The top 20 conversations we had in 2015
on A Bit ContrivedPixelatedThe Art of Commerce Writers on Mental Health

For the complete list of conversations, go here.


20. An interview with Dan Shewan

In which Dan discusses anxiety and depression
Published 7/28 in Writers on Mental Health

"I find that time and distance from a situation or difficult time is always beneficial to the work because it allows me to really unpack why I did the things I did during that time, or to more thoroughly explore my feelings about it, but I wouldn't say I need that time and distance to write about these experiences.

Even long before I started writing, I was always very concerned about being misunderstood. In fact, the idea of being misunderstood is one of the earliest triggers for my anxiety that I can remember. One thing I try very hard to be cognizant of is the limitations of my experiences with mental health problems. As a topic, I think it's quite difficult to write about depression or anxiety or any other mental health problem in a general way. There's a danger of generalizing too much or calling the validity of someone else's experiences into question. Whenever I try to "write through" a particularly difficult time, I try to remain aware of that as much as possible"


19. "You don't need to be literate to dance (and thank god for that)"

In which Ken Baumann discusses mislabeling alt-lit, classics and the canon, the one man advantage, the “indie moment”, the five strata of film & more
Published 7/13 in Writers on Mental Health

"Corporate publishing's bread and butter is, sadly, dogshit. Or more precisely: corporate publishing's bread and butter are books sold in pharmacies. Self-help, CEO-schlock, autobiographies by war criminals, etc. That said, corporate publishers and their numerous subsidiaries also publish books like 300,000,000 by Blake Butler, a brave and shocking book that is undeniably innovative. Which is to say that corporate publishers occasionally employ wonderful, bold editors like Cal Morgan, or like Michael Signorelli. I also like the fact that corporate publishers pay their employees living wages—corporate publishers keep talented book designers on staff, and in the day of an endless ocean of freelancers, that is miraculous. But even considering those exceptional imprints like Harper Perennial, I think that most of the bold work that is being published today is being published by houses like Graywolf, like New Directions, like Dalkey and Coffee House and Soho and Two Dollar Radio. These are the independent but well-funded presses that are the arteries of great literature. And then much of the most exciting and most daring work is coming from the small and always-in-the-red presses. So yeah: the bigger the entity, the more fragile it is to risk. No surprise there, and so no unique crime of irresponsibility that's being perpetrated by corporate publishing companies."

18. "Harry Potter and the Dreaded Op Ed"

In which Ron Charles discusses his absurd YouTube videos, the infantilism of American culture, books in public education, the death of the book critic & more
Published 7/2 in The Art of Commerce

"I still get mail from outraged teenagers who have Googled "Harry Potter" for some school project...But yes, lots of people I respect have written very intelligently about this (long) trend in American culture toward adolescent pursuits. It's fairly obviously in movies and music and fashion -- and books. There are plenty of very fine YA writers; we're living in a golden age of YA lit. And I can certainly see why people would want to read those fine books. (Teachers, librarians, parents.) But I'd rather read books for adults now. That's just me.

Conversely, what troubles me more is that so many young people are forced to read adult books in school. Why should teenagers be forced to study -- again and again -- the Death of the American Dream, the ennui of middle age, the loss of sexual desire, etc., etc? But I suppose Common Core is taking care of that problem by rooting fiction out of the curriculum altogether! (Soon -- or perhaps already -- it'll all be "snippets" of pop nonfiction. Ug.)"

17. "And we oiled each other up and ran naked in the dust of Sparta"

In which Richard Nash discusses author contracts, the term ‘self-publishing’, filters vs. maps, books in 2025, bestseller monopolies, textual immersion & more
Published 2/18 in The Art of Commerce

"We all seek, at varying moments in our lives, different modes of living. Longish immersion in layered textual creations won’t disappear, it’s more that the ways we flow into them will become more various.

Look at the ways in which we’ve changed how we exercise. Once, we just ran, to or from the mammoths or tigers or such. Then we cultivated physical prowess. And we oiled each other up and ran naked in the dust of Sparta. And now we might do ultra marathons in the desert, or treadmills, or all the other running affordances. But we still run, frequently solo. So I think we’ll still read, frequently solo. It’s a muscle, and the smart humans won’t let that atrophy."

16. "I fell into something of a persona and that was a mistake"

In which Edward Champion discusses the millennial piece and fallout, Yanagihara, being called “The Most Hated Man in Books”, salsa and lit & more
Published 10/15 in The Art of Commerce

"I don't know anymore. I think there's a definite disconnect between what sells and what people crave. And I think that publishers have greatly underestimated the intelligence of their readers. It's now become a strange zero sum game. Look at the rise of actors turned novelists or the many celebrity memoirs. Look at the way that the books world has become like the film world, where you're only as good as your last novel. There are admirable houses like Soho and Europa and Other Press and even FSG that have been picking up the slack (and indeed Europa has had a great well-deserved success with Elena Ferrante, where perhaps taste and money aligns). And then you have tireless translated literature champions like Chad Post who spend every waking minute trying to get Americans to understand that there is a completely different world out there. The old model, whereby blockbuster novelists supported the lesser-selling literary writers, seems to be dwindling. Or perhaps, more accurately, it has spread to the smaller houses. But even Coffee House, which published Gilbert Sorrentino, now caters to a Williamsburg hipster demographic. I still believe that artistic merit and financial solvency can congeal, but the literary climate truly needs to grow up to include these other viewpoints and produce a more robust crop."

15. "It's a business now"

In which Simon Vance discusses how he got into narrating, mistakes, finding your niche, how the art has changed, the changing tide of literature & more
Published 6/10 in The Art of Commerce

"Back when I started doing commercial recording (in the US in 1993), the market was ruled by libraries and a huge part of the market was about classic books, well-written books that people were interested in getting in audio. Now it's much more market driven...I'm having trouble here phrasing this delicately...As you see in the publishing industry there is a move toward self-publishing and so on and standards of editing, proofing, etc. have dropped. Books are being made available that would not have seen the light of day in years past. Now that's called the democratization of the industry, and many see it as a good thing. But a lot of these books are being made into audio and they can be a nightmare to read. Most of the classics have been done (sometimes several times over) and so what we’re being asked to record now can often be from this new pool of material. It's not as much fun when you have to correct the written MS as you read it. There are still good books (and still old books that have not been done) but where I would have said I loved 95% of the books I read I would now say that percentage has dropped to nearer 40 or 50%. It's not always as pleasurable as it used to be."

14. Fans from afar

In which Chelsea Hodson and Kate Zambreno discuss book covers, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Plato, diaries, written letters, snacks & more
Published 3/12 in Pixelated

Kate:  ‪I feel like you would read Plato.

I just recently started reading Plato's dialogues, because I'm obsessed with ugly Socrates who everyone fell madly in love with. They are really such tricky interesting creations, such layered and bizarre point of view and contradictions.

The Symposium is crazy, it's like an orgy of white men.

so much sex and desire in Plato's writing of love, in even the idea of Platonic love - that is extremely erotic.

feel like what I've read of your book (I am kicking myself for not reading it! It's on my list) it's a complimentary work, maybe.

Chelsea:  ‪I read The Symposium in a class about love that deeply affected me. We also read bell hooks. I'm interested in female desire--what makes something taboo, what drives us to act, and love's relation to it, certainly.

13. "Oh, I should definitely explain why I don't care about this question"

In which Nick Montfort discusses digital translation, poetry generation, creativity, Samuel Beckett, a Turing Test for poetry, judging generated poetry & more
Published 3/11 in The Art of Commerce

" purpose in creating poetry generators and similar systems is not to be human-like, but to use the capabilities of the computer to explore language in new ways. Ways that the computer is good at. Simplest example: I write some programs that just continually produce output which scrolls by. A person can't do this -- not for a week, for instance. The person would keel over. But for a computer it's no problem. So, why not have poems appear like screensavers or like the water in fountains, so that we can look and read when we want to and look away at other times?

Again, that's the most basic sort of human/computer difference I can think of, I'm not sure it's a great illustration. Anyway, this doesn't mean that AI or machine learning or whatever sorts of techniques can't be used effectively in poetic systems. It's just that the goal is not "the imitation game" at least for me."

12. "Snorted coffee through the nose"

In which Meghan Daum and Emily Gould discuss meeting Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell, PETA and dog shows, getting paid, sponsored content, MFAs & more
Published 3/19 in Pixelated

Meghan: Ironically, when I met Joan Didion we also had to be photographed together.

Andrew: You met Joan Didion?

Emily: Oh my god.

Andrew: Is there a photo out there?

Meghan: There's like a 7 second delay in this convo. Is that how they all go?

Andrew: Unclear

Meghan: The whole time being photgraphed with Joan, I kept thinking "I'm going to look so fat next to her."

Emily: (loling)

Meghan: It was in BlackBook magazine. Not sure it's online.

Andrew: What was she like?

Andrew: (I mean, you know, what you feel comfortable sharing)

Andrew: She is having a "moment"

Meghan: Intimidating, kind, very soft spoken.

Emily: So like, how you'd want her to be.

11. Murmurs and Titters and Gasps

In which Judith Claire Mitchell talks about a book that doesn't exist, with a cover design by Erin Fitzsimmons
Published 9/28 in A Bit Contrived

"As you know sinus conditions have played a compelling role in great literature throughout the ages, ever since Heathcliff and Cathy caught that terrible cold on the moors. And who could forget the brilliant conclusion to Ulysses: Gesundheit, and my nose was running like mad and gesundheit she said, gesundheit, gesundheit, gesundheit. But actually, no, in M & T & G sneezes did not propel (ha ha ha ha) the story. Rather it was my dear husband’s laughter. A sort of snorting guttural exhalation of truly annoying noise that gave me no choice: either I make art from it or I sneak up behind him while he’s watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and strangle him.

As I tell my fans, inspiration is everywhere. One must only listen for it."

10. The 3%

In which Chad Post discusses why 3% of books are translations, language figureheads, heterogeneity of the canon, computer translation & more
Published 7/8 in The Art of Commerce

"By approaching the translated text with the eyes of a monolingual reader. Instead of focusing only on "x words means y" and retaining that even when it sounds weird in English, a savvy translator will rework a sentence in order to have a similar effect (or retain the author's unique voice and style) without slavishly sticking to the original. 

This brings to mind the fact that a lot of countries don't have an editorial culture. They get a manuscript, they like it, they print it. Translators working with authors and foreign editors can actually help improve a book in this process. That scares some people--those who want to believe that a translation is a 1:1 version of another text--but it's what makes this field so exciting and interesting."

9. Two Poorly Soldered Wires

In which Lionel Shriver talks about a book that doesn't exist, with a cover design by David A. Gee
Published 8/31 in A Bit Contrived

"As for men, I'm a purist.  Many a humanoid with a penis has tried to inveigle himself into my good graces, but it is indeed very important to me to be able to write persuasively from the male perspective.  In order to do so with perfect clarity of insight, I have kept at arms length from men themselves my entire life.  All expertise is a melding of wisdom and naiveté.  Like so many top-flight fiction writers, I approach every subject I tackle in a state of cleansing ignorance. To preserve my cerebral innocence, to paint on an unsullied canvas, it's vital that I have no idea what I'm talking about."

8. "Likeability is expected of women, fiction and real-life"

In which Julia Fierro and Zoe Pilger discuss quitting smoking, virtual animals, their current projects, the effect of gender on reviews, ‘unlikability’ & more
Published 7/9 in Pixelated

Zoe: Yes - this issue of 'likeability' is absurd

Julia: A book has to fit into a certain category for a publisher to consider it. I have students--women writing novels that have a feminist perspective--who are having a tough time publishing.

Julia: Even if their books have commercial appeal.

Julia: The most common rejection they hear from publishers is "We don't know how to sell this" and I think that ties into what you are talking about.

Julia: Personally, my favorite novels are "genre-benders"--books that play with the expectations of genre. That surprise the reader.

Zoe: Really? That's interesting. Things do seem to have widened in the past couple of years, but I know publishers are under pressure to cater to a pre-established market, which leads to a culture of mediocrity overall. We need to take risks...

7. & Yet & Yet & Yet

In which Victoria Hetherington talks about a book that doesn't exist, with a cover design by Donna Cheng
Published 6/8 in A Bit Contrived

"Merci beacoup, Andrew – and I say that on behalf of all Canadian writers. I'm very reflexively a Canadian writer, and so this book was a real departure. I'm proud to say I took some big risks here, from situating the story in a harsh, rural setting, to staging the plot alongside an endless prairie winter, to the abundant household metaphors for unraveling marriages (the rusted-up tractor that once ripped its way through the canola fields, themselves stubbornly barren, etc.) Even so, I imagine there are still some huge cultural barriers both in terms of language and content, and so I'm glad you delved into the book with all the necessary tools."

6. "I wouldn't want to reassure my past self. 'Keep panicking'."

In which Mallory Ortberg discusses finding motivation, the Google doc that houses her ideas, healthy partnerships, reading comments, life lessons & more
Published 9/29 in The Art of Commerce

"We found an audience that really loves us and we really love them, I thinkWe're not enormous, by any stretch of the imaginationbut we found a niche that works for us.There are a lot of intellectually lazy people out there who vaguely remember reading Beowulf and just want to make jokes about old English rather than talk about the state of art or poetry or publishing (probably)."

5. "People see what they want to see. Or what they had hoped for."

In which Lauren Cerand discusses celebrity in contemporary lit, mainstream attention, sleeping in fur coats, taking risks & more.
Published 12/16 in The Art of Commerce

"I would say that it is a fantastic new world in terms of dialogue, perspective and the possibility of increased representation, although there doesn't seem to be an attendant awareness that everything is a tradeoff. Authors still have the expectation that exposure will have the same impact it had 15 years ago, where in some cases, it doesn't have the same impact it had even 6 months ago. Right now there's so much information, so much choice, and so many infinitely expanding galaxies of conversation and discourse, which is great for the strongest signals, and can certainly give a boost to the otherwise overlooked, but so much just comes and goes with no notice whatsoever."

4. A Perfunctory Understanding

In which Dana Schwartz (@GuyInYourMFA) talks about a book that doesn't exist, with a cover design by Zak Tebbal
Published 7/6 in A Bit Contrived

"A lot of the women in my workshop had the same feelings towards Eleanor as you did but I have to disagree. Just because I didn’t give her a last name doesn’t mean that I didn’t put thought into her as a character. Eleanor is being filtered through the lens of The Man’s experience - she’s more or less an extension of him. Eleanor is also a symbol of the obstacles The Man must overcome in order to achieve self-actualization. Of course The Man is attracted to her, but that’s not the most important aspect of her identity. If I may quote her description from when the narrator first sees her in Chapter 2: “Eleanor was undeniably pretty, but a certain regularity of her features rendered her almost forgettable. Her green eyes were large and set nicely apart, but the slight clumping of mascara in her left eyelashes left him irreversibly aware of just how ordinary she was.”"

3. "I had to reach deeper into myself, and engage with the world on a deeper level"

In which Mensah Demary discusses Catapult's model, mental illness, advice for young black writers, Coates, Baldwin & more.
Published 12/2 in The Art of Commerce

"Funny enough, the most helpful takeaway from his writing would be that the world is not so fundamentally different after all. Its continued relevance is a testament to his writing ability, but is also an indictment on a society that continues to treat me as an "other," that expects me to be grateful because I can vote, because I can use the same bathroom as a white person, attend the same classes, eat from the same table. I'm expected to be grateful because I've been invited into white spaces. I am supposed to be grateful when "spaces for marginalized voices" pop up. I just want to live my life, love my family, and write books (eventually). But I don't live in that world. It doesn't exist. It never did. I'm not sure it ever will."

2. Brick and Mortar, Montana Valley Book Store

In which Keren Wales discusses life philosophy, how she ended up in Montana, and the billboard that she owes her business to.
Published 10/21 in The Art of Commerce

In a town with only ~ 400 people, Keren keeps a lot of books around—over 100,000 in fact. Montana Valley Book Store stocks some gems you won't be able to find anywhere else, and Keren's got a beautiful life philosophy you have to hear.

1. An interview with Dustin Illingworth

In which Dustin discusses anxiety and the loss of his partner.
Published 8/18 in Writers on Mental Health

"Amy's loss was a fissure in my life, and, to use what is perhaps a crude metaphor, that fissure has slowly filled in with the accumulations of 5 years of living. But it's unsteady, unpredictable; the outline of that fissure is still readily apparent to me. I won't think about her for several days and then some inconsequential thing she used to say will surface and there is this fresh sense of devastation. That has been the real learning experience for me; I thought of grief as this monolithic, immovable thing -- and in a way, it is. But it is three dimensional, constantly rotating, and you're exposed to these new and brutal sides. If one part of your grief has grown moss and you're even somewhat comfortable with it, it'll spin and you're stuck staring at this bare surface of pain and recollection. I don't know how many more sides there will be but merely being aware of those sides feels something like healing."