S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: There’s a reader who’s going to read this book and feel that it is about being a parent.
S3: There’s a reader who’s going to read this book and feel it’s about climate change. As a reader who’s going to read this book and feel it’s about contemporary politics.
S2: All of those readings, I think, are equally valid and have very little to do with my own intention for the material, like I’m no longer really a part of the transaction.
S4: Welcome back to Working.
S1: I’m your host, Isaac Butler, and I’m your other host, June Thomas.
S5: June Thomas. We just heard from Ruman alum who is our very special guest for this week. And of course, I have never heard of remodeler. So who is he and why did you want to talk to him?
S1: Well, clearly, the most important thing on Raymond’s resume is that he is one of the hosts of working podcast about how creative people get their work done.
S5: And there’s a podcast about how creative people get their work done.
S1: I’m telling you, it’s called working and it’s so good. It’s about the nuts and bolts of the creative process. I heartily recommend. It’s really, really good. All right. Ruman is also one of the hosts of Word, which is Slate’s LGBTQ podcast. And he’s a journalist. He writes for, you know, small magazines like Slate in The New Yorker. He teaches writing and he’s a novelist. His third novel, Leave the World Behind was published on October 6th. And although working listeners know Ruman is a smart, empathic questioner. Interviewer, I wanted to turn the tables and talk to him about his writing process. Also, I just knew that his wonderful new novel would be nominated for the National Book Award.
S5: And it was yes, yes, it is newly minted finalist for the National Book Award before we get to the show proper. I just wanted to acknowledge that this has been a truly bizarre week in terms of the swirl of news and chaos surrounding us. It’s like a sharknado of a week. Our president went to the hospital. There’s been a huge covid outbreak through the out the Republican Party in the executive branch and now maybe the Joint Chiefs have it. Eddie Van Halen died. I mean, there’s been so much going on. How do you get your work done in the midst of all of this?
S1: You know, the crazier the world gets, the easier it is for me to get my work done. In times like this, I am really, really conscious of my many privileges of having a job that I can do from home, of not having caretaking responsibilities and working in a field journalism that people really need right now. So concentrating on the old To-Do list is pretty easy. But when I’m done with work, I have become like an absolutely manic crafter to such an extent that is clearly like some kind of coping mechanism or distraction device. But right now I just applaud whatever strategy people are able to grab onto to get through the day. So, yeah, I mean, the world is bonkers. How are you coping?
S5: Oh, I give myself a C minus, I think. I don’t know. Maybe I ask that question because I’m struggling with this right now. But, you know, like I you know, there’s a podcast about creative work. I overextended myself a bit this week in terms of things that I committed to do. And then on top of that, the news is, you know, it’s strong, bad, always said crazy, go nuts. And then on top of that, my child’s school is on strike right now. And so the confluence of all those things just it’s very hard, especially because writing is so solitary and you’re really in yourself and in the material. I am finding it pretty hard to sit down and and get that work done. And I’m having to kind of dig deep and figure out some new strategies when I figured them out. You’ll be the first to hear about it.
S1: Yeah, I have to say, I when you kind of put out the list like that, what strategy could there possibly be to to just kind of cope with quite so many things going on at the same time? I think sometimes we ask too much of ourselves and this might just be one of those times, like it’s pretty much impossible to get a lot of stuff done, although I know, Isaac, that you just kind of have to right now.
S5: Yeah, well, you know, the deadlines loom no matter how you’re feeling about them. Right. Before we start, we should just say that we have a very special treat for Slate plus listeners, some extra wit and wisdom of Ruman alum. So what can our Slate plus subscribers get this week?
S1: Let me see. They will hear a recommendation, a stroll down memory lane and an anecdote involving Denzel Washington.
S5: You can’t get that everywhere. You know where you can get that slate. Plus, so why don’t you let your fingers do the walking and go to Slate Dotcom working plus for a free two week trial. And we’d also like to remind you that if you are enjoying this show, please subscribe to it wherever you get your podcasts. All right, now let’s hear June’s wonderful conversation with Ramon along.
S1: Reman Alarm, you are a podcast host, a book critic, a teacher, a newsletter writer and a novelist. Your third novel, Leave the World Behind, is out on October 6th, and it has already been optioned to become a movie with Julia Roberts attached. I’m curious if you remember the very first, like, fleeting seed of an idea that grew into the book. Do you have any such memory?
S3: It’s so difficult because we, of course, revise our memories as time passes. I have a very clear memory of being on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the winter of twenty seventeen. The writer, Laura Lippman had let me borrow her apartment in New York City so that I could write for a week, which is like I mean, you can’t really imagine a more generous gesture. So I was there for a week away from my children, away from my family, and it’s not far from the river where the apartment is. And it was absolutely freezing cold, just so, so cold in that way that New York can be when you’re right on the Hudson. And I found myself daydreaming about the vacation we had taken that summer, that August. My family had rented this Airbnb in a kind of unfashionable part of Long Island. It’s not adjacent to the Hamptons where you can buy, you know, caviar at the grocery store. This is like a quiet sort of rural part of Long Island. But it’s a beautiful house, has a swimming pool. And I was there for this week that was so magical. The weather was really incredible. And I just found myself thinking a lot about that particular space. And so I think that is where the seed was really planted, where it was like, I want to write about this house. I want to write about the summer vacation. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that material that I think came later.
S1: And an home kind of comes into the book as well.
S3: That’s right. That’s right. I hadn’t actually I hadn’t thought about that. But you’re right.
S1: I’ll give you an opportunity to describe your novel briefly. I’m not going to get into the specifics too much, because by the time this episode airs, not many people will have had a chance to read it, although I highly recommend it and I’m sure they will before too much time has passed. But just so that people know generally what it’s about. Could you just describe it briefly?
S3: Yeah, I appreciate that, because there’s a particular challenge here. I don’t really care about spoilers, generally speaking, in art forms, but I do think that there’s an instinct with respect to this book to want to hide some of what it’s doing so that the reader can have a fresh experience with it. This is a book about an upper middle class white couple who live in Brooklyn and have two teenage children heading out to a vacation on Long Island, much like the one I’ve just described, or quite literally the one I’ve just described to you. And so this family, Amanda, who works in advertising, and Clay, who is a professor and there are two teenage children, Archie and Rose, spend 48 hours going to the beach, hanging out of the pool, eating the kinds of meals you eat when you’re on vacation, like ice cream sundaes for no reason. And then there’s a knock at the door the second night of their holiday. And the adults are really taken aback because they’re out in the country. They don’t know anyone there. There’s no reason anybody would be stopping by the house and they open the door and find an older black couple standing there. And this couple, G.H. and Ruth, explained to them that this is their house, that they rented this house to them on Airbnb, and that they have come there because there has been an emergency in New York City and they are seeking safe haven. And the rest of the book sees these six people inside this one home trying to figure out what, if anything, is happening in the world outside of their doors.
S1: I’m curious, having heard that first term, how can you possibly kind of think were that vague idea, this beautiful place, this interesting place, which is actually a setting rather than a story like can you recall how that developed? More like did you outline did you sit at a desk and just sort of think, OK, what could happen in that space like that to me feels the most mysterious part of writing a book?
S3: Mm hmm. I do think that you have to have a destination in mind before you can sit down and write, or at least I do. So I shouldn’t speak in generalizations. I should only speak about my own process. It is clear to anyone who has read the book, as you have, that this is not. A Fantasia about a family holiday. It goes into quite different territory, so even if I’ve just described you being inspired or motivated by my own experience of a family holiday, the resulting book departs from that significantly. Part of what I wanted to do was take a very small domestic scenario and find something big and important inside of it. So there’s a whole body of books about people on vacation, for example, and they tend to be books about family life and identity. And the characters will be negotiating their romance or coming to terms with sort of complicated family struggle or, you know, the idea of being, I think that you take people out of their usual geography and then it sort of clarifies how they orient themselves in the world. So that’s one kind of book. And I think that those family stories are really important and really interesting. And in fact, they’re sort of my favorite things to read. But I wanted to show that you can also make a bigger statement about the world itself using that language of family story. And so I think that was part of the endeavor that I wanted to show that you could take a tidy domestic scenario of a woman shopping for groceries or a family sitting down at the dinner table and extrapolate from that into something that illuminated contemporary politics or our approach to the environment or our cultural confusion about the objectivity of reality itself.
S1: Hmm. You know something you just said? You talked about a woman shopping for groceries and which, of course, made me think of a woman shopping for flowers and the hours and where that goes. And it reminded me that when I was researching, I there was an interview that you did when you talked about how a scene in the book that involves Clay was like a scene, I think, in the Magic Mountain. Yes. And it made me wonder. You know, maybe some people think that the only kind of book writers who do research are nonfiction book writers, clearly novelists also do research. What did your research consist of? Like what was about facts and what was like rereading Magic Mountain or rereading the hours, which, of course, was my projection?
S3: Well, it’s very kind of you to frame this as a question about research rather than one about theft. But certainly I think that what I would imagine is true for anyone involved in making art is that the process of looking at art, encountering it in whatever form, you know, in painting, in theater, in books is a process of research. What you’re talking about, it’s a building, a library of private reference. And you can draw upon that as well. And I think that, you know, or at least I know with a specific project what I am more drawn to, what relates to the project at hand. So you mentioned the Magic Mountain, which is one of my favorite novels, full time. And that novel, The Magic Mountain, captures a particular feeling of solitude, of isolation. And the scene that I’m talking about being inspired by is a chapter I believe is called Snow, in which the protagonist of the story has gone out on a skiing trip for the day. He’s left the sanitarium to go out skiing and there’s a storm. And he finds himself lost and begins to panic and worries that he can’t find his way back to the sanitarium where he’s staying with his ill cousin and. Gets increasingly kind of fevered and deranged and thinks that he has been gone for hours and hours, he finally finds his way back and he thinks that he’s been gone for hours and hours and he’s been gone for like 20 minutes. And there’s something really fascinating about that particular feeling to me. And it’s like Thomas Mann did it better. And so if I want to capture a feeling of confusion or isolation or the ways in which your mind can play tricks on you, I’m going to think about a writer who has done that really well, and I’m going to have that in mind. Or if I’m thinking about the drinking is a big part of this. There’s a lot of scenes of people drinking. And I was thinking about Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, specifically Mike Nichols film adaptation of that work in which there is so much drinking that and I’ve heard so many people say this this simple act of watching that movie makes you feel drunk. Yeah. And I wanted this book to be animated by that same thing, that when they are sitting around drinking vodka, trying to figure out what’s happening in the world, that you, the reader, feel a little tipsy. So you feel a sense that reflects how the characters are acting, but also that has like a longer heritage. And it’s meaningful to me in the construction of it. I don’t know if it’s meaningful to the reader in the experience of encountering it, but I think that those private references and symbols and anecdotes and those private touchstones of art exist for everyone making art. And sometimes they matter to the reader and sometimes they don’t.
S5: We’ll be back with more of Jeunes conversation with Ramon Allam in just a moment.
S6: Would you like to get a great deal on Leave the World Behind Ramanujan’s Alarms new novel, which was just shortlisted for the National Book Award? Well, for a limited time only, you can save three books on the audiobook edition in a special sale that’s brought to you by Slate magazine. Go to sleep dot com slash audio books. We’re selling romance audio book for just 1799. That’s one of the lowest prices you’ll find anywhere. And because you’re buying from Slate, not only do you save money, your purchase also helps to support the independent journalism you depend on, including podcasts like this one. What’s more, you’ll be able to listen to the audio book in your preferred podcast player. That’s right. The one you’re using right now. There’s no special app to download and no subscription fees to learn more, go to sleep dotcom slash audio books. This is a limited time sale, so please act today. Go to sleep. Dotcom slash audio books. Enjoy.
S5: One of the things that we would love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a big question about inspiration and discipline, send them to us at working at Slate Dotcom if and when we can. We will put those questions to our esteemed guest. And hey, if there’s anything else you want to talk about, any feedback you want to give, any guests you’d like to see, feel free to drop us a line there as well. Once again, that’s working at Slate Dotcom. OK, now let’s rejoin June’s conversation with Ruman Alam.
S1: Reman, I am slightly obsessed with the current enthusiasm’s section of your website, Romanism Dotcom, just to give an example from under the heading 2016 Blossom Dearie, and not just because her name is Blossom Dearie and Eddie Gomez, who’s Spanish language recordings, were a significant source of inspiration when I was writing my book and Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, even though I know it’s a bit dramatic now, I love that also because I’m a huge fan of Blossom Dearie, but also I feel like I could no sit down and write like short versions of that kind of list for all your characters in the novel. And so I wondered, do you, in fact, do that kind of exercise like when you’re writing, do you think what would Amanda’s favorite novel be? What would Clay’s bad habit be like? Do you do those things to kind of flesh out your characters, or is that completely my projection?
S3: I don’t. I wish I did. It makes me think of when you hear about, like, a certain kind of actors who, you know, are so committed to losing themselves in a performance that they won’t take off the costume or that they’ll, you know, read the book that their character might have on there that the set dresser has put on the bedside table. Right. They’ll try to really embody that. Yeah, I don’t, because I treat these people as both real and. As little devices to enact a story, and so I invest them ultimately with just myself or little things I’ve stolen from other people where salient, but for the most part. I mean, readers often want to ask what is autobiographical in a given book, right, of any of any writer, not just any writer, that’s a question that they have to answer. And my answer, which is so unsatisfying, is that everything is autobiographical because you’re always locked inside of your own sensibility. So you can’t even prove that the way in which the sky looks blue to you is the way in which the sky looks blue to anyone else. So it’s always mitigated by your own experience of a thing. And so when I put these signposts inside of a book, as I do in this one, like you may have noticed that there’s a scene in which Ruth talks about Ruth is the black homeowner. She talks about Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. You may have noticed that on my current enthusiasm’s list, I think from probably from 2013. And that is how I feel about Swan Lake. So she’s just saying what I feel about a work of art. But that doesn’t mean that I am Ruth or she is me.
S1: Yeah. Similarly, when I again, when I think of the characters like something, one thing at least about each one pops into my mind, like could be a habit they have like claeys a smoker, Ruth like Swan Lake. Is that a trick that you have discovered and that you are working on as the reader? When you were creating these characters, were you thinking to put in a very reductive, crass way, like what’s claeys think? What’s Ruths thing?
S3: I don’t know if I was thinking about distilling them down to a particular tick or habit or some fact from which you could extrapolate meaning, but I do think what you’re talking about is something that I only realized lately, which is that when writing a book, most of the work of the book is being done by the reader. Hmm. So if you say Barbara went down the hall to answer the telephone, the reader is picturing one kind of Barbara, one kind of hall, one kind of telephone. And you can affect that by saying Barbara went down the dimly lit hall to answer the telephone or Barbara went down the hall to answer the yellow telephone. So you can kind of decide what is important in that picture. But the reader is completing that picture, and that’s kind of a liberation, actually. And so it lets you get away with less labor, less description and allowing the reader to have a toehold in the world.
S1: Yeah, and to be clear, like when I say, you know, this is their thing, that can seem like a bad thing. But to me, actually, it made these characters really give them souls. You know, that there are people who I know remember is like if I think of smokers clave, I think of someone like I’ll think of Ruth like that’s actually an amazing trick, if that’s what it is. So I certainly don’t mean any shed by it.
S3: No, no. I guess I guess you’re right. You know, when I when I speak of character as a device to enact a story, I think you’re identifying something important, which is that the character has to feel like more than that, they have to feel like you can visualize them or like you can understand them as in the context of the people, you know, in your own life. And, you know, and it’s I think you’re right. Like it’s telling. I think that Clay is not just a smoker, but a secret smoker. Yes. Because, you know, that’s like a particular kind of person and that’s important. And then as the book draws to a conclusion and he I think the narrative says at some point that he doesn’t have any cigarettes left like that becomes meaningful in a different way. So I guess you’re right. The endeavor of this book is certainly to establish a sense that these people.
S1: Are not fake, that you could know them, that you could have a feeling about them, you know, you mentioned how the reader just a lot of the work about them, you don’t spend, as I recall, many words on describing their physical appearance. Do you have a clear picture of them?
S3: I have a very simple answer to that, which is that I am completely blind. And so the way people look is very difficult for me to explain and very difficult even for me to see. And so faces when I read faces being described or even physicality being described, it doesn’t really compute. It’s almost like when people talk about math. So I’m describing people who I want you to be able to envision. And so I do talk about sometimes what they’re wearing or their relative physical size or some details about their physiognomy. Yes, but I rarely say like a symmetrical face within, you know, equine nose and a smattering of freckles and, you know, hair like this, because I just don’t I rarely know what that means, which is such a weird admission. But I truly am self blind. And I’ll tell you, the mask situation in the culture right now has made this even more difficult for me. I have had the experience many, many, many times in my life of seeing someone I know quite well out of their regular context and not knowing at all who they are. And my husband, by contrast, is like a super recogniser. Like I always say, he could work for the CIA. We’ll see someone and he’ll say, like, oh, that person was our waiter at the Odeon in 2011. And it’s like, I don’t know how you can remember people like that. But I think it makes sense that he works as a photographer and he sort of really connected to his eye. And I work as a writer and I’m really connected to language and not necessarily the I.
S1: So this book you must finish, what, a year ago, I delivered a final draft of this book in January of 2020. OK, yeah, so it’s been about nine months. Are the characters still alive to you beyond, like knowing the book well enough at this point to be able to talk about it? But do they kind of creep into your thoughts? Do you see something and think, you know, see it and think, oh, Amanda would wear that?
S3: No, they received from my you know, the the act of writing is such a weird fever because you have to give yourself over to believing in something that’s entirely unreal. And I can only exist in that place while I am in the work. Yeah. Once the work comes back to me in manuscript form and I’m looking at the language and I’m looking at sort of fixing, you know, doing the editing, doing copyediting by that point, I feel out of it. I feel out of that fever. Wow. Which is a relief to be clear. It is a relief.
S1: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I imagine that each stage of writing a book has a different intensity as a different feeling, you know. Oh, thinking of ideas, outlining just sitting there and writing however many thousand words, you know, a final push, whatever those phases might be. Do you have a favorite? Do you have one that you particularly dislike?
S3: I think you’re right that there are different modes there, different like emotional responses to the part where you’re sitting. With a blank piece of paper and a pencil, which is what I usually do, and try and make some kind of map, some kind of outline, physical representation of what the shape of the book will be, and then the point where you’re engaged in writing a scene and the words are working well and the language is working well. And you know exactly. And sometimes there’s a moment where you know exactly what you want to do. And there’s an urgency even in the typing, like you’re trying to get it onto the screen before it falls out of your head. I think that for me, the hardest part is the most labor intensive part, which is the revision when you have the three hundred pages and you have to pick them apart again and figure out how to best reassemble them. That part for me is very, very difficult with this book. For example, there’s a scene that you and I were talking about inspired by the Magic Mountain, where Clay leaves this family home and ventures out into the world in the car to get to the bottom of what’s happening. And he gets lost. And in the original draft of the book, I think that happened in one long chapter and in the finished version of the book, it happens in two chapters that are punctuated by another. And the simple act of pulling that one chapter into two and fitting another chapter in between those two halves was challenging. It was hard. And that sort of stuff is really hard for me to do. And I don’t love doing it, even though it’s important because my editor is the one who told me I have to do it right.
S1: Does it matter to you if readers decide that Leave the World Behind is about X when you think it’s about why?
S3: No, because it’s none of my business, unfortunately. I have three hundred odd pages to do what I want to do and then my job is over and once I hand it over to the reader like I’m no longer really a part of the transaction. And so there’s a reader who’s going to read this book and feel that it is about being a parent. There’s a reader who’s going to read this book and feel it’s about climate change. As a reader who’s going to read this book and feel it’s about contemporary politics, as a reader who will read it and think it’s about race, all of those readings, I think, are equally valid and have very little to do with my own intention for the material. You know, it’s just it’s not up to me. And when you think about your own private experience of a work of art, it’s meaningful to you because it is. And you don’t have to check that against the painter’s intentions or the filmmakers intentions.
S1: One of the many things you do is write book reviews, I know a couple of weeks ago you did a fantastic episode of working a conversation with Charles Finch about being a book critic. But I am, of course, curious if having been reviewed changes or has changed the way that you approach writing book reviews.
S3: It has, I think, because I know how difficult it is to write a novel or write a writing a book, and I know what an investment of time and emotion and just, you know, a book can represent years of writer’s life. And so I think having experienced that intimately. Firsthand. I feel a more generous impulse toward the books that I’m asked to look at. Not that anyone’s been created on a curve for the simple fact of having written a book, but that I better understand what an individual book represents to in terms of labor, in terms of time for an individual writer. And I try to look at it. Yeah, with maybe a generosity or, you know, I try to think about this is something that Charlie said in that conversation that I think was really useful is thinking about it in terms of what the writer’s intention was for the writers project was, rather than in terms of what I care about or what’s meaningful to me. So, for example, if I hate books that are about Chinese restaurants and I’m reading a book about a Chinese restaurant, I need to set aside my own feelings about books, about Chinese restaurants in order to think about the work that the writer was trying to accomplish. To be clear, I would happily read a book about a Chinese restaurant.
S1: In almost every interview that you give, there’s a question about your ability to present perspectives or write from perspectives that aren’t your own across gender and race particularly. So this is the moment where I ask that question, but I want to turn it around just ever so slightly and ask if you think you’ll ever write a novel about a son of immigrants or a gay dad or someone of Bangladeshi heritage or a podcast host like are you are you less interested in perspectives that are more familiar to you?
S3: I think that the answer is I’m less interested in myself than I am in other people. I’m increasingly conscious of. The moral dimension of what I do for a living and a desire that if I’m going to write about parenting, which I think I do quite a bit, certainly in this book and in the previous one, that I’m going to do it in such a way that doesn’t expose the real children to whom I am a parent. Right. That they have some sort of obligation to them and their selfhood, you know, not to use that in my as fictional material. When I described being at Laura Lippmann’s apartment in December of 2017, I was in fact writing a book about a man and about an immigrant, and it didn’t. I mean, that’s still the book that I have on deck, right? I haven’t exactly cracked how to make it sing and maybe I won’t because it’s just too close to me. Maybe I’m just liberated by writing about something like a step away from me. But I also think that so, you know, because you work with me on the podcast Outward, where queer people are talking kind of month after month about like how shoddy and insubstantial our understanding of identity in this culture actually is, like that we try to enforce some kind of rigorous binary about like men and women or black and white, as though a man couldn’t understand a woman or vice versa. And if. If someone who is writing a novel is so unable to control the psychology of somebody who happens to be a different sex than them, then that is a failure of their imagination, I think. And I think we should expect writers to explore different identities. Certainly it’s much easier to do on the page than it is to do in reality. And I think that there’s a lot of great fiction in which the author is writing across a line of difference, especially with respect to sex. As you know, I’m somebody who works in the media business, so I’ve spent most of my career working among and indeed for women. And so I’ve had a kind of front row seat to the performance of upper middle class womanhood in New York City. So when it comes to fictionalizing that I don’t have to. I don’t have to do a ton of research, I know that material backward and forward, and it’s much more compelling to me than the material of my own life.
S5: June, that was a great conversation, I learned so much both about writing and I’m a writer, so I’m, you know, trying to get those nuggets of wisdom and about remind himself you have worked with him in several capacities over the last few years. In fact, I think when we were first talking about doing this show, you were like, we need a third host. And specifically we needed to be monologue because he’s so wonderful. So what new things did you learn about our esteemed colleague?
S1: I’ll tell you what I did not learn, Isaac, and that is something that he’s not good at. There must be something. But it was not revealed in that conversation. He’s a very thoughtful, insightful guy. And I learned that he has a philosophy about every aspect of writing, character, setting story. And I was really glad to learn that I’m a great believer in mission statements, whether that’s for a podcast or the way a company does business or raising children. Otherwise, how do you know if you’re meeting your goals? You got to have goals. And I really know no, that Ramon has a very clear vision of what it takes to write a novel. And I love that.
S5: Yeah. You know, it strikes me that one of the reasons why people are going fucking crazy over leave the world behind is that it is a great book. But another reason is that it seems so prescient, so tapped into our current predicament to such an extent that it almost feels like, you know, what prophetic stream of the zeitgeist was Remon plugged into when he was writing it. In your normal cultural consumption, when you’re reading books, watching movies, whatever do you want works of art that speak very directly to what’s going on in our present moment? Or do you want to get away from that? Are you are you reading Station 11 and watching Contagion for the 12th time with the with the lights turned off? Are you going in the other direction completely?
S1: Well, normally my inputs are very wide ranging, but in these very, very weird times, I have gone completely to the light end of the spectrum. It’s all delightfully uplifting Canadian comedies, Agatha Christie reruns and really, really old radio plays for me. But I will say that I found romance novel like really comforting in unexpected ways. I mean, again, when you know the plot, you think, well, this is going to be really dislocating in a dislocating gear. But for me, I know he said, oh, I don’t care what people take to be the meaning of the novel, but I took away a pretty clear meaning, which was, you know, for me, Leave the World Behind is about the futility of always seeking explanations and our irresistible desire to know why things happen. And I think that a lot of the time what breaks us psychologically is losing that sense of understanding. And I’ve been having a particularly rococo dental issues recently, even for me and all the various specialists always, you know, want to know why strange things are happening. And romance book really made me feel much more comfortable saying, you know what, I don’t know, because sometimes why just isn’t the right question. And his book really allowed me to understand that in my bones, which, funnily enough, is where my particular problems lie. What about you?
S5: You know, right now, because I’m in the middle of drafting more than one project that is asking a lot for me creatively. Oh, my reading is entirely either, you know, research stuff. It’s for those projects or it’s like this is the hour I have left in the day. And and so I am going to engage in literature for its own sake. Um, I have a science fiction and fantasy book club and which is actually on hold right now because of the aforementioned deadlines. And it wasn’t my choice. It was someone else’s. But they chose a an apocalyptic novel. And at first I was like, God damn it. But it was actually really wonderful to read. It was not a terrible soul crushing experience. It was about, you know, what of our civilization and of ourselves and of our world endures, you know, and that was a really great feeling to experience that. Well, this that but it is a book called Hollow Kingdom by Akira Jane Buxton. And basically a zombie outbreak has happened. And, you know, all humanity has turned into zombies. And so it’s narrated by a domesticated crow who sets out with his best friend, a bloodhound, to try to free all the domestic animals in Seattle. And so it’s it’s hilarious. I mean, it’s very funny because it’s from the point of view of a foul mouthed crow. But it also had this great kind of idea, which is like, what of humanity will actually persist when we’re gone? What are the good parts of us while we’re destroying everything around us? And it wound up providing some comfort, even though humanity totally screwed in it. In that book, I am guessing from the moment in the interview when you were talking about characterization with. You were surprised, perhaps even taken aback by his approach to character and what he thinks a character is for and how you write one. I just thought it was so fascinating, the way he creates the character and why and how it in part flows from the fact that he’s faced blind. Right.
S1: And maybe that’s because I, like his husband, have near Total Recall four faces me to me to say I am a super as well, which makes me an outstanding celebrity spotter for me, like my equivalent of that. Like I was so sure it was all about the characters and that the writing process was all bit like giving quirky traits and tics to two characters because of me, like I was reflecting my own habits and tastes like I think it’s a sign of a successful piece of fiction that we treat characters like we do real people. So I think last week we were talking about I have a good memory and one of the ways that plays out is I can always remember, like factoids that people told me about themselves or their families. And I’ve kind of squirreled away some factoids about the characters in this book, like I am prepared with a good nugget, should I ever run into Clay or Amanda or DH or Ruth who are characters from that novel. So I really don’t think I’m going to. But that’s a sign of good fiction, right?
S5: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, part of that is also his approach. I guess I would say the way he thinks about what is autobiographical in a book that to some extent everything is autobiographical because we’re trapped in our own subjectivity and it all flows from us. So all writing is autobiographical, but his work is not autobiographical in the way I think critics and the market might expect, which has to do with pulling very directly from his identity. Right. There is actually, I think, no character in the book who lines up with his particular identity categories, but that may be that our definitions of autobiography are too narrow. What do you think about that?
S1: Absolutely. It’s really clear in Leave the World Behind that Ramon is intimately familiar with certain kinds of personalities and people and all the things that are important to those people, the things that they feel, the need to signal at all times and the things that they feel they have to hide. That kind of understanding, I guess, is what’s really important when it comes to creating characters whose biographies aren’t or sound like they’re not the same as the authors.
S7: Yeah, absolutely.
S4: Well, we hope you have enjoyed this episode of working, if you have, please consider doing any number of the following things. You can subscribe to the podcast wherever you get your podcasts, if you happen to be an Apple podcast person. Please consider leaving us a review, but only if you liked the show. Also, you can subscribe to Slate plus Slate. Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcasts, bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you support the work that we do right here on working. It is only thirty five dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial right this moment at Slate Dotcom working.
S1: Plus, thank you to Ramona Lum and to our amazing producer Cameron Joyce.
S4: And check out our show next week in which I will be interviewing Alex Blackamoor. He is, among many other things, the arranger, orchestrator, music director and conductor of a little show called Hamilton. I’ve heard of it. You have a mate. Until then, get back to work. Although, honestly, if the news has got you down, take a little break and then get back to.
S1: Hayzlett Plus members, thanks so much for your support for Slate’s journalism as a token of our appreciation, we have some extra questions just for you. Raymond, if you had a great conversation with a stranger who’d never read your work and as you were saying goodbye, they said, hey, what should I read of yours? What would you tell them? It’s not necessarily the thing that you’re best known for or your best selling thing, but the piece of work that would give them a sense of you that you would most like a nice stranger to have.
S3: That is such a good question. I mean, first of all, I would probably say leave the world behind because it’s still in hardcover and I’ll make more money. But I will tell you that I wrote a story called Minuet that was published at a very small online magazine that I love, which is called Wickliffe, which is spelled exactly as it sounds. WHV of Wickliffe publishes fiction under a thousand words. And I think it’s a really interesting form, a form that feels really right, especially for the contemporary metabolism and especially for the particular technology of reading on your screen or on your phone. I wrote the story called Minuit. It is in five paragraphs. In each paragraph is one sentence, and I continue to feel very proud of the particular expression of that story, that where the form and what the story is doing or really in unison. And it’s a work I really am proud of, which is seeing a lot of somebody who is like habitually I’m proud of myself. I really do love that story.
S1: That’s amazing. And secondly, I would love for you to tell me about a piece of art of whatever kind of art that has been an influence or perhaps even an inspiration for your working life.
S3: Well, I could have this conversation with you for hours and hours and hours one day when I think about this particular book, just because it’s like my current frame of reference, I am thinking about I mentioned Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Another movie that was really on my mind was Michael Kanakis Funny Games, which is an extremely disturbing, kind of unforgettable movie. And then even beyond the works that I was thinking about, really specifically, there are certain things that nourish me beyond an individual project. I mentioned Swan Lake, but really Czajkowski generally is such a chuckles his work is so beautiful. It’s so reliably beautiful and it really prizes beauty. So the work, whether it’s Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty or the Piano Concerto, it’s running headlong into something beautiful in a way that a lot of contemporary music doesn’t. And I absolutely love that aspect of the work. And I find it very I find it very genuinely affecting. I listen to a lot of Mozart. I listen to a lot of Beethoven. I listen to a lot of Rachmaninoff. I listened on this particular book. I listened to an album by Tori Amos called Native Invader almost on repeat. While I was writing the first draft of this book, I listened to a singer named Altice Harding a great deal while I was writing this book. She is a New Zealand kind of folk, doesn’t really capture the kind of music she makes, but it’s a really extraordinary and particular sound that all this hurting has. And there’s a kind of discomfort to the sound. And I found that really helpful as I was writing this book. So music, I guess, is probably the thing that keeps me company the most as I’m writing. But when I think about what nourishes me, just sort of generally it’s everything from film to visual art to other books, I don’t know a better way to have a rich and well-rounded life. And I think it’s so. You mentioned earlier in our conversation that I keep this list of current enthusiasms on my website. And and I know from our conversation about your interview with Ali Edwards, there are a hobbit, a scrapbook, or I do think that there’s really something illuminating about sitting down and just listing what matters to you. It can point out the ways in which you turn to certain things over and over again, even if you’re not an artist. It’s just it helps you understand the things that situate you in the world. And I think that’s really it’s a lovely exercise.
S1: Yeah, that’s amazing. One final question, actually, in a stressful moment and leave the world behind, Amanda, a white woman tells G.H. a black man that he looks like Denzel Washington. And now I believe Denzel Washington is attached to the movie, the movie version of your novel. Were you worried when you realized that Denzel might see that line?
S3: It is one of the strangest turns of my recent life that Denzel Washington is attached to play in this book when the in the film adaptation of this book, when the book does joke about the character’s resemblance to Denzel Washington. I don’t know, Mr. Washington, but I assume that he has a level of awareness about his own role in the culture, that he is so well known and in the cultural imagination, when you think of like a distinguished, handsome, successful black man, you are going to think of Denzel Washington because you have seen him and act that on screen, although I think it’s very telling that the performance that won him the Academy Award is the inverse of that. Right. So what Amanda says that in the book, it is a moment of such awkwardness and such. We’re there’s clearly a comment, I think, being made in the way in which a white woman is deploying that as sort of a compliment. In a moment of high stress, I am extremely curious to see how Sam Esmail, who’s the writer and director who will be making this adaptation, handles that particular moment and the story. It’s his problem to solve and not mine. But I think it’s a really I find it deeply, deeply satisfying that the role will be in the hands of so gifted an actor, but especially with this particular complication of the fact that he appears in the book itself. I think it’s really it’s sort of a fun, post-modern joke almost.
S1: Yeah. It’s like there was a James Caan was in a terrible TV show that I used to watch called Las Vegas. And at one point they mentioned The Godfather and like who? That’s like a rip in the space time continuum.
S3: You can’t do that. I mean, I think we have a kind of in this moment, I think we have an appreciation for films that do that. It’s kind of like Being John Malkovich or something. Right? There’s sort of like there is a kind of film that can get away with that sort of thing. And this is much more subtle and it’s much more small. But I hope someday I get to meet Denzel Washington and talk to him about this.
S1: Thank you, Ramon, and thank you, Slate plus members, for your membership. We’ll be back next week.