Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of two poetry collections, Tsim Tsum and The Babies, and the story collection Wild Milk. Happily, a collection of essays on fairy tales and motherhood based on her Paris Review column, is her latest book.
Martin Riker’s second novel, The Guest Lecture, was published in January 2023. As a critic, he has written for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Paris Review, and London Review of Books. He is the co-founder and publisher of the feminist press Dorothy, a publishing project.
They wrote to one another in February 2023, discussing objects and silence, daydreams, instability, how literary form is susceptible to time, and the fairy tale-sense-of-the-world.
We first met because my wife Danielle Dutton and I published your story collection, Wild Milk, through our press Dorothy. It came in as a submission, and we loved it, and we wrote to you about it a few days before Christmas 2017. To help publicize that book, you wrote a beautiful piece on fairy tales, which Nadja Spiegelman accepted for the Paris Review Daily. Out of that piece was born a regular column, and out of that column came Happily: A Personal History with Fairy Tales, your new book out from Random House. As publishing stories go, this one is rather like a fairy tale, except that nothing went wrong, everything turned out really well, so maybe you would tell me it’s nothing like a fairy tale at all.
Happily has so much to say about fairy tales, about what they are and how they matter, or what they used to be and what they might be now. Any number of contemporary writers make use of fairy-tale retellings, for stories and story-structures, but what you are doing seems to me more precarious: you want to release them, snarling, back into lived experience. You want them to be dangerous again. It makes me think of Bakhtin’s ‘carnival sense of the world’, that joyful, chaotic, non-hierarchic worldview that Enlightenment rationality pummeled out of us. You seem to want to reclaim a fairy tale-sense-of-the-world, an ancient imagination, where fairy tales are not simple and moral and quaint, but difficult and painful.
Sabrina Orah Mark:
How did you know I’ve been waiting patiently for years for someone to bring up Bakhtin’s carnival? You and I, it seems, share a predisposition to its main ingredients, which I have always understood as giving the world back its snarl (to use your word), and celebrating the snarl as a root we can follow all the way down to the most tender, truthy human day. Is it a day in the future or a day in the past? Neither? Both? The Guest Lecture opens with an epigraph from John Maynard Keynes, a reminder that there are only ‘a few old gentlemen tightly buttoned up in their frock coats’ standing in the path of the snarl, and keeping us from trying ‘the possibilities of things . . . who only need to be treated with a little friendly disrespect and bowled over like ninepins.’ I love this, especially because you bring Keynes back from the dead to be one of those old gentlemen, but also to be the ball who knocks them all over. Whenever something gets in the way of my writing, my storytelling, I have a tendency to give it a crown, and a snarl, and a dagger, and fangs. I weigh it down, with power. And then I step over it, but not before I kiss it gently on the cheek. Do you remember when you decided to bring Keynes back from the dead?
Oh, Keynes gets brought back from the dead all the time. We brush him off, then we put him and his ideas, or some version of his ideas, to whatever use suits us. But this is true for any thinker or body of thought. It’s just how discourse works. ‘Nobody owns ideas,’ my narrator, Abby, says at various times. She strikes me as being less interested in Keynesian economics than in rhetorical form, and the question of how ideas make their way through time and culture. She is a kind of nerdy formalist of discourse. On Twitter, Riley Rennhack, at the Dallas-based publisher Deep Vellum, compared Abby’s stance to Oscar Wilde’s essay ‘The Critic as Artist’, which I appreciated in part because I teach a class on Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy and yet it never occurred to me to think of Abby that way. For Wilde, criticism is as much an art form as fiction or poetry, and, like any art, it derives its value largely from its subjectivity. As opposed to T.S. Eliot, who says that the critic has a responsibility to be objective and keep themselves out of it. There’s a sort of a carnival versus rationality battle waging here, two different ways of thinking about criticism in terms of its purpose but also its value.
Both of our books engage with varieties of critical writing, but there’s not a lot of objectivity at work. I weave a peripatetic speech about rhetoric and John Maynard Keynes into a novel, while you bring the imagined reality of fairy tales into the space of personal essay and memoir. I don’t think either book is particularly invested in being cross-genre, except that life is cross-genre. There is probably a lot to say on this subject, but I want to ask about how far you stray into fiction, and particularly into surrealism or absurdity. I have always loved how fluidly your writing shifts. Things feel stable until they don’t, and absurdity edges in on reason whenever it needs to. It’s surprising and wonderful in your short stories, but it’s powerfully destabilizing in the context of essay and memoir, genres that ostensibly stay on earth. How does your expansive relationship to tone and genre translate itself to writing so directly about family, current events, ‘the real’?
I really don’t know how anything actually works. If you broke down, let’s say, how electricity works . . . by the time you got to the tiny particles that orbit around the edges of atoms I would already be imagining what that edge would want its name to be if it could be named anything at all. I’m a daydreamer. Which is to say, I’d have a gaunt relationship to the ‘real’ if not for the imaginary. I have always been drawn to the underbelly, the cracks, how the spaces between letters are letters, too. We think of this as the imaginary realm, the invisible, the silent. But as the world reveals more and more of its insides, ecologically, spiritually, politically, as we become more fissure than closure, more breadcrumb than loaf, I think we are seeing genre melt and harden into new forms.
The Guest Lecture uses an ancient rhetorical device where the rooms of the narrator’s consciousness are imagined to be the rooms of her house, and she moves through them to remember her speech, like two animals walking side by side. So, in order for Abby to abandon her lecture, she must leave her house, implying that without one there is no other. Without the living room, there is no beginning. Without a door there is nothing to open, nothing to knock on, so that not even a ghost, not even an idea, can be invited inside. About a year and a half ago my house burnt down. There is no other way to put it. As a writer I’ve always understood form as the house I write inside. The prose poem, for example, is a beautiful shelter. I wonder if you could talk more about your own relationship to form, and whether we should totally re-imagine it for our ruined world? Would this re-imagining unruin it? Allow us to rebuild it? I am asking for my house, and for me, and for my own writing, but also for all of us. Mary Ruefle keeps a decaying book in her yard to remind herself that all literature is vanity, which is probably another way of saying – as you said – ‘things feel stable until they don’t’. And at one point Abby says, ‘I am allowed to mourn my kitchen,’ which felt so groundbreaking and affirming and beautiful and sad. I want to mourn my kitchen, too. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what Beckett says: ‘To restore silence is the role of objects,’ which I’ve always understood or maybe misunderstood to mean that objects hold our stories. Without the book, there’d be a kind of deafening roar. Without material, all the metaphors would be running feral through the streets. Did you know before you began The Guest Lecture that Abby’s journey would take her through her house, surrounded by all its objects?
I knew the form would be spatial, that it had to keep moving through different types of space and experience, since otherwise she is just stuck in her head. I was thinking about Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual, a novel about the many tenants who inhabit a Parisian apartment building – but it’s how the book proceeds that is so strange. First, Perec describes a room in exhaustive cinematic detail, describing all of its ‘objects’ minus the human context that might provide these objects with a history or a sense of purpose. He presents the specific contours of the space, but the room remains silent until he tells the story of the person who lived there. And then it’s like a window opens, and history and purpose come rushing in. Later, he moves on to the next room, the next life. The effect is haunting and warm. I’ve long wondered if Perec was inspired by the similar movement between exposition and explanation in Raymond Roussel’s 1914 book Locus Solus, but wherever he got it, I love it, and I always wanted to do something similar, shifting between space-and-its-objects and life-and-its-feelings. My book is very different from Perec’s, of course, and even more so from Roussel’s. However a form starts out, it always ends up someplace else. But that is where that idea came from.
I loved reading Happily for so many reasons, but I was particularly fascinated to discover how susceptible the form of this book was to the accidents of time. You were writing a column about fairy tales, how we might view the contemporary world through fairy tale and vice versa, but you could not have known, when you started out, the sheer amount of catastrophe that was on the horizon. As the book proceeds, the escalation of real-life tragedies – Trump’s presidency, the pandemic and then sickness within your own family – alters the form. Increasingly, the project calls itself into question, either through the narrator or via one of the characters. When asked why he thinks your Rapunzel essay isn’t going well, your husband says, ‘It’s because you are trying to use [Rapunzel] to write about systemic racism, and protest, and cancer, and a global pandemic.’ When your sister develops lymphoma, you ask, ‘What good am I? An old daughter writing about fairy tales when I should be cooking my mother and sister actual soup.’ Life tests the adequacy of the fairy tale-sense-of-the-world, and accidents of time remake the book’s purpose in powerful ways. All of this seems largely a result of an external constraint: the fact that you were writing a column, writing into the current landscape as events were occurring. But it’s also who you are as a writer, your attitude toward composition, so I want to ask if you always feel open to accidents of form, and what role accident plays in your work.
I don’t know if you’ve ever held a fairy tale in your hand, but it has this amazing pliability. Try to stretch it from your childhood all the way to where you are standing right now. See? Isn’t that amazing? Like in Borges’s story ‘The Aleph’, which takes place in the cellar on the nineteenth step, ‘a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness’, a letter small enough to contain the universe. The fairy tale began to feel like a house that held all of us, a house that would never burn down. In the case of both Borges’s Aleph, a point in space that becomes a portal to other spaces, and the fairy tale, you have to descend in order to look up. Which is to say, yes, catastrophe charmed Happily. On the other hand, I think if you use the fairy tale like a flashlight to shine a beam on catastrophe, a groundswell of hope shines back. But you asked me about accidents. I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more porous, and so my writing has become more porous too. More vulnerable to the elements. Something would happen. Like the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, or suddenly homeschooling, or I wasn’t hired for a job I really, really wanted, or yet another Black man was murdered, or my son started making ‘ghost people’ out of woodchips instead of listening in school – and I would go searching for a fairy tale I could use to hold the present steady. And there was always a fairy tale. Just waiting there. Like one thousand old women waiting to show me the way.
Throughout The Guest Lecture is the soft terror that our ideas, ultimately, will disappear without a trace. I realize as we talk about form what we’re really talking about is how to make a shape that an idea can hold onto for dear life. As the publishers of Dorothy, you and Danielle are involved in giving books a body to be held by so many others. There is something particular about the Dorothy catalog. It feels as much like a collection of books, as it feels like a convention of mystics. One fear I think many writers have is that publishing a book might mean its end. Like now that the book is an object it can be forgotten. But some publishers create a conversation that feels filled with hundreds of Borges’s alephs. The books don’t seem to fade into the past, but brighten each time a new book joins them. What is the secret?
I started this conversation by recounting how we met, the logistics of it, and in some ways what followed has been why we met, our shared interests and concerns. A small literary publisher is both of those things, I think; it’s a physical manifestation of a conceptual space, which is maybe a partial response to your question. You and I share a lot of interests, but out of those interests we make very different books. It’s that combination of similarities and differences that makes talking to you so much fun for me. And I think a good publisher’s list is like that, both coherent and various. This is how I feel about many of the small publishers that I’m happy to call friends: their lists have personalities, and like a person, they grow and change. We turn to them for the person they are, who we trust them to be, but we’re also delighted when they show a new side of themselves.
Before we end, I want to quote a few of your very beautiful sentences:
Jerusalem on April mornings is the color of bones under the thinnest veil of pink, leaving me with the sensation that I might be walking around inside a dried-out body.
My relationship to the word law has always been fraught. It’s always reminded me of a yawn with jagged teeth.
As my sons grow, the American imagination grows around them like water hemlock.
The thing about not existing is that sometimes it’s a lot like being a mother.
You were a poet before you wrote fiction or essays. You’ve moved through genres over time. Earlier, you mentioned porousness entering your work as you get older. How else has your relationship to writing changed?
One of my favorite workshops to teach is my Obsession Workshop, where students are asked to consider what possesses them. Is it something like god, or a birthmark, or an old love, or stones, or someone famous, or snow, or freedom, or crying? And then for five weeks I offer prompts to give students a way to just stare at the thing until it starts revealing portals, or bridges, or branches that bloom. I used to think we write to express our relationship to the world but I was dead wrong. We write to change our relationship to the world, thicken and thin it, fall in love with it and quarrel with it, and – like decomposing fruit – enrich its soil. Let me tell you something. My stepdaughter has a tarantula named Mavis who lived with us for many years. I wanted nothing to do with Mavis. Could barely look at her. But then I started writing about Mavis and the more words I gathered to describe her, the more I began to love her. Mavis became a kind of spiritual guide. About a year and a half ago, my husband thought she was dead and almost buried her. But when he looked more closely she was very much alive.
Photograph of Martin Riker © Jessica Baran