The Situation in American Waffles

In 1939, The Pancake Review sent out a questionnaire to a number of prominent waffle eaters, asking them about waffles, maple syrup, and their breakfast-eating identities. While the questionnaire hasn’t been completely forgotten (right now, a Henry Darger type in Chicago hasn’t finished his response to the initial survey; an excerpt of this man’s ongoing 12,000 page work, In the Realms of the Waffles will be published next year by New Directions), we felt that these breakfast-related questions were rarely being asked of today’s waffle eaters. Considering that 2011 was a year of significant waffle eating and that most questionnaires are inherently pointless, we felt that it would be particularly relevant to update The Pancake Review’s questions.

In pursuing these vital questions with today’s breakfast experts, some figures were forced to recuse themselves or offer short answers to mimic recent breakfast austerity measures in Europe. Susannah Breslin pointed out that her gluten allergy prevented her from consuming them, even as she recognized that “everything hinges on waffles.” Elizabeth Crane Brandt professed to be “blind to this plight.” Lev Grossman insisted that he was “a French toast man.” Sheila McClear didn’t quite answer our questions, but she did inform us that she didn’t eat waffles in regular New York diners. “I will say I had a waffle at a semi-upscale breakfast place about three years ago,” reported McClear. “I was with my boyfriend, and I was cheerfully dousing it with syrup. He found this display so repulsive he actually walked. out. of. the. restaurant. on me.”

Ed Park claimed that he didn’t eat waffles anymore, but revealed that he sometimes eats a bit of leftover Eggos if they remain on other people’s plates. Dan Chaon said that he didn’t believe in the existence of breakfast, and, wishing to respect his beliefs, we didn’t press him further. Emma Straub pointed out that the New Kids on the Block “always have their after-parties at Waffle House restaurants, which tells you all you need to know about the state of American waffles.” She followed this astute observation with a Rita Coolidge quote.

But many of the waffle experts we consulted were both confident and comfortable with our questions, very frequently answering all of them.


Megan Abbott is most recently the author of The End of Everything.

Diana Abu-Jaber is most recently the author of Birds of Paradise. She is known for writing food-related prose that makes her readers very hungry.

Adrienne Davich is a writer, journalist, and editor based in Brooklyn.

Marcy Dermansky is most recently the author of Bad Marie.

Jesus Angel Garcia is the author of badbadbad.

J. Robert Lennon is most recently the author of Castle and Pieces for the Left Hand.

Michael Schaub is a writer and a critic in Austin.

Andrew Shaffer has claimed to be evil, but is also the author of Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett are the editors of Full Stop and are presently carrying out a questionnaire called The Situation in American Writing.

Jacob Silverman is a writer and critic in Brooklyn.

Laurel Snyder grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and now makes her haome in Atlanta. She does not miss scrapple, but neither does she bother with grits.

Sarah Weinman is an author, journalist, and freelance adventurer.


2011 was the year of the Sectarian Breakfast. There have also been massive protests in Greece, Spain, Britain, and most recently, the United States. Experts now say that the pancake/waffle conflict shows no sign of abatement in 2012. Does breakfast have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval?

Marcy Dermansky: This is a serious issue. Breakfast does have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval, now more than ever. My concern, rather than the waffle or the pancake, is the bagel. The bagel needs to made its presence known in Europe. I say this, currently living in Europe and feeling increasingly deprived.

Laurel Snyder: Honestly, my emotional response to the current situation is one of sadness and loss. I know that in my youth, my parents’ generation engaged loudly in the breakfast debate. They marched and demanded. They were such dreamers… but it always felt smart too, like an exchange of ideas. There was respect back then. Now it seems like we’ve lost sight of breakfast itself — and what it really means, what it stands for — almost entirely. I think it says something about this generation, about what America has become. Don’t you?

Sarah Weinman: Indeed it does. Breakfast preferences alter with time and as a result of economic hardship and revolutionary fervor. A waffle is more appropriate for boom times while pancakes thrive in recessions. But then it is also more likely for people to shout “let them eat pancakes!” So the conflict continues, unresolved.

J. Robert Lennon: I think breakfast has more integrity than that, don’t you? It can remain aloof.

Jesus Angel Garcia: Absolutely. In the United States at least, breakfast owes it to the people to listen to their needs. The people cannot survive on lunch and dinner alone.

Megan Abbott: Part of me wants to say that breakfast is in fact a part of that popular upheaval. It’s the thing we all share, after all. Where would we be without breakfast? How would anything begin? How would we know how to get through the day? That said, I rely primarily on legacy media to provide me with my information, and so I guess that marks me a dinosaur when it comes to breakfast considerations. But I am from Michigan.

Michael Schaub: It would be foolish not to. What we’re seeing in the world isn’t just, as some have posited, an inchoate anger. It’s not just a movement of bored young people who don’t fully understand the breakfast system. It’s the expression of population — several populations, actually — who have decided that enough is enough, that the old system is unsustainable. And they have a point — for too long the powers that be have forced their narrow-minded idea of breakfast on people who are just now deciding they want — they need — to think for themselves. If that means rejecting the eggs/bacon/pancakes model in favor of a gingerbread waffle with pecans, or even just a lowly Eggo, thrown in the toaster and eaten on the way to work, then that’s what is bound to happen. Huxley told us all we have the right to be unhappy, and if that means Toaster Strudels with alarmingly-colored frosting, then so be it. That is democracy; we expect no less.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: The best thing a waffle eater can do at a time of unrest is what he does best: eat waffles. In tumultuous times, people need something constant to remind them what really matters. Waffles provide that comfort. Sure, the way we take our waffles may change -— I gave up my beloved banana-nut waffles after reading Neruda’s “La United Fruit Co.” -— but as long as we continue to eat, life goes on.

Andrew Shaffer: Conflicts within the breakfast community are unfortunate but inevitable. Breakfast eaters tend to be emotionally engaged and passionate in their food preferences than non-breakfast eaters. The pancake/waffle conflict is minor compared to the eternal war between the breakfast eater and the non-breakfast eater. While skirmishes such as the pancake/waffle conflict break out from time to time (the ugly oatmeal/grits showdown during the Kennedy administration comes readily to mind), we need to be aware that pancake and waffle eaters are more alike than different.

Jacob Silverman: Yes, absolutely. For too long breakfast has allowed other meals to do the heavy-lifting when it comes for the lobbying of political rights and social change. If one takes the time to look at the burden borne by brunch during the aughts, frankly, it’s a scandal. We have much catching up to do.

Diana Abu-Jaber: Well, clearly this is the year of the Waffle Spring. After years of being marginalized — even vilified — as a kind of forbidding yet exclusive terrain, the “Waffle Street,” they’re making their way into the main stream, with all its inherent complexity.

* * *

Do you think that waffle eating should be directed towards a definite audience? If so, how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious waffle eating (along with all related activities) has grown or contracted in the last ten years?

Jacob Silverman: We are long removed from the days when waffle eating was a serious social activity, when Buckley and Mailer ate waffles together on television, locked in mortal intellectual combat over which vintage of syrup reigned supreme. (Unsurprisingly, National Review, in its latter day jingoistic incarnation, has scrubbed from its archives all mention of Buckley’s preference for Canadian maple.) I do not expect the audience for serious waffle eating to recover. Like my friend Philip Roth, I anticipate that it will one day have all the popularity in this country of epic poetry. Unfortunately, that day may not be long in coming.

Jesus Angel Garcia: Like all good consumption, true waffle eating will always finds its audience.

Sarah Weinman: That’s a good question. The number of Waffle Houses have increased but the number of Eggo commercials are on the wane. I guess that means waffles are directed more towards those with disposable income, or who wish to celebrate their waffle-eating in public instead of heating up the frozen ersatz kind at home. So then: Waffles are So 1 Percent.

Laurel Snyder: I don’t think we can really talk about “the waffle” without first defining our terms. What is a waffle today? It isn’t the same waffle my grandmother knew. We eat waffles in our house, but they’re crappy waffles, frozen waffles. They’re an afterthought. We’re just to busy, or that’s what we say. I’d like to think there’s a bigger market out there for waffles, that we just need to find it. But with the current waffle, I’m not sure that’s true. I think of myself as a “waffle person” but half the time, I just eat a Stella D’oro Breakfast Treat on my way out the door.

Marcy Dermansky: I think waffle makers should be distributed at birth. How grateful I would have been if I had been given a waffle maker when Nina was born. I would make her waffles all the time. Instead, I have not made her a single waffle. She is two and a half years old.

Megan Abbott: I’ve never believed in eating only for oneself, for the sating of oneself. What is eating for if not for an audience? That won’t ever change. The way we do it -— the vehicle, the mode, even the time of day may change, but that longing won’t. Appetite is appetite.

Michael Schaub: It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Direct waffle consumption toward the traditional audience — the affluent, Wall Street-employed Manhattanites who regularly line up at The Breslin or Fedora for their fix — and you risk extincting the doughy cake if and when the next economic meltdown occurs. But if you try to expand the audience, you risk turning something undeniably special into just another run-of-the-mill breakfast food. Still, I think it’s best to at least try to market the waffle to a slightly larger audience — while most blue-collar, lower-income Midwesterners won’t be willing to give up the foie gras and Almas caviar that constitutes their traditional morning meal, the survival of the cultural icon we call the waffle may well depend on it.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Homemade waffles have certainly taken a hit from Eggos and other pop pastries, frozen or otherwise, but as the video of that riot over $2 waffle irons on Black Friday shows, there will always be a demand for quality.

Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eating is personality driven. People don’t love all waffles. They love particular waffles. Waffles with blueberries & whipped cream.

Diana Abu-Jaber: Look, the Pancake 99 percent has dominated our hearts and imaginations for far too long. Pancakes are Joe the plumber. I say it’s time to occupy the waffle maker — bring the batter to the people.

J. Robert Lennon: I don’t think about audience when I’m making waffles — I’m thinking about waffles. It’s about process for me — the process of baking, and the process of eating.

* * *

Do you place much value on the criticism your waffle eating has received? For the past decade we’ve seen a series of cuts to predominant pancake and waffle magazines, and in response, breakfast criticism has moved online. Do you think this move to the non-professional realm has made breakfast criticism more or less of an isolated cult?

Megan Abbott: I’ve always been a reluctant consumer in that regard. After you are made aware of how your waffles are received, how can one make waffles in a pure way again? Once we know what’s in them, everything changes, the waffles themselves change. You begin to think of them as a product. On the other hand, I count on these magazines to excite me about new waffles and occasionally even pancakes, so I rely on them, depend on them utterly. As one would on any cult.

Michael Schaub: I do what I do for the waffles, not the critics, and if they don’t get it, it’s their problem, not mine. I will say that the transition of waffle criticism from print to the Internet is not, in my opinion, a good thing. It’s become saturated with amateurs and bloggers, who think that just because they have an Internet connection and a (usually uneducated) point of view, their opinions are just as valid as the professionals. Those of us who have dedicated our careers to the art — yes, art — of waffles, even to the point of getting advanced degrees (in my case, Ph.D. in Breakfast Pastries, Dartmouth University, 2005), disagree.

J. Robert Lennon: I don’t read waffle criticism. I’m an eater, not a critic.

Sarah Weinman: Well, remember that the rise of breakfast also includes the meteoric commensurate rise of brunch, and lord knows that’s become quite the cult in rarified circles. But I’d like to see more breakfast criticism, not less! We need people to assert their opinions on the best of the best and pan the worst of the worst. Oh wait, I said “pan.” I think that’s a pun.

Laurel Snyder: I think it has value of a sort, because some interesting things have developed from the conversation, but yeah — it’s a closed loop. If you look at the comment threads, it’s easy to see people are just preaching to their own crowds, and occasionally seeking out a fight, to drive traffic, garner some attention.

Jesus Angel Garcia: Those who criticize breakfast wish they were eating breakfast all the time. Period. They’re fat and they’re hungry. You can’t fault them. We live in lean times. A time for foraging and hoarding. That said, it’s tough to take breakfast critics seriously, especially online where bagels with cream on their faces get more play than superdeluxe three — cheese omelettes with diced Kalamata olives, capers, cayenne pepper and cilantro. In print, this would never happen.

Marcy Dermansky: I fear that I am constantly criticized for my lack of waffle eating. I am ashamed to answer these questions. I fear the public outcry when my readership learns that I have never cooked my daughter a waffle. We recently ate freshly cooked waffles at a festival. They came with powdered sugar on top and were delicious.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Thoughtful, constructive criticism should always be well received. If I’m chewing my waffles with my mouth open, by all means let me know. Unfortunately, democratization has, as always, been accompanied by mediocrity. With all the waffle products on the market now, it’s great that they can get individual attention from the smaller presses (no pun intended), but a green webzine writer who has spent one morning watching me eat is not going to provide the type of insights that one could get from the pages of Waffle Aficionado, which I, like many, was sad to see dissolve. I remember reading their review of Wells’ first Belgian waffle baker when I was in high school and being blown away. When was the last time a blog blew you away?

Adrienne Davich: Speaking from no experience, no. The move seems to have made breakfast less of an isolated cult. However, breakfast seems more fractured. I guess there’s more free breakfast too. I’m not sure how I feel about that as an eater.

Jacob Silverman: I do take such criticism to heart, and it may be my downfall as a breakfast eater. I find neither shame nor pride, only a weary sadness, in admitting that many are the days I have wasted rending my clothes and weeping over the vicious barbs of a breakfast blogger (pajama-wearing and basement-dwelling, no doubt!). Through these spells, I have torn apart many wardrobes, soaked all of my handkerchiefs to their very monograms, while Frederick, my Chantilly cat, eyes me, baffled. What can be wrong with him, he must be thinking. If only I had the meows to communicate my torment. Alas, it is bottomless.

Diana Abu-Jaber: Ho hum. Everyone who’s ever held a fork or photographed a plate of cheese grits now claims they’re a breakfast critic! I say, show me the bacon. Apple-smoked.

* * *

Have you found it possible to make a living by eating the types of waffles you want to, without other work? Do you think there is a place in our current economic system and climate for waffle eating as a profession?

Michael Schaub: Sadly, I’m unable to support myself solely by waffle eating. There was a time, of course, when one could do so — when the nation treasured its breakfast heritage more. Then came the Reagan administration, which abolished the Department of Breakfast and Brunch. (President Obama’s promise to reinstate the department has, sadly, proved to be a false one.) And without the DBB, the profession has faded into, in my case, a hobby. I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for me. I’m asking them to feel sorry for America.

Andrew Shaffer: One could, theoretically, make a living eating waffles, but what kind of life would that be? Even if the waffles were given to you, it’s a terrifying prospect to even contemplate. While it’s true that you are unlikely to starve by eating waffles, man cannot live on waffles alone. You must also have butter. You must have Vermont maple syrup. You must have non-dairy whipped cream topping. You must have sliced strawberries. You must have crushed pecans. And, if you are doing it correctly, chocolate chips. For these reasons, it is simply not possible to comfortably eat waffles without a steady source of income in the current economic climate.

Laurel Snyder: It’s a hard question for me to answer. I’m hardly a committed full-time waffle person. My husband makes more than I do. I’m more of a hobbyist. I don’t take it as seriously as I should. This is a chicken-and-egg situation though. Am I not doing it full-time because my waffles are sub-par, or are my waffles sub-par because I’m not taking them seriously enough? Who can really say?

Jesus Angel Garcia: Are we being honest here? If so, let’s admit the obvious: Waffles aren’t real food. But that doesn’t mean anyone with a dream shouldn’t be given the same opportunities to succeed as defense contractors, investment bankers and drug dealers. That’s the United States of America I know and love.

Marcy Dermansky: It occurs to me now that perhaps the time has come for me to be a professional waffle maker. It is time for me to have a marketable skill. Thank you for the suggestion.

Megan Abbott: I’ve heard of some waffle eaters believing it can bring them millions, or that it can bring them the waffle-eating life they always dreamed of, as portrayed in popular television programs, where they will be portrayed by David Duchovny, or in motion pictures, such as those of Woody Allen, or fantasies that just, quite frankly, aren’t realistic, like appearing in a Vogue in sexy outdoors gear or having their image splayed across a massive billboard in Times Square. I’ve had dreams like that too. But it’s not the real world.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Of course there will always be a few stars who are able to make a living off waffles. But the majority of us will increasingly have to extend our palates to other meals. There will be more chicken salad sandwich critics, more Salisbury steak critics. Many will even take jobs at IHOP or Denny’s. But some of our best critics were already working there anyway.

Adrienne Davich: I am glad you asked this question. But what about America’s waffle and pancake servers? The tipped minimum wage in many states has stagnated at $2.13 an hour. That means pancake and waffle servers across America are living below the poverty line, sometimes starving, while waffle eaters naval-gaze and intellectualize about breakfast values! At least waffle eaters eat. Have you been to IHOP lately? The people who cook, serve, and clean up your breakfast don’t have health care either.

Sarah Weinman: As I pointed out before, waffles are more for boom times. So when the economy rebounds, there will be much more waffle-eating among the proletariat. Needless to say I’ve supplemented my waffle-eating with a ton of frittatas, parfaits and other petit dejeuner foods to get by. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, right?

Jacob Silverman: No. The waffle eating economy has been torn asunder, and I assign equal blame to IHOP and the Huffington Post. As to how I sustain my lifestyle, that is between me and my court-appointed attorney.

Diana Abu-Jaber: You really have to hustle if you want to make it in the breakfast rat race. I, for one, have had to subsidize my waffle arts by offering hot iron workshops — mainly online, of course.

J. Robert Lennon: Well, I used to be able to make a living with the waffles, but at some point in the mid-2000’s I realized I would have to go on the job market, and now I’m the Director of Waffle Studies at Cornmeal University.

* * *

Do you find in retrospect, that your waffle eating reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organization, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?

Diana Abu-Jaber: I discussed waffle allegiances at length with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Mother Theresa. The jury is still out.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: I like to think that my breakfast menu is relatively eclectic, but if I’m being honest, when it’s 8 a.m. and I’m sitting at the kitchen table in my pajamas with a long day ahead of me, I’m a committed continentalist. After all, waffles, with their trademark grids, are the breakfast food most directly influenced by Descartes. Give me something sweet, something with meat, some coffee, and some juice. (Perhaps I inherited this from my grandmother, who was born in Belgium. She’s American now—also dead). We critics like to split hairs over how many pancakes make a short stack, what diameter makes a silver dollar, but at the end of the day—or the beginning, I should say (an old joke, I know)—we have more in common than not. Breakfast satisfies basic human needs—hunger, nourishment, community—and when all is said and done, what is a crêpe, really, but a thin pancake? And what is a pancake but a Euclidean waffle?

Sarah Weinman: 100 percent individual preference, though now I am might curious about the correlation between waffle-eating and Objectivism. Perhaps a study can be commissioned on this post-haste?

Laurel Snyder: Can I say both? I’m generally a fence sitter. I think of my waffle-life as deeply personal, an extension of my daily life, but how can I separate that from my life as a Jew? Am woman? A mother, above all else? And those things certainly define my politics…

Jesus Angel Garcia: You’re forcing my hand, Mr. Champion. I can’t honestly answer this question. I don’t belong in this conversation. I’m a charlatan, a fraud, but I am flattered that you think of me as a waffle eater. Truth to tell, for breakfast I only eat French toast (and granola).

Marcy Dermansky: It seems like I march alone, eating waffles only when they are available at street festivals in Germany. Truth to be told, I rarely eat waffles or pancakes. Recently, my friend Tami made me pancakes for breakfast and they were so good. Usually, when I go to brunch, I order an omelet.

Megan Abbott: I think if all of us looked inside, we’d see surprising attributes about ourselves that can explain the lure of waffle eating, or particular kinds of waffles. A kind of longing for an imagined idea about American breakfasting we’d like to be a part of. An American breakfast that perhaps never really existed. But it’s very personal, very private—and yet we like to attach larger ideological resonance to it. Maybe because it makes us feel part of something now. Are we the relics of lost civilizations? Are we the last vanguard against The End? Or are we the new revolutionaries, erecting a new challenge to society? All three of those options may all feel infinitely sexier than admitting we just like waffles. They make us feel good. They are delicious.

J. Robert Lennon: I think my waffle making and eating has really strengthened my connection to the Inuit people, and to white Southerners.

Michael Schaub: Of course I try to keep an open mind, and be objective as possible, with regard to my waffle eating. But my heritage necessarily influences my breakfast habits, and I see no point in trying to change that. I’m Southern, so I often put pecans on my waffles. I was raised Catholic, so I usually accompany my waffles with whiskey. I grew up in the suburbs, so quite often I find myself using Aunt Jemima “syrup” instead of the real, hardcore Vermont stuff. And I’m a male in my thirties, so I almost always eat waffles while viewing pornography.

Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eating without any allegiance whatsoever is impossible. Marguerite Duras said, “Every waffle eater is a moralist. It’s absolutely unavoidable. A waffle eater is someone who looks at the world and the way it works, someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what she sees, someone who represents the world, the event, for others.”

Jacob Silverman: My waffle eating belongs to me and me alone. And any agribusiness conglomerate that wishes to sponsor me.

* * *

How would you describe the political tendency of American waffle eating, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?

J. Robert Lennon: Politics come and go, waffles are forever.

Michael Schaub: There’s no doubt that 9/11 changed everything. My point of view is that of, I believe, most Americans: if we give up on waffles, if we toss our waffle irons in a box and leave it outside a Goodwill store, if we — God forbid — start eating pancakes, then the terrorists have won. The French toast lobby would like us, of course, to adopt a policy of appeasement. As a real American, I would not.

Diana Abu-Jaber: Now that we’ve got the plodding old biscuit-gummers and egg-boilers out, I’m hopeful that a bold, new, imaginative approach to buttering and syruping may once more hold sway over our fair nation.

Adrienne Davich: Moralizing. Demoralizing. Uncertain.

Sarah Weinman: If waffles are for the 1 percent, as I theorized already, then it’s all about the plutocracy, baby. And money trumps politics.

Laurel Snyder: I don’t think people even notice the waffles in their lives very much. But when they no longer have waffles, they’ll notice. The waffles will become more and more rarified, more underground. One day people will wake up and say, “Where have all the waffles gone?” But by then it’ll be too late.

Jesus Angel Garcia: Since 2001? It’s not French toast!

Marcy Dermansky: Waffle eating is a subversive act. For years when I lived in the South, I went to Waffle House, usually not for breakfast, often in the middle of the night. I rarely ate a waffle or saw others eating waffles. I would order the hash browns, smothered and covered. I don’t think that has changed. In the war against terror, it is best not to eat tagines, delicious as they are.

Megan Abbott: Honestly, I’m surprised to be asked. These questions are rarely posed to those of us who have been placed firmly in the toaster oven category of waffle eating. I’m not sure why that is, precisely, but I try not to think about any of these things when I eat. Maybe those placed in the “artisan” or “slow waffles” categories do. Or maybe it’s just a quality that emerges in the eating, or doesn’t, without a plan or intention. Maybe at its best it is truly organic. Even for us Eggos.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: The passionate responses to Michelle Obama’s efforts to restructure the food pyramid, as well as her stance against cereal mascots, are, I think, emblematic of the situation in American breakfast. Yes, many of us take breakfast for granted, but it takes only the slightest change to remind us how much is at stake. Personally, I’m of the mind that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and if it’s that important, then it should probably be the best meal of the day as well. And, for me, the best is always homemade. Just ask my mom.

Jacob Silverman: To paraphrase Gore Vidal, it’s quite clear that the Bush junta sapped the political life from waffle eating. Its condition is much like blintzes after the Harding administration, and I fear that it faces a similar path towards irrelevance.

* * *

Over the past ten years, America has been in a state of constant war with its breakfast. This war has extended to fronts throughout the world. Have you considered the question of your opinion on an unending war on breakfast? What do you think the responsibilities of waffle eaters are in general are, in the midst of unending war?

Marcy Dermansky: I think waffle eaters have to realize that they have lost the war. Waffles take too long to make and waffle irons are too expensive for the working class. I would like to start a movement to increase the consumption of New York bagels around the world.

J. Robert Lennon: Look, man, my responsibility is to three things: the waffle, the butter, and the syrup. People who want to repurpose breakfast for their petty political aims should just sleep in and dump their burdens on cheese sandwiches and reheated coffee.

Sarah Weinman; I haven’t considered that question, to be frank. But if I did consider it I’d implore regular waffle eaters to be kinder and gentler to their pancake-eating brethren. The conflict may continue but there’s no need for bloodshed. Not even bloody steaks to go along with the eggs alongside the pancakes and/or waffles!

Laurel Snyder: Just to remember, to value, to continue to engage, to continue to both produce and consume. I want to be part of the dialogue, whatever it is. I’ve promised myself I’m going to try harder this year, do more. But then — I think I said that last year. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Jesus Angel Garcia: As I understand it, America has been at war for 99 out of the last 100 years. This war on breakfast is nothing new to anyone with a basic grasp of history. Now that Obama and the Congress have passed the NDAA, which legalizes indefinite detention for American citizens on American soil for “breakfast transgression,” the definition of which is subject to the whimsical palate of any administration that happens to occupy the White House, no one is safe. The bottom line? If you want to eat — waffles, pancakes, even oatmeal for God’s sake! — if you want your children to be able to choose their own breakfast foods, you need to take a stand now before it’s too late.

Megan Abbott: Well, in the end, the world spins on, but what we need to remember is that we each have a personal relationship with breakfast, one that is primitive and essential. That goes back to our first moments in the world, as babies, as children. We need breakfast because it’s how we’ve always understood the world. Because it reminds us we are not alone because we all need it. And that’s true whether we like our breakfast in pancake form, or waffles, toaster or otherwise. Or any form at all. We need it. It feeds us. Call me old-fashioned, call me a throwback, call me a hopelessly romantic but I really do believe it is the most important meal of the day.

Michael Schaub: “Keep Calm and Carry On” has become a cliche ever since the British poster was made popular again earlier this century. Nevertheless, the sentiment is no less true. We have been through other wars on breakfast. We have sent our troops thousands of miles away, to Antwerp and Brussels, when the Belgian waffle was threatened by the German strudel and the Italian frittata. We have won these wars, and we have become better and stronger because of it. Our responsibility as waffle eaters? Keep the faith. Whether you top your waffles with fried chicken, whipped cream, syrup, butter, whatever — we are all in this together. And it is only through togetherness we can win. In the words of the great American statesman Benjamin Franklin, “This waffle is delicious! Now to find a buxom French whore.” And that’s as true today as it was then.

Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Breakfast is over when the plate is clean and not a second before. Every crumb of waffle, every drop of syrup. The effects of an incomplete breakfast may not be immediately apparent, but eventually, some time before lunch, that hunger pang is going to strike, and it is going to strike with a vengeance. To ensure the productivity of our work (no trips to the vending machines) and the satisfaction of our lives, it is the responsibility of every man, regardless of what he eats, to clear his plate.

Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eaters have a responsibility to the truth.

Jacob Silverman: As is the American tendency, the war on breakfast is unlikely to end; it will only assume new forms. We can only bide our time, raise our meek, syrup-slathered fists in protest, and wait for a Predator drone to pick us off as we cram our faces with so many doughy cakes.

Diana Abu-Jaber: Freedom fries, Ed, that’s all I’ll say. Freedom fries.

Stone Arabia Roundtable — Part Five

(This is the fifth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion!)

Additional Installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four

Edward Champion writes:

In an effort to address Paula’s question about Stone Arabia’s significance in the Revolutionary War, I located this biography on Google Books published in 1884: Colonel John Brown: His Services in the Revolutionary War, Battle of Stone Arabia.

The first paragraph intrigued the hell out of me:

The residents of the Mohawk valley will ever feel a deep interest in the career of Colonel John Brown, who in the fall of 1780, under the inspiration of a lofty patriotism, came with his Berkshire Levies to this valley, to protect its fields from pillage, its dwellings from conflagration, and its early settlers from the cruelty of a savage foe. This interest is doubtless enhanced by the consideration that when he first engaged actively in the business pursuits of life, he was a resident of this valley, and that he fell while fighting heroically on one of its battle-fields, near which his ashes now repose.

Now doesn’t that sound a bit like Nik’s Chronicles? This got me thinking about whether Nik’s Chronicles represent a new lofty patriotism, or whether the act of plucking a lily (Paula’s question causing me to plunge further, not unlike Ada’s documentary filmmaking) from the vast swaths of electronic fallow is really what Spiotta is remarking upon. If the Battle of Stone Arabia can’t be remembered, if Colonel John Brown’s heroic actions stand no chance of being committed to memory (and we’re arguably living in a nation where our political figures commit more historical gaffes than ever before), then does Nik stand a chance?

I’m glad that Susan has brought up one overlooked facet of the book: Denise’s tendency to diagnose from the Internet (Spiotta’s own answer to WebMD?). It’s a woefully insufficient and darkly humorous response to the present healthcare crisis. You don’t have the dough for a doc, but maybe you’ll stand a modest chance with unreliable online info. Perhaps there are unseen Battles of Stone Arabia going on around us —- people dying or getting sick or, in Denise’s case, seeing their emotional life break down because this is the new method with which we survive by our bootstraps. “Pain tourist” is indeed a suitable term.

As Porochista says, even in her refreshingly honest takeaway, it’s not just the points about memory that drive this book. It’s about a place associated with a Revolutionary War battle -— maybe not on the level of Bunker Hill or Valcour Bay -— inevitably transforming into a small hamlet with an Amish contingent (the very opposite of war) without anybody truly observing the changes. So perhaps there remain remain plenty of under-the-radar facets of our culture hiding in plain sight! Like Judith, I feel the impulse to go to the library and drag books off the shelf when there is a name or a memory pertaining to another subject. And yet there’s no way that any Chronicles, or any life, will contain it all! I wasn’t kidding when I said that I would “read forever or die trying” when I threw down the gauntlet for the Modern Library Reading Challenge. Maybe this is why, when it comes to life and it comes to literature, perhaps we really do have the obligation to finish it.

Thanks again to everybody for such a great discussion!

Robert Birnbaum writes:

I read Stone Arabia (a title I expected nothing from) as the story of a savvy and functioning middle-aged white woman narrating (reliably?) the story of her life, which includes an idiosyncratic and increasingly dysfunctional brother, a mother whose faculties (and thus her ability to live independently) are diminishing and a grown-up daughter who seems the healthiest in this cast of characters (she got out and moved away from the family’s melodrama).

In the context of this story, I find Denise admirable for her support, her concern for her kin and for her sensitivity to the outside world (the mother arrested for taking her infant to a bar, her reaction to Abu Ghraib, the Chechnyan school tragedy, and one other instance I have now forgotten). I wonder if any of us had anything more than a a passing reaction…

On the other hand, I don’t have much sympathy for Nik. He may or may not be talented in an accessible way. (And I don’t award him much for his ability to mimic various elements of the creativity business.) I am not certain whether he was easily thwarted by any resistance to his ambitions (on the verge of success, his band was apparently sabotaged by one of those sharpies with which the record business is infested), but his nearly three decades as a barkeep in a Los Angeles dive bar is, at best, evidence of a pathetic lack of self-preservation. His substance abuse, which he refers to as his consolation, provides ample evidence that, whatever the obsession to fantasize a life of creativity means in his life, it does not offer (much) relief for what ails him. Did Nik kill himself? By that point in the story, I had stopped caring.

Denise’s (failed?) relationships don’t strike me as particularly telling, except in the pleasure she derives from escaping into the world of old movies with her useful paramour Jay. Her concerns about her mother’s decline meld into her not unreasonable midlife anxieties of her own mental diminishing. That’s life. She appears to be a caring mother — either I missed it or her bringing up the younger Ada was not part of this narrative.

Apparently, Stone Arabia was sufficiently engaging for this group of dedicated readers to call forth a plenitude of analysis and interpretation as well as some brainy cultural references. I thought the title fell slightly short of being useless in my reading and the cover art may have referenced the quintessential punks, the Sex Pistols. But the cutout newspaper typography was not original to them -— not to mention, did I need to get these references to Nabokov and Byron to reasonably enjoy Ms. Spiotta’s meticulously spun tale? Also, while Nik’s (artful?) mimicry could lend itself to hypertextual adaptations and flourishes, I think such gimmickry is incidental.

Hmmm….did I like this book? Not in particular -— though I respect Dana Spiotta’s rendering, I am not much impressed with what I see as Nik’s parroting of the music business. That his sister is devoted and supportive turns out to be too small a story to really engage me. I certainly do not regret reading this and I am pleased to confirm the variegated subjectivity, which I note this group of readers brought to this Medusa-headed conversation.

Darby Dixon writes:

Here’s a handful of tossed-off points, because I can’t help myself:

  • Does Jay actually like Kinkade? Or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.
  • How does Spiotta do with endings in general? This is a question for those familiar with her whole body of work. Again, full disclaimer: it’s been a while since I read Eat the Document, but I kind of remember question marks going off over my head around that book’s ending.
  • The idea that women should be behind other women writers 100% makes me feel like I need to go read a stack of Tom Clancy novels. I mean, I know, I know. But. (It’s a perpetual point of shame that I’m not reading enough women writers, etc., etc., etc., embarrassed my current stack is male-dominated, etc., etc., etc., to be rectified in the coming weeks/months/years, etc., etc., etc.)
  • I like Ed’s notion of Stone Arabia representing an unknown place in plain sight. The history we’ve lost is, what, billions of times more in pure quantity than the history we’ve kept? Reading The Chronicles as a form of patriotism seems a little like a reach to me. Nik is free to do what he wants. And if he wants to spend his life writing a fake story about himself that nobody reads, well, people have died so he can. Are there more depths plunge into here?
  • Speaking of Nik (because he’s the flashy guy who can’t help but steal attention from anyone else in the room) has the term “self-portrait” been used here yet? I ask because, in my current drawing class, we’re working on self-portraits. And I spent four hours last night staring at a three-foot-high developing rendering of my own face, Nik couldn’t help but come to mind. His Chronicles are essentially a self-portrait in words, aren’t they? (What’s to stop me from critiquing my own artwork?)
  • Speaking of myself -– and by extension, all of us -– on a meta level, I’m totally fascinated by the weird tension between reading the book as a text and reading it as a reflection of ourselves. Not that I have anything interesting to say about that, other than I like it.
  • And there are so many other things I want to ponder, review, and discuss further. Ed and all, you may have ruined me for books for which I can’t participate in a roundtable like this. Thank you!

Paula Bomer writes:

Ed: I agree that Stone Arabia is not a random place she picked, nor a random title. Spiotta is far more deliberate than that and she loves hidden meanings.

I thought it was pretty clear that Jay’s love of Kinkade was ironic.

Whether I liked this book or not? I’m happy I read it. I found the second half very engaging. It had some weaknesses, but very few books don’t. Emily Nussbaum wrote that Mary Gaitskill’s first novel “flawed” and disparaged it. I love that novel, love it, and I know it’s flawed. I think Stone Arabia is a very smart book, brimming with the author’s intelligence and compassion. Quite frankly, the flaws are minor in comparison to its strengths. In general, I doubt it’s a book I would have picked up on my own, but I’m very glad I did, thanks to Ed. I should read more things that aren’t my thing (meaning, I need to stop rereading Tolstoy, Greene, Gaitskill, EJ Howard, and so on). 

Bill Ryan writes:

Does Jay actually like Kinkade, or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I’m suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.

We never get a lot of info on whether or not Jay’s in love with Kinkade. We only know that his “obsession” was “pure.” Jay “wasn’t a very good looking guy.” He wore sweaters that gave him “an off-putting, almost creepy diminutive effect.” Just about the only positive thing Denise has to say, other than his between-the-lines, non-threatening nature, is that his obsession is pure. We get that in the Kinkade and the James Mason movies. Denise goes on to say something about how the world is full of “fake obsessions” and there’s little that’s more terrible to her than faking an obsession. We would hope it’s an ironic obsession, but aren’t “irony” and “purity” antonymic? 

Denise says, “I am drawn to obsessives.” No shit.

Sarah Weinman writes:

This is both on-track and off-track, but it’s interesting to juxtapose Porochista’s question (“but did you like the book?”) with Darby’s observation about Stone Arabia taking place in 2004, the year of Facebook’s birth, with all the talk of memory and fakery and the sheer number of intense personal narratives we’re sharing (and how I feel tremendously honored to be one of the share-ees, so to speak). Because even though I didn’t think that it was Spiotta’s intention, the mere fact that I’m connecting these disparate strands demonstrates why Stone Arabia is so damn relevant and necessary: it’s a book to admire, that inspires both deep emotional responses, but also this wealth of analysis that travels as far back in the past as 1780 and as far forward as, well, 2011. When we’re all thinking about what it is to be “authentic” and “true” and whether the word “like” has been corrupted by Facebook (and also the word “friend”) when “follower” is now a social media buzzword more than a description of someone leading disciples (which, in this case, means Nik is the cult leader and Denise is his ardent acolyte; I will refrain from stretching this metaphor to needlessly thin Jesus/Paul comparisons, however).

Truth in art has been on my mind — in particular, with respect to documentary films. The last few I’ve seen have really cemented my belief that the form is suspect, that it is impossible to have a reliable narrator, and that facts are wilfully misrepresented and contradicted with a Google search or two. Which, of course, makes fiction “truer” — at least to me. So when Spiotta explores memory, its boundaries, and its limitations, her quest becomes that much more meaningful. Sure, there’s artifice. But there’s also tacit acknowledgment of this artifice. We can’t trust “facts” and “truth.” So why not do something greater, whatever that entails?

Roxane Gay writes:

Does Jay actually like Kinkade, or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I’m suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.

I didn’t get the sense that Kinkade was an ironic thing that develops between this couple. Because Denise and Jay weren’t that kind of couple. They were all business. So they couldn’t even have the kind of interaction that would make this strain of charming irony and history possible. The way Jay was written makes irony, on his part, rather implausible. Or maybe I just really hate the character and Kinkade so much that I’m hoping there’s no irony in the obsession.

Paula Bomer writes:

Roxane: I’m very curious (and I did try reading all of the comment threads; so maybe you’ve already explained this) as to why you dislike the Jay character.

I think that irony — or kitsch — is implicit in the Kinkade collecting. It serves as a counterpoint to the writing of music that includes “Soundings.” It is the opposite of that sort of “art.” I honestly believe that Kinkade himself made his work with a strong sense of kitsch, knowing that he was mocking “real” art. As little as I know of LA — and I appreciate all the people who have commented on the LAness of this book — people in LA are much more likely to gravitate to this type of art and the collection of items that may seem lowbrow, than the classical musicians I know in Vienna.

I’m going to throw out some ideas that I don’t completely believe. Delillo. Spiotta loves him. I’ve never managed to get through one of his books. My bad, for sure. But let’s say I see this book as a woman’s book wrapped in a man’s book. There could be many reasons to do this. Women’s books are not taken as seriously because they deal with the domestic. Men’s books deal with world issues, with structure and language, and with abstract notions. Hey, men are better at math. So Spiotta utilizes this slightly weird framework, chews on ideas (as opposed to the inner lives of humans). She contemplates ideas of art, the meaning behind these ideas, and history (thanks Ed, for elaborating on the title). She’s mocking, she’s ironic, and so on. But to me, the meat of the book is the story of a damaged family. A woman wrapped in a man. Yet it’s a woman’s voice, wrapping herself around a man’s self indulgent life. There is so much “bothness” in this book — a favorite term of mine, coined by David Foster Wallace.

I read as many male writers as I do female writers. I often feel that male writers — and maybe “often” is unfair, maybe “sometimes” is a better word here — use technique and literary pyrotechnics to avoid getting at the emotions that rule our daily lives.

All of the above is offered to continue the discussion. I’m truly on the fence about it. But I felt the need to throw this out there.

Porochista Khakpour writes:

Paula: Interesting!

I’m not sure I agree on the gender divide stuff at all ( for one thing no male writer I know has touched Gertrude Stein in levels of experiment). Interestingly enough, I would have killed for more literary pyrotechnics here! The opportunity was there and it was not taken — at least not all the way. She made a gesture in that direction but backed away from really going there…which, yes, my beloved (maybe favorite writer) DFW would not have done. But since I don’t trust today’s big publishing climate,  I have to consider, to be fair,  that maybe Spiotta wanted things to be more experimental and she was pushed out of it. Who knows? From reading her other book, I’m inclined to think she shied away from it. Even Egan I wanted to be more experimental! We need female experimental writers to be recognized because lord knows they are out there. The industry allows white males to be more wild and intellectual and experimental; the industry recognizes and nurtures the desire in them. So I think we all have to write about things greater than just ourselves and our own personal experience. (I mean, without fail, nine out of ten editors want me to dish on minority female experience, are interested in reading me for anthropological insights on the Iranian-American experience, want to hear me go on about men and dating and relationships because I am still “youngish,” etc.)

And finally, I want to confirm that it’s true that LA people have a high tolerance for cruddy, campy, and kitschy shit. Maybe even Kinkade garbage. But Kinkade, while he must have realized he may profit from the joke, was not originally in on it, I believe. At least that’s what the 60 Minutes segment on him once made me believe.

Alex Shephard writes:

Apologies about entering this (really, really insightful and wonderful) thread so late! I’ve been on vacation this week, and have a sinus infection that’s left me feverish and incoherent. Hope I don’t derail anything.

I want to talk about cliche, kitsch, and rock music. From the very first sentence, Nik’s story is explicitly linked to the dominant narratives of the “golden age” of rock ‘n’ roll, the 1960s — “he changed in one identifiable moment.” A Hard Day’s Night is cited by a number of groups (esp. the seminal LA band, The Byrds) as a formative moment in their evolution; similarly, John Lennon and Paul McCartney have linked their decision to begin playing music to a moment just after seeing Jailhouse Rock (“now that’s a good job,” John Lennon would say later about Elvis). The sudden appearance of a guitar, and it’s immediate transformation into an object of obsession, is also inked onto the pages of rock lore. Over the course of Stone Arabia, Spiotta links Nik’s experience — his actual experience (the manipulative managers, the strange left turns, the substance abuse) and his Chronicled experience (the motorcycle crash, “every person who did see them live seemed to have formed a band of their own,” the substance abuse) to dominant (and very cliched) narratives that characterize so many biopics and biographies about rock music, both popular and underground. Interestingly, these narratives, manipulative and often tacked on as they are, are what define the “authenticity” of ’60s and ’70s rock music. It’s why The Killers grew mustaches and went out into the wilderness to record their second album, why The Kings of Leon will always remind you of the fact that they’re all related, and how they grew up traveling the Bible Belt with their preacher father. At this point in time they’re kitsch narratives — harkening back to a time that never really existed, imitating a narrative that was already mostly a lie.

There are Easter eggs — connections to archetypal rock lore — on almost every page of this book, and the relationship between the narratives that run through The Chronicles (perhaps also a nod to that perfect rock “memoir” of (probably) mostly fiction, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles) and the narratives offered by musicians and journalists to explain rock music is crucial to my reading of the novel. What happens when you have a series of fake narratives that echo real ones that both signal authenticity and are, frankly, composed of bullshit? These are narratives that either heighten or diminish reality, that often make reality seem more dangerous and comforting at the same time. This, in my mind, is the connection between Nik Worth, Denise’s anxiety about her memory, Thomas Kinkade, and the “Breaking Event” chapters. Each provides a narrative that converts “real experience” into something that both signals a kind of authenticity and that is kitschy. They all are meant to “identify and fulfill the needs and desires of his target audience,” to borrow a description of Kinkade’s work. The Aladdin Sane birthday cake also illustrates this connection nicely. 

Of course, Worth is positively subterranean, and the conflict between life underground and the rock ‘n’ roll dream narratives within The Chronicles is what I find most interesting about Stone Arabia. Nik is as authentically underground as it gets, but both his “real” life and his second life in The Chronicles all mirror cliches. He’s authentically underground, while also exemplifying the inherently inauthentic narratives that determine one’s status as authentically anything. In his interview with Ada, he says “Imagine doing whatever you want with everything that went before you. Imagine never having to give up Artaud or Chuck Berry or Alistair Crowley or the Beats or the I Ching or Lewis Carroll? Imagine total freedom.” Of course, all of those things show up as formative cliches for the Beatles, Dylan, and Morrison (among many others). Perhaps Nik’s project is a way of trying to free himself from anxieties about authenticity itself, an attempt to both hold on to talismans and rid himself of their power? And what is authentic experience anyway? That’s the dominant question of the Breaking Events chapters, and a crucial one within the novel itself. 

My fever is back, though. So I’m going to cut off here. A few quick notes before I go: 

  1. When thinking about Nik’s life and music, I kept thinking of people like Brian Wilson, Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett, and Daniel Johnston. Interestingly, all of these artists are mentally ill. I’m not suggesting Nik is mentally ill. I’m just somewhat surprised that I kept instinctively making the link. Did anybody else have that experience? I suppose it may just be that these people all spent significant time “underground.” Arthur Lee, the Godfather of L.A. underground, was also on my mind. 
  2. I have no idea what Nik Worth’s music sounds like. While I had my problems with the Richard Katz sections of Freedom, I ended up getting an idea of what The Demonics and Walnut Surprise (easily the worst fake band name ever) sounded like. His list of influences was diverse (and aweseome! Can, the Incredible String Band, and The Residents? Sweet. He does lose points for hating on Wings, though.). Denise and The Chronicles tend to use genre (or cliche!) as a substitute for description: “power pop,” “progressive” “unique sound to counter to both commercial progressive rock and punk rock,” “dark lyrics and art rock dissonance,” “fatal hooks and crafted melodies,” “unique, intense,” “proto-glam,” “crystalline gorgeous harmonies got them compared to the Beatles,” “perfectly rendered songs of herartache and youth,” “unprecedented path of experiment and innovation,” “full of cryptic and hermetic references,” “Who would have guessed what we were all waiting for was a collection of atonal, arrhythmic assualt compositions mixed with concept sound poems?” “A Futurist sound experiment, a dada poemlet.” That’s just what I found in the first 94 pages. None of it helps me hear Nik’s music, though I do think some of it is relevant to what I talked about earlier. 

There are three songs that were on my mind when I was writing this post:

Wilco – “The Late Greats” (The best band will never get signed / K-Settes starring Butcher’s Blind / Are so good, you won’t ever know / They never even played a show / You can’t hear ’em on the radio)

Bad Company – “Shooting Star” (The ultimate rock success cliche song!)

And a parody of the Bad Company song (and others like it) by America’s Beatles, Barry Dworkin & the Gas Station Dogs (as performed by Ted Leo)

Dana Spiotta writes:

Thank you to Ed for doing this roundtable. I am so grateful for all the time everyone put into the discussion. I knew this was a book that would elicit complicated reactions, but I was so pleased to see people found so much to discuss. What thoughtful and interesting responses. How generous you all are to read the book so carefully. With so many books in the world, and so many other things demanding attention, a novelist is extremely lucky to get serious readers.

I can’t help imagining Nik getting the roundtable treatment for his life’s work. He would love it. It is glorious to have deep and long attention to your work. But then he would hate it — because you can’t control responses. People bring their whole long lives to it; it is as subjective and complicated as any creative act. That is one of the book’s concerns: artistic creation and response. Nik would have fun making up his own roundtable, and part of the fun I had in writing the book was taking an artist’s desire for control to an extreme. Maybe there’s no one who is more of an obsessive control freak than a novelist. You sit in your room and play god for years. Then you emerge with this crazy thing — not unlike Nik’s Chronicles, which is a kind of long autobiographical novel. You live in this made-up world as you are creating it. Everything you do and are interested in relates to your secret world. At least that is how it works for me. It takes over my dreams and my rhythms and my speech. Its defects become my defects, which can be a little traumatizing. For me, writing novels is a strange and antisocial thing to do. But I feel more attentive and closer to people when I am writing. So it is complicated. In this book I was interested in the world within the world, and the cost of being close to a person who does that kind of work. So the first big question you all asked — is Nik a “real” artist? Of course he is. Who can say he isn’t? Which doesn’t mean he isn’t a narcissistic freak. I was quite deliberate about leaving the quality of his work ambiguous. I was mostly interested in his devotion. The challenge was suggesting this lifelong, hyper-elaborated art piece. (It meant writing as Nik pretending to be someone else, a sort of double fake that still had to be convincing. It couldn’t be boring or badly done. So Nik is as self-reflexive as I am, he likes contradictions and inside jokes. For example, the irony of his wanting to escape criticism but then needing to create a kind of mean snarky critic within so it feels real to him.) I showed various clips from his Chronicles, but I needed to leave a lot out because I wanted, as I describe below, to focus on Denise’s perceptions of it. I wanted to show just enough, but I didn’t want the novel to be the Chronicles. I didn’t want an iPad app with his music and album covers. That is one possible way to go, but I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want this to be a novel of tricks and games. I really didn’t want it to be cheeky and cute and merely clever. I wanted it to be about being human, about how humans cope with the given terms of this cultural moment, and I wanted it to be about family: the hermetic, complicated, intimate, and relentless idea of family. Even the novel’s very deep concerns about memory and identity are rooted in the strange romance of family.

I am only interested in writing about things I haven’t figured out. In other words, I usually start with a question. And rather than discovering an answer as I write, I try to make the question as deep and complicated and honest as I can. The momentum, if it exists, is in that increasing complication. I think some people perceive this as ambivalence — I tend to undercut everything with its opposite — but I don’t see how anyone meditating on anything deeply can feel only one way about it. People in my novels have strong desires, but they don’t only go in one direction. So I think I begin with ideas, and then it changes as I get into it. In Stone Arabia the inaugural idea was of an artist who doesn’t achieve success in the world, but then he keeps going. And like many isolated artists, he has one person who believes in him and acts as his audience, in this case a sibling. So I wanted to see what that was like twenty-five years in. And I wanted him to be the real deal, but I also wanted him to be a “loser.” I wanted it to be as complex as family is: a long elaborated relationship from which there is no end (or beginning, for that matter).

I started with that. Then, as I was working, I realized that the sister — the audience — would narrate it, had to narrate it. And the thing became a novel of consciousness. As a writer I am really interested in the depiction of consciousness in fiction. I think the novel describes — enacts — the experience of a mind better than any other medium. I also like how a novel is relentless and inescapable the way a mind is. (I really like that you can’t click through to something else. Of course you can always throw the book across the room.) I wanted the book to be claustrophobic and distorted by emotion and doubt and subjectivity. As I worked I wanted the story to be emotional — practically deranged with emotion — but I also wanted it to be unsentimental and uneasy.

All of the structural decisions came out of these concerns. I wasn’t trying to be experimental or conventional. I wasn’t concerned with realism or metafiction or postmodernism. I think of those things as a reader sometimes, but as a writer I try to be more intuitive. I try to “go to the jeopardy” as Gordon Lish used to say (or that’s how I misread him to suit my purposes). I try to be brave about proceeding despite my own shortcomings and limits. All I can do is make myself relentless. My deformations are my own — just go there and go deep. So the form came out of necessity. The form came out of my interest in the interplay of Denise’s consciousness and the idea of a long elaborated fantasy life. Of course the shape also came out of the difficulties, failures, and deceptions of using language as an organizing force. How to tell a story necessarily becomes part of the novel’s deep concerns. Since the novel largely consists of a first person “written” narrative created by a mostly self-taught and self-conscious woman on the edge of emotional collapse, I really needed those third-person narrative breathers (primarily at the end and the beginning) to frame it, even if they never move all that far from Denise’s consciousness. Denise, Nik, and Ada all have specific language strategies. The challenge was in distinguishing all these documents and pieces without losing the connective thread of the human emotion. I don’t know how close I came to achieving my ambitions for this book. But that is what I was going for. I like having everything at stake, and then if I fall short (and I always will), I still end up somewhere interesting.

By the way, I did not see Nik as mentally ill at all. Maybe that shows how crazy I am. He is fully aware of what is real and what isn’t. He is certainly an alcoholic (by an decent standard), but he is unapologetic and I see him as a resister. He has found a way to be the person he wants to be. He seems immune to the judgment of others. He is deeply unconventional and eccentric, albeit very self-obsessed. I admire Nik’s ability to create his own artistic world. He was supposed to quit and get a real job, or he should have gone out and promoted himself. But he isn’t interested in that, and he pays the price. He isn’t bitter — he has been content in his odd way. I personally hate the way novelists are expected to self-promote. How everyone is expected to self-promote. I hate feeling helpless about how to sell books to people. Wah wah wahhh, right? That is another thing Nik has going for him. He isn’t full of self-pity and complaint.

Of course your life is never just your own, and your choices have consequences. I am obsessed with consequences, and what moral — yes — obligations we have to each other. So Nik makes a decision in his life to be intransigent and live at the margins. By the time he is fifty, he is falling apart. I was very aware that these characters lived in America of 2004. A specific time and place. There is no room in the US of recent years for people to live eccentric lives, especially as you age, because of money. Money was one of the big complicating factors. I wanted this to be a book where money weighed on everyone. (I thought of Joyce and how he wanted no one in his books to be worth more than 1000 pounds. He wanted to have Bloom and Stephen counting every penny. He wanted the ultra-realism of money and bathrooms. So far I have left out the bathrooms, but I too have no interest in the lives of the rich.) Health insurance, second mortgages, food stamps, WIC, medi-cal assisted living. I wanted the details of money to play a big role. Because one reason being an artist is so difficult is because of money. And especially without national health insurance, trying to live at the margins becomes nearly an act of suicide as you age. Denise and Nik didn’t get the education they should have had, given their potential. Their mother always had to work, their father left, so they are under parented. They are almost feral children, self-taught and self-raised. Money was clearly a big force against them. I do think being an artist — especially if you are not a mainstream artist, or a born promoter — is harder than ever. I chose Topanga for Nik’s garage because it is one of those American places with a history of off-the-grid artists, a place that encourages eccentricity. Good luck finding a cheap place there now, and good luck trying to live like a bohemian anywhere.

I don’t see Nik as a bad guy. He is just an eccentric human being. Denise gets a lot out of being his sister. She made different choices. She had a kid — which I think made her more responsible as well as more ordinary. But it also gave her so much comfort, and it gave her a concern for the future and the world beyond her own life. Partly the book became about how we manage to comfort ourselves in the face of mortality. As we start to fail, how do we cope? Denise is trying to cope. I think her anxiety gets located in the barrage of information and media she subjects herself to. Another thing that came up in writing the book is the difference between information and art. Nik’s work — whatever its worth — is satisfying and something she understands. She gets all the inside references and it is meaningful to her. She is moved by it. But the flow of intense and relentless information, the bombardment of the external, is really annihilating for her. It is not all that far from Nik’s substance issues. She should resist it, but she can’t. It is destructive. It is chaotic in an infertile way. She becomes stronger when she writes her Counter Chronicles, when she answers back, when she addresses/organizes things with the force of her consciousness. (This is also like novel writing for me, a way to answer back.) Another question the book is interested in is How do we resist the parts of the culture that will annihilate us? How do we stay human? And I think Nik has one way — a kind of retreat — and Denise’s is another. She tries to look at the world and figure it out. She even tries to dive in. The end of the book — the Stone Arabia scene — came up organically. She is, in fact, approaching a different place mentally, and she is also reacting — as Paula said — to her profound grief about losing Nik (and her mother). She leaves her home and reaches — bodily — out in the world. The novel is interested in consciousness, but also how the body relates to memory and mind. Her watching a body fail (Nik) and a mind fail (her mother) puts these connections in high relief. Denise is losing it, and she makes a kind of desperate leap. I wrote that scene slowly and carefully. I knew it was a risk, but it had to happen. Denise tries to reach out beyond herself. And I knew, as it happened, that her desire for connection would fail — of course it would — but I knew she would try. And Stone Arabia was the place where people disappear (her connections are associative), so it tied into Nik, and it was far away and so different from her life. People are like that, we are — we think geography will change our lives. That physical distance will give us spiritual distance. So she fails, but it is touching to me nonetheless. I chose that town because I discovered it driving one day. It felt magical to me. (I suppose I have that magical belief in place as well. If I lived here, I would be different. It is true and it isn’t. Just as Mina runs away in Lightning Field only to return. She has changed and she hasn’t at all.) I was resisting this idea of an epiphany, a revelation. But I also didn’t want it to be simply an anti-epiphany. I wanted her to go, she had to. I wanted it to be a raw gesture. I wanted it to be about our desire for something to change, which we have, and how the idea can almost be enough, failed or not. Stone Arabia itself is an austere, beautiful place with a long, mysterious history. It has this evocative name — both solid and exotic. I love that name, Stone Arabia, and the sound of it, the feel in the mouth as I say it, it draws me in. It is beautiful, which is reason enough. After, Denise goes back to what is left. She steps out so she can step back in. Maybe she can even be somewhat content with what is left. Not the Chronicles — which are almost a burden — but her daughter, her own life, her endurance, her mind.

So the first part of the end is about adult longing, and the last part of the end is about childhood longing.

The very end was intended as a memory/reverie. I wanted to end on the art, the glimpse of transcendence you can get from art. But it is fraught and melancholy, because it is in the deep past. The very end contains a mini version of the whole book — Nik leaves her (or she leaves him). She is alone with her thoughts. I didn’t plan it that way, it just came out and then I noticed it when I read it all together. Young Denise puts on some music she has never heard before from a band she doesn’t know. She goes from her desire for another to her own desire for herself to just pure desire. It is response to art as a kind of salvation, but it is located in longing and a glimpse of possibility. I wanted it to be innocent. I wanted the last note to be the (remembered) innocent longing of a young person.

The book had to end with a memory, as the novel is also a novel of memory (as any novel of consciousness is). She has the physical experience of being in her old house — memory for her is located in the body as well as the mind. Then she has this vivid dream of the past. The irony, of course, is that Denise has an excellent memory. Her fears are not rational. She does remember.

Thank you for reading the book. And thank you if you got through my rambling response to your responses. Writers are the worst readers of their own work, right?

— Dana

PS I agree with Alex that Nik shouldn’t have been hating on Wings. But that was very young Nik. Adult Nik loves Wild Life. (And you are dead-on about Nik’s use of rock-and-roll tropes and clichés. They are deliberately planted all through his Chronicles. I wasn’t sure if many people would get all the references, but it doesn’t matter if you do or you don’t. It made it feel right to me as I wrote it. Nik would have all these tropes in his head and play with them.)

PPS Sorry, I forgot a few things. I meant to say that all the interpretations are interesting, and I wouldn’t want to shut down any possibilities. Novels are meant to mean different things to different people. Explaining a novel also feels like a really bad idea for the novelist. (One last parenthetical: as far as what is given in the book, Nik doesn’t commit suicide. He does kill himself in the Chronicles, but in his real life he just leaves, which is very different from killing yourself. I was toying with this Ray Johnson idea of enacting your own death as an [insane] assertion of art over life. But then I realized Nik can, and would, have it both ways. He would author his own death in the Chronicles [because the Chronicles are high romantic drama], but he would just disappear in his actual life. How could he resist writing his own obituary? It is what he has been working toward his whole life.)