David L. Ulin: Good afternoon, everybody. How are you all? I missed last month's California Book Club, so I feel like I've been away for a while, and I'm excited to be back. My name is David L. Ulin. I'm the books editor of Alta Journal. And I want to welcome you all to this evening's presentation and introduce to California Book Club from Alta Journal. And let me start by first thanking our partners. We couldn't do this without Book Passage, Books Inc. Book Soup, Bookshop, DIESEL, A Bookstore, The Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, The Los Angeles Public Library, The San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, ZYZZYVA, and Vroman's Bookstore. The California Book Club is a monthly presentation of California Books hosted by John Freeman. We showcase authors across the spectrum, multiple genres, multiple styles, and sensibilities.
And we also publish on the Alta website, continuous content leading up to each book club meeting. All of this is always free. If you're not familiar with what we've been doing at Alta, we've put a real premium on books coverage, and book conversation, in terms of the book club, in terms of the weekly book reviews online, in terms of a lot of the material that we're publishing in the quarterly journal. It is our firm belief that literature, and reading, and writing our key essential aspect of cultural life, of political life, of aesthetic life, and of personal life. And we take that mission quite seriously. So please don't miss essays from numerous contributors about all of the California Book Club books. In this month's selection, Maggie Nelson's phenomenal sort of anti memoir, non-memoir memoir, The Argonauts. We have essays on the book, a primer of Maggie's writing and excerpt of The Argonauts and more, all of this is included in the weekly California Book Club newsletter, which is also free.
And in terms of helping us support this work, bringing this information and authors like Maggie Nelson to you, let me present a couple of pieces of a couple opportunities before we get to the main program. First of all, we're offering a sale for California Book Club members. For only $50 you can get a year of Alta Journal, the CBC tote bag, which I'm effusively enthusiastic about. Here's an example of it. And one of our upcoming California Book Club books. You can get that at altaonline.com/tote. And please watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this great deal or simply join Alta as a digital member for just $3 a month. In the meantime, it's a thrill for me to introduce John Freeman, who will be interviewing my friend and colleague, Maggie Nelson. This is going to be a phenomenal conversation. I'm really excited for it. So without further ado, please welcome John Freeman, the host of the California Book Club.
John Freeman: Thank you, David. Welcome everyone for those of you who are coming back, nice to have you again. And for those of you who are new, my name's John Freeman, I'm a editor at Alfred A. Knopf, editor of Freeman's Literary Journal, and very happy host of this California Book Clubs. One of the reasons why we began this, it was just an idea to make us less lonely by reading books together, great books by and from California writers and specifically books that were groundbreaking in the sense that they were charting new territory. And I think one thing Californians can be very happy about is just how many essential groundbreaking writers are either from or wrote in California when they were doing their work from recently Claudia Rankine, to Susan Sontag, to Judith Butler, many of whom are brought up in The Argonauts, the book we're going to discuss tonight. Couple years ago when I was teaching a lot more, this little book Bluets came up, all my students were reading it.
And one of the great things about teaching is students have supersonic ears to the ground at what's new and what's exciting. And this incredible little book, which was structured kind of like a mock philosophical inquiry, moved sideways and crab walked through veins of intimacy and theory, and came to grips with how to encapsulate experience in the context of theory. And I think one of the things Maggie Nelson has pioneered in The Argonauts is just how to situate oneself in a body of living as well as in a body of ideas. And The Argonauts is a demonstration that with the right amount of swerve, the essay can do pretty much anything. It can be a rap city to love, it can retool the conventions of gender, or debunk the ones that are still straight jacketing people. It can ride the float of collective input as the book saturated with other thinkers, with other theorists, with other writers.
And it can simultaneously arrive in a very organic structure and become a kind of 21st century parenting guide to treat us on the limits of language. A public and private memoir by a writer who's falling in love with someone who has a fluid gender, who in the course of the book decides she wants to have a baby. And then does have that baby and thinks about what it means to have that baby in this time. And also resists the way the past is pressing in on her to try to normalize certain aspects of her life. There's so much in this book. I want to get to it right now. It is a triumph and Maggie Nelson, I think, is paving a brand new way of writing, which so many of us are grateful for. She's CalArts's Theorist-in-Residence. Please join me, and welcome here, Maggie Nelson.
Maggie Nelson: Hi, everybody. Hi, John. So glad to be here. Thank you so much, John, for all that.
Freeman: Yeah. I'm sorry, I'm going to start sweating with admiration, embarrassment, because this book is, it's one of those books where the very first page you start reading it and you think, in one paragraph, this writer has just shown me a whole new kind of possibility in the way that she moves on the page. And I want to begin right there, not with you reading just yet, but if you could talk to us because you begin in a very intimate moment in the first paragraph and the second moment, you're talking about Wittgenstein. And I want to talk about as Theorist-in-Residence, what it means to have theory sort of in residence in your body and in the right at the front of your processing cortex in your mind, how has that shaped your life and what possibilities do you think it holds for creating enlarging spaces for freedom.
Nelson: Yeah. You know, when I had to turn this book in and this is always the case with any book, you have to write, writers usually as you all probably here know, you usually give the first shot anyways at writing their own copy that describes the book. So and since a lot of my books, I have to kind of present them as whatever genre or area that I want them to be in. And so I used the word auto theory, which was really just a steal from a book by Paul Preciado that had come out recently, Testo Junkie. And then Paul was using that from seventies, eighties, feminism. But the reason why I start by saying that is just that the term has gained all this ground as if talking about autobiography and theory together is like a new thing or could be rebranded as something called auto theory. And that's fine in terms of, it's always people's jobs to kind of look at trends or in writing and different things.
But I think the fact that the word came out of feminism was because feminism and a lot of feminist theory, like a lot of dare I say it, critical race theory and other things have all come out of struggles whereby thinking conceptually and theoretically was always part and parcel of a struggle, and of survival, and of trying to understand the forces at play within you and upon you and the world that you've been thrown into. So to me that way of thinking has always been very natural. I don't feel like I have cerebral time and then body time or something. I feel very for better or worse, integrated on that behalf. And I think a lot of my writing will bear that mark.
That said, I think what you were talking about on the opening page of The Argonauts, there is a staging of registers that has to be performed in any book to tell you what registers it's going to use and how it's going to move through them. And so I think maybe what you're responding to about the sound of the opening is that I'm a poet by early trade and in Homeland you are always taught that a poem teaches you how to read it at its outset. And I think the same is true of pros, especially pros where you're really announcing what the genre is going to be. How this book is going to move, what's it speed going to be, how much heat is it going to have, what areas of high, low, or it's going to be able to hit and hold. And I wanted in the opening to start with the needle in that vein rather than poking around for a while, if that makes sense.
Freeman: Absolutely. I mean, it's a very arresting, evocative first couple lines. The Santa Ana winds shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees. I mean, Californians everywhere, I think, feel that instantly in their skin, but so does anybody actually who's ever smelt eucalyptus. Why don't we just begin now with your reading because I would love to hear these words aloud.
Nelson: Yeah. Yeah. I'll read the first one, two, three pages of The Argonauts. And so you can hear what it sounds like.
So, October, 2007, the Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes. A friend and I risk the widow makers by having lunch outside, during which she suggests, I tattoo the words, hard to get, across my knuckles as a reminder of this pose's possible fruits. Instead, the words, I love you, come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass. My face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better? What is your pleasure? You asked, then stuck around for an answer.
Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein's idea that the inexpressible is contained inexpressibly in the expressed. This idea gets less airtime than his more reverential, whereof when cannot speak thereof one must be silent. But it is, I think the deeper idea. It's paradox is quite literally why I write or how I feel able to keep writing. For it doesn't feed or exalt any angst one may feel about the incapacity to express in words that which alludes them. It doesn't punish what can be said for what by definition it cannot be. Nor does it ham it up by miming a constricted throat, Lo, what I would say were words good enough. Words are good enough. It is idle to fault a net for having holes, my encyclopedia notes.
In this way, you can have your empty church with a dirt floor swept clean of dirt and your spectacular stained glass gleaming by the cathedral rafters, both. Because nothing you say can fuck up the space for God. I have explained this elsewhere, but I'm trying to say something different now. Before long, I learned that you have spent a lifetime equally devoted to the conviction that words are not good enough. Not only not good enough, but corrosive to all that is good, all that is real, all that is flow. We argued and argued on this account full of fever, not malice. Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnameable falls away, gets lost, is murdered. You called this the cookie cutter function of our minds. You said that you knew this not from shunning language, but from immersion in it, on the screen in conversation, on stage, on the page.
I argued along the lines of Thomas Jefferson and the churches, for plethora, for kaleidoscopic shifting, for excess. I insisted that words did more than nominate. I read aloud to you the opening of philosophical investigations, slab, I shouted slab. For a time, I thought I had won. You conceded there might be an okay human, an okay human animal. Even if that human animal used a language, even if it's use of language were somehow defining of its humanness. Even if humanness itself meant trashing and torching the whole motley, precious planet, along with its, our, future. But I changed too. I looked anew unnameable things, or at least things whose essence is flicker, flow. I readmitted that sadness of our eventual extinction and the injustice of our extinction of others. I stopped smugly repeating, "Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly," and I wondered and knew, can everything be thought? And you, whatever you argued, you never mind the constricted throat. In fact, you ran at least a lap ahead of me, words streaming in your wake. How could I ever catch up? By which, I mean how could you want me?
A day or two after my pronouncement, my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase I love you is like, "The Argonaut, renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name." Just as the Argo's parts may be replaced over time, but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase, I love you, it's meaning must be renewed by each use, as, quote, the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections, which will be forever new, end quote. I thought the passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.
So I'll stop there.
Freeman: No, that's great. I think it's one of the most electrifying openings for all sorts of reasons. You mentioned you're a poet and as your books include Shiner and then Holes, the poet frequently works in the line and your MO is in the paragraph, but within the first graft, you're using the lyric address, addressing your partner, Harry, as you. And I wonder if you can talk about that decision, to begin with that address before saying, in a non-fictional way, how different that paragraph would be if I was in Harry's apartment. The whole shading of this book would be different and I wonder if you can talk about using that mode.
Nelson: Yeah. There are parts of the book that say I was in Harry's apartment, so the address to another person, direct address would be a you, which is definitely something that I was kind of obsessed with in poetry as forms of address and had actually written both an undergraduate thesis and then a grad school dissertation on forms of the personal in poetry. The former was about confessionalism and then the latter was about the New York school and what Frank O'Hara wanted to call Personism, but then I realized I could just pick up the phone and call somebody so there was no need to write the poem or something. So I was always really interested in questions about, again, the kind of staging in confessionalism, are we staging the reader as a priest? Are we staging the reader as a therapist? Are we staging in Personism?
If we could just call the person on the phone, why don't we? Why are we writing? And most lyric poetry, especially love poetry, is addressed to a you, and the question's always, which is a question of this book, if you're going to write a love letter, why are you publishing it as a book? So the address, even when it's to the you, the address is also to a public. And Bluesse, which you brought up before, plays around quite a bit with the second person as well.
So I think the trick is I think, and this is kind of a hard trick but I do think that poetry helped in this way, is you can jerk around forms of address in a long form piece of writing, but the reader has to never have the wrong degree of bewilderment about what you're doing. So often, that involves for me just rereading as the naïf, like, "What is this book? Who wrote this?" And then you start reading your draft and if you ever get lost or if you ever don't know what you is you, then you know you have a problem so you have to sharpen your ear towards forms of address and how they can work in one place.
Freeman: In this instance, when you shift into second person addressing Harry, we immediately become observers of intimacy, as well as being in the intimate moment. And for that reason, it instantly calls up the social aspects of erotics which calls into play sex and gender, and this book has been so liberating in many ways, I think, for how we talk about love and erotics and gender. You don't use a pronoun for quite some time when you're talking about Harry, and I wonder if you can talk about just how much of writing this book was to do with addressing some of his concerns with regards to naming things and the representation of gender and love and erotics.
I mean, there's a huge difference between a book like Stone Butch Blues, which is from a person who's in a transformation speaking from experience, and it's professing a gender destination. Whereas, as you make clear in this book later on, one of your partner's desires was to be okay with a form of gender which is messy and that is not staged towards binary arrivals, if you will. So I guess my question is just how much you thought about this as you were starting out, that this could be a big theoretical salvo in regards to these issues.
Nelson: Well, one really interesting thing that I thought about in agreeing to do this night was just that this book has had a kind of extraordinary journey and it begins with the line, October, 2007, and it tells a story that's 2007 to maybe 2013 I guess, and then it was published in 2015 and then that was seven years ago. So I don't really need to tell all of you that a lot's happened on a lot of these fronts, good and bad, since it was published, and I think any book that steps out on its limb and is speaking in a period of time is going to look and read very differently at different moments in time, depending on the discourse. And I think that's exactly as it should be. I mean, that's what books are in time.
So I think it's very interesting for me to revisit the book right now, given all the things that are... I don't even want to use the word backlash, it's more like a war. I don't know what you want to call it. I'm going on, but I will say, just more to your point about how much I thought about, I wasn't... So, okay, part of my saying that the book has had a kind of extraordinary journey is that before The Argonauts, most of my books were read by a very, let's just say niche audience, numbering in much lower numbers than the numbers that The Argonauts reached, so I didn't write the book thinking that this book would be any different. And in fact, this book, like all my books, was roundly rejected by places like FSG or places as being too esoteric.
So you talk about Wittgenstein, you're talking about gender theory, whatever, everyone immediately is like, no one's going to read this beyond your 12 friends or whatever. It's not true. It wasn't true, and that was part of the book's amazing journey, but all of which is to say that I wasn't writing with a very strong sense of a public in mind. I mean, I never really write that way per se. I always write very close to what I need and want to say but I certainly was doing that in this book, and it wasn't until a few months before publication that I began to imagine eyes on it. That then foretold a future of eyes on it that I never really imagined and that's been a very wonderful journey and in some cases, kind of harrowing.
The last thing I'll say before I stop talking is just that it was important to me though, about these issues about sexuality and gender was precisely to frame it as I did by this Wittgensteinian, this argument about language, and for those of you who don't know, the beginning of philosophical investigations when I am talking about, I said slab, I say slab in Wittgenstein is talking about, I think the German word he's using is plat, but he's saying it's not just nominating a slab. If you say in surgery, scalpel, you're saying, bring me the scalpel. That our words have meaning in activation and that's also the same sense of what Roland Barthes is getting at with this notion, which ended up to titular about the Argonauts being and I love you being phrases that have to be made forever, inflections that have to be made forever new by our speaking of them, by our activity.
So it was very important for me, and I think important to Harry, although he's not here so I won't speak for him, but to put those conversations about language and about category and everything in a broader philosophical context because that's how we experience them, and not just siphoned away from some of the biggest questions about how we understand ourselves and negotiate fluidity and solidity throughout a life.
Freeman: Yeah. One of the most moving interpretations of this book that I've seen is I partner with a feminist publishing collective in Romania who published The Argonauts Romanian, and they ran workshops with the parents of transgendered Romanian teenagers and adults to figure out ways that they could begin to understand their children's perspective in Romania, with your book as the focal point. And that must seem awfully awesome, I guess, to realize that a defense of the power of words to speak towards the inexplicable can travel that many miles into another language and make someone else's inexplicable somewhat legible to people who they want to be loved by.
Nelson: That's great. Yeah.
Freeman: Yeah. I guess I wanted to ask you because the movement of this book is so intricate and organic. You begin with experience, pour into a theoretical thought, sort of move back and into a larger frame and then pour again into a new form of experience, either in intimate register or more nonfictional register. And that cycle continues as your thoughts evolve about love, language, gender, power, sexuality, being in a public space and having those things observed. And of course, your love affair with Harry progresses, you begin to think about becoming a mother and become a mother, and that orbit is just truly magical to watch as you move it gently through the book.
One of the things that's a big part of it are the theorists who made your thought possible, so on the margin, we have names of people that you're quoting, whether it's Luke Steel Clifton or Eileen Myles or CAConrad, or early queer theorists. And one of the ones that comes up early is Judith Butler, and you have this long quote from Judith Butler about misinterpretation of Gender Trouble, of what she was saying in that book. It feels really essential to this book project. I wonder if you can talk about that misinterpretation and what having it at the beginning of the book made possible for the rest of the book, I guess.
Nelson: So I'll just read it.
The bad reading of gender trouble, this is Butler, goes something like this.
I can get up in the morning, look in my closet and decide which gender I want to be today. I can take out a piece of clothing and change my gender, stylize it, and then that evening, I can change it again and be something radically other so that what you get is something like the commodification of gender and the understanding of taking on a gender as a kind of consumerism, when my whole point was at the very formation of subjects, the very formation of persons presupposes gender in a certain way. That gender is not to be chosen and that performativity is not radical choice and it's not voluntarism. Performativity has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to re-signify. This is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in.
This sounds like retweets do not imply endorsement but I don't mean to say it like that, but it's not that in this particular part... This comes in context of different musings about gender, and Butler is someone who obviously has been deeply important to me and I think is continuing to work on some really, really critical work about what the phenomenon that's known as TERFS, a trans exclusionary radical feminists or whatnot. There are very worrisome alliances with rising autocracy and other things, and then around they are having a real divide and conquer effect on the radical potentialities of queer feminism and feminism.
And I think that in some ways, the reason why I say all that is that even though this quote is from years and years, probably decades I think prior to all this, I think that you can hear that Butler has always been very focused on the ways in which it's the disciplining into gender, the presupposition of gender, and I get into this later in the book by talking about what it's like when you're pregnant and noticing the heavy gendering that's already happening to a cluster of cells or a fetus or embryo, we can get into all that too.
But that kind of attention to how we project gender, how we perform gender, how we feel gender, all of these things, if you're interested in a world where we're not punishing, disciplining vis-à-vis these gender designations, then you have to get really interested in how and why they work from the very start and how foundational they are, and that's one of the things that Butler, and especially in the early work, was very focused on.
Freeman: I'm going to bring in Miranda July in just a second because she's here to ask some questions of you, and this is quite thrilling because Miranda July not only is a great filmmaker, but I think one of California's best fiction writers and works in narrative, which your book does as well. And in addition to putting language under various stress tests and musing and thinking philosophically, you're also telling stories. And when I was reading the book again, I responded to it primarily or in many ways as a series of love stories, and I liked the way that I felt you were sort of reinterpreting a love story as having a collective as well as an individual intimacy. And I wonder if you can talk about the role of narrative in this book and what, if anything, you felt worked for you and what you felt like you had to fight against as you were writing the narratives?
Nelson: Yeah. It's interesting. Having started as a poet, and been not just a poet but being very involved in avant garde poetry circles that were often very hostile towards narrative in certain ways, and so I wrote a book in 2005 called Jane: A Murder that used poems to tell a story and it changed a lot for me in that it let me start to imagine how to use narrative to ask questions about narrative, I guess. And then that theme was brought out much more overtly in a follow-up book to Jane called The Red Parts whose original title of The Red Parts was the end of the story. And that book was particularly concerned with... It was a courtroom story and courtroom stories have very strong narrative propulsion. Conviction, not conviction, guilty or innocent, what will be the sentence? That kind of forward progression, but then also was a story of a crime which is also another very strong narrative story. What happened? Who did it? How did it unfold? The procedural. But it also was about trauma and the ways in which our traumas that happen but then become stories we tell ourselves, and that a lot of pain can come from feeling trapped in the story that we don't see how it can change. And I was interested in how we can go about changing story for ourselves we are writing, and that is an aesthetic task as much as it's something else. So in The Argonauts, it's a little different. It uses, I think as you mentioned before, you were saying the paragraph and I would also add the anecdote. That was my procedural through this book was kind of miniature story and anecdote, but I was interested in how... I don't know how to say it.
I'd write out the anecdote and then I'd try and blow it up a little bit, blow up where you thought it would naturally end at. Or if there was a kind of road like, "And that's why I never go driving in that highway again," I would think, where else could this veer? And then there was a temporal structure to the book where, as you've noted, it does move through a relationship and it does move through time, and it does end with everyone four years older than where it began or whatever, but also, characters are living and dead who live and die at all parts of the book and it moves, internally it moves around through time. So it has kind of two registers of time on top of each other, which is very common. People think like, "Oh, that's not normative." Any novel does that, there's no novel really, like this fantasy of a normative novel that never has a flashback, or that no one ever tells a story about something that happened long ago is not really true.
Because it's autobiography, I think it's more ostentatious in a certain way about how it's, because I should stop talking now. We can bring in Miranda, but I will also say autobiography, more than novels and other forms always has, there's always a question about the writing present of the writer. Where are they now? They must be alive now, so you also have three layers. You have the present of the text, the temporal mobility underneath that and then you have the writing now. Which of course in the writing now is a total illusion, it's a total illusion because it's never the present. Like what I wrote yesterday is not my writing present today so I thought a lot about how to make those three things work kind of in symphony when I was editing the book.
Freeman: Yeah, as I was reading it again, I just marveled at what kind of storyboard map for time it must have required just to not ever get lost, which is a great time now to bring in Miranda July the artist and filmmaker. Her most recent book is The First Bad Man, her collection of stories, no one belongs here more than you on the Frank O'Connor Prize. I highly recommend them, as well as her novel. Please join us in welcoming Miranda July.
Nelson: Hi, Miranda.
Miranda July: So good to see you.
Nelson: You too, my friend. I wanted to just say in part I'm, so I'm so grateful that you're here and also just that, it was meaningful to me and that I think our very first conversation that we ever had was maybe about the Argonauts in some way. And so when I was asked to think of a special friend, I not only thought of you because of my respect for you as a maker, but also because of how meaningful to me that, reading your novel written around the same time, and then also making that link to you when this book was in progress was, so I wanted to pay homage to that too.
July: Yeah, no, I was thinking very hard about that while you were talking, I was like, "Oh, right."
I think I came up to you at a George Saunders reading that you were maybe presenting [inaudible] and yeah, there was a sense that we had gone. We ended up having kids in the same class in school for a little while and that was because we had given birth around the same time. And we had both had pretty traumatic experiences, which in very different ways we had put into books, which each other had read. So that was all about as good as it gets for a woman, mother.
Nelson: I agree, I could not agree more, yeah.
July: Those are the fruits of the whole thing. Yeah, and then, so skipping forward to now, the last time we hung out, which was just like week, two weeks ago. Beforehand, I'm finishing a book right now and I'd already warned Maggie that I would try to get her to read a draft.
Nelson: I can't wait, I can't wait.
July: Sort of getting, giving her a chance to kind of come up with her excuse not to, as I often have. I'm in that position, which she did not knew, she was very generous and asked, just, did I mind giving her a hard copy, reading it out? And so I, which for some reason, totally confused me, where upon I discovered that Kinko's FedEx, isn't really a thing anymore.
Nelson: I believe it.
July: They don't do that. I don't know. Anyways, it went to Staples, had this made.
Nelson: It's so exciting.
July: With the idea of bringing it to you to the dinner, because we were having dinner and then over the course of that day, I had a total epiphany/crisis and realizing like, "Oh my God, there's a whole shade to this book." I haven't, this book that's due in a matter of weeks that I haven't seen. And so, there's no way I can hand it to Maggie Nelson. And so I came empty handed after kind of building it up and I am suffice to say, you haven't gotten it yet because I am just sweating it out over here.
July: In this final hour, and so somewhat selfishly, I thought I would not pretend that I'm in reading mode. I'm in writing.
Nelson: Yeah, absolutely and this is a precious hour taken out of that sweating time.
July: So I just wondered, I don't know if it's because I switch mediums that it kind of what one does is always a bit of a question mark to me. And I think, with the movie, there's these feedback screenings, you kind of, they're just important you do them. There's no one who doesn't do them. Whereas in writing, you can go about it any which way you want, you can finish something any way you want. And so I've been so curious, I've been talking to people who do it so differently and I think I hold things quite tight, partly the performer in me as must not, I got to keep, I don't want to be too raw. I still want to entertain even if it's, I'm getting feedback.
July: So tell me about how you finish a book when you invite people in, what's your process and maybe it's different for different books, of course.
July: But I guess with The Argonauts and Starting Point...
Nelson: Yeah, it's hard to remember with this book. I mean, I think like you, I'm pretty close to the best person and I think it's in part just because my books feel like problems that I have to solve, which is a dumb thing to say, but it just is like, and only I know how to solve it and we all know the editors who can be amazing, but they're very good at diagnosing the problem, but they never can tell you how to solve it. So it's not until I feel I don't know what the problems are anymore that I would want someone else to read it so long as I know what the problems are, why should anybody else be looking at it? And then also I think I have, I mean I envy you and other people who work in different media, but I think that because within the literary media, my books can be kind of look kind of different from each other.
I think the writing is often pretty rough for a long time in that it won't sound like, or hang together in any recognizable fashion to anybody. So people would be, and I heard this, I used to hear this people be like, just to kind of like what you're trying to do just can't really be done or whatever. And I just would feel like, "Well, hold my beer, hold it for a long time while I just solve this over here." So yeah, but then I think that once well drafted probably like your spiral notebook kind of stage or whatever, select few, and usually depending, I mean, I think what changes the most for me with the book is some books, this is back to this kind of question of registers.
Some books of mine just need a, in the book I just published about freedom I had to think, it had really different sections. So I had to be like, "Who do I know? Who does climate work? Who would be able to read this chapter on the climate and tell me how far I was from current thinking about the climate or whether my facts seemed right or whatever?" So I mean, sometimes there have to be very targeted reads in that way.
Miranda July: Right, yeah. I guess I did read, skimmed through the Argonauts, a little refresher last night and I was kind of just so hit by how vulnerable it is, was. And I had a sad thought, would anyone be this vulnerable now? Kind of which-
July: Then I was like, "No, you always convince yourself."
July: You always make yourself dumb again.
July: In order to write, there's a sort of, why do we do it? I know you have to, right? I know but there is, when you were talking about the sort of trickiness or we've talked about the Argonauts and you've said, this is not the book I would write now and that's hard because people will find it now and want to do battle with it as if it's a-
July: If a person who just spoke with now and that's not specific to that book, that's literally anything. And I guess, I mean, for me, the process has always been vulnerability is this, the cool and this strength and it's something you must do, but it also doesn't give you a free, you're not somehow above other people because you were more vulnerable. You have to then step back and kind of look at it and make sure it does something or is worth that vulnerable. But I guess, and this is, so there's a lot, I've written a lot of pretty unhinged things in my time. Sometimes I regret things, sometimes I'm reading, I'm looking for something to read in public and each short story will just have something too sexual in it. And I'm just like, "I've changed since I was in my twenties and I don't want to read-
July: Something super sexual in front of my relatives and the audience."
July: But I had someone went through the book who has had a book out very recently, even more recently than you. And she kind of flagged things that she said won't fly now.
And then she said, "But I also don't want to tamp down your craziness." And these aren't like-
July: Maybe there's the concept of the fantasy of fucking both my parents.
July: Or something, and I guess I just, this is a genuine question that I might ask if we're in private, I know the answer to this, you just have to use your gut. But I also feel looking around me at how my peers are faring, the new sense that I have of like, "Oh, this might not work out at all."
Nelson: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
July: You may get, whatever, I don't even want to say the word.
Nelson: Oh yeah.
July: Yeah, the book may not even get to fly because of some sentence.
July: I've tried to go through and take out everything where I'm like, "It's not worth it, not worth it-"
Nelson: My God, right?
July: Well, I know enough.
July: Anyways, I just like, do you want to say some wise words to me now?
Nelson: Well, I don't know. I mean, I think that, I mean, we've talked about all this and I know what you're getting at and I feel it, I think it's, and I think that for people, I think a sense of kinship. I feel in your writing, when I read it is this sense of, it's like pushing, it's like one pushes towards the transgressive or the audacious, but not for its own sake. It's for the sake of making something that feels truly new happen. And which is why most transgression is very banal in its way or as we've seen with Trumpism is just like an amplification of toxic norms. It's not actually really like a new kind of world making.
So I think that it's, if you're kind of trained that way to be looking for those openings and pushing wherever you feel like you need to push to make those doors open and you've also kind of trained yourself, like you're saying in vulnerability, kind of knowing that if the work isn't keyed in with things that feel underneath all of the rages and grievances and complaints and all these things, if it's not hooked in to all the most vibrating feelings beneath all that, then it's not work that will have heat.
Then you're in a tricky spot because you're both pushing and you're both and you're really putting yourself out there in certain ways. I mean, I think what you said about, I mean, I feel like I've gotten old enough now that I'm not on desk door or anything, but I feel more sense now of less worry about the present and kind of more of a feeling of I've just got to make what I should make while I'm here, because I'll just be gone soon enough. And like I said before, the work will change in different time periods. So the worst thing would be if it didn't ever exist-
Nelson: Because then there'll be no chance for it to have a different moment. And I think acknowledging that there are just certain things about this time period that make the immediate moment of reception much more. I mean, the Argonauts was really written, I mean, I've actually been tracking this the other day because there was social media when the Argonauts was written, right? But I've learned by kind of listening to all this crap about Elon Musk and stuff that Twitter and stuff it hadn't been gamified until the year this really came out like 2015. And so there has been like a seismic change with how the algorithm has been altering discourse, since this book came out.
I think we're subjects to these technologies of which we don't even quite understand what has happened. And I think that can make the project of making yourself dumb again, like you say, I think it's made it harder, but I don't think that it's made it, I think it's only made it kind of more important and I'll also just give a plug for, I think hopefully at the end of the day, a lot of things that, if you have really good readers, they're not flagging things that are just like, oh, some people won't like this. Hopefully readers might be like, "Oh, this shows is something that maybe is just, whether it's like your whiteness or your [inaudible] or whatever it is, just like hanging out in a way that's totally unexamined.
And that can make your work only better to examine it, so long as the people that you're talking to have that kind of holistic view. And they're not just trying to do damage control, which is what a lot of institutions are doing these days, which is not serving creative people at all.
July: Yeah, I guess that's the thing is it would be silly to believe that I'm somehow so unique that I'm not shaped by my time or by the algorithm or whatever, I'm not some pure entity. So I guess, I don't know if nothing else like, this has become one of the things we wrestle with now, and it's not, it was so clear cut when it used to be like, anyways, I don't even want to go.
Actually our time is so short. That's probably-
Freeman: Miranda, please stick around because we're definitely going to come back to you. I mean, one of the lovely things about this conversation is because as Maggie Nelson has pointed out, the book proceeds to some degree through anecdotes, several of which involve her having conversations with friends and fellow creative artists. You have kind of demonstrated the kind of a narrative engine in microcosm of this book, which is a collaborative friendship and thinking, and the ability in friendship and in conversation to be equivocal about certain things, to know that you're made by them and resist them, but to also give each other enough feedback to see yourselves as you're making something. And I think that Maggie, you've deflected some of the newness of this book and probably because you're extremely well read, you'll have many different models, whether it's Natalie [Siro], or Marguerite Duras all kinds of philosophical treatises or the essay itself as a historical device for thinking. But one thing that does feel really fresh to me as a reader is just how you've managed to recreate collaboration. And I want to bring that up in the context of the way that this book is also through the power bit intimacy of stories that you're telling about your own body, to some degree also about your partner's body of a defense for autonomy, for bodily autonomy, as a kind of something that should not have to be defended as a human right. And in the course of the book, you do muse about pregnancy and pro-choiceness. Pro-choice and you said, "I've never in my life felt more pro-choice than when I was pregnant." And this is a question that's come from the audience from someone named Melinda Gordon Blum and never in my life have I never, have I understood more thoroughly and been more excited about a life that began at conception.
Feminists may never make a bumper sticker that says it's a choice and a child, but of course that's what it is. And we know we're not idiots, we understand the stakes, sometimes we choose death. And Melinda's question is in the context of the country seemingly on the verge of pulling Roe v. Wade, can you elaborate on why understanding that life begins at conception ought never be weaponized to undermine abortion rights. And if that seems too specific, maybe just talk about abortion now and the context of this book and what's happening.
Nelson: All right, well, I'm like it's 5;57 and this topic and my rage about the present moment is so volcanic. I'm going to try and just moderate it for the moment, I think. And also just want to say, when I said that kind of joking bit where I say like, "There was never going to be a bumper sticker that says it's a choice and a child, we get the stakes. Sometimes we choose death." That doesn't mean to say that I think that a cluster of cells hanging together, like the Oklahoma law that was passed today. It's not to say that I think ... I don't call that a child. What I was trying to get at there was that my child took two years to conceive. When you're doing that kind of work, which I'm probably sure some of you here have done, of course you're very excited that the minute you start pumping out the hormone that you can find on the pee stick. Of course you're thinking I'm going to have a baby. I was really more getting at the excitement about a child. I wasn't really getting at anything technical about what's a life, what's a child, what's the viability, but what that passage was trying to point out, and when this relates to the autonomy thing, is that the gestating body and what is gestating in it, there is no way, no fantasy that can pull those things apart.
We will see, in a post Roe era, we will see that you're choosing barbarism towards the people who are gestating. That is what you are choosing. I do not make that choice. It does engage ethics, but to think that you're not making that choice, should you be prioritizing fetuses or embryos, I think, it's infusing those clusters of cells where they have fingernails or not with a kind of autonomy at the expense of the gestating person, which I think is obscene.
Anyway, no one's here to hear me rant, but those are my feelings. I feel like the book is a homage to interdependency, and is homage to the mess, and is homage to the fact that we can't split these things apart. It's homage to the fact that even after two years of trying desperately to be pregnant with this baby, when I, in that passage that you're mentioning, I was hospitalized at 28 weeks and having a conversation about a placental problem that they said it might be okay for you, might be okay for the baby, but it's not going to be okay for you. There was not a single part of me at that moment, no matter how much I wanted that baby, that thought it would be a just outcome for me to die, nor did anyone in my family, my parents, my lover, my stepson, my students. Nobody would've thought that was the ethical decision there. These are very severe things to be thinking about. I think that severity is going to become crystal clear in the weeks and months, and years to come.
Freeman: Yeah, I think the ... In [inaudible] you wrote how people are often merciless on those they love the most. You've written a lot about cruelty. You've written about violence and violence to some degree, is a small part of the Argonauts, but tenderness is one of the big parts of this book's register. Tenderness as a linkage point for interdependency as a way to make that interdependency manageable and meaningful. I wonder if you can think, maybe now, extemporaneously, about how to, in a time of war, how you can keep your capacity for tenderness, unweaponized, if you will. Ben [inaudible] wrote a really lovely book of poems a couple years ago in which he was trying to use the language of war to write love poems. It captured for me one of the challenges of the present time when so much is weaponized. What are your thoughts about that as a very, very close student of how language bends and sometimes breaks?
Nelson: To me, and I think, just to connect it to what we were just talking about, if you listen to the multitude of podcasts, or interviews, or anything with people who work at women's health, reproductive centers around the country right now, there's a great New Yorker radio hour interviewing the people at Dobbs, at the clinic that will bear the name of the overturning of Roe. The tenderness, the ferocious tenderness of the people who work on behalf of the healthcare and autonomy of people's body seeking care is so moving, and so inspiring. They've been in the fight. They go every day with care and tenderness to the fight. I don't see difficulty there.
I think that I am enough of a aspiring Buddhist layperson to, and I think this is probably an orientation that has some people really liked, and some people don't like, in my more recent book on freedom, which is that it's the compassion and the tenderness for the people who we perceive as enemies that is sometimes the much harder route to go, and figuring out how to do that without engaging what people might call idiot compassion, or idiot forgiveness, a kind of rush to ... The forms of compassion and forgiveness that don't address the harm, and that don't register the damage that the harm is being done. Those are idiot versions of those things, but those things themselves, I do believe in, as incredibly powerful and in needing to be motivated. That's actually part of what I was talking about, about exploiting the anecdote, is that there's a lot of anecdotes in this book that could end with like, "What a jerk!", or like, "Can you believe this guy?" Part of blowing that up was that to me is not the end point. That's the beginning point to figuring out how we are to be in this world together.
Freeman: I want to bring Miranda July back in, just simply because a writer friend was in town recently and we were talking about LA. He said, "I don't know. I don't think the writer should live that close to the dream machine. It's like the Trenoble zones. Maybe they shouldn't get that close to where the fallout is." Both of you living in LA doing incredible, very different and rich work, I wonder if you can talk about how your work is, I don't want to say made possible by California, but I would say as a Californian, both of your work seems, in a indescribable way, deeply Californian. I wonder if that means anything to you. Miranda, you're a fiction writer and a filmmaker. Is there something about living in LA that excites you? Is there something about that that you see in Maggie's work?
July: Well, this is what I was thinking just before you asked your question.
Freeman: Feel free to think what you were thinking, because I'm just thinking about what you ...
July: I was thinking about, whatever, being too close. I actually was thinking about how someone was saying to me how wrong people had sex. They didn't understand it because of movies, movies and porn. And whatever, and that sex was actually maybe a totally different thing, but we all grew up on movies. I had this response, which I'm now thinking is because I am a filmmaker. It's like, what do you do when you ... I thought, maybe we are half movie, in the sort of cyborg sense. We're not ... The movie part of ourself, yes, wants to see itself reflected in sex, inside and out, and in fantasies, sexual fantasies when we're alone. But that, to separate that we're just not that pure. We're not a thing apart. I, certainly, as a filmmaker, don't even really want to be that's ... Anyways, that was just a sort of bleeding thought. I don't know. Maybe there's something about being right here and actually being part of it that I feel less at it's mercy while being lovingly participating as well.
Freeman: But a sense maybe we are half movie. I feel like that's going to rattle around in my head the rest of the night. Maggie, is there anything you want to say in response to?
Nelson: Yeah. One thing I'll add to it is that there's a painter whom I love named Tala Madani, who's going to have a big show retrospective at MOCA in the fall. Tala, who moved here from Iran when she was a teenager, but now lives in LA, her phrase was, she said, "Maybe we're all children of this new light," because she has a lot of light projectors and things in her work. I love that phrase. Children of this new light. It's made me think about, she's talking about cinematic light. It just gave me a lot to think about. I will say that when I first moved to LA, I was very anti Hollywood and very hostile towards where I'd moved to.
That, in part, had to do with just having spent 15 years in New York city prior, and I think feeling ... It was like a defensive reaction against the total loss of a community and the total loss of what felt to me like a place where literature had cultural value, on the regular, but I will say that with friendships with people like Miranda, who've shown me through their films and their writing that there's intense communion, not antipathy between visual and verbal forms, and then by being married to someone who makes video art and is very interested in the image. Through working with a lot of filmmakers at [inaudible], it's my old employment place, and other things, it's not like it hasn't changed my feelings about Hollywood proper, but I've become very grateful to have literature displaced in this ...
I know you guys are, probably all these alarm bells are ringing because Alto's done so much work to bring literature back, but just socially for me, there was a lot of displacement, but then that became a space of radical freedom, like no one was looking. I could also write much longer things because there was a space out here that it felt like the words fill and flow into, whereas in New York I was very ... I'm naturally a very tight editor. I would edit things down to haiku. It was a very kind of advertising ish relationship to language. That has really changed a lot since I've moved here. I don't know how much of it's the place, but I like it. I like thinking ... I like the large est of things that hang around in my mind.
Freeman: One last question. This, I guess could to you as well, Miranda, if you have thoughts about it, but Maggie, John from Sacramento had a question about what you think, if anything, and this would be very hard to encapsulate, but perhaps best you can, did you learn at the feet, at the teacherly table of Annie Dillard, who I think a lot of people probably on this call admire and have experienced the experience of consciousness with on her pages? What did you take away from being taught by her, other than Tara, probably?
Nelson: Yeah. Yeah. Annie, I think Alexander, she and other people have written some good accounts of what it was like to be taught by Annie in that way. Gosh, there's so much. There's so much. I still know Annie, so there's kind of like ... I've known Annie now for 30 years. There's not probably a day that goes by in my writing life where I don't think of some things that Annie would say and Annie would bring in. This is why I'm laughing in part about when I say the stories about her teaching and that she would literally bring in the lists of do's and don'ts. She would ruffle a lot of feathers by telling the women to marry rich. It was all just like ... It was speaking of things that wouldn't go over today. There was a lot of like ... A lot of those do's and don't, I was very ... I was into punk excess and she was into spiritual compression, or something was very different.
Yet, I think my writing is utterly taught by her writing. I think my choices are, and also her books are really radical. A book that I actually worked a little bit as a research assistant on was For The Time Being. It has this structure, that book, where it has numbers, clouds. You're nodding, John, so maybe you've read it. I think working ... I remember the research I did on that project was just to go find descriptions of clouds in 18th and 19th century literature. Go find people who talked about clouds in their diaries. There were these research projects. The way she put them together in this kind of ... Her classic essay is like expedition to the poll. She does this, but she kind of ... I'm not going to say she invented, but she really brought the modern version of the braided essay, where you pick these things and then put them into these inner waves. She was utterly masterful at it.
I think that it's not an accident that books like Bluets and the Argonist, to some extent, are pretty much structured in nearly exactly that way. Not exactly, but quite a bit inspired from.
Freeman: Yeah. That's a tremendous work. I know Miranda, you have to leave in about 90 seconds. Is there any kind of takeaway that you have of Annie Dillard's work, or someone else that enabled you to move the way that you've learned to move?
July: No. I think I remember cornering Maggie in my kitchen at one point and getting a whole bunch of Annie Dillard stories. I'm just happy ... She's someone I read a lot, especially when I was first starting writing, and her writing about writing. Yeah, I still pick up her books. It's one of those people who you just flip open and believe that whatever it opened to was what you needed to learn that day, but I don't ... I'm like everyone in the audience, I'd rather hear Maggie talk about her.
Nelson: I will just also say that Annie was very ... People have ... One of my favorite descriptions was that people called her a horror writer of nature. I think that feeling, I mean, she taught me this and I think this was ... I actually wrote, I've written whole series of poems on this. I wrote a series of poems called the Canal Diaries that I wrote at the shore of the Guana Canal when I lived there in Brooklyn. She taught me that the Rose Walden was polluted. Her Tinker Creep was polluted. She taught me that you go, and you look, and you see, and you describe what you saw, and that you don't look for the pure place. You don't look to wait till nature. You don't wait till you're off in the Patagonia wilderness.
You can do that too, but she taught me to look under your beer cans, and look under rocks. I wrote a paper for her where I spent the afternoon playing video games at the arcade and wrote about video gaming. She just really taught you to look, and to bring heat. That horror writing to nature thing is about really getting ... In some ways, her writing can become histrionic in that way, but it really is about making the smallest thing deeply alive in high stakes.
July: Yeah. That's cool.
Freeman: Yeah. The mental topography.
July: So sorry, but I've got to go. Sorry.
Nelson: No, it's all good. Thank you for coming in.
July: Thank you, John. Thank you everyone.
Freeman: We should probably wind down here as well. I could talk about the mental topography of Annie Dillard's books for about six hours if anybody wishes, at some point, but just as, Maggie, you said she taught you how look, you're teaching a lot of people how to think with your books and your poems. I can't thank you enough for taking the time out to talk about this, because I know it can get rather meta when you think about thinking, and look at looking. This has been a really wonderful conversation. I want to thank everyone for tuning in from Paris, and Sacramento, and everywhere in between. I think David is probably lurking in the sidelines. He has some outros he wants to say.
Ulin: Lurking in the side. Yes. Lurking in the sidelines is me. John, I'll take you up on that six hours of Annie Dillard talk anytime. What a fantastic chewy conversation. I really, I can't wait to watch it again. I'm grateful to all of you. Big thanks to Maggie, Miranda, and John.
In terms of watching it again, this interview was recorded and will be available at californiabookclub.com. I want to let you all know that next month's book is Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay. Please come on June 16th, Thursday, June 16th, for that discussion. A reminder of the sale on Alta memberships for California book club members at altaonline.com/tote. Please participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end this event. Stay safe everybody. See you all next month. Take care. Have a good rest of your week.•