Interview with Mimi Lipson, author of The Cloud of Unknowing


I loved every story in Mimi Lipson‘s collection The Cloud of Unknowing –  so much that I couldn’t resist reading one, “Mothra,” out loud in its entirety. When I finished, my companion looked at me expectantly, then said, “Oh no. That’s the end?” I nodded. They laughed with appalled delight.

Mimi is also a stained glass artist; I’ve punctuated this interview with images of some of her pieces.


SR: Jenny Offill says and I agree that there’s a generosity to this collection, and I see it particularly in the way you shift points of view both between and within the stories; for instance, the reader seeing Isaac through Kitty’s eyes and vice versa. How do you decide which POV to use in a scene?

Thank you (and thank Jenny) for saying that. I guess generosity isn’t something every writer goes for, nor should they, but I do—as long as it doesn’t shade into mawkishness.

Anyhow, those switches in POV are usually a matter of instinct. Just, I get itchy with Kitty’s view, and bam, I’m in Isaac’s head. In retrospect I can see that the shifts are usually technical moves. They push a story along or to give it more dimension. It’s supposed to be good if the reader knows something about the narrator that the narrator doesn’t know about him-or-herself, and POV switches are a way of accomplishing this. It’s easy to communicate something about Isaac through Kitty’s eyes, and vice versa, without requiring either of them to have too much self-awareness. So maybe it’s another crutch.

Then sometimes a story will only work with a certain narrator. “Lou Schultz” is an example. It had to be told from Lou’s perspective because otherwise he would seem a little monstrous. Or anyhow he would just be a lousy parent, which in this day and age amounts to the same thing.


SR: One of the many things I really admire about this collection is that there are moments in each story that suggest the possibility of other, equally rich stories. In “Lou Schultz” when Lou remembers how he and Helena met, or in “The Endless Mountains” when the freight lines remind Jonathan of Lou’s anecdote about hopping a train and eventually presenting himself at the Enid, Oklahoma jail. Given all these possibilities, how do you decide how much narrative space to devote to each one? Would you want to write, for example, a longer Lou-and-Helena-in-their-youth story, or a story about Lou’s train-hopping?

ML: This is actually a big problem for me. The story-before-the-story is such a tempting device for enlarging a current world or a current relationship. I would maybe even call it a crutch—like writing about dreams or photographs. As you point out, it seems to happen more around the Schultz family. I don’t think anyone will be shocked to learn that most of the pieces in this collection take events from my own life as their jumping-off points, and so much of what I know or think about my own family is based on stories I was told.

To answer your question, though: Would I want to write those other stories? Yes. I guess everyone is interested in their parents as characters who existed in the world before they were born. But haven’t I already been self-indulgent enough?


SR: Does your background in linguistics influence your writing, and if so, how?

ML: I’m not sure about influence. I do think my interests in linguistics and in writing have a common source, which is (to use a mortifying expression) a love of language. I’ve always paid a lot of attention to the way people talk: how they can be characterized by their speech, and how they do things with language—for instance, using formality to dominate and informality to disarm. Or how grandiloquence can be comic. It’s Bugs Bunny stuff, really.

As far as linguistics goes, my initial attraction was to macro-level language structures—what’s called discourse analysis. That quickly led to sociolinguistics, which is more about the invisible rules and patterns of language change and variation. That, in turn, led me to formal linguistics. Eventually, we’re not even dealing with words anymore—just symbols and functions and stuff. So as things become more abstract and formal and technical, the two things—writing and linguistics—get further apart. I’d be hard pressed to find a connection between my writing and, say, the semantics of verb aspect.

Anyhow, I didn’t start writing seriously until I’d been out of the linguistics game for a while, but when I did, there was that mix of high and low—that functional use of register that made language structure interesting to me in the very beginning.


SR: Your characters Helena and Kitty seem to have some similar impulses to rescue, protect, and otherwise nurture difficult people, and also a similar capacity to see those difficult people’s positive qualities. Where do you think the line is between having strong empathy and making excuses for poor behavior?

ML: I guess you could say that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree with those two. As for me, I don’t know where that line is, but then I think a lot of people don’t. I don’t even know where the line is between a negative trait and a positive one. I often have misunderstandings as a result of talking about people or places in terms that sound disapproving when I don’t necessarily mean something bad—like how Kitty calls Los Angeles ‘apocalyptic’ in “The Searchlite.”

red shoes

SR: And of course the usual question: what are you working on now?

ML: Let’s just say I am working on a nonfiction project.

OLA and WonderCon

If you’re in Salem tomorrow or Anaheim Friday-Sunday, come see me!

At the Oregon Library Association conference:

Thursday, April 17th

2 – 3:30 PM Graphic Rave & Graphic Reads!  In my part of the session I’ll talk about collaborating with Carla Speed McNeil on Bad Houses & show some penciled and inked pages from the book. I’ll especially highlight Carla’s fabulous lettering — she was just nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Letterer!

4 – 5:30 PM Making vs. CraftingDespite the title this will probably not be a fight between Team Making and Team Crafting. But who knows what might happen? 

Directly after those sessions, I’ll drive at breakneck speed from Salem to the Portland Airport so I can make my flight to Anaheim!

I’ll be a special guest at WonderCon, tabling at AA155 and appearing on the following panels:

Friday, April 18
1:30 PM Spotlight on Steve Lieber and Sara Ryan 
Room 203WonderCon Anaheim special guests Steve Lieber (Superior Foes of Spider-Man) and Sara Ryan (Bad Houses) discuss creating comics, finding the core of a story, comics versus prose, collaborating while married, and more.

4 PM The New Wave Graphic Novel Room 210A: Jim Di Bartolo (In the Shadows), Steve Lieber (Whiteout), Sara Ryan (Bad Houses), and Gene Luen Yang (The Shadow Hero), all eminent graphic novelists, discuss their own works within the graphic novel form, as well as how today’s increased acceptance of the graphic novel has led to new books, new authors, and new readers. Moderated by WonderCon Anaheim special guest and author Jim Pascoe.

Saturday, April 19
11 AM: Signing at Dark Horse booth 519

Life Gets Better Together 4/13

In a mere few days, I’ll be at Syracuse University!

I’m very honored and excited to be a speaker & workshop leader at the Life Gets Better Together conference on Sunday, 4/13, and also that the first 50 people to register for the event will receive a copy of The Rules for Hearts

Although I’m a little concerned — I had to agree, when I signed the contract for the conference, that “no member of the performing group or its entourage will encourage, incite, or participate in any form of stage diving, moshing, slam dancing” — and I mean, I’m just not sure I can be responsible for the behavior of my entourage.

In my writing workshop.




Latoya Peterson at Reed College

Yesterday while I inched my way across town through drizzly rush hour traffic, I was tired, cranky, and unsure whether my plan to attend Latoya Peterson‘s Digital/Divides: When Race, Class & Pop Culture Collide talk at Reed College would be the best way to spend my evening.

It absolutely was.

Peterson, editor/owner of the invaluable, is an insightful, funny speaker who moves seamlessly between hilarious TV, music, film & Internet references and acute analysis of the ways these cultural products reflect dominant norms.

Early on, she asked the audience how many of us considered ourselves culture creators, and made the point that whatever you’re putting out there, whether it’s a book, an album, a comic, a YouTube video, or a year’s worth of Instagram selfies, you’re contributing to culture, and therefore you need to be conscious about the messages you’re sending.

A few other highlights from my notes:

When you consume any piece of culture, ask yourself: What kinds of stories are you being told? What stories are you missing?

“Culture is hegemony’s goon.” — Renina Jarmon (Peterson, in citing the piece from which that quote is taken, noted the particular pleasure to be derived from article titles that juxtapose raw lyrics with academic & feminist terms.)

During the Q&A, I asked about using genre (e.g. romance, mysteries, science fiction & fantasy, YA, urban fiction, & other types of storytelling that are sometimes dismissed & disregarded) as a way to challenge dominant cultural norms and tell the kinds of stories we’re not seeing elsewhere. Peterson’s excellent response: “The greatest thing about genre is that you can break all the rules; the worst thing about genre is how infrequently that happens.” Indeed.

Speaking of cultural products, genre and otherwise, now on my list because Peterson mentioned them: Noah’s Arc, the first season of Gimme Sugar (link is to a 2008 article she wrote about the show for Racialicious, which, bonus, quotes Malinda Lo!), and Jennifer Silva’s book Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood In An Age of Uncertainty, & (edited to add!) Jessica Luther’s feminist romance project Steel & Velvet.

Peterson also mentioned, offhandedly, that she’d probably write her own book eventually. I hope it’s soon! In the meantime, if you have a chance to see her speak, go.




Emerald City Comicon: yes I will be there



Emerald City Comicon-goers, come see me at the Periscope Studio island, booth #1214!

I will have many copies of Bad Houses and of the special comics-enhanced reissue of Empress of the World and of the non-comics-containing but all-about-comics-anthology Chicks Dig Comics!

Also I’ll have minicomics in clever bundles, 3 complete stories for a mere five dollars, such a deal.

When I’ve sorted them to go into their bundle bags they even look like a heart.


See you there!

Recently, soon

KAPOW! If you’re anywhere near Eastern Michigan University, go see this exhibit. I’d say that even if there weren’t pages from Bad Houses in it.






Then I went from Ypsi to Indy.


I confess I imagined a cell phone into this statue’s hand.


This gallery was technically not open but the nice curator let me wander around for a while anyway.





So that’s recently. Soon is Emerald City Comicon; I’ll be in the Periscope Studio area, booth 1214. Seattleites, hope to see you there!



So yes

I called my previous post “Catching Up” and then didn’t post for a month. Ha!

We had some weather.


Less of it than many other places, but more severe than we usually get. Side effects of weather included the car’s demise and the concomitant need to acquire a different (but similar) car, which required time and agitation. I had a fervent desire not to become an extra in a dealership’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross. I managed to mostly escape hard-sell tactics though a salesman did set a fire on a car’s hood (not the one I bought) to demonstrate the magnificence of the space-age coating they had on offer (I did not buy the coating either).

But what I really wanted to tell you about was the reading I went to tonight; the inaugural edition of Camp Cataract, named in homage to a Jane Bowles short story.

It was at Floyd’s Coffee, and Donal Mosher and Sara Jaffe and Chelsey Johnson all read and Sharon Van Etten played two lovely haunting songs.



All the selections were both funny and poignant, with distinctly queer sensibilities that I really appreciated. I’m glad I was there, and I’m excited for the next installment of Camp Cataract!


Catching up

I’ve been home from my most recent travels for a little over a week. I thought I was leaving winter behind in the Midwest & East, but as I type the wind is so loud outside that if I didn’t know I was inland I’d swear I was hearing the ocean.

When I was in Philadelphia I went to the Mütter Museum and took a few photos on the sly. Tweeted this first one and will repeat myself: Appropriate subject juxtaposition on handsome old card catalog drawer.


Shadow of a skeletal torso on the fancy carpet.


Glass eye.


I also made a pilgrimage to the excellent comic shop/gallery/publisher Locust Moon. If you’re in Philadelphia go thou and do likewise. I bought a bunch of stuff:


And enjoyed the aquarium,


the locusts & moon,

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and the conversation, not pictured.

I saw some street art!

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I signed a whole bunch of copies of Bad Houses

And drew wall-eyed owls in many of them!



This is my friend & co-worker Lucien; yes that’s right, he is a Portland person but he came to Philadelphia for my signing! (N.B. that is not really why he came to Philadelphia.)


While in Philadelphia I got some swell news: in the fall I’ll be presenting along with Sara Zarr, Jo Knowles, Lauren Myracle, Matt de la Peña and Coe Booth at YALSA’s Young Adult Literature Symposium!

Finally, unrelated to any of the above: I can’t stop listening to the new Against Me! album Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Here’s the title song:

Connections #4

Full disclosure: this post is sort of cheating, in that I’m really just focusing on one artist and not making connections beyond her work. But seeing as this whole series is idiosyncratic, and also seeing that the work itself makes any number of connections, I’m not going to worry about it.

I went to the Fabric Workshop and Museum and saw the Sarah Sze installation. I didn’t know anything about Sarah Sze’s work, but after a long stretch of travel and convening, a museum seemed like the right place to go, and this one happened to be both conveniently located and open.

I put down my bulky coat to take pictures. Thought about taking a picture of my coat on the floor next to this coat, adding an element to the installation, but didn’t.


In this part of the installation, Sze used a lot of newspaper pages, replacing the photos on each with pictures of timeless, elemental substances — snow, water, ice, wood, rocks, sky, fire — sometimes with other items placed on top.




I particularly liked this one, the circular blue painter’s tape contrasting with the squares & rectangles of flame.


And this one, rocks and sky and light blue shards of…what? Not sure, but I love its placement.


She clearly seemed to be incorporating the floor into the installation as well; its colors & textures acting as a frame/background.


I can’t really convey the overall scale, but here are a few photos that give something of a sense of it:




Two elements of the installation struck me the most solely because of my connection-craving brain. I asked the guide if there was any deliberate relationship between the articles in the newspapers and the images with which Sze replaced the accompanying photos. Apparently not; but these two juxtapositions of headlines & images worked especially well for me:

“There’s Lots to Gain by Keeping It Simple”


“Playing With Risk And Constraint”


And I highly recommend this PBS video: Sze describing & showing some of her other work.

Connections #3

Yesterday I found this book on a free shelf.


I remembered liking Joan Aiken‘s writing, though it had been a long time since I’d read anything of hers. I was also desperate for reading material.

I was not disappointed. The Whispering Mountain turns out to be a prequel to the Wolves Chronicles, of which the best-known title is probably The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.  I’ve decided I need to reread them, since I seem to have missed several volumes. (Warning: the summaries given for the books on the site I linked above are spoilery. Which I suppose is only reasonable for books several decades old. But still.)

One of the many delightful words in The Whispering Mountain is dod-gasted, which I thought I remembered T.H. White’s King Pellinore using about his Questing Beast. A cursory search failed to confirm that particular connection, but did turn up an excellent article about obscenicons, aka grawlixesaka the strings of characters used in place of swears in comics.

Another word from Whispering Mountain, bach, a Welsh term of friendly endearment, connected me to another book. The term is used liberally by passionate theater director Geraint Powell, a significant character in The Lyre of Orpheus, the concluding novel in the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies. That link is to an interview with Davies which contains this quote: “I write novels that I hope will be interesting just as stories, but they also have implications and byways which I think would interest people who have more information.” Which perhaps is why I’m so fond of his books; not that I necessarily always have the “more information” he refers to, but that I am the kind of person who likes to ferret it out.

But any book set in Wales, which Whispering Mountain is, will connect me most strongly with a series that I, like many other readers, imprinted on at an early age: Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence. Not all the books in the sequence take place in Wales, but Wales is an important setting, and Cooper herself has strong ties to Wales.

Last connection: there’s a quote from The Dark Is Rising that keeps running through my head:

For all times coexist, and the future can sometimes affect the past, though the past is a road that leads to the future.

In Cooper’s context, times coexisting has to do with the work of the Old Ones and the struggle between the Light and the Dark. In mine, it evokes the fractured world that people with memory loss experience. Visiting, and hopefully comforting, someone with memory loss is the reason I am where I currently am; where I discovered that copy of The Whispering Mountain.