It is difficult to write about working with Micheline Aharonian Marcom as an Editor and Publisher without giving some sort of preamble about my long-running admiration for her work and the unique pleasure I get from seeing her book in the Awst Press catalogue, and by what series of innocuous events that came to pass.
In January of 2011, after talking about publishing and literary magazines in the Vermont College library, Taylor Davis-Van Atta suggested I read Mirror in the Well. It changed my reading and writing life forever. This is not hyperbole. Since that first reading I have hemorrhaged copies from my personal library, lending the book to friends who also immediately love Marcom’s other-worldly prose and her unique way of seeing a world they’ve been in all along but somehow had not noticed. Perhaps what I find most striking about that book is that it doesn’t seem like a book at all, it is a real experience gifted to the reader that incidentally exists on paper.
That first introduction to her novel, and Davis-Van Atta’s request that I write about it, forced me to engage with the text in a more thoughtful and challenging way. I remember his comments on an early draft of my essay. You’re close, he said in a few places, go deeper. I was myself flinching when I came too close to the heat that Marcom so boldly handles. His open comments taught me something about her work, and about the light but skilled hand of an editor.
Reading Marcom has always felt to me like a journey into the subconscious. She presents the reader with new ways of being more. It is difficult to say more what. More human, more self, more aware—to say more “authentic” would be a disservice, as the reader gains something much more than veracity. What I love most about Marcom’s work is her unwavering gaze as she delves into the dark corners of the human experience. Her work is unapologetically bald.
So I was elated when, at AWP in Seattle in 2013, I had the privilege of meeting Marcom in person. I was the Managing Editor at The Austin Review at the time and she generously agreed to let us excerpt a strange illustrated manuscript she’d been working on, a book called The Brick House. She sent over a single dream accompanied by an illustration of a peacock. This dream was the first glimpse I had of The Brick House, and having worked with her for that short excerpt creates the strange and real fact of having edited and published the book (in part) before ever having read it. I recall my edits were light, she approved them, and the piece appeared at the front of the journal. I had believed that this would be our one interaction, something I would forever look back on fondly. The end.
I had also assumed the book was in a late draft stage and already spoken for, so I watched in vain for the book’s release. I was momentarily appeased when the second book in her trilogy, A Brief History of Yes, was released and I was able to continue my reader’s journey on from Mirror in the Well. Yet the strange book of dreams didn’t come.
When I became Editor of Awst Press in 2016 we were looking for a novel, and unlikely though it seemed that Marcom would entrust an entire book to a fledgling publisher, I knew exactly what I wanted our novel to be. It had been a few years, but I wrote to Marcom in August asking if she would be willing to share a manuscript with us. Perhaps the third book in the trilogy (which I continue to look forward to), or was she, perhaps, still looking for a home for The Brick House?
I had not anticipated that she would remember me or even reply, but within a week I’d heard back. She’d need to take another look, but she’d send something for me to look at in a month.
Marcom sent the first 30 pages in the first week of October, 2016 with this knowing missive, “I know this book will eventually pull together fully, but like all books it must be tended, and this one especially because it's not ‘character-driven’ per se relies on a very firm ‘form’ as it were . . .”
The process of acquiring and publishing The Brick House has, in my memory, taken on the same sort of mystical quality of Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s writing—a sort of foggy but inevitable series of events that culminate in something grand.
Then there is Marcom’s own strange inspiration for writing it—a real house on a real moor, full of real dreams. This strange inspiration is something I didn’t hear about until the book had been out for months and these cryptic details were shared at a reading like an ethereal dream of its own. That she has claimed to be unable to remember the linage of the book and the writing process and its iterations, and that I can hardly remember the editing process in which I participated seems like another dream. It is as if we spoke one day in the summer of 2016, and then I woke up in the fall of 2017 in a strange new country with a book in my hand.
This is not to diminish the work of our designer, LK James, who worked through many iterations of layout and covers until it felt right; or Emily Roberts who worked with Marcom to ensure the text was both correct and maintained its intentional idiosyncrasies; or Wendy Walker who orchestrated the whole thing and ensured it really turned into that object that seemed to otherwise mysteriously manifest in the physical plane. In fact, it is the work of these other members of the staff, these iterations and flurries of emails I recall most clearly. My own role seems oddly illusive.
Perhaps what makes me love Marcom’s compulsive writing so much is my own tendency toward infatuation. I will listen to the same song on repeat for six months. I will watch the same movies and the same reruns of the same television shows for years before it even occurs to me to watch something else. I will reread a book a dozen times. This isn’t careful study, it’s compulsion. This relationship to media has a host of drawbacks, but the primary one is that when I hear a new song by a musician I love, or see a new film by a beloved director, or read a new book by a favorite author, I often wish I was just reading the book I already love. The whole way through Love in the Time of Cholera, for example, I wished I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.
And so, I read the first 30 pages of The Brick House. It was, unsurprisingly, nothing like Mirror in the Well. But this was the first book of hers I’d seen in manuscript form. And though it wasn’t that first love, there was something there, like a coin glittering under water. It both was and was not the book I’d expected or thought I remembered. I knew, also, that I would need to read it many times—no matter what it was—to love it the way we would both want me to.
Marcom suggested we have a call to follow up and we agreed to talk over Skype on October 7th, just a few days after I read those preliminary pages. Marcom asked in that call, “But do you like it?” A question I am sympathetic to as an author. To which I had to say, “Well, I haven’t really read it yet.”
Because I was visiting my parents at the time, I spoke to her from my childhood bedroom. It’s not exactly the way one wants to be seen by someone they admire, especially when courting them for a professional relationship, but she didn’t seem to notice or mind, and perhaps that is what created the slippery blurring of real life and the life of the book. After nearly an hour of discussing books and the tarot and the collaborative process, Marcom agreed to send the rest of the manuscript.
Roughly a week after receiving the full I wrote to Marcom, “I love the way so many threads come together and the environmental issues come to the forefront, as well as the more personal aspects of the book, which remind me of Mirror and Brief History of Yes. Wendy and I have already talked about some production ideas, but before we get carried away, I wanted to check back in with you and see how you're feeling about the book and working with Awst. I also have some structural ideas and wonder if you're open to continuing to work on the text?”
The Brick House is indeed a strange novel. The reader joins dreamers who visit the brick house on their illuminating—and illuminated—journeys into the subconscious. The dreams are paired with original artwork by Fowzia Karimi in the style of an Armenian illuminated manuscript. And in that first full draft I read, the reading experience felt very much like a real dream, like the odd series of inexplicable episodes from which one wakes unable to determine how one led into the next and yet there they all are, until after a few moments of wakefulness they vanish altogether. Without a narrative thread to connect them or give them context, they are reduced to a few odd details, a strange vista or an unsettled feeling that lingers after the reason has become obscure.
This observation is the one editorial contribution I remember proffering with clarity—though it is only clear to me now, after rereading our many emails, that this was something Marcom already knew and told me in that early October message.
We tried for some time to plan a call that was interrupted by holidays and the flu and the boring schedule conflicts of adults with day jobs. But eventually we arranged a meeting, and we spoke as I sat at the edge of my couch feeling overwhelmingly under-prepared. I usually offer extensive line edits, a full page or two of notes with feedback regarding character, plot, pacing, etc. But this was not a usual manuscript and I had just the one suggestion: make it a novel. I offered a few thoughts on how that could happen. For instance, it seemed each character who appeared throughout the work was a different character, and if, instead, all the shes were one She, and all the hes one He, these two characters could function as many while still enjoying the narrative benefits of character development. And the reader, seeing them at various stages of life and experience and insight, would have the duel experience of seeing them as individuals progressing over time, as well as acting independently within an isolated dream-moment. Symbols too could recur, grounding the reader in imagery. Perhaps the red coffee stirrer, I said, should appear in different scenes, a symbol that the reader can hold on to as they’re whisked from one dream-scape to the next.
I couldn’t be sure these suggestions would result in a single changed word in the manuscript, and I was open to that. It feels embarrassingly bold to say it this way now, but I felt I was asking her just to read the book differently. And still, I sensed that no one was more capable or qualified to address the structure and narrative suggestions than was Marcom.
In its final form the book magically—masterfully—maintains the clarity of dreams—the lingering feeling that this is real, this is happening—though the events themselves are not bound to the laws of nature or society. A favorite example appears on page 42: “A celebrated blonde actress attends her class at the dance studio and the girl feels happy that a famous and beautiful woman, like a new queen, is now following her imprecise, ill-informed dance instructions (for in actuality she knows very little about the subject she teaches).”
And yet in these strange nonsensical realities some deeper truth—one that means more outside of the dream than in it—lingers. The relationship to the lover, the father, to shame, and even to the self lights up, is illuminated, from within. As on page 97, which reads, “she tells him that he is beautiful. He turns from her; no, he says, I don’t feel like that. Tell me, she says, that I am beautiful also . . . When I saw you tonight, he says, I thought that you looked good.” It is a moment raw with vulnerability turned perfectly toxic, in the way that only dreams can make the innocuous into something disquieting. As if only in dreams can we hear ourselves, will we listen.
I was confident that Marcom’s own interest in the liminal spaces in experience and writing alike—that is spaces-between-spaces, which can been interpreted both as nonplace (as a dream can seem), and as vital connective tissue (the many experiences which lend a dream its meaning within the subconscious)—was a sort of missing link that would open up the book. As it was, I felt like a deep-sea diver with no raft to return to. Never mind that the water was beautiful.
I forgot, until I reread my early exchanges with Marcom, how influential the 2016 presidential election was on the development of this book. When I first spoke to Marcom over skype we talked about the wonder of making books. By December 9, 2016, when she sent the first full draft, our messages took another tone—“Perhaps now, more than ever, we need beauty and the quiet truths of books,” Marcom wrote. I responded that “these are indeed trying times, and I'm looking forward to taking in your lovely work.”
In the messages that follow there’s a sort of solemn understanding that these are the end times and ours is Important Work. The work being to get through each day as much as it is to create a beautiful and lasting piece of art that will withstand that storm, as well as future storms unknown. There’s something in the tone that reminds me of the Czech writers before their revolution—a feeling as if though there is no sun. I half expect some of the notes to be addressed to “Comrade” with a sad sort of misery.
Marcom wrote to me: “It's definitely a time of change and challenge—for all of us—as what seem to be the forces of greed and selfishness and antipathy are on the rise—on the other hand, so is empathy and community actions . . . . so we'll see how this all goes . . . I am trying to figure out how to be of service as a writer, both in the long and short terms . . .”
When I reached out to ask after the progress of her edits in January, she wrote, “I'm about halfway done editing, some days when DJT passes another set of authoritarian orders I get distracted . . . . what's weird is I wrote that ‘dream’ about walls in the US five years ago . . . ug!”
As agreed upon, I received the edited draft. I am surprised now as I look back how little the manuscript changed, because upon reading the new draft I’d had the sensation that it was somehow new. But perhaps it was I who had changed, had better learned how to read the work.
Excepting a few lines edits, that was more or less it for my work in shaping the book.
But again, the book was unlike any other book we’d published before it. To those familiar with Marcom’s work, it’s not difficult to imagine the challenge it would present to a copy editor. Awst’s copy editor, Emily Roberts—who is exceedingly thorough—mapped out each idiosyncrasy and break from convention. This was also our first project with internal images. Our Artistic Director, LK James, worked back and forth through multiple iterations with Marcom and Karimi to ensure image fidelity and proper placement. Cover possibilities ranged from abstractions of parts of the illustrations (this was our cover for the Advance Review Copies) to the simple but striking cover we decided on for the final.
One could argue that at each stage, the simplest solution was almost always the best.
Though oddly unqualified to speak upon my own interaction with Marcom and the development of the text, I’ve found through hearing her read, and talking to friends who’ve read the book, and by revisiting the book myself, that there are innumerable layers to uncover, themes that develop and ideas that emerge suddenly, strikingly, with each reading.