House Guest with Douglas Watson: Why I Make Fun of Philosophers

imageIn House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors, cover artists, and editors from peer presses and magazines to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

Douglas Watson's story “New Animal” is reprinted in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade


I don’t know that much about philosophy, but that doesn’t stop me from poking fun at philosophers in my fiction. Really, though, it’s my younger self I’m making fun of. In 1990 I went off to college figuring I would major in philosophy. What could be better than staying up half the night thinking in a rigorous way about the most important questions? Wasn’t time spent doing anything else—like getting a haircut—ultimately just wasted time? In high school I’d been taken with Plato and the kind of existentialism found in Herman Hesse novels. Throw in a bit of Thoreau and maybe spin “All You Need Is Love” on the turntable and you’ve got the picture.

But a funny thing happened in Philosophy 101, a thing that probably happens to a lot of freshmen who think they’re going to be philosophy majors: I fell out of love with philosophy. Philosophy, it turned out, was difficult and rather dry and quite possibly beside the point. Sure, my new college friends and I stayed up all night talking about the meaning of life, but we weren’t talking about Aristotle. Life, we decided, took place in the world, not just inside our skulls, and the world needed our help right now! The Gulf War was brewing, global warming was happening, and whole societal systems needed to be restructured ASAP if there was to be any chance of something-or-other. Trading the romantic image of myself in a scholar’s study for the romantic image of myself on a barricade, I began skipping classes and protesting the war and listening to the Doors. What I wanted was peace, and when I wanted it was right then.

At length I graduated and got a job. And a haircut.

I devoted myself to other things: environmentalism, the piano, history, fiction, rock ’n’ roll, tennis. Some of these things I have stuck with. Some I have dropped like so many hot potatoes. My having given philosophy the hot-potato treatment must bother me at some level, because philosophy keeps showing up in my fiction—but only so I can take cheap shots at it. David Hume, whose arid reasoning helped drive me away from philosophy, is a favorite target. Van Roost, the protagonist in my story “New Animal,” encounters Hume’s famous proof that it can’t be proved that the sun will rise tomorrow and thinks, “What nonsense!” Kierkegaard, too, ultimately lets Van Roost down. The story closes with Van Roost sitting alone, up half the night, troubled by the vague sense that he is “waiting for something”—a feeling I know quite well.


But perhaps a restless sense that one is forever waiting for something is a good cast of mind for a fiction writer. Like philosophy, fiction writing is a form of thinking. John Gardner would tell me it is the form I trust the most. I can’t make myself believe in some grand search for meaning anymore—as though the mind were Napoleon and truth were there to be won on the battlefield. If Plato was right about the unexamined life, well, okay, then let’s actually examine life, the messy stuff of experience. That messy stuff is what fiction is all about. And—surprise, surprise—the mess looks very different depending on your point of view. Every character has a different take on things, a different set of questions and answers. No one answer is definitively right. That is how life actually is, and that is why fiction is good at understanding life.

Am I worse off for having abandoned philosophy? I don’t know, and I’m probably not going to find out. I still stay up half the night, but it’s usually because I’m lying awake rehearsing the next day’s list of worries. Somehow a fear that the sun won’t come up in the morning never makes the list. Although—wouldn’t it be interesting if it didn’t come up? Sounds like the beginning of a good short story…


Douglas Watson is the author of a book of stories, The Era of Not Quite, and a novel, A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies. He lives in New York City.

Author photo by Lee Towndrow

House Guest with Bill Roorbach: Electronic Promises

imageIn House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors, cover artists, and editors from peer presses and magazines to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask. Bill Roorbach's stories have twice appeared in the pages of Ecotone. In this post, he recounts the origin of his story “Broadax Inc.," reprinted in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.


“Broadax Inc.” came about because of a ten-day power failure here in western Maine a few years ago, one that had nothing to do with weather (which would be the usual case), but with a technical break somewhere in the grid that caused cascading outages as switches and transformers and other bits and pieces no one of us knows enough about to fix overloaded and burned up—real flames.

I was in the grocery store at the time, waiting in line with my full cart in the glow of some battery-powered emergency lights. The poor woman at the one open cash register had no idea what to do. The cash drawer wouldn’t open without power, so she had no change, and no accounting system. The night manager scratched her head too. I suggested they write down what people had bought and we’d come pay later (I had no cash), but they didn’t even know what anything cost because all that was reported through the laser system. You could write it down item by item, I suggested.

“Well, you can’t leave the store with unpaid merchandise,” the manager said.

In the end there was no solution and all of us in line abandoned our carts. At home, relative comfort. We heat with wood and can cook on the woodstove. And because it’s Maine I keep twenty gallons of water in the basement for such emergencies, so we were able to flush the toilets and could go outside if necessary, no big deal, even as the outage wore on.

What was a bigger deal was maintaining my work life, which is dependent in more ways than I realized on computers and the Internet. I own pencils and still have paper around, so I could write, but I couldn’t access the most recent drafts of two pieces that were on deadline, which is to say I had no access of any kind to the work that was due by e-mail during those days. My cell phone died before I thought to call my editors. I rewrote from memory by hand and put a literal manuscript in the mail—no sign of my old Hermes 3000 typewriter in the barn where last I saw it.


I’d been shopping because we needed food. Now we ate what canned things we had, and pasta. I rehydrated beans from the summer and added stuff I found in the freezer, which remained frozen because it was winter. One restaurant in town used solely gas and they stayed open under candles for two nights till the food was gone and every dish was dirty. Fun while it lasted: bring your own icicle for your drink.

Day seven and it hit me: I did not really have any money. No one does (short of barter, I mean). All we have is electronic promises. I did not really have any correspondents. All I had were electronic addresses, and no way to look up addresses in the physical world. I felt safe, but I did not really have any connection to emergency services, though I could see the cell tower. I did not really have food. All I had was the idea that when the garden goods ran out I could go to a store. But the store had no way to sell till day five, when the generator got there. By then, after two trips to the hardware store (which is very old school in any case, and where they didn’t miss a beat, just made invoices on yellow pads), and numerous trips to help friends, I had so little gas in the cars (simple bad timing) that I couldn’t go anywhere except on skis. Skis were real. The snow was real.

And our house was real. And our wood pile, which saved us.

And so on.

I thought, how about a story where a guy living entirely in the abstract electrical world of corporate money was laid low by someone who could control the access to the abstractions. At long last he’d realize: money doesn’t exist. In the end, he’d have only what he really had, the stuff we can touch, and he’d feel lucky to have that.


Bill Roorbach's newest novel is Life Among Giants. His next, to be released in 2014, is The Remedy for Love. His short fiction has appeared in Harper’s, the Atlantic, Playboy, and lots more places, such as on NPR’s Selected Shorts. He was a cake judge on Food Network, but only once.

On Location with Miha Mazzini

imageMiha Mazzini, whose story “That Winter" originally appeared in Ecotone and is now featured in Astoria to Zion, sent us this fascinating brain comparison. Read on to find out why writing is so addictive.


This is the place I usually live: (PICTURE A)

Sometimes, after a long procrastination, in quiet surroundings, when I’m alone, I start writing and the place changes: (PICTURE B)

I had a chance to scan my brain while doing research for my nonfiction book about writers and creativity, Born for Stories. The general rule for interpreting the scans: the brighter the color, the greater the flow of blood.

That’s why the act of writing is so addictive, and why we feel so alive when it’s going well, and why agonize when it isn’t.

Miha Mazzini is an author, screenwriter, and film director. He has published twenty-eight books in nine languages. His novel Crumbs, originally published in Slovenian, is now available in English.

Head over to Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading to read David Means’s “The Junction" in its entirety. This stunning story first appeared in the pages of Ecotone and now has a new home in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone's First Decade

This week only, use the promo code “recommended” to pick up a copy for just $12:

Seven Questions for Cary Holladay

imageIn Seven Questions, we interview writers, editors, designers, and others in publishing. Today we welcome Cary Holladay to the blog. Her story “Horse People” first appeared in Ecotone's evolution issue and was reprinted in New Stories from the South 2009. It now has a home in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone's First Decade.


What books are open on your desk right now?

American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement, by Hilary Holladay, my younger sister.

Where did the idea for “Horse People,” your story in Astoria to Zion, come from?

A story my father told when he was old, or as he put it, “way up in years.” He kept saying, “When I was about eight, my father took me to get a cook. We rode on horses, way back in the woods.” The cook, Philip, was a young black man from a big family. He cooked for my father’s family for fifty years. That recollection, together with what I knew of my father’s life, Philip’s life, and of the place—Rapidan, Virginia—became “Horse People.”

If you could change one thing about a classic work of literature, what would it be?

Barren Ground, a novel by Ellen Glasgow, published in 1925, is a wonderful story of a woman’s triumph over failed love and rejection. Hardworking protagonist Dorinda Oakley becomes a successful dairy farmer. However, she ossifies into a joyless Lady Bountiful. I’d change the ending so she finally falls in love again and has fun.

Which fictional character would you choose to go on a road trip with, and where would you go?

A walk around Altamont, NC (which is actually Asheville), with Eugene Gant of Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. The tour would include a stop at the stonecutter’s workshop.

What emerging author or first book are you most excited about?

Does it count if he’s dead? Breece Pancake is ever emerging, and I remain as excited about his work as when I first discovered it.

If you could spend a year writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Prince Rupert, British Columbia, a fishing village with lots of cats. My husband, John Bensko, and I spent our honeymoon there. For a small town, the grocery store was amazingly well-stocked with fancy teas, olive oil, and chocolate. Eagles perched in the trees, singing. I didn’t know they could sing.


Lightning round

Typing or longhand? typing

Silence or music? both

Morning or night? night

E-reader or print? print

Vowel or consonant? vowel

Train or plane? train

Bookmark or dog-ear? My elementary school librarian said, “Fairies live in books. Every time you dog ear a page, you break a little arm or leg. Regretfully, I break little limbs. However, a friend of mine just gave me beautiful handmade bookmarks, so now there’s no excuse.

Cake or pie? English apple pie with orange peel and raisins, a recipe from an old cookbook. Add cranberries.

Mountains or sea? Oh! Too hard to choose.

Dog or cat? I bought a Snugli to hold my tiny, feral cat while I write.

Cary Holladay grew up in Virginia. Her seven volumes of fiction include Horse People: Stories and The Deer in the Mirror. Her work has appeared in The  O. Henry Prize Stories, and she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches at the University of Memphis.

On Location with Karen E. Bender

imageKaren E. Bender, whose story “Candidate" originally appeared in Volume 2, Issue 2 of Ecotone and is now featured in Astoria to Zion, sent us this fantastic photograph and accompanying description of the “ecotone” she and her family learned to navigate in the Tong Bie neighborhood of Taichung City.


At first, we didn’t know where to walk. We stepped into the neighborhood of Tong Bie, just north of Tunghai University in Taichung City, Taiwan, and saw this: the scooters, their guttural growl vibrating in my throat, the scooter drivers moving, carving their paths down the road, wherever they wanted, really, a huge public bus occasionally swerving through the crowds. Where were we supposed to walk? We watched the pedestrians, calmly carrying a plastic cup of tea or sweet potato fries or an egg pancake, walking.

There was something missing for us, the Americans: sidewalks. That border between the walkers and the movement in the road. The border that might help us from losing a foot, or whatever. How did anyone walk through this rush? How did anyone cross the street in this? The first time, I was afraid. “Careful! Careful! Watch your feet!” I crowed to our kids, who stared at the scooter drivers doing various hair-raising moves. “Now that was legal,” they murmured, as we felt the warm wind as one zipped beside us, or when a driver did a U-turn motivated by nothing but the desire to go the other way. It occurred to us—yes, it was legal. Maybe. Or sort of legal. Actually, it didn’t matter. The point was to just move. It took us twenty minutes to cross the street, taking a deep breath and waiting for a lull in the traffic. Then we ran for our lives.

But then we went up to Tong Bie again. And again. And we started to learn how to walk. We bought our containers of tea, our egg pancakes, and watched the way the students moved through the streets here. They moved with a sort of graceful patience, weaving around whatever scooters or buses rumbled down the street. They ate their snacks. They didn’t run across the street maniacally, like we did; they walked around the scooters, they stopped in the middle and waited for another pause. They understood that they could walk anywhere. And then we did, too.

Karen E. Bender is the author of two novels, Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her story collection, Refund, is forthcoming in 2015. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Story, Narrative, Harvard Review, and the Iowa Review. She is the recipient of two Pushcart prizes, an NEA grant, and a Rona Jaffe Foundation grant. She’s lived in Los Angeles, New York, and Iowa City, but currently resides in Wilmington, NC, with her husband, Robert Anthony Siegel, and their two children. 

Seven Questions for Marisa Silver

imageIn Seven Questions, we interview writers, editors, designers, and others in publishing. Today we talk to Marisa Silver, whose story “Leap” appears in Ecotone’s fifth anniversary issue and was named a distinguished story in The Best American Short Stories 2011. It now has home in our anthology Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade as well.


What books are open on your desk right now?

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kis, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and about twenty other books not yet read, sort of read, almost all read, read.

Where did the idea for “Leap,” your story in Astoria to Zion, come from?

A friend told me that her dog had jumped off the edge of a cliff. Chasing a rabbit? A botched suicide attempt? I had to find out.

If you could spend a year writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?

I want to say Berlin, or Istanbul, or Marrakech, because those cities fascinate me. But that would be the reason I shouldn’t go to those places—I’d spend my time wandering and watching, and I’d get nothing done. I’d be better off on an island where the distractions would be of a more natural kind, where I would be thrown back on myself and my own abilities, and where my prize for a good day’s work would be a walk to look out at the ocean, watch birds swoop down to fish, and think about time, which is really what fiction is all about.

Name a book you bought for its cover.

Even though I’ve probably made too many disappointing purchases based on cover art, I would say that any cover of a book put out by Faber & Faber is so immediately appealing it’s hard not to want to read what’s inside.

Your most recent novel, Mary Coin, arises from the photograph Migrant Mother. What was it about the image that inspired you?

A few years ago, I went to an exhibit focusing on photography of the West at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Lange’s famous photo was part of the exhibition. I had seen the image many, many times and was always drawn to the woman’s face, which seems to me such a mixture of strength and resignation, as well as to the curious composition of the photograph—the way the children face away from the camera. But what struck me seeing the photo this time was not the image itself but what was written on the curatorial label next to the image. The description noted that the woman in the photograph did not reveal who she was until she was sick and dying, when she appealed for help from the public in order to pay for her medical care. This fact struck me powerfully. Here was a woman who was the subject of, arguably, one of the most famous images of the twentieth century and who, for the better part of her life, did not lay claim to this legacy. I was immediately filled with questions. Did she choose her anonymity or was it chosen for her? Was there something about the taking of the photograph, and its subsequent ubiquity that troubled her? And what must it have meant to her, nearing the end of her life and in a time of physical duress, to have made the decision to finally reveal herself?


When did you know there was a novel there?

I thought there was a novel when I first imagined the idea. I knew there was a novel when I finally finished it. The other 98 percent of the time I had no idea.

Lightning round

Typing or longhand? typing

Silence or music? silence

Morning or night? late morning until late afternoon

E-reader or print? print

Vowel or consonant? I am partial to all the letters in the alphabet.

Train or plane? plane

Bookmark or dog-ear? bookmark

Cake or pie? ice cream

Mountains or sea? sea

Dog or cat? I have a huge, floppy dog I love and who loves me if I am holding food. I crave a cat but I live in the land of coyotes. Also, if I ended up with one of those very self-sufficient cats that didn’t seem to need me, even if I was holding food, that would be deeply humiliating.

Marisa Silver is the author, most recently, of the novel Mary Coin, a New York Times bestseller. She is also the author of two previous novels, No Direction Home and The God of War, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction. Her first collection of short stories, Babe in Paradise, was named a New York Times Notable Book and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2001. When her second collection, Alone With You, was published, the New York Times called her “one of California’s most celebrated contemporary writers.” Silver made her fiction debut in the New Yorker when she was featured in that magazine’s first “Debut Fiction” issue. Her stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories and The PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories, as well as other anthologies.

design by Lookout intern Ryan Smith

design by Lookout intern Ryan Smith

design by Lookout intern Justin Klose

design by Lookout intern Justin Klose

design by Lookout intern Jane Molinary

design by Lookout intern Jane Molinary