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"I think of this book as a feminist work even though women barely appear in it. Crime is often about winning or triumphing or prevailing by destructive means. Rape is a vile "triumph" in the sexual realm. It's not sex so much as it is "contest" in the mind of the rapist. This is the oppositional way a lot of young men think about women. Even though the stories I treated have a subcultural aspect, I think I'm talking about a larger general truth about men, and indeed about all people. Our minds are built for struggle. The struggle can darken into something truly terrible and unacceptable. I don't want to make too baggy a generalization, but even terrorism, when you take away the politics and look at the acts of individuals, has the hallmarks of a half-formed and half-sickened masculinity."
"Any one thing bores me, even within the same piece, so I tend to swerve between personal and autobiographical writing and other kinds of writing. I also have a capacious sense of the personal: I think showing your hand vis-à-vis your scholarly or philosophical interests is very personal; likewise, I think the so-called personal touches the deepest ontological, political, and spiritual questions. It's like Barthes says -- your tastes are far more revealing than your perversities. I really believe that. Imagine someone really heavy into the leather scene has you over for dinner and has all Ikea tableware -- which fact tells you more?"
"One theme that appears again and again is the conflict between big love and little love. The phrase was coined by my friend Mary Gentile, who went to college with me and has been one of my best readers and toughest critics. Mary recognized early that my characters are often torn between their love for something personal and immediate and love for something larger and more difficult. I'm not sure where this pattern originated in my work. It might come from my experience as a gay person: all of us must learn to choose between what we were taught to feel and what we really feel. Or maybe I just read too much George Eliot in college."
Sarah Van Arsdale
"As we are talking of language here, let me say that one of the most humiliating things I have had to witness over the past decade has been the corruption of language. The American regime tells us of something called 'extraordinary rendition' -- what they mean is kidnapping. Say it. They talk of 'enhanced interrogation' -- what they mean is torture. Say it. And that corruption of language has occurred on both sides. Taliban and al-Qaeda keep talking of something called 'jihad' -- a word they have reduced to war. In fact the word 'jihad' has as many meanings as a rose has petals. To smile at someone when you don't feel like smiling is jihad. To be kind to someone when your own life is full of meanness is jihad. But no, they want only one meaning."
"I think I always saw objects as characters. My father's pewter beer steins, my grandmother's cigarette lighter, or my mother's bottle of summer cologne kept in the refrigerator: they still seem to me to have power, like little household gods. Perhaps my ancestors (mostly Irish, some Norman and German) passed down a druid/pagan belief that objects, buildings, and trees have spirits? Roman Catholicism subsumed this way of thinking into holy objects, and I was raised Catholic, but it seems to me that around our house the copper chafing dish in which my mother kept bills and my father's tackle box were charismatic characters."
"As an adult, I of course notice travel's difficulties and discomforts -- what a zoo it is, and I'm part of it! I think a lot of what makes travel fun is who you're with and who you meet -- I'm not someone who would ever go off by herself. The essay on Henry Adams came out of research from the previous book, in which I was surprised at the way wealthy nineteenth-century Bostonians got interested in Japanese art and culture and religion, and despite the distance went off to see the place. By train across country, then weeks of seasickness crossing the Pacific, and then the guidebook Adams took with him had a list of specific things to take along that's both funny and ominous, like Liebig's Extract of Beef, German pea-soup sausage, and especially plenty of Keating's Insect Powder."