Something Haunted This Way Comes

By Carolyn Coons
A forest in mist
Photo by Rosie Sun via Unsplash.

Around Halloween, haunting conjures to mind ghostly apparitions, sinister spirits, and eerie, inexplicable phenomenon, but to be haunted doesn’t always mean to be plagued by the supernatural. Horrors of the past can haunt those in the present, as can alarming possibilities for the future.

On the Arts Endowment podcast, storytellers in different genres have shared how their work explores what it means to be haunted – whether that’s revisiting historical events, contemplating civilization’s end, reimagining famous fiction, or confronting monsters real or imagined. We shared some of these conversations below, and as Halloween approaches, we invite you to reflect on the meaning of haunting.

Tana French, Novelist

Tana French: There isn’t one objective truth about what the murder squad is like or what the friendship between Rob and Cassie is like. It has different realities, equally valid from different points of view and to me, this kind of cuts to the heart of what the arts are for. They give us a glimpse. A great play or symphony or painting or book gives us a glimpse into what it’s like to experience the world through someone else’s eyes and that’s a huge transformative vitally important thing that feeds into empathy and all the things that make us human and I think that cuts to the heart of what we do, both as writers and as readers

Jo Reed: People who think the term ‘Genre Writer” is reductive often use Tana French as an example.  She’s reigns over Irish crime fiction—but she pushes the genre with descriptive language in novels that are character-driven and densely atmospheric. Her first six books center on the Dublin Murder Squad—but defying convention—each book is narrated by a different member of the squad—so a supporting player in Book 1 might be the narrator of book 4.  These first-person narrations by detectives whose issues color their observations give readers a deeply personal and extremely partial perspective of colleagues, suspects and the crimes.  Then in her seventh book—a stand-alone The Witch Elm, Tana French turned this model upside down. Here, the narrator is a character who is the victim of one crime and a suspect in another.  Not surprisingly—the detectives and their actions look different from this perspective...manipulative and bullying rather than truth-seekers.   In her latest book another stand-alone The Searcher, Tana moves to new territory entirely: she takes the framework of the American western and shifts it to a remote rural area of Ireland….where an ex Chicago cop Cal Hooper settles by himself in a ramshackle cottage ready to begin a new life. It’s a familiar trope but Tana French molds it into a story of her own.  Tana talked to me about this change of territory from her home in Dublin beginning with a short summary of The Searcher.

Tana French: Cal is an American detective who’s taken early retirement. He is feeling pretty beaten up, both in terms of his career and in terms of his recent divorce and he buys a dilapidated old cottage in the west of Ireland, planning to have a nice peaceful life where nothing much happens and he has a few pints now and then and that’s it. But instead, a local kid starts demanding that Cal investigate what happened to his missing older brother and Cal doesn’t find himself with much choice except to go and do exactly that.

Jo Reed: Thank you. “The Searcher” is a change for you in a number of ways. First, it has an American protagonist, then it’s set in the Irish countryside as opposed to Dublin, and it’s also told in the third person. So, I want to know what inspired this sea change.

Tana French: What changed? The three things were very much linked up, actually. I had been reading a lot of westerns and I found myself loving the genre and a lot of its elements and thinking it’s got a lot of resonances with the west of Ireland in the western settings. You’ve got like this beautiful harsh countryside that demands serious physical and mental toughness from anyone who wants to make a living off it and you’ve also got that western sense of place that’s both geographically and culturally quite distant from the centers of power, to the extent that people feel like the power brokers have no clue about their lives and if they want a cohesive society, they have to make and enforce their own rules and those apply well both in the traditional western setting and also in the west of Ireland. So, I like the idea of taking some of the western tropes and seeing how they fitted into the west of Ireland. I wanted to do something different anyway because I’m always wary of the idea of the trap of writing the same book over and over again and I think especially when you write genre, where the basic story arc is fairly fixed-- A kills B and C finds out whodunnit. It’s an easy trap to fall into, finding out what works for you and doing it again and again. So, I wanted to do something a bit different. So, this idea of putting a western-tinged mystery novel in the west of Ireland kind of fit the bill and one of the tropes I liked was the stranger in town. You know how he shows up in all the westerns and he strolls into the saloon and he’s probably got a past that he’s not about to reveal and you know he’s going to be a catalyst. Things are going to change around him. It’s not clear how, but he’s going to upset the established order and reveal buried things within the town in one way or another.

Jo Reed: And why an American protagonist?

Tana French:  What led to the American protagonist is that in order to fulfill that role of the stranger in town, he had to be a proper outsider, which meant there was no way he could be Irish because if he was Irish, even if he was from right across the country and he had never been to this little town land before, he would have gone out with a girl from there or his mom would have worked with someone from there or his dad would play poker with a guy whose uncle was-- like spot the connection is the national sport, honestly, and within an hour, Noreen, who’s the local shopkeeper and information bank, she would have found that connection and that would have been used to place him within the framework of the townlands and I didn’t want him to be placeable. I needed him to be the outsider that comes in. So, he had to be from another country. I couldn’t even make him from New York or Boston because he would know some Irish cop whose uncle had come from this little townland. He had to be from somewhere else and that’s what made him into the American detective.

Jo Reed: And why the third-person narrative…you’re queen of first-person narration!

Tana French: I had just come off writing “The Wych Elm,” which is a very introspective, internal book. I mean, the protagonist has suffered an acquired brain injury and that shapes the entire plot of the book and his entire experience. It’s all about what is happening in his injured mind and how does he deal with that? How does he deal with the changes within himself? So, it’s a very interior internalized book. It’s very much about the inner workings of his mind and I wanted to do something different. The western is focused around people who define their lives in terms of action and that’s very much Cal. He doesn’t think that what matters most about people is what they think or what they feel. These things aren’t particularly important to him. For him, what defines you is what you do, is your actions and so, that kind of fit the third-person narrative better because in his viewpoint, if he had a viewpoint on this book, it would be that the reader doesn’t need to be inside his head, doesn’t need to see what’s going on inside his head because that’s not what’s important. What’s important is his actions and so, the third-person narrative, which is more about action and less about inner thought process seem to fit in there best.

Jo Reed: Well, Cal is the prototypical western hero, the ex-law man trying to make his way in a new territory and he lives by a code and in fact, he’s an ex-cop because of that code, because he was losing that certainty that he had and that’s quite topical and I’m not suggesting you set out to write about social issues, but crime fiction is by its nature about society and what society values and you don’t write and we don’t read in a vacuum. All of this seeps in. So, I’m curious what thought you gave to that to making him an ex-cop who really is quite trouble by what he actually is seeing on the police force.

Tana French: Yeah, and what he’s beginning to become. I think you’re absolutely right. I think crime is one of the genres that automatically, whether you want it to or not, picks up social issues because, like you say, you’re dealing with society’s priorities and its fears and its dark places and so, whatever is going on around you will seep in and I’ve been thinking a lot about morality when I was starting to write this book and I think a lot of people are these days. I think that’s a good thing and one of the things I liked about westerns is that they’re deeply engaged with the idea of morality always, of right and wrong, but they deal very often very matter-of-factly with the complexity of morality, with the fact that people who are mostly good can sometimes do really terrible things and vice versa and with the fact that all of us find it really hard to cope with this and westerns don’t try to gloss over any of that complexity. They don’t try to deny it. They don’t even try to explain it. They just lay it out and let us see it and so, if I was going to write a book that had tinges of western, it had to be underpinned by that focus on the intractable complexity of right and wrong and so, that’s where Cal’s at. He’s somehow between the ending of his career, between the ending of his marriage, he’s been left feeling that somehow, he’s lost hold of his moral code and that matters to him. It matters to him that he is a good man and he no longer feels like he counts as one and he’s also always believed that the distinction between right and wrong is a straightforward one. You treat people right, you get stuff done, you’re basically a good guy, and somehow along the way, it’s become more complicated than that and it’s become more complicated than he feels that he’s able to deal with. So, he figures if he gets thousands of miles away from any of these complications, he finds a peaceful little small town where he isn’t a cop anymore. He isn’t a husband anymore. He isn’t a father anymore, maybe right and wrong will be simpler, but it’s a western. He’s a retired gunslinger. He’s going to get dragged out of retirement for one last mission and he ends up having to deal with these things that he’d hoped he left behind.

Jo Reed: Well, one of the most memorable scenes of the book, I think, takes place at the pub, where Cal is drinking poteen with the local lads and on one hand, it’s this singing, warm, friendly Irish bar storytelling scene and Cal is also reading the subtext, which is really quite different.

Tana French: Oh, yeah. Look, it’s Ireland. Some of the most crucial things always take place in the pub and also, one of the things that for whatever reasons, which I think may be rooted in a colonial past, the Irish are very good at subtext. It’s one of the national talents. Things are often expressed very indirectly and especially in small towns, the things people say to you and the things that are going on underneath may be very, very different and you have to learn how to read the codes and how to crack the cyphers in order to understand what’s being said to you and of course, Cal is brand new here. He doesn’t know any of the codes, any of the cyphers. He’s feeling his way in the dark trying to pick them up as he goes along and in this scene in the pub, where they are all off their faces on poteen that somebody made somewhere up in the mountains in his own illegal still, he’s trying-- he’s aware that something very crucial is being said to him, that he’s being warned in some way, but he’s not fluent enough in this language of code and subtext to pick up on the nuances of what exactly is he being warned against and he’s trying to figure out what it is and trying to not put a foot wrong and all he can really work out is that it is on the one hand a warning, but it’s on the other hand, an offer. You can be accepted here. You can be welcome here, but you need to follow the rules, but we’re not necessarily going to tell you what they are.

Jo Reed: Does writing about the countryside differ for you than setting a story in Dublin?

Tana French: Oh, yeah. It’s hugely different. I’ve always loved the west of Ireland. Like, since I was a teenager, I spent summers there and it is very, very different and one of the things that’s most different that I only discovered, actually, along the way I was writing this book is when you’re writing about somebody within a society, a city is completely different from the countryside. In the city, if you want to be detached from your community and not to have any effect on anyone around you, you can kind of do that, like just don’t get a barking dog and don’t play your music loud and you’re basically set. You can detach yourself from the community. But when you’re in a rural place, it’s not that simple and there’s a scene where Lena, who’s a woman from the locale explains to Cal that things like when women began to be able to get better jobs, the young women of the area started taking off for the cities, which left the young men with no one to marry and now, you’ve got all these old bachelors up on their farms feeling a little bit like the world is changing fast enough to be a threat, even though they’re not sure quite how and they don’t have young people going in and out to show them that the world is actually pretty close to what it’s always been and so, what seems like an individual decision, like going off to the city to get a job that you want, that’s actually not just your decision. It’s a decision that has a huge ripple effect throughout the community because you’re in a small town, it’s deeply, deeply interwoven, and it’s small enough that one person’s decisions can have an impact on everyone else. I think that’s the biggest difference that I realized, that every character is affected by every other character’s choices.

Jo Reed:  You were born in the United States, but you grew up in Italy, in Malawi, and in Ireland, if I’m correct.

Tana French: Yeah, a bit of everywhere.

Jo Reed: Why and when did you decide to settle in Ireland?

Tana French: It’s funny. When you’re a third culture kid or whatever, you finish school and for a lot of us, there isn’t really one obvious choice of where to go, because my mom is half-Russian/half-Italian, my dad is American with Irish thrown in. I’d grown up all over the place. There didn’t really seem to be a home in particular to go back to for college and to settle in, but we’ve been coming to Ireland for summers for ages. So, I knew people there. I had friends and I liked it here. I really loved both the countryside and the people and so, it just kind of seemed like the natural place to go and I just gravitated here.

Jo Reed: I wonder how an international childhood in traveling living in different countries and cultures sort of added to your arsenal as a writer.

Tana French: It’s great. It’s a really great thing to have, I think, up your sleeve. It’s problematic in some ways because you don’t necessarily have the level of in-depth knowledge of tiny cultural nuances that somebody who’s deeply rooted in one culture would have, but at the same time, it can be a plus because you notice things that someone who’s from a very monocultural environment probably wouldn’t notice. You have to. If you’re moving around all the time, you’ve got to be pretty good at picking up just little cultural stuff, like “Okay, hang on. Here in Ireland, people sound a little bit further apart than they do in Rome and they don’t talk as loudly and they’re not as tactile.”  You have to pick this stuff up so that you’ll be able to communicate what you intend to communicate and that’s a great thing for a writer. You’re noticing things that someone who’s from there wouldn’t necessarily notice because they’re taking it for granted as the natural way things are. This is just the default mode. But because you don’t have a default mode as an international brat, you notice more things and that’s useful. It means you can use it both as a writer and as an actor.

Jo Reed: You were an actor for quite some time. Why did you turn to writing?

Tana French: It was kind of accidental, actually. I used to write when I was a kid and a teenager and then it sort of went by the wayside with the acting. I was in theater and unless you’re Judi Dench, the gigs don’t line up neatly. You’ve always got a few weeks if you’re lucky, a few months if you’re not, in between shows and on one of those breaks, I went off to do an archeological dig and there was a wood near the dig and I was looking at the wood thinking “That would be a great place for kids to play,” and because I suppose even back then I kind of felt like a mystery writer and I was looking for potential mysteries in everything, I thought “Well, what if three kids ran in there to play and only one ever came out and he had no memory of what had happened to the other two?” What would that do to his mind as he grew up knowing that the solution to this mystery is in there but he can’t find it and then what if he became a detective and a murder case drew him back to this wood? What would that do to him? I kind of scribbled it down on a piece of paper, forgot about it for a while, found the piece of paper and realized that I really wanted to know how this story ended and that no one else was going to write it for me. So, I didn’t think I could write a book because I never tried before, but I reckoned I could probably write a scene and then another scene and then I had a chapter and then suddenly, it was what would turn into “In the Woods” and I realized that I was serious enough about this about this that I was turning down acting work and if you know a lot of actors, you know that they do not turn down work easily and that’s kind of the moment when I realized that the writing had become a really serious thing and from there on, it took off and I got lucky and found a publisher and I’m probably one of the few people that had gone into writing because it provided so much more stability and security.

Jo Reed: I think you probably are the only one I have ever spoken to who can say that. But I’m curious how your experiences as an actor influenced the way you write.

Tana French: Oh, I definitely write like an actor, definitely. It’s had a huge influence. It’s kind of the same skill, very much, in that if you write first person, which is what I did up until this book, you’re trying to create a character who is three-dimensional and bring your audience so intimately into that character’s mind that they know every little nuance of this character. They’re seeing the whole world of the story through this person’s biases and fears and needs and they come away feeling like this is someone who is as close to them as their best friend and that’s the same as acting, basically. That’s your job in acting. So, it was something I kind of had practice in, something I had been training for for a while and that’s still where I start a book. I don’t know the plot when I start out. I have a really strong sense of the main character. I have probably a core location and a really basic premise and I dive in there and just start writing, which is sort of scary because I have no idea if there’s a book in there or not, if all the loose ends are going to tie up. But because I’m starting with the character, it’s the only way I can do it. I have to write the character for a while in order to get to know them before I could actually figure out who would do what to whom and why.

Jo Reed: Acting is so social. Writing is so solitary. Was that an adjustment for you?

Tana French: Oh, god. Yes. It was a huge adjustment and partly on the work level. I mean, partly on the social level obviously because you’re acting. You finish up a rehearsal. You finish up the show and you get to go off to the pub together and have the postmortem and a laugh and come down off the adrenaline buzz or discuss what you did today and when you’re a writer, you finish working and you put your notebook away or it’s just a computer and you’re done, but also on a work level, I was very used to the fact that as an actor, if you have one of those days where you’re just crap, nothing works, you cannot get anywhere, then either the director or another actor will throw something at you that helps you come unstuck and helps you find a new angle on it or a new take that gets you through that stuck point, whereas if you’re a writer and you’re having one of those days where nothing works, it’s just you. There’s nobody else there to unstick and you have to figure out a way to do it yourself and I did find that part a big adjustment, but on the other hand, the great part of it is when you’re an actor, you need someone else’s permission to work, unless you’re the kind of person who can get an entire show up and running off your own bat and I’m not. I’m not one of these people who can spearhead a project like that and when you’re a writer, it was an amazing sense of liberation when I was working on “In the Woods” to realize that I didn’t need to audition for anybody. I didn’t need a director or decide that I was allowed to act. All I needed was a notebook and a pen and I was good to go and no one could stop me. That was amazing.

Jo Reed: You’ve written six books that are centered around the Dublin murder squad and each was narrated by a different detective-- Cassie, who had a supporting role in your first book “In the Woods” is the narrator for “The Likeness.” Frank appeared in the “The Likeness” and is narrator of “Faithful Place.” Why did you choose to tell stories that way?

Tana French: That was an accident. That wasn’t a plan-- like, I never have a plan. I was finishing up “In the Woods” and I was thinking if by some chance and alignment of the stars someone buys this and they actually want a second one, I should probably have an idea here and I was thinking the traditional thing to do with mysteries is to stick with one detective throughout, one detective narrator and follow them through the ups and downs of their life and while I love reading series’ like that, I wasn’t sure I was interested in writing one because when I like writing about is the huge turning points in the main character’s life, the moment where you know that whichever they decide at this point, that’s going to define them from now on for the rest of their lives and that’s a limit to how many moments like that one person has in their life. You know what I mean? So, I reckoned “Okay, if I keep doing that to the same main character, he’s going to be in a straight jacket by book three. I can keep giving him these huge dramatic moments, but that’s not going to fly.” Or I can write the traditional series, where you follow the character through the more minor ups and downs, like P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh series, stuff like that. Or else I thought I can switch narrator and I had this idea of a detective coming to a crime scene and finding that they look exactly like the murder victim. I like themes of identity and what makes it up and who are you and how is that defined and just that idea, that image of the detective and the victim looking alike, I was interested in it and I started to realize that would actually fit quite well with Cassie, who had been kind of the second lead in “In the Woods” because she has a slightly fragmented past, where her parents died when she was very young. She was brought up by an aunt and uncle and her sense of herself is a little bit deracinated because of that and she’s done undercover work. So, she’s spent time being someone else before and I just realized “Actually, hang on. This would be a good story for Cassie,” and I realized also that I really like the idea of presenting the world of these books and the relationships in these books through different perspectives because, of course, a relationship is a different thing from different perspectives and the world is a different thing from different perspectives. There isn’t one objective truth about what the murder squad is like or what the friendship between Rob and Cassie is like. It has different realities, equally valid from different points of view and to me, this kind of cuts to the heart of what the arts are for. They give us a glimpse. A great play or symphony or painting or book gives us a glimpse into what it’s like to experience the world through someone else’s eyes and that’s a huge transformative vitally important thing that feeds into empathy and all the things that make us human and I think that cuts to the heart of what we do, both as writers and as readers and I felt that in a small way, this idea of moving from narrator to narrator and letting the world exist through each narrator’s eyes cut very much to the core of what I think I’m doing here.

Jo Reed: While your books aren’t procedurals as much as they’re character-driven books, they still are very much concerned with the ins and outs of policing and I’m curious how you learned that.

Tana French: Oh, I got lucky. We had a friend-- my husband and I had a friend, whose brother is a retired detective on the Irish Police Force and he is also a lovely guy. So, luckily, I would ring him up or I’d take him out for coffee and I would ask him a ton of questions about the wildest variety of things, but he’s also a great storyteller. So, he’ll not only answer my questions, but he’ll just tell me stories with the serial numbers filed off. So, I don’t actually know what case he’s talking about, but that’s the only way to get answers to the questions that you don’t even know you need to ask. Like, I wouldn’t know how to ask “What does it feel like when a case isn’t working? What’s the feel in the room? How do you...” But once he starts talking and telling stories and you realize how the pace of an investigation can change around this or what happens when you disagree with somebody who you’re working with, things like that that I wouldn’t know how to ask for, but his stories fill those gaps in for me. He’s been amazing. He really has. I owe him a lot.

Jo Reed: Partnerships and friendships and their complexities and their centrality is a theme that goes straight through your work.

Tana French: Yeah. I love writing about friendship. It is. It’s one of the things I come back to and I don’t think it gets quite enough space in the arts a lot of the time. A lot of books, you see so many focused around romantic relationships, so many focused around family relationships, and friendships come in, but I find that an awful lot of the time, they’re peripheral to the main action. The main character will have a friend who they bounce things off or who’s an important part of their life, but that relationship is seldom essential and I’ve found that in my life, there have been many times when friendships were in fact very much the central relationships and that they mattered a lot and I think-- I think you can probably have a perfectly complete and healthy life without having a romantic relationship, without having kids, but I’m not sure it’s possible to do it without friendships. They seem to me to be the thing, the constant that can take you through almost everything else and I like writing about them and I like putting them at the center of a mystery because mystery novels are by definition about high stakes relationships, unless you’re writing a serial killer novel where the villain kills somebody because they feel like it. Otherwise, a relationship has to be very high stakes to end in murder, one way or another. There has to be something very important there and so, mystery novels, a lot of the time, they will center around romantic relationships or family relationships and I like to prioritize friendships, partly because it’s a way of making it clear no, these are high stakes enough. These do matter enough. They include enough really important and intense feeling that the stakes can be that high.

Jo Reed: Well, memory is a recurring theme, from “In the Woods” to “The Wych Elm,” your standalone, and it’s unreliability, which goes back to the detectives telling us these stories are damaged. So, truth can be elusive at times.

Tana French: Oh, yeah. It’s a fractured colored tinted thing and I think again, this is one of the core things about the arts for me is the unreliable narrator because we are all unreliable narrators. We’re all seeing the world through our own biases and our own experiences and we’re interpreting it through that and we’re framing our own narratives through that. So, when you read a book that has an unreliable narrator and you get close to that unreliable narrator, in some ways, that is the closest you can come to really seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, getting that glimpse of someone else’s world that I was talking about earlier is via ironically an unreliable narrator and so, I like them. I like reading them. I like writing them. I think they’re really important and I think also, yeah, I like the idea of the truth and memory being malleable and being-- I wouldn’t say I like it, exactly. I find it a little bit scary. I blame this-- I blame actually my entire career on Stephen King and “It,” right? I read that when I was too young, probably, like 13, 14, and I read it and it scared the living bejesus out of me and it wasn’t the scary clown. I mean, the scary clown is spooky enough, but it was the bit where you know the characters, they’re adults now and they’re trying to hold on to the memory of this thing that happened when they were about 12 and they can’t hold on to it and I think one of them keeps writing it down in a diary and the diary keeps vanishing. I can’t remember the exact mechanisms because I haven’t read it since because it terrified me too badly. But that’s what I came away with most strongly is the terrifying idea that our minds are not these inviolate untouchable places over which we have complete control. They’re fragile. They can be invaded and changed and that was what I found most terrifying, that our own memories are not in fact fixed and immutable. They can shift and they can be made to shift and that shows up over and over again in “In the Woods” and in “The Wych Elm” most of all, but I think there are probably flashes of it in the other books as well. Who are we if our memories shift? Who are we and what are we made of?

Jo Reed: Well, “The Wych Elm,” your first standalone after the six Dublin Squad books, is also the first not narrated by a detective and our narrator, Toby, is first a victim and then a suspect. So, it really is this big shift.

Tana French: Oh, yeah. That was deliberate because I was realizing that I had written six books from the point of view of a detective all about investigations and I started thinking there are so many other perspectives on a murder investigation. You’ve got the perpetrators, witnesses, suspect, victims, and to them, this entire murder investigation is a completely different thing. For the detective, it’s a source of power and control. They know how an investigation works. They know how to drive it. They are the ones managing it, directing it. They’re the ones in control. It’s a means of kind of restoring order on to chaos. But if you’re in any of those other roles, it’s the opposite. You have no control at all. It’s completely ripped out from under you. This thing, this murder investigation just comes barreling into your life like a freight train. It knocks everything over and you have no way of knowing where it’s going, when it’s going to stop, or what it’s going to do to you and I wanted to give those other viewpoints a voice too and so, Toby is at various points in the book, he’s all of those. He’s the witness, he’s the victim, he’s the perpetrator. He’s the suspect, and he does try, bless his heart, to be the detective for a while and it doesn’t work out. But I wanted to try and see the investigation from other viewpoints and to give a voice to those.

Jo Reed: Well, talk about your unreliable narrator. I mean, Toby was fairly clueless before his memory issues and you really play with the idea of luck in that book.

Tana French: Yeah. That’s what I was thinking about so much when I was writing that book is not just luck, but how too much luck can stunt empathy to an extent if you’ve been too lucky in one area of your life, you can be less well able to really understand at a gut level that other people may not be having the same experience of the world as you are. I thought with Toby, okay, what if you’ve been lucky always in every way. You’ve always flipped the right side of the coin. He’s white, he’s male, he’s straight, he’s good looking, he’s intelligent. He comes, which is very important, from a well-off, educated family. He’s charming. He’s basically everything that means the world is set up to be Toby-friendly and while he’s a nice guy-- he’s kind, he’s generous-- he has basically no understanding of the fact that not everybody is living in this same world. He just can’t take it in that somebody else’s experience of something as simple as walking home late at night might not be quite the same as his. It just doesn’t go into his brain and then one of the aspects, the very important aspects in which he’s always been lucky, is that he’s always been both physically and mentally healthy and then he’s attacked and ends up with an acquired brain injury and all of a sudden, that’s not true of him anymore. He isn’t on the lucky side of every coin and to him, that’s devastating because that luck has been built into his identity. He’s always considered it to be a part of him, not something that just happened to come to him, but part of who he is and so, he’s forced to reexamine not just who he is now with this brain injury, who he’s going to be able to be in the future, but also, was he ever what he thought and was his past ever what he thought it was? Was the world he was living in ever what he thought it was? So, he gets pretty existential all up in there once his luck is taken away.

Jo Reed:  Yes, he does. And speaking of existential, how has this past year been for you?

Tana French: I mean, we’ve had it easier than most, but it’s really tough in terms of doing a job like writing in which your subconscious is so deeply involved and I hadn’t even realized to what extent I was relying on my subconscious to be doing some work there in the background until I realized that my subconscious like everybody else’s right now is basically a smoking crater. I mean, when like the toaster blows up and all that’s left is this faint threat of smoke and a smell of burning, yeah, that’s all of our heads right now, I think, and so, I didn’t get very much writing done until quite recently because yeah, my brain was just-- my bandwidth was completely used up with figuring out all this stuff that we’ve all been figuring out, doing algorithms-- how high is the case rate? Is it safe to see this person if I saw this person this recently and do the kids need-- how badly do they need to see another human being? Can I find another human being who’s had the same-- just all this constant math that we’re doing in our heads, it takes up a lot of bandwidth and there wasn’t really anything left to do much writing until fairly recently.

Jo Reed: Finally, what are you looking forward to?

Tana French: I’m trying to take it day-by-day because if I look further ahead than “Okay, are we all happy and okay today? Is everyone happy getting what they need right now?” If I look further ahead than that, it starts getting a little scary out there because Ireland isn’t doing too well on the vaccination front. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that I’ll be vaccinated this year as a healthy 40-something. So, I could be wrong. I could get lucky but as that hope kind of recedes over the horizon, it gets less and less fun trying to look forward to anything. I’m looking forward to not having to bloody think about this anymore. That’s what I’m looking forward to most, having a day where I don’t say a word about COVID, I don’t think about COVID, nobody else says anything about COVID, that’s what I want to do.

Jo Reed: I hear that, Tana, and I think that is a good place to leave it. Thank you so much and thank you for helping me get through this lockdown because your books most certainly did. So, thank you.

Tana French: Thank you. I’m so glad. I reckoned early on that the only two useful things I can do are stay home and hopefully keep people from getting bored. So, if I managed to do that, I am so happy. Thank you very much and thank you for having me.

French is known for her crime novels that consistently subvert expectations and turn genre tropes on their head. Her first six books center on the Dublin Murder Squad, an imaginary branch of the Dublin police force, but rather than follow a single detective, the books each have a different narrator. In her seventh book, the stand-alone novel The Witch Elm, the narrator is a character who is the victim of one crime and a suspect in another. In this episode of the podcast, she talks about her books, the risks she takes in her work, and why she blames her entire career on Stephen King.

Benjamin Percy, Novelist and NEA Literature Fellow


Ben Percy: She does not know what's happening outside right this minute, as a small brigade of vehicles, the armored vans, the black sedans with government plates, appear at the end of her block with their headlights off. She lives in a wooded neighborhood, each house set back on a half-acre lot. There are not streetlights, no sidewalk. <music fades> The vehicles purr to a stop. Their doors swing open but do not close. Any noise that might bring Claire to the window, the stomp of boots along the asphalt, the clatter of assault rifles and ammunition clips, is muffled by the steady snowfall, a white shroud thrown over the night. She doesn't know about the tall man in the black suit and black necktie, his skull as hairless as a stone, who stands next to his black Lincoln Town Car. She doesn't know that he has his hands tucked into his pockets or that the snow is melting against his scalp and dripping down his face, or that he is smiling slightly. She doesn't know that her father and mother are sitting at the kitchen table, drinking their way through a bottle of Merlot, not holding but squeezing each other's hands in reassurance as they watch CNN, the coverage of what the president called "a coordinated terror attack directed at the heart of America."  So she does not know that. When the front door kicks open, splintering along its hinges, her father is holding the remote in his hand, a long, black remote that could be mistaken for a weapon. She does not know that he stands up so suddenly his chair tips over and clatters to the floor. That he screams, "No," and holds up his hand, the hand gripping the remote, and points it at the men as they come rushing through the entryway. The dark rectangle of night, with snow fluttering around them like damp, shredded paper. She only knows when she hears the crash, the screams, the rattle of gunfire, that she must run.


Jo Reed: That was Benjamin Percy, reading from his novel "Red Moon."  Welcome to "Art Works," the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works  I'm your host, Josephine Reed. Ben Percy is living a writer's dream. <music fades> He's a prize-winning author who's published two collections of short stories. He's an editor at Esquire Magazine, and writes for other first-rate publications. His first novel, "The Wilding," was very well received, and is slated to be made into a movie, with Ben writing the screenplay. His second and current novel, "Red Moon," has been acclaimed by critics and readers alike, although many wonder exactly how to characterize it. "Red Moon" begins like a coming of age story. A teenaged boy sent across country to live with his mother when his father goes to war. A high school junior sits at her desk looking at college applications, eager to get away from the confines of parents and home. It sounds so familiar. But Percy has given us an alternative universe inhabited by humans and werewolves. The werewolves came into being through an infection or prion, and they're capable of passing that infection to humans by biting them. The werewolves are treated as second-class citizens and viewed with suspicion. They are forbidden to transform and medicated to suppress their Lupin urges. The extremists among them react to the oppression with acts of terrorism. Again, elements that are very familiar to us and yet are not. "Red Moon" is a hybrid of fantasy, horror and allegory--written with an almost poetic attention to detail. And it forces the reader to ask, "What makes us human?"  I spoke with Ben Percy earlier this week and I asked him what inspired "Red Moon."

Ben Percy: Some of my favorite fantasy stories, some of the most resonant fantasy stories, channel cultural unease. And when I sat down a few years ago to build this plot, I was thinking about that. I was thinking about what we fear right now. And we fear two things. We fear infection, and you need only look to the entryway of any business in America or the countertop in any business of America to see the Purell oozing from it as evidence of that. And we fear too, terrorism, as the aftermath of the Boston bombing marathon so sadly reminded us. So terrorism and infection. I braided these two things together and took a knife to the nerve of the moment. Just as, say, Godzilla channeled cultural unease in the post-atomic era, or "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" channeled the Red Scare. Or Frankenstein channeled anxiety swirling around the Industrial Revolution, the fear of man playing God, the fear of science and technology. So in this alternate universe, everything is the same, in "Red Moon," except for one thing. And that is that the infected live among us. And this began in Prehistoric times, when an animal-borne pathogen that is the equivalent of chronic wasting disease or mad cow disease, leaps out of the wolf population and mutates in its human host. If you fast forward to today, roughly five percent of the population is infected, and they have, throughout time, been marginalized and treated as the other. So this disease targets the mind, and they are particularly vulnerable to rage and sexual impulse, a heightening of the adrenal glands. And as a result of this, they are part of a public registry equivalent to a sex offenders list. They are unable to hold certain jobs. They have been subjected to genocide throughout history, and been pushed to the corner throughout history, and now in this time, there is, of course, an uprising. And in response to this uprising, a swift government response, which makes this I guess you could say a post-9/11 reinvention of the werewolf myth.

Jo Reed: Why werewolves?  I'd like you to talk specifically about why it mutated into werewolves in your novel.

Ben Percy: Well, I have always been fascinated with the myth of the werewolf. I have, I guess you could say, a history with the werewolf. And I can remember the time when I was in kindergarten and pulled off the library shelf the Universal Studios book of monsters, and paused on the page with Lon Chaney, Junior, as the Wolf Man, with his ridiculous, hoggish nose and pompadour and shag carpeting hair. You know, I was enchanted and I was terrified, and I didn't sleep that night. And the next day I came back to the library and I pulled the book off the shelf again. And later on in sixth grade, I still have this artifact. I wrote a paper, a research paper, called "Werewolves!" with an exclamation mark. That's how excited I was about the subject matter. And it had a table of contents that was only five pages long, and the final subsection was called "The Ceremony of the Wolf."  And in that section, I attempted to transform myself in my backyard beneath a full moon. And I received a B-minus on this paper, which is one of the--

Jo Reed: A B-minus?

Ben Percy: Which is one of the many reasons it feels so good to hold the book in my hand today and say, "In your face, Mrs. Zegenhagen."

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Ben Percy: So I have this background, but I'm also interested just in the way that the wolf, the werewolf myth, is how we can all relate to it. How we all, due to rage or exhaustion, too much to drink, drugs, have been pushed into the abyss and we have lost all inhibitions. And this happens sometimes when the shades, you know, the shades are down. When we remember that time when we were all wolves ranging the woods so long ago. So I'm tapping into that in the same way that Jekyll and Hyde did, in the same way that the Incredible Hulk does. You know, it's the idea of the unleashed id, the wildness barely changed inside of all of us.

Jo Reed: Why do you think there is such a focus on this in popular culture?  Do you see a relationship between the werewolf and the vampire, which, obviously through the "Twilight" series, but then also this plethora of zombie novels?

Ben Percy: Well, I think the vampire has always been most popular because the vampire is aspirational in a way that the zombie and werewolf are not. People like the idea of being able to live forever, even if it comes with corpse-y breath. And people like the idea of the sort of sexiness surrounding the vampire myth where if you look back to Dracula, the original production, and you have that woman in a nightgown with an open window sort of staring off into the night with a come hither look on her face, and then when Dracula finds her in her room, she arches her back and gasps in an almost orgasmic manner. And vampires have always appealed to us for those reasons and more. But the zombie and the werewolf I guess are a little less aspirational. Nobody wants to be hairier. Nobody wants to be rotten and staggering. But it seems like the werewolf and the zombie, especially if you look maybe at the zombie in George Romero's work, the zombie is oftentimes metaphoric, allegorical. Look at the way the "Night of the Living Dead" taps into the Civil Rights Movement, look at the way that "Dawn of the Dead" taps into the rise of consumerism in the ‘80s. Look at the way that "Day of the Dead" taps into Cold War anxieties, and you'll see that. So I guess the larger point is that oftentimes through fantasy we have a mirror held up to society, a mirror with a crack running through it. We're able to see ourselves and sometimes it's easier to see ourselves and to approach difficult subjects through fantasy, through the haze of fantasy. Whereas anything that might deal with, say, the war in Iraq, or any hot-button topic, say, like racism or capital punishment or whatever. If you approach this directly, there's always that worry about it being polemical. And there's always that baggage that the audience carries with them where they're unable to sort of believe in the characters because they're so worried about the author using them as sort of sock puppets for their own beliefs.

Jo Reed: In your previous book, "The Wilding," it very much focuses on men, three generations of men. In this book you have a very wide cast of characters with women carrying much more prominent roles. I would say two of the protagonists are women. Talk about that decision to write from that point of view.

Ben Percy: I guess it just has to go along with growing up. I'm 34 years old now. I wrote "Red Moon" when I was 31 and 32. And as you progress through life, and as you travel, as you have children, as you're divorced or married, as you're betrayed or betray others, as you're fired from a job, every time you go through something grand and emotional, every time you go through something that's full of despair, every time you uproot your life and move to a new place, every time you go through something jarring you're like a snake shedding its skin and you become more empathetic and you become, as a result of this, a better writer. And if you look at creative writing, there's no such thing as a prodigy in this field, in the same way that there are in other artistic disciplines. The more you live, the better you are, and the better I am at being able to write from different points of view. Whether that's across gender lines or cultural lines, religious lines, sexual orientation, whatever. So if you look at my next book, the book coming down the transom in 2014, I'm doing something even more complicated with the points of view.

Jo Reed: You have so many different points of view in this book. I stopped counting after about seven or eight.

Ben Percy: I've always wanted to write that, you know, that big, epic book. But if you look at "Red Moon," it's kind of you're getting three for one in many ways. Because I proposed this as a trilogy, and they asked me to compose it as a sweeping novel that took place over many years and followed many different characters. So it's divided up Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. You get the trilogy all lashed together with one cover.

Jo Reed: Was it fun to write?

Ben Percy: Was a blast. I'd do this stuff for free. Yeah. I'm spending 8 to 10 hours a day at the keyboard sometimes, but my only complaint is that my rear end gets a little sore. I'm always, I'm always having fun when I sit down to write.

Jo Reed: Were there some characters that were easier to write than others in this book?

Ben Percy: Well, I guess you could say that from a psychological point of view. It's difficult to inhabit those roles that are a little darker. But I always have my daughter waiting for me upstairs when I climb up from the basement, from my black hole where I write, and play pretty ponies with her to antidote that.

Jo Reed: <laughs> So you really do write in a lair.

Ben Percy: I do. Yeah. I have this, I have a room in the basement, and the prior owner of the house was a photographer and the closet in my office, he uses a darkroom. And if you go into the darkroom now, I use it where, this is the place where, I compose all of my ideas. Because I usually start thinking about a book about a year in advance of actually writing it. And so I rip off these 10-foot scrolls from my kids' Melissa & Doug art easel and I hang them from the wall and I start to sketch out characters and sketch out plot. And I also hang up their images that I might've harvested from my own camera or from magazines and calendars and I tack up there on the wall too articles ripped from newspapers and magazines, and it really looks like a serial killer's den, I'm afraid. And I go in there into my darkroom with the red light glowing and I stand there every morning and sort of get in touch with these ideas that I'm nurturing.

Jo Reed: There's also a lot of science in "Red Moon."  Did you do research, a bunch of research for this book?

Ben Percy: Every book is a research project for me, every story's a research project. So if I'm writing about a taxidermist, for instance, as I did with one story, I'll spend about a week in a taxidermy studio eavesdropping on people and sniffing the formaldehyde and clacking the glass eyeballs around in my palm and stroking the polyurethane forms. And I did the same thing with "Red Moon," because there were so many things I did not know about this book. I did not. I had to interview brewmasters, I had to interview pilots, I had to interview government agents and politicians. And I spent a lot of time with soldiers as well, and was able to steal from one his Marine Corps guidebooks that was very helpful, especially when it came to insider lingo and figuring out battle patterns. But the greatest challenge of all was the medical terminology, the slippery science behind these prions. That animal-borne pathogen that is the basis of lobos, the disease that is the heart of this novel. And I sat down with researchers at the USDA labs and I sat down with researchers at Iowa State University and I filled up maybe 12 yellow legal tablets.

Jo Reed: What surprised you the most?

Ben Percy: Well, how much they don't know about prions in particular. And how so many of the scientists said that that would be the best route to approach this infection through. And how scared these researchers are as well. How they believe that in an instant something could shift, something could mutate, and wipe out hundreds of thousands of people.

Jo Reed: Oh, let's talk about the whole notion of genre and literary fiction. First of all, what is literary fiction to you?

Ben Percy: Literary fiction is a genre of its own. It has become such, anyway. And sometimes, if we're sort of exaggerating things here, you know, you can exaggerate the archetypes of sci-fi and the formulas of sci-fi in the same way that you can exaggerate the archetypes, the beats, of literary fiction. And let's say that the worst of literary fiction is this. Somebody drinks some tea, looks out the window at a roiling bank of clouds, and has an epiphany. In other words, nothing happens. But there are a lot of pretty sentences. And glowing metaphors. And subterranean themes. And that's the best of literary fiction, in that it has that interiority and that careful carpentry, that depth. So if you look at the worst of, say, sci-fi or fantasy or mystery or horror or whatever, you can be accusatory there as well. You can say that the language is pedestrian. You can say that the characters are recycled and one-dimensional. You can say that it's plot-driven and essentially disregards any sort of interiority or wrestling with any themes or something more profound. So really though, these things are phantom barricades, and if you just think about the best of writing and the worst of writing, you might look to Margaret Atwood, or you might look to Dennis Lehane, or you might look to Cormac McCarthy. You could put, Cormac McCarthy, you could put him in crime. You could put him in horror. Or you could put him in sci-fi. You could put him in literature as well. You could put him in western. And the same goes for Margaret Atwood. If you look at content alone, she's all over the place. Or Richard Matheson or Ray Bradbury, or Shirley Jackson.

Jo Reed: Or Joyce Carol Oates.

Ben Percy: Or Joyce Carol Oates.

Jo Reed: Who literally is all over the place.

Ben Percy: Great example. So it's a matter of artistic quality and paying attention to what happens next. That's what matters most to me. Like somebody who can tell a ripping good yarn and do it with artistry. And I think that that's what literary fiction, if you're talking about the worst of literary fiction, sometimes disregards. And that is it forgets that we want to turn pages so swiftly they make a breeze on our face. It forgets sometimes that something needs to happen. It forgets the importance of story. And, of course, style should serve story. Style should accompany story. And that's what the worst of genre fiction is forgetting as well.

Jo Reed: Do you think the snootiness about genre literature is, I don't know, losing some of its steam?

Ben Percy: I do think that. I mean, it still exists. It probably always will exist. But we live in a time where writers like Michael Chabon, Chabon, not sure how to pronounce his last name, the author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," he has become a fantastic cheerleader, and so has Jonathan Lethem and a few others. A cheerleader for what I guess you could call the avengerization of literature.

Jo Reed: Tell me what you mean by that?

Ben Percy: Well, just the idea that you can write about an exploding helicopter and do so with a bunch of pretty sentences, and that's okay.

Jo Reed: I see. Okay.

Ben Percy: You know, and the idea of work being taught in the classroom is more permissible these days. Work, work that might be labeled genre, is more permissible these days than it was maybe a decade ago when I was taking creative writing workshops. I walked into my first creative writing workshop having read genre almost exclusively my whole life. And on the first day of that class when the professor went over the syllabus, he said, "No genre," and I threw up my hand and I asked him what he meant. And he said, "No trolls, no robots, no vampires."  And I threw up my hand again and asked, very earnestly, "What else is there?"


Ben Percy: And that sort of snobbishness, I think that it's getting shrugged aside.

Jo Reed: It's kind of self-defeating, isn't it?  I mean, the point is we want people to read. That's why people write.

Ben Percy: Right.

Jo Reed: That's why people publish. And it's almost like… And maybe it is an issue of creative writing finding such a cozy home in the academy of often within academic writing, the inaccessibility is a mark of its merit.

Ben Percy: Sure. And the idea of realism as the standard, which really I feel like that rise began in the 1960s with the advent of the MFA program, and now this widesped proliferation of MFA programs, the idea that realism is the standard, when really realism is the trend if you look at the long hoof mark trail of literature. Realism is the trend. And fantasy has always been with us.

Jo Reed: Now, how did you end up in a creative writing workshop?  What drew you to writing?

Ben Percy: Well, I'd always been a crazy reader eating my way through several books a week as a kid. And so many evenings were spent sprawled out on the living room floor with the rest of my family, pawing through books. But it didn't really occur to me that I could become a writer. It seemed something otherworldly. I grew up in a rural section of Oregon and never met a writer until I was in college. You know, I did dash off a few short stories. I did dash off the occasional poem. And I was actually writing some poems for my then-girlfriend, now wife, in the summer of 1998 when I was working at Glacier National Park. I was a gardener at the Many Glacier Lodge and my wife was a waitress there. And it was a summer romance that went the distance. And I was writing her these poems and I was writing her these letters, and she said, "You should be a writer."  And I said, "Okay."  And so that next fall signed up for my first creative writing workshop.

Jo Reed: And did you find creative writing workshops helpful for you?

Ben Percy: I did in that I had an audience. I don't know that I had encouragement, but I had an audience. And I was also exposed then to all of these writers that I didn't know, these great writers, I didn't know existed. I had never heard of. This is very sad to say, but I'd never heard of Raymond Carver. I'd never heard of Flannery O'Connor. I had never heard of Margaret Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates, or Alice Monroe. And I fell in love with their writing. And I fell in love with the possibility of mimicking them, of trying to engage in this larger conversation with them.

Jo Reed: Do you remember the first piece you had published?

Ben Percy: Well, there's the work that you publish in your undergrad literary magazine, and then there's the work you publish for a national audience. And I do, I do remember very well, the first time I had an acceptance for a story from the Mississippi Review. And I have to say that that moment for me-- I was in grad school at the time and I had been rejected hundreds of times already from many journalism magazines-- that moment was probably like… that's the height, heightened moment, of my artistic life. <laughs> That's the moment that I'll always be chasing like a first high or something like that. I was so, so grateful. I'm not one to cry, but I think a pebble fell out of my eye then. And <laughs> with gratitude.

Jo Reed: You began as a short story writer. The novel, "The Wilding," is your first published one. Now comes "Red Moon," which as we said, is an epic. Other than length, talk about the differences between writing a short story and a novel.

Ben Percy: It took me a long time to figure that out. And I wrote four failed novels before publishing "The Wilding."  And one of the things that I was doing wrong when writing novels was treating chapters like short stories. By that I mean I would introduce a problem and resolve a problem within those 15 pages or 20 pages. And what you're supposed to do with a novel, with its chapters, is equivalent to what you're supposed to do, this sounds very crass, I know, but what you're supposed to do with a television show and commercial breaks. In that you introduce problems that are not resolved until many pages later, and you are constantly withholding information. You are constantly leaving your audience in suspense so that they want to race forward and feel satisfied by some trouble. And so what I started to do was to map out novels in the same way that I mapped out short stories so long ago when I was first beginning. You know, I would sit down with a yellow legal tablet and I would map out a Flannery O'Connor story after reading it five times so that I could really comprehend the mechanics of it. And so I started doing that with novels as well. And I was teaching a novel writing class at the time, so I felt very insecure having never published one, but teaching others how to write one. So I started breaking down novels into their component parts and figuring out how the chapters worked, and the standard chapter works a little bit like this. Like if you're talking about "The Island of Doctor Moreau," here's a guy on a boat and then a storm comes swirling in and chops up the water. End of chapter. And the next chapter the ship is sank and he's floating in the water clutching some debris. And the storm has passed. And there's another ship on the horizon that may rescue him. End of chapter. Next chapter he's in the belly of the ship and he's feverish and he wanders up to the deck and he discovers that the people who have rescued him are mutants, half animal, half human. End of chapter. And again, that's a very simplified version of what's going on when you're novel writing. Throwing up a flaming chainsaw and not, you know, you're juggling maybe six of them and you toss one up and you don't catch it until 30 pages later. And it also has to do with language. I mean, the short story, there's a sort of a really muscular, sometimes exhausting use of language that can't always hold up over the course of 350 pages, 400 pages, or your audience's eyeballs and brain will begin to throb with exhaustion, so… And there's more to it than that, but those are two principle things that I couldn't quite figure out when I was first starting.

Jo Reed: You're also writing the screenplay, or wrote the screenplay, for "Red Moon"; is that correct?

Ben Percy: I am writing the screenplay for "The Wilding," and I am writing the screenplay for the "Red Moon" as well.

Jo Reed: I just wanted to talk about throwing writing a screenplay into the mix, how that shifts. What kind of writing is that?

Ben Percy: Well, it's very formulaic in that a certain thing has to happen on page 15 and another thing has to happen on page 25. And there are three acts, and the characters are always desiring something in every scene that pushes the story forward. And there's a clear sense of emotional arc. I could go on for quite some time about the prescriptive qualities. But it's sort of a great thing to figure out as a novelist, because you can borrow some of those techniques and add to them interiority and a flourish of language and create a tighter structure for novels that, you know, novelists tend to write sort of these baggy monsters and you can kind of tame them if you understand how a screenplay works, and why it works so well. It's a fun exercise, because it's all exterior as well. And so much of novel writing, short story writing, is getting into people's heads. But unless you fall into that cardinal sin of voiceover, you're not permitted to do so. So it's all from the outside. And that can help me out as a novelist as well in figuring out maybe it isn't always necessary to leap into somebody's mind and give us their history and talk about how they, when they, found vegetarianism and when their heart was broken and all that sort of stuff. Like how can you capture that just in a physical gesture, what's going on inside of someone?  I have a lot of fun with screenplays, and I like being able to jump genres. I like being able to go from writing a novel to writing a short story to writing a craft article to writing an essay to writing a screenplay in that it keeps things fresh at the keyboard. Keeps me always excited.

Jo Reed: It's been a good year for you. You were awarded an NEA fellowship, and your sister was awarded one this year as well.

Ben Percy: Yeah. I was so pleased to hear that she had won as well. And we also both made it into the Pushcart Prize anthology together, and it's been a lot of fun to see her career starting to boom and her first book. It's called "Demon Camp," it's nonfiction. Comes out in 2014 with Simon and Schuster. So it's kind of a weird thing that there's two writers in the family.

Jo Reed: Now, tell me about the fellowship and what did that enable you to do or what is it enabling you to do?

Ben Percy: Well, the fellowship was a total surprise and a great gift in that it has allowed me to focus more full-time on my writing. And with health insurance and with kids, it's harder and harder to go on your own as a writer. So the fellowship from the NEA enabled me to teach a few less classes and to fill up those hours instead with research and with some time at the keyboard. And I've been able to build this new novel, "The Dead Lands," which is a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga. And I've been able too, to work on this craft book called "Thrill Me," that's going to be coming out with Graywolf Press in 2015. And I've been able to pursue my responsibilities as a contributing editor Esquire. I've been able to do all of these things in part thanks to the NEA.

Jo Reed: And you're coming to the National Book Festival. You've read at book festivals in the past. Do you like the festival experience?

Ben Percy: I love the festival experience and that you have a gathering of like-minded people. And it's infectious. Everybody believes that these 26 letters at our disposal are the most important invention in the world. And you'll have a poet on one stage and a nonfiction writer on another and a fiction writer on another and a playwright on another and they're all, through their different genres, trying to better understand the human heart and trying to thrill the audience, and I'm really looking forward to making my way down to D.C. this fall.


Jo Reed: That was author Ben Percy. Yes. There is an audio book of "Red Moon." And yes. Ben is the narrator. You can hear Ben read from and talk about "Red Moon" at the NEA's Poetry & Prose Pavilion at the National Book Festival, September 21st and 22nd. For more information about the festival, go to and click on News. You've been listening to "Art Works," produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Excerpt from "Some Are More Equal," by Paul Rucker and Hans Tueber, from the CD Oil, used courtesy of Paul Rucker. Excerpt from "Desolation," from the album Metascapes. Performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions. The "Art Works" podcast is posted every Thursday at You can subscribe to "Art Works" at iTunes U. Just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the "Art Works" blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. <music fades>

Percy’s genre-bending novel Red Moon blends horror, fantasy, and allegory to tell an entirely unique werewolf story. In this universe, werewolves are infected, and can pass on their infection to humans by biting them. They are treated as second-class citizens, viewed with suspicion and medicated to suppress transformation – which leads some werewolves to react to their oppression with terrorism. The novel probes us to ask, “what makes us human?” On the podcast, Percy discusses the themes of the book and what inspired him to write a book that despite its supernatural bent feels eerily familiar.

Max Brooks, Graphic Novelist

Music Credit: “Desolation” composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.   Music Up "The Zombie War came unthinkably  close to eradicating humanity. Driven by the need to preserve the first-hand experiences from those apocalyptic years while they still exist in living memory; Max Brooks traveled across the planet to find and record the testimony of men, women and sometimes children who came face to face with the living, or at least the undead. Hell of that terrible time. World War Z is the result. Some of these voices were chosen for the uniqueness of the perspectives and information they provide, others are included because they speak for hundreds of millions who were forever silenced. Never before have we had access to a recording that powerfully conveys the fear and horror and also the brave spirit of resistance that gripped human society through the plague years." Jo Reed: That's opening of the audio book version of World War Z : An Oral History of the Zombie War. It was  written by my guest Max Brooks and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Each Halloween, it gets easier and easier to highlight good books dealing with spooks, zombies or vampires. You'd have to be dead or living under a rock not realize the cultural zeitgeist around the undead.  Well, writer Max Brooks is not a late arrival to this particular party.  He's been writing about Zombies for over a decade. The son of comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft, Max has written The Zombie Survival Guide, the hugely successful World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, a graphic novel based on the survival guide, called The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks and a comic book series about Vampires and Zombies called Extinction Parade. While Max Brooks is a genuine zombiephile, his writing does cast a wider, more diverse net: for example: he was a writer for Saturday Night Live for two years and he recently published a graphic novel called The Harlem Hellfighters about the World War 1  African American  Infantry Regiment. But wherever Max Brooks' writing may wander, he always circles back to  Zombies . I spoke with him recently and began with the obvious questions: why write about zombies? Max Brooks:  I will begin with an obvious answer:  Fear. Jo Reed:  Okay, and I'm glad you answered that way because I hate being scared and yours is the first zombie book I've ever read so that was a very interesting experience, but why choose to confront your fear that way? Max Brooks:  Well I didn't choose to confront my fear. The fear was already there, sitting in the room. I am extremely OCD and when I'm obsessed with something it's just there so literally at some point I had to set my fear down and be like "Look. I can't get you to move out so we're going to have to establish some ground rules" and that was Zombie Survival Guide. Jo Reed:  And it was always zombies. Max Brooks:  There were many, many fears but zombies to me were particularly unique in that you didn't have to go find them in that every other sort of monster movie begins with a group of young, good-looking Caucasian Americans making a bad choice and looking for trouble whereas most zombie stories you can be minding your own business and it surges up around you and destroys the world. And I think for me that's also what makes zombies unique is that in a zombie plague you're just as likely to die from dehydration, starvation, infection, accidents as you are from ever confronting a zombie. Jo Reed: Obviously, society has kind of followed you down the rabbit hole of zombie-ism. Why do you think we really have become so intrigued with the notion of these undead who eat us? Max Brooks:  Without sounding I think too narcissistic I think in large respect the public at large their level of anxiety has caught up to where I always have lived. I think we're living in very uncertain times. I think there is a high level of uncertainty and anxiety among the general populace and we haven't seen that since the 1970s when there really was a feeling, subconscious and conscious, that the system was breaking down. And I think that's how people feel now and I think people need a place to explore those anxieties in what I consider a safe way because if you face the breakdown of society and it's too real then instinctively you want to turn away. And I think when you see a zombie story you're seeing the exact same thing you would see in a genuine outbreak or a Hurricane Katrina but because the catalyst of that is fictional you're able to examine it. Jo Reed:  And process it and discuss it. Max Brooks:  Exactly. If you go into a cocktail party and you say, "Hey, how would you guys all prepare for a zombie outbreak?" you could have a very lively, spirited, intelligent conversation about things like bottled water, first aid, having a radio, getting to know your neighbors and it would all be fun and easy but at the same time it would be real. Try that if you go to a cocktail party and say, "Hey, how are we all going to survive the next pandemic?" You're going to clear the room. Jo Reed:  When did you begin writing the Zombie Survival Guide? Max Brooks:  In the '90s. Jo Reed:  In the '90s, and what was going on in the broader scheme of things that inspired that book particularly? Max Brooks:  Y2K. I think that there was a growing anxiety that the good times inevitably had to come to a crashing halt and I think Y2K was where everybody put those fears and there was a lot of survivalist prepper mentality starting to bubble, and I always read that stuff anyway growing up in southern California and I was looking for a book, oh, how would I survive a zombie plague, and there was not one so I thought well, I'll just write it for me. I really never thought it was going to be published. Jo Reed:  You kept on going and suddenly it was published and you were not so happy; the publisher put it under the heading of humor. Max Brooks:  Yeah. That was a marketing decision which had nothing to do with me. I think that they didn't know what to make of this book. I think they thought well, clearly Brooks is not that much of a loser and a nerd and a weirdo that he's really thought about this. Clearly, he's doing it to make fun of those people and oh, by the way, he's Mel Brooks' son and he's just coming off a stint on SNL for which his team won the Emmy so clearly this is a work of witty satire to which I said to them, "No. I'm really that nerdy and uncool." Jo Reed:  Yeah. There is no question that Zombie Survival Guide is a survival guide. It is very well researched and very well documented, which was one of the most surprising things for me as a reader. That was not what I expected. Jo Reed:  No. It's funny. When the galley copies came out I was still on Saturday Night Live and a few of my friends there were flipping through it and one of the writers were saying, "Oh, I wanted to write a tech manual for Gilligan's Island, all the professor's inventions, ah ha ha ha," and another writer was flipping through it and his smile died and he looked at me and said, "This is a real book." And I said, "Yeah. This isn't a joke book." Jo Reed:  Now you mentioned writing for Saturday Night Live. How did that happen? How did you end up there? Max Brooks:  It really was a major detour. I was struggling, trying to make a living as a writer, and I ended up meeting with a family friend, George Shapiro, and all I wanted from that meeting was just some advice about what I was doing wrong. I think that's the question that every ingénue has to ask themselves is "I don't know what I don't know. Tell me where my mistakes are." Over the course of the conversation, he found out I wasn't taking money from my parents, I was trying to support myself, and I think I went up a notch in his mind and he said to me, "Do you write comedy?" And I said, "Well, I don't know. My agent made me write a sketch packet for Martin Short's pilot" and he said, "You know what? Give me that sketch packet. I'll give it to Loren Michaels" and I thought yeah, you do that, and then I got a call from Loren Michaels saying, "I want you to come to New York and meet with me." And I met with him and before I knew it I had the job. Jo Reed:  And you were there for two years. Max Brooks:  I was there for two seasons, yes. Jo Reed:  What did you learn from that experience? Max Brooks:  Oh, God. It was an incredible experience. I mean it was soul crushing and anxiety making and-- but that old expression "Adversity introduces us to ourselves"-- I got a crash course in me and sort of what I was good at, what I needed to work on, where my talents lie and really where my passions lie, and I really came out of that experience with a much better understanding of who I was than going in. Jo Reed:  Was writing something you always wanted to do? Is that what you wanted to do when you were a kid? Max Brooks:  Yes. Yeah. When I was 12 years old I was on vacation with my parents in Europe and in our little beach cabana I think in-- on the Adriatic I snuck into the back and I started writing a short story and I didn't come out for three days and I just never stopped writing. Every day since I've been writing. Jo Reed:  What books were around your house? What books were read to you when you were a kid? Max Brooks:  Well, it's funny. I think there's a lot of false assumptions about my family, particularly my mother. My mother was a closet scientist so she used to read to me a lot of science books and her favorite book was the Microbe Hunters about Leeuwenhoek and how he discovered the microscope, and my father 'cause he was in World War II I grew up on a lot of war stories. And my mother was a survivalist -- maybe the Depression, I don't know, maybe her own feelings of anxiety, but we always talked about our earthquake plans, our earthquake kits. So there was a very private life that I don't think the world wanted to see but that was my world with my parents. Jo Reed:  And it was a world that had books in if not the center of it within a very close arm's reach? Max Brooks:  Well you know what's funny is I'm very, very dyslexic and reading for me was always very difficult and I would not have gotten through high school had my mother not taken my school reading list every year to the Institute for the Blind and had them put on audio book so I listened to my reading list so yes, there were tons and tons of books around me but they were all audio books. Jo Reed:  I love audio books and World War Z has a tremendous audio book. Max Brooks:  And that's why, because when it came time for me to do an audio book of World War Z I said, "Listen, this lends itself to a book of interviews so let's get the best talent we can and really make this a classic 1930s radio production." Jo Reed: And it succeeded; it really is brilliant. Max Brooks:  Thank you. Jo Reed:  You're welcome, and let's talk about World War Z. After Saturday Night Live did you immediately return to working on the zombies? Max Brooks:  Yeah. Immediately after I was fired from SNL, Zombie Survival Guide came out and so that was my job for a little while was promoting this book and also trying to get it in the hands of the right people. Putting it in the comedy section really hamstrung it for a while because my people, my tribe, sci fi nerds, horror nerds, we're a very insecure lot and I knew that since they didn't know me they had the assumption that Mel Brooks' brat was making fun of them, and so I went to magazines like Fangoria and did zombie lectures where I tried to prove my worth and say, "No, no, no, I'm one of you." Jo Reed:  You had to get up your sci fi creds. Max Brooks:  Yeah, I literally had to get my street cred. It was like running for office. I had to say, "No, no, this is-- I am not making fun of the zombie genre. I am truly one of you" so that was a job for a little while, and then when it came time to write another zombie book that's where World War Z came from. Jo Reed:  And from the beginning, it's told as an oral history, it has footnotes throughout it, and it's told from multiple points of view without one main narrator. Tell me why you used this model. Max Brooks:  Well there was a holy trinity of wise men who inspired me to write this book a certain way. I mean I was into zombies so the first guy was George Romero. He inspired me to be afraid of zombies— Jo Reed:  And George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, which is probably the only horror movie I've ever seen in my life and probably explains why I will not see another. Max Brooks:  Oh, it ain't got nothin' on his next movie, Dawn of the Dead. So Romero started it for me and it was because of Romero that I didn't want to write just a simple zombie adventure story 'cause in my mind Romero had already done it and had done a better job than I ever could have done. I wanted to tell a bigger story, a global story, and I thought how am I going to do that. And Studs Terkel was the second man in the trinity. His book, The Good War, was the template for World War Z and you-- and it was an oral history and you mentioned footnotes. That attention to detail came from a book-- it's little known now, it's called The Third World War by General Sir John Hackett, retired British general who in the '70s wrote a very dry strategic analysis of World War Three as if it had happened. Jo Reed:  Well, you take us around the globe exploring how different cultures and governments dealt with or contributed to the zombie crisis. Max Brooks:  Yes.That was very important to me because unlike most other monsters zombies are truly a global crisis and so whenever I would see a zombie story that had tactical-- a small group of people trying to survive I always had bigger questions, "What's the government doing? What are other governments doing?", and I just set out to answer these questions. Jo Reed:  And again it becomes a meta-story for how governments and different societies respond to major crises. Max Brooks:  Exactly. I truly believe in the times we're living in that there are no more local problems. I really do believe that what affects one part of the planet is going to eventually ripple through the rest of it and I think it's very important for greater cooperation and understanding on a global basis. I based the transference of the zombie virus on SARS; I thought that was a perfect template where you had a repressive government that censored the press and wouldn't even admit there was a problem until that problem showed up in Toronto. Jo Reed:  Well, you take us around the globe exploring how different cultures and governments dealt with or contributed to the zombie crisis. Max Brooks:  Yes.That was very important to me because unlike most other monsters zombies are truly a global crisis and so whenever I would see a zombie story that had tactical-- a small group of people trying to survive I always had bigger questions, "What's the government doing? What are other governments doing?", and I just set out to answer these questions. Jo Reed:  And again it becomes a meta-story for how governments and different societies respond to major crises. Max Brooks:  Exactly. I truly believe in the times we're living in that there are no more local problems. I really do believe that what affects one part of the planet is going to eventually ripple through the rest of it and I think it's very important for greater cooperation and understanding on a global basis. I based the transference of the zombie virus on SARS; I thought that was a perfect template where you had a repressive government that censored the press and wouldn't even admit there was a problem until that problem showed up in Toronto. Jo Reed:  Fascinating. You sold your book to Brad Pitt and Plan B but they used the title but clearly there are two major, major differences, one, Brad Pitt and a very central character, and the second is those are zombies that move at the speed of light whereas you have very slow zombies. Max Brooks: Yeah. Let's talk about both of these. Jo Reed:  Yes, please. Max Brooks: I'm glad you brought up this Brad Pitt-shaped elephant in the room. The movie has nothing in common with the book, I would say 99 percent of it. It has the title and then it has one character, the Israeli counter-Intel expert who made it in, and nothing else. So moving on, yes, one of the key differences is that it has Brad Pitt, which is incidentally why Brad Pitt was never on the cover of the movie Tie-In Edition. That is where I really slammed down my fist with Random House and I said, "You're not putting him on there." I have nothing against Brad Pitt as a human being, in fact I love his work, but his character, Gerry Lane, is not in my book and I'm not going to false advertise; I don't care how many books you think you're going to sell. And I said to them, "Look. I have said to Paramount that I would never boycott the movie but I am just crazy enough to boycott my own book" so that's why he's not in there because it goes against also the whole spirit of my book, which is there are no heroes, it's all of us being heroic, because I truly do believe that is how we solve big problems. We don't solve major problems with heroes; we solve them with all of us just being a little bit heroic. Jo Reed:  And that goes right back to Studs Terkel and The Good War. Max Brooks:  Exactly. He didn't interview Audie Murphy. He interviewed just the grunt on the ground, the person working in the factory, the POW, the civilian mother cowering under her table as the Luftwaffer (sic) bombed London, and I think that that is really how big problems get solved is all of us getting out of our comfort zone and just doing our job. And as far as the running zombies, that's very important to me because I specifically want my zombies slow and dumb and easily defeatable because therefore if they are not defeated it's because we do something wrong. I based that on growing up during the AIDS epidemic. It's a very hard virus to get. It's not airborne, it's not waterborne, it's not foodborne so how the hell did it spread the way it did? Well, it spread because we screwed up as individuals, as a society, as a government, as a planet, we let the genie out of the bottle and we're reaping the whirlwind, and that's why I wanted my zombies slow because it was-- let's face it. If zombies are super fast and super strong, well, then it's too easy; then you can make the right decisions and still be doomed. People ask me would I write a new Zombie Survival Guide for the zombies in Brad Pitt's movie and I said, "Yeah, it'd be a pamphlet and it would be called Make Friends with Brad Pitt or Else You're Dead." Jo Reed:  <laughs> Or Abandon Hope, the end. Max Brooks:  Or Abandon Hope, Kiss Your You Know What Good-bye. That literally would be my guide because for me it needs to be about making the right choices and doing what has to be done and it's just too easy to have these super zombies because then nothing can be done. Jo Reed: Let's talk about some of your more recent projects. How about the comic book series called The Extinction Parade, which is based on a short story that you wrote a number of years ago. I'm just going to let you set up the background for The Extinction Parade. Max Brooks:  Well, on the surface The Extinction Parade is about a zombie outbreak told through the eyes of vampires, very simple, vampires versus zombies instead of humans versus zombies. The vampires suddenly have to confront the fact that their one food source, the humans, are being eaten out from under them so what do they do, but that's not really what it's about. What it's about is the price you pay for privilege is when you are handed everything you are robbed of the survival mechanism. I truly do believe that for most of us and also as a species our greatest strengths come from compensating for our greatest weaknesses, but what if you had a species that was given everything. I like to say the vampires had bad parents, they had Father Time and Mother Nature, and these parents spoiled them and gave them all these amazing gifts, speed, strength, agility, the ability to heal rapidly, immortality. So they never had to work, they never had to struggle, they never had to strive, they never felt fear and loss and helplessness, and they were always at the top, and then suddenly comes this existential crisis, the zombie horde that is eating away their food source, can they adapt when they have no history of adapting, can they organize, prioritize when they have no history of doing any of that. And for me that's a deeply personal message because I grew up in an environment where children were very spoiled financially and now as a parent I find there's a whole new generation of young people that are being spoiled emotionally. Jo Reed:  Can you say more about that? Max Brooks:  Well, when I was growing up, we were the generation whose parents made it big financially and so they wanted us to have what they didn't have, but that robbed a lot of us of the life skills, the survival skills, the coping mechanisms of dealing with adversity because what I realized later in life obviously is adversity's going to come knocking; it doesn't matter how rich you are, how insulated you are, bad stuff is going to happen and if you don't deal with it and learn how to deal with adversity when you're younger you're going to be in no shape to deal with it when you're older. And now I've seen that sort of core group that I grew up with transfer into the general public where instead of money it's emotions. We now have the phrase "teacups," a generation of Millennials who are so fragile they've never been allowed to fail, they've never been forced to struggle, two kids' soccer teams play, they both get trophies, and we are raising a generation that is completely foreign to the notion of adversity and what's going to happen when adversity inevitably does come; how are these people going to cope. Jo Reed: I think that's well observed. I also think I would add to that this sense that life somehow is fair and that's a hard lesson, but it's one that you need to get under your belt and the younger you do I think the better off you will be as you move forward through life. Max Brooks:  Oh, God, yeah. Extinction Parade in part came from all my zombie lectures. I did all these lectures on college campuses and I met these kids and most importantly I met their advisers, and the stories I hear about parents calling professors and saying, "My kid deserves a better grade" or "You hurt my kid's feelings." My friends who are now in their forties, in the working world cannot hire twenty-somethings because these twenty-somethings literally can't take criticism. It's really affected me in that I say, "My God. Not only how are these people going to survive daily life but God forbid but what if their country needs them someday? What if the United States is faced with a great challenge and needs to ask of its citizens 'What's going to happen?'" Jo Reed:  And do you have an answer? The Extinction Parade-- Max Brooks:  I don't know. Max Brooks:  The-- that's-- my answer is The Extinction Parade, is I want to tell a story of what happens when a group which has always believed itself to be invincible is suddenly confronted with crisis because my vampires are arrogant and they are entitled and they are completely coddled and as apex predators at the top of the food chain they've never known fear and that's very important. I was speaking at Pitzer College where I graduated from and I said to these kids, "You have this expression 'epic fail.' What you don't know or what most of you might not know is that failing epically is a really good thing because if you don't fail epically you'll never learn from your mistakes and you'll never grow and you'll never know what needs to be worked on, and clearly my vampires have never had that until the zombie plague, and is it too late? I don't know. We'll see in the later issues. Jo Reed: You grew up in a home with privilege. Your parents were both quite famous, renowned and I'm assuming quite well-to-do. How were you able to avoid that sense of entitlement? Max Brooks:  I think the dyslexia probably was the best thing that ever happened to me because it showed me that all the money in the world is not going to help me pass my classes. There were my parents, hugely successful icons. I was never hungry; I was never cold; I never had to get a job; I never had to do anything. Everything was just right there in front of me yet when the chips were down I had to study with a tutor several hours a night to come in and hopefully scrape by with a C- while the kids around me who barely studied would come in and breeze by with a B+. And that had a profound effect on me and it taught me to be comfortable with working hard so now as an adult if I'm confronted with a situation where I have to work extremely hard I already have experience in that field. Jo Reed:  Well let's get back to The Extinction Parade. It's a series of 12 comics? Max Brooks:  It's 12 and maybe 13. I just heard from my editor that one issue is so long we may have to chop it in half. But yes. It's a limited issue. It's not going to be open-ended. I know exactly how this thing ends. I've outlined every single script. We know where this is going. Jo Reed:  Does it carry forth from the short story that you wrote? Max Brooks:  Yeah. It goes a lot deeper into the psychology of the vampire because it's a journey of self-discovery. Every time these vampires come up against a new challenge they realize something about themselves, they realize a new flaw that they didn't even know they had. Jo Reed:  And you also came out with a graphic novel about the Harlem Hellfighters. Max Brooks:  Yes, that's a 15-year endeavor for me. Jo Reed:  Tell us about that because the Harlem Hellfighters were a real black regiment that fought in World War I and you are giving us a fictionalized account of them. Max Brooks:  Yes, and if you want to talk more about overcoming adversity nobody has more experience than the Harlem Hellfighters. When I say "fictional" what I mean is it's certain characters I made up mixed with certain characters who are real and everything they go through either really happened or is based on something that really happened. I really tried to stay as close to the truth as possible while at the same time making it interesting especially for young readers but yes, it's a story that's meant a lot to me that there was a unit of American soldiers that I think was purposefully set up to fail by their own government and the fact that they ended up fighting with the French army instead of the Americans because the American army wouldn't let them in combat. To then fight with the French army and come home as one of the most decorated units in the whole U.S. army is a phenomenal achievement. There have been stories before about black servicemen in combat, but this unit, black or white, has an unbelievable combat record. The first American to win the French Croix de Guerre, black or white, was one of them. They were in combat longer than any other American unit, black or white. They were the first to reach the Rhine River, black or white. At one point during the Kaiser's last attempt to take Paris in their sector there was nothing between the German army and Paris but these guys and they stopped the Germans dead cold so, race aside, their combat record is unbelievable. And I thought I want to tell this story and I wrote it as a movie script in the '90s and guess what. Hollywood didn't want to do it; they had done Glory; they had made their black film-- their black soldier film. And I got into comic books and I said, "You know what? This is a great way to tell the story, make it visual, and I don't have to go through Hollywood." Jo Reed:  And it also really opens the door for younger people to be able to learn about this at an early age. Max Brooks:  Yeah, and I think that's really important for young people because there are plenty of history books about the Harlem Hellfighters now but I think for young people comics are a great way of educating. I can tell you as a kid one of the first books I ever read was a sailor story by Sam Glanzman about being on a destroyer in World War II. Comics educated me, Art Spiegelman educated me about the Holocaust with Maus, so I think it's a wonderful teaching tool and I think it's grossly underappreciated at this point. Jo Reed:  Max Brooks, honestly I am not a convert to zombie movies or zombie novels but I have become converted to your work and I look forward to the next one; I truly do. Max Brooks:  Thank you very much. Jo Reed: I appreciate your approach because it's not the cheap thrill; it's the meta-story. Max Brooks:  Thank you. You try. You do the best you can and you hope people pick up on it. That's all you can hope for. Thank you. Music Up Jo Reed:  That was Max Brooks. We were talking about Zombies and survival. Most particularly his book World War Z.  Max Brooks' most recent non-zombie publication is the graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.  

Brooks has been writing about zombies for over a decade, including The Zombie Survival Guide, the hugely successful World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, a graphic novel based on the survival guide, called The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks and a comic book series about Vampires and Zombies called Extinction Parade. On the podcast, Brooks discusses what draws him to writing about zombies, the morbid fascination around the undead, and Brad Pitt’s film adaptation of World War Z.

Kiersten White, Y.A. Fantasy/Horror Novelist

Music composed by Phillip Brunelle. Kiersten White: It’s funny, because a lot of people think that they know the Frankenstein story and they have this idea of it in their head, whether from the movies or from reading it when they were younger and then when they re-read it, a, yeah, they realize that Victor’s a weasel. And, b, a lot of people are surprised at how eloquent and tragic the monster is, because they get sort of the lumbering almost mute, groaning, green Frankenstein monster in their heads. But in the book, he speaks like a poet. He speaks like he’s straight out of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. And he’s very heartbreaking, because he so eloquently expresses how he has become a monster and it’s not because he was made that way. It’s because he never found anyone to love him and he was rejected from the moment he gained awareness and that turned him into a monster. That is the reason why we still talk about Frankenstein, why we still re-make Frankenstein, why it’s still part of the public consciousness. Jo Reed: That is author Kiersten White—she’s just written a YA novel based on Mary Shelley classic called The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. You may be forgiven for not recognizing the name Elizabeth Lavenza—she’s the character who is brought up with and marries Victor Frankenstein—the scientist who created the monster in Mary Shelley’s novel. Elizabeth is a passive observer in Shelley’s book—but she takes on a life of her own in Kiersten White’s retelling. In The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, Elizabeth is the narrator—and it’s through her eyes that we see the story unfold and grow to understand Victor, the monster, and Elizabeth herself. Kiersten follows the outline of the original story closely-- fully inhabiting the world that Mary Shelley created. But in The Dark Descent, Elizabeth’s voice and perspective dominate and the gothic tale begins to tell another story entirely. A best-selling author who writes young adult fiction, Kiersten White is known for taking well-known stories and retelling them. She wrote a trilogy about Vlad the Impaler the model for Dracula—in which Vlad was Lada—a teenage girl and like a kaleidoscope—with that one twist—everything changed. This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and I re-read it after reading Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent and I got to wondering: is Frankenstein horror, a gothic novel, science fiction or this strange amalgam of all three… Kiersten White: It really is all three. It’s been hailed as the first modern science fiction novel, but I always view it more as a horror or Gothic novel. The science fiction is very hand-wavy, which is not to diminish what Mary Shelley did in essentially creating a genre. But, for me, the horror and the Gothic elements were what drew me to it. Jo Reed: What made you decide to tackle this novel from a new perspective? Kiersten White: So, it came about in kind of a roundabout way. My publisher, Beverly Horowitz, who’s the publisher at Delacorte, and my editor, Wendy Loggia, were talking about how this year was the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein and they wanted to do a re-telling and they wondered who they knew who would, A: want to do a Frankenstein and, B: could write one in four months. And, so, they immediately landed on me. And as soon as they suggested the idea, my brain was just on fire. It was kind of one of those ideas where it was like, “Why didn’t I think of this before?” Because I’ve loved Frankenstein for so long and I really, really love Mary Shelley and I find her so fascinating. So, I knew immediately that I wanted to do it and I wanted to do very direct re-telling. I didn’t want to do a modern re-imagining or anything like that. I wanted to do an actual direct re-telling that was very much a conversation with the original. And, whenever I engage with media, with films, or with books, particularly with the older texts, I generally go in looking like, “Where are the women?” because women aren’t usually there and if they are there, they’re not interesting. And Mary Shelly herself was so dynamic and so fascinating that it’s always almost hurt me a little bit that the women in her book are so uninteresting. They’re very, very one note. And they really exist just to be these beautiful, angelic victims of the hubris and arrogance of the men around them. And, so, I very quickly settled on re-telling the book from Elizabeth Lavenza’s point of view. Jo Reed: Until I re-read your book, and I’m embarrassed to say, I had a hard time remembering who Elizabeth was. Kiersten White: Yes! Jo Reed: Other than Mrs. Frankenstein. Kiersten White: Yes! No, that is such a common reaction, which when you realize that she’s the bride in Frankenstein. She’s murdered dramatically on their wedding night, which is a spoiler but is a 200-year-old spoiler, so, I don’t feel that bad. It’s fascinating to me how people don’t remember her and I think that’s testimony to the fact that she’s a very unmemorable character, which is really odd, because in the book she has this really bizarre backstory. And, so, the fact that she is so one note and such sort of the stock character that people don’t remember her is really fascinating and really sad to me. Jo Reed: Let’s go through it a little bit. Elizabeth Lavenza is Victor Frankenstein’s bride. Kiersten White: Yes. Jo Reed: Tell us a little bit about the backstory that Mary Shelley presents about Elizabeth. Kiersten White: Yeah, so, it’s really fascinating. Yeah, so, it’s a little bit different, but depending on whether you read the 1818 edition or the 1831 edition-- there’s debate in Frankenstein circles, which is the better edition. I prefer the 1831. And in this want Elizabeth’s backstory is that the Frankenstein’s are on vacation at Lake Como and they’re touring the forest and they find a hovel with all these starving dirty children, but one of the kids is really beautiful. So, they take her! And Madam Frankenstein presents Elizabeth Lavenza to Victor as a gift! Elizabeth is four or five years old and she’s presented as a gift to another child to be his companion and his friend and his future bride. And, first of all, that’s messed up. But it’s really fascinating, because they never adopt her. She has no legal claim on the family. So, she’s really just sort of there, because they want her to be; and that to me as a women was terrifying. As I was reading that I thought, “Oh, man!” First of all, being given as a gift to another child would mess you up, but then also having known poverty and having known extreme want and then being put into a position where you have enough to eat and you have beautiful clothes and you have an education, but none of it belongs to you and it could all be gone in a heartbeat, if they decided they didn’t like you. Like, what kind of person would that turn you into? And I think for me was the key to unlocking who I felt Elizabeth Lavenza was, because, yes, she presents to the world this beautiful, angelic, kind persona, but she does that as a matter of survival, which I think a lot of women can really relate to. Jo Reed: Oh, yeah. And I like how complicated you made her. She was not an angel. Kiersten White: No. Jo Reed: Nor was she bad! She was somebody who understood the way she had to be seen in order to survive. Kiersten White: Yea, yes. Elizabeth is a survivor, first and foremost. Jo Reed: And what you gave her was an interiority, so we know what she’s thinking. Kiersten White: Mm-hm. Jo Reed: In Mary Shelley’s telling, we only know her through Victor’s eyes. Kiersten White: Yes. Jo Reed: She has no agency. We see her the way Victor sees her. And in your book, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, she herself is the narrator. Kiersten White: Yes. Yeah, and it was kind of fun getting to mirror that, because the original Frankenstein is first person. It’s an epistolary novel told in letter form, but it’s narrated by Victor and, so, I took the viewpoint that Victor’s an unreliable narrator, because he’s telling his own story. Jo Reed: Oh, yeah. Kiersten White: And he’s got a lot of self-interest in making himself looking good and playing himself as the victim when he is not a victim. Everything that happened he brought on himself. And, so, it was fun to kind of mirror that by doing first-person point of view with Elizabeth, so you’re telling the same story; you’re just getting a very different slant on it. Jo Reed: Well, you really kept so true to the world that Mary Shelley created. And how were you able to, in fact, use Victor’s very limited perspective to build your own Elizabeth? Kiersten White: That was a fun challenge of this book. I felt like Elizabeth was very much a blank slate, because, as you said, she makes no impression on the reader whatsoever. So, I was free to really sort of create her interior life however I wanted to. And then I was able to look at-- I really deep-dived into Frankenstein and pulled it apart and looked at where is there room for another story within this story. Like, where is there down time, where is there Victor not on the page, but there could be an active story going on there. So, it was a really fun challenge in this book to find space within the original to tell an entirely new story following the same time line and the same events. Jo Reed: And you really succeeded in that. Remind us who Victor Frankenstein is in Mary Shelley’s novel other than the scientist who created the monster. Kiersten White: So, Victor Frankenstein in the novel is this young, brilliant scientist and he from a very young age is very motivated and very anxious to sort of defy the bounds of nature and humanity. He feels very sort of bound in by the people around him and by society and he wants to defy everything and everyone, including God. And, so, he goes to university and he begins his own course of study and over the course of several years through very hand-wavy science that he says he’s not going to tell us about, because he doesn’t want anybody to re-create it, he creates a monster. He creates life, brings it to life, and then is like, “Oh, dang, shouldn’t have done that.” And, so, Victor-- Jo Reed: He “Oh, dang, shouldn’t have done that,” very early on. Kiersten White: Yes! Kiersten White: Very early on. Jo Reed: I’m just saying. Like, the creature opened his eyes and Victor was “Uh-oh.” Kiersten White: Yeah, yeah. That’s very typical of Victor. Like, he gets very obsessive about things, and then as soon as they go wrong he’s like, “Well, I’m going to fall into a fever for a few weeks and forget everything that happened and when I wake up hopefully everything’s just okay.” He’s arrogant, he wants to do something just to see whether or not he can do it, but as soon as things get hard or scary or not what he thought they were going to be, he cuts loose and he runs. And the book basically is exploring the consequences of what happens when creators fail to care for the things that they have created. Jo Reed: And that’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though it’s not like you don’t think about that as well. Your Victor is very similar, but a bit different at the same time. Kiersten White: Yes. Yeah. So, my Victor is the version that other people would see. He would definitely tell you that version of himself, that he’s a misunderstood genius and was really just doing it all for the good of mankind. But we know people like that and the way that they present themselves and the way they mythologize themselves is not necessarily the way that people in their lives are going to know about them or have seen them. I feel like Mary Shelley’s theme of Frankenstein is what makes a monster? And my question that I was exploring was “who makes a monster?” And, so, I focused much more on Victor than on the creature itself. Jo Reed: In your book, I just want to backtrack for one second, how do you think Elizabeth sees herself? Kiersten White: That’s a really good question and that’s actually a lot of what motivated me to write Elizabeth. I was very motivated by Mary Shelley’s own life, because Mary Shelley always saw herself as secondary to the men in her life. Her father was a really brilliant political writer and then her husband was the poet Percy Shelley, who I hate, but that’s another story. And even in her own introduction to her own novel in the 1831 reprint, she very much put herself in sort of the backseat role and focused on Percy, which really kind of upset me. And, so, I really used that to inform Elizabeth. Elizabeth views herself as Victor’s companion. That’s her role, that’s her identity, and that’s how she survives. And, so, she’s completely formed and molded herself to be what he needs. And, so, a big portion of the book and her character journey is her realizing, like, “I need to be a person outside of who Victor needs and who is that person going to be?” Jo Reed: You know it’s baffling. Given who Mary Shelley was, given who her mother was. One of the first feminists in Western Europe, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley’s own intellect–given all of that, it’s baffling to me that her female characters are so thinly drawn. Kiersten White: I feel like it’s a reflection of her life though. I mean, her mother died 10 days after giving birth to her. Her father was sort of very disengaged, re-married a woman who very strongly disliked Mary, and Mary was very much on her own for her education and her life. She ran off with Percy, but part of why she ran off with him is because her father kicked her out. He disowned her when she got pregnant. And, so, she really had nowhere else to turn. She had no money. She was disgraced socially. So, she had no way of making money and she was incredibly dependent on Percy, who was quite fickle. And, if you look at her life, there’s a pattern of women being controlled by men who do not actually care about their well-being. And you see a lot of death around her. Her older sister, her niece, who was Lord Byron’s daughter, several of Mary’s own children, and all of these deaths kind of revolve around the negligence of men. And, so, for her to create these women characters who exist to be victimized by the self-centeredness of the men around her really makes sense to me. I don’t think that she did it deliberately, but I think it’s very much a reflection of her own life experiences Jo Reed: Well, you do follow the original very closely. Where you writing The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein for people who knew the story, the original story, or people who are coming to it fresh or both? And that’s a little bit of a tough balancing act, no? Kiersten White: Yeah, it is a very tough balancing act. And I very much wanted it to be both. I wanted it to be a love letter and an homage to Mary Shelley and, so, people who are very familiar with Frankenstein would see so much of it in this book and I also wanted it to function as an introduction. So, maybe someone who hadn’t found Frankenstein accessible or hadn’t been exposed to it in school or for fun would have this sort of as an entry point. And, it was a difficult balance, because I had to have the story stand on its own without any familiarity with Frankenstein, but also work in conversation with it. And it was a really fun challenge, actually. I really enjoyed it. Initially, I did try to make it much closer to the original Frankenstein. I tried to write it as an epistolary novel. Jo Reed: I was going to ask you. Yeah. Kiersten White: Yeah, so, in letters. There’s a reason we don’t write epistolary novels anymore and that’s that they’re boring. <laughter> Kiersten White: So, that one did not work. I wrote about 100-150 pages that way and realized it just was not going to work. And, so, I had to throw that away. But at that point, I knew Elizabeth, I knew the story that I wanted to tell with her and, so, writing this version I actually wrote it in about six days. Jo Reed: Oh, my God, seriously? Kiersten White: Yeah. Yeah. And it was kind of this wonderful sort of magical fever dream writing experience where I felt almost very connected to Mary Shelley and the original way that she wrote Frankenstein: on a dare at like this dark and stormy villa. And just got the idea and just started writing that day. Mine was a little bit different: I was writing in sunny San Diego, sitting outside in the sunshine watching my three kids play, typing about re-animating dead bodies, but, yeah, so, I just needed to find the right way to tell the story and once I did, it came together very, very quickly. Jo Reed: Remind us of how the original Frankenstein came together. I am sure many people know it, but it’s such a wonderful story, it always bears re-telling. Kiersten White: Yes, oh, it is such a great story. Okay, so, at this point Mary and Percy were able to get married. She had lost their first baby and they had another baby. And they were in Europe and they were at Lake Geneva and they were staying in a hotel and into the hotel walks another poet, Lord Byron, complete with his menagerie that he travelled with, with like animals and a monkey and a doctor. We do not travel in style like Lord Byron did. And they kind of hit it off. And they all got together in a villa and were going to do boating and hiking, but it was raining. And, so, the two poets, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, were like, “Hey, let’s have a writing contest: Who can write the best scary story?” And Mary took if very seriously. She felt a tremendous amount of pressure, given her own literary heritage and her husband, and she really wanted to be a writer. And she wanted to prove herself worthy of her mother’s legacy and her husband’s expectations. And another thing you should know about Mary Shelley is she read very widely. She read novels, she read poetry, she read politics, and she also read science. And there was a popular theory at the time called galvanism. And it was the idea that electric currents could bring dead tissue back to life. And they had some false success with it. And she had read those articles with great interest. So, keeping in mind that and then the fact that she’d very recently lost a baby and was tormented by nightmares of holding this baby and realizing that it was still alive, only to wake up and remember that her infant was dead and would always be dead. So she thought and she thought and she could not come up with an idea. So she went to bed. And while she was sleeping she had this sort of nightmare of this monstrous life this monstrous cadaver that was very obviously a dead thing, opening its eyes and coming to life and sitting up. And she woke up in a panic, certain that she could feel it watching her. And immediately she knew what she was going to write about. And she stared writing that day. And she continued writing this whole time they were at Geneva and then for several months after until she had finished the book. And, together with Percy, she edited it. And it was actually published anonymously within a very short time period. So, it was kind of one of those lightning strikes moments, if you’ll pardon. I can’t avoid the lightning puns with this book. It’s great. <laughter> Kiersten White: And just this idea that just grasped her and would not let her go till she finished it. Jo Reed: The other thing you did with the book, another way you followed the original very closely, is in the style of writing. I mean, you’re clearly not writing early 19th prose, but it has traces of it. Kiersten White: Yeah. Jo Reed: How did you grapple with that? Kiersten White: That’s always a challenge writing historical, because you need it to feel historical, because you need it to feel historical, but still be accessible. I had just come off of writing a separate trilogy, the And I Darken trilogy, which is set in the 15th century Ottoman Empire and features a gender-swapped Vlad the Impaler. I don't know why. So, having come off of that and really sort of refined my style to be able to convey accessible but also “This is a different time period, and a different place, and different people.” That really made this book much more possible for me. And I think that the biggest help that I got was really immersing myself in Mary Shelley’s text, in sort of the rhythm and the cadence and the way that she told stories, and then bringing that forward as much as I could while still maintaining that sort of Gothic sensibility. And the pacing of the story, but making the language more accessible. Jo Reed: Well, why don’t we hear a little bit of it? I know you have your book with you. What are you going to read? Kiersten White: Yes, okay, so I’m going to read a portion from Chapter 8. What has happened is Elizabeth has gone to Ingolstadt to find Victor. He’s been gone and not communicating with them for a couple of years now and she’s very concerned that his father is going to decide that she no longer has a use in their family. So, Elizabeth has found Victor, who conveniently is in the midst of a fever, and bundled him off to the doctor, but she stayed behind because she’s really worried that Victor has lost his mind and that if people know that he’s insane he’ll be committed and she won’t have her protector. So, this is Elizabeth searching his lab. Excerpt from The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein:

The sound of rain hitting an ever-deepening puddle competed with the wild pounding of my heart to make music of discord and chaos. In place of a symphony to accompany me there was a stench.

A stench of things rotten.

A stench of things dead.

And above and around it all, burning fumes that made me couch and gag.

I pulled out a handkerchief and covered my nose and mouth, wishing I could cover my stinging eyes, as well. But I needed them.

The dripping noises were different up here, though. Now that I was in the room, they had a faint metallic quality, hitting something other than the warped and blackened wood floors. In the center of the room, illuminated by the cloud-choked day, a pool of water rippled and shifted, gathering in the center of a table before dripping off the sides to meet with the water on the floor. The table was situated directly beneath the open roof panels.

I stepped closer. Broken glass crunched beneath my boots. The table had held my attention, but now that I looked down, I saw that the entire room was littered with shattered glass containers. Someone had gone to a tremendous amount of trouble to break everything in here.

Most of the larger glass pieces were sticky and wet with whatever had been held inside. It smelled to me like some death-tainted form of vinegar. Chemicals that preserve yet corrupt in equal measure.

Some of the glass remains bore... other substances. Gelatinous mounds on the floor. Poor, sad pieces of--

I pulled my gaze away. Something about the nearest spill made my eyes refuse to focus on it. It had no recognizable form, and yet I knew-- I knew-- I did not want to look at it.

My boots crunched and scraped as shards of glass embedded in their soles. I crept toward the table. Whether because it was the center of the room or because it was the best-illuminated feature, I was drawn toward it, pulled on a current.

The table itself was metal, as large as a family dining table. Around it were various apparatuses I did not know the meaning or use of. They looked complicated, all gears and wires and delicate tubing. And every one, like the glass containers, had been smashed beyond repair.

A pole, also metal, wrapped around in some sort of copper wiring, extended from the head of the table to the windows in the roof. But it, too, had been warped. It was bent, the wires dislodged and hanging from it like hair ripped from a doll’s head.

The water pooling on the table was thicker and darker along the edges, as if rust had been pushed outward. It smelled sharp and metallic, but with something organic beneath it all. Something like--

I pulled my finger back from where I was about to touch the near-black stains.

It smelled almost like blood. But whether the water dilution or the chemicals in the room had affected it, I did not know. Because I knew the scent of blood. And this was so close, yet different in a way that repulsed me more than anything else here.

‘What were you doing, Victor?’ I whispered.”

Jo Reed: That is Kiersten White reading from her book, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, a re-telling of Frankenstein, told from the point of view of Mrs. Frankenstein, Mrs. Elizabeth Frankenstein. Where were you brought up? Kiersten White: I was brought up Highland, Utah. It’s kind of like a suburb of Salt Lake. Jo Reed: And did you come from a family of readers? Kiersten White: I did. Yes. We were always very, very encouraged to read and to write. I meet a lot of young writers who ask if anybody ever supported me and my parents did from day one. They always supported me in writing. My dad jokes that he hated having to take me to the bookstore, because I would buy, like, a 500- 600-page hardcover and be done the next day. And he couldn’t afford my reading habit. But I was very fortunate to grow up in a home that was filled with books. Jo Reed: And did you always want to write were there other things? Kiersten White: No, I really always wanted to be a writer. I remember a career day in second grade where all the boys had to cut out firemen and all the girls had to cut out nurses, which we’ll unpack that later. But I left the hat off of my nurse, because she wanted to be a writer, not a nurse. And that was always my goal. And I don’t know that I had any real concept of what it was to write a book, but I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t actually write a novel until I had graduated from college. I graduated with a husband, a degree, and a baby. I was very ambitious. And, so, I was at home with our first child and my husband was in grad school and that’s when I started writing seriously. Jo Reed: The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is a YA title, although it’s appealing to adult adults as well. How did you begin to write for young adults? Kiersten White: I actually started out writing middle-grade fiction, which is for eight-to-12-year-olds and I was really bad at it. I think it’s more difficult than writing for young adults or adults, because it’s really hard to find the balance of humor and sophistication, but also accessibility. And I will say that my first effort at it was tremendously boring, just really, really bad. But it taught me that I could sit down and write a novel from start to finish. And after that I started writing for teens and that’s really when my writing took off. And I was just so excited and engaged with it, because I realized that was the voice and the audience that I was ready to write for. Jo Reed: Now what is the draw for you for horror or paranormal? Did you read that as a kid? Kiersten White: Yeah, I did. I read a tremendous amount of it and I read a lot of fantasy actually. And not fantasy for teens or children. Fantasy for adults. I really like genre, because I feel like with genre you’re able to tell very real, very true stories, but everything is heightened so that you can tell it-- I really like genre used as metaphor. So, in this book, yeah, there’s re-animated dead creatures and monsters and mad scientists, but it’s really a story about how women survive in a world that is controlled by the men around them, which I think that we can all relate to. Jo Reed: Do you remember what your favorite books were when you were a young adult? Kiersten White: Yeah, the first book that I remember just absolutely loving was Anne of Green Gables. I saw myself very much in Anne. She was dreamy and imaginative and deeply ambitious and very competitive. And I loved that about her. I loved that she wanted to be the smartest girl in the class. And she wanted to do well, but she also loved her family and wanted to care for them and that was something that I really related to. Jo Reed: When you read Anne of Green Gables or books that you loved, was there a way you would kind of put yourself into that world and extend the story? Kiersten White: Oh, absolutely. One of my favorite series was The Redwall series by Brian Jacques. And it features mice and rabbits and other little furry creatures who have their own society and fight evil and so on and so forth. And my friend and I would read the books and we would talk in their accents and we would pick which means we would eat if we were there and which characters we would be. And I always read to escape and to become somebody more exciting than I felt that I was, which is part of what drew me to fantasy. I did not find a lot of magic in junior high or high school. And, so, I escaped into these books where I could imagine that I was magical or powerful or all of those things that I was not feeling. And, so, books always sort of provided that escape for me. Jo Reed: And what’s your history with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? When did you first read it? Kiersten White: I actually can’t remember. I don’t remember whether I first read it in high school or in college. I know that I did study it in a class and it quickly shot to the top of my list of favorite classics, because I found it so compelling and so fascinating. I always really loved Frankenstein and Frankenstein adaptations. I dressed my toddlers up as Frankenstein every year for Halloween, because all toddlers walk like Frankenstein’s monster. And I have four different editions of Frankenstein on my bookshelves and picture books and you name it. It’s always just been one of those classics that I’ve been drawn to and that I love. Jo Reed: Well, this as we mentioned isn’t your first experience re-telling a well-known tale and changing perspective. You did take on Vlad the Impaler and re-think him as a her for your trilogy And I Darken-- What do you think draws you to re-telling classics? Kiersten White: That’s a great question. I think it’s a really interesting challenge as a writer to take an existing thing and a known thing and to make a new story out of it, whether that’s history or whether it’s an existing story. And I really enjoy doing it. I’m going to keep doing it. And I think there’s a benefit as a storyteller in using a known property, because like I said, people are more likely to pick it up if they have that familiarity aspect. I call it “the Marvel effect”. People might not know the story, but they know that they like Marvel, so they’re going to go to the next Marvel movie no matter what. So, with The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein people might not have any idea what’s in it, but they know they like Frankenstein stories. So, they’re going to pick it up. But then for me personally as a story teller, like I said, it’s a really fun challenge to take something that’s already been built and that already has sort of the framework and has been fleshed out and to ask a different question with it and look at it from a different angle and find a story within or beside that story that hasn’t been told before. Jo Reed: And, so, what is next? Kiersten White: So, I have a new series starting January. It’s called Slayer and it is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff series. So, continuing in that vein of telling stories in somebody else’s world, which was really fun. And then next fall I have a new series that hasn’t been announced yet, but it is also a retelling. Jo Reed: Well, I’m looking forward to it. Kiersten, thank you so much. Kiersten White: Well, thank you. Jo Reed: It was a lot of fun. Kiersten White: Thank you so much. Jo Reed: That is author Kiersten White—her recent book is The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. It’s a great Halloween read for young and old adults alike. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts. So please do and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


White retells Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein from the perspective of Elizabeth Lavenza – the wife of scientist Victor Frankenstein – in her novel, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. While White’s novel closely follows the plot of Frankenstein, by shifting the narration, she offers a new perspective on Frankenstein, his monster, and Elizabeth herself. In this episode of the podcast, White reflects on the original Frankenstein, the life of Mary Shelley, and the challenges of reimagining a classic.

Cord Jefferson, Scriptwriter

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Cord Jefferson: Damon's thinking was that the original "Watchmen" text was built around Cold War fears and the fear of the Soviets and the nuclear arsenal and nuclear holocaust. And so if he wanted to do an update of that, he needed to focus on the problem at the center of American life for 2020, and I think that he believes-- and I agree-- that there's no way to look at modern America and not think that one of the main issues that we struggle with, if not the main issue that we struggle with-- what our nation is still hampered by is race and racism in the country and fear of the Other.

Jo Reed: That's writer Cord Jefferson talking about the series "Watchmen," developed for HBO by Damon Lindelof, and this is "Art Works," the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Cord Jefferson is a journalist who turned television writer some six years ago. In those six years the series he's written for include "The Larry Wellborn Show," "Master of None," "Succession," "The Good Place" for which he just won an NAACP Image Award, and the groundbreaking series "Watchmen." For my money, "Watchmen" is one of the smartest and most profound examination of African American history in popular culture, and the fact that this history is embedded in a superhero series just adds to its textures. As you heard from Cord, the original graphic novel "Watchmen" took place during the Cold War and explored those fears. The recent series is set in present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma. It's an alternative universe: Robert Redford is president; Vietnam is the 51st state; the police conceal their identities with masks to prevent the Seventh Cavalry, a white supremist group, from targeting them. Angela Abar, played by Regina King, is a detective known as "Sister Night." Her absent grandfather Will Reeves comes into her life when he kills her white boss, a police captain. Her grandfather turns out to be Hooded Justice, a crucial figure in the original graphic novel who inspired two generations of costumed crime fighters. But as we learn about Will's journey to becoming Hooded Justice, America's very real racial history comes into sharp focus, and the crimes of yesterday are linked inextricably to the world today. "Watchmen" lays this out right from the beginning, starting the series with 1921's Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where whites rioted and razed Greenwood-- a prosperous black part of town-- to the ground, killing hundreds of African Americans. This was a bold way to begin what is a superhero series.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. We knew that we wanted to include the Greenwood Massacre somewhere in the show. I think at first we started talking about maybe including it somewhere in Episode Two or Three, and then we decided that we should include it in the pilot somewhere. There was a lot of discussion-- I think weeks of discussion-- about where it would go, and we finally landed on opening the pilot with it. And I'm happy that we did because I think it really set the tone for the show. It gave viewers an immediate reaction, an immediate understanding of the themes that we were going to discuss. Without spoiling too much, it makes sense that that is the origin story for Will Reeves, and we wanted to use that as our superhero origin story the way that Batman's parents getting killed is his origin story or Superman's planet exploding is his origin story. We were doing a superhero show but just went a little bit more grounded in reality than maybe others.

Jo Reed: Let's talk about how racial history operates in "Watchmen." I mean, it does throughout the series, obviously, in the first episode beginning with the Tulsa Massacre. But Episode 6, "This Extraordinary Being," the one that you wrote, it is one of the most compelling hours of television I've ever seen. Can you walk us through that episode?

Cord Jefferson: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I think that a huge theme of the show is inherited trauma and how the wounds of the past are given down through the generations. And so I think that you can't tell a show like that without utilizing history, and we wanted to utilize American history in order for this telling. And so yeah, there was a lot of history books in the room. There was a lot of discussion about historical figures and characters we wanted to include in the show, and I felt like it just made the world richer, and then it made the show a lot more resonant.

Jo Reed: What I find so striking about "Watchmen" is the way history continues to cast its shadow on the characters we meet in the present day.

Cord Jefferson: Oh, yeah.

Jo Reed: It's not as though the Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa happened in this self-contained box. Its repercussions are still felt, and it still matters.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. The thing that I was so blown away by was how many people didn't know about the history that we were discussing. I think that a friend sent me an image of a Google graph that showed the spike from the Sunday night after the pilot to the Monday morning that showed how many people were frantically googling "Tulsa Massacre," because a lot of people thought that it was fake. A lot of people thought that we had invented that for the show. I have several friends who told me that they thought it was just all a fabrication that we came up with for the show and were blown away to discover that it actually was a real gory part of American history. I had a friend who was like, "There's no way that they were actually flying planes overhead and dropping bombs on this community," and then he googled it, but he realized that that's exactly what they were doing and that that was not as farfetched as he thought it had been.

Jo Reed: Maybe-- if you can just give us a brief history of the Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa?

Cord Jefferson: Backstory to the backstory is that there was this place in Tulsa, Oklahoma called Greenwood that a lot of people called it "Black Wall Street." It was a thriving, upwardly mobile, black community that existed in Tulsa that white residents of Tulsa felt some resentment toward it because it made people angry to see a black community flourishing. And so that's the backstory to the backstory. And so one day in Tulsa, a black kid was accused of a crime, imprisoned, and the black residents of Greenwood were concerned that the lynch mob would come to the prison and take him to the jail and take the kid out and lynch him. And so the black residents of Greenwood went to the jail and were trying to protect it from the white residents. And I don't think anybody's agreed upon who fired the first shot, but somebody fired the first shot, and then it was just mayhem, and the white residents of Tulsa basically stormed Greenwood and burned it to the ground and murdered around 300 to 400 black residents and jailed many more and looted and robbed their homes and their businesses and basically left Greenwood just in ashes. My memory is a little fuzzy. We read it two years ago at this point, but I think that that's the gist. It was a siege, and it seeks to the resentment that had been building up over the years, I think. I think that it speaks to the fact that many of the white residents of Tulsa were just looking for an opportunity to lay waste to this neighborhood, and all it took was the smallest violation.

Jo Reed: Well, the massacre at Greenwood really casts a shadow on the entire series, and in the episode you wrote called "This Extraordinary Being," we learn that Will Reeves-- Angela's grandfather-- was a seven-year-old boy who escaped that massacre, and we learn much, much more about him since most of that episode is told in flashback from his perspective.

Cord Jefferson: Mm-hmm.

Jo Reed: Can you walk us through that episode? And spoilers be damned because I think most people have seen "Watchmen" by now.

Cord Jefferson: Okay <laughs>. All right. Yeah. Yeah, that episode is Angela Abar takes Nostalgia pills given to her by her grandfather. In the world of "Watchmen," Nostalgia pills were pills that were made for dementia and Alzheimer's patients in order to give them their memories. And so what it did was extract older memories from people's brains and put them in pill form so that they could take them and live in happier times and remind themselves of who the people are in their lives. And so the rest of Episode 6, "This Extraordinary Being," is Angela going through her grandfather's memories from the 1930s when he first became a police officer in New York City but then soon understands that the police force is not going to afford him the justice that he's looking for. And so he ends up becoming the first superhero ever, the first costumed adventurer named Hooded Justice, and then from there he joins a group of other costumed adventurers who are inspired by him called the Minute Men, and then he uncovers this grand plot put together by this white supremacist organization called Cyclops. There's a lot more that I could get into, but those are the basic beats of the episode.

Jo Reed: Cinematically-- I mean, the way this episode is put together. First, it's mostly in black and white, and then Will Reeves is played by both Jovan Adepo and Regina King because Angela is literally reliving Will's memories. It was brilliant. It was the past and the present just morphing together and really being inseparable.

Cord Jefferson: Thanks. Yeah. Like I said, I think the show itself is very much about generational trauma, and I think that this episode specifically really stands out as the main thrust of that motif and that idea. And so we wanted to incorporate Angela entering the world the Nostalgia pills have put her in at specific moments to show that Angela is a person who's suffering with a lot of anger and rage in her life. And so there's a moment in the episode when her grandfather, speaking to her grandmother, is being accused of being angry, and he says, "I'm not angry." And then his grandmother reiterates that he is angry, and then the camera swings around and you realize that it's Angela sitting there, and Angela says, "I'm not angry," and you realize that Angela is dealing with the same issues that her grandfather was dealing with a couple generations before.

Jo Reed: Well, legacy is a strand that goes through this series in many, many forms.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah.

Jo Reed: Will Reeves, he becomes the superhero Hooded Justice, the original superhero. Did Lindelof have that idea from the beginning, that Hooded Justice would be black?

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Yeah, Damon came in saying that he wanted Hooded Justice to be black, and I had only read "Watchmen" once before working on the show, and even then I'd only read it in the couple weeks before the room started. So I didn't realize what a radical idea that would be, particularly to people who had been real-real superfans of the text. But the more that I thought about it, the more it really excited me because I think that the superhero genre is one that does not have a lot of diversity in it. There's not a lot of people of color. There's a handful of women here and there. But I think that something that was interesting to me about the concept was that of course a person of color or a woman would be the first superhero. Of course the first superhero might be a black man in 1930s in New York because the people who were looking for justice outside of the justice system, the people for whom the justice system doesn't work-- and in fact takes advantage of them-- it's so clear that of course that that would be a black man looking for justice in turn-of-the-century New York or turn-of-the-century America because justice was so frequently denied to them that it makes sense that somebody's going to put on a mask and a cape and try to find justice by other means.

Jo Reed: Okay. Here's my true confession. I never read "Watchmen." I never saw the film. I'm not a superhero person. I actually came to this for two reasons: 1) because Regina King is in it, and 2) because it started with the Tulsa Massacre, and I thought, "This is going to be really interesting because this is how it's introducing itself." I had no idea that in the original "Watchmen" Hooded Justice had a noose around his neck as part of his superhero costume. I thought that was something that you created for the series. And once I found out it was part of the original Hooded Justice's costume, of course it made sense to me that he would be a black man.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. That's something that I think just speaks to how different people view different things. I think that as a black person in America, there's no way that I look at a noose and don't immediately think of America's history of lynching, but at the same time I think a white reader might look at that and think that he's just an executioner-- he's wearing an executioner's mask. And so it's those different contexts that you come to things with that I think inform how you view characters, and so when we were viewing this character as potentially a black character, it made obvious sense to me. One of the ideas that we came up with pretty early was I pitched that Will Reeves would be a victim of racial violence, that he would be someone who survives an attempted lynching, and that is his origin story-- that he's lynched by his fellow officers. Well, he survives it, and then he goes on to wear the noose around his neck as a symbol of this fire that he was able to walk through. And it made perfect sense to me when I looked at that character that this is a black man, so the more that we started talking about it the more obvious it became to me. I think it was a surprise for a lot of people, but the more we discussed it in the room, it was very clear that that's who that character should be.

Jo Reed: Will Reeves as Hooded Justice wears many masks. There's the mask over his face, but then he wears white makeup around his eyes so people don't realize he's black. How was that developed?

Cord Jefferson: That was-- <laughs>. That was one of the biggest arguments of the room. If you go and read the original text of "Watchmen," very frequently the way that Hooded Justice is portrayed in the drawings is that his eyes fall flush with the mask, so you can never really see the skin around the eyes in most of the panels. But then in only one specific panel, there's a close-up of Hooded Justice, and you can see that the skin around his eyes is white. It's light. And so there was a lot of discussion in the room about how we would reconcile that with our character being black, and so one of the discussions was whether he should be a light black man and his skin would be light enough that he could pass as white when he was wearing the mask, but we thought that the casting would be difficult and that might be too easy, and we wanted to explore other ideas. And so we started talking about, "Well, what if he's wearing makeup? What if he puts makeup around his eyes and that is the mask under the mask?" We finally settled on the makeup <laughs>. I believe Damon may have been the strongest opponent to makeup around the eyes, but we finally convinced him to do it, and I think that I'm really, really happy that we did because I think that it speaks to the character of Will Reeves himself and that this is a guy who's hiding something from everyone. He's hiding his superhero identity from his coworkers at the police department. He's hiding his racial identity from his coworkers of Minute Men. He's somebody who is sort of deceiving everybody a little bit. The visual of the mask beneath the mask-- the metaphor is better when he wears the white makeup instead of just wearing the mask over his face.

Jo Reed: Can you describe the writers' room? How many people? What was the gender and racial makeup? Basically, how does this work?

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Damon has told me-- he's told all of us that this is the most diverse writers' room he's ever hired. I think that there was-- I believe, off the top of my head, at least 50 percent of the room was black and maybe a little less than 50 percent were women. So the diversity was there, the racial and gender diversity was there, and I think that Damon felt that if he was going to tell the story properly he really needed to have black voices in the room. And so he came in with some ideas of his own, like I said, about wanting to set this in Tulsa and wanting the Tulsa Massacre to be a part of it and wanting Hooded Justice to be black, but then we just worked as a team to build everything out. I am not going to say all television, but the vast majority of television is written by committee, and so you all sit together and plan out what the season is going to look like and plan out what the story arc of each episode is going to look like. And then when you have the basic outline of each episode, each writer goes away and writes his or her first draft of that episode. Then you bring it back, and Damon does his punch-up on it and fixes the draft how he wants it to be fixed, and then you go forward from there.

Jo Reed: Interesting. So then you write by committee, but then for an episode like "This Extraordinary Being," which you're credited for it and Damon is credited for it-- so you two are the ones who worked specifically on that with the ideas that you got from all working together?

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Name accreditation means different from show to show. What the credit "Written by Cord Jefferson and Damon Lindelof" means in this show is that I wrote the first draft of the episode. So I went away and wrote. Using the ideas that the group had collaborated on, I went and wrote the draft and then brought it back to Damon, and he punched it up how he saw fit, and then that's what went to air. Sometimes it's different. So in the comedy rooms, I go off and write a draft and then come back, and then the showrunner will do his or her pass on it, and then that draft then goes to the group at large to punch up and add jokes or lines or cuts or things like that based on the group mentality there. But that's not how the "Watchmen" writers' room worked. The "Watchmen" room is just you write your draft, Damon takes his pass, and then that's what's goes to air.

Jo Reed: What was the temperature in that room like? Was it comfortable? Was it anxious? Because you're dealing with such complicated and difficult issues.

Cord Jefferson: Oh. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I thought meant the literal temperature.


Cord Jefferson: I was about to say, "That's an interesting question. You know, it was chilly." There were certainly heated discussions. I wouldn't say that it never felt like anger was involved, but we were dealing with third-rail issues. You're dealing with reparations and you're dealing with race and you're dealing with sexual violence, you're dealing with police violence. There's a lot of touchy subjects that we broach in the show and that we broached in the writers' room. There's a difference of opinion about some of those subjects, but nothing ever felt like we were showing disrespect to anybody, or nothing ever felt like there was animosity behind what was being said. And I think that the key to having a good writers' room is just understanding that your coworkers are smart and talented and funny and interesting and have interesting things to say and that you should be respectful of that and be respectful of the diversity of opinion. I think that that-- I guess I would say every writers' room that I've ever been in, respect for diversity of opinion and diversity of lived experience has been at the forefront. And so I think that if you are in a room in which everybody understands that everybody is there for a reason and that everybody should be heard and that everybody's opinion deserves some time in the spotlight, I think that that's how the best shows get made.

Jo Reed: You began as a journalist. Tell me why you wanted to move from that to writing for television and what that was like, what that journey was like.

Cord Jefferson: I was a journalist, and a guy called me-- a guy named Mike O'Malley called me and asked me if I would come write for television, and--

Jo Reed: Seriously?

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Yeah. He was starting a show called "Survivor's Remorse" on Starz that was based loosely on Lebron James's life. Lebron James was the executive producer, and he'd read some of my journalism and seen some of the stuff that I'd done and liked it and asked me if I would come write for his show. And so at the time, my friend who's now my manager named Jermaine, I called him and asked him if he thought that I should do this, and he responded immediately and said, "Nobody ever gets cold-called to come write on a TV show. That just doesn't happen. You should definitely take this job, and then we'll figure out what your second job will be after that." And so I took it. That was February of 2014-- about six years ago-- and I didn't look back. I really liked my journalism job. I wasn't a celebrity or anything by any means, but I had carved out a pretty good career for myself and was enjoying it, and I think that the reason that I leapt at the opportunity to write for TV was when I decided to become a writer I wanted to be a writer in the broad sense of the word and that I was a writer who could do a lot of things. So if I'm a writer, I could write novels or write articles or write screenplays or write stage plays or write ad copy. I think that what it means to be a writer means a lot of different things, and I think that a lot of writers tend to hem themselves in and have a myopic view of what they can do with their career, and I think that more writers should be willing to expand their horizons and understand that you have this toolkit of writing and you can use it for a lot of different things. And so that had always been my goal and my mentality, and so when I was offered this opportunity to use that toolkit and apply it to something else, I leapt at it. I really love journalism, and I always will. But I think that for now I'm going to stay in TV and film stuff.

Jo Reed: Well, journalism-- you're basically writing on your own. Obviously, there's an editor and you're not just on your own, but what you produce pretty much ends up to be what's on the page whereas with television writing it's such a collaborative process, and you don't do the completed project. You put the words on the page, and then there's a director who directs and an actor who acts.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. That was something that I initially thought that I would have a hard time with, but once I got into the writers' room, I realized that I actually enjoyed it a lot. I found a lot of joy and progress to be had in working with a lot of different people. The first time that you see how wonderful a costume designer can execute this weird idea that you had and make it something that you had never even considered before when you were talking about a costume, or the way that you could write a line that you're not really sure is very good but in the mouth of a wonderful actor just turns out to be so much better than you ever thought it could be. I think that working with somebody as talented as Regina King and seeing the lynching scene in "This Extraordinary Being"-- we had written in that when they dropped his body from the tree and then took the mask off and Angela took the place of Will in that memory. We wrote on the page that Angela would take the place of Will, and then we went to the next scene, but the 10 to 12 seconds that Regina is onscreen there-- and the work that she does is so incredible as an actress-- and she doesn't say a line of dialogue, I certainly had no idea that she would be able to achieve and accomplish in those 10 to 12 seconds what she did accomplish, and it's one of the most affecting moments of the episode to me. When you see those moments, when you see what collaboration does, and when you see how effective it can be, and when you see how a team can come together and just make something incredible, I think that you just have a lot more respect and admiration for the process when you're actually in the world. And it is something that I found to be very beautiful and moving when it works.

Jo Reed: You went from "Watchmen" back to writing for "The Good Place."

Cord Jefferson: Mm-hmm.

Jo Reed: How was that transition?

Cord Jefferson: You know <laughs>-- very, very different tones and moods and themes and stories altogether. But at the same time I think that a thread that carries through from every show that I'm on, despite the fact that they may seem different on their face, is that I'm working with very, very talented, smart people who have great visions for great shows. I think that when I first started writing for television, I didn't really understand that a lot of people pick a lane, and a lot of people either choose to be comedy writers or drama writers. So to me, I just-- sort of going back to the toolkit thing, I just assumed that if you were a TV writer you just did whatever you wanted to do. You went to comedies, dramas, late-night shows-- you just bounced around. And I realized only after the fact that a lot of people didn't do that. But even so, I wanted to do that, and I still want to do that. I want to work with as many talented, smart people as possible, and I don't really care what the show is about. I don't really care if it's half-hour or hour or considered comedy or drama; I just want to work on good things with smart, talented people. At the end of the day, that's my only goal.

Jo Reed: Was there anything in particular that appealed to you about "The Good Place" that made you say yes to that job?

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. I think working with Mike Schur was at the top of the list. I had been such a fan of his work, going back to "The Office" and then onward to "Parks and Rec" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "Master of None." He had a hand in so many of the shows that I really loved and appreciated. I worked on "Master of None" before I worked on "The Good Place," and the guys on "Master of None"-- Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari had such glowing things to say about Mike that I promised myself if I ever got the opportunity to work with him I would. And it just so happened that after Season Two of "Master of None" I did get that opportunity, and I met with him, and he invited me to come work on Season Two of "Good Place," and so I did, and it was just an incredible experience. He's an incredible showrunner, an incredible man, and I learned a lot from him. So he was basically the motivator.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you this, because you came into Season Two in "The Good Place," and in "Watchmen" you were there from the beginning. What about "Succession"? Were you there from the beginning with--

Cord Jefferson: Season Two. Started Season Two of "Succession."

Jo Reed: Okay. So you have these two shows where you come in for Season Two, so you have characters that are already kind of established versus "Watchmen" where you're there in the beginning and help in that development. Can you just talk a little bit about what different tools you need from that toolkit to tackle both?

Cord Jefferson: I don't necessarily believe this, but I think some people will tell you that a Season Two of a television show is always better than a Season One, and that's because the writers understand who these characters are and what this world is, and so it just becomes easier to breathe in the world. You've established the rules, you've established the boundaries. Coming into a Season Two, I think, is going to be a little bit easier to write just because you understand these people and you understand what's going on and that you have storylines to carry over from the first season whereas starting at square one on a show-- particularly a show as complex as "Watchmen" was-- it was an undertaking. We started that show in September 2017, and I think there was still writing going on in early 2019-- I think March/April of 2019. So there was-- yeah. A lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of work into that show, and I believe it paid off, and I'm really proud of what we were able to make. But it is just a lot harder to do that world building and to do that character creation from the ground up.

Jo Reed: What are you working on now?

Cord Jefferson: I'm on a new show called "Station Eleven." That's a novel that came out in 2015, and so I started that in August.

Jo Reed: Oh! "Station Eleven" is an NEA Big Read Book. It's by Emily St. John Mandel, and I actually interviewed her for the podcast.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Yeah, that's how you know it. Yeah. And so that's going to be on HBO Max, and we started that in August of 2019 and are still writing that. We're now in January of 2020.

Jo Reed: When can we expect to see it?

Cord Jefferson: Not until 2021. That's not until next year, so a lot of time.

Jo Reed: I mean, after "The Good Place" goes off, Cord, I'm going to need a show <laughs>.

Cord Jefferson: I'll try. So next week I'm starting on a show called "Moonfall," and so I think that that may be out in 2020. I'm not 100 percent sure, but I'll keep you posted.

Jo Reed: Okay <laughs>. Thank you so much, and thank you for just the wonderful work that you do.

Cord Jefferson: Oh, thank you, and I really appreciate it. Thank you for having me on.

Jo Reed: Not at all. That was Cord Jefferson, a television writer whose series include "Watchmen," "The Good Place," "Succession," and now "Station Eleven." You've been listening to "Art Works," produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to "Art Works" wherever you get your podcasts, so please do, and please leave us a rating on Apple. It does help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Jefferson began his career as a journalist before transitioning to television writing, crafting scripts for shows like Succession, Master of None, The Good Place, and Watchmen. Watchmen is a super-hero series set in an alternative world that nonetheless shares much of our racial history. The episode Jefferson wrote with showrunner Damon Lindelof features the series’ lead character living out her grandfather’s memories of vicious racism in the 1930s. In this episode of the podcast, Jefferson discusses the Watchmen writers’ room, the vision for the series, and weaving real history into a fantasy series.

John Kevin Jones, Actor and Executive Director of Summoners Ensemble Theatre

John Kevin Jones: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. “‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door. Only this and nothing more.”

<Music Up>

“NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed: That’s actor John Kevin Jones performing “The Raven”. It’s one of the works he enacts in the one-man show, Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Imagine, if you will, a four-story 19th century family home in Lower Manhattan preserved virtually intact with original furnishings and personal belongings. That’s the Merchant’s House Museum and its candle-lit Greek revival salon provides the perfect spooky setting for Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe. John Kevin Jones performs four of Edgar Allen Poe’s best-known works: “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and as you heard, “The Raven”. This Summoners Ensemble Theater production doesn’t rely on props. John Kevin Jones instead relies on the text and his ability to inhabit and interpret the characters. He transforms seamlessly from madman, to elegant wine aficionado, to prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, to grieving lover. It’s a tour-de-force from the veteran actor who has become known for his other one-man show, A Christmas Carol, which has been performed at the Merchant’s House Museum for the past six holiday seasons, with number seven slated to begin in late November. Given the success of A Christmas Carol, it made sense for Summoners Ensemble Theater to team up with the Merchant’s House Museum for another evening, this time of Poe’s literary macabre during Halloween season. It’s appropriate, but it’s still no small undertaking. And I wondered how long the idea of Killing an Evening with Edgar Allen Poe had been percolating.

John Kevin Jones: Well, it’s crazy, because years and years ago, when I was in junior high, it was the first time I’d read Edgar Allan Poe—was “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and I was an actor way back then working in community theaters and in my school, and I thought, “What a great monologue “The Tell-Tale Heart” would make on its feet,” and that idea has sort of followed me around throughout my life. And, of course, the opportunity never really arose until I had been working with The Merchant’s House Museum and of course, our little company, Summoner’s Ensemble Theater is producing A Christmas Carol at The Merchant’s House there for the last seven years. So I thought, “What about bringing Edgar Allan Poe’s work into this incredible space?” which is a preserved 19th century home, very much like a salon of that time. And I thought, “Why not bring Poe into this as well?” So, we started with “Tell-Tale Heart”, because that was really my childhood wish in a very direct kind of way, and I wanted to make that happen, and then we set about choosing other pieces to fill it out and make it more of an evening.

Jo Reed: And you choose four pieces of Poe’s to present during the evening, and you talked about “The Tell-Tale Heart”. The other—Tell me about the other three and how you chose them.

John Kevin Jones: Well, the other three—of course, we wanted to do “The Raven” since that is the piece that brought him the most fame, and I think that when people come to hear Edgar Allan Poe, they would feel—given short shrift if we didn’t give them “The Raven” as well, so we decided we would definitely do that, and also, I love that poem. It’s very near and dear to my heart, especially as I get older and experience the kind of grief that he speaks about in that poem. But in terms of rounding out the rest of the evening, we wanted to choose a couple of stories that would contrast “Tell-Tale Heart” and the character that drives the narrative there. So, we looked at The Cask of Amontillado and I love that story, because first, it’s just to beautifully constructed. We tasked ourselves with the horrible, unenviable task of editing the piece down to the character arc, because it is very long and to make—to make the evening complete and yet interesting we wanted to edit it down a bit. “Tell-Tale Heart” is in full, but we did edit down “Cask of Amontillado” a little bit to show the very cold heart of this killer, and how he tells us about all the things that he’s done. He’s quite proud of them. But that contrasts “Tell-Tale Heart” where you have this deranged person who really, truly believes that he had some sort of right to end his suffering by taking this other man’s life. And then, we also chose “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and the reason we chose that again, as a form of balance. This story is told by a victim, and so we get to hear someone who has been subjected to horrible circumstances and what their experience is there, and of course, if you’re familiar with “Pit and the Pendulum” it is a PTSD-inducing story. It is really a horrific imagining of what the Inquisition was all about.

Jo Reed: Well, you know, there is gory scary, and then there’s the “boo” kind of scary.

John Kevin Jones: Yes.

Jo Reed: But Poe does something else entirely.

John Kevin Jones: He does the chilling. He does the—the uncanny, the things that make you question your own—your own motives and other people’s motives and make you look over your shoulder when you’re walking down the street or wonder about the people that are around you and what they might be capable of. I—I think that he has a real way of getting under our skin with that kind of terror. But then also, with “Pit and the Pendulum”, of course, you know, he really tries to use sensory perception so that you really get a feeling of the odors in this prison, the darkness of the prison. These are all the things that begin to affect the senses, and then of course, he does talk about some other things like rats, and one of the things I love during the show is, as I’m telling the story, is to see as the rats come up to see the audience they all go into a self-comfort pose. <laughs> It’s very—You can see them all go, “Oh, God,” and you know, you can see them—see the ideas falling over them, and that is very exciting from an actor’s perspective, of course.

Jo Reed: From what I understand, Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is less a play than an enactment of these four pieces.

John Kevin Jones: Yes. Yes. Since Poe writes in the first person, which I think is really fascinating, too, because when you read it, it’s almost as if it’s you who is telling the story, sometimes as you’re reading it. But in this case, all these characters are coming to life, and so the—the crazy, deranged person in “The Tell-Tale Heart” who is plotting the demise of the old man—we’re never really sure of what their relationship actually is. In fact, Poe never tells us if that narrator is a man or a woman. Of course, in my case it is me. But, we do try to bring these characters to full life so that people get a sense of being in the room with these people.

Jo Reed: Are there props? Are there costumes?

John Kevin Jones: There are some props. I mean, we—we try to keep everything very limited, and that kind of goes back to what we did with Christmas Carol, too. We don’t like a lot of bells and whistles that take us away from the words of the author, because that’s really central to what we do at Summoners. We’re really interested in highlighting the actual words of our authors, and so, choosing props—in “Tell-Tale Heart”, this year we have a little surprise. I won’t give it away, but there is a little surprise. Well, I guess everybody does it, so it’s not going to hurt if I say that there’s a small heartbeat somewhere in there, but that’s really all. With “Cask of Amontillado”, I envision that this character is making a kind of confession, a confession for which he feels no remorse about, but a confession nonetheless, and so we’ve given him a—a rosary, and he begins kneeling, sort of at a church. And then, for “Pit and the Pendulum” we really went outside the box with that, and we have a—a very different way of telling that story. I’m using a—an artist’s doll to highlight the uncomfortable and sensory nature of this man’s journey, and we’re still actually working on that. We spent a lot of time with it in rehearsal, and then we spent a lot of time with it in front of the audience, and we like where it’s going, and we like what it does. I never feel the work is finished, and so—which my director is—she’s okay with that. I call—I called her today earlier, and I actually told her I had an idea about the piece, and she said, “Oh, God. What is it?” <laughs> So—so, we have—we have a very frank working relationship, but I never feel like the work is finished, and that piece in particular continues to grow, and I love where it’s going. But we do try to keep props to a bare minimum, because I want the audience to really focus on the words of Poe and how he strikes our imagination.

Jo Reed: So, you’re playing this in The Merchant’s House Museum.

John Kevin Jones: Yes.

Jo Reed: The museum is doubly pertinent to Poe. Well, the museum is doubly pertinent to Poe, right? I mean, he lived in that neighborhood in Manhattan around the time the house was actually built.

John Kevin Jones: Exactly. In fact, when “The Raven” was published, I think that was 1845, he lived right around the corner on Amity Street, which is now West 3rd, and he actually started writing “The Cask of the Amontillado” in that house. He retooled “The Raven” in that house, and he started some other works in that home as well. So, it really was, that particular area, was really of deep historical significance for Edgar Allan Poe’s writings.

Jo Reed: What room in the museum do you use for the play?

John Kevin Jones: The Greek Revival parlor, the double Greek Revival parlor. It’s absolutely stunning.

Jo Reed: And I would imagine it’s a very intimate space.

John Kevin Jones: It is. We can only—we can only seat about 45 people in the space and we do it sort of in a three-quarter thrust, so we have—I joke with the audience that we have the longest first row in town, and that way everybody gets to be very close to the action, and still feel like they’re in the room, which, I think, is not something that you really get when you just tour the Museum, which is not to say that I’m discouraging you from—anybody from touring the Museum. I think it’s well worth doing. But when you’re actually in a performance and you get to sit there and feel yourself in the room among these mouldings that are among the finest mouldings throughout the country. I think they’ve been designated as being the—the best representation of 19th century moulding in—in the world, I think, and so beautifully intact. That’s what’s fantastic about the room. You really do feel like you are in the 19th century when you’re in that room.

Jo Reed: How is it for you as a performer to be performing in a space that is so intimate?

John Kevin Jones: Well, it’s very tight, and of course, you know, it’s like performing for young people. There’s no fooling. You know, if you are not right on your mark, and if you are not being authentic, your audience lets you know, and I feel very fortunate with working with Rhonda. She and I have been able to bring the work that--

Jo Reed: She’s the director, correct?

John Kevin Jones: She is my director, yes, and—and I think that we have been able to bring the characters to a kind of authenticity so that the audience loses me and they are watching Poe’s character at that point, which I think is fantastic for it to be that close, but it really does mean that I have got to be on point with every performance and every night, because if you’re that close to an audience, they can see if you’re having a moment.

Jo Reed: Can you feel them getting scared?

John Kevin Jones: You can sometimes, actually. You can kind of feel them in—in “Tell-Tale Heart”. It’s fantastic, because of course, in the beginning of that story this character is actually kind of funny. I mean, you’re watching him and you’re listening to his rationale and it’s so bizarre and farfetched and it seems odd and so the audience laughs in the beginning. But then we make a turn, and when you make that turn all of a sudden it gets very serious, and you feel the audience become very aware of the limits of their body and where they are in space and what is happening here. And then, of course, as I said in “Pit and the Pendulum”, one of my favorite things is as soon as I bring up the rats, so many people just immediately, as I said, go into a comfort pose.

Jo Reed: Kevin, do you mind giving us just a taste of what you do?

John Kevin Jones: Not at all. I’ll tell you what, since it started with “Tell-Tale Heart”--

Jo Reed: That’s what I was going to suggest.

John Kevin Jones: Let me do-- Let me just do a little bit of “Tell-Tale Heart”.

Jo Reed: Perfect.

John Kevin Jones: Let’s see if I can bring this character out. “–True! Nervous. Very, very dreadfully nervous, I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all, the sense of hearing was acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in Hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story. It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture, a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.” And then he goes on from there. <laughs>

Jo Reed: That’s great. Thank you. That was really fabulous.

John Kevin Jones: He’s a little nervous, that one, as he says right at the very top, but he’s a lot of fun to do. And, I think when, as you were saying, when I’m very close to the audience like that as well, as I’m moving up and down through the space, and I do come rather close to most of them, you can feel them kind of pull away as I—as I approach. “Oh, here he—here he comes,” and “Oh, and there he goes.” It’s a symbiotic relationship, for sure.

Jo Reed: Talk to me about the challenges and the opportunities for a performer doing Poe in the way that you are.

John Kevin Jones: Right. You know, I think it’s interesting. I was just thinking about this with Rhonda the other day. We had actually done a showcase of this last year before we did the full mounted production this year. And while I think we did great work last year, I’m not going to say bad things about our work, but I think that I approached it with a kind of reverence for the author that kept me from being as authentic as I wanted to be with the characters. And so, as we started examining last year’s work and moving into this year’s work, we started thinking more about, “How do we bring this voice to more authenticity, each of these voices to a deeper authenticity?” How do we let our audience really get a feeling for who these people are, and not just the writings of Poe, because Poe’s parents were actors, and whether or not—He didn’t know them, but somehow I feel like genetically, maybe, DNA-wise, the sense of drama and the sense of action and rising action was really strong in his mind, and he was able to bring that to bear on the page. So that is the challenge, is to play these characters as they are and not to try to bring a, kind of, reverence to it, but rather, let the audience be that judge as to what kind of reverence or—or attention needs to be paid to this person who’s telling the story.

Jo Reed: Poe’s work, especially his poetry, is so rhythmic.

John Kevin Jones: It really is.

Jo Reed: And sound is so important in them and, you know, the repetition of words and phrases. And I wonder, as an actor, if this is in some ways a double-edge sword because, boy, on one hand it would be so easy to go straight over the top.

John Kevin Jones: Mm-hmm. Well, it is, and especially with “The Raven”, because of course, the rhyme scheme is internal and it’s—often it really has a very quick pace to it. So, you almost have to work against the rhyme scheme in order to bring a greater sense of understanding to the piece, but also with the other pieces. He has favorite phrases that he loves to reuse and retouch on, and his short stories are truly prose. There is really a sense of poetic license in each one of them in the way that he returns to words, but when you have a repeated word as an actor, I think one of the things you learn as a young performer is when you have something that’s repeated, you have to understand that each time you say it, it has to have specific connotations in that moment that are different from the times you’ve said it before and the times you’re about to say it. So that each time he says, for instance, in “Tell-Tale Heart”, that the noise steadily increased. He says that three times as he describes the heartbeat getting louder and louder, and he’ll say the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles in a high key and with violent gesticulations, but the noise steadily increased. Each time I say that it has to have more import. It has to—it has to be more frightening. It has to be more terrorizing, so that you start at one place, and then work your way up into it. It does provide you a path, but it also, as you said, provides you with the possibility of falling into a rut as well, and so you have to be aware of the rut and try to arc yourself up toward the path that Poe is leading you on.

Jo Reed: How did you get into acting? What’s your acting origin story?

John Kevin Jones: Oh, gosh. I tell you, I was in junior high in Summit, New Jersey and it was 1970-something, and I was a shy, very shy, withdrawn child and to some extent I guess—I—I tell people I’m shy these days, and they’re like, “Really? I don’t believe it.” But I am a little shy, and I was very shy then, and I had a teacher who noticed that, and she got me involved in theater, and the very first play that I was in was Our Town. I got the part of Wally Webb which had one line. I was so proud of that, and I beat out my friend, Andrew Dingle for the role, which I thought was no small thing. And so, that was the first time I was on stage, and I knew from that time forward that that was what I wanted to do. Even when my father waved at me from the audience while I was on stage, <laughs> and one of my fellow friends asked me, “Wonder whose father that is?” I claimed not to know. <laughs> Even then, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Is that what you studied when you went to college?

John Kevin Jones: It was. I went to University of South Florida. I hadn’t really intended to go there. I had applications into other schools, but I saw a teacher; her name was Monica Steele. I saw her in a production in Florida, and I was so taken with her work that I actually sort of just barged in back stage after the show to say, “Thank you.” Her first question to me was, “How did you get back here?” and after we had had a moment to chat, she told me that she was a teacher at the University of South Florida in their theater and dance department, and at that moment I knew that I needed to study with her, because whatever she had was what I wanted and fortunately, that worked out very well. It was a—a good marriage, I guess, so to speak, that when I was in her classroom she knew how to speak to me and she knew how to guide me, and her work with voice in particular and also with just being authentic and true to yourself and the words, and the dedication to the author’s work, you know, that this is really about serving the author’s work and about being selfless in that. It’s not a place for vanity. Acting, I don’t think, is a place for vanity. I think you can have vanity and be an actor, but when you are actually performing, if you’re thinking about what other people are thinking about you or how you’re projecting yourself or how you seem to be, you cannot be living in that character and that, for me, is really the end all—be all to end all, to live in that character and be that person for a couple hours and take my audience on a journey.

Jo Reed: Okay. Here’s my next question. When were you able to quit your day job?

John Kevin Jones: Well, I still haven’t. In fact, I came directly to this interview from my day job. I’m hoping that within some time I will be able to, and if they’re listening, please don’t worry, yet. <laughs> But within the next year or so I think that Summoners Ensemble with A Christmas Carol at the Merchant’s House and with Poe pieces, it’s kind of opened up a really incredible door for both Rhonda and me, not just for our own work, either, but to reach out to other artists who can perhaps tell other stories. I would love to hear Edith Wharton at The Merchant’s House. I would love to hear Washington Irving down at South Street Seaport. I mean, there’s so many authors that I would love to hear done around the city in different places, and of course, I can’t be everywhere at one time, but we might be able to encourage other performers to step out and bring these works to a new life for a new audience and maybe even garner some interest among our young people for where we’ve come from and who we used to be, and how we lived, and how that might inform our future.

Jo Reed: You’re executive director of the Summoners Ensemble Theatre.

John Kevin Jones: I am. I am. I have been since 2013.

Jo Reed: Tell me about the Theatre and what its mission is, when it was formed.

John Kevin Jones: Well, when it was formed, it was in 1994. That was a group of Circle in the Square students who had graduated and they formed it in order to create new works and also to give themselves the opportunity to take over all of the roles that are involved in producing a play in theater, so director, producer, PR, marketing, ticketing, all of those aspects. And over the years, they went and found different paths in their lives, and Rhonda, who was one of the original members of that, was the last, sort of, sole survivor, and she came to a point where she was either going to fold the company or move forward with it, and she approached me and a few other people about that, and we all said, “Oh, let’s not lose this opportunity. Let’s see what we can do with this,” and we did change the mission. The original mission, of course, was for them to create their new works. For me, the mission broadened out a bit more, and so it became, “How can we bring literature to life?” I thought that would be an exciting way for that company to move forward, and for us to—to grow a bit. I had no idea back then when we thought about it, that Christmas Carol would become such a juggernaut and such a wonderful thing. I look forward to it every year. Telling that story is-- It’s almost like my family is with me, and I’ve lost most of them, unfortunately. So, when I tell that story I feel like they’re right there telling the story with me, and it’s—it’s such an exciting thing. But people love that story, and so--

Jo Reed: It’s a great story. What’s not to love?

John Kevin Jones: It really is. It is, and—my favorite comment when people leave is that they feel like they’ve never heard the story before. And I think that’s the power of Dickens’ words, of his actual language, when you take away the bells and the whistles and all of the other stuff, which is fine. There are lots of productions around the country that, you know, involve huge casts, and they’re—they’re great, but this pares it down just to his words, just to what he was talking about, in much the same way with Poe, and for me that’s so exciting. And so, that sort of took off, and then it became, “Gosh, this is a real thing. What—what do we have here?” And so, this has been a most happy accident to be a part of this, and to have come through with Christmas Carol and now with Edgar Allan Poe, and in the future, I mean, next year we want to do more Poe stories, and open up a series B so that we have both the series that we’re doing this year, plus a new series, and we were also reading Frederick Douglas, his autobiography.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

John Kevin Jones: Wouldn’t that be a marvelous thing to hear an actor take an edited version of that into an hour and let us hear what it was like to really be this man and to maybe do it in a space in Harlem that was specific to him or a space in Midtown that was specific to him, and you’d get a real sense of the fullness of the history of this man in this moment, because his writing, beyond being pertinent, it’s also good story telling. It’s—it’s beyond being historic, it’s just good story telling, and if you can tell a good story, I think you can actually affect people’s minds and hearts, and I would hope that that’s why we get involved as actors and artists and directors in theater, that we want to steer the conversation by effecting the way people’s minds and hearts perceive the world around them. Certainly, like I said, with Christmas Carol, I think again, one of my other favorite things to see there is when, oftentimes we’ll have men of a certain age brought by their wives, and you can kind of spot that they’re not totally thrilled or understanding what it is they’re about to see, and they sit down and they cross their arms, and the story starts, and then it gets to the part where Tiny Tim—Spoiler alert, everyone. Tiny Tim is dying in the future, and you see these men make such a turn in their emotional state, and they become really choked up, and oftentimes, when they’re leaving the house, because I—I say goodnight to everybody as they leave, because Fezziwig talks—Dickens talks about Fezziwig saying goodnight to all his party guests, and so we do that also. We—we feel like that’s an important part of the story, and so when I say goodnight, some of these men will press my hand, and they really just cannot speak, and I think that is the highest praise of all, because they came in with some questions and some doubts and they left full of hope for themselves, for their own—their own transformation in this world, and how exciting is that?

Jo Reed: I think that’s wonderful, and I think with theater, the point is it’s something that the actor and the audience, they experience together, but I think in a historic building like that, with the size of the audience that you’re dealing with, that has to be so much more profound.

John Kevin Jones: I—I think you’re right. I think you’re right. I think that when you do something in a much larger space, the audience is more apt to sit back and watch, and remove themselves from what they’re seeing on stage, which is, like I said, that’s fine.

Jo Reed: Yeah, of course. There are many ways to see things.

John Kevin Jones: Yeah, absolutely. But in this particular way, it really requires you to lean forward. It really—Well, it doesn’t require you to lean forward, but it does urge you to, and in some way silently move you in that direction, and so you do lean into the words and you do lean into the meaning of what’s being said, and it—it also, because you’re in a small group, even for that one moment, this little group of 45 people sitting in a double Greek parlor in an 1832 home, are a community. Now, they may never be in the same room together again. They may only pass each other on the streets, but for that hour, in that room, this group is a community, and I think that’s sorely lacking in our world today. And, I mean, I’d hate to sound like the old 55-year-old that I am, because I certainly use my social media and my phone in excess just like everybody else, but at the same time, I think there needs to be a balance and there needs to be an understanding that sometimes you have to put the phone down. Sometimes you have to put the screen away. Sometimes you have to lean in and get close to the action.

Jo Reed: Yeah, and there is something about theater, live performance, that is so compelling.

John Kevin Jones: I can’t agree with you more. I love movies, and film, and television, of course, and all of it is wonderful.

Jo Reed: Yeah, me too.

John Kevin Jones: But there’s something about being in the room. It’s immediate. It’s undeniable.

Jo Reed: And ephemeral. It will never happen the same way again.

John Kevin Jones: Yes, exactly. That performance is yours and you—when you leave after seeing a performance, whether it’s Linda Vista on Broadway, which I’m only shouting out because I just saw it and it was really good, <laughs> or if you’re seeing my show, when you leave you absolutely feel like that happened, that occurred, and it is your performance that you take away. The next night, whoever leaves after that next night, that’s their performance. That’s what they saw. So, it is very special. It’s rare.

Jo Reed: Okay, Kevin, I’m going to be really pushy. Is it possible for you to do a little of “The Raven”?

John Kevin Jones: Sure. Absolutely. Well, let’s start from the beginning and see where—see how far we get.

Jo Reed: Okay, perfect. Thank you.

John Kevin Jones: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. “‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door. Only this and nothing more.” Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December; and each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor. Eagerly I wished the morrow; vainly, I had sought to borrow from my books surcease of sorrow, sorrow for the lost Lenore. For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore. Nameless here forever more. And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before; so that now, to still the beating of my heart I stood repeating, “‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door, some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door. This it is and nothing more.” Presently, my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer, “Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly, your forgiveness I implore; but the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, and so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door, that I scare was sure I heard you.” Here, I opened wide the door. Darkness there and nothing more. Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before; but the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token, and the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?” This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore.” Merely this and nothing more. Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning, soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before. “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice; let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore. Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; ‘Tis the wind and nothing more!” Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, in there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore; not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he; but with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door. Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door. Perched, and sat, and nothing more.” And then, if we want to know what the raven does, come see my show.

Jo Reed: Perfect. That was lovely. Thank you so much, Kevin.

John Kevin Jones: Thank you.

Jo Reed: It was such a pleasure.

John Kevin Jones: Oh, Josephine, thank you.

Jo Reed: It really, really was.

John Kevin Jones: I’m so glad you had me on. Thank you so much.

<Music Up>

Jo Reed: That’s actor John Kevin Jones. His one-man show, Killing an Evening with Edgar Allen Poe, will run through November 2nd. For more information about Killing an Evening with Poe or about their upcoming show A Christmas Carol, go to Summoners

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do. And then, leave us a rating on Apple because it really does help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.



Jones talks about his one-man show Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe on this episode of the podcast. In Killing, Jones performs four of Poe’s best-known works: “The Tell-Tale Heart;” “The Cask of Amontillado;” “The Pit and the Pendulum;” and, of course, “The Raven.” Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is performed in the candle-lit salon of the Merchant’s House Museum—a 19th-century family home in lower Manhattan preserved virtually intact with original furnishings and personal belongings. The intimate space with candles casting their shadows brings the audience into the action of the play in more ways than one.

Aislinn Clarke, Filmmaker

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive. <Music up> Aislinn Clarke: I like a horror film that's about something, that isn't just horror for horror's sake. I like it to be thoughtful and intelligent and I like a horror film that I come away thinking about things in a new way. I like things that shine a light on the darker elements of human behavior. Jo Reed: That’s film director Aislinn Clarke, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Let me begin by saying that the world of horror is not where I dwell. But at the Capital Irish Film Festival, I was intrigued by The Devil’s Doorway, the first feature length horror film in Northern Ireland to be directed by a woman because Aislinn Clarke would set her film in the Magdalene laundries—institutions that were real-life horror stories for untold numbers of women. Run by the Catholic Church, the Magdalene Laundries were compulsory workhouses for women of supposed ill-repute. They were haunting grim places, and they are at the center of Aislinn’s film. The film’s action unfolds in Ireland in 1960. In a Magdalene laundry, a statue of the Virgin Mary has been said to weep blood. The question is: is this miraculous or is it a hoax. Two priests are sent to the laundry to investigate to investigate: a world-weary older priest, Father Thomas, and an idealistic young priest, Father John, who is eager to witness a miracle and capture it on film. That’s all I’m saying about the plot—no spoilers here. But I was eager to meet the director who created such a marriage of real-life and imagined horror. Luckily, Aislinn Clarke came to The Capital Irish Film Festival, presented by the Contemporary Arts organization, Solas Nua, and the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center. Aislinn and I we were able to meet and talk. I had many questions, but I began with the Magdalene laundries. Aislinn Clarke: Magdalen laundries were institutions where women were kept, ostensibly they were for women of low morals, you know, prostitutes, single mothers; but actually, in reality, all kinds of women could end up in these places. You could end up in there; basically all you needed was a male member of your family to sign you in. So there were women who ended up in Magdalen laundries that could not leave because their parents died and the brother wanted to inherit the whole property, this kind of thing happened as well. Women were put in there because they were considered to be a moral risk to the men of the community. They were basically a dumping ground for women who were in some way or another considered to be difficult or not useful. While they were there they had to perform labor for the church. There were other forms of labor, but the laundry was the most common one and that involved washing sheets, which is a nice metaphor for cleaning your sins, you know. But the truth is, that they were washing them for restaurants and hotels and private homes and whatnot. And the last one closed in 1997-- no, in 1996, apologize-- and that was not so long ago, you know. Jo Reed: No. Aislinn Clarke: By that point there were very few and people weren't really being sent to them anymore, but there were still some women who were in there who had been in there for some time. So there are women alive today who are 40 who have been in Magdalen laundries, so it's not ancient history. Jo Reed: In doing some research about it, knowing that we were going to speak, I was stunned by two things. One, that they were for-profit organizations. I had no idea about that. And the second thing was that they were worldwide. They were in the United States. They were in Sweden, Australia. Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. A lot of people think that they were a specifically Irish phenomenon. Jo Reed: Yes, I did. Aislinn Clarke: But it was basically anywhere we had a concentration of a Catholic population that you would have the Magdalen laundry. As you say, they had them in Spain. They had them in South America. They had them in the States. They had them in I think Canada might have had a couple as well. Jo Reed: Yeah. Aislinn Clarke: So, yes, they were all over the place. Jo Reed: Stunning. Now for you, what came first, wanting to make a horror movie or wanting to make a movie about the Magdalen laundries? Aislinn Clarke: I think for me it was wanting to make a movie about the Magdalen laundries. I actually did a lot of research. I used to work in TV and more in the documentary area and about 2005 I had done a lot of research into development for a documentary which never ended up getting its finance and it was about Magdalen laundries. I spoke to a lot of survivors and women who'd been in these places but also people who had been born there that were trying to find their mothers, people in the States a lot of the time, and ever since, I'd just been fascinated by them. I had my son when I was 17 and that was 1997, the year after the last laundry closed, so I always felt close to it. I always felt like I could have been one of those women in a different, a slightly different time or with a different family. My parents would never have done that to me, but if I'd been in a slightly different family it could have been what happened to me. And I felt a kinship with these women and I was interested in their stories. Jo Reed: Your father, apparently, also had a connection with the Magdalen laundries, however tenuous. Explain that. Aislinn Clarke: My dad delivered-- he was a bread man as we call it in Ireland, so basically he worked for a bakery that his father and his grandfather had worked for also, and he delivered bread. That was what he did from he was 13-years-of-age. One of the places he delivered bread to was a convent in the town that I grew up in, in Dundalk. On Saturday mornings I used to get up early like many kids do, to watch the Saturday morning cartoons and at the time, my mother had a part-time job in a credit union. So I would be watching the Saturday morning cartoons when I'm like 8-years-old, something like that, and he would come in and out on his runs, so he'd call background and he used to bring me home a chicken toasty <laughs> from the-- from the convent that the nuns used to make, you know, which was a nice thing for them to do and they would say, "Bring that home to your daughter." But I remember him telling me about the Magdalen laundries and describing what they were like. He didn't like walking through. He had to walk through the laundry, he described it as a kind of a white hot hell. It was full of daylight. Big, big windows, steam everywhere, very, very hot. Steam running down the walls, water on the floor. And the girls were lugging these huge, heavy, heavy wet sheets and they all just looked so worn and tired and beaten. And I always remember the images he described. And my father was a very empathetic person but I know that he found it very uncomfortable being in that space and he felt that there was something not right. But this was the eighties. These places existed in plain sight, you know. Everybody knew that they were there. Everybody. It wasn't just nuns or priests, it was the whole community and the threat of ending up in one was always hanging over everyone's head. Anybody could end up there. The perception was that the women who went there, there was a reason why they ended up there, but people kind of left it. It wasn't their business, and people weren't really talking about that then. They weren't really looking at these issues as they eventually have started to do. So it was something I had had on my mind since then. So when I met the producer, I'd never thought about it as a horror film, but I've always loved horror and I think horror can be very useful when it comes to looking at social trauma and helping us to unpack social trauma if it's handled in the right way. So I thought there was potential there to do something. Jo Reed: I want to interrupt you. Why do you think horror can be particularly useful in doing that? Aislinn Clarke: Because I think it helps us to confront things in a more visceral way rather than talking about them in an academic sense or in a distant way. It makes them very immediate and visceral. And I think that's something that horror has always done. I'm talking about horror as literature as well and even way back to fairy tales from hundreds of years ago. It's been a tool that we've used to learn about ourselves and the horrible things that we can do in real life. A lot of those classic horror tales are really very gory as we know. Jo Reed: Yes, indeed. <Laughs> Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. Jo Reed: And is that what draws you to horror? You like horror? Do you watch horror? Aislinn Clarke: Yeah, I love horror. I like all films. I studied film and I did a master's degree, so I'm not solely a horror person, but I do like horror and I see the value in it. And that is what I like, specifically, about horror. Jo Reed: Did you grow up watching horror films? Aislinn Clarke: Oh, yeah. So my dad was big into movies. He was, my dad was-- I'm not from a very well-off family and we're very working class and but my dad was very-- he wasn't an educated man but he was a very intelligent man. He left school when he was 13 to go and work, you know. But he loved movies. He loved horror films. He loved Westerns, especially. And we would watch movies together. On Friday nights, we would rent a VHS and watch movies together and we were both really into it and so were my sisters and brother. My mom, not at all. <Laughs> Jo Reed: Was there a horror film that was particular-- or a few that were particularly influential or that grabbed you when you were younger? Aislinn Clarke: I distinctly remember seeing The Exorcist when I was much too young to have seen The Exorcist. <Laughs>. I think I was about 7 or 8-years-old. But I was the youngest of four and by the time my parents had all those kids, you know the way things kind of slide a little bit in terms of rules and so on. So I got to see it, but I was put out of the room at bits that were considered to be too extreme, so I would be-- Jo Reed: By yourself? <Laughs> Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. <Laughs> By myself, which in many ways was probably worse. I remember sitting at the bottom of the stairs and you'd have to wait to be called back in, you know. But I'd be sitting on the bottom of the stairs filling in the gap. And I could hear what was happening, so I'd be thinking, "What's happening?" And I would be making up my own story in my head about what was happening then, so-- Jo Reed: Which was probably even scarier. Aislinn Clarke: I think it probably terrified me more and in some ways maybe contributed to me being a horror filmmaker now. So that and I also vividly remember seeing Nightmare on Elm Street and in the case of that I was about, again, about 7 or 8-years-old and just been completely fascinated that someone had created-- it was like playing, you know, someone had created this whole world and this whole story kind of like I did with my dolls every day and I thought that would be a really wonderful thing to do. I didn't know what a director was. I kind of thought that maybe the actors just made it up as they went along or I didn't understand how it operated, but I just thought it would be so much fun to make a whole world and allow people to live in it for a couple of hours. Jo Reed: What makes a good horror film? Aislinn Clarke: Well, I think a lot of people probably have different-- Jo Reed: Yeah, for you, obviously, yeah. Aislinn Clarke: Opinions on that, but for me, a good horror film is something that-- I have a different opinion on this now than I did when I was 7, by the way. It was a very different thing. I like a horror film that's about something, that isn't just horror for horror's sake. I like it to be thoughtful and intelligent and I like a horror film that I come away thinking about things in a new way. And I think there is a perception that horror is very gory and it's just it's purely about the pleasure of watching violence or something like that, and those are not the kind of horror movies that I enjoy. I'm not really into exploitation. I like things that shine a light on the darker elements of human behavior. Jo Reed: And so this project, The Devil's Doorway, doing a horror film about the Magdalene laundries, tell me how this project came together. Aislinn Clarke: Well, I was approached by the producer of the film back when it was really just a kernel of an idea and the idea was to make a horror film set in a Magdalene laundry, but it was a very different horror film. It was modern day and it would be more like The Blair Witch Project in that it would be improvised and we would put some people into a disused Magdalene laundry or something that we could make look like a Magdalene laundry and we would scare the pants off them and then get a 90 minute film out of it. That was the original idea. I thought if you're going to do a horror film, something that's in a Magdalene laundry, you might think that you could do that without making any political comment or social comment, but I think you were still making a comment and that is that you don't care about it and I felt that that could easily be very exploitative if you're making these women who suffered in this place figures, the source of the live threat, what are you saying about them? I thought it was very-- it could be quite problematic. And also beside that, I thought it was a missed opportunity. There's so much found footage horror on the market and if it was contemporary and it has that same look, a bunch of kids in a scary place, no matter how good you made it, I think people wouldn't even watch it. It would just seem like another one of those movies. I felt that there was an opportunity to do something that sat aside of the subgenre in a way that was more aesthetically interesting and also that went into a human drama in the story. Jo Reed: You mentioned found footage and that you used that technique in The Devil's Doorway. Can you explain what that is? Aislinn Clarke: Found footage is when you shoot a film in a first person's perspective so one camera, first person film. Sometimes it's more than one camera, but it's always from a first person perspective and you present it as though it's almost like faux documentary style, I guess. So something like The Blair Witch Project would fall into that category of found footage. Jo Reed: And in your film you had one of the priests, Father John, as the documentarian taking film of what they're trying to unravel at this Magdalen laundry about the mystery and is it a miracle or is it not. Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. So my angle into it, into making it a found footage film, was to have this mystery in it where they're investigating is this statue or is it not weeping blood? Is it someone-- is it trickery or is it a real miracle and that they've been tasked with documenting that process, so one of the priests is a documentarian and he has a 16 millimeter camera and a lot of the film is shot on 16 millimeter film and that's kind of my way into making it found footage, which is a different angle. My aesthetic references were the Maysles brothers' documentaries of the early sixties. I was thinking more in that kind of line. It's more, it has more of a documentary feel rather than the kind of frenetic, very immediate feel of other found footage films. Jo Reed: What opportunities were offered to you by doing it with found footage and what were the challenges, because I'm sure there were both? Aislinn Clarke: I think that found footage, it comes with its challenges but also has some benefits. If you plan well, you can shoot quite quickly. We shot the film in 15 days, which is not a long time for a feature film. Some of that is to do with the format. For example, when you're doing interviews or in my case, it's interviews, but it would be conversations if it was a more straightforward narrative fiction film, you don't have to worry about the reverses. It's okay to have the off-camera voice that is the other part of the conversation and just have that one face, so you don't have to shoot three or four setups in each scene, you can have one and really focus on the performance in that one character. So that's one way that it makes it simpler. The difficulty is that you always must have a reason for why the camera is here now, why, what is it doing now, why is it there, what is it capturing. You don't have the freedom to tell the story in whichever way you please when you have the removed eye of-- that you have in a narrative fiction film normally. You have to have an explanation for what this eye is doing now and why all of the time, so that brings its own challenges as well. In terms of what it opens up to you, I think for this film and the way that it is, the way that we approached this film, I feel that it allows you to really get into the character, particularly of Father Riley, Lalor's character. Jo Reed: And that's Lalor Roddy who plays-- Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. Jo Reed: Father Thomas Riley, because Father John is typically the documentarian, the camera is typically trained <laughs> on Father Thomas, yeah. Aislinn Clarke: And to some extent, it becomes confessional. It's like the camera is the eye of God to some extent and that's how I thought of it throughout. Jo Reed: And you shot in 16 millimeter. How was that for you? Is that a film that you were used to using? Was that, was there a learning curve for you? Again, I'm sure benefits, I'm sure challenges. Aislinn Clarke: I'd actually done quite a bit of film. A lot of the films that I made as a student were 8 millimeter. I had my own 8 millimeter camera, so that was <laughs> largely, at first, it was the only thing I had. I had no access to any other kind of equipment so I got used to using film and I liked the tactile quality of it. So film is something I like to work with but I also made some shorts in 35 millimeter as well. So for me, it wasn't scary. I was used to that. I'm used to being economical with how I shoot. I'm used to thinking about shooting from a film point of view and I don't like to in any case in how I operate, I don't like to shoot reams and reams. I like to know what I'm going for all the time rather than working it out on the day. I do that so that I can be open to sometimes things happen that are unexpected in a good way and you can take the time to capture those things. I don't go for quantity, I try to shoot small amounts of quality and know what I'm going for each day, but also be able to pick out the things that were unexpected that are happy accidents. Jo Reed: And I wonder about the music and your choices of when to use it because obviously it is very important to any film. But somehow with horror because everything is so heightened and there's this growing tension and release, it just strikes me as even more integral. Aislinn Clarke: I think sound is very, very important and I've done a lot of audio theater in the past. Jo Reed: Ah. Aislinn Clarke: So I'm very aware of sound and I think-- Jo Reed: Yeah, because, I don't mean to interrupt, but I was very aware of sort of the soundscape of it. Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. I think about that. I think about sound. And I think sound is sometimes overlooked in horror films and I think it's so important in horror films. So much of it is driven by the sound and that's very often overlooked, I think. Jo Reed: I wonder if that has to do with you being sent out to sit at the bottom of the stairs <laughs> during parts of it-- Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. Jo Reed: So you could hear it? Aislinn Clarke: Someone has posed that before and I think there might be something in it because I was building a sound, I was building a story from the sound in my head, you know. But especially in this film because, because it's found footage and it's a single person camera. You're limited in some ways because you can't show everything that you could show if it was a straightforward narrative fiction film and you can't get all the coverage that you would normally get, but you can get coverage with sound. You can show so much of that world that's outside of the camera with the sounds of what's happening. And I'm just always because of having done audio theater, in particular, I'm always aware of what story is coming from the sound. It's not just the visual people tell you, what people say, the dialogue; it's what's going on in the auditory world as well. Jo Reed: Just very briefly, how did you get funding for The Devil's Doorway? What was that process like? Aislinn Clarke: Northern Ireland Screen had a scheme which was called a New Talent Focus. I don't think they do it anymore. But they had £230,000 sterling to give to a director and producer team to make a first feature film, so that's where we got it from. Jo Reed: What drew you to become a filmmaker? Aislinn Clarke: That's an interesting question. I think I was always interested in films. I was always interested in visual storytelling. Even when I talk about my dad and his 16 millimeter camera, there's one film that he did and these were always silent films back then, and we had arranged this little scene together basically, where I'm about 6-years-old, I think, and we're at this old castle in Dundalk. We were there and it looks as though I'm falling off a precipice, you know, so I'm holding on with my hands and I'm, like, doing the silent movie <laughs> overwrought acting. And then the camera comes around and I smile and I, you can see my feet are on the ground, and then I run off, you know. And there's dramatic music. He put dramatic music on it, you know. It was kind of to scare my mother or something, so that's kind of an early <laughs> horror film that I had a hand in. Jo Reed: <laughs> Yeah. Aislinn Clarke: You know, I think maybe it could have been my idea, you know. I don't remember. I remember shooting it. I remember seeing the film. But I've always been interested. And then later when we had other movie cameras when I was older and allowed to use them myself, I was always walking around the house, you know, bothering my brothers and sisters and my mother and just shooting things. I always had an interest in it. And then I went to Queens to study film but it was very much academic. It was film theory. Jo Reed: Ah. Aislinn Clarke: You know, we was watching a lot of films rather than a practical course. I think that was actually a very crucial stage in developing my eye for film and my understanding of cinematic language, much more so than a practical course would have been. Jo Reed: Yeah. No, I agree. Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. Jo Reed: I would think that would be incredibly useful. Aislinn Clarke: I think for a director in particular,-- Jo Reed: Yeah. Aislinn Clarke: I think it's crucial to just watch lots and lots of really great films. And then I did an M.A. as well, a master's degree. And I was making movies then but I mean, I wasn't really sharing them with anybody. I had a little Super 8 camera and I was kind of just shooting things that I found interesting or, you know, beautiful or in some way and then I would put them together and I made some visuals for nightclubs. I made some music videos for people and things like that. But I wasn't really thinking about myself as a filmmaker. I was a film academic who was interested in shooting things sometimes. I remember actually someone telling me at some point when I said, "Maybe I would like to actually make <laughs> films," and being told that I didn't have the right personality. Jo Reed: Ooh. Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. I think there's-- Jo Reed: And did they tell you what the right personality was? Aislinn Clarke: Oh, it was someone who's-- Because I'm quite a gentle person and I think the perception was that directors are-- Jo Reed: Men. Aislinn Clarke: Are men. Jo Reed: <laughs> Aislinn Clarke: I think that was a big part of it. And also have a very masculine energy that come in and kind of boss everybody around and everyone lives in terror of them; rather than being someone who's like me, quite soft and gentle. And I did take, I took that to heart at the time and I thought, "Well, maybe it's not for me." So it took me a while to actually think about myself like that. But when I finished my master's, I had made a short documentary about the-- I grew up on the border, basically, and our-- Jo Reed: Of Northern and the Republic in Ireland, yeah. Aislinn Clarke: Of the North and the South. Yeah. So I was born, like, one, two miles south of it and then I spent my teenage years two miles on the other side. You could walk from one to the other, you know. So I say that I'm from the border rather than being from the South or the North. It's its own distinct place. Jo Reed: I bet. Aislinn Clarke: So there was huge army barracks in our tiny village. Beautiful, and area of outstanding natural beauty, the Ring of Gullion in South Armagh, and this massive army barracks that completely overshadowed the whole village and our lives, you know. And when it was being taken down I made a documentary about it and it got put on TV a number of times and I got contacted by a company who had a commission, a very unusual commission, to make a slate of short documentaries. So I went and did that and that's when I started to think of myself as a filmmaker rather than somebody who just shot things. Jo Reed: You know, you are, which you do know you are, but you are the first woman in Northern Ireland to direct a feature length horror film. Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. Jo Reed: How are women being seen and heard in the Northern Ireland film industry? Aislinn Clarke: Well, I think Northern Ireland is a special place as well in that there was no industry. I mean, we had a civil war for a long time. Jo Reed: But now? Aislinn Clarke: And now, there is an industry. But there wasn't even like 15 years ago. So when I was a film student there wasn't really very much happening. There were some people who had made some very interesting documentaries but we didn't have the infrastructure, you know. Jo Reed: Yeah. Aislinn Clarke: So people who had the desire or the talent to become cinematographers and editors and so on, they went somewhere else. They didn't stay. There was the brain drain, as they say, for a long time for lots of disciplines, not just film. But then basically what changed everything was Game of Thrones. <Laughs> So Game of Thrones, a lot of it was-- Jo Reed: In so many ways. Aislinn Clarke: Yes. <Laughter> Aislinn Clarke: In so many ways, but it was shot, a lot of it was shot in Northern Ireland. And having that massive, huge production there for ten years did so much to just develop an industry in Northern Ireland. So now we have world class post-production facilities and we have the Paint Hall Studio, which is a big, massive studio space for shooting in. We have people who are trained to a world class level in all of the disciplines of filmmaking and they live there. They didn't have to go somewhere else. And a lot of Northern Irish people do want to stay there. They love Northern Ireland. It's home. So this gave them an excuse to not have to leave. So then those people when they're not shooting Game of Thrones, they were able to shoot my films and other people's films and we're only now beginning to see the fruits of that investment into our own filmmaking in Northern Ireland. Jo Reed: Do women have to fight for a place or how--? Aislinn Clarke: Well, I think we didn't have an industry at all until quite recently. And as is the case everywhere else in the world, it tends to be more difficult for women and they come along a little bit later. So I think we're seeing the same thing. There's a lot of complex reasons why women aren't at the forefront and there's a lot being done at the minute, hopefully, to address that. I know that Northern Ireland Screen, our film funding body, are concerned about and they are interested in bringing women up and supporting them and encouraging them to make films and I think in time, hopefully, we'll have more of that. Jo Reed: Do you think about this, and maybe you don't and if you don't, that's fine, but how film and the films that are made would change if women were involved basically straight through? Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. I think we have a lot of films that are very much coming from a male gaze. That's talked about a lot, but films that see the world in a very male way and have done historically for a long time. Those are the kind of films that we're getting and film is a very important part of our culture, the stories that we tell ourselves. There's a lot of people who don't even read books but they watch movies. So women are not contributing to the stories that we tell ourselves as a culture and I think that's a difficulty and I think things would change quite a lot. It would be really nice to have an all-female crew on something and to see how that changes dynamics and the feel of a production, and there have been movies that were very female-led that feel like that, and I think we've a long way to go, really, until we're seeing more. And the funny thing is that if you had an all-female crew, people would say, "Oh, wow, that striking," somehow, but we've had a lot of all-male crews throughout history and they don't seem unusual at all, you know. Jo Reed: Because that's the way it is. Aislinn Clarke: Yes. <Laughter> Jo Reed: And are you going to stay in the world of horror? Aislinn Clarke: No. <Laughter> Aislinn Clarke: Well, no, I love horror and I love the horror community, you know, I could be making a horror film when I'm 70, you know. <Laughs> But I don't want to just make horror films. Jo Reed: Yeah. Aislinn Clarke: You know. I don't think I'll leave the genre and never return, but I would like to-- Jo Reed: It's not a one and done. Aislinn Clarke: Yeah. I just want to tell a lot of stories and I don't want to hedge myself into any genre. I don't think I'll ever make a romantic comedy or a comedy at all, probably, but I am interested in dark stories. I'm interested, actually, in the extremes of human behavior and in human beings that are in extreme situations. That doesn't have to be horror. Jo Reed: Well, Aislinn, thank you. Thank you so much. Aislinn Clarke: Thank you. <Music up> Jo Reed: That’s director Aislinn Clarke —we were talking about her recent horror film: The Devils Doorway, which was shown at The Capital Irish Film Festival. Many thanks to Solas Nua and the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center. You’ve been listening to Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcast and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. ########

Clarke is the first Northern Irish woman to direct a feature-length horror film. In The Devil’s Doorway, she brings a particularly female point-of-view to the genre by setting the film in a Magdalene Laundry in 1960s Ireland. Run by the Catholic Church, these laundries were essentially workhouses—and the site of real-life horror stories for supposed women of “ill-repute.” On the podcast, Clarke discusses the history of the Magdalene Laundries, what it’s like to be a woman in the film industry, and what makes a good horror film.

Emily St. John Mandel, Novelist

Music Credit: “Renewal,” written and performed by Doug and Judy Smith. Emily St. John Mandel: You hope that if there’s some cataclysmic event, then the things that come through are the things you value the most. You know, the Shakespeare and the Beethoven. But what if it’s also a self-published comic book? What if it’s also TV guides and celebrity gossip magazines, which are also hugely important to some of the characters in the book? So, yeah, I was thinking about what survives and what doesn’t and it’s so random. And it was interesting to think about that. Jo Reed: That is writer Emily St. John Mandel—talking about her novel and recent Big Read selection Station Eleven and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine reed. Station Eleven is Emily St. John Mandel's award-winning fourth novel. Popular with critics and readers alike, Station Eleven was a finalist for both the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award and named one of the best books of 2014 by more than a dozen publications. Although most of the novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape, it begins with a theatre production of Shakespeare's King Lear. A famous actor Arthur Leander suddenly has a fatal heart attack on stage. This is witnessed by two people who will figure prominently in the book—Kirsten, an eight year old actress who was on-stage when Arthur died, and Jeevan, a paramedic in the audience who tries to save the actor. But the night of Arthur’s death happens to be the same night a pandemic strikes-- moving like lightening around the globe, soon 99% of the population is dead and civilization as we know it ceases to exist. Station Eleven then jumps forward twenty years—Kirsten is now a member of the Traveling Symphony a band of actors and musicians who perform in outposts across North America. And although the book moves back and forth between pre and post-apocalypse, Emily St John Mandel doesn’t focus on the immediate aftermath of the pandemic—her interest is the civilization that emerges. Emily St. John Mandel: That a very conscious choice on my part. I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction and watched a number of post-apocalyptic films and it seems to me that they’re generally concerned with that territory of mayhem and chaos and horror immediately following a complete societal breakdown. And I really love a lot of those books. Like, I really liked “The Road”, but I just felt like that ground has been so well covered by so many other writers and by so many film makers, so to me, it was just more interesting to write about what comes next. It’s not that I don’t think there’d be a period of chaos and horror; I think there absolutely would. But it’s just not really plausible to me that that would last forever. At least no here on Earth. So, I was much more interested in writing about the new world and the new culture that appear after that. You know, what does the world look like fifteen or twenty years later. That, to me, was just a more interesting approach. Jo Reed: Emily, I want you to tell me what you were exploring when you were writing Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel: This may seem like a strange way of describing a novel that’s essentially post-apocalyptic, but I wrote it as a love letter to the modern world. And what I mean by that is I was interested in writing about the technology that surrounds us. I was interested in writing about what it means to devote your life to your art, the costs and the joys of that. So, the approach that I took with this book was to write about a group of traveling Shakespearean actors and musicians, traveling through a post-apocalyptic North America. Maybe sixty percent of the book takes place in this post-apocalyptic landscape. About forty percent takes place in the present day. And what links those two sections is, “What does it mean to devote your life to your art?” You know, what are the costs and the joys of that? What does that look like over a lifetime? So, I see that as being an idea that links the two sections of the book together. It’s very much about the importance of art in our lives. Jo Reed: Yes, and you do go back and forth between the pre- and post-apocalyptic. Why did you structure the book that way as opposed to a linear plot? Emily St. John Mandel: To be honest, I’m not sure that I know how to write a linear novel at this point. So, as you know, Station Eleven is my fourth novel. I’ve used that non-linear plot with multiple points of view in all four of my books. And it’s fair to say, I’ve pushed that structure the furthest in “Station Eleven”. It’s kind of a wild book, structurally speaking. You really do jump all over the place as you’re reading it. I find it to be a really interesting way to tell a story. I guess those are also the books I enjoy reading. Those are the books that I love. If you’re writing one of those books, there’s a feeling almost like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle. And it’s kind of fun, just figuring out how all those parts fit together. I also find that to be a really good structure from the perspective of character development. So, if you have a chapter from the perspective of Character A and then the next chapter is from the perspective of Character B that may be looking at Character A perhaps at a completely different point in both of their lives, you get a much more vivid sense I would say of who that first character is. So, it’s good from that perspective. It also seemed to me that using a non-linear structure where I’m moving back and forth between the present day and this post-apocalyptic world that perhaps that would be an elegant way to highlight the differences between these two worlds I was writing about. So, in a post-apocalyptic world, you can have a character say something like, “Oh, wasn’t it amazing when there used to be cell phones?” Or you could maybe just drop in a chapter from twenty years earlier where somebody’s using a cell phone. So, I thought it worked well from that perspective, to amplify the differences between these two worlds. Jo Reed: You said it was like a puzzle. Was it hard keeping all the various plot strands straight? Because in the pre-apocalyptic world it’s not like you stayed in one year. You were moving very rapidly back and forth in that as well. Emily St. John Mandel: Absolutely. Yeah. The first draft was a mess, as you might imagine. You know, I’ve never used an outline as I’ve set out to write a novel and the reason for that is I’ve always been a little bit afraid I’d get bored if I knew how the book was going to end when I started it. So, I just kind of wing it. I’ll just start writing and see what happens. And the result, particularly with the book as complex as Station Eleven, is that my first draft is really a complete train wreck. I mean, it’s-- you know, it’s barely legible. And that’s fine, that’s what first drafts are for. But I did realize I was having a really hard time keeping everything straight. There were just so many moving parts. So, what I actually had was an Excel spreadsheet, which I used to make a kind of map of Station Eleven and it was not particularly detailed. You know, it’d have different sections of the spreadsheet for different sections of the book. Every chapter was represented by a line of text and the level of detail was so thirty-thousand feet. You know, it was Chapter 1 “Intro to Jeevan”-slash-“Arthur Dies on Stage”, for example. So, I found that really useful, having this visual map of the book. And once I had that, it was much easier to go through the revisions and figure out how exactly those pieces should fit, because you’re right. I was jumping all over the place, even-- yeah, even within a given era. Jo Reed: You mentioned art is at the center of it and certainly an actor, Arthur Leander, who dies as you said in the first chapter is the thread that ties many of these disparate characters together over time and civilizations. Tell me first why did you center the book around him? Emily St. John Mandel: What I realized pretty quickly as I was working on this book was that it was going to be an extremely complex structure. I have all of these points of views. I have all of these different timelines. These other sort of incongruent elements, like descriptions of comic books or the interview sections that are dropped in-- so, I thought perhaps for the overall cohesion of this book it would be a good idea for all of the central characters to link back to one person. So, Arthur Leander, he is a major character in his own right, but he also fulfills a very technical role, I would say, in the novel in that he’s kind of the-- I don’t want to say “the sun”, because he’s not a particularly luminous character, but the dark star-- let’s say-- around which all of these characters orbit. That was a very conscious choice on my part just to try to make this sort of complicated oddly structured book as cohesive as possible. Jo Reed: Well Jeevan is the character who probably has the most tenuous connection with Arthur but like Kiersten and Arthur’s friend Clark they do a lot more than merely survive. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah. Jeevan was an interesting character in that regard. You know, for anybody who hasn’t read the book, this doesn’t really give away very much, because you see him in the first chapter. So, the situation is Arthur dies on stage of a heart attack. It seemed to me that someone would naturally try to save him. So, Jeevan who’s training to be a paramedic and happens to be in the front row watching King Lear that night jumps up on stage and tries to save him. And he does ultimately have-- experience a lot of fulfillment in the post-apocalyptic world. And as I was thinking about the way people respond to very sudden societal change-- now a sudden war, a sudden collapse, whatever it is-- it seemed to me that probably most of us are better suited to a world more like this one, a world that’s somewhat orderly, where we have rule of law and these other spectacular things we take for granted. But because different people are suited to different environments and different situations, it seemed to me I had to at least consider the possibility that perhaps some people would be better suited to this post-apocalyptic world. So, that’s what I was thinking of with Jeevan, that he might ultimately find that his life was better afterwards as strange as it is to say about a situation in which there has been a pretty drastic collapse. And you’re right: The other two, Clark and Kirsten, they do find real lives for themselves in a situation that I think would really feel like pure chaos to some other people. Jo Reed: I don’t think I’ve ever felt so appreciative of so many things around me as when I was reading your book. Emily St. John Mandel: Right. Jo Reed: For which I was really grateful. You know, it sort of brings us into the zen moment of be here now. <Laughs> But there was also something with Jeevan where suddenly not having all those choices gave him the ability to focus, it think, more intently. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah. That’s an interesting idea. I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective. But there would be something very clarifying about a complete societal breakdown, whether-- <laughs, inaudible> There would suddenly be a pretty narrow range of things that you could do. So, yeah, that’s true. Once you can’t be an entertainment photographer anymore as Jeevan was in a pre-apocalyptic world, then you are forced to, yeah, to find something different out of really a pretty narrow range of options. Jo Reed: Arthur’s friend Clark understands so explicitly that he is witnessing the end of one world and the beginning of another. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, that would be kind of an extraordinary feeling and I was thinking about it, really, if we have the privilege of leading longish lives, if we’re that lucky, then we do all get to experience the end of one world and the beginning of another. And, I mean, technologically speaking, when I was a kid we lived in a very rural place on Vancouver Island for-- until I was seven. And we literally had a party line. And I would imagine that a fair percentage of your listeners will have no idea what that is. But the era of land lines in very rural communities where three households might share the same phone number or the same line rather. And I look back on that and it sounds like science fiction. It sounds like, you know, historical fiction I should say. It sounds about as plausible as trying to imagine my grandfather getting to work on a horse as he used to do as a school teacher in Saskatchewan. So, yeah, you know, thinking about how much the world has changed. Even just in the amount of time that I’ve been alive and I’m in my late thirties. So, not a huge amount of time. And it makes me realize really Clark’s situation is just that it happened more abruptly. You know, instead of having that slow segue from one world into the next, it was more like lights blinking out. So, yeah, I suppose he had much more shock to contend with than we do, ‘cause we’re eased into it so gradually. Jo Reed: Memory is such a major player in this book. How we remember, what we remember, and as one character says, “The more we remember, the more we see what we've lost.” Emily St. John Mandel: Right yeah, the burden of memory was kind of an interesting idea to think about with this book, where what I found myself thinking was that probably in a situation like this, the people who would find it easiest to carve lives in this new world would be people who weren’t so hung up on the old world. So, in this novel, the people who have the easiest time of it are the people who are either born after our current world collapsed or they were so young that they don’t really remember what it was like to have antibiotics and electric light, you know, these spectacular things. So, you know, on the other hand, the people who remember very vividly this world-- and you have to then reconcile a lost life in this world with this new life they have in this radically altered landscape in which they’re more or less marooned, really. It’s so disorienting for them. You know, it was interesting to think that from that perspective, memory could be more of a burden than a benefit, which is kind of an interesting idea, because we’re used to thinking in terms of I guess just the pure benefit, the pure goodness of knowing your history and remembering where you’re from. But, yeah, it was interesting to think that that might not actually be such a great thing to find yourself remembering the splendors of the former world, you know as Clark puts it. Yeah, so that was kind of an interesting idea to work with. Jo Reed: Kirsten doesn’t remember anything of the first year-- Emily St. John Mandel: Mm-hm. Jo Reed: --of the apocalypse at all. But interestingly, Arthur remains vivid to her, who of course she acted with when she was a kid. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, memory is so strange, isn’t it? Jo Reed: Oh, yeah. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, you might not be able to picture the face of a close relative who died when you were, I don’t know, a teenager, but you’ll remember a picnic when you were seven, you know? Just these-- yeah, the way memory works is so fascinating. It’s so fascinating to me. It’s so strange. So, yeah, she does have this very vivid recollection on her friend Arthur, who was-- oh, I don’t know, forty-three years older than her, something-- also an actor, of him giving her a comic book on his last night on Earth. So, yeah, there’s a certain randomness to it, but then, of course, that memory is hugely important to her, because it’s one of her very few memories from the lost world. And that’s why that comic book is important to her in the novel. It’s kind of a stand-in for everything she can’t remember about the world that was lost. Jo Reed: The traveling symphony is a wonderful invention. They perform Beethoven and they perform Shakespeare exclusively because as one of the members notes, “people want to remember the best.” But additionally it’s pointed out that Shakespeare was also someone who lived through a plague. Emily St. John Mandel: Right. Jo Reed: So there’s that wonderful unexpected connection between his time and the time of the traveling symphony. Emily St. John Mandel: Oh, thank you. Yeah, when I first started writing the novel I actually had the company performing plays from a whole range of eras. So, it was William Shakespeare. It was also a twentieth-century playwright, people like David Mamet. And then I also had them performing teleplays; so, episodes of Seinfeld and “How I Met Your Mother”. And I just couldn’t quite pull it off, to be honest. It just started to seem more and more incongruous to me that these audiences in this post-apocalyptic world would be riveted by comedies about the New York City real estate market or post-college dating. Not that those aren’t important topics if you’re caught up in them, but it just seemed kind of technically incongruous to me. So, I was thinking about what the symphony’s repertoire should be. And I thought, “Well, maybe it should be older works. Maybe that would work better.” And then the more I read about Shakespeare-- I hadn’t previously known very much at all about his life-- the more it seemed to me that there was some kind of interesting parallels there. You know, he was born during the plague year and it’s kind of horrifying. So, he’s born, of course, you know, in the village of Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s a pretty small place. The parish register for the first half of the year registers about twenty deaths. But more than two hundred deaths in the second half of that year, because over the summer the plague arrives. So, the impact was horrific. So, I began to see him as being someone whose life had been very marked by the episodes of bubonic plague. It just swept across England again, and again, and again throughout his lifetime. And then more broadly speaking it began to seem to me that probably the people of Elizabethan England would have inevitably been kind of haunted by their memories of pandemics in the recent past. And that was exactly the effect I was trying to go for in this post-apocalyptic, post-pandemic future. And then, you know, the other obvious parallel is that in his time the theatre was so often a matter of these small traveling companies setting out on the road, going from town to town. And those two things were actually related. You know, the plague would come into London and it would be too dangerous for people to gather together in close proximity. So, the theaters would close. And the actors would go out traveling into the provinces. So, it just began to seem more and more natural to me that maybe it should be an exclusively Shakespearean company. But to go back to what you said a moment ago, Dieter’s comment about people wanting what was best about the world, that’s just-- it’s just such a subjective judgment. Two of the things I would miss most about this world would be the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven’s symphonies. Jo Reed: That’s my wheelhouse, let me just tell you, because on my mantel I have a bust of Shakespeare and bust of Beethoven. <laughter> Emily St. John Mandel: Oh, you do. Jo Reed: I do. Emily St. John Mandel: Nice. Jo Reed: So, I felt like, “Oh, I would join that traveling symphony.” You know, I could hem, I could do something. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah. If the world ends, we can take off on the road together. Jo Reed: Yeah. I’m sorry, so you were saying… Emily St. John Mandel: Oh, no. Sorry. No, just the subjectivity of it. So, you know, that’s just to say that a different writer would have picked a completely different repertoire for the symphony and saved completely different things. But, yeah, I found myself caught up by the idea of saving the Shakespeare, the Beethoven. Jo Reed: But you also save “Station Eleven.” Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah. Jo Reed: --the self-published comic book that Arthur gave to Kiersten right before he died. And that she kept all these years. That in fact, you know, sort of becomes another sacred text. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, it’s true. I was really interested in the randomness of what survives. You know, you hope that if there’s some cataclysmic event, then the things that come through are the things you value the most. You know, the Shakespeare and the Beethoven. But what if it’s also a self-published comic book? What if it’s also TV guides and celebrity gossip magazines, which are also hugely important to some of the characters in the book? So, yeah, I was thinking about that randomness and what survives and what doesn’t. It is so random and it was interesting to think about that. Jo Reed: And it’s also interesting, because then I think it makes us re-remember that when Shakespeare was living and writing he wasn’t being taught at universities. Emily St. John Mandel: That’s true, yeah. Jo Reed: He was being performed-- Emily St. John Mandel: Yes. Jo Reed: --for people like you and me and… people! Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, and you know a question that I get a lot about Station Eleven, which I find kind of fascinating is I’ve been asked a lot about the contrast between sort of high and low culture, like Shakespeare versus a comic book. And it’s just such a recent thing, isn’t it? I mean, we sort of have this idea now that going to a Shakespeare play is a really kind of elitist activity, but that was popular entertainment. So, it’s interesting to think about that, too. It was a living thing. Jo Reed: And Kirsten’s favorite quote in the whole world comes from Star Trek, “Survival is insufficient.” Emily St. John Mandel: That’s right. Yeah. When I was about nineteen or twenty-- I saw an episode of Star Trek Voyager and Seven of Nine says, “Survival is insufficient.” And you just don’t get to choose which random snippets of television episodes stay in your head forever, but that quote just struck me so intensely. And it just stayed with me. I find it to be an elegant expression of something that I believe to be true, which is that, of course, survival is never enough for us. Of course, we always want more than just the basics of food water and shelter. And you don’t have to look far to see that. You know, you don’t have to read post-apocalyptic fiction for that idea. You know, as a species we’ll do things like we’ll play musical instruments in refugee camps or put on plays in war zones. Or, actually, I think my favorite example of this kind of thing is-- my understanding is that immediately following the Second World War there was a fashion show in Paris. So, the city is in a state of deprivation and chaos, the Nazis have just left, but it’s really important to use their incredible limited resources to put on a fashion show, because, look, we’re civilized people. So, I kind of love that. I feel like you can look at those activities as kind of a frivolous use of resources in desperate times, or you could look at them as something really quite important. You know, it’s something that reminds us of what civilization is. And, not to be too grandiose about it, but maybe even to remind us that we’re human, that we’re trying to do more here than just survive. So, yeah, I really liked that idea and I really loved that Star Trek quote. Jo Reed: Why do you think there is such an interest in post-apocalyptic books today? It’s striking. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, it is striking. The short answer is I don’t know. I do have a half-hour lecture on this topic, which I’ll refrain from giving you. You know, I’ve heard a lot of theories in that regard, which has been one of the real pleasures of traveling so much in the service of Station Eleven, has been talking to readers in different places and getting their ideas about why we are so drawn to these books. Because, you’re right: There have an incredible number. You know, everything from Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, which took the Pulitzer; to The Hunger Games, these books for teenagers. It does feel like every year there’s a new wave of these books. An idea that I hear all the time, but I think it’s flawed for reasons I'll get into in a second, is that perhaps we’re drawn to these novels of complete collapse and breakdown-- perhaps our interest in those novels has to do with a natural anxiety we feel about the world we live in. And it’s easy to make that argument because you look at the news on any given day and the world can seem pretty catastrophic. But the counter argument is when have we ever felt like the world wasn’t ending? You know, it seems to me that we’ve always had these moments where we felt like things are as bad as they’ve ever been. So, I think that if I were to point to one thing that’s changed in our world in the last ten or eleven or twelve years-- however long it’s been that there have been so many of these post-apocalyptic books. I think I’d have to point to technology. And I do sometimes wonder if our interest in these books isn’t perhaps related to a certain ambivalence we feel about the technology that surrounds us. You know, and the technology is spectacular. I’d rather live with than without it. But it’s really hard to disconnect. You know, we carry the Internet in our pocket now and we’re expected to always be available for work or always available for the other details of life. And it can be really hard to find I guess a sense of space, a sense of solitude. So, I sometimes wonder if maybe we just miss that a little bit and maybe if that’s at least partly why we’re drawn to books where technology disappears. Jo Reed: You know, it’s such a paradox because we can’t disconnect from technology and yet we are so disconnected from the actual production of things that sustain us from food production, from clothing production. Emily: Right. Jo Reed: Were disconnected from the means to sustain ourselves. Emily: Yea, exactly. Jo Reed: And this, I think, contrasts with our inability to disconnect from our devices and I do think it’s disturbing us. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah, there’s something disorienting about it, isn’t there? Jo Reed: Yeah. Emily St. John Mandel: Yeah. I mean, we’ve just lost so much knowledge and it was one of the more unsettling aspects of writing this book. You know, just thinking about what survival skills one would need in this new world. And thinking about how few of us have those skills. I have no idea how to take care of a horse. I haven’t fished since I was about twelve. Yeah, it's-- and I know nothing about farming. Like, it's kind of troubling to realize how helpless we are when we can’t look it up on Google. Yeah, it is a bit unsettling. <Laughter> Jo Reed: Exactly. What’s your process now for writing? Do you write every day? Do you try to have a fixed time or do you do it when you can as you can? Emily St. John Mandel: A little bit of both. I have a two-year-old. So, I write from ten to four, Monday to Friday, which is when I have childcare. So, yeah, that arrangement has forced me to be pretty efficient. The second the nanny arrives I’m at my desk pretty much. And, of course, those are also the six hours when I do the grocery shopping, pay the bills, and all the rest of life. But, yeah, I do write every day. I also travel quite a bit for Station Eleven. You know, there have been a lot of lectures here and there, libraries and universities, over the past few years. So, that’s been helpful in being adaptive. So, I’ll really work wherever I can, you know, in an airport or a hotel room or on a plane or whatever. When I wrote Station Eleven though I had a day job. I was a part-time administrative assistant at the Rockefeller University in New York. It was a fantastic job for a writer because it was part-time and had really cheap health insurance, which is kind of the Holy Grail if you’re a writer, as day jobs go. So, yeah, I held that job for about seven years. I wrote three books, I guess, while I was working at the university in a couple of positions. So, I’d had that experience really forever of forced efficiency, I guess. You know, just being able to write wherever and whenever you can around the margins of the rest of your life. So, yeah, that’s been helpful in adapting to writing with a two-year-old. Jo Reed: Well, Station Eleven certainly has gotten praise and prizes, and all well deserved. Emily St. John Mandel: Thank you. Jo Reed: And now it’s a Big Read title. And I’m curious about your thoughts about communities coming together to read this book in particular. Emily St. John Mandel: I’ll never get used to it. It feels like such an honor. No, it's really an incredible thing to go to a place that I’ve never been to, like, Pueblo, Colorado. I was there recently and walked into a room full of strangers who read my book. It’s disorienting in the best possible way. I never will get used to it. I didn’t even know that-- what was the word I’m looking for? That these “One Town, One Read” initiatives-- I didn’t know that was a thing until about four or five years ago. And I just love them. Obviously, it’s great when they read my book, but when they read any book I just think what a remarkable thing to create programming around this idea of an entire town coming together to read one book. I feel like usually in this culture, you know, we all kind of gather together to talk about the latest Saturday Night Live cold open. You know: the latest thing we saw on TV. And it’s just kind of refreshing and nice to think of people getting together to talk about the book we’re all reading. So, yeah, I think it’s a wonderful program. Jo Reed: Arthur’s friend Clark begins a Museum of Civilization (as he calls it) that has a cell phone, a lap-top, for example, a comic book, and their ways to remember what had been. What would be in your museum of civilization? Emily St. John Mandel: I’ve thought this through. I’d want to have a globe in there. Something that I found myself thinking about was how intensely local your world would become following an event like this. We take it for granted now that we can pick up news from around the world by glancing at our phones. But just to realize that once those telecommunication’s systems go down, once there is no more Internet, then you really wouldn’t know what was happening a hundred miles away let alone on the other side of the Atlantic. So, I found myself thinking that it would be pretty hard to hold onto the scale of the world, you know, to remember that there was more to the world than just your little immediate radius. So, yeah, I would want a globe just to keep that thought in mind. Jo Reed: Emily, thank you so much for giving me your time. I really appreciate it and congratulations on Station Eleven, which is beautifully written and a page-turner. Emily St. John Mandel: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Jo Reed: You’re welcome. It was really a pleasure. Thank you. That was novelist Emily St John Mandel—her book Station Eleven is a recent big read selection—to find out more about Station Eleven and about the Big Read, go to You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Please subscribe to Art Works where ever you download your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple—it will help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

St. John Mandel is the author of the hugely successful of past NEA Big Read favorite Station Eleven, a novel that tells the story of a deadly pandemic that kills 99 percent of the Earth’s population. The book begins when the virus first strikes and then jumps forward 20 years. In the future, protagonist Kirsten is a member of a traveling band of actors and musicians who perform Shakespeare in outposts across North America. In her conversation with us for the podcast, St. John Mandel discusses the questions she wanted to explore in writing the novel.

Kelly Link, Fiction Writer and NEA Literature Fellow

Music Credit: Music composed and performed by Philip Brunelle Kelly Link: Two things that make me happiest if I can achieve them in a story, is to make somebody laugh, or to make them feel kind of a sense of eeriness or maybe a chill. And in some ways I think the two sensations, they run parallel with each other. In fact, sometimes I think, they're more or less the same thing. The unexpected is the thing I find most pleasurable.> Jo Reed: That‘s Kelly Link—she’s the author of many books, including the short story collection, Pretty Monsters which is one the Big Read’s newest titles, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the arts—I’m Josephine Reed. Kelly Link loves to be scared and she loves to read—so writing ghost stories and fantasy was a smart move on her part. Luckily for us, she’s also one terrific writer—she positions the ordinary into fantastical worlds and creates characters that are deeply realized with rich emotional lives. So we can understand their reactions when they spot a werewolf or bump into a ghost. Equally adept at writing for both young adults and adults, Kelly Link is mistress of the unlikely—blending humor effortlessly into stories that are typically rigid in their seriousness.  Her collection, Pretty Monsters is a case in point. All but one of the ten magical stories in Pretty Monsters were written for young adult readers. The heroes of these stories are mostly teenagers grappling with familiar adolescent angst, but add to that --a brew of  unexpected monsters, ghosts, pirate-magicians, and undead babysitters, and the result is unlikely and yet perfectly believable. What Kelly Link calls “shape-shifting stories." Kelly Link has received many awards including three Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award,  and an NEA fellowship in creative writing. Recently, she was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Get in Trouble, and now Pretty Monsters is one of the Big Read’s newest Titles. Kelly Link is a meticulous craftsman—no question there, but her imagination is still inflamed by that sense of wonder that  fantasy fiction and ghost stories have given her since childhood. Kelly Link: Both of my parents were big readers. Not only did they read, they read to me. In fact, when I was little before I learned how to read my mother read C.S. Lewis to me all the way through the whole Narnia series. And I still remember my father reading me Tolkien’s books. So my first love was fantasy and science fiction and ghost stories. Jo Reed: How did you get started as a writer? Kelly Link:  I am not entirely sure. I think the first story I ever finished was in college in a workshop. I took a workshop because I loved books so much I wanted to see if I could write something that approximated a short story. And so I wrote something for that workshop, and not only did I write a short story, but I discovered that I really liked being in a workshop. I liked listening to people talk about the stories that they were reading. I liked hearing people talk about the kinds of problems they had when they wrote stories. And so then after that I just kept on taking workshops and writing stories. And my life right now is not particularly different from that. I still meet up with a group of friends who are all writers and we all work together. And when we finish something or when we’re in the middle of a project we’ll share it with each other and talk about writing. Jo Reed:  How do you begin a story? Do you have a skeleton of the plot?  Do you start with the characters? Kelly Link:  Often, what I do is I will think "I want to write a scary story." Or, "I want to write a love story." Or, "I think it would be fun to write an epistolary story." And usually there’s a couple of settings that seem to me that they would be productive to explore. That there’s a lot of story attached to those locations or I will think " Well, here’s a kind of person that I haven’t gotten to write about before, and I think I’d like to put them into a ghost story just to see how they would respond." Jo Reed:  Do you begin a writing day by starting fresh or by revising? Kelly Link:  Well, the first part is often the hardest part at least for short stories. I find it very hard to pick up any kind of theme until it seems to me that I’ve got some stuff on the page that is the way that it needs to be. So character’s names, even something as sort of outside of narrative as, does the rhythm of the sentence feel right for this story or for this character?  Does that description, does that tell me something about the way that the point of view character sees the world? And once I have a couple of pages of that, then the story sort of kicks into high gear, and I can keep on going. But, every day when I sit down I do go back to the beginning and revise until I get to the place where I left off, kind of like putting your feet into a pond and getting used to the temperature. And when I am stuck during the day while I’m working I will go back to the beginning, and keep on revising until I get to the point where I was stuck and see if anything has been jarred loose. Jo Reed:  You write young adult fiction. Kelly Link:  Yes. Jo Reed:  In the sense that your main characters typically are young adults. What was the draw to young adult fiction? Kelly Link:  You know, I’ve never stopped loving young adult books in terms of what I like to read. I like to read everything, but I am particularly excited by really good young adult stories. For a couple of years, I worked in a kids’ bookstore. I went through my MFA program while I was working in a children’s bookstore. And that was sort of a chance to revisit books that I hadn’t read in a long time, just as well to read books that I had sort of missed out on when I was in college. And I do write adult fiction as well. And it is usually pretty clear to me when I sit down and begin a story what kind of story it’s going to be. Jo Reed:  And what does writing for young adults, as you did, for Pretty Monsters for example, what does that allow you to do that you might not be able to do? Kelly Link:  Well, I think because I’m drawn to fantasy to begin with that there’s a very clear connection between stories-- fantasy stories, many fantasy stories and young adult. That they’re often stories about people discovering a kind of power that they have, coming into a new sphere where their responsibilities are different. Finding a community of people that they didn’t know existed before. And that is true of both fantasy novels and short stories and also of young adult. You know, having said that, some of the stories that are in Pretty Monsters are stories that were first published by adult markets, stories like “The Specialist Hat” and “Magic for Beginners” were originally published in the adult markets. But when we put this collection together there’s a long tradition of ghost stories belonging sort of equally to children’s books as well as to adults. Jo Reed:  Yeah. And we see that Philip Pullman’s editing of “Grimm’s Fairytales”, for example.  Kelly Link:  Yes, absolutely. Jo Reed:  There would seem to me, especially in your work, a really particular challenge to the fantastical fiction that you create. First, it’s fantastical. But yet, the characters themselves seem very real with deep emotional lives. And the stories are often filled with vivid everyday details. How do you maintain that balance? Kelly Link:  Well, I do think of short stories especially as these very small containers in which the characters and the readers ,hopefully, get to experience very large emotions. And in order to read a story and really connect to it in terms of emotion or feeling, the characters have to feel real. You know, we care about real people. We care about things that when we encounter them in a narrative we think, "I understand how they’re feeling." And there’s a long tradition of the fantastic of fairytales where the characters are closer to archetypes, where we don’t really have a lot of sense of their interiority and those stories work because they’re more kind of a pattern of a journey or something and they’re pleasurable for that reason. But what I like about contemporary fantasy is you get to imbue the characters in the story with feelings that everybody has had at one point in their life. And the fantastic elements or the scary elements in a story, that sort of provides the fun. That’s sort of the bonus, the stuff that is, you know, not necessarily true of our experience in the world in terms of-- you know, we’ve been to those places but, again, I think the feeling that it evokes in the reader is we think, "Well, I have been in situations where I realized that something very scary was going on or where I realized I was completely out of place. Or I realized that there was something magical about the experience that I was having." And I think, again that’s true of young adult fiction that there is a real sense of almost limitless possibility at certain points when you’re an adolescent as you begin to have more responsibilities, but also more freedom. Jo Reed: Also for me because I also love young adult fiction, the intensity of feeling is really kind of extraordinary. Kelly Link:  Absolutely. Jo Reed:  Because, you know, when you’re in love when you’re a kid you’re never going to be in love again because this is it and it’s love and it’s amazing. <group laughter> Kelly Link:  It’s true. And the stories that I write that are for adults I think often times it’s "Here we go again. Here’s this pattern that this person falls into repeatedly. Here’s a situation with maybe a change." Or, you know, if you’re a lucky character in a grownup story you think "Oh, I didn’t think I would get to feel this way again but I do." Jo Reed:  Right. I always felt like growing up I discovered the tragedy of love isn’t that, "Oh my God, I’ll never love again." It is actually that you will. <group laughter> Kelly Link: There’s a good part and a bad part too. Jo Reed:  Yeah, exactly. Well, the kids in the story “Magic for Beginners” are these kids who are obsessed with this reality show that seems to be off schedule and pops up when it pops up. And ,well, it’s bleeding into the lives of the characters in the story itself.  Where did this come from? Kelly Link:  You know, I had been living in New York, and I got together with a group of friends and we would watch “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” all together and then we would talk about it. And so part of the experience of watching the television show was the community that I watched it with. And in some ways, you know, “Magic for Beginners” is a story about what it is like to be part of a fandom, part of a group of people who love something so intensely that they organize their life around it which is-- I think an experience which is most common when you are young and have more time.  Jo Reed:  Well, in “Magic for Beginners” there is this community of kids who come together as friends and fans of The Library, the television show. But it’s also kind of a disillusion of it because Jeremy, the main character, and his mother are leaving town for an indefinite period of time to look for an inheritance. And I honest to God don’t know what the-- the enormous appeal for me was about Jeremy inheriting-- part of the inheritance is a phone booth which he calls regularly and then his calls begin to get answered. And I was entranced by that. Kelly Link:  Well, one of the seeds for the story was also the writer Karen Joy Fowler who I also used to go to California and sit and work with her. She said, “I have a really great idea for a novel for you.” She said, “I read a newspaper article about somebody who inherited a telephone box and I think you should maybe write a novel about that.” And, you know, that seemed great to me, a great starting place.  But, I also I had this idea that I also wanted to write about somebody who had inherited a casino, sort of an unusual casino. And I thought well somebody who owns a casino probably would also own a telephone box. Jo Reed:  Why not? Kelly Link:  Yep. Jo Reed: “Magic for Beginners” is also a great example of meta narrative which is a technique you often use in your stories. What’s the attraction there? Kelly Link:  I think the thing about short stories is you only have a certain amount of space to make a world or a set of people three dimensional. And this may seem counterintuitive, but I think that there are things that you can do structurally or there are things that you can do with point of view to make it a little bit more challenging for the reader, and maybe they interrupt the story in certain ways. But, my general feeling is that if a reader has to do a little bit of work then they are more likely to be invested in the story that they’re reading because they’re sort of creating it with the writer. And one of the things that you can do with point of view is you can have somebody who is sort of narrating the story, but who isn’t part of it. The narrator in “Magic for Beginners” isn’t me. It really, she isn’t a character in the story. But, you know, even the fact that it may for some readers make the story feel a little bit more artificial, remind them that they’re reading a story. But, I think, my hope is that it also raises an interesting question and sort of invites the reader into the story as well. Jo Reed:  Well, yes, that’s exactly what my note says because it's not arch or off-putting. It’s rather confiding and inviting. Kelly Link:  Confiding is one of my favorite words.  When I think about my favorite books they’re books or stories where I feel that someone has taken me aside to tell me something because they thought I would be charmed by it. Or because they thought it might be useful to me or they-- you know, they thought I would enjoy it in some way. One of my favorite books is Dodie Smith’s novel, “I Capture the Castle” which has one of the best opening sentences ever. The sentence is, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” And the narrator is a confiding narrator. She’s somebody that you want to hang out with and I find that it’s easier to write the story if either the point of view character in it or something about the structure has a similar quality of invitation. Jo Reed:  You also managed to mix humor into situations that are fraught and I’m thinking of “The Surfer” which is one of the two stories in “Pretty Monsters” that has a first-person narrator. And it’s, you know, it's a complicated story, as most of yours are. It has aliens and a pandemic. And the main character Adorno, his father kidnaps him and they end up quarantined in Costa Rica. And you have this line that literally made me laugh out loud because bats are invading the hanger where they’re all living in Costa Rica. And his father, who is a doctor, says, “Don’t worry about it, even though the floor is totally covered in bat guano it isn’t a health risk.” And then you write, but as a matter of fact one of the joggers slipped on it and the next day and sprained an ankle. And I literally just laughed out loud. It was so funny and unexpected.  Kelly Link:  Well, thank you. I think the two things that make me happiest if I can sort of achieve them in a story is to make somebody laugh, or to make them feel kind of a sense of eeriness or maybe a chill. And in some ways I think the two sensations they run parallel with each other. In fact, sometimes I think that they’re more or less the same thing. The slipping on a banana peel and somebody jumping out to scare you, have a similar I guess disruptive quality. Jo Reed:  Yeah, they’re unexpected. Kelly Link:  Yes. Yes. And I think the unexpected is the thing that I find most pleasurable. Jo Reed:  Well, the “Fairy Handbag” is the other story with a first-person narrator. And it actually is one of my two favorite in this collection. I love that story. Kelly Link:  Thank you. Jo Reed:  Can you give us a quick take of it? Kelly Link:  Sure. I guess I would say that it is a short story told by a girl named Genevieve who is the inheritor of her grandmother’s handbag which has gone missing. And so she’s telling the story of the handbag and how it went missing. And the handbag itself is a magical item. It contains an entire Eastern European village. Jo Reed:  And I absolutely believe that it did in some ways. <group laughter> Kelly Link:  I was talking with somebody recently about this particular story and I realized that I think part of the reason why I wrote it was because I had grandmothers with very, very big handbags. And a younger sister who more than anything in the world wanted to own as many big handbags as possible. One, I think, because she felt that then she would be a grownup. But two because she was very organized and I think she loved the idea of all of the compartments. Jo Reed:  I get that. And, in fact, if you look in any bag it certainly does tell a story. Kelly Link:  Absolutely. Jo Reed:  The story that haunts me is the title one, “Pretty Monsters” which is two or more stories that twist on themselves and become intertwined. What’s the background on that? Kelly Link:  That’s the last story that I wrote for this collection. There are three stories that sort of fit together at the end, I hope. And I had a story about a girl named Clementine Cleary . And I took it to a workshop and got a lot of feedback on it. One of the things I learned in the workshop was the story worked, but that it didn’t do some of the things that these readers who are very good readers felt that I usually did in stories, they felt that it needed to expand in some way. And so I set it aside, and then I thought, "Well, what if I told sort of a secondary story about two sisters that would slot in, maybe never touch in a totally concrete way, but it would be connected." And then I did that. And then once I had the two stories, I rewrote the first one. I began to tease stuff apart and put stuff together. And then when I got to the end I thought, "Oh look, there’s space here for one very, very short sort of last story that would be fun to tell." And part of this was I think because I’m very fond of young adult fiction which the main characters are adolescent girls. I’m also very fond of stories about monsters. I love movies like Ginger Snaps in which adolescent girls also turn out to be monsters. And so I wanted to sort of explore the intersection of being monstrous and being adolescent. Being wild. Jo Reed:  Well, as you say at the end of that story, “Stories shift their shape.” And boy that one was a multiple shape shifter. Kelly Link:  Oh good. <group laughter> Jo Reed:  I want to talk about endings because I think they are difficult. And I think some of your stories end abruptly, “Monster” for example. And in “Pretty Monsters” you write, “The end of the story will have to wait.” And I think you do that with some of your stories.  So it’s a choice. Why? Kelly Link:  Yes, it is a choice. I think when I first started writing stories that the think that always felt the most artificial to me was any sort of sense that things should tie up neatly. That the stories that I liked best are stories where you gave enough momentum to the events of the stories, to the characters, that you filled things in enough that the ends of the stories felt a little bit like jumping off places. Or like sort of leaving somebody at the top of a roller coaster, where you think, "Well, I’ve set up enough stuff that you can hopefully imagine some things that might happen next. I hope you know the characters well enough to go along with them, to keep on going even after the story stops." And I also think, you know, this is after writing for a long time, teaching workshops for a very long time, talking about stories, in general, that stories where the endings are too tidy or stories which in the long run are easier for readers to think, "Well, I got what I was going to get out of that story and now I can stop thinking about it." And my hope is that by maybe raising questions more than I answer that even if there’s something a little unsatisfying to the reader it means that they get to keep on thinking about it even after they finished. Jo Reed:  Boy. I really can’t get that story out of my mind. Kelly Link:  Oh I’m sorry, but I’m also very glad. <group laughter> Jo Reed:  Well, the collection itself is illustrated by Shaun Tan. And he created a drawing for each story. Can you tell me about that process and how you collaborated together? Kelly Link:  Yes. When I sold this collection to an editor at Viking Penguin one of the things that I really hoped was that there would be an illustrated component. And I am enormous fan of Shaun Tan’s work, of his writing, his art. His graphic novel The Arrival is one of my very favorite books. And so when my editor asked if I had any ideas for an artist, I said, " Well,I only know him a little bit, but the dream illustrator for me would be Shaun Tan." And she got in touch with him and he agreed. And that was absolutely the best part of writing these stories. It felt like a gift. So I sent the stories to him and he asked a couple of questions, but I think mostly what I said was, "Whatever you do I’m going to like." And that was definitely the case. Jo Reed:  Do you find joy in writing? Kelly Link:  <laughs> Yes and no. I often find it pretty excruciating. But, I work through that. I don’t like the sort of first part of the day sitting down to write. And I typically don’t like my drafts before the sentences start to feel right to me. I do know writers who find writing pleasurable who are, I think, natural storytellers and can work very quickly. And I am happy when I can work quickly. And when I’m stuck in sort of a slower part or when I’m trying to come up with a container to put the stuff into it that I want to put into, it’s actually pretty miserable. But, you know, having said that I wouldn’t want to do anything else. Jo Reed:  Mm-Hm. You’ve received many awards, including a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. What did that fellowship allow you to do? Kelly Link:  You know, it felt like this reassurance that what I was doing that it was worth it. It’s not, maybe, a good thing to have constant validation that you’re doing everything exactly the way that you should be doing it. But I think when you’re a writer, and when your work is mostly self-directed to be given a grant and be told,  "We think you should keep on doing this. In fact, we feel that so strongly we’re going to give you some money." That was extraordinary. And the other thing too is, there was a period of time in which I didn’t teach. I could just write. I could sit and think about what I wanted to write. You know, I could write. I could sit and think. All of that is extraordinarily useful. Jo Reed:  And Pretty Monsters has been named a new Big Read title. What does that mean for you? Kelly Link:  Boy, you know, I don’t even really know. It’s exciting. What I didn’t realize when I started writing was how happy it makes me, one to get to meet other people who want to write, whatever stage of their career they’re at. Two, that I just really love talking to people about stories. And so the idea that there are community events in which everybody has read the same book and then get together and discuss it with each other is really exciting regardless of whether or not it’s my book. The idea that it might be my book is really thrilling. The idea that people get to ask me questions, or tell me about something that it made them want to do is really, really exciting. Jo Reed:  Well, I’m glad you brought that up about questions because to the discussion questions that we have up on the Big Read website, you added the last question which was, "If you could ask the author one question about these stories or about writing them, what would it be?" And I’m curious if you’ve gotten-- I know it's early in the day but I’m curious if you’ve gotten any responses? Kelly Link:  I have not. No. Jo Reed:  Okay. You have to keep us posted when you do. Kelly Link:  I will and I’m really looking forward to that. I have to say that I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody ask me a question or sort of express an opinion about something that I’ve written that was disheartening. I think any question that anybody asks in a genuine or sincere way is sort of a gift to the writer, you know, that somebody felt moved enough that they wanted to tell you something or ask you something.  And sometimes when people say to me, “Well, I really loved this story in a collection,” or “I really loved this particular collection.” Sometimes I like to say, well, what story didn’t you like? What was the story that you read and you thought no? Just almost for the purposes of helping me figure out how people read things and the kinds of things that somebody might respond to in positive or negative ways. Jo Reed:  And finally, what’s next? Kelly Link:  Well, I am working on a novel. Jo Reed:  Whoa. That’s a change. Kelly Link:  Yes. It’s a huge change. And I will say that the first year of working on it was really tricky. It was very, very hard to figure out what exactly I wanted to do and how to do it. And now I am actually having a great deal of fun. It’s nice to have such an expansive project. Jo Reed:  And,I’d love to have you complete this sentence. If you like Kelly Link’s stories, you might also like… Kelly Link:  Oh. <sighs> That has actually genuinely thrown me. Jo Reed:  Oh my God. Kelly Link:  I’m the daughter of a psychologist. And so I think there’s certain kinds of questions that I can imagine sort of the sea of possibilities. Let’s go with Halloween. You might also like Halloween. Jo Reed:  That’s kind of perfect since it’s coming up. <group laughter> Jo Reed: That’s author Kelly Link. Her short story collection, Pretty Monsters, is one of the new Big Read titles.  You can check out the rest at . You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog or follow us at @NEAARTS on Twitter.  For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Link’s writes fantastic stories for both young adults and adults, blending humor effortlessly into stories that are typically rigid in their seriousness. Her short story collection Pretty Monsters is a case in point. The heroes of these stories are mostly teenagers grappling with familiar adolescent angst, while also tackling unexpected monsters, ghosts, pirate-magicians, and undead babysitters. The resulting stories are both unlikely and perfectly believable. On the podcast, Link discusses Pretty Monsters, how she got her start in writing, and what draws her to ghost stories.