Tag Archives: fiction

I talk with Memorial author Bryan Washington about process, identity, curation, and fiction on AEWCH 190!

17 Jun

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As I get ready for the release of Hawk Mountain, I find myself wanting to talk to writers more and more. For advice, for good company, and honestly just because I’m so excited.

So for this episode, I talk to the much-celebrated author of the novel Memorialand story collection Lot, Bryan Washington! Memorial is a sort of negative universe version of Hawk Mountain – it uses time in a similar way (but different!) and examines the unsaid in a similar way (but different!) and the outcomes for the characters are very, very different (but similar!). After reading it, I felt enlivened and heartbroken at once. So then I read his story collection, Lot. Then, right away, I invited him onto the show. 

Bryan and I talk about desire, identity in fiction, the way writers are asked about process all the time, the productiveness of marginalization, movies, and more. This is one of my very favorite episodes.

What a great conversation.


Bryan and I are both deeply influenced by film. One filmmaker I bring up on the show is Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the notorious and deeply driven melodramatic auteur. I love his work, and I love this book of interviews with him, The Anarchy of the Imagination.

There are some deep parallels on this episode with themes touched on on AEWCH 149 featuring Carmen Maria Machado, although Carmen and I go at it in an entirely different way!

I talked with Samuel Delaney about fiction, sexual identity, and philosophy years ago, before I had a podcast. Here’s the whole conversation! 

Bryan’s website has a ton of links to his essays, including one we discuss on the episode, about the Montrose neighborhood in Houston. Memorial is being made into a TV show, and here’s a podcast featuring Bryan talking about it with poet and novelist Ocean Vuong. And here’s a video (one of several) of Bryan cooking and talking about food. Finally, here’s his essay on going to gay bars.

Until next time, friends, I suggest reading Memorial in the park on a sunny day like I did!

PRE-ORDER my debut novel HAWK MOUNTAIN today!

19 Nov

Friends, my debut novel of murder, desire, and high tension, Hawk Mountain, is out from W.W. Norton in the US and Penguin/Doubleday in Ireland and the UK next July, but if you pre-order it now, you get it delivered straight to your door the day it comes out (or maybe even earlier, since Amazon sometimes surprises you with early delivery!). I can’t wait to share this novel with the world. I’ll be posting some videos, podcasts, and interviews about the book and writing it in the days to come. But be one of the first people to read the book by clicking one of the following links and ordering it!

Indie bookstore-supported bookshop.org
From Amazon

Here’s the description:

An English teacher is gaslit by his charismatic high school bully in this tense story of deception, manipulation, and murder.

Single father Todd is relaxing at the beach with his son, Anthony, when he catches sight of a man approaching from the water’s edge. As the man draws closer, Todd recognizes him as Jack, who bullied Todd relentlessly in their teenage years, but now seems overjoyed to have “run into” his old friend. Jack suggests a meal to catch up. And can he spend the night?
What follows is a fast-paced story of obsession and cunning. As Jack invades Todd’s life, pain and intimidation from the past unearth knife-edge suspense in the present. Set in a small town on the New England coast, Conner Habib’s debut introduces characters trapped in isolation by the expansive woods and the encroaching ocean, their violence an expression of repressed desire and the damage it can inflict. Both gruesome and tender, Hawk Mountain offers a compelling look at how love and hate are indissoluble, intertwined until the last breath.

Can’t wait for you to read it, friends!

Happy Halloween from legendary horror author Ramsey Campbell and me on AEWCH 168!

27 Oct

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FRIENDS:Do you find this podcast meaningful? Support it! This podcast is only possible because listeners like you support it. Do contribute to my mission by supporting Against Everyone With Conner Habib on Patreon! Thank you so, so much.

Buy Ramsey’s books and all the books mentioned on/related to this episode via my booklist for AEWCH 168 on bookshop.org! The site sources from independent bookstores in the US, not a big corporate shipping warehouse where the workers are treated like machines. Plus when you click through here to order, the show gets a small affiliate kickback!


Happy Halloween. I don’t really need to introduce legendary horror author Ramsey Campbell, but I will just say it was an honor to have him on the show. Very few people have done as much as Ramsey to deepen horror narratives, and very few have shown – with dozens of books penned – such a commitment to the genre.


• For more on Ramsey, go to his website. Some books not available on bookshop.org, but that are Ramsey Campbell essentials include The Darkest Part of the Woods, The Doll Who Ate Its Mother, The Searching Dead, his excellent story collection Strange Things and Stranger Places, and my favorite, The Face That Must Die. Also, here’s Ramsey’s essay collection (which includes the essay we mention on the episode, “Granted by Granta”), Certainly. Here’s another good (short) interview with Ramsey.

• Early on, Ramsey mentions the 1944 1953 sci fi/horror movie The Lady and the Monster and a later incarnation of a similar theme in Donovan’s Brain.

• Here’s that scene from War of the Worlds where the priest gets disintegrated.

• Other horror-themed episodes of AEWCH include:

  • AEWCH 166 with Phil Ford and JF Martel of Weird Studies.
  • AEWCH 158 with Paul Tremblay
  • AEWCH 93 with Sara Maria Griffin (and also, I was on Sara’s podcast, Juvenalia, talking about Clive Barker)
  • AEWCH 61 with mystery and horror author Sara Gran
  • AEWCH 58 on horror films with screenwriter (of The Invitation and Destroyer, among other things) Phil Hay
  • AEWCH 40 about horror and poetry with Zachary Schomburg
  • AEWCH 44 on the vampire as a theory with Kelly Link and Jordy Rosenberg
  • AEWCH 23 on postmodern horror with Brian Evenson

• Here’s HP Lovecraft’s “vampire” story, “The Shunned House” (I also think that “The Picture in the House” is a sort of vampire story!)

T.E.D. Klein’s list of 25 most popular horror themes is in The Book of Lists: Horror

• “I’d rather have an enigma than an explanation…they last longer.” – Ramsey Campbell

• Have you seen Last Year in Marienbad yet?

• The calm moments in David Lynch films are the half smile on the government agent’s face thing I mention brought to you by Jon Ronson, who I spoke with on AEWCH 163.

• Here’s a bit on when horror comics were banned in Britain by the communist party, or if you want to really go deeper into the story, read Martin Barker’s A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign.

• Watch the trailer for Dario Argento’s horror classic, Deep Red + Roy Ward Baker’s Quartemass and the Pit + And watch Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger.

Until next time, friends,

New (free!) event! ULYSSES FOR THE REST OF US – read James Joyce’s Ulysses with Conner from June to September for free. Hosted by MoLI, the Museum of Literature Ireland!

3 Jun

I’m so excited to share with you the new free event series featuring me guiding you through James Joyce’s Ulysses, hosted by MoLI, the Museum of Literature Ireland here in Dublin.


Here’s the description:

Always wanted to read Ulysses but were too afraid to start? Ulysses may be one of the most famous and influential novels ever published, but how many have actually read it? Ulysses – for the Rest of Us! is a new free public book club at MoLI that will demystify this extraordinary 100 year-old novel, and offer fresh and easy routes into James Joyce’s vast, elaborate and often hilarious masterpiece for every reader. This summer, join your guide –author, activist and podcast host Conner Habib – as he unlocks Ulysses, episode by episode, from Stephen Dedalus’s breakfast in Sandycove through to Molly Bloom’s famous closing monologue.

This is the year that you finish Ulysses!
Starting with an online interview with Conner at 1PM (Dublin time) this Bloomsday, 16 June, Ulysses for the Rest of Us will continue fortnightly on Thursday evenings over Zoom until September. In addition to Conner Habib’s fun and accessible introductions to each episode, book club members will be able to discuss the book whilst having access to a wealth of additional resources and recommended reading lists. Sign up for free now!”

Obviously, it’s a dream to be hosting a Ulysses event in Ireland. But more than that, this is the event for Ulysses in Ireland this year. It’s being promoted by the Irish tourism board, featuring great Irish guests, and on offer to the entire nation.

You can watch the little preview video here, and sign up! It’s free for everyone!

Desires, dark and light. Carmen Maria Machado on AEWCH 149!

21 Apr

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Buy Carmen’s books and the books mentioned on/related to this episode via my booklist for AEWCH 149 on Bookshop.org. Bookshop.org sources from independent bookstores in the US, not a big corporate shipping warehouse where the workers are treated like machines. Plus when you click through here to order, the show gets a small affiliate kickback!


The French psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan once said, “there is no other good than the one that can pay the price of the access to desire.”

There’s a lot about this statement, which is, like a lot of what Lacan said, a riddle – but one thing in it – paying the price of access – so our desires are not accessible? So we must lose something, give something to meet them? To see them? To talk about them?

To discuss all of this, I spoke with Carmen Maria Machado, author of the memoir In The Dream House, the collection of strange tales Her Body And Other Parties, and the graphic novel The Low, Low Woods.

I think what’s really interesting to both of us, and this comes up quite a bit – is how desire functions, how it is somehow always ahead of us, appearing and disappearing like a friend or an enemy on the path in a fairy tale. Sometimes it gives something to us that is useful later on. A key, a sacred object, a weapon. Sometimes it gives us a gift that leads us to being stuck. Like the fairy market where someone accepts the gift of an apple from the goblin, eats it, and wakes up 100 years later, if they wake up at all. Sometimes it has a strange shape, it frightens us.

Why should desires be like this? How do they know us, in a way, before we know ourselves?

This is a conversation that finds proximity to creation, to danger, to repetition, to the abuse that Carmen writes about in her memoir In The Dream House,and to the abuse I wrote about in my essay ,”If You Ever Did Write Anything About Me, I’d Want It To Be About Love“.

How do we talk about the desire and the horror in abusive relationships while still holding the abuser accountable. How do we make the necessary move of accountability while not reducing the complicatedness of the encounter and the relationship?

Again and again, Carmen and I touch on desires and on storytelling – almost like we’re knocking on wood to allow ourselves to go forward in difficult conversation.

What do we sacrifice to know our desires?
What are the prices of following our desires
Of not giving way to them?
Of not giving ground to them?

If all that sounds dark and complex, well, it is. but this is also such a warm and friendly episode. With lots of laughter and curiosity and affinity. 

I’m so happy to share this episode with you.


  • The way desire  knows itself before you know what it is
  • Why is the fox from Robin Hood so hot
  • Evading the temptation of metaphor when we read
  • The response to the subconscious is determines the genre of writing
  • Horror as spiritual narrative
  • H.P. Lovecraft’s mission of mercy
  • Sexuality as a genre
  • The imagination of the abusive partner after you’ve left them
  • The missing language of understanding for the person who has been abused
  • Why we need to talk about resilience 
  • The importance of meta-devices and melodrama
  • The Law & Order SVU-niverse


• For more on Carmen go to her website (which has a badass picture of her in a chair). Here’s an interview with Carmen that goes horrifically wrong on Electric Lit. Here’s Carmen talking about haunted houses and horror movies on the American Hysteria podcast. And if you’d like to read one of her stories, here’s the early version one we reference the most, “The Husband Stitch“.

• My essay from 2010 “Looking at Men” describes the clouded shower glass incident.

• McArthur Award-winning writer Kelly Link comes up a lot on this episode. Have you listened to AEWCH 44 with Kelly, Jordy Rosenberg, and me? It’s awesome. Also, here’s Kelly’s essay about the “silent partner.

• Here’s an interview with the great Argentine writer, César Aira.

• It looks like Grant Morrison’s Seaguy is not available on bookshop.org, so here it is from that, uh, other place. 

• If you haven’t read Susan Sontag’s essay, “Against Interpretation,” read it, friends. And if you have read it, read it again. Same goes for H.P. Lovecraft’s essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature“.

• And the Lovecraft quote is, ““The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

• Here’s my essay “If You Ever Did Write Anything About Me, I’d Want It To Be About Love” about the boyfriend who beat me up, which is mentioned at the end of Carmen’s memoir (and through which Carmen and I first communicated).

• I love author Sara Maria Griffin’s appearance on AEWCH 93. It remains one of my very favorite episodes.

• I have not yet read Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl but I definitely will now. I also (forgive me, Father!) have not yet seen Fleabag. I will, I will, I will!

• Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s movie The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kantis one of the best films ever made. And also watch Lars Von Trier’s Dogville for another sort of disorientation.

Until next time friends, follow your desires!

Why we need the dark imagination. Me + Sarah Maria Griffin on AEWCH 93

10 Dec

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Let’s enter the mystery together: You, me, and dark science fiction writer Sarah Maria Griffin. Let’s talk about violence and evil and owls. Let’s think about David Lynch’s uncanny power, and how magic works, how horror works. Let’s approach the paranormal, the dreadful, the uncommon.
Sarah is the author of multiple books, most recently the excellent novel, Other Words For Smoke, about a brother and sister encounter the sinister and strange forces in their aunt’s house. The book just won the Eason Teen/Young Adult Book of the Year 2019 here in Ireland. Her previous novel, Spare And Found Parts chronicles a post-apocalyptic world with a hopeful girl at its center, trying to move humanity forward while her machine heart ticks away.
Sarah and I had a profound and potent conversation, and after we finished the episode, we continued to talk about the entire world, and love, and fortune. And then all the lights on my block switched off. Now that’s a powerful connection!
This is one of my favorite episodes of AEWCH ever. As Sarah says at the end, we “move immediately past…small talk.” Couldn’t ask for anything more.
So excited to share it with you!
We discuss:
  • Magic, the paranormal and why they’re so troubling for people
  • Twin Peaks as evil and threat and occult power
  • Horror is No-One-Believes-You, Fantasy is We-All-Knew-This-Was-Real-Even-Though-You’re-Just-Learning-About-It
  • Why investigating mystery can fuck you up
  • Not-knowing as an act of compassion
  • Sarah’s leap in style and vulnerability in writing
  • Following desire and characters
  • The unendingness of Hell
  • Why questions are always appropriate tools
  • The tarot as anatomy (and why it gives us unsolicited dick pics sometimes)
  • What a world of caring about subjectivity looks like (and why Freud got that right)
  • Why there is no metric for violation or resilience
  • Fiction as a generator of compassion and empathy
  • The importance of speaking poetically
• For more on Sarah, read her entertaining and thoughtful one-year memoir, Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home. Here are here contributions to the legendary Irish lit magazine, The Stinging Fly. And here’s Sarah talking about empathy.
TP• I’m sure you’ve all seen Twin Peaks, but have you seen the newest season? It’s utterly terrifying and completely challenging. It is a true act of occult intensity. The episode we talk a lot about it Part 8. 
• Sarah mentions the eclectic and wonder-filled story collection Her Body And Other Parties by the great Carmen Maria Machado. She also gives a shout out to Leslie Jamison’s poignant collection of essays, The Empathy Exams.
James Tate was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet. He was an infrequent but happy friend of mine, as well. He died in 2015.
• If you’re American, you’ve probably heard of the spooky immersive theater experience, Sleep No More. If not, check it out.
• I really love the episode I did with experimental punk musician and author Tim Kinsella – AEWCH 43. He’s a hero of mine, and I feel blessed to have had the conversation. I posted a playlist on spotify of Tim’s music to go along with that episodes. It demonstrates his breadth and strangeness and inventiveness as an artist.
KD• A couple of first lines come quick on each other’s heels. First, I mention the first line of Sarah’s novel, Spare And Found Parts: “Just under the surface of the waves where the ocean met the land, a hand without a body reached for someone to grab it.” And then I mention the chilling first line of Kathryn Davis’s novel, Hell. “Something is wrong in the house.”
• Want to read Alejandro Jodorowsky on the tarot? Read his book on it, co-authored with Marianne Costa.
• I mention, briefly, a man who was harassing Sarah and other women in Ireland, and how she was compassionate in her response. For a quick summary of what happened, here’s an article in the Irish Times about it.
• There’s a great book by anthroposophist and inkling Owen Barfield on the move away from poetics and towards flat literalism. It’s titled Poetic Diction: A Study In Meaning.
Until next time,

Witches, Fairies, Violence, Ireland: Fiction Writer Kevin Barry on AEWCH 86!

8 Oct

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What an honor to talk to one of the greatest living fiction writers, Kevin Barry. And to talk with him not about “how do you get your ideas?” or “what’s your writing practice like”? But instead about witches, healers, fairies, violence,  the radical history of Ireland, and more.

Kevin’s latest novel, The Night Boat To Tangier , was longlisted for the Booker Prize. His novel before that, Beatlbone follows John Lennon on a mystical vision quest to find an island off the Irish coast. It’s a novel so strange and moving that you wouldn’t have to even like The Beatles to be caught up in its weird web.

Also, Kevin reads his absolutely brutal story, “A Cruelty” in his excellent, sinister Christian Bale-esque reading voice.

Apologies – the episode gets cut off just as we start discussing Twin Peaks. But we only spoke for about five more minutes after that. And besides, I’ll have Kevin back on. This is a great conversation and I absolutely want to continue it.

We talk:

  • Kevin’s superstitions
  • Animism and fiction
  • Irish writers and writers of the American South
  • how accents change fiction
  • How we add to the landscape as we walk through it
  • Kevin’s encounters with
  • Writing and dreams
  • The fairies and The Pixies
  • When Kevin was healed by witchcraft before playing video games
  • The non-linearity of time
  • Primal scream therapy in Ireland
  • Evil’s home in art



9 Oct





This is one of my very favorite conversations – I can’t believe I had the opportunity to speak with MacArthur fellow Kelly Link and brilliant new novelist Jordy Rosenberg! We had the conversation just a few days before Link’s MacArthur Award was announced, and just a few days after Jordy’s book was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Award!
Kelly Link is one of the 2018 MacArthur fellows. She’s the author of four collection of short stories, Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, Pretty Monsters, and Get In Trouble. She’s also the co-editor and co-owner (with her husband Gavin Grant) of Small Beer Press and the literary magazine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.
Jordy Rosenberg is the author of the absolutely excellent anti-capitlism, anti-authoritarian, love story, Confessions of the Fox. and of the nonfiction book, Critical Enthusiasm: Capital Accumulation and the Transformation of Religious Passion.
How fantastic elements in fiction can fall into reinforcing political power; how capitalism works like magic; how we turn social forces into entities; when characters becomes concepts and vice versa; autotheory; scent, senses, and pleasure in fiction; Mandy and zombies; murder; disassociation as a strategy; the evolution of consciousness through novels; and a whooooole lot of literature.

On Joy Williams, or, The Best Fiction Writer Alive

31 Dec

To close the year out here’s an ode to my favorite living fiction writing, Joy Williams. She’s also the best living fiction writer. Not just because she’s my favorite, but because no one is like her. Perhaps no one writing fiction today is capable of being like her. For comparisons, we’d have to turn to the dead: To Walter Benjamin or perhaps James Welch. This essay originally appeared on The Rumpus, a great literature and culture site. Please check them out, read this essay, and read some Joy Williams in the new year!

  • CH


FloridaLast things first: people die.

Imagine you know nothing about Joy Williams. You pick up her book, Florida, what was once known as a “coffee table book.” It looks nice enough, filled with photos: melting purple Florida skies lining Tampa skyscrapers, a dolphin bursting through a motorboat’s wake, a flamingo on the cover, and essay by Joy Williams in the middle.

Imagine buying that book for the dolphin and the flamingo and getting this:

Whatever Florida is becoming (and she can become almost anything), she is essentially her most wondrous and exceptional self when she is not the Florida that is the result of a century of fabrication.

The essay, you discover, is filled with…not scorn for tourists, never quite that, but something angry. Sorrow, awe. This writer won’t leave any version of Florida alone, not the ones that have passed, nor the one that exists during the essay’s writing. The words run ashore against a picture of lifeguard shack. 

It was an edgy lifeguard shack at the time, no doubt. It has a curving silver roof and yellow legs and neon green walls. Now it looks dated and ugly. Certain images, you might sense as you look at the pages, have certain eras.

The Florida in Florida has had its era, and now it’s gone. Considering the book now, you might understand what readers felt when it came out; their excited longing for those beaches, Florida was almost glowing in their far-off longings, like neon. But the essay indicates a canceling out of all that. It states that time will take you on a ride to the end. Those images of Florida will be gone. Your time will be gone. This too, and you shall pass.

This is the death in Joy Williams’s work. It’s not passive or a neutral gray. It never happens on its own but is always courted with people’s thoughts of it, and the moment of dying. It might be a moment anyone of us has already missed. For all we know, we’re dead right now. Maybe this is it.

“So,” begins her novel The Quick and the Dead, “you don’t believe in a future life. Then do we have the place for you!” The title of the novel suggests that there aren’t really options, per se. After all it’s not The Quick OR the Dead. There might be two types of people, but time is quick and death is certain. The first chapter goes on.

Nothing we do is inevitable, but everything we do is irreversible. How do you propose to remember that in time?

Which would you propose to have your life compared to, wind or dust?



And in the novel Breaking and Entering, we come across Liberty and Willie, who break into houses and stay there as long as they can. Simple enough. Sometimes they meet the owners, sometimes not. The novel starts in a normal timbre, but slowly drifts apart from itself, like cells about to divide. 


Joy Williams

Adventure gives way to being absorbed into the landscape of words and feelings. Gradually, no one knows who’s alive or who’s dead. Everyone becomes unintelligible to each other.

“I was a suicide,” Liberty says into the eye of a dead heron, finding some solace there, perhaps. The narrative continues, and we can’t be sure if it’s Liberty or the world that goes on to tell us, “We are addressed, even desired, but we are ghosts.”

When we know who’s speaking, we don’t always know why. “You’re admiring the light dear? There is an extraordinary light here, isn’t there? It only reveals, never explains.”

As readers, we think, people don’t talk like this. And then, anxiously, we must admit uncertainty. Or do they?

There’s an earlier version of the novel floating around, rarely seen but definitely real. This was the book before a publisher turned away from it, perhaps in fear. The host of a book-themed radio show told me about it once; he’d read it, was shaken to the core by it, then he passed it to an author. That version, he said, is less compromising than the published one; a deep treatise on the dread of being. I don’t know what that might look like. How could it be less compromising than the existing oracle? Unless it were written in a striking new language; or perhaps a very old one. Hieroglyphics. Sacred pictures of the dead.

Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead and the underworld appears in “Cats and Dogs,” a story in her latest collection, The Visiting Privilege. Osiris is alive, but dead. Dismembered, but whole.

Siblings drowned Osiris. Then chopped up body into fourteen parts and scattered them all over the place, all over Egypt. Someone found everything except for the penis, which had been eaten osirisby fish, then put him back together again and made him king of the underworld.

His severed penis, by the way, awaits you in one of her novels, though I won’t tell you which one. You’re going to have to find that severed penis on your own. The point here is that Osiris is the bridge between the kingdom of uncertainty (the living), and the dead, where we are certainly going. No one more than Williams writes from both worlds at once.

Imagine picking up that book with the flamingo on the cover.

That flamingo is dead now.

For sure, it is pink and beautiful and dead. Because also, the animals die.

I’ve killed a lot of animals in my life so far. So have most people, intentionally, directly, indirectly. The ones we eat of course. The ones we hunted as children. More, more. Let’s not forget the bugs that turn to dust or smears on the windshield. Surely we are not exempt here. We decide to make and buy huge machines of metal and glass and fill them up with the liquefied dead bodies of plants and animals and then blot other animals out of existence. We are absolute killing machines, but we hover above ourselves and watch, unless, like Jains, we sweep before us. Even then, we couldn’t hope to save everything.

Joy Williams kills animals in her life, she kills them or finds them dead in her stories. This is important. Jane, in “Preparation for a Collie,” poisons her dog, for example. She tries half-heartedly to give it away, but no, she’d rather really give it away.

Jane goes to the cupboard, wobbling slightly. “I’m going to kill that dog,” she says. “I’m sick of this.” She puts down her drink and takes a can of DRANO out of the cupboard.

It’s matter of fact. Earlier, her little son David had told the dog “We’re getting rid of you, you know.” But not in this way, surely not this way. He starts to cry. Jane loves her son in an unmoved way. She kneels down to kiss him. “David does not look at her. It is as though, however, he is dreaming of looking at her.” The story ends. No meaning is given but the dream.

There’s an occult theory, developed by hermetic masters sometime between ancient Greece and the 18th century. In each animal, the theory goes, there’s a golden thread running through. A glowing, golden mark on the spine that you could see if only you had a sort of astral vision. That’s where the animal is connected to the collective animal—the archetypal animal. If you pet an animal on that golden thread, you’ll feel connected. I’ve done just that with my dog.

If we’d look into our own bodies, the theory goes, we wouldn’t notice that thread, we are distinct. There’s nothing in Joy Williams’ work suggesting we ourselves are animals, no, we’re nothing so magnificent. What she might say we are, I’m not certain. But in the pages as in life, we are the beings kill animals, often after caring for them, like in “Preparation for a Collie” or the idolized then sacrificed bear cub in “Honored Guest.”

So many animals wander into our dimension (or is it the other way around?), and then they die, because in their deaths, they may actually have a chance to affect us.

In her essay, “Hawk,” (from her book Ill NatureJoy Williams writes of her own dreaming. Dreams and her lack of dreams after her dog, Hawk attacks her and has to be put to sleep, killed. You will remember this essay for a long time after you read it.

The animals don’t leave us, even in death.

In her finest story, “Congress,” a woman, Miriam, strikes up a relationship with a lamp with a base made of deer hooves. “It was anarchy, the little lamp, its legs snugly bunched. It was whirl, it was hole, it was the first far drums.” The lamp shines on everything in her life, and it has its own preferences, she discovers, though the lamp never speaks. She reads in its glow and sometimes the lamp judges what she reads. Moby-Dick produces the most powerful response, a book about a longing that, once met, is deadly. Whales are our largest animals, and we take them apart and turn them into fuel, food, candles. While Miriam is away, she reflects that the lamp, with legs that once “ran and rested and moved through woods washed by flowers” was back in her room,

…hovering over Moby-Dick. It would be deeply involved in it by now, slamming down Melville like water. The shapeless maw of the undifferentiating sea! God as indifferent, insentient Being, composed of an infinitude of deaths! Nature. Gliding… bewitching… majestic… capable of universal catastrophe! The lamp was eating it up.

There is nothing supernatural about the lamp; it is merely a part of life. Nor is there anything supernatural about the oracle she meets later, a taxidermist tucked in the room of a museum featuring gloriously stuffed animal bodies. People travel from great distances to meet him and ask him a question. His power seems to come from being in the palace of dead animals, since Miriam will be his replacement. It doesn’t matter if she’s qualified. She’s got her lamp, and she’s among the wisdom of preserved carcasses and halted motion. Any answer will do, since her words will be heard differently, with reverence, there.

The animals, only the animals, can reflect back to us our own failings and dishonesties.

When I met Joy Williams, it was over animals. I approached her sheepishly, stupidly, with a story I’d written about a woman who’d turned into a white dog. I was in grad school, and Joy Williams was giving a reading. I hadn’t known then that she’d written an entire novel featuring a white dog. I’d always been scared of them. Recurring nightmares. At that point, I’d only read The Quick and the Dead, which had changed me entirely. I’d never read anything like it, and I never will again. It was unbearable; it grew through me, the way grass forces its way through a sidewalk.

If you haven’t read anything by Joy Williams yet, do it. Confound yourself. If you are a writer, beware. She is a “writer’s writer.” What that means is: terror. When you read Joy Williams, there’s a feeling of terror. I might have written, “delight”, but let’s face facts, for writers, those are the same thing. I might have also written “wildness.”

It’s too much for most of us. A few sentences and off you will go, into a universe, wanting to write your own work. Needing to. If you can, stifle the urge to write, and finish her story, or worse, novel, and hum in your cells, wanting to do something. It’s the feeling Colin Wilson wrote about when looking into the Grand Canyon. It overwhelms you, but how will you resolve it? There are only two options: hold onto it or give in to doom and throw yourself in.


From The Book of Kells, where the intensity of the words and symbols also come to life.

“Thank you,” I said, “and here.” I handed her my story (used-up dead ideas, pressed with ink onto paper: dead, flattened plants). I told her not to worry about responding; I just wanted to give it to her.

“What’s your address,” she asked suddenly, and I wrote my email address down on the back of the story. She laughed. “My boy, you know nothing of me, do you?”

I wrote down my postal address, which looked lonely on blank white paper, like the name of someone I’d forgotten. I don’t think it looked that way to her—I think to her it looked healthy or at least normal.

Months passed and then, like a shell on the sand, a letter appeared in my mailbox. Typewritten on the back of a galley page of The Quick and the Dead. I won’t tell you what it says, except that it is kind, it is caring and encouraging and also a bit mysterious. It’s a story.

The next year, she returned to Amherst and we sat outside with her German Shepherds and talked about Gurdjieff and Edmund White and animals, of course. She was like a tarot card to me, sitting in that chair, with blue behind her and a giant dog on either side. She became friendly, personal. Not that she said it explicitly, but I learned then from her the lesson every writer needs to learn but never will. You can do anything when you write. If you’re writing and you think of a painting, have the painting appear. If the painting needs to talk, so be it. If, at the end of your work, you have a heavy impulse to let the lovers die suddenly in a toy store fire, destroy them. If the wolves need to speak to God, as they do in 99 Stories of God, well then:

“Thank you for inviting us to participate in your plan anyway,” the wolves said politely.

The Lord did not want to appear addled, but what was the plan his sons were referring to exactly?

Characters are not people, after all (they’re not wolves, either, though they are closer to animals), though we must show compassion to whatever they are. They don’t need to “make sense,”even if we need to try and make sense of them. In fact, definitions, which claim total understanding, will likely fail us when we write and read. Here’s the Lord again, in 99 Stories of God:

The Lord was trying out some material.

I AM WHO I AM, He said.

It didn’t sound right.


It sounded ridiculous.

He didn’t favor definitions.

He’d always had the most frightful difficulties with them.

Little symbols, strung together, just like the ones in this essay, are what make characters. They’re shapes the djinns are cast through. They are not alive/they are alive in us. So the writer’s responsibility is to write them into being through that liminal space: dead and alive, sleeping and awake, animal and plant, drop and ocean, symbol and gesture. You can do anything. This is not an easy thing to remember as a writer. It’s a bit like sitting up straight: You have to keep reminding yourself to do it. Once you do it enough, writing becomes a place for wildness in a world where wildness will appear to be killed. Reading Joy Williams is a brush against this sublime evasiveness, this animal behind the trees. She doesn’t control each word, as some people might think. She just becomes some sort of medium, just tightens the bow and touches the spine so that the sound and the golden glow come through.

And what is wildness if not the Living and the Quick and the Dying and the Dead, all at once?