Lauren Holmes and Nathan Englander: Food, Sex, Life

LaurenHolmesNathanEnglander

Lauren Holmes writes stories about us. Lauren Holmes writes stories about people like us with a deft touch and generous slices of humor. Lauren Holmes writes stories about people like us with our messy lives and imperfect relationships, familial and otherwise, and our seemingly never-ending desire to know that we are loved or, at the very least, accepted. Our selection committee readers were reminded of stories by Amy Bloom and Mary Gaitskill as we raced through the pages of Barbara the Slut and Other People. We couldn’t wait to meet the characters Lauren Holmes conjured. We couldn’t wait to select this stellar debut story collection for our Discover Great New Writers program.

This summer, Lauren Holmes was joined onstage at Barnes & Noble by Nathan Englander, the author of the story collections What We Talk About when We Talk About Anne Frank and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which was a 1999 Discover Great New Writers selection, as well as the novel The Ministry of Special Cases. He was the 2012 recipient of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for What We Talk About. In 2012, Englander’s play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, premiered at the Public Theater, and his translation of New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, was published by Little Brown. He also co-translated Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock at the Door, published by FSG.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. —Miwa Messer

Nathan Englander: Why don’t you tell us where you’re from, or how you got into writing, either of those — dealer’s choice.

HolmesSF.jpgLauren Holmes: I was born in 1984. I’m from upstate [New York], and I live upstate again, but I did live other places in the meantime. I got into writing in college . . . well, in elementary school. But in college I started writing seriously and had a professor who read my writing and gave me permission to pursue that as a real effort and time-consuming effort. I wanted to continue to study writing in an MFA program, and two years later I applied to Hunter, and met Colum and Nathan and Peter and all my friends…

NE: Let’s talk about noticeable titles. It’s quite a commitment, this title. The story it comes from is an anchor story in the collection, and we’ll talk about how it represents the book. But why did you make it the title story? I don’t know if I’d call it a political title, but it’s a loaded title to commit to, and then “SLUT” is painted across the cover in very large pink letters.

LH: It’s true. A lot of what I think about the title, I thought of later. When I first wrote the story, and it was one of the first stories that I wrote for the collection, it was kind of like, “OK, now you have a book title.” So the collection ended up being stories that would fit into a book called Barbara the Slut, so sort of backwards that way. I think [the title] is representative of the collection. But I think, you know, having “slut” in the title, it is attention-grabbing, it is provocative, but it also introduces the idea of modern sexual politics — what we talk about when we talk about sex . . .

NE: Well, we’ll get to sex for sure with this book. But as long as we’re on the title, let’s talk about the “and Other People” part — your choice to use that instead of “and Other Stories”? I thought that’s also kind of racy and smart.

LH: When it started coming together, I just felt like it was a book about people, and I felt like each story had a person, and it was about that person more than the story. It was about Barbara and it was about the other people who lived in her universe, that I created, in the book.

NathanEnglanderNE: You write extraordinarily well about food and sex — we’ll get to dogs later. Food, sex, and dogs are three excellent subjects to focus on. I’d like to talk about the food writing in here and the sex writing, because it’s open and smart and funny. They have that bad sex writing prize, and a number of my friends have been up for the bad sex prize — they give a prize literally every year for the worst sex scene, and whenever friends are up for it, I tell them it’s an honor, because they only nominate really good writers. But sadly, though I think you may get many prizes, you will not get that one. This is extraordinarily good sex writing in an honest, raw way that’s not off putting or weird. It’s very human. The food is great and the sex is great, so I’d like to hear you talk about either or both of them.

LH: Well, those are two of the most important things in life. I remember being your student and having you tell me, “you’re the only person who can write ‘butt sex’ in a line and have it be fine and nonchalant…”

NE: You have a gift.

LH: [Laughs] Okay, sex first. It’s interesting, because I do think the book has a lot of sex, but at the same time I think it’s sort of latched onto, because it’s something that we normally omit — it’s like if a book has sex in it, it’s suddenly something different than just whatever genre it was before. I like to think that the balance of food and sex [in the book] is lifelike, and a similar balance to real life. For me, it was also about not shying away from it, not skipping over the part where people would have sex. Normally in a scene, you’d be like, “And then they woke up the next morning,” and it’s like, “No, what happened in between?” I like to read that. But I don’t think the sex [in the book] is necessarily good sex.

NE: No. Almost no one is having good sex in the book, but they’re having a lot of it.

LH: Yes.

NE: It’s very natural, is the point. The interior monologue accompanying it is exacting.

LH: Thank you. I wanted it to exist in my characters’ lives in the way that it exists in real life. What about food?

NE: I remember showing an editor, who has since passed away, a 500-page draft of novel, and she’s like, “Nobody eats or goes to the bathroom.” I agree with you that when drawing reality, food it is central. The eating in the stories is really joyous. One of my favorite lines in this book is a food line where they keep ordering from this Korean deli and they say something like, “Everything tastes like Korean food, even the brownies . . . ” It’s really much funnier in the story. Just little food details like that are extraordinary. It is truly a theme of the book.

LH: I had this idea that I would write a companion cookbook to Barbara the Slut. The recipes would be like, “Put the Lucky Charms in the bowl.” When I think of food writing, I think of people that are describing these lush meals, like food porn, and I think for me it was more about just, “What do these people do? They eat.” I think in some cases, like the Lucky Charms example in “I Will Crawl to Raleigh if I Have To,” there’s food as tension, or food as bonding, or food as a way to describe a character, like that character who keeps ordering from that Korean deli. In the “I Will Crawl to Raleigh if I Have To” story there’s two families staying together in a house, and one family is very healthy and is only eating fruit for breakfast, and the other family is eating Lucky Charms, and the little boy in the healthy family is very displeased that everyone is eating Lucky Charms except for him.

NE: Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn has the recipes in the novel. You could fit them in here.

LH: Yeah, it would be like “Barbara’s egg sandwiches.”

NE: I wanted to talk about the first story in the book, which I love-love-love and remember reading in draft. It’s called “How Am I Supposed to Talk to You.” It’s about a young woman who goes to visit her mother in Mexico, where they end up selling underwear on the beach. I just want to talk about that. I love that story so much, and it’s so real to me. I know your grandparents are not Mexican, like the woman’s grandparents in the story. So I want to talk about building that world.

LH: Well, I remember feeling like I had reached some new level in the video game of writing when I turned in that story, because you had said at the time, “You built a whole world, for the first time.” Sorry, I’m complimenting myself now. But it was hard to get to that point where I was considering everything. It’s like: Who are these grandparents? Where did they come from? What are all the stories I need to know in order to tell this story, the stories that don’t even show up? So the grandparents’ story is basically not important at all, except that it’s in the background of this story. This girl has rich grandparents who are estranged from her mother, and that all exists in sort of a separate plane that’s not really focal in the story.

NE: It’s a great story. I guess I want to talk about something just because it’s of interest to me, and it may be of interest to you, and we are here to act natural — but really we’re here to entertain, that’s our goal. There are two central stories in the book that I wanted to address. Do you want to talk sex toys or Planned Parenthood first? I’d like to talk about both of those.

LH: I’ll choose Planned Parenthood.

NE: When you’re reading the story of Planned Parenthood, you’re thinking, “I’ll bet this person has worked at Planned Parenthood.”

LH: Well, actually it’s just a “clinic.” For most of the drafts it was in Planned Parenthood, and then at the very last second it became a clinic, just because I didn’t want to get into trouble of any kind. I love Planned Parenthood. I did work at Planned Parenthood between college and grad school. For me, anywhere that I worked or anywhere that I’ve come to know intimately is a great place to set a story because it’s a place where you know all the details already, and you don’t have to make them up, you can just borrow them. So you can think about a tiled floor that has pink tiles, and be like, “OK, this character walks on the pink tiles on this tiled floor.”

NE: When did you know it was going to be a story? Was it always clear it was going to be a story? How did that evolve? Does that count as a question?

LH: How did that evolve?

NE: The answer can be so simple that it’s obvious, like, “I sat down and wrote it.”

LH: I think there were so many stories from working there that were either little snippets or little pieces of interest that I thought I could expand. That one was just . . .

NE: Do you want to summarize that story, or not at all?

LH: Oh, sure. You want to know what the story is about? The story is called “Mike Anonymous.” In this story, the “clinic” gets a patient who is a sort of well-to-do-seeming guy who the narrator thinks might be a professor, a researcher, at the university — but he doesn’t speak English well. So he calls and he wants to have an appointment for an STD testing. He comes in, and it turns out that he is worried that he has contracted HIV because he slept with a prostitute and the condom broke. So the story is about him coming in and them dealing with him, but it’s also about the narrator’s own personal experience of sort of how she got to be where she is, working in this clinic, what her family history and what her work history is, that brought her to this place in her life where she’s dealing with this guy and trying to help him.

NE: I promised dog talk . . .

LH: No, sex toys.

NE: You want to do sex toys? Do you want to talk about that job?

LH: We can move on to dogs.

NE: If we’re going to keep having nostalgic flashbacks to teaching, I want to tell you that when Lauren was my student, she would say, “I am going to write a story for your class from the point of view of a dog” and I would say, “No, you will not. I will not read that. We will not work on that, and you will not share that with your peers.” It seemed a clear teaching position to hold. “No, you will not execute this well; this will not end well for anyone, a story written from the point of view of view of a dog,” and, years later, you wrote it, and it’s wonderful. Is it the last story you wrote in the book?

LH: Well, it’s the last one that I finished.

NE: Right. Years later, when she had worked and worked and worked, she’d was finally ready to execute it. It’s sort of like becoming a Jedi, I think.

Anyway, she’s written a beautiful story from the point of view of a dog, because, though she loves her new readers and her future readers, really, Lauren likes dogs better than people pretty much. And no one is better prepared for writing a story from the point of view of a dog than Lauren. So, I’d love to talk about “My Humans.”

LH: Okay, yeah. That’s not even life experience. That’s extreme quantities of research that I did. I know you think I’m joking, but I’m not joking. I think the quickest way to get me to do something is really, “You can’t do that.” And I’m like, “OK, I will make that happen.”

I definitely was not ready to write [the dog story] at Hunter, and I needed to find a way into the story. Phil, who is here, helped me understand that I needed to develop a world for that story, develop a universe for that story, and have a set of specific rules for that universe that I was always going to follow. The hard part of that story was figuring out, “OK, what are those rules? How does that universe work? How does this dog, you know, talk?” I must have written 80 drafts, 100 drafts, that were probably 15 or 20 or 25 actual rewrites, just starting over, the story’s not working, I need to figure out those rules for the universe. So then I ended up reading, like, six or seven dog psychology books to try to get into the mind of my dog narrator.

NE: Books written by dogs?

LH: No, they were written by humans, so that makes me question them all of a sudden. One of the big things that clicked for me was that dogs live in the moment. All of my stories were written in past tense, and in that story I realized, like, there is no past tense, there is no future tense, for dogs . . . [Laughs]

NE: That’s super-smart, I have to say, because these are the things, the continuity issues, that bother me. I remember having issues with Frankenstein. I’m not a person to start one of those writer fights, but I’m not worried about starting a fight with Mary Shelley. It upset me, reading it, when it would say things like, “What be that luminous, glowing orb in the distance?” And I’d think, “You can say ‘luminous’ but you can’t say ‘moon’?” The vocabulary makes me kind of insane. If you know “orb,” you already know “moon.” That comes first.

Anyway, my point is, back to creating a logical world for your dogs, it really doesn’t crack. You really built this universe. It holds. It’s really dog-think.

Given the class you were in [at Hunter], I think it’s not accidental that you write 80 drafts, 100 drafts — you spend your time around people who are driven and keep on driving ahead.

LH: I remember starting at Hunter and hearing you talk about your writing process, and how you would spend weeks or months maybe on a sentence or a paragraph, and I remember thinking, “I’m not doing that, that sounds like a lot of work.” [Laughs] But I think one thing you taught me was obsession, in a good way, and just this idea that there is this perfect sentence or this perfect paragraph out there, and eventually you’ll figure it out. I think part of it was immersing myself in that world, and talking to my mentors about writing, talking to my friends about writing . . . writing . . . reading . . . and then waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, like, “Oh my god, I figured out that sentence.” I think that level of obsession is something that I was taught.