Josephine Rowe on Craft, Climate Grief, and the Politics of Fiction
The Author of Here Until August in Conversation with Brandon Taylor
Josephine Rowe’s new short story collection, Here in Until August, is out today from Catapult, so we asked one of our favorite short story writers, Brandon Taylor, to get in touch for a conversation about craft, memory, climate grief, animals, and everything else that goes into a contemporary short story collection. The following conversation took place via email over several weeks (and 10,000 miles).
Brandon Taylor: My first question is a more or less general one—how did these stories come about? I guess what I’m asking is kind of two-fold. Both, how do you find your way into a story? And also, how did you go about collecting them for this book? Did they come quickly? Did they come in drips? Across years? In one big heat? Did you find yourself sounding out themes and writing stories to fit? I know process is really kind of a misnomer for these things, that usually stories slink in and amass and suddenly you find yourself outnumbered, but I’m always so fascinated about both the generative end of things and the more curatorial aspect of assembling a collection.
Josephine Rowe: It wasn’t exactly a case of the stories slinking in and outnumbering me—though I love the idea of them having that kind of autonomy (and willful capacity for mutiny). The stories in August came together more peaceably over about seven years. There are a few of them that have that many years layered in them, that I’d started before leaving Melbourne for Montreal in 2013 and was still worrying at right up until print. Others I started while I was on the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, living in Oakland. Nothing ever comes quickly! Except for maybe “Anything Remarkable,” which I wrote in New York with a headful of steam around the lead up to Australia’s long overdue Marriage Amendment.
Back in 2012, I’d set out to write a collection of stories riffing off certain Australian placed-based mythologies and urban legends, but one of the stories—about a phantom panther periodically reported near the site of a rural Australian military base—subsumed that effort by becoming a novel (A Loving, Faithful Animal.)
The stayers, those stories that hail from the original conceit—“Glisk,” “Sinkers,” “Horse Latitudes,” for instance—take their tone from particular sites that are somehow charged in the Australian psyche, or, conversely, from the “emptiness” that colonial Australia conjured up in declaring Terra Nullius. (The genre of Australian Gothic could be seen as the continued attempt to populate that constructed emptiness, and presented with the unfamiliar, the mind too often trends sinister. Madeleine Watts writes excellently about this over at The Believer.I think many of us come to writing through feeling alienated in one way or another.
The more recent, North American counterparts in the collection are still very much anchored in place and in landscape—and often these places are also the familiar stomping grounds of the mythic or iconic—places accessed intermittently, depending on the right conditions. Plots in densely forested Newfoundland woods, or pockets of the Catskills—but the fulcrum of the collection entire gradually shifted to reflect something more personal.
BT: About this book specifically, your characters are so often between. In places not their own, or they’re waiting for something to change. You’re so incredibly skilled at locating those pauses in a life, the beats between two larger moments. Reading these stories (particularly “Real Life” and “Chavez”), it feels like one of your great subjects, the in-between, the waiting, the anticipation of change or a failure to change. What is it about those liminal spaces that call to you?
JR: There are sometimes self-reflective themes and through-lines that the author can’t necessarily see for herself. But in this case, we don’t have to scratch very deep: I moved around a lot in those seven years. Between Australia and Canada and the US and Italy—there was a lot of liminal to tread. And a lot of additional travel around those mainstays, those little islands of fixed addresses and the right amount of coat hangers and neighbors who might learn your name.
Up to a point there’s a comfort in it, that transience, the ongoing deferral. I think many of us come to writing through feeling alienated in one way or another, and so there’s a kind of liberty and mercy in choosing, in orchestrating your own otherness—because we needn’t belong where we needn’t belong. I suppose I’m also talking about anonymity; there’s freedom in that too, but of course it comes at a cost.
And it’s worth saying that this was only ever elective relocation—it might’ve been for work, or there were significant personal reasons—but ultimately it was my decision about how I wanted to live (i.e., I wanted to write, and to live in a way that allowed that, over and above anything material). I care deeply about place, am thoroughly susceptible to it. But I can’t point to any particular location, let alone a structure, and call it “Home.”
So, to know home, and then to be removed from it? To have no agency in such an eviction. Or for home itself to be swept away or swallowed up, or to be made unrecognizable to you. Or for home to be the site of a trauma or grief so awful that you can no longer stomach it (and this last perhaps approaches my own early associations, or lack thereof, my own inability to form a sound basis for Home). These ideas preoccupied me. The characters in Here Until August are moved by these greater forces.
BT: Do you feel that short stories in general are especially attuned to mining the in-between?
JR: I’m always a bit wary of making distinctions (or contributing to the distinctions) around what a story can do vs whatever the supposedly grander work of a novel might be. Whatever the genre, we still hope that the life contained is not quite contained, that it breathes and expands beyond however many pages we’ve tried to gather it up in. There are novels that do very well at conveying the in-between. (Front of mind: Olivia Laing’s Crudo?) But it is more typically story writers that we look to, in particular, as being patrons saints of the transient—Lucia Berlin as a shining example. But then, she lived that way; all the moving around, all those wolf-from-door jobs. Raymond Carver, too, and Mavis Gallant. (What camp do we put Marguerite Duras in?)
Are we getting at something more pragmatic, following this back? Is it more that itinerancy disallows the ideal working conditions for novel writing? Probably less so now than 20 years ago, with laptops and all. But still, I think there’s something in it. I didn’t start hitting the straps in the novel until I was on the other side of a series of sublets, until I’d signed a lease and was settled enough, could let the pages and the routines pile up around me. I had to get a typewriter and just plant one sentence in front of the other every morning—which is not the way I’m used to working at all—and if I got stuck or went away for a weekend you could read that intermission in the paper from where it had sat bent around the roll bar.It is never not right for fiction to have a political agenda, but sometimes you watch the scaffolding kind of buckle under the weight of it.
Back to stories though, and in-betweens. I’m sure we can find just as many examples to the contrary; writers who’ve stayed close to their birthplace and been absolute lions of the short story. Alice Munro, of course. I sometimes wonder how many Alice Munro stories take place on a train? I’m sure there’s a thesis on this somewhere that we can turn up.
BT: Oh, totally. You’re absolutely right. I think that like with most things, anything that seems like a neat dichotomy is really just a series of illusions constructed out of vague notions and partial patterns—Alice Munro, as you say, but also Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Faulkner, Peter Taylor, are all story writers who write out of such a concrete and specific sense of place. I was almost tempted to make a point about the rise of a certain strain of contemporary novel of the atomized consciousness. Novels assembled out of fragments and fleeting impressions, thinking of the usual suspects (Lerner, Cusk, Knausgaard, etc) but really all you have to do is summon up Bernhard or the Brontës or Virginia Woolf or any modernist novel. There are no rules, of course!
I’m interested in how you think about memory, time, and structure with these stories. I know that’s kind of a big and unwieldy ask, so I’m sorry! But memory is an almost tangible force in these stories—it often compels the characters to act in curious and strange ways. The way that you move in and out of memory, and in out of moments in time, is so incredible to observe as a reader, and yet at the same time, the stories move at pace. In the opening story, “Glisk,” there’s an almost chiastic structure with that story in which it opens in a dreamy kind of memory sequence that comes back toward the end, and yet throughout, much of the imagery from that opening sequence is called upon with really beautiful effect.
And I know that memory sometimes can be a bit of a morass for many writers (myself included) because it can, when invoked in a story, have the effect of isolating the character from action and from motion in the story. It can cut them off, but in your stories, it almost has a propulsive effect. I guess what I’m asking is how do you approach memory in your fiction? And how do you grapple with the structure of your stories? Because everything is held in such exquisite tension!
JR: I’ll try with a big unwieldy answer! It may be important to make the distinction between memory and nostalgia, as very often I think the two are confused—that schooled idea of memory as a kind of rosey ornamentation, of backstory as an imposition on the real story. But generally I think that if it obstructs the narrative, that seems reflective enough of how it obstructs (or rather, determines) our experience, in life. Which is to say that it doesn’t obstruct; the story is happening there too.
Time as a flow, as a flood, is central to that opening image of “Glisk,” and the way meaning of an experience holds or does not hold over the course of a lifetime. Yes, there’s a lot of gold light and long shadow and something almost baptismal about it, the families wading out into the ocean at dusk, but the narrator is wary of his own mythologizing of that memory—aware that he’s using this as a marker for greater measure (for/against his brother).
The fact is we all come dragging our histories. Or, if more fortunate, we move on the speed of them. Occasionally we are propelled by attempts to outstrip them, or to amend or avenge them, if not to completely disown. Perhaps just as often, to recover them. In any case, our draw upon these histories may be selective, or unreliable, or intrusive or even falsely constructed, but it’s there inherent in everything we do and say and the ways in which we interact. I write a lot about the ways in which we misinterpret and misapprehend one another (and I think this is central to your fiction, too?). Also, in this collection, where characters are usually transitioning between geographical points (as well as emotional states) it’s essential to depict something of the left-behind, to make that distance and dysrhythmia felt and known to a reader.Memory can be a bit of a morass for many writers because it can, when invoked in a story, have the effect of isolating the character from action.
In terms of how? There’s no avoiding the fact that memory unfurls more slowly on the page than it does in the mind, where whole episodes or spans of years might flicker back to us and be relived within fractions of seconds. I thought this was beautifully expressed in your story, Anne of Cleaves. During their first date, Marta is turned inward by a perplexing question about dead British queens, only to have Sigrid snap her out of it, assert a shift to the present moment: “You retreating, falling into silence. It won’t work.” (Did I read somewhere that this story came together in a matter of hours? I absolutely quit.) But that inward stuff—the college parties and cheap beer and, especially, the insight into class—is the story, is the point, and comes as an invitation to intimacy rather than an isolating or estranging aside.
For a story to have narrative momentum is not dependent on it only being forward looking. I’m thinking also of the opening of Duras’s The Lover—“I often think of the image that only I can see now, and of which I’ve never spoken”—in which it takes her about 18 pages to tell us the image. She keeps advancing and retreating from the threshold of the image, or reaching beyond it, sidetracked with memory, with context. And that’s it at its simplest: memory is context. Persistent, inescapable context.
BT: Persistent, inescapable context—I love that! I think, in writing, sometimes it’s easy to view these things as separable, or as distinct components that can be slotted in and taken back out. Fiction as a set of modular units. But I think what you say is so true. It’s more like, a set of superimposed layers. It all mingles and exerts force and pressure. That’s one of the things you do so incredibly well in this book, is allow memory to be an almost locomotive force, driving these stories. And I think in order for memory, backstory, flashback, the unpacking of a life’s context within a scene, to not feel inert, is to show how it affects the motion of the story.
In the story of mine that you mentioned, “Anne of Cleves” (which did indeed come as a gift one afternoon, in a couple of hours), Sigrid reminds not only Marta but the reader that there’s a story happening while she’s sorting through her internal weather. It isn’t to say that one is more important than the other, but that they exist in relation to each other. What’s happening internally re: memory, time, and what’s going in the present of the story. E.M. Forster says “There’s always a clock.” Which is to say, really, there is a relationship between things in a story—its events, its people, its places, etc—and time is one way to think about those relationships.
You bringing up misapprehension between characters and also Duras—and, to some extent, Didion, too, thinking of her excellent novels Play it as It Lays and Book of Common Prayer—makes me think of another question, which is the question of withholding. In the Duras example, there is that advancement and retraction, a kind of circling effect around a central image that is initially withheld from the reader. And in “Glisk,” (because it sort of got us going on this tangent), there is also a kind of orbiting a cavity in which rests some central information, it feels like. I find these structures really fascinating because they glide around an erased center, where the reader knows that something is there, but the something is either withheld or is kept at a distance by the narrator for reasons that are often revealed through the arc of the story.
Sometimes, in writing classes, we’re told not to put big things toward the ends of stories because it gives off a smell of epiphany or it feels deceptive. But what do you make of narratives that are erected around withheld information. What do you make of characters who keep secrets, either from themselves or from others? Because it feels, to me, related to the question of people misapprehending each other, often as a result of some hurt or some vulnerability that’s being guarded.
JR: I think the locus of power is very often in the unsaid, the unsayable. (“What we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either”). Standing back a ways from craft: I feel there are things (experiences, losses) I cannot write about, or cannot yet write about, even for myself. I wonder if I’m writing around them, circling in as happens in a controlled space in my stories. Perhaps.
In “Glisk,” we’re watching these estranged brothers try to arrive at the threshold of a great Unsaid, skirting around it but knowing it’s ultimately inevitable, as does a reader. However, when it comes, critical details about it remain withheld, untold to the narrator. It’s a silence that becomes structural. Elsewhere I’ve referred to such spaces and silences “load-bearing,” those left open to a reader, as what the mind presents in lieu of narrative dictation can be much more powerful and much more resonant.
In “Chavez,” the narrator’s relationship to this absence—I like your word: cavity—is exacerbated, a result of a deeper, almost pathological interiority, and a more personally impactful, isolating trauma. Again the precise circumstances of that trauma remain inexplicit—and in this case, nobody in the story has that information. The narrator, Séverine, swivels back and forth between bulwarking her thoughts from getting anywhere near to a clear view of this loss, to attempting to explicitly visualize what might have happened, via known, possibly-related atrocities, then retreating back behind a palisade of everyday disorder.
As a writer I’ve never really felt like I was dealing consciously in the orchestration of intrigue or suspense, in terms of narrative momentum. Though I suppose these are inherent to a narrator trying and failing to tell what’s happened to them.
Sooner or later we come to understand these absences as fulcrums the characters operate in relation to. That’s a commonality in several of these stories; characters who are moved—often quite literally set in motion—by loss. While the stories are liminal in many respects (geographically and otherwise), they’re also documenting the point at which that silence must be acknowledged. If not to a direct reckoning, at least saying the name, at least speaking back into that rift.
BT: How do you approach animals in your fiction? A lot of animals in stories tend to be either overdetermined symbols or just kind of antic little creatures who don’t really do much. But I find that in your stories, they feel quite alive and don’t feel like symbols. How do you construct the little beasts in your fiction?
JR: I love this question. Is it too simple to say: I’ve always been fascinated by animals in general? (Who isn’t?) I grew up around animals. A lot of them, all at the once—cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, axolotls, frogs, hermit crabs, many kinds of fish and many kinds of birds, a few sheep at one point. (Should I go on? No, you get the idea). This in a fairly dismal outer-suburban commission house and yard—I think in the US you would call this public housing or housing projects. My mother was compulsive in many ways, and this was one of them. I also spent part of my childhood on a farm with distant relatives; cows and horses, more cats, and cattle dogs, chickens and ducks and so on. Trying to coax blue tongue lizards out from the hayshed. I was there for awful reasons (a violent household) but that time away glowed, still glows—wading horses into cool rivers on hot days, that kind of thing. Ameliorative.
Then, also, native animals; possums and flying foxes, and the tiny insects and lizards and that seemed abundant, 30 years ago, even in a suburban back yard, and not simply because I myself was smaller and closer to the ground. Every now and again I’ll see a Christmas Beetle—an iridescent beetle that used to be a harbinger of our summers, the Australian Christmastime—and my reaction is like something out of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.As a writer I’ve never really felt like I was dealing consciously in the orchestration of intrigue or suspense.
I’m tempted to say that to have an animal in a story as symbol, only, seems a waste, but there are probably instances in the collection where that’s closer to the case. The roadkill dingoes and roos along remote stretches of Australian desert highway, for instance. But also, that’s just how it is. Along with their mysterious disappearance by dawn in the more frequented stretches; obviously someone’s job, but what a grim job. (An aside here that kangaroos have different significance to an Australian reader than to readers from elsewhere in the world. Consider them comparable to deer, in commonness, although—as with deer—that glimmer of the mythic is still there, in spite of their ubiquity.)
There’s a depiction in that same story, “Horse Latitudes,” of a whale tangled in a shipping buoy, towing it out to sea. It’s an image from life that impressed upon me heavily, and which still comes freighted with a sense of helplessness and anxiety and complicit guilt. I make no attempt to get inside the mind of the whale; to that end I think we could say that the whale is symbolic. A large-scale version of fish or birds snarled in six-pack rings. More and more of this human-caused harm is being made visible, brought to fore—one example being photographer Chris Jordan’s Midway Project, documenting the lethal plastic content in the stomachs of baby albatrosses, who have starved or choked to death.
There isn’t a lot of ambiguity in 21st-century augury; the message is pretty clear. I suppose, for anyone paying close attention, the human-affected scale of animal decline—whether by destruction of habitat, or gratuitous hunting or overfishing, or any other means of extraction or myopia—has been grossly apparent since industrialization, and even before that, a typical consequence of colonialism. But the way we look at wild creatures now, in 2019—that reckoning with loss or potential loss is exacerbated beyond the fathomable. I include in that unfathomability the Great Barrier Reef. The human story is not superior or separate from these. I read a perfect line in a poem yesterday, by Emile Collier, a missive from the non-human world: “You are not everything you are not even most things.”
The more I think about animals, the more I’m convinced we don’t deserve them.
I realize, here, that I’ve leaned into where climate grief tends to carry me of late, in noticing (or no longer noticing) the wild. Domestic animals have different connotations, of course. Probably the most prominent domestic beast in Here Until August is a large wolfish dog named Chavez, titular figure in the longest story, where he arrives as a kind of benevolent stranger. He doesn’t have a real-life model so much as a real-life provocateur: when I was living in California I looked after a friend’s dog for a few days. This came during a particularly insular, thin-skinned stretch, and taking the dog on walks necessitated being more in the world and outside my own head than I’d become, at that time.
As with the narrator—at least in my adult life—I’ve only ever cared for cats. For fear of overstepping (did I think it would somehow upset my friend?) I didn’t want to appropriate the real-life dog, Cal, though he was such a beaut. I did write from the basis of his temperament, though, and the sort of innocent intervention he brought about: the basic confidence gained from walking a large dog in an unfamiliar city, even at night, and to having someone else’s wellbeing to consider, even briefly. Other than that, I think I just wrote the dog I would like to know.
BT: I hadn’t thought about climate grief in the context of Here Until August except in the ambient way I’m always thinking (guarding against, perhaps?) climate grief, which is to say that everything we write about the world feels like a portrait of a vanishing object. Even in my own little context, I grew up on a farm in rural Alabama, and I watched as people started selling their timber to pay for various things—beer, food, bills, etc. And this landscape that I used to run through as a child, under all these really lovely and healthy pine trees, has totally vanished. It’s all just open, jagged field and some single-wide trailers. And I remember as a teenager, standing at the top of this big hill, looking down and seeing all of these gaps in the trees. And that corresponding to the end of childhood, it left a big impression on me. And that’s what it feels like now, looking out at the world, seeing all of these sad, gray gaps open up, and thinking about how it’s all coming loose and sloughing aways. It’s really sad.
But in Here Until August, nature saturates these stories. There is such piercing natural beauty—and part of it just the subtle intensity of your eye for description and observation—that it’s almost hard to look at. In these stories, it feels very possible that a human character might get into a fight with the natural world that they very well might not win. I’m not sure that’s a strain that’s particularly active in mainstream American literary fiction—though it’s changing of course.
To formalize into a question—do you find yourself grappling with the question of how to metabolize climate grief into art to the same degree that many people grapple with the question of being too political.
JR: God, it is too much to look at sometimes. And perhaps part of what makes it hard is the knowledge that sooner or later you will have to look away, and that when you look again you’ll see it otherwise. As with your story of the pine forest, the gray gaps opening up… this story seems one of those instances where life throws in something so metaphorically on point that it would be almost too much in fiction. That you can’t go home again, can’t step into the same river twice—the view from childhood being literally clear-felled. (What other avenue could you have taken but to become a writer? Then you get to recover it in a way, if not to rewild it.)This landscape that I used to run through as a child, under all these really lovely and healthy pine trees, has totally vanished. It’s all just open, jagged field and some single-wide trailers.
Nature—and its beauty—tends to be unpredictable in Here Until August. But it isn’t actively working against the characters and it isn’t benevolent, isn’t on their side; it doesn’t reward or punish. Regardless, it warrants an appropriate awareness—and a longer memory—of which we are in critical dearth.
The formal question, of metabolizing climate grief, and moreover of being too political: yes, I thrash about with both. And at the moment they’re one and the same. How much to say and how close to the surface? To speak in a sustained register of woe and elegy is essentially to throw your hands up; to grasp around for some late narrative glint of hope too often feels like lazy, condescending storytelling. Hope as a rising inflection towards the end—it’s easy to do, and the instinct to do so is always very strong—even in essay, where I (most of us?) tend to lay things out more starkly. It is never not right for fiction to have a political agenda, but sometimes you watch the scaffolding kind of buckle under the weight of it.
I remember apologizing, in my early twenties, for not being a very political writer. I was writing about class, about gender and sexuality, about domestic violence and the aftermath of war and about disenfranchisement in many respects, but owing to various insecurities (see subject matter, and perhaps because I was writing outside academia) I didn’t quite feel I was qualified to consider myself or my writing in this way. Now I think that in order to de-politicize the personal, I would have had to have led a very different life.
Too political/not political enough… even here, in answering, I’m grappling with that. There’s a part of me that wonders whether I ought to just stick to talking about craft, and a larger part of me that wants to acknowledge that all over this country there are people putting themselves bodily in the way of massively destructive industry. Here I am in front of a desk. I think the dissonance I feel about this deserves my ongoing attention.
Your word “ambient” seems apt for what’s filtering into these stories. As many of them have slowly developed over several years, anxieties that might not have been there—or were not so severe—at inception, are there in the upper layers. Or maybe to speak of it as being part of a sedimentary strata doesn’t quite get at it; maybe it’s more atmospheric. Like the unsettling, acrid taste in the air before the brain processes this as smoke, fire, and then smoke and fire into active panic. There were more recent stories that spoke to climate change directly, but they hadn’t had long enough to settle; or else they overspilled the short form altogether. To write a contemporary, realist novel now that isn’t in some way inflected by climate change would be like writing a novel set in 1943 and skipping over the minor detail of the Second World War.