Published March 19, 2021

As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, Anna Beecher (Here Comes the Miracle) and Emily Temple (The Lightness), MFA graduates of UVA’s Creative Writing Program, read from and discussed their first novels, in conversation with Jeb Livingood.

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Watch the video of this event here and read the transcript below:

Thanks to our bookseller for this event, UVA Bookstore.

“Anna Beecher has produced an evocation of loss and mourning that is nevertheless suffused with a sense of wonder—about the world and its objects, about different kinds of love, about the way our lives form round absences. In this quietly devastating novel, she attends, with tenderness and precision, to the details of both life and death. Here Comes the Miracle is a work of depth, sorrow, and great beauty. — Molly McCloskey, author of When Light is Like Water

“It’s a teen thriller in the vein of the ‘90s horror movie The Craft… But it’s also a beautiful meditation on meditation, with readings of sacred texts and light Buddhist history, populated with girls who refuse to act the way they’re expected to; who have too much passion, too many feelings and nowhere to put them; who are on the cusp of adulthood… [The Lightness]—frequently hilarious, and thoughtful throughout—also transcends expectations at its end.” —The New York Times Book Review

TRANSCRIPT

JEB LIVINGOOD: Well, hello everyone. My name is Jeb Livingood, and I’d like to welcome you to our annual UVA Creative Writing Alumni Reading, a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, a program of the Virginia Humanities.

I’m associate director of the UVA Creative Writing Program, and I want to thank you for joining us. I especially enjoy seeing some alums and faculty and others coming in in the audience.

If you haven’t read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller, for this event, UVA Bookstore, please visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.

We’ll have an opportunity for a brief question-and-answer session at the end of this webinar. You can send in your questions at any time, and I’ll read them to our two authors after they’ve finished reading. This event is always the highlight of a busy spring for me. We’ve just made our initial offers for our MFA program’s entering class for fall of 2021, and I think applicants sometimes think that they’ve made it when they enroll in an MFA program, which is of course not true. There are no secret shortcuts here, no fast tracks to an agent. What there is is time. Some time to write and time to work with faculty mentors and peers. And if, as a community, we’re very good at what we try to do and very lucky, we can help our MFA students shave off a few years toward that first publication. They would figure out most of the things our graduate faculty teach them on their own, given enough time and reading and practice, and I think they would come to see the strengths and weaknesses of their manuscripts if they could just put them in a drawer for a year or two and come back to them with fresh eyes. But an MFA program can help compress all this time. It can give a little funding and support along the way, some teaching opportunities. And if we’re doing our job, we can shave off some of that time toward a first book.

What we can’t do, of course, is the work itself. That’s up to the student—the writer—who has to put in those lonely hours revising, questioning, and revising again. It’s just drudgery. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and these two have done it, and are, I suspect, working on the next project.

Behind me is our creative writing lounge, and there’s a fridge out there. And if this was a normal spring, I would have sushi and cucumber sandwiches in there ready for a small reception after this event. But the fridge is a little bare this year. The silver lining is that we can at least make this reading available to people like you, far beyond UVA, in a way that we can’t with our typical in-person events.

Things are going to be different after this pandemic. We’re all going to think differently, and maybe our program events like this one are going to be different too. Simulcasts, I don’t know. My stomach just sunk a little bit at the thought of hosting our readings as both an in-person and online simultaneously, but that may be the new normal. I don’t know what that normal is going to be. I just know it’s going to be different. But I think our core mission as a program remains unchanged: time, a little support, mentoring, and advice. At least that’s my hope.

So, with that, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers: 

Anna Beecher will read first. She’s the author of Here Comes the Miracle, and she’s a 2020 graduate of UVA’s MFA in fiction. She’s also a theatre maker, and recently presented shows with Lincoln Center, New York, and The Barbican, London. In 2018, she won the Henfield Prize for Fiction.

Emily Temple, author of The Lightness, earned a BA from Middlebury College and an MFA in fiction from UVA, where she was a Henry Hoyns fellow and the recipient of a Henfield Prize. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is the managing editor at Literary Hub.

So, with that, I am going to turn things over to Anna.

ANNA BEECHER: Thanks very much, Jeb. I will just say a little bit about my book before I read from it. So Here Comes the Miracle is the story of Joe and Emily, a brother and sister, who are in their twenties. And Joe is a sort of brilliant violinist, and his sister Emily is a little bit younger than him, but she’s always been fiercely protective of him because he’s quite shy.

The book moves through the final year of Joe’s life after he receives a cancer diagnosis at the age of twenty-five. And it’s also the story of their grandparents, Eleanor and Edward. Edward’s carried a secret from early in his life through into old age. And the book is really about what does it mean to share your life with another person. It’s about waiting for a miracle and how life can be random in a kind of violent way, but there’s beauty in that randomness as well.

Okay, so I’m going to read from sort of later in the book. And at this stage, Joe has been having treatment for his cancer for about nine months.

A letter arrived at our parents’ house. I was standing in the supermarket when my phone rang. The only thing in my basket was a bag of red apples. I slid the basket’s handles into the crease of my elbow as I took my phone from my pocket.

“Hi, Emily,” Dad said.

I said, “Hi, Dad.” I crossed the aisle to bags of spinach. I still expected an ordinary thing.

He said, “A letter arrived for Joe.”

I put the basket down and picked up a bag. The edges of the leaves inside were turning yellow. I put the bag down and inspected another.

“I thought I should call you because they said—” Dad paused. He must have the letter in his hand. I put the spinach down. Crinkle sound of plastic on plastic. “He can still have treatment, but from now on the emphasis is palliative.”

I stood there very still. A child ran around the corner, a little Orthodox boy with ringlets resting on the side of his face.

“Right,” I said.

“I knew you’d want to know,” Dad said.

“Yeah, thank you,” I said. I looked down at the apples. “How’s Joe?”

“He’s upset,” Dad said.

Upset. All the things a phrase can cover, like I’m fine. All the times that that isn’t enough but also isn’t a lie. I am fine. I am living. When my shower runs cold, I can see all the veins in my chest afterwards, shining through me, fanned out like a tree. My body is working; I’m fine.

“Are you okay, Dad?” I said.

“I am all right,” he said. “Are you?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “Is Joe there?”

“He went out.”

“Is he okay?”

“I think he’s okay,” Dad said. Okay as in not unsafe. Not unsafe as in not about to harm himself. “I’m sure he’d like to see you,” Dad said.

“Okay, I’ll call him,” I said.

Then Dad said, “I love you,” and I said, “I love you.”

My mobile phone was warm. It had recently begun to overheat and turn itself off, and I sometimes put it in the fridge—white rectangle on a white plate—to try and cool it down. Now I pressed it between my palms and willed it to keep working. There was a dent in the casing, silver shining through the white, where I’d dropped it on the kitchen tiles. I had been told so many seismic things through this small device.

Several months from this moment, the phone would be stolen. A man pretending to be drunk would stand too close to me on the bus and slip it from its pocket, and a replacement would arrive in a box with a peel-off sheet of clear plastic to protect its face.

I put the apples away and discarded my basket by the door. Outside, I called you. You were on the train when you answered. I asked where you were going.

“I don’t know,” you said. “I just needed to get out.” Just a small flutter of panic through your voice. I told you to meet me, and you said okay. You said it again after each of my instructions.

“Change at Clapham Junction.”

“Okay.”

“Go to platform ten.” I said you’d know when you were on the right train if it smelled of burnt toast. “It’s a mystery,” I said. “All the Waterloo trains smell like toast.”

Then I got on the 243 and moved toward you. I was on a backward-facing seat, which made me feel sick. It was hot, though the world outside was cold, but it seemed too crowded to try and get my coat off. Opposite me, a woman sat with a little girl, who was holding a sheet of paper with pasta bows and glitter glued onto it.

“Later, we can show Mommy,” the woman said. Her accent sounded Polish perhaps. “Mommy will like that,” she said. How kind of her—or how professional—to keep conjuring up this person who was not there. She placed a tissue over her hand, and the child placed her nose in it and blew.

I pictured this woman later, how she would leave the girl and return to her flat to Skype her own mum, would slip into her own language and say, “Work was fine. The child was fine. Sweet, really.” She wouldn’t talk about the man she had been dating, kind and skinny, who made her laugh and smelled like yeast when he made love to her. How she had called it off a few weeks ago but had gone round to his flat last night and accepted a joint, which had flooded her body and immobilized her. There was nothing for it but to lie down, giggling on his bed. She’d let him hold her. They’d kept their clothes on, and he’d only kissed her a few times on the scalp because now they were just friends.

“Don’t love me,” she had told him.

And he’d said, “Baby, I’ll try.”

Imagining her life made me feel clean. The bus kept halting. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. I began to sob. I could hold in the sound but nothing else. Tears fell down my face. My face felt very hot. I pushed my lips together, felt them turning white. When I opened them slightly, breath broke through with a phhhth sound. I breathed rapidly into my palm. My nose streamed. My eyes streamed. I couldn’t stop. And the woman, the nanny, leaned toward me. She gave me one of the child’s tissues, her eyes widened.

“It’s alright,” she said. “It’s alright. It’s alright.” She said it over and over again.

Weight of my tongue. The deep root of it where the mouth becomes the throat. I couldn’t speak to her, but I could hear her through the wall of myself. She had perfume on. I nodded. I felt drugged. I gulped in some air but couldn’t say thank you as I got off the bus.

On the street, I balled my fists inside my sleeves and dragged them over my face. I let the autumn air cool my skin. I could not let you see me so afraid. I breathed slowly, deliberately. Then I ran my index knuckles gently below my eyes. Already dry.

I crossed the road and found you downstairs at the station, waiting as we had agreed outside McDonald’s. We went into a Lebanese restaurant. It was too cold to be outside. It had a metal floor and high booths nested into the scaffolding, which you had to climb up ladders to get to. We climbed up and sat on the bench on the same side, your coat between us. You said there was still a possibility, and I said I believed in it.

Then a waitress popped up her head, clear skin and a green streak through her hair. She beamed and said, “How are you?”

And we both said, “Fine, thanks.” We laughed and laughed when she disappeared down the ladder, as if “How are you?” was the best joke we had ever heard.

The food arrived. You ate almost nothing, delicately chewing a strip of white cheese. We kept laughing.

I used to cringe when friends said, “Love you, bye,” on the phone to their parents or boyfriends. It seemed like a tic, always the same tone and rhythm to it. “Love you, bye.” Once, Harriet accidentally included it in a voicemail to her hairdresser. It tumbled from her mouth as she went to hang up. I asked why her family did it, and she shrugged. “In case something happened.”

Our family had never gone in for that kind of prophylactic hurling of I love you each other. But in the last eleven months of your life, we learned to say it often, to state the fact of it. “I love you, Joe.”

“I know, Emily. I love you too.”

One evening, when you were still at home but much closer to death than I realized, you looked up and said, “I’m never going to have a relationship.” Pain in your body, your voice tight. You sat at the kitchen table with your hands resting on it, loosely clasped. Circular burns in the wood. Some side effect had made your legs itchy. You scratched them. I sat across from you, cutting cucumbers and mixing them into yogurt.

I said, “Joe, you don’t know that.”

Dad stood at the stove, making curry. You would usually be helping, cutting onions or laying the table, putting water into a jug and placing glasses by our plates. But you wouldn’t be eating much; and besides, there was no strength in your hands.

“It’s a central part of life,” you said, agitated.

It was only last Christmas that you had waited until the small hours of the morning to sit opposite me and say that you liked someone. Your voice quiet, your eyes flicking away from me to the window. You were sad, but there was a glimmer of a joke in it, the thrill of sharing a secret.

When your cancer was discovered, you said, “Well, it’s a bad chat-up line.” Your palms open, ironic, exasperated. But you also asked the doctor whether people’s partners left at times like this, and you relayed his response. “It depends.”

I picture his shrug. A little question about you, traveling through his brain before his eyes returned to your notes. Once, in a waiting room with Mom, you picked up a green and white leaflet about sex after colostomy, and rage spread through your body as you read. “Fuck,” you said loudly. “They think I’m sixty and have a wife.”

Then you asked if she had a pen and wrote “Heteronormative bullshit” on the front and slid it back into the rack.

I tore a bunch of mint leaves and tore them into the yogurt. The smell of curry filled the room, and oil rose from the pan and stuck to the walls.

You said, “I thought I had all this time.”

I got up and turned on the extractor fan behind the microwave. Dad grated a lump of turmeric into the rice, staining the metal and his fingers orange.

He said, “Our culture centralizes romantic love. It’s very reductive.”

Your skin was jaundice yellow, your eyeballs yellow like a reptile’s. You said, “Yeah.”

Later that night, I turned off the television and sat beside you on the sofa. “I just,” you said, hesitating, “I just liked the idea of being part of an old couple, you know?”

Our grandparents flashed into my mind, sitting together on the beach in Scarborough. Her in her black swimming costume, a raised purple vein snaking toward her knee. My childish desire to touch that vein, to lay a sheet of paper over her leg and rub it with a crayon until its shape shone through, as she had once shown me how to do with a sheet of etched brass. Him with white hairs on his chest. The two of them bickering as he unwrapped the greasy paper, and she pursed her lips and blew to cool our chips.

I said, “Joe, you know that we all love you, don’t you,” answering a question that you had not asked.

“Yeah,” you said. “I know.”

But you wanted another sort of love, the type where another person chooses you, and you choose them. You wanted someone to notice you and a little tug to develop inside them, urging them toward you. A mirror tug in you. You had seen it: people luminous around each other. That hungry way of listening, one person’s knee slipping between the other person’s knees, braced there. You wanted to be beautiful to someone. You wanted your skin touched not by investigative fingers in surgical gloves. “Does this hurt? What about this?” Hands that chose you, that followed the lines of your body and cared for it as it failed. A healthy hand in your jaundiced hand. Someone to sit in the ward with you, making jokes with dread looming in their stomach. Someone who kissed you on the mouth when the nurse wasn’t looking.

I had chosen you the least of everyone in your life. I think of you before you were born, a little unplanned baby nested inside our mother’s body as she traveled around Mexico. Her choice to keep you there, a cluster of cells elongating into a tiny cashew nut, the shape becoming human. Your presence making her vomit on dusty buses, making her crave just the whites of hardboiled eggs. Dad beside her, eating the yolks from her plate. Their choice before that to marry each other, to be the beginning of a new family.

Later, she said to him, “Let’s have another one,” and they did, and it was me. The words around your birth are accident and miracle. And this is my word: another. I never chose you. You were a fact of the world as I found it. You had some glimmers. You met a man on the train once, older. You told me about him. You were on your way back to visit our hometown. You kissed in the empty carriage, hills and farms around you, covered by night. You were going to go home with him, but he said, “God, you’re so young. You’re so young.” You were discovering that you were attractive, tentatively deploying that small power in the world.

There is a photograph of you from the year before you died. Your graduation concert, your violin shining, your face open, confident. Something is clicking into place for you. You are handsome in your white shirt, ready to begin.

Thank you.

JEB LIVINGOOD: Emily, I’ll let you come online now. There you go.

EMILY TEMPLE: Thanks, Anna. That was so wonderful. So, The Lightness is about a girl who is searching for her father, and she winds up at this sort of pan-spiritual meditation center in the mountains, where she falls in with a group of mysterious girls and wants to befriend them. And the part that I’m going to read from is right when she is sort of invited to join them on their like mysterious midnight activities for the first time. So, she gets dragged out of bed and up the mountain and to the tent of the leader of these girls. I think that’s everything you need to know.

Oh, the other thing you need to know is the narrator, Olivia, has been assigned rota, which is shared daily tasks in the garden, with this hot and sexy gardener that they all are obsessed with. Okay, so here we go.

When I think about Serena’s tent, I remember it as bigger than the others, though I know that memory is false or perhaps implanted. In reality, it must have been a utilitarian one-person triangle like all the rest of the tents on the mountain. Inside, there would’ve been a thin mattress on top of the narrow wooden pallet, a small clapboard bookcase, and a single flashlight that expanded into a weak yellow lamp, all of it tinged green by the nylon sheeting, all of it smelling of bug spray.

The expansiveness I remember must’ve been Serena herself, or the fact that, as I was about to discover, she had brought pillows and blankets and candles and a gold Moroccan ottoman and sheep skins and silks to throw over everything, like layers of luscious fat draped over cold gray bones.

Janet whistled as we approached, and when we heard an answering cough, Laurel unzipped the tent from the outside. I stepped in after them to find Serena sitting cross-legged at the head of her cot in a red silk kimono, a large book open in her lap, and a box of ladyfingers almost as large on the pillow by her side.

“Oh good,” she said without looking up, “you are here. Listen to this description of Maya, will you? ‘Her hair is soft, clean, and sweetly scented, black like the excellent bee and arranged in braids.’” She raised her head. “Black like the excellent bee.” Her mouth looked like it opened on fishhooks; she had a joker smile. Her teeth were a little disorganized, I noticed. This did not detract from her overall appeal.

Janet settled cross-legged on the ottoman in the corner. “What’s that now?” she asked.

“Lalitavistara Sutra,” Serena said. “Her eyes are like lotus petals, her teeth are like stars in the sky, her thighs and calves are like the trunk of an elephant, and her knees have a shapely form. Surely she can only be a divine maiden.”

“Shapely knees indicate divinity,” said Janet. “Noted.”

“It does make sense,” said Serena.

“I have ugly knees,” said Laurel mournfully. She lay down at the foot of Serena’s bed and stretched both legs into the air. Her knees looked normal to me, but I didn’t say anything.

“Well, no one is making any particular claims about your divinity,” Janet said. “Besides, you’re no maiden.”

Laurel sat up and threw a pillow at her. Janet ducked, and it hit the side of the tent, sending a shiver through it. “May I have one of those?”

“She sounds rather ghoulish is all I’m saying,” Serena said, passing her the box of ladyfingers. “Eyes like lotus petals? Teeth like stars? Elephant-trunk calves?”

“There’s really no logic in what people find attractive,” Janet said. She held up one of the spongy biscuits.

“There is too logic,” Laurel said. “It’s actually extremely simple, just maybe not in fourth-century Tibet or whatever.”

“Third century,” Serena said. “And probably India, though I think the Lalitavistara is actually a compilation of several sources, so it’s hard to say.”

“Why is she still standing?” Laurel said.

They all looked up at me. I hadn’t realized that I was. I sat instantly on the cold floor of the tent. Serena closed the book, slipping a leaf between the pages to mark her place. Her kimono shimmered with her every movement. I became uncomfortably aware of my pajama pants. My pajama pants had popsicles on them, and the popsicles had faces. I think the faces had their tongue sticking out, but I may just be self-flagellating now.

“Olivia,” Serena said. “Thanks for coming.” She motioned for Janet to pass me the ladyfingers. “Have you three met?”

I nodded slowly, taking a cookie. There had been introductions among the Garudas, but I knew that wasn’t really what Serena meant.

“She’s friends with Harriet,” Laurel said, prodding one knee with a finger.

“Well, that can be corrected,” Serena said. She slid over to replace her book on the shelf, her movements so fluid it seemed the world itself shifted to accommodate each of her intentions. 

“Laurel,” she said, “let Olivia sit on the bed.”

Laurel looked appalled.

“She’s our guest. Guests should be given the best seat.”

When Laurel didn’t move, Serena frowned at her. “You can have it back next time,” she said. “If you’re here, I mean.”

Laurel glared at me and pushed herself onto the floor. I hesitated, but Serena gestured impatiently, so I took Laurel’s place at the foot of the bed. It was still a little warm, and I had to keep myself from kicking Laurel in the back of the head for good measure. You might as well learn this now. Even the tiniest bit of power turns me instantly immoral.

“For what it’s worth, I like Harriet,” Janet said.

“You would,” Laurel said.

“I just said I did,” Janet said. “Are you quite slow?”

“So,” Serena said, turning to me. “How’s Luke treating you?”

The full force of her attention in that enclosed space was almost shocking. I thought of Maya, whoever she was, those lotus petal eyes enormous, white, and searching.

“Fine,” I said. “He doesn’t say much. Just sort of hands me things and wanders away.”

“That sounds like him,” she said. “But would you say he likes you?”

I didn’t understand where this line of questioning was leading. “He gave me a flower,” I blurted.

“Did he?” Serena said. She and Laurel exchanged a swift glance.

“I still don’t understand why they gave the garden rota to a new girl,” Laurel said.

“Well, they’re not stupid,” Janet said.

“They are, though.” I could feel Serena watching me. I looked down at the popsicles. They had turned evil and leering in the half-light of the tent.

“My dear Olivia,” she said at last, “I was hoping you’d join us tonight for the Feeling.”

“For what?” I said.

“The Feeling,” she said, as if that clarified anything at all.

We followed her out of the tent and away from the clearing, along an almost imperceptible path that eventually sloped upward to a small platform made of rock, flat and open like a palm. An overhang loomed on one side, creating a sort of shallow cave, but the rest was wholly exposed, like a bald spot the mountain was failing to conceal.

Serena unfolded her flashlight into a lantern. Janet spread a blanket on the rock, and Laurel dropped a large bag onto it. I felt a little dizzy again. I had no idea how high up we were. I took a few exploratory steps toward the dark perimeter, but Serena caught my arm.

“Stay away from the edge,” she said. “Trust me. You wouldn’t want to fall from here.”

I stopped and searched the striated darkness, but it was impossible to see the place where rock became air. The edge could’ve been anywhere. She pulled me toward what I hoped was the center of the platform, and we sat. Janet called it sounds that feel good. Laurel called it a brain-gasm.

“We are what we think,” Serena said, and the other girls closed their eyes. I pretended to close mine too, but really, I watched as Janet drummed her finger softly along the edge of a wooden box. Laurel rubbed a small piece of fabric between her fingers. Serena dragged her thumbnail along an old wooden comb, creating a neutral xylophonic clicking. I sat. I listened. For a while, I felt nothing.

But when I closed my eyes at last and focused hard on the sound coming from Serena’s comb, something started climbing up my back.

How can I explain this? It will never make sense to you unless you’ve felt it. But here it was as though there were strings connecting my ears to my tailbone in a giant V, strings that had always been there but that I had never noticed before. And then the strings lit up, ting, ting, ting, and grew denser and then brighter and them sour somehow, and then something was knitting itself between the strings like a web. Snick, snick. Something feathery, sneaky, warm. It wasn’t sexual, nor was it wholly unsexual. It felt like the shiver you get when someone massages your scalp with too light a touch, and you’re both enjoying it and desperately reaching out with your very skin and hair for more, except distended and stretched, filling your head with the feeling of an itch being scratched or almost scratched—an itch you didn’t even know you had there on the hot-red underside of your scalp.

Years later, I found out that the feeling is a documented phenomenon and was not, as I had thought, magic specific to us—look how quick I am to say us, foolish thing—alone. The official term for it is ASMR: autonomous sensory meridian response. And the little alternative versions of us that practice it these days get their feelings via YouTube clips, watching some whispy woman with a soft voice apply make-up to her face or click her long fingernails together, or name everything in the room in a frantic whisper.

In one video, a slim-nosed blonde with a German accent fits a wig onto her camera so she can give the viewer a haircut. She combs the limp bangs that hang across the lens. She snips at them with a pair of sewing scissors. “Can you feel it?” she asks. “Can you feel what I’m doing right now? It may seem like you can’t, but just see if you can. There. There. You feel it, don’t you? Yes, yes, yes. Doesn’t that feel good?”

I watch it and think we’re all so desperately lonely.

Serena told me once that giving herself the Feeling was the only way she could have dreams. “Without the Feeling, it’s only blackness,” she said. “Not just nothingness. Not just going to sleep and waking up. It’s like I’m dreaming the blackness.”

“What’s the blackness like?” I asked, but she wouldn’t answer.

After it was over, Serena reached into the pocket of her kimono and pulled out a silver box. From this, she extracted a slim cigarette, placed it between her lips, and lit it with a little silver lighter. She didn’t offer one to me or anyone else.

“Those things will kill you, you know,” Janet said.

“Don’t be boring, Janet,” Serena said, leaning back on her elbows and exhaling with exaggerated relish. “Anyway, what was it that Shantideva said? Life is a party thrown by an executioner.”

She looked at me. “So, did you get it?” she asked.

“I think so,” I said.

“If you don’t know,” Laurel said, “you didn’t.”

She glowered prettily, and I remembered a cartoon I’d seen as a child: a singing goldfish, plump and shiny, made sexy with long eyelashes and purple eye shadow and a coquettish pout, its gossamer tail flicking suggestively around the screen. That was the earliest shadow of a sexual impulse I can remember. From a place near the base of my spine, I wanted all of this: to possess it, to become it, and to squeeze it unmercifully in my hands until it died.

“I got it,” I said.

“Good,” Serena said. “Because the Feeling is only the first step.”

“Oh,” Laurel said. “Don’t.”

“The first step to what?” I asked. I wanted to kick her again.

“We’ve been discussing it,” Serena said. She exhaled another stream of smoke at the sky. “And we’re going to learn to levitate this summer.” Her voice was flat, matter of fact, as if she were telling me that they were going to the beach this summer or planning to perfect their bocce game or had finally mastered the French subjective. “Since we’re here,” she said, “at the Levitation Center.” She spread her arms. She had the glint of a zealot.

“Since we’re always here,” said Janet.

“It’s what this place is for, after all,” said Serena.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors,” said Laurel.

Yes, I had heard the rumors, but which rumors did she mean? The small scratches, the movie star, the mental hospitals, the geological phenomenon? “I thought only certain people could do it,” I said. “The chosen ones or whatever.”

“We’re going to choose ourselves,” said Serena.

“Since no one else ever would,” said Janet, tugging at a little plant that had risen between the rocks.

“Speak for yourself, darling,” said Laurel.

“It’s dangerous,” said Serena. “It will be difficult. Do you want to?”

Did I feel a sense of foreboding in this moment? Did I have any idea, any inkling, of what might happen to us? Did I think what she was offering me was truly dangerous or even remotely possible? Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. I wasn’t even thinking about levitation. I wasn’t even thinking about my father, although later I would. Later, I would tell myself that levitation was the key to truly knowing him at last, the key to his love, to everything I thought I wanted.

But at that moment, I was thinking of nothing expect the girl in front of me with the dark hair and the dark smile and the dark eyes sunk deep into her head and her two dark friends who were waiting for me to answer.

“I want to,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “We’re going to get everything we want this summer.” She looked into my eyes. “I promise.”

And why not? Even before I understood what Serena was really after, the appeal of levitation was obvious to me. Every girl wants more from the world. Every girl wants magic, to transcend the mundanity of her life. Every girl wants power, and Serena more than most. I had felt that about her immediately. Of course, levitation as a power has a relatively limited phenomenal scope, but it is more than merely lifting into the air. It is a symbol of freedom. All little children dream of flight. It is a symbol of control. Ditto. As in so many cases, the blurring of the sign and the signified simply cannot be helped.

For instance, the first thing TV witches learn to do is levitate objects. Pencils, mainly. This often serves as the first indication that they are irreversibly unlike other girls. Girls love to be unlike other girls because of the lies we are told about what other girls are like. Powerful mystical items are frequently found floating over their pedestals. When someone becomes infused with a sudden energy, whether internal or external, mystical or common—rage, love, nuclear radiation—they are likely to be raised up into the air with the force of it. Storm, etcetera. I’ve got to crow, spread beneath my willow tree, the films of Tarkovsky, and so on. This is only in the kind of stories where the rules of physics are malleable, of course, though one could argue that the rules of physics are always malleable, just like anything else, if you press hard enough, if you use the right instrument.

JEB LIVINGOOD: Thanks, Emily. And thanks, Anna. So, the audience members are welcome to send in questions, if you want, using the Q&A button at the bottom of the screen. I have one for you. I think Emily was talking about the platform flat and empty like a poem. It was reminding me of building a porch on the back of my house. And I had a friend who helped me through it. He did a lot of construction. And at one point, we were putting up the ridge board for the roof. He cut a little notch in the end of it. And I tried to ask him what that was for, and he tried to explain it to me, and I just didn’t get it. And it wasn’t until three days later when two rafters came together and fit perfectly over that notch that I was like of like, “Oh.”

So, I’m just wondering. You guys have both done your first book here and come out the other side of it. I’m just wondering what pieces of advice you might give. What are the things you wish you had known or that you’re going to see coming next time that you didn’t see coming this time? Just either in your own technique or the process. I’ll let you answer it in whatever way makes the most sense to you.

EMILY TEMPLE: I don’t know. I actually think that—I understand why it’s so hard to write a second book. Because I think if I had known, when I was writing this book, how little of it would still exist from the first draft to the last draft, I would’ve lost the will to continue. Because it just changes. The number of times that I thought I’m done, this is it, and then that was not it, and I was not done—countless. Fourteen, maybe, drafts. Even before I got to edits with an editor. And so, I almost want to say hang on to thinking that every draft is the last draft. Because there are so many—you know, I keep a graveyard file with everything that I’ve cut, and it is three times the length of this book. Just so much is gone and rewritten. And actually, one of the reasons I read that section was because it’s pretty intact from when I first forced it on Jane. And I just like it. So, it’s like a special little treat that I’m like, oh, it survived.

So just don’t learn what I’ve just said. Never learn that and keep going as if that’s going to be the final draft.

ANNA BEECHER: I can really relate to that so much. You saying that especially makes me think about this whole year of my life where I was primarily writing about this one character who now exists in the book as a sentence. She’s a sister to someone else and wasn’t needed. But it took me a long time to work that out.

And I think, for me, the sort of whittling away process of finding what is the real book and what is the sort of exercises that I am going through in order to discover that—and all of the cutting that that entails—some of it was about avoidance for me because my book is somewhat autobiographical and about something that was painful in my own life. I wrote a lot of side characters and other storylines and things so that I had a lot of distraction from that central bit. And finishing the book and then really editing it and bringing it to a place where it could become this object was so much about actually sitting down with the core of it, with what the book always wanted to be, and allowing it to be that. And finding ways to look after myself along the way. I don’t believe in writing should be traumatic or re-traumatizing or horrible and painful, but it is certainly a challenge to go and spend that much time with yourself, I think.

EMILY TEMPLE: Yeah. I would just say—I don’t know if you felt this way—but I think the best advice for writing a first novel, especially when you’re used to writing stories, is just get to the end one time. Just get a beginning, a middle, and an end one time. And even if it’s a mess, and even if it’s filled with stuff that’s not going to be in there, just having that framework, at least for me, made it easier to go in there and then say but what’s actually the spine. Like what belongs and what doesn’t. Because when you just have an open-ended mess or when you’re working on the same first three chapters for years and years, and then you have to cut them eventually, that’s bad.

ANNA BEECHER: Yeah, yeah. Seconded.

JEB LIVINGOOD: How about a similar question for MFA programs? Now that you guys have been out of the MFA program for a while, is there stuff for people that are going into MFA programs? Things you wish you had known before you went in? I don’t know exactly what question I’m asking, but I guess something you figured out about an MFA program after you had gone through it that would’ve been nice to know before you went in.

ANNA BEECHER: When I came into the MFA program, I thought that I knew what it was. But I didn’t at all. I think because I’m from a different place, and we don’t have quite the same institutions around creative writing in the same way in the UK, where I’m from. And so, I discovered the existence of these MFA programs and thought—it was just dazzling to me that you could have that kind of support and that time and the funding. And I applied also thinking this isn’t going to happen as well. So, it was very speculative and unresearched, and then I just suddenly was moving to Charlottesville. First, I had to like look on Google Maps and be like where exactly even is that again. Because my picture of that was very shaky.

In a way, though, I think that benefited me because I didn’t have a lot of expectations going in about it will be exactly like this and then discovered it was something else. I was just like, “What even is this? Okay, here we go.” Which just may have made me more open or sort of chill about the shape that it took. That is not advice. You cannot recreate that ignorance if you don’t have it. But that was just such a big part of my experience.

I think what I worked out was the thing that my MFA gave me more than anything was self-awareness about my writing. And I realized that, before the MFA, I didn’t have a very strong conception of what I was doing. I just did it. And there was a limit that I came to around that because I could see that something didn’t work or whatever, or I couldn’t work out what the next bit to write was, and I had no map or tools for getting in and understanding why or where to go.

Sorry, Jeb. That’s not an answer to your question at all, but it is what came into my head.

JEB LIVINGOOD: I think it is.

EMILY TEMPLE: Yeah, I mean, I always say that—again, this is also not an answer to your question. But I always say the thing that MFA really gave me more than anything—obviously, yes, like funded time is indispensable. But the thing that it really gave me was it gave me permission to take myself just a little bit seriously. You’re surrounded by people for three years who are just saying, at least to your face, they’re taking you seriously as a writer and treating you like what you’re doing has value and other people might be interested in it. And as someone who had been working for years in New York in sort of digital media, which I still do, and writing these little stories to myself in the mornings before work, just having a whole group of people say, “Oh yeah, you’re a writer,” just really encouraged me to think about my schedule, to be disciplined, to approach it. And not to take myself seriously as in I am the greatest now, but to give myself permission to really invest in it and to think of myself as a writer in a way that I had never really had because I thought you could only be a writer if you were, you know, Nabokov.

So, yeah, I think more than anything else—also, here’s the advice. Don’t waste your time. It seems like you have so much, but then you have to go back to work after.

JEB LIVINGOOD: Yeah, that precious first year in our program at least, I think it just zooms by people.

EMILY TEMPLE: Yeah, that first year. And then it’s like all of a sudden you have to be writing your thesis.

ANNA BEECHER: One other thing I would say, if anyone’s coming into the program, is the chance to teach is such a gift. It’s just such an amazing thing. If you’re really lucky and you’re like me, it’s a gift because you really like it, and it works for you and kind of clicks with who you are. Or you discover it’s not quite what you want to continue to try and do, but you’ve had that experience. You have been the person who gets asked the question by a student, hears an answer coming out, and thinks I should do that. You get to crystallize what your knowledge is. And I do think it’s this thing that you can think of as peripheral to the MFA experience or you can think of as really integral to it. It was one of the ways in which I processed everything I was learning—by passing it on to undergrads.

EMILY TEMPLE: I also really enjoyed it. And getting my students’ emails—like as time goes on. You’ll see. They remember you, and they will sort of pop up in your email to tell you about their little successes, and it’s very rewarding.

JEB LIVINGOOD: I need a recommendation letter, and could you have it by tomorrow?

ANNA BEECHER: That too.

EMILY TEMPLE: Don’t drag me, Jeb.

JEB LIVINGOOD: I wasn’t talking about you. I think we’re going to wrap up. You guys are both writers, and you have the books to prove it. And I just want to thank you for coming and joining us on a spring afternoon, and I wish you guys both well, and keep in touch. And we’ll try and get you to grounds in some way at some point. I was just looking. The dumpling truck is out there. Not to play on the heart strings. But anyway, it was making me think of MFAs and others around. I see some comments coming in just wishing congratulations to both of you guys and how proud everybody is for your wonderful books.

So, I think it is time to wrap up, and I just again want to thank Anna and Emily and everybody who’s watching. Please consider buying Here Comes the Miracle and The Lightness from your local independent bookseller or through the links on VaBook.org. You can also check out the other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. And with that, I think we’ll sign off. So, thank you everyone for coming. And Anna and Emily, especially thank you.

ANNA BEECHER: Thank you.

EMILY TEMPLE: Thank you, guys. Thanks, Jeb. 

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