote. Really. Killed.

SO… here’s the question, and it’s the ONE I think everyone wants to know when they read a book that rattles their jaws and makes the world seem at once familiar and strange, so the reader thinks “Maybe I don’t know myself, or life at all, maybe I can try again and do better this life.” Question being: HOW DID YOU DO IT?

Where did this novel come from? Who are these characters you found? Did you have help? Was there an editor? How did you write this? At what times of day? From what hilltop or plantation or moor or whatever wetlands? On what machine or by hand? Where did you figure out to have that quarry that is in the book? How did you find this novel inside you? Well… Hunter, will you tell us?

Lindsay Hunter: Luke, thank you so much for saying all of that. It is an enormous compliment coming from you!

I think I trusted that I had a novel-sized story to tell inside me, and then I just kept trusting that every single day. It was very hard at times and it haunts me to this day! Eventually, after years of doubts and self-hatred and all of it, a writer must come to a place where she can trust herself. Or give herself permission, at the very least, to write. So this novel is kind of the culmination of years and years of self-flagellating and wheels-spinning. Eventually I just decided to forge on into the abyss, or whatever that saying is. Is there a saying? I decided to trust the abyss.

You know, this is something I’m learning as a mother, now, too. I resist the daily change that comes from being a parent. Every once in a while I have to remind myself that the way through is through. Can’t go around, can’t avoid. Just ahhhhh, lay back, get all up in that change, serve it a plate of sausages and some tea. Trust the abyss.

Anyway. Even trusting the abyss I needed some goals to work toward. And not just the goal of “write a novel!” I needed bite-sized, achievable goals. I decided I’d attempt it the way I attempt flash fiction stories: with a word count (or plot-based) goal, and I’d sit at the desk until I met that goal. My daily word count goal for the novel was 2,000–2,500 words. Sometimes I’d get that done in two hours! Other times it’d take me all day. It felt wonderful at times, completely blissful, and then the next day I’d decide I was a horrible hack with no real story to tell. Would people care about anything in this book? Would they be bored, feel cheated, see right through me? I fear all of that to this day. I can never trust a compliment. I’m always searching in and around it for the TRUTH. It’s a sickness! I think writers are like that, though. We don’t take anything at face value; we keep probing for that dark secret, that hidden room. It is so annoying.

I wrote this mostly in my basement office, with forays into my SunPorch sofa or my dining table. I like to write in the morning. I am a true morning person. I took a month off of work and treated writing this novel like a 9–5 job. I’d shower, get dressed, get ready, eat breakfast, and then descend into the basement to write. I did not allow myself to relax until my goal was achieved. I was pregnant at the time, and I just felt like I didn’t have any time to slack. I had to go hard in the paint. Also, in general, in life, my process is to write until it’s done. I am not one to write a bit, ruminate, come back, write a little more… I need to get it DONE. Maybe that speaks to the novel’s pace? I wanted the novel to MOVE. I didn’t want any dawdling. I wanted stuff to matter. I’m not saying I was a hundred percent successful in any of it! I’m just saying what I wanted.

The quarry. I almost named the novel “The Quarry”! I felt like it was a physical representation of the deeply carved quarry in each of the characters. It sounds lame typing it out that way! But I wanted a place for things to culminate, and I wanted it to be a kind of metaphor. Again, not sure if I was successful. I can’t say too much more without spoilers!

It all started with me wanting to write a fairy tale about a girl who couldn’t feel fear. It started there and became what it is now. I think my grand plan for the novel changed on a daily basis, and I just kind of went with it. It was the only thing I could do!

And now I turn this back to you. Luke. Holy frijoles. Speaking of a book moving. Your words positively freak right off the page. My eyes can barely keep up. I am with you, I am with you, I am with you, oh my God now I am crying. So many moments like that in your work. Hysterical, is the word I think of now. Because it’s funny and it’s emotional and it’s unhinged and it’s so, so, so unique. I want to know how YOU wrote THIS BOOK. And what kind of effect did it have on your psyche, if you don’t mind me asking? It seems like a laying bare kind of a book. A true soul-scouring. Did you feel better or worse? Are those adjectives even worthy of what you felt?

Another question: Padgett Powell said he wasn’t sure if this was fiction or non-fiction. It seemed like an odd thing to say. Why would I care what he wasn’t sure of? BUT it made me think. Do YOU care? Do you think there’s a distinction? Do you label it as fiction or non-fiction, yourself?

LG: Lindsay, Thank you. What an awesome answer. Extremely generous and now I know about the quarry and your process and I’m left with the same sense: you are the book you wrote. It’s your drive that gave it its speed. Then it’s also a miracle.

As to the question, Am I the book I wrote? Well, surely I am. It’s my then music coming from myself. Although, also it’s a performance. You’ve nailed your answers. I feel like saying, I don’t know the book. It showed up one day and could talk.

For me, it was all a very different kind of process. I didn’t have a regimented approach. I wrote because I was living and writing. I wrote stories of myself and stories from me that were coming hard for me, at me, from the world and my being then me. What Padgett Powell said, wrote, when he wrote it, it knocked me out, his saying it wasn’t so much fiction as something that had been done to me, like a beating, and I wasn’t unhappy at how I had taken the beating. I then realized, reading his words, how much of a beating I had taken and that I had been too dumb or too in flight to sit and just be beaten. The calamities. The tragic loss. I had to make something out of it.

Also, I had something to prove at first because of a teacher and a love, both of whom are in the book. I lost her and then my only and big brother died. He was the greatest most fun and loving and terrific person I ever knew, with the greatest heart. Then I wrote the stories I had and assembled as a book half blood eyed crying and it was signed and awarded a prize. I figured: now what? So I wrote them into a novel, the stories I had written. Getting away with something. Changing it up after selling it. I felt like what the hell! I’ll get a motor coach and use it to travel and have a 3600 watt generator and power on the side of any road any place I set down to run computers and printers and typewriters and make edits and drink coffee and cry and smoke cigarettes and take my road home with my dog.

I just started using more and more interruptions and stories that were happening as I kept driving into the world, looking for the next round of trouble. It was a lot of excitement driving that giant death trap. I had another adventure and another and it just HAPPENED. I wanted to keep talking and getting it more… correct. So I took my keys in a big long motor estate and hit the world of roads… But… ARE THESE OR IS OR WAS THAT ME?

I feel like saying was Elvis Presley really Elvis?

Of course when you watch footage of him playing his heart into the piano, when no one was supposed to be looking, it’s like watching a boy take himself into art in holy brilliance of pure study and love for song. I don’t know much about Elvis, but what I listen to of him. If it all doesn’t sound too ludicrous. I just love the old music. I’m NO Elvis here, NOT SAYING I’m ELVIS material, but I was just working with the keys trying to get true and truer. But was Elvis really performing as ELVIS? Do I have to account for myself after accounting for myself? In one way or another? His heart shows through and everyone who knew him says the same thing. He was all honest goodness. Course I don’t know. Maybe I have overlooked a backstory. But ELVIS? I’m not all goodness, still we all have those art forms in us, us devoting ourselves to something we love that’s in us. Well, the book is about lots of things real at the core but many fictionalized too, and I really bought a 31-foot van and learned to drive it on the fly just bellow tornados with huge winds torquing me like a sail with 31 feet of exposed wind catching side eleven feet high. I fixed parts going out and breaking off on the old wingless plane, and smashed into an Acura on Manhattan Beach, tore it open like a tuna fish can, and had a pistol and snuck into paradise and felt myself alone and asked what can you offer over and over and had a time of it all, trying and pushing my song onward, and I could feel it was happening right, and I kept trying to find something for us all, sky and sea, for you and myself and all the readers, something to believe in — in this time we live in of cowardliness and Ferguson, MO. War on good-hearted-human-alive people and true families of our streets, in this time of world chaos and Fukushima, and militarized police at home keeping down protests after teenagers get murdered one after another, gruesomely killed by police thugs in our streets, and out there Taliban and ISIS and earth hatred and poison corporations kidnapping food and water and kidnapped girls and tortured soldiers coming home all kinds of destroyed and meanness, greed and hatred from the corporate rich, with the politicians’ clear hatred of women and poor masses, and every downtrodden sufferer has a family and its song, and also all the beautiful people with so much love being harmed by so much violent fear, and I needed to get a rebirth of song, and at the same time I was putting on a show. Even for myself. You know, the rock ’n’ roll stuff Elvis did, and his Gospels, are all work in the genre and its performance and traditions. I was doing that in my van. And the jumpsuits are part of it. He’s drawn to what he’s drawn to. I like real wood. Yarn and wood curtains. A giant commercial engine. An old coach.

People are saying really loving and excited things about the book and contacting me after they read and that makes me humble. I feel like, you know, all the same doubts and all the same fears and I’m looking for all the same hidden rooms you mentioned. What is the hidden criticism being stated in the compliments, and what will I do next, etc.? I can barely hold a compliment but then while I was writing I was fulfilled. Yeah I showed a lot of myself, maybe too much, and that’s true. It scares me to see it come out. But that’s the only risk I wanted to take. With so many books in the world. But then you say it’s so different from everything else and that makes me feel a moment of relief.

Did I feel better or worse after I wrote it? Soul scouring? Better. I felt better. Is there a word for how I feel or felt? I feel like I dare you. I feel like I didn’t succumb to numb death in a time when that’s what’s mostly happening. I feel I testified to love. I feel I need to do more, much more, before the end, which is death then who knows?

So, thank you for what you said about Fourteen Stories. Is it fiction or nonfiction? Yes, it’s fiction. Why?

Because I wanted it to be. As to when I wrote it, that was my choice all throughout and so I let myself take on roles in traditions of the voices of the rebellious calling out HEY, CUT THE SHIT and in so doing I did not limit myself from taking on aspects and opportunities of singing and making music of all kinds, both holy and perverse, that I may have limited myself from doing in a form of nonfiction. Because there’s stuff too to make you cringe in my book. Because it’s not being self-preservatory. But in the truest parts of the work, in the moments when the hysteria stops and it drops into truth, that’s the sound that’s my then blood. But when it’s riding high mania and being funny and being raw and being provocative and rebellious, well those are my jumpsuits.

Tell me about gender and your book, if you feel there is territory to explore talking about gender. I thought about Virginia Woolf and her writings about gender and women and literature a lot while reading Ugly Girls, because I felt let into a perspective and view that was not male-centric, and I thought about what she says about books and the sparsity of them written with women who are the real important characters and the lack of books back then from non-male-dominated brains and hearts and eyes. Were you concerned with gender when writing Ugly Girls? Was there a need you felt needed to be filled in the world, in terms of gender and literature, while writing this book?

LH: I definitely felt a strong urge to write the novel from the perspective of a teenaged girl. In my experience, they are often tougher than they look. Tough as nails in fact. And they are doing and wanting and hoping for the same raw, gross, power-and-sex-based shit teenaged (and adult) boys are. I really wanted to write the full spectrum of these girls. Teenagers are still children; their brains aren’t fully developed, yet they have these intense emotions, so the urges they experience are in a way hyper-real. They act on urges in ways we can’t fathom. Perry and Baby Girl are struggling for purchase in two worlds: the world they’ve created and the actual world. They are mean to each other even as their loyalty to each other trumps the meanness. They use and discard each other at will. I just really wanted to write characters that were unlikable often, because what human isn’t, but still interesting to read. I think unlikable female characters are the least liked, most difficult to root for, and that appealed to me. And I know there’s a lot of talk about whether or not a writer should care if readers care about characters, but I definitely want readers to care. I think that has to come in the authenticity of the characters, in their thoughts and emotions and the things they do, in the compassion the author has in writing the characters. I think when all is said and done my main goal in life is to create and nurture empathy for shitheads.

So, gender. It’s so funny to me because does a male author ever get asked “Hey, let’s talk about gender. Your main character is this dude. Did you think about gender when writing?” But I get it. Books written by women are often in the minority on those lists people post on Facebook of the top ten books that had an impact. They just don’t! Who knows why that is. Based on the questions I get constantly about women writing and female main characters and the like, it seems like men (and I say “men” meaning this chunk of humanity that people often stick into this one peghole, even as I know plenty of men who read women) are frightened by a book with female main characters. Ugh, what if they emote? Get their period? Moon over something? Get into a catfight? There’s another peghole: all stuff written by women, over here. To those turned off by books written by women (I doubt you’re reading this interview, but if you are): get over it. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Dive in. I have a friend who’s only reading books written by women this year. As far as I can tell he is still a man. No breasts or obnoxious hormones yet! And as far as I can tell, he is enjoying what he’s reading. Women have been on this earth as long as men, or if you’re a Bible sort, we were only created like a day after man was, and all that ancient stuff inside you? All that raw caveman fear and desire and hope and thirst and hunger? We have it too.

What about you? Are you ever asked to talk about your choices when it comes to gender of your characters? Is there anything you feel like you want to soapbox about when it comes to “men’s fiction”? Or “women’s fiction”?

And another question: how do you keep yourself working? Are you a dedicated every-dayer, or do you write when the mood strikes?

LG: Yes, I definitely have been asked, recently, about gender, about having a “dude” talking, yes, yes, and I ask and have asked myself about it and asked myself about it while writing the book quite a lot. All the time. I was just critiqued in one review for having a male narrator who performs some of his persona of “maleness,” whatever that means, though I think he’s subverting gender types, but maybe it was subtle? I feel most people I have talked to get what I’m doing. Strangers. Blurbers. But the reviewer claimed I didn’t have enough fully developed female characters and it hurt the book a teensy bit, even though he sort of danced out of that charge and said, not really, not really. What does that mean, fully developed female characters? I wanted to say, “There are women in the book and they aren’t characters and they are importantly real”; then who will believe a guy saying that? I mean, my narrator is a man (though I say, even in the book he says, “a man… if you want to call me that,” as if, what does that even mean!) and he’s on the road, or in a hospital bed, or in the middle of nowhere mourning, or in his head trying to account for himself, to tell his story, mostly to himself, or to anyone who will listen. I think there are fully real people who are female in the book. I believe Catherine, the love interest and true love of the narrator is real, the mother, the sister, but then, that’s up to the readers. It’s hard because Catherine isn’t in the present part of the book because she’s left him. He’s super vulnerable, he’s super manic, he’s aware of the elements of gender, and of his performance of gender, of the forces in our society and times, yet he’s provoking and pushing, and he’s trying to explore and slip the binds of his persona and himself, and subvert subvert subvert. I guess I think writers now have to decide to make our characters aware of their performance of gender, or our narrators, or as authors we need to show the falseness and complexity to the performance, which I believe I do. Which you do.

But you know, I couldn’t respond. You can’t get clean of a charge like that, and now I’ve perpetuated the charge into another feature, the fully developed woman characters charge… what does this fully developed idea even mean? In postmodern new writing? In non-realism? It bothers me. I feel in a lot of ways, and always have, that I do not fit in the traditional roles of “maleness,” and feel the pressure to perform one way and feel another, and want to perform the truth and so be an outsider which I have done most of my life, coming from a small farm town in the Midwest, now living in Texas, being big, being loud, and I have my personal physical attributes, six five, hairy chest, over two hundred pounds, etc., but I have always felt very androgynous. I went to a facility when I was young to quit drinking, which I did, and I took the MMPI, which Timothy Leary wrote, and I got a score of 49% female and 51% male. I know, how can they qualify that? It’s an old test. Anyhow, I think a lot about gender, and about the obnoxiousness of so much of “male” writing, and that’s why I ask. I think about all this when I write.

I felt like it was a major relief to read your book, not because there are female characters (Oh GOD! IMAGINE!) or female POVs, because of course yours isn’t THAT rare in that aspect, is it?… but I felt like your book did a rare thing by centering the whole world on these two teenage friends, these young women, where the world was primarily oriented into and around their perspective, even with the moving lens that inhabits men and women, the perspective never unhinged entirely off of these female characters. Even when in male lenses, we never left the view from the two girls and the violence of their world, the hardness of their world, the heartbreak of their world — you never bent the lens to be in the objective world of “realism” which isn’t real at all of course, which is handed out like vaccines — your book’s feel isn’t the world of the TV or the radio, it isn’t the cliché world of realism being shown with the addition of their perspectives, but a world ontologically centered within them so entirely. You never let the pressure off.

Gender is very tricky to ask about and talk about, and I am aware of this, as a writer who is a dude, yes, I’m very aware also of how we are in a time when gender may be the foremost construct that is being looked at in terms of what can be rewritten as a culture — it feels the most possible of all the forces to finally subvert, patriarchy and hegemony do, at least partly, no? At least in personal and discourse relations. At this moment. I mean, economic systems can’t seem to be changed, systemic injustice against race seems to be not changing, dammit, world wreckage of the environment won’t seem to stop, and of course how can gender and power be fully changed if those things seemingly won’t budge? But there’s a sea change around gender in some aspects of society. In how we talk and how we write and what is dominant in constructs, right? To me that’s how this time feels. So, yes, I have these notions all the time in mind, the attention to gender, and no I’m not soapboxing, but I do have a disgust for writing that is overtly male still, male-dominated, that reeks of maleness and needs a shower from male-centricity, although that usually for me isn’t the stuff that people often point to as being overly male. Kerouac doesn’t always feel that way to me, in fact he seems to defy gender in a Whitman-like sense. Kesey doesn’t. Lish or Denis Johnson not even so much in such a deplorable sense. It’s more this certain type of plentiful writing from well-educated white men who are clever. Ironic. Insincere. Smug. Bright. That don’t question it! To me, it’s usually people who never get hell for it, who drive me the most crazy, for resting on their male characters and being so male-centric without ever questioning it. It’s like, if I never crack from the dudeness, no one can mess with me about it. I feel male narrators and narratives at this point in time need to finally be questioned and be accounting for their presupposed gender performances. These things are so hard to fully explain. It’s a spirit thing. You just feel it.

Nope, I do not write every day. I wish I did. I should. I work, I’m exhausted from other things and I waste time!!!! And it gets pushed back. I write when it’s coming. Sometimes I write every day most of the day for weeks, or a month or two. Sometimes I spend all day writing in my head and then all the rest of the day writing at the machine, and other times I write nothing and nothing for gaps of weeks. Then I’m scanning myself for the next story. I do not do it every day. I do it when I am running to get to the page. Although, a part of me is always doing it. A part of me is always asking questions that need answers. Living the next book.

So, what drives you nuts? What are you thinking too much about lately? What’s it like to bring a baby into this world, today? Have any good news for us? Any jokes? How do you write so sharply, with so little waste? And tell us about having a real editor. Tell us about being with FSG and working with Emily Bell?

LH: Well, damn, you know what? Maybe there is so much hullabaloo about gender because we assume these male-centric maleness writers aren’t thinking about gender at all. Kind of skipping like stones over their own male virility, mindless and plainspoken. But you, being a male, whose own book is “male-centric” in that it is from the point of view of a male, damn, you think about gender a lot. But see I had to make some generalizations of my own to get to that conclusion. Your book, to me, isn’t male-centric. It’s human-centric and pardon me for such a douchey phrase. But your main character seems to visit every aspect of what it is to be human — the love, the ache, the hate, the self-hate, the silence, the loud, death, life, seeing, not wanting to see, doubt, denial, truth, search for truth, eating quietly, being hungry, petting a dog, wanting to be pet, driving, DRIVING! is such a human endeavor and urge, but I digress, you’re wearing off on me — your character is so human that he is almost pure animal. And for that we have to recognize that it kind of transcends gender altogether and becomes about the soul. And we all have that, whether you call it consciousness or soul or spirit or universal oneness. But why am I trying to hard to find similarities? It’s my own head-shyness about my own work. Like HEY WORLD, MY CHARACTERS ARE HUMAN, TOO! SEE THEY EAT, CRY, SHIT, HATE, ET CETERA, JUST LIKE HUMANS. Last night someone told me “I’m really excited, because the adjectives I use to describe this book (written by a woman) are the adjectives I usually used to describe books written by men!” And I acted excited too, but inside I felt insulted, kind of patronized. It’s that same old “Hey, she writes pretty good, for a woman!” or “Hey, she’s a good writer because she writes like a man!” No. What you are responding to is good writing, period. Writing that makes you feel something or other that is important to you. That should be above and beyond the gender of the author. Fuck the gender of the author. Let’s stop acting surprised when a woman can write, and let’s stop acting surprised when a man has a female character in his book.

Your Leary test made me remember this one day in class, in grad school. I was kind of spacing out, pondering nothing, and I looked around the class and thought, “Hey, there’s only one other man in here besides me.” My subconscious just kind of going along like I’m a man! I’ve always felt more masculine. In acting class once we did an exercise where this other woman and I had to walk toward each other saying the same word, until we were very close, and my acting teacher finally said, “Wow, Lindsay, you’re like a man! Look at yourself!” I was towering over the other woman, shouting the word into her face. Like a man? Aggression = man. But I’m a woman, so.

Writing that is overtly male does seem to tell the same story over and over, doesn’t it? I suppose I am guilty of that myself. But maybe let’s all promise that in the next thing we write, we’ll scare ourselves a little. Write that thing we don’t feel allowed to write. See what happens.

I don’t write every day, either. I feel it would kill the fun for me if I did. But finding time to write is a luxury these days, anyway! Thank you for saying I write sharply, and with little waste! That is a dream compliment for me. It’s been an obsession almost as long as I can remember to try to describe something as specifically and with as much payoff as I can muster. I find it fun and incredibly rewarding. And when I feel myself drifting in a sentence, I delete. I edit as I go. That does not mean I don’t need editing; I do! I think I used the word “tapioca” in Don’t Kiss Me like, I don’t know… eighty-five million times? “butterscotch,” too. And the word “smear” is smeared all over Ugly Girls, badump-bump. That’s why I’m relieved and thrilled to have Emily Bell as my editor. She ferrets that stuff out, that little stuff, and she’s so keen on the big stuff, too. Knows when something needs work or just isn’t there yet. Makes me dress my skeletons. Working with her wasn’t all that different from working with Zach, et al, at featherproof. She loves “indie” authors and works hard to advocate for and preserve and strengthen our voices. I trust her completely. And thank goodness!

What drives me nuts? I obsess over gratitude. If you’re a grateful person (and I know that you are, Luke!), you see the world so differently. It’s a shame not to walk around saying “thank you” to whatever. The universe, the trees, your family, a great meal, your bed, whatever. These are the kinds of people I want in my life, the people who walk around awed. The other day my husband made us stop to admire a particularly beautiful cloud. It was beautiful. Strange and looming. And I felt grateful for him for being grateful for the cloud. But the people I see who aren’t grateful, who aren’t awed that they are alive to see the clouds, I get so riled up about that!

That goes hand in hand with bringing a baby into this world today. I read this poem that I cannot find right now, but the gist was about teaching your child not to be an amazing, special, famous whatever, but teaching him to recognize the wonder in everyday things, so that he always walks around awed. I hope I’m doing that for Parker. The world can be viewed as a dark, doomed, scary place, or as a gift we’re allowed to experience for its brief stay in the history of time. I find myself worrying more and more about climate change; about terror; about technology; all of that stuff a parent begins to go mental over, because you realize that you can’t protect your child from any of it. You can only teach your child that the world meant for him is inside his heart. I hope Parker is an empathetic, awed boy and man. That is who he is now, and I am bowled over daily.

I have no jokes. Okay, I have one, but it’s awful. Did you hear about that pirate movie? It’s rated Arrrrrggghh! Please tell me some of your jokes. And how was the editing process for you? Do you like being edited? Juliet Escoria (have you read her wonderful book?) asked me this question so I’m stealing it for this: Have you jumped into the future in your brain and imagined criticism that reviewers/readers will say about the book? If so, what is it? Exorcise it here. And what are you working on now? Can we be friends in real life?

LG: Lindsay Hunter, shit, I love your last answer, all of it, A LOT — the many answers and questions in that answer. And… I feel like a bit of a jerk for even bringing up the question about gender now, because yes that must SUCK to have so much said, and often poorly said, poorly phrased, poorly questioned, poorly complimented, poorly… well, harassed — regarding gender.

I’m so happy that you are writing. So much out there is warm ups, and then there’s someone like you. You’re not warming up. You’re live white hot DOING. SO… I guess I was interested in mostly how you bent the lens to always keenly train on the two friends in Ugly Girls, Baby Girl and Perry, and I guess I just needed to cook the question out a little longer, of the impurities, but did that through conversing.

Yes, we need to get to the soul. It’s so simple! Hey, writers, we need… uh huh… yep… here’s what it’s all about… you gotta get to the soul! Gotta get beyond self. Gotta hit the complex soul and have a spirit bigger than self. Makes me think of that Neil Young song, “Campaigner,” with the refrain “Even Richard Nixon Has Got… Soul.”

Like I was telling you, in our private chats, aside from the forum of this public conversation, I teach your story “Nixon In Retirement” every semester to my students. It’s from Don’t Kiss Me, and it’s so gorgeously green and lush and sexually teenaged and adult and vivid, that story. You give Nixon such a soul, such a dreamworld, such imagination, such creepiness, but also you do this magic with him and make him re-human, soul-full, and I want to kiss him on the face. Maybe even on the mouth. Every time I read the story! Every time I start with that overly-salted hardboiled egg you give us that leads us to the beach, that leads us back to Pat, that leads us to the White House and the gold trashcan and the mooning dream with Jackie Kennedy and wishing to have not made all the mistakes we have made. In about four pages? Three?

Yes, we can be friends. Yes, we better be friends in real life. And what you say about being grateful, about being in awe of the world, yes, yes, yes, that’s it… I mean, it’s kind of funny to write, because to write a book, for years and years, there have to be these problems in the book, these losses, these pains, these agonies, to give the beauty and the soul to the work, and then I step out into the stream of the physical world, which writing kind of takes away, and there’s so much beauty I have to cover my eyes with sunglasses, get busy, get to work, hole up. And so, why bother? When there’s already so much to be amazed about? I just had to type in WHITE HOUSE into the internet to see if it is still two words. It is. Don’t worry. It’s still two. And they are a business with a web page and links about ISIS. So… there’s all that. Jokes? How about… Q: What do you call a tall pile of kittens? A: A meowtain.

I was edited first in journals by editors I love and respect, such as David McLendon of Unsaid and Giancarlo DiTrapano of The New York Tyrant and Roxane Gay at PANK and Jacob White of Green Mountains Review and a bunch of other great editors like Brandon Hobson and Ben Marcus (who selected a story recently for this issue of The American Reader but he probably didn’t edit it, Marcus, in fact, I am sure that he did not). Then I had Katherine Sullivan of Yes Yes Books out of Portland, Oregon take the book under contract first, under a different style and different form, after three days of having sent the book out to presses, and she edited and helped especially with individual stories, most memorably “Apache.” Then FC2 gave me the Sukenick Prize, which I had honestly forgotten I submitted to and was the only prize I did submit to, and won, and Katherine Sullivan, who is a great fiction editor though she is known for poetry, said GO with FC2.

Once with FC2, I got really lucky and the managing editor of the parent house took the book on for copy editing herself, personally, because she loved the title and picked it out of a stack of maybe hundreds and read it and loved the book. Her name is Vanessa Lynn Rusch at the University of Alabama Press (which handles FC2). But if you really wanna hammer the silver flat, the truth is I did my own editing. I did it fairly blind. I brought folks in for eyes, mostly private citizenry outside of the industry, mostly in hostage like settings, grilling them, though I did get the author Ryan Ridge to help a good deal and he even fixed up a few great lines. I had some editors and eyes from Bloomsbury and other houses give me some great encouraging praise, and then Padgett Powell with that blurb he gave me knocked me back and I had more of a sense that I wasn’t totally blind. But, by and large, the editing, like the writing, was solo — founded on myself and my firing, such as even when alerted to the fact that the book was thirteen not fourteen stories long, I just decided to stay the course with the title, with its wrongness, because I liked it. Who the fuck can tell me what I can and can’t do? It’s my soul. I’ll write it out how I want it.

What should our last questions be? I feel like we’ve had a pretty good run. I feel we covered some tough ground and found some gold. I don’t have fears about criticism anymore. Not really. Well, maybe the old teacher, I fear him calling me up and sullying my remaining faiths, but if he does, fuck him. I’ll love him and go on anyhow. I guess, the question I want to know, is how are we going to make sure everyone gets your book Ugly Girls? How can we convince the general reader that our books would make a fine pairing, and what are you working on NOW?

LH: I really don’t know how to make people read something! I truly do not. What makes ME read something is hearing about it from people I know have great taste. So I would hope people think I have great taste and will listen to me when I say READ LUKE GOEBEL’S BOOK. But “read” seems like such an inferior verb. Sure, you can read it. But the physiological and emotional effects of reading it make the verb something more like…”open.” That’s what your book does — it creates an opening. Depending on who you are, that opening will have different shit in it. Like it might have laughter, screams, your dad wielding the TV remote, an endless loop of an empty raft on a river, dogs barking… but someone else might just see like a thousand candle flames, but they will be candles that have never been lit before, and it will mean everything to that person. I just really appreciate the laying bare it seems you’ve done with this book. I watched a short clip of you reading from it recently, and the crowd listening kind of erupted after you were done, and it was truly wonderful to see. Hey, maybe your opening could be a crowd erupting, person reading this! Don’t you want that experience inside you? Okay, then read Luke’s book.

Pairing our books! A fine idea. I think in each there is the noble attempt to create something whole — the ugly, beautiful, baffling, all of it. In that sense I think our books go together like chaos and the void.

What I am working on now is pining. As a writer, part of my process is this phase where I’m desperately pining for time, a keyboard, for something nameless that’s been in me since I was a child. It’s like a me-shaped ache inside the me. I welcome the ache and I let it stay for as long as I can stand it. I have two distinct ideas right now. Another novel and a screenplay. The ache is busy with those ideas right now. One day soon I know I’ll get to attack them the way I need to. But right now…

LG: I love those candle flames. A thousand candles lit up in red and green and blue and clear, meaning everything, burning just for you and for the heavenly realm, you hit something of mine in your last answer. Something is slipping between us and back and forth. And for your book, WHOLE is right, it’s one of those books you finish, rare rare rarest of rare, and I feel like all my organs were taken out of my body painlessly and cleaned, soaked in like bubbling water, cleaned perfectly, painlessly, while reading, and put back in exactly the right places as new, and for some time, maybe ten strong minutes, and then over a day, over a few days, you have hit a restart, and there’s this chance to change and be a better person again. Like after a trip. Lose ego. You’ve written an ego-losing book. It’s the future! I mean, you have been changed, but of course then you don’t change all the way. I mean I didn’t all the way. But something has changed. I mean it!

LH! I’m not the same since I read your book. It gave me this weird, transcendent, hope, faith, I don’t know how to sing it. Because while reading, I was, like, my heart is being used to clean the world shit, or at least to clean all the world the book was giving me, and then… it was over, and I was newly clean. I looked around like, SHIT, I can do better on planet love. I also know I won’t forget it. It’s one of those rare books, usually we call them classics, but yours, I don’t know if I would say classic, because it’s so wildly provoking. I have never read a classic that… WOW… maybe that’s what a classic is like when it is just born. I don’t know, maybe SO! I just know I won’t forget it. I was in NYC last weekend and at this great old bar THE LONG ISLAND BAR and talking to someone incredible about books, she was asking me about novels, and I was like, yeah, I love some novels I’ve read lately, but then all I could think of was Ugly Girls. I was thinking of it while doing my laundry a moment ago. Gotta do the whites. Actually colors. No soap. Shampoo and dishwashing detergent. You just said it: the me-shaped ache. I got that. Sometimes I think about the question, like what makes a writer, and I think it’s that hole. It’s that self that can get all the way out of the self, and stretch out and be other people, because the self has got such a hole in it, and that hole is what knocks me around out of my head and body and heart and pushes my whole limb and heart and lung and self crazy into the world to find something to give myself as a gift and give others. Maybe I don’t get what you mean, and maybe I do, but the nice thing about writing is the books, we get the books, to talk for us. It’s a different language. It’s not so DO YOU GET ME? YES I GET YOU. It’s I have Ugly Girls inside me now. I have this place where you and I are together inside me in the form of that book. We took a trip. A big, wild life-shaped trip together. Screenplay! Ugly Girls should be a screenplay! And I want to read your next book, see your next project written and produced, I want more Lindsay Hunter, but I also will give you time, time, time, to be in that place of pining. As I am in that place of pining. That glorious doubt too, I am in, of… can I do it all again? A whole book? Something I can swear by and call my name and give to the world? And Lindsay, your book satiates, and I can wait and I’ll read UGLY GIRLS again at some point, and wait, because I am fulfilled by what you gave me. But I am also already wanting the miracle again. Rooting for your next miracle. We got time ahead. If the planes and the bombs and AIR death doesn’t come, if we get a glorious tomorrow, and another showcase in the sun, another mountain top, another road and animal, and we get to go on, as I pray we will, especially with your baby, and then we get to go charge at it again, all in.

LH: Beautiful. DAMN, LUKE!!!!

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