I think of moral beauty as what is the good and the just – terms perhaps best defined by their opposite: evil. Evil is the willingness to do damage to the other; its maximal expression is murder, but it includes a great deal of subtle and not-so-subtle injuries as it advances to that extreme. Evil acts reduce the other to an object, a being to its component parts, and obliterate subjectivity. Evil’s breeding ground is a lack of empathy.
Every single aspect of a text requires very careful choices and rigorous evaluation. Style is employed – or deployed – for a reason. It’s purposeful. Form and aesthetics are part of meaning-making. Ideally, a writer would have mastery over a wide variety of rhetorical gestures and tonalities, our lexicon and punctuation system, our grammar, and all the riches of a liberal and literary education.
Humans struggle to remain attuned to one another – they want to turn away because of fear, or ambition, or boredom, or some lure of the ego. It’s difficult. It requires radical vulnerability, radical risk.
Every aspect of the novel is – or should be – an arrow pointed towards its ultimate meaning, or a multiplicity of possible meanings. But I also value the readers’ autonomy, their right to both read and misread.
Ultimately, I want a peak experience in reading, and that is sometimes difficult to find in contemporary fiction. I’m not interested in books that are just clever and well executed; polish doesn’t impress me, and I don’t care about a merely capable sentence. Life is short; I want a confrontation with high art. I want soul.
I think the primary gift of the animal is offered to writer and non-writer alike; they teach us about love, or attunement, which is love in action. A lot of people have closer relationships with animals than they do with other humans, because real intimacy requires both parties to consistently lean in, and animals are so good at this. They remain consistently, amazingly attuned to us, even when we fail them, and so we stay present, because we sense we’re safe.
I have both experienced and witnessed a great deal of suffering in my life, and that has informed my art. I’m here today, because I’m a fighter. I didn’t survive my life to ask permission to write my books.
I was taught as a young person that the far political right and the far political left aren’t located on a spectrum but on a circle, where they inevitably meet in their extremity.
When you leave good people afraid to speak on behalf of justice, however awkwardly or insensitively, those unafraid to speak will rise to power.
The idea that writing about characters of another race requires a passage through a critical gauntlet, which involves apology and self-examination of an almost punitive nature, as though the act of writing race was somehow morally suspect, is a dangerous one. This approach appears culturally sensitive, but often it reveals a failure of nerve. I believe the demand that we ought to reveals a species of fascism within the left – an embrace of political correctness with its required silences, which has left people afraid to offend or take a stand.
I stared at the Ohio River every day as a child, a thing that for me is almost more symbol than river. The formation of personality is inextricable from place. It strikes me as an interesting example of dependent co-arising; land shapes the organism, which then reshapes – literally and figuratively – the land. This because of this; not that because not that. Nothing is separate, least of all the literary mind.
I often think there are three primary responses to suffering – rage, intoxication, or growth. We either want revenge for our pain, or we numb ourselves with the endless array of intoxicants available to us, from drugs to overwork, or we grow in empathy. Emptiness can transform into spaciousness; lack can become an agent of social action. But I think many of us struggle to remain on that third path without backsliding into the other two. I do.
Anyone who lives with poor health or chronic pain, or who has endured poverty – real poverty – knows what it is to live with lack and a resulting fear so incessant that it becomes thoroughly normalized, invisible in its ubiquity. If you’re lucky enough to have that fear begin to ease, it’s an odd experience. A stranglehold eases off your entire body, one you never fully realized was there.
Ultimately, I don’t know if love is an organizing principle we choose or if it’s innate. I’m not sure the distinction matters to me much anymore; I just care about how we can reduce unnecessary suffering. I think that means learning to love in both the micro and the macro; engaging in ethical action at the level of intimacy and friendship, but also at the vocational level through our chosen work in the world, our right livelihood.
I don’t believe love is real love if it remains cloistered within the confines of an intimate relationship; it should transcend the private sphere. As an artist that means training an eye on the suffering in the world, then acting on behalf of others.
Love is not a feeling, but an action.
Great literature rattles the mind and makes the body sing. It’s an unmistakable, electric feeling, and too rare. That is what I want.