by Sally J. Johnson

molting menagerie

oh girl submerge yourself when you’re in hot water

go deeper to feel yourself somersault like a redback spider

into the mouth of your lover or anyone’s mouth

that will have you consume you use you up

so at the end of it you know you were worth something

carry around the carcasses you’ve shed to be this red

new you and hold them out like captives like candies like

glass figurines and say look who i used to be i was small

then and small now but i must’ve gotten bigger because i got out

Sally J. Johnson is the Managing Editor for Ecotone Journal and the Poetry Editor for Atlantis Magazine. Her poetry and nonfiction can be read or are forthcoming in The Pinch, The Boiler Journal, Sundog Lit, Fogged Clarity, and Treehouse Magazine.

by Pablo Piñero Stillmann

Unhappiness, Guanajuato


As much as it might seem incredible to someone like you or I, happiness, wait, Happiness, hasn’t always had a positive connotation for everyone. This will be easier to accept if you consider that no one thing has been anything, always, for everyone. Most things have been many things for at least some people. Nothing has at times meant Everything and at others meant Some Things. For long stretches of time Nothing actually meant nothing. But I must stop myself because I have the tendency to spin uncontrollably into spirals of confusion and—sometimes—complete nonsense.


The first records of a society which considered Happiness to be something to avoid rather than the Ultimate Goal come from Scottish anthropologist Newman J. Madden. When he died in 1809, Dr. Madden was working on a book about a tribe, which he simply referred to as the Savages, dwellers of a village near what today is Alice Springs, Australia, people who associated Happiness with death and decay. “We are born crying,” wrote Dr. Madden, “and die, when we die as nature intended us to, with a lazy smile on our faces, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the Savages think of bursts of happiness as little pushes and shoves towards nonexistence.”

The manuscript goes on to explain a ritual wherein Madden’s Savages—which some modern anthropologists think might be an offshoot of the Noogri tribe—slashed their infants’ cheeks as a rite of passage, rendering them forever incapable of smiling. (Portraits of the brutally scarred faces of Madden’s Savages can be found among the anthropologist’s papers at the University of California, Berkeley.)


Then there was, of course, the Sorg (Grief) cult in Stockholm during the late 19th century, whose members would go years without being exposed to sunlight, which was dismantled after their unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Sofia of Nassau. During America’s Great Depression something called the Frown Militia, a gang of ultra-right-wing manic-depressives who wanted to take over the country, appeared and quickly disappeared in Oklahoma.*  But much has already been written about these and other cases of note. Besides, I am not an anthropologist nor did I ever finish medical school. The only reason I feel compelled to write this is that my grandfather died last week. He himself once belonged to what in academic circles are known as societies of unhappiness.

*Unlike what most people think and common sense suggests, the Frown Militia got its name not from the facial gesture associated with being sad, but rather from its founder Wallace T. Frown.


You can call it a cult, commune, or whatever else provides you with a better understanding of the phenomenon. I call it a society. All they wanted was a paradigm shift that would better suit their reality. I’ve heard of worse things.

Dr. Blanco’s society of unhappiness might be the most recent one on record. From the very little that has been written of it, it’s still unclear if it was founded in 1946 or 1949. My grandparents Tomás and Mariana didn’t join until the winter of ‘51.


The youngest child of one of Mexico City’s most prominent families, at thirty Tomás de Feo had already built a name for himself as a lawyer and a professor, even serving as a trusted legal advisor to President Miguel Alemán. Alemán, as Mexico’s sitting mandatary, officiated Tomás’ marriage to Mariana Schiffner, a beautiful young woman who’d turned sixteen only a month before the wedding.

There’s a slight mention of my grandfather in Alemán’s colossal and self-serving autobiography. After dedicating a single paragraph to Tomás’ rise and fall, Alemán concludes that “[l]icenciado de Feo was a man whose genius sadly morphed into complete lunacy.”


Mariana’s father, my great grandfather Knut, described Tomás in his diaries as “an ambitious man with rare intelligence who, nonetheless, seems to know nothing of what the joys of life can bring. Most of the time he’s deep in thought and what he seems to be thinking about is DEATH.”


Not long after the wedding there was an episode in which Tomás refused to leave his office on the thirty-second floor of the Torre Miralarga for over seventy-five hours. After finally stumbling out into the hallway, the young lawyer adamantly refused to be institutionalized and was back to work the following week.


I understand perfectly what Tomás was going through because his nasty melancholic gene squeezed its way into my father’s bloodstream and then skipped onto my brother Javier’s and mine. It must be said at some point, it might as well be here, that my father, Jerónimo de Feo, hanged himself one night from the thick branches of a coral tree in the courtyard of his law firm in downtown Mexico City.


My sister, Tamara, I’m proud to report, seems to be free of the disease. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.


So yes, Tomás de Feo was a dark cloud of a man, but for a large part of his life he, like everyone else, was obsessed with finding Happiness. From a very early age he read the great philosophers and left dozens of notebooks filled with scribbled notes of his reactions. I’ve read hundreds of pages from his notebooks and must say that it’s painful to trace the mental footsteps of a man who is so clearly not in control of his spirit. One day he’d write something like, “Happiness is understanding that we are everything, everything is us.” Then, after twenty pages filled with minuscule scribbling, he’d come to the conclusion that, “to be truly content one must accept that he is nothing. We don’t exist.”

Tomás attended seminars on Happiness, made at least five trips to Boston to visit one of the psychiatrists who was working to include Major Depression in the first version of the DSM, escaped to Buddhist retreats and even dabbled with hallucinogenics. Nothing worked.

Finally, in 1952, frustrated by the only problem that his brain couldn’t seem to resolve—for it was a problem of the brain itself—Tomás tried to take his life by ingesting a cocktail of sleeping pills and rat poison. It was a miracle, or at least that’s what most would call it, that Mariana felt ill while at a visit to her sister’s and decided to return home early that day. So it was that Tomás awoke in the Hospital Católico with three nuns praying at his bedside and Mariana weeping behind them.


Not long after his botched suicide attempt, Tomás published an essay in El Universal’s culture supplement titled “On Escaping Melancholia.” The essay, which catalogued my grandfather’s search for Happiness, was widely read in Mexico, and a French translation even made it to the pages of Le Monde. As a result, my grandfather received dozens of letters from the depressed and their close ones thanking him for raising consciousness about the disease.

Then one day he opened a letter from Dr. Efraín Blanco. Dr. Blanco’s missive was aggressive and condescending. Tomás, according to Dr. Blanco, had been doing it all wrong. “Sadness is Man’s natural state,” reads Dr. Blanco’s beautiful handwriting. “Escaping melancholia is as unnatural as fasting or chastity. It is Culture along with the powers that be who have convinced us that smiling, which, as everyone knows, not only feels but also looks unnatural, is the face’s most positive expression. Chasing Culture’s promise of Happiness—a mirage, at best—is as ludicrous and destined to failure as those imbecile rodents who follow each other off a cliff.” *

*Dr. Blanco was, no doubt, referring to the popular (and completely false) myth that at a certain age lemmings commit suicide by jumping off a cliff.


It is unclear why Tomás and Mariana got in their Chrysler Town & Country and drove to see Dr. Blanco that October day. Half my family argues that Tomás, who was also known for his sudden bursts of uncontrollable rage, had his revolver with him and was planning to kill the only person who had ever dared to call him obtuse. The other half of the de Feos argues that he just wanted to talk with the man. After all, why would he have taken his wife on a road-trip just to witness a murder?

I’ve driven that road that my grandfather took to Guanajuato many times because as a student I did my residency in León, the state’s most important city. After a few weeks of commuting I decided that in one of those drives to Guanajuato I’d detour to Dr. Blanco’s estate. Young and brazen, I began asking around in de Feo family events if anyone knew exactly where the estate was located. My family spoke about the society frequently, but they always did so in vague terms, never providing anything as specific as location. All I could find out was that it was a few kilometers from a little village called Loma Escondida.

I drove toward the general area and once I got close enough to Loma Escondida I began to ask the locals for directions. Everyone looked at me like I was asking them if they knew which road to take to El Dorado. “Doctor who?” they said. “Never heard of him.” As I was about to give up my search for the estate I pulled into a gas station to buy some snacks and asked the cashier, a good-humored old man, if he knew how to get to where I wanted to go. He laughed. “Tristeza?” I was confused. “Nobody knows about that place anymore,” he said, “but we used to call it Tristeza.”*

Tristeza was a ghost town. Its cement, unpainted villas were falling apart and the paint of the black mansion where Dr. Blanco once lived with his three wives and dozen children was fading. I didn’t stay long. My companion felt scared and uneasy and begged me to take her away from Tristeza. I don’t blame her. The town’s all around vibe—a term I stay away from—was unsettling.

I often try to imagine what Tristeza looked like when Tomás and Mariana arrived that afternoon in the autumn of 1952. Sure, the villas and the mansion were terribly depressing even then—I’ve heard that all furniture, clothes, and belongings had to be painted black—but there were broccoli and strawberry plantations that must’ve looked beautiful even amid so much gloom.

Dr. Blanco, who was by all accounts an incredibly charming man, must’ve made some impression on Tomás, because that night he and Mariana drove back to Mexico City, packed their bags and drove right back to Tristeza. A cement hut only a few meters from the black mansion welcomed them. 



Some have suggested that Dr. Blanco wasn’t even a real doctor, but rather a classic example of the charismatic and psychopathic leader who in this case found a “cause” that just happened to be psychiatric in nature. False. Dr. Blanco was, at one point, a real psychiatrist.

The only real investigative work I’ve done regarding Tristeza has been to look up Dr. Blanco’s records in the Mexican Psychiatric Association (AMP). Here are my findings:

Elías Blanco arrived at the Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis in 1926. No one, at least no one that I know of, knows anything about him before then. In 1932 Dr. Blanco arrived in Mexico City where he started his practice. In 1936 he had his license taken away for what the AMP called “improper use of medication” and “multiple violations of AMP stipulations.” At some point during the next couple of years he moved to Guanajuato with a dozen or so of his patients. One of those original settlers of Tristeza was Diana Velasco-Cabañero, co-heir to the fortune of railroad tycoon Alonso Velasco-Cabañero. Diana would later become one of Dr. Blanco’s wives and give birth to two of his children.


It seems logical to think that those first settlers of Tristeza were all either depressives or bipolar, though that very well may not be the case. As I’ve said repeatedly, not much is known about Dr. Blanco’s society. That everyone wore black we know because there exist, amid Dr. Blanco’s papers in the library of the Universidad Nacional, two hazy pictures of Tristeza taken from above, maybe from a tree, maybe from an actual observation tower that was later destroyed.

Happiness was outlawed in Tristeza. We know from a rare letter to his family that Guillermo Vaca snuck out to the post office, that if someone was deemed to be happy they would immediately be put away in a small cement hut with no windows and a narrow steel door.* 

According to Mr. Vaca, the hardest thing about living in Tristeza was staying productive while being sad. Dr. Blanco was, after all, delivering kilos and kilos of strawberries and broccoli to León on a regular basis and someone had to do the picking. In his letter, Mr. Vaca tells of people working on the field breaking down in crying fits or suddenly falling asleep. 

*Mr. Vaca, who was once rescued from the ledge of a twenty-story office building, was not complaining about Dr. Blanco’s policies, just describing them.


Have I wondered if Mariana was one of Dr. Blanco’s lovers? Of course I have. She was a very beautiful, very young woman. (The leader liked them young.) Meanwhile, Dr. Blanco was a middle-aged man of short stature and a pencil-thin mustache. Some people say that the only reason he began the society was so he could have access to women that would, in a regular environment, not even give him the light of day. I am not one of those people.


The inhabitants of Tristeza didn’t eat the strawberries and vegetables they grew. In fact, they didn’t eat fruits and vegetables at all. Dr. Blanco, who was an iconoclast if he was anything, thought that we only have positive ideas about those foods because they make us feel “good.” Also prohibited in Tristeza were foods rich in carbohydrates. A normal lunch in the society would consist of pork, fried eggs, wine and coffee. “We consume foods that make us sluggish,” said Dr. Blanco in a rare letter to one of his close friends from St. Louis. “Sluggishness leads to discomfort, irritability and sedentariousness (sic.), which in turn lead to questioning and contemplation.” Exercise, except in the form of sex, was also prohibited in Tristeza.


 I often dream of Tristeza. In some of these dreams I am Dr. Blanco, while in others I am my grandfather, myself, or an anonymous member of the society. There are some dreams in which I am God, looking down on Tristeza through the clouds. Mostly, these dreams cause me anxiety and stress, but sometimes they fill me with serenity. There is a recurring dream in which I am riding a goat in a never-ending strawberry field and the goat slowly dies. Interpret that if you like, but I find that the more I study dreams the more meaningless they become. That might be true for everything under Reality.

I also daydream about Tristeza. (I am certain that adult daydreaming is a sign of stunted maturity.) When I had a job I’d spent most of my time in the office thinking about the society. Now, unemployed, a dweller in the big house my mother left me, I spend afternoons in her old room scratching my rough cheeks and pretending I am an inhabitant of Tristeza or nursing the fantasy that I am a high-ranking member of the government’s secret police sent along with a team of soldiers to shut the society down. For a long time it shamed me how often I thought of Dr. Blanco fucking this or that wife in the bedroom, the kitchen, the living-room. The thought of him in bed with young Mariana often enters my head and I’ve stopped trying to push it out. It must be there for a reason. I like to picture Tristeza’s inhabitants, clad in black, mumbling and grumbling, cursing this and that, feeling at the same time alone and part of something. It is, I guess, a collective loneliness, which is as good a loneliness as there is.


It’s hard for a man of my age and circumstance to take a stance on anything, much less on something as hazy and personal as Tristeza, Guanajuato. At times I think that living there would’ve worked for me, whatever that may mean. I’ve felt the taunting tyranny of the Happiness bait since I can remember. Maybe Dr. Blanco would’ve allowed me to escape from it. There wasn’t a single suicide that I know of in Tristeza, a place whose dwellers were mostly prone to suicide. That puts a bitter smile on my face.


Not to say that Dr. Blanco wasn’t a charlatan. In 1957 he took all the broccoli and strawberry money and disappeared forever with a Tristeza newcomer. But aren’t all leaders charlatans? If they’re not fooling us they’re fooling themselves. (And when they find out they’ve been fooling themselves they go on to fool us.)

Tomás and Mariana stayed in Tristeza for a few months after Dr. Blanco’s departure in hopes of saving the society. In fact, my uncle Ernesto was born in post-Dr. Blanco Tristeza. But the new leadership failed. All hope had left with the money. My grandparents returned to Mexico City in 1958 and in 1962, driving back from a party, Tomás shot Mariana in the temple and then drove off a cliff.


I, of course, would’ve never had a child on purpose. I hope not to sound too drenched in self-pity when I say that I am well aware of the black stain that runs through my genetic material. But, alas, it happened.

A few weeks after my forty-first birthday I received a call from Teresa Alba, a beautiful Nicaraguan graduate student who had come to Mexico for a conference and whom I met at the lobby bar of a hotel. She asked me if I remembered her. Of course I did. I hadn’t slept with a woman for years before I slept with Teresa and hadn’t slept with one since.

“I—We had a son,” she said.

My knees buckled. My throat went dry. I remember grabbing on to a large portrait of one of my aunts that decorated my bedroom wall. “Excuse me?”


“Are you sure?”

“He’s three months old,” she said. “If I remember your face correctly the little guy looks just like his father.”

“How did you get my number?”

“I wasn’t even going to tell you, Joaquín. I guess I’m not as cruel as I thought.”

I suggested that maybe she was crueler. I was angry at myself, which means I was angry at the world.


I met little Octavio in the Managua airport a couple of days after the phone call. He was sleeping in his mother’s arms. Next to Teresa stood her newfound boyfriend, a young poet with a kind smile and a high-pitched voice.

I’d like to say that holding Octavio cured me, saved me, but the truth is that it only made things worse. As I paced back and forth in Teresa’s house with my son in my arms, I could see it in his eyes, the disease, the lifetime of—

I’ll stop here. I don’t even know if I want him to read this. But maybe it will help him hate me instead of himself.

Pablo Piñero Stillmann has been the recipient of fellowships from the Foundation for Mexican Literature and Indiana University, as well as the 2012 Normal Prize in Nonfiction. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Puerto Del Sol, and Cream City Review, among others. 

by Nick Thran

Run With The Creeps

A streak of hair gel and sweat shines on his pillowcase. She lies unclothed in the dark beside him, moving like mist off the lake at the family cottage. Middle of the night, deep in the city’s engine; what unaccountable atrocities are taking place? What meat cleavers lie in the tulip patches? What knives are propped blade-down in the compost bins? What if the misspelled words on alley walls are the clues to crimes? ‘Creep’ spelled with a K, with seven eeeeeees. No one’s born a creep, he thinks; it comes upon you with the stealth of silverfish, until all of the self-help books on the table look like concert t-shirts, eaten by bleach, or time. He would like to wake her now, but she has already left the window, is already smoke. The gel and sweat has settled into a thin crust on the pillowcase. He breaks it apart, sweeps the flakes. He will have to walk across the street for coffee. Call the council. He will have to call his wife. A bouquet of jet fuel perfumes the valley. The cut bank’s infected with purple loosestrife.

Nick Thran’s most recent collection of poems is Earworm, winner of the 2012 Trillium Book Award for Poetry. The above poem was originally composed for the album Run With the Creeps by Toronto hip-hop artist D-Sisive.

by Marc Paltrineri

Sunday Morning Is a Thousand Years Ago


Everyone’s sleeping it off

Fingers crossed I make a steeple

Looks nothing like God

It’s not a touchscreen if it hurts you

My tears are a bone

Shirtless in a rabbit hat

a small and brilliant light dances

comes from below

The world repainted gathers close

Slushy feeling of a cathedral

opens our doors

Leave my chair open

Here come the motorcycles

They awaken the snow

Marc Paltrineri’s poems can be found in places such as The Laurel Review, Sixth Finch, H_NGM_N, Inter/rupture, PANK, and The Green Mountains Review. Foxglove, his first chapbook, is forthcoming from Strange Cage in 2013.  He is a founding editor of the hand-bound poetry journal Sun’s Skeleton and a graduate of the University of New Hampshire. He lives nearby.

by Marc Paltrineri

from Foxglove

foxglove a tree is not stupid

it grows where it grows

we talk inside these branches

know nothing like the sun

the sun is a hammock

it devours us and is gone

where there is love

there is a tree and a tree

knows everything it is

already home

let’s move to the country

a country neither of us

are from

Marc Paltrineri’s poems can be found in places such as The Laurel Review, Sixth Finch, H_NGM_N, Inter/rupture, PANK, and The Green Mountains Review. Foxglove, his first chapbook, is forthcoming from Strange Cage in 2013.  He is a founding editor of the hand-bound poetry journal Sun’s Skeleton and a graduate of the University of New Hampshire. He lives nearby.

by Emily Rapp

Emily Rapp in conversation with Julie Buntin

A few months ago, we published an essay by Emily Rapp called “Solving the Body Problem at the Bikini Bar.” We are damn lucky that it appears on our site. I don’t think a single person on staff read it with dry eyes. Emily’s forthcoming book, The Still Point of the Turning World (she’s also the author of Poster Child, a memoir about growing up with a prosthetic leg), expands upon the narrative of that essay. It’s the story of her relationship with her son Ronan, who was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a rare and terminal degenerative illness.

I was scared to talk to Emily about her book. I don’t have a child. Emily was going through something impossibly sad. She was watching her baby die, powerless to stop it. I’d just read The Still Point of the Turning World with a hunger that surprised me. From the instant I opened a PDF of the galley it was a magnet lurking behind all the open windows on my desktop, pulling me in—I couldn’t work, I couldn’t answer the phone. I didn’t look up until I realized, after over two hours, that I desperately had to pee. There was nothing but the page, Emily’s magnetic voice, her rage, and her explosive, articulate grief.

How dare I ask Emily anything? Her tragedy felt so off-limits. I was terrified I’d fall back on any of the conversational tics and clichés that get humans who don’t know each other to the end of a phone call. I know what you mean, I’m so sorry. Or, I can’t imagine what you’re going through; a sentence Emily hears a lot, and one that she rejects. You could imagine it, if you tried hard enough.

Toward the end of this interview, Emily talks about how grief has no ladder. Everyone suffers; everyone’s suffering is utterly personal and impossible to measure, no matter the cause—a zit, a dying baby, a bad break-up, a rainy day. That generosity and empathy makes Emily easy to talk to and her book so much more than a story of a mother losing her child.

In a recent blog post on Role/Reboot , Emily describes how Ronan’s life led her to reconsider a writing assignment she often gives her students. Instead of having them write a Thanksgiving dinner scene, she asks that they write about a holiday dinner attended by the people they love most in the world. Except add the knowledge that this is the last time they’ll all be together. “Write it knowing that the only conflict worth worrying about is this one: When faced with the choice between shutting down your emotion, at the fear of risking pain, or opening up to everything and trusting that you’ll survive it, which will you choose?”

In The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily bravely (my word for it, not hers), with urgency and wisdom, chooses the second option. There is no question about whether or not you should read her book. If you’ve loved someone, you have to.

It’s obviously—and you talk about this a lot in book—difficult to ask about someone’s grief. I’m going to stay away from the details of what happened to you, and instead structure this conversation around something else that struck me as a huge part of this story—how you read and why you read and why reading is at the forefront of the book.
 But first I was hoping you could talk a little bit about how you came to writing, in general.  We have a lot of readers who are MFA students or aspiring writers and those stories are really helpful. 

Um, I started as a reader. And that’s I think really reflected in the book. I find it frustrating when MFA students and undergrads don’t read. You can’t really be a writer if you don’t read. It’s just not possible. That’s how I started. And then I wanted to make stories. I’m kind of a story-whore—that’s what I wanted to do.

I really liked writing papers in college, I was totally a nerd—so I started writing academic papers and I did academic work for a really long time. When I started to write creatively I stopped writing academically because it suddenly felt like such a snoozefest, way less appealing, but I do think I started mostly as a theological writer. What was fun about writing this book, well, I don’t know if fun is the right word, is that I’ve always wanted to marry my theological academic interests with a more creative, deeply subjective voice.

I wanted to ask you about that. This book definitely feels like a kind of hybrid of those two worlds or styles of writing and thinking—on the one hand, the ultra-personal story of what happened to your family, and on the other, a philosophical, academic investigation into the nature of grief. 

That’s something I’ve actually been doing a long time—when I was an undergraduate five thousand years ago I wrote a paper that kind of did that. So for me, this was a return.

I can’t remember how long I’ve been writing. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was like, six—but in my family, that was like—get a job, have a career.

Yeah, like do a thing.

Yeah, like WHAT you’re not going to be a lawyer?

I didn’t think of myself as a writer for a long time. It still often seems like a completely dubious, ridiculous profession.

Along those lines, you made reference to something in your book that I was super curious about—you briefly mentioned four-years of writers block you had in LA—

Yeah that was awful.

What happened? 

I went to LA and I was like all I want to do is take yoga and run around the beach—I didn’t do SHIT. I don’t know what happened to me, I just was so enamored with living in LA that all I did was go to the gym and run around. I had this really inappropriately young boyfriend...

 It sounds fun! 

I was also building up my teaching life—I had a full time teaching job and almost no experience. My only experience was working with drag queens and housewives and fisherman in Providence for one winter. So I went to LA and I was like fuck. I don’t know what I’m doing.

I spent a lot of time in those four years working on my approach to teaching creative writing, about which I knew zero. I think that was partly why I didn’t write—I also don’t think I felt a lot of urgency.  I was feeling like there were too many writers in the world. I’d written this awful novel—I mean literally, it’s objectively awful—and I just thought what am I doing, why am I doing this, I should have gone to law school. I had those career doubts—like oh my god, I’m 31, I’m so broke, like fuck this.

But when I wrote the book about Ronan, I was completely compelled to write. I wrote it so fast, I couldn’t stop—I wrote it in like a manic spit.

It feels like that. It has this crazy magnetic urgency. I actually could not stop reading it. I was at work and I was like oh shit, my boss is looking at me, I gotta stop reading this. And I couldn’t. 

I was definitely crazy when I wrote it. I don’t even remember writing some of it. I was having like a hyper spit I just couldn’t stop.

It’s interesting that your first book was a memoir, and I wonder if your background in theology, your intense reading, if this had some influence on you finding urgency in writing through nonfiction, as opposed to fiction.  In nonfiction you don’t have to digest your reading and make it into a story, you can just grapple with it on the page the same way you grapple with it in thought. 


I guess I just wondered why you choose nonfiction, or if you felt like it was a choice. 

Well first of all, I’m done writing nonfiction—I’m not done, I mean I love it, I find it extra easy to do. But I write fiction—I haven’t done it for a couple years, but I’m writing fiction now. I think nonfiction sort of choose me. A lot of people don’t want to write nonfiction because they think it’s going to expose them as people too deeply. I’ve had an artificial leg since I was four. People have been asking me inappropriate questions my entire life. Personal questions, voyeuristic questions. I’ve never had an expectation of privacy.

That’s so interesting—

So I don’t have a lot of walls—it doesn’t mean that I don’t maintain privacy as a person, because I do. I just think that I’ve been telling my story so much, my whole life, that I don’t have that cringe factor that people feel when they think about writing nonfiction.

I was going to ask you if you think writing nonfiction requires a certain amount of bravery. Did you read Sheila Heti’s book? How Should a Person Be


Anyway, some people are calling it a fictional memoir. There’s been this whole slew of books lately that are getting classified as fictional memoirs or something, it’s a stupid publishing industry term for a thing that’s already in existence, which is just nonfiction that’s inflected with the writer’s imagination, but I wondered if you’d heard of it and you thought it was a way for writers to protect themselves from having to come right out with like, this is my truth, this really happened to me. But it sounds like because you’ve been telling your story so baldly for so long, that whether or not you had to be brave to do so wasn’t really an issue.

Yeah, memoir is a marketing term. Also the best memoirs read like novels, they’re still stories, just like, by a person without a net. I haven’t read the book, but I think those terms are really strange. They’re just designed to pick up interest. I don’t think writing memoirs is about being brave. The experience of being a writer in general, you have to be sort of emotionally fearless. You’re inside people’s heads, you’re talking about fundamental issues in human life, love and all this shit... But brave? I think you have to be brave to be a fricken’ person, frankly.

I really hate that stuff. And it’s happening all the time to me. Like I hate the word raw, and unflinching, what does that even mean? But if you’re telling a good story—great. People want to psychologize the writers of memoirs really badly. It’s a little bit freaky. There’s that tendency. But actually memoirs tend to be private in some weird way. Because we’re saying: What was it like to have a baby that was dying? Well, it was like this. I’m telling you what it was like in a controlled way. The rest of the story you’ll never see.

So in that sense, I think memoirs are deeply secretive. And more introverted than people normally think.

Yeah, it’s like this super controlled way of revealing story—

Super controlled yeah—

I was really taken by the part in the book, chapter 10... the list of images about what grief is, it’s the first time where you don’t start a chapter with an epigraph—

Right, I’m an epigraph whore—I love epigraphs.

I LOVED that. But the list, it reminded me of something you said earlier in the book, about the seams of grief being easily split—I’m not quoting you right. How you just touch them and they burst open. It felt to me like the book couldn’t be controlled in the moment of the list. Like it was just, there is no way to say this. Here is this is list. Was that a thoughtful structural choice, or an emotional one?

No I didn’t think about it at all. I wrote that list when I was getting on a plane to go to Spain and write for a month in an empty farmhouse. Which was already probably not the best choice, but whatever. And um, I’d gotten this writer’s residency and I decided to go for like half the time they offered me. I was sitting on the plane and I was feeling so guilty and crazy. I made that list, of course I never have pen and paper, I made that list on a napkin. It did feel like a fracturing moment. Like, why am I on a plane, why am I doing this. This is so messed up. And it just kind of came out on the napkin. And I was looking at it later and I was like, wow, this is actually interesting. Initially I just thought—I need something to do before this plane takes off or I’m going to get off it. And then later I thought—this is kind of an interesting moment, where things...

There was another section in the book that got cut that was very fractured and nonlinear—too fractured and nonlinear, it didn’t make any sense—but this was more of a list-ish poem.  I do think your observation is right, about where it falls in the book—of which, I don’t even have any memory.

Yeah, I think that’s true. Grief is so strange. It’s a wild ride. It’s everything, it’s everything.

I just thought there was something so emotional about that. There’s all this discussion in the book about writing being ordered chaos, and you say all this beautiful interesting stuff about how it wasn’t actually about Ronan, it was about you, how you couldn’t do anything to save Ronan but you could do this. But ultimately something is done for Ronan, you know?

 Whatever, anyway for the reader that was this crazy moment, almost like a transference of your grief. Because when the structure cracks open you can feel the book in a different way. It’s like oh, is this what I thought it was, like a reminder of what’s behind what you’re reading—like what you said before—a reminder of all that stuff that the memoirist isn’t choosing to include, or that can’t be controlled by language.

 Which leads me to—what did your editor think about the list? In editing such a personal book, were there moments where you were like this CAN’T GO?

Oh my god, well, first of all, I have the smartest editor in New York. She’s a total saint. If she were a man, I’d be chasing her around like a crazy stalker. She’s a fucking genius. Genius, genius. She’s totally rare in publishing in the sense that she’s smart, not an asshole, and deeply intellectually attuned to all sorts of different things. I gave her a five hundred page manuscript and she was like: My back is fucking breaking on the subway, we’re cutting this in half. What’s wrong with you?

She liked that list—I mean, she needs to be on the cover of the book. The way she helped me structure the book is completely brilliant. There were things I wanted to keep where she was like NO, and she ended up being totally right—things that dated the book. I gave her basically everything I had written in the past year collected in a binder. She helped me find the through-lines, the structure, clarify some of the time elements. Another writer friend of mine, Rachel DeWoskin, also helped with the structure. I think writers really need a good editor. And they exist, especially in New York.

With my editor I was just like, whatever, I’ll take your lead. And her lead was always right.

Oh! And just for the sake of including this in the interview, because I wanted to touch on it more deeply, the writers you quote—Thomas Mann, Mary Shelley, Vaclav Havel, Sylvia Plath, Jane Kenyon, Louise Glück, Wislawa Szymborska, C.S Lewis... it’s insane. And also people like Megan O’Rourke, your peers.

 I’d like to hear more about that.... were those organically the books that were cropping up in your head, or did you find them through research, or is there something about the process of grieving that made you turn to language or to reading or to other people’s experiences in an explicit or desperate way?

I think it was desperate. I was just like whaaat. All I could think was, books, please help me. Who’s done this, what’s happening to me, am I normal? Which, I’m totally not.

How can I make sense of this feeling. The answer is, of course, you can’t. Just in the process of grappling with all that.

The book that was probably the biggest influence on me, were those poems by Louise Glück.  

She’s so good. 

Yeah, she’s just so full of rage. It’s a response I really appreciated.


And CS Lewis. It’s just, that book, A Grief Observed, is so great and so weird. He’s totally weird. When I read that book I was like oh good, I’m not completely insane.

Even Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, didn’t appeal to me as much. Her experience was so outside of mine, in terms of class, I was just like how is she not worried about insurance? So I didn’t get as deeply involved.  

CS Lewis is just in the garden rubbing his face in the dirt, and I was like yeah—

 I can get behind this! 

People compare books to other books, but grief is different for everyone. I mean, it sucks for everyone, but everyone is going to render it differently, or deal with it differently. For me I just wanted to read, and write, and think about anything else.

That part where you quote Glück’s “Matins,” the whole poem, and you ask why condolence cards don’t have poems on them, why do they have the stupidest things, bunnies and shit—instead of something necessary and helpful like a poem. That felt like an important question. I also couldn’t help but notice that the poetry you love seems to have leaked into your prose in a really direct way.

Oh that’s interesting—

Like when you say the air on the jetway was like heavy cake, or the snail’s face was the size of a fingertip. Something about those images reminds me of Sylvia Plath, how visual they are, how strange, how they snap you out of your normal perception. 


Do you read poetry with an eye toward being a prose writer who writes like a poet, or is that just a natural side effect of reading so much poetry? 

You know, I love poetry. I always wanted to be poet but I am just not a good poet at all. I write one poem a year that’s like, marginally good. Poetry is so different—it bypasses the thinking, but it’s still intellectual, and it hits you in the gut. I love to read poetry. I read poetry more than books, right now, just because it’s like little snippets, and each of them has huge impact.

I always wanted to be a poet, and it turns out, no. But that’s okay. I really appreciate poems and I think prose writers should read poems more because of the facility of language poets have to maintain and develop.

Even vocabulary-wise. Rendering the whole world in like—my friend Paige Ford is a poet and she can render an entire experience in one line. It makes you hate her a little bit.

The thing I can’t deal with with poems is like—what do you do with line breaks. I’ve never really gotten that. So, therefore I can’t be a poet. I don’t understand that—I could read countless essays and still wouldn’t get it.

Fiction writers often don’t read poetry. In grad school I knew a bunch of fiction writers who just wouldn’t read poetry. It was so  odd to me. Saying I don’t read poetry is like saying I don’t read books with lots of descriptions of landscapes—it’s like okay, you’re arbitrarily knocking out an entire universe of reading and literature.

I do think it’s crap when fiction writers say stuff like I don’t read poems, or poets are like ew, novels. It’s just writing. You’re going to find something in there if you’re observing. What’s great about poetry is that the observations are deep because they’re fast and effective. Grief deepens your level of observation in an intensely focused, horrifying way. Poetry was a reflection, at the time, of how difficult it was for me to be out in the world just like looking at regular things, being in the park—

 Just like, seeing things in this elemental way—

The effect of a really good poem is to be stunned into a different understanding of the world. That’s kind of what grief does. It made sense that I was chewing up Jane Kenyon and people like that because it offered me a reflection of my own stunned feeling.

Was your husband okay with you writing the book?

Rick and I are divorced now. But yeah, he was just like do what you want. He wants more privacy than I do around it. If you have a really different experience of grief than someone it’s really hard to come back together after that.

 It does seem like it would be so isolating. 

We were pretty shattered by this and our relationship didn’t survive it. Sadly, or not sadly—whatever. He was fine with me writing. It is not what he would have done—which is fine. At the time that I was writing it he was just glad I wasn’t banging my head against the wall, for that moment.

 Yeah I mean, you had found a way of channeling some of that violent grief. 

Oh god, I was a fucking maniac.

What do you want to leave readers with? 

I’m eager to say this book is not a parenting book. It’s not about how to be a parent. It’s about how to be a human being, and how I come to terms with that. I know it’s a sad book, but it’s not a despairing book.

I have a hard time when people find out about Ronan and they say things like I can’t imagine, your life must be hell. Actually that is NOT what’s happening here.  

I guess you cannot have a deep love without a deep loss. We think we can in this society and this culture and therefore we have no structure to manage somebody’s wild grief. Because we don’t think it’s going to happen to us—we think we’re insulated somehow.

I don’t write cookbooks because I can’t cook, and I don’t write parenting books because they annoy me.

I really think that’s the one thing I would wish people wont say about it. But they will.

The thing about it is—I mean, there’s no way of getting around how unrelentingly sad it is—it’s just sad. But also there is this beautiful—the parts where you try to imagine what every moment of Ronan’s life is like, and especially without developmental milestones. I thought there was something really gorgeous and hopeful about that. And the ending—it isn’t this head against the wall sadness—it isn’t like that at all. 

No, no.

In a way, that’s the most emotional moment. That’s the part where I was crying at my desk. Not because it’s so brutally sad, but because it’s some other, more complicated feeling—

Sadness and peace, yeah. Anyone that’s ever loved anyone beside themselves will identify with some of the things that happen in this book. To love is to be kind of liquefied with terror that something’s going to happen to that person. Life is suffering. Everybody suffers. There’s no ladder. That’s part of what we do. We suffer. Even if it’s like oh my God, I have a zit. Or oh my God, my baby is dying. There’s no quantifying these feelings. I think that’s the lesson I learned from Ronan and this experience. There’s no ladder.

An update: Emily’s son, Ronan, passed away on 2/15/13. Emily and her family have asked that anyone wishing to express sympathies either do that here: or make a donation in Ronan’s memory to the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, and many other publications. She is professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.