Two new books by Ander Monson consider the West, Midwest, gun violence, and extreme situations
Ander Monson, a native of Michigan who lives in Arizona, has not one but two new books that were published this year.
His book of essays, I Will Take the Answer, begins with an account of exploring storm sewer tunnels underneath Tucson and concludes with a reflection on filming a ceremony with an infrared camera. In between, the essays span gun violence, rivers, mines, the Midwest, the Upper Peninsula, music and mixtapes, a Renaissance festival, a reflection on “I,”, and holiday lawn decorations. There is also a mention of the Sea Shell City Michigan’s Man-Killing Giant Clam.
These essays contemplate our relationship to the past and our memories alongside who we are now, what it all may mean, and what the future may bring. One essay called “Facing the Monolith” reflects on how a palm does not survive when transplanted and determines that:
Removed from our worlds, our histories of self, the things and songs we love, our spectacles or the spectacles we have become, the outlines of our lives -- that constant backward looking, searching for what we might contain or in what we are contained—we might well disappear.
The extent that history and self and the world around us are interconnected shapes our realities, suggests Monson. Yet, despite our reliance on our individual collections of history and memory, they do not guarantee security. Monson writes, “I consider, as if floating above some other northern city, the sprawling of the lit-up interstates as fathers drive their children home through snow on winter nights, thinking themselves safe. What is safety, I wonder, when at any moment our life could be torn apart?”
This idea of upending a life is contextualized by Monson’s discussion of the 2011 Tucson shooting in which US Representative Gabrielle Giffords was injured. At the tragedy’s memorial outside the grocery store where it occurred, one of the essays aptly depicts that, “I find a balled-up piece of lined yellow paper. I do pick it up. I open it. a shopping list with six items: ‘triskets, jello, oranges, mayo, peanut butter, sm. eating apples.’ It’s not a note or prayer. Sometimes it’s not clear what the difference is between these kinds of documents.” While this book just came out this year, I sense these sturdy yet vulnerable essays will hold up over time and that I’ll find myself rereading them or returning to them in thought in the future.
Monson’s other book, The Gnome Stories, is a collection of short stories that are, in some ways, a counterpart to the essays. Reading the two books in quick succession may have influenced me, but the stories do present similar situations examined through the lens of fiction, while also standing alone. They investigate how people will respond to unique circumstances, ranging from shooting a burglar to working in a cryogenic facility or a radical weight-loss clinic. Characters find themselves both at extremes and reaching toward extremes at the same time as wondering what defines them, how they can change, and, “[w]hen will it be enough?” As one character who maps people’s memories reflects, “[m]y father once asked me: What are you willing to wreck to get what you want?” The question moves beyond the hypothetical when this character and others undergo this test. Through clear prose and introspective characters, the stories reveal strengths and weaknesses of these characters, as well as question which is which.
Monson’s reading in Ann Arbor is rescheduled as an At Home with Literati event via Zoom video conferencing on Tuesday, April 14, at 7 pm, when he will speak along with author Deb Olin Unferth.
I interviewed him by email, and we talked about his books, connection to the Midwest, and how the pandemic has affected his plans.
Q: What is it like to have two books be published at the same time?
A: This isn’t my first rodeo! My first book of fiction and my first book of poems came out on the same day too, as did the second book of poems and the second book of nonfiction, but those books weren’t quite as coordinated as these are. I tend to work on projects in parallel. But this is a first for me having the same press publish both books together. It’s challenging to think about how best to read from and perform them, though, but it’s a good challenge to have.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your plans for the books’ releases?
A: It cut my spring book tour plans back from grand dreams of glory into a trickle, which was a little rough, but obviously a lot of other folks have much worse problems. And it’s not been nothing; it’s just pushed me toward figuring out other ways of satisfying that desire to connect with actual people around performances/readings from the books. I’ve been restaging some of the readings in miniature, for instance, and I’m doing a few digital events, including at Literati. I’ve put a lot of thought into these ideas at this point: what can I do in Zoom that I couldn’t do in person? It’s kind of my approach to writing in the first place: I’m always writing for a specific medium. So this is allowing me to rethink what a “reading” or an author event might look like.
Q: That sounds like an interesting challenge! Turning back to your books and their forms, I see connections between the essays and fictional stories. Reading the nonfiction and fictionalized explorations of situations and concepts alongside each other illuminates the subjects -- such as Christmas yard decorations, commercial corporations, music lyrics, and concepts like memory -- in different ways depending on the form. You write in many forms: essays and fiction, as well as previously published volumes of poetry. Given the associations between these two new books and their different forms, did you write them at the same time, alternate between them, or write them separately? What do you like about switching forms?
A: I’d been working on them both for a while. I almost always work on two projects at once, though they don’t usually come out at the exact same time. It helps take the pressure off both, knowing that if you hit a wall with one you can just switch gears and grind on the other one for a while. It’s no surprise, then, that some of the things that passed through my mind or life during those few years found their way in different ways into both projects. I like those echoes: they’re one of the things that tie the books together. They’re meant to be published together, as you can tell from their shared designs. They have a lot to say with each other when you read them together, though of course, you don’t have to do so.
Q: From what you wrote about yourself in I Will Take the Answer, it sounds like you did not expect to become a writer when you took your first creative writing course, and now you have multiple projects at once. What changed? What keeps you writing?
A: I’d written stuff before, mostly as a joke, and I was always pretty good at it, but I’d taken the path into technology and computer science. I don’t know if I was just not all that good at it, or if it just bored me, but that spurred me through four different possible majors, and I ended up at some point -- I’m not sure how -- in a fiction workshop, and that was the first time that I really felt like I got back what I put into that class -- plus some -- and I knew I’d found a home. Some of those early impulses still drive my work. I mean I still write some stuff as a joke: there are a lot of jokes that show up in these books, most obviously the stories, though I don’t know how legible they are to most readers. I find these jokes hilarious, and they’re in-jokes I guess for a very small subset of readers, but there’s such pleasure to be had in burying things in stories or essays or poems for others to find. That and the movement between different kinds of writing -- different genres and forms -- remains pleasurable and highly challenging. It doesn’t get easier. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to that feeling of failure, failure, failure before something starts to coalesce and I can bring it together before it all goes down. I can’t always, but most of the time I can, and I love that feeling and that knowledge.
Q: The Midwest and West both come up frequently in I Will Take the Answer, and the contrasts between the regions, both in the environment and social norms, appear stark. The essays’ discussion of these places also aligns with the assertions about history and memory, as the first essay depicts:
In and just outside Tucson, too, there are ruins, abandoned mines, tunnels forgotten or ignored. Their presence reminds me of the ways the brain layers thought and memory atop thought and memory like a fattening, expanding, constantly reconfiguring cake: all those old electricities are still operating underneath the new if we can just peel the present back, see the pattern properly, if we can know that we are not just now, but that we are yesterday, and last week ….
Your essays tease apart history, memory, self, and future, as well as show how the lines between them can blur. It then follows that these two regions are simultaneously contained in you via memories and history. Why do you think these two places loom large in your essays? Does spending more and more time in a climate and place so different from that in which you grew up cause your insights and feelings about the two regions to keep evolving?
A: I Will Take the Answer feels like the first book I’ve written as a Tucsonan, feeling for the first time like that I live here, that I can begin to understand the place, and that’s partly as a result of my congresswoman getting shot and how it affected me -- and how it affected us. But living in a place like this and being from Michigan, you’re always superimposing the two things. The imaginative home of all of my work remains Michigan (the UP / the Keweenaw Peninsula, to be precise). I’m always writing from there, even if my body is somewhere warmer.
Q: These essays explore form, such as one playing with the order and layout of the text and another seeming poem-like. “I in River” feels especially connected to the print form in order to address the book’s gutter and spine, as well as to require reading by alternating between pages -- did you consider the print versus digital reading experience while writing it? How did you develop this style that’s very fitting for the topic of meandering rivers?
A: That essay is possibly the most intensively tied to its design and the medium of its publication of any I’ve ever written, so the digital version presented a challenge. We made it work, but honestly, the digital version is a poor substitute for the book experience. The way it appears in the ebook is the best that we could do in terms of simulating the experience of the book. I don’t recommend it. I write books that are books, that are composed with the object of the book in mind. I mean, I don’t want to be an asshole and say oh you can never appreciate my genius on a screen or whatever. Some of the essays work fine on screens, but they’re not written for screens. (I have written essays for screens, but these aren’t them.) I’m a believer in books that are made to be books, though. I don’t write content: I write books. And when I think about books (for more of this, see my previous book Letter to a Future Lover), I think about what they can do that ebooks can’t really do, and one of those things is use the page -- and, better, both pages at once as a spread -- to make meaning. When I look at those pages spread out, I see spaces that almost no one ever writes into or around. And I want to make use of those spaces. It’s like how rivers work in the west. Rivers can be dry half the year, and you wonder what the hell makes this a river, thinking these are not Michigan rivers, and then it rains, and then you know, and it’s unavoidable, and that dryness and the premium on drinkable water is something I never thought about before I moved here, and I have to say it sure looks like everything’s future. We’re just ahead of it here. So I want readers to interact with the object in their hands and think about how they interact with the world around them.
Q: It’s hard to pick a story from The Gnome Stories to ask you about because they are each individual and thought-provoking -- they all feel quite distinct in my mind. Every story also feels grounded in our current world with some twist on what is possible, so I found myself wondering what it would be like if they could actually happen. Do the situations in the stories scare you? What draws you to writing about them?
A: These stories don’t scare me: though several are based in some way on real events, most of them get torqued up in a way that moves out of the realm of realism. “The Reassurances,” for instance, came out of learning that there actually is a cryogenic facility in Phoenix (because of course there is), and the experience of driving up the mountain out of Phoenix towards Flagstaff multiple times, and then mishearing the name of the local Viva Burrito restaurant chain as Beaver Burrito. I’d wanted to write about cryogenics for a while after learning of the facility’s existence (for a good take on this, check out an essay in Thomas Mira y Lopez’s The Book of Resting Places), and I’d assumed that I could do it in nonfiction, because it’s already too ridiculous to be believed, but then Tommy did it so well I didn’t think I could do it any better, so I attacked it in fiction instead, which opened up a lot of other possibilities. There’s something so optimistic (and deluded -- both of these things occur at once) in believing in the possible magic of cryogenics. But all of the speculation about what goes on in the facility is imagined, which is mostly how I approach research in my fiction.
Q: So in The Gnome Stories “Notes” section, you mention a story growing in your mind. Tell us about that experience.
A: That story (the titular Gnome Story) kind of just took over the collection. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There’s no actual story called The Gnome Story in the collection, and the story called “The Gnome” isn’t really the gnome story either, but it’s about the experience of being taken over by obsession and frustration, and going in search of transformation, which is what drives many of the characters in this book. That’s the nature of obsession, isn’t it? That it kind of takes over and pulls you well past social norms and safeties into something much weirder and darker. It can be pleasurable or it can be toxic -- or both at once.
Q: What’s on your stack of books to read and recommend?
A: I have a sense that I should be working through the books on my bookshelves that I bought some years ago, but I keep buying new stuff. I’m pumped up about a forthcoming book by Brian Petkash, for instance, called Mistakes by the Lake. It’s a dark -- gothic, really -- tour of loss in Cleveland that’s about to come out. I’m also excited about Sarah Minor’s Bright Archive, coming out this fall from Rescue Press. If you like the river essay in I Will Take the Answer, you’re going to really like what Sarah Minor does with the page.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: The next book -- finished but I’m still tinkering with it a little bit -- is called Predator: A Memoir. It’s about obsessively watching the 1987 Schwarzenegger movie Predator, trying to understand our homegrown epidemic of gun violence in America (which shows up in these books in plenty of ways, like in the Safeway shooting, most obviously). Though we’re in the middle of a pandemic here and most of us have our eyes trained on other things, gun violence is an epidemic (not a pandemic: it’s primarily domestic), and I come from a land of guns and an era of violent films and violent games. There’s beauty and terror in all of these things, and the next book gets into that more directly.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Ander Monson’s reading in Ann Arbor is rescheduled as an At Home with Literati event via Zoom video conferencing on Tuesday, April 14, at 7 pm.