Stories, Cities, and Skies



Last night, I watched the sun set over the Manhattan skyline and heard Genevieve Valentine and Kate Bernheimer read their own takes on fairly tales. The occasion was a Books Beneath the Bridge event sponsored by WORD, and it was the first time I’d been to a literary event there since, well, last summer.

Stating the obvious? It’s a hell of a place to watch someone read. The event kicked off a little after 7. I got there about fifteen minutes early and sat there drinking my iced coffee and reading Sam Pink’s Witch Piss. When I arrived, the sun was in my eyes, but soon after, it has progressed to being behind a building. Cue a sunset; cue a haze over the city and the New Jersey waterfront beyond.

A few years ago, I worked in an office where my desk faced a window that looked out over the Hudson River and out into New Jersey. It did wonders for my mood, feeling a sense of time; knowing where the sun was. Being able to look out into the distance; being able to have a sense of where in the day (or the night) you are. Today was one of the first days in a while where I’ve recaptured that sensation. Here’s to it.


Art in Fiction, Fiction about Art


I tried to take an art history class in college. There was an unlisted prerequisite; five minutes into the first class, the professor teaching us asked those of us who hadn’t taken said prerequisite to leave. (See also: how I came to minor in politics.) It was a strange and unpleasant experience, and I feel as though every time I’ve written about art in the ensuing years has been a weird act of rebellion against that. Because hey, if grudges prompt creativity, why not?

For Hazlitt, I wrote about artists in fiction, with a focus on books by Siri Hustvedt, John Berger, Kate Christensen, and Rachel Kushner.

Hustvedt’s one of few writers whose body of work contains both acclaimed fiction and collections of criticism, though she’s not entirely alone. Consider, say, John Berger, whose career as a writer began with art criticism for the New Statesman, but went on to include a number of celebrated novels, including the Booker Prize-winning G. Berger’s first novel, 1956’s A Painter of Our Time, is overtly concerned with art as its subject, focusing as it does on an expatriate Hungarian artist living in London and grappling with questions of recognition, aesthetics, and politics. The fact that it’s narrated by a British critic named John has led many over the years to debate whether its roots were in nonfiction, but in an introduction to a 1988 edition of the book, Berger argues otherwise, saying, “no work of fiction is ever a transcription. Novels are never houses with portraits of real people in them.”

You can read the whole thing here.

Dancing on Stages, Five Years Later


So: tonight, my friends Mike Pace and Matt LeMay are playing a show at Hi-Fi. Which I am planning to be at, with the proverbial bells on. This will be my first time seeing Mike play music since Oxford Collapse, in which he played guitar and sang, was around. It’s been five years since the band played their last show; I ended up writing this small guide to assorted EPs of theirs at around that time.

Said band was one that I saw a whole lot in the years when they were around; on a couple of occasions, I even felt compelled to hop up on stage and (hopefully) not look too ridiculous. (Go about 3/4 of the way down this page and you’ll see me, six years ago, doing exactly that.) So I’m especially excited for this one; that both Mike and Matt write smart, catchy pop songs doesn’t hurt, either.

See you in the pit! Or something similar.

Some Readings, Some Gatherings


It’s been a busy week and change.

Starting with the most recent: Vol.1 Brooklyn participated in Popsickle for the second year in a row. This time out it was in DUMBO; I took the B62 down from Greenpoint and walked through Vinegar Hill and came at DUMBO from the side. It was quiet in a way that I didn’t expect a fairly populated neighborhood to be on a Saturday afternoon. I got the same feeling I’ve had walking through parts of Minneapolis and Portland–very particular parts, I should say. I got to hang out with a lot of amazing people; the balance between writers whose work I knew and those whose work I didn’t was pretty even, which was a plus.

A few days earlier, I read as part of a salon that Royal Young was part of putting together; the story I read from was my weird riff on a meal I ate at a Denny’s in New Orleans. It was a pretty fantastic night: as a big admirer of Julia Fierro and Marcy Dermansky’s writing, I was incredibly happy to read with them. I hadn’t known Alice Feiring’s work before then, but the memoir she read from was absolutely gripping.

The night before, I hung out at an event Vol.1 was doing for Matt Dojny’s paperback release.  It was at Winnie’s; I did not, regrettably, sing karaoke–possibly because the skills of John Wray and Jason Porter intimidated me. Maybe it was because I wasn’t drinking whiskey.

Maybe I wanted to try to hold off on doing my bad Tom Waits impressions. I’m not sure.


I’m endeavoring to emulate writers I admire and make with the random life updates on here. I’m still somewhat curious about Medium as a place for publishing things–there’s a story of mine that’s mostly unavailable these days that I’ll probably post on there before long–but I’m also enjoying doing things on here. So yeah. It continues.

Watching Soccer and Writing About Books About Soccer


Hello, World Cup season. As the Air Miami song goes, I do indeed have World Cup fever, and I’m pretty happy about that.

For the Barnes & Noble Review, I wrote about Andreas Campomar’s Golazo!, a look at soccer’s history in Latin America. In some ways, it’s the historical mirror to Eduardo Galeano’s more poetically-rendered Soccer in Sun and Shadow.

I also ended up jotting down some thoughts on The Matters of Life, Death, and More, a collection of Aleksandar Hemon’s writings on soccer, for Vol.1 Brooklyn. Both books come highly recommended; if you’re the sort of person who finds themselves craving good writing on soccer after watching some of the best soccer you’re likely to see for years to come, you could do much worse than checking out either, or both.

Some Mid-Year Music Talk

guthrieThis year, Dusted debuted a mid-year feature wherein writers write about one another’s favorite albums. That’s how I ended up writing about Anne Guthrie’s Codiaeum Variegatum, a surreal and experimental work that goes a long way towards creating a tactile sonic landscape.

Here’s the first part, and here is the second. Dusted’s writers also contributed lists of their favorite music for the year to date, which you can read here.

Works in Progress

I thought it might not be a terrible idea to write something here about some of the longerform things I’m working on. Admittedly, this could be jinxing myself, but I like to think of it as a way of keeping myself honest, or at least focusing on some sort of schedule.

A short novel, set largely in Seattle, about art and memory and travel. An early version of an early chapter appeared on Vol.1 Brooklyn as “Revolution Come and Gone,” which is indeed a nod to a Sub Pop compilation from the early 1990s.

New Dutchess.
That’s not the actual title, but right now, this novel-in-progress doesn’t have a proper title, and “untitled New Dutchess project” doesn’t have the same ring. The very short version is that, about ten years ago, I wrote a novella (part of drawer book no.1) set in and around the punk and hardcore scene in central NJ. This isn’t an attempt to revisit that work, but it is a reminder that I’ve wanted to write about music that’s meant a lot to me in fictional form. Though I’m also looking at generations and how a small, isolated town in a corner of New Jersey changes over time and how different characters’ relationships to music and culture evolve. Part of it appeared at The Collagist under the title “Nearsighted in Northern Cities.”

Untitled suburban project.
I described this to someone as “J.G. Ballard meets stress eating at a suburban chain restaurant,” which is…something of an elevator pitch, at least. I’m still pretty close to the beginning of this, but I’m enjoying writing it quite a lot. In late 2013, I started writing a few stories that were more surreal than what I usually write; during a period where I was blocked in my writing of the New Dutchess project, I realized writing something that stood in sharp contrast to its realism might not be a terrible idea. So: yeah, there are weird things in this, and there’s also going to be late-night eating of unhealthy food. Should be fun.

Writing About David Peace Writing About Soccer


Recently, I got to write about two things I enjoy for The Classical’s Books issue: the novels of David Peace and the game of soccer. Specifically, I wrote about Peace’s two novels about soccer, The Damned Utd and Red or Dead. (The latter is presently on my list of the year’s best books; there are some things it does with structure and repetition that were, to me as a reader, absolutely amazing.) And now it’s up on Deadspin as well.

As with most of his work, Peace draws heavily from history; for these two books, 2006’s The Damned Utd and 2013’s Red or Dead, his protagonists are real people. (Both are due out in the US in new editions from Melville House later this year.) The former focuses on Brian Clough; the latter, on Bill Shankly–both considered to be among the greatest managers in the history of English soccer. As with much of Peace’s work, politics play a role, here through the fact that both Shankly and Clough were, each in their own way, socialists. Each makes use of a very particular structure, and each—particularly Red or Dead—provides an answer to a question that might occur to anyone whose interest involve both soccer and literary fiction. How do you translate a compelling game of soccer into vivid prose?

If you’d like to read the whole thing, here’s the Deadspin link, and here’s the link to buy the Books issue of The Classical.

Animal Farm in February

I’ll be reading as part of the Animal Farm NYC monthly series next Tuesday, at Over the Eight. There’s an abundance of information on the event up at Facebook, but here are the basics:

ANIMAL FARM is NYC’s destination for the newest and best satirical and/or critical writing in any genre. Our location is OVER THE EIGHT, 594 Union Ave. in Williamsburg (L to Bedford or G to Metropolitan). We start at 8 pm on Tuesday, February 18.


TOBIAS CARROLL is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His fiction and criticism has recently appeared in The Collagist, Joyland, The Collapsar, Necessary Fiction, Underwater New York, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @Tobias Carroll line

CECILY IDDINGS’s first book is Everyone Here (Octopus Books, 2014). Her poems have appeared in Article, Horse Less Review, jubilat, Octopus, Saltgrass, Sixth Finch, Skein, and Spinning Jenny, among other places. She lives and teaches in Brooklyn.

FRANK GUAN is a founding editor of Prelude, a magazine of poetry and criticism affiliated with n+1 whose inaugural issue will arrive later this year. He is currently reviewing the works of Tao Lin for n+1.

ALI BOGGS is getting her MFA in fiction writing from the New School. She has published in The State, a journal based out of Dubai, and in HTMLGIANT. She is currently working on a short story collection about perversion and dysphoria.

If you’re so inclined, you can RSVP here.

Brief Notes on “You in Reverse”

Earlier this week, The Collapsar’s third issue included one of my stories. It’s called “You in Reverse” — yes, the title is the second time I’ve referenced the Doug Martsch discography* — and it can be found alongside excellent work by the likes of Wendy C. Ortiz and Robert Kloss.

The basic premise of it is an idea that’s been in my brain for a long time now. Somewhere in a notebook or a text file are notes on a short film I’d been thinking about trying to make along similar lines. Though given that that idea would have leaned heavily on narration, I think this piece — essentially, a long monologue — has found the format best-suited to it.

It’s best to start on the late-night lines, when crowds are sparse and there are few bodies with which to collide. It’s hard to find the empty space that fits you, that you find yourself in, that you were always in.

It’s also another instance of me heading back into the world of weird fiction. (See also “The Wenceslas Men” and “A Waterside” and — to a lesser extent — “Last Screening of A Hoax Cantata.” ) It’s been a nice stay so far, and while some of what I have in the works heads back into the world of realism, other projects have definitely picked up traces of something more surreal.

If you’d like, you can read the whole thing here.

*-there’s a short novel I’m presently seeking a home for that’s titled Reel; said title is a bit of a nod to the first song on here.

In 2007, I Interviewed Chris Abani


From 2006 to 2008, I wrote regularly for the music website Paper Thin Walls. For a brief time, I had a column there called “Gimme Fiction,” which looked at musicians who wrote or authors who made music, depending on how you look at things. One of the artists I profiled was the writer Chris Abani. Given that Abani has a terrific new novel out, titled The Secret History of Las Vegas, I thought it would make sense to post both the interview I did with him. A more recent interview will be up at Vol.1 Brooklyn very soon.


Gimme Fiction 004: Chris Abani

Chris Abani is equally at home describing abandoned buildings in Los Angeles and warzones in West Africa. His fiction encompasses political unrest; art and obsession; urban life on three continents; and the burdens of family. Reading his prose, you’ll quickly note the omnipresence of music; the protagonist of 2004’s GraceLand is a young Nigerian Elvis impersonator, while a climactic scene in this year’s The Virgin of Flames played out to the sound of “A Love Supreme” drifting through the floorboards. Abani’s knowledge of music is more than that of an enthusiast, however. His poetry readings have been known to incorporate live music, and a visit to his website ( includes a solo saxophone recording alongside clips of Abani reading his work. It’s equally compassionate and haunted, qualities mirrored in his writing.

In recent years, Abani’s prose has appeared in alternating novel- and novella-sized increments, with Becoming Abagail and Song For Night released by New York’s Akashic Books, a publishing house with roots in the Washington, DC punk rock scene. Song For Night, released in October, evokes a surreal and war-torn landscape as its narrator, a mute child soldier, meticulously retraces the events that left him scarred and separated from his unit. Abani’s protagonists generally begin their stories with much arrayed against them and a bleak future; it’s the moments of joy, of creative release, where they find their pinnacles.

You’ve written novels, plays, poetry, and music; at what point do you know whether an idea will develop into one or another form?

I wrote plays a long time ago, when I was younger and they were meant to be vehicles for the political polemic that marked the student’s movement in Nigeria years ago. With the exception of a new play written in 2003 for the Kennedy Foundation via Crossroads School in Santa Monica, I wouldn’t call them real plays or art.

As for the poetry and prose forms, well, it’s hard to tell when I choose a form. I think that my process involves marinating of an idea in my subconscious for quite a long time so that by the time I actually begin to write, the form and much of the shape of the piece has been intuitively selected. I think though that there are ideas or explorations that suit poetry better than prose and vice versa. How I choose is mostly subjective and intuitively, both marked by years of practice and experience.

You’ve alternated your novels with shorter works — first Becoming Abagail, and now Song For Night. Is this your preferred method of writing, or is it coincidental that these particular four works have been written in this order?

In retrospect, with hindsight, I think these four books form my four quartets, you know, like Eliot.  I say this because most of the ideas for the three later books were deployed in GraceLand in truncated forms and had to be developed. Becoming Abigail indirectly rises out of the character of Efua in GraceLand and her not finished trajectory, Song for Night arises also indirectly from the character of Innocent in GraceLand who was a boy soldier. The Virgin of Flames is a thematic continuation of the aspects of Elvis that involved dress up and sexual exploration. So in fact these four books are very tightly linked and knitted. The forms, the alternating of them as novel novella novel novella is entirely coincidental.

Of your recent prose, Song For Night is the first to be set largely outside of a city; is it significant that the region where the book is set is much less specific than the three works that precede it?

In GraceLand the novel begins in the amoebic swamp city of Maroko and moves into the more concrete city of Lagos. As Elvis’ identity becomes clearer and clearer, his relationship to his landscape becomes more concrete with increasing awareness. In Song for Night, the journey is through the interior landscape of memory and recovery, a landscape that goes the opposite way as GraceLand. Song starts near a swamp and moves away into even more tangled landscapes of rivers and forests. It is partly because this novella is generic to West Africa that it has no concrete landscape such as a city would provide, but also because the landscape is made entirely by the projections of the characters interiority. This is necessary since the book is a ghost story and that’s all I can say without spoiling the reading.

GraceLand and The Virgin of Flames both focus on artists; to what extent have you drawn from your own creative process in depicting theirs?

GraceLand and The Virgin of Flames do indeed focus on the journey of artists. They are both about the indifference of the world to this vital part of us. And I say vital because when a civilization dies and we excavate it, all that survives, or at least that we use to create an understanding of that society, is its art. They are both also an exploration of the tyranny of institution toward art – both political and social. I must have drawn on my experience but I don’t know to what exact depth and how and where that manifests in the piece.

In the beginning of Song For Night, the narrator calls attention to the nature of how the story is told, something that hasn’t been done in your earlier work; was that solely the result of using first-person narration, or have you been thinking differently about language recently?

For me every book presents a new narrative and thus structural challenge. With Song for Night is was how to make a boy with no voice tell his story in the first person. Given the nature of the truama he goes through, it was necessary for the story to be in the first person to enable an audience connect with him. Calling attention to the telling was a way to declare the terms up front to the reader so that they could dispense with all that, suspend disbelief and get into the work. I hope it works. Smile.

Music has played a large role in much of your prose, from Elvis’s vocation in GraceLand to the use of “A Love Supreme” at the end of  The Virgin of Flames. Do you have a sense of what songs will be used from the outset, or is it something that arises spontaneously as you write?

Music is intrinsic to life. We all walk around with a soundtrack in our heads or at least desire to. Who hasn’t wanted the significant moments of their lives to be accompanied by music the way those moments are in the movies. Growing up in Nigeria, music was everywhere and with no specific hierarchical aspects. In the streets competing record shops would blast their music into the street to attract customers so in an hour of walking you would have heard Vivaldi, Bob Marley, James Brown and Sunny Ade. It was always there. Language is music, mood it music, it’s all pitch, even our sense of scale of the world, of ourselves and our respective dramas is all pitched to our experience and understanding of music so it is all over my work. Since all my work – characters, plot, ideas, story etc develop organically through the process of making the book, and the music does too. It is always amazing to find such discovery. My friend Kwame Dawes has a book called The Reggae Aesthetic that explores this deeper.

Do you have any plans to record music in the future?

I would love to record music in the future. I would need to write fewer books and practice my horn more before that can happen. I just feel blessed to be able to express my love of the world in these ways.

Many of your protagonists are burdened from the outset by trauma, and in many cases their struggles against that is something that they can’t win. To what extent do you think that our circumstances — geographic, political, familial — determine our fate? And is that a theme that you plan to continue exploring?

One of the things I am always asking is, is redemption possible and what shapes can it or must it take? I subcribe completely to the Rilke school of literature that believes in the transformative possibility of the word. That language shapes the world and not the other way around. Part of redemption is finding a why. why go on? why continue to believe? I think that once we can find a why we can bear any how. you know? Redemption, transformation comes from shaping the inner life, the inner light, the consciousness that can reshape the self and thus the world regardless of the geographic, political or familial traumas and/or limitations. I am a complete optimist. I wouldn’t write otherwise. My journeys into the dark are to find light, to take the reader on the journey so that they can have a visceral transformation for themselves. I hope this is what I do. Bring people through the cave of the psyche into the light of hope.

Some Notes on “Last Screening of A Hoax Cantata”


This week brings with it the third story of mine to be published in the past month. I was asked by Nicholas Rombes to contribute a story related to film for his month-long residency at Necessary Fiction. What I came up with is a short work called “Last Screening of A Hoax Cantata.

Everything about it seemed truncated: there was a ghost of a note in the opening credits that seemed absent; the title itself — A Hoax Cantata — hovered a beat too briefly, the text wavering and elliptical. Maybe that was what first drew us to it: its damage; the unknown names; the fact that it always seemed to exist in a hazy VHS world, a dub of a dub of a dub even in its first generation.

If “An Old Songwriter’s Trick” was my film-school story, this is my story about stumbling one’s way into becoming an enthusiast for something weird. I’d also love to do an annotated version of this, as there are a couple of odd references embedded in it, some of which may not make sense to anyone but me. But, yeah — it’s a kind of love letter to falling in love with music and books and films that were passed down via flawed copies, and all of the weirdness that came along with that. 

You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so inclined.

Hello, Tin House


So: I have an essay in the Lost & Found section of the Winter Reading issue of Tin House. It’s about Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone. I’m incredibly excited about this, for obvious reasons. The Davies novel is one that’s long had a hold on certain parts of my brain (for reasons I explain in the essay), and Tin House itself has been one of my favorite literary magazines. It’s one of the things I’ve written of which I’m the proudest, and I’m glad that it’s now out in the world.

New Fiction: “A Waterside”


Writing around an object has always posed a unique challenge for me. I’ve written a few stories that were inspired by songs; there, as with physical objects, the difficulty is evoking something while making the source of your inspiration feel organic to the rest of the piece. In the case of “A Waterside,” which was published by Underwater New York, I ended up selecting an abandoned boat — which in turn brought to mind memories of traveling on local rivers when I was in high school.

And so Vera lived out here on the borders of the Navesink River in a kind of exile. Low-slung buildings and boat slips and the sound of automotive traffic heard from across the water. Her last boyfriend had muttered, “I hate myself sometimes,” in his sleep, and she’d parted ways with him not long after the dozenth time she’d heard it in the midst of wracked snores. She had come to this place six years earlier and had stayed quiet, temping sometimes and sometimes accepting assignments from her mother: rites to be carried out on the water to stifle incursions, to wound the pockets of nostalgia that were born, shimmering, off the coasts of cities and slowly made their way towards buildings and trafficked avenues, promising docile nightmares.

Because this was a story set on the water, I decided that there needed to be some sort of adventure element to it — albeit a very strange one. And so there is. I also drew on memories of being in a 19-foot boat off the coast of Staten Island when I was 14 or 15 — the churn and the way a vessel of that size can be thrown around by the water around it.

Anyway. You can read the whole thing here.