Sasha Fletcher writes with such brutal honesty that his words can’t help but get lodged in the folds of one’s mind and linger. That was the case with me. While reading Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World, Fletcher’s debut novel from Melville House, certain phrases would pop into my head when I was at the supermarket, or at school, or contemplating the day’s seemingly endless tasks. What I admire most about Sasha’s writing is that, in a world that so often tries to prescribe quick fixes to one’s afflictions, Sasha allows his readers to fully feel their aches and pains and fractured bones, which is in many ways its own kind of mending.
So sometimes, when life becomes overwhelming and a little absurd, I think of Sasha’s writing. And I am reminded that maybe there is a value in not rushing to remedy those emotions but rather to read a novel or a poem or an essay that captures and suspends them in air. For that is what Sasha does so precisely—he gives further language to the feelings that too often stay concealed, tucked away somewhere far out of reach.
In this interview, conducted over email, we discuss train rides, the surreal, a small town in a forest of trees, and more.
Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World, your debut novel, is simply incredible. Although you have published a novella and several books of poetry, this novel seems to be a new kind of project. Was writing a full-length novel something you always wanted to pursue? How did this particular novel come about?
Regina, thank you so much! I don’t think I ever wanted to write a novel, and then I did. This one came out of some short stories I wrote some time between 2007 and 2009 that I turned into a much longer short story in 2015 called “Warren Beatty is a Sad Sad Man” (Warren Beatty featured far more prominently at one point), and when I tried to publish that story I got told it felt like a novel, and my last novel didn’t sell, and I couldn’t figure out how to write a poem that was any good, and so instead I just wrote this like it was a poem, one scene at a time one sentence at a time one line at a time.
It took me almost four years to write essentially half the book (I took everything resembling a plot and I burned it and then I buried it) and maybe four months to write the other half.
So much of this novel seems rooted in the ordinariness of everyday life, despite the (sometimes comical) absurdity of the scenes you describe. As a New Yorker myself, I appreciated this paragraph in particular and loved how it utilized both capitalization and very deliberate punctuation to express such fury:
“Sam left the city at two. THE TRAINS, THEY ARE SO FUCKED, JUST LIKE YOU WILL BE WHEN THE BOMBS FALL, AND THEY WILL, ANY DAY NOW, said the radio, YOU CANNOT BELIEVE HOW LUCKY YOU ARE THAT IT ONLY TOOK YOU TWO HOURS TO GET HOME. SOON, said the radio, NOT NOW, BUT SOON, IT WILL TAKE DAYS FOR TRAINS TO CROSS THE RIVERS. YOU’D BE BETTER OFF ON HORSEBACK, said the radio, YOU’D BE BETTER OF AS A BIRD. YOUR WHOLE LIFE COULD BE SO DIFFERENT, YOU COWARDS.
What was the process like of trying to intertwine seemingly familiar feelings, feelings that most people can relate to, such as raging and waiting for late trains, with elements that are so brutally honest they become almost otherworldly?
I had a teacher in grad school, Josh Bell, who once told me that if you’re going to write with surreal elements you have to treat them the same as everything else. Everything has to be written the same, or else you’re pointing out to the reader that the strange thing should be seen as strange, and they no longer have a reason to believe you (I mean they’re never gonna believe us but I find this to be really helpful).
If you talk about the news on the radio addressing you personally the same way you talk about figuring out what to make for dinner, holding your partner at night, being worried about debt, the angels tearing the roof of your building as the sky fills with light and the comes, missing your train, tying your shoe, or falling in love with a ghost, then all of those things can be (hopefully) considered just as likely to happen. You treat mystery the same way you treat facts and the two become harder to distinguish. In art this is great, in real life it’s terrifying. Real life is also terrifying, it’s full of debt, cops kill kids in the street, the trains are delayed, we fall in love, we eat dinner, we feel held by and we hold the lights in our life. This may just be a long way of saying that I don’t know how else to write a book, and I don’t really want to.
At the heart of this novel is a love story, yet so much of the book seems to be about impermanence and doom:
“Last night Johnny watched a documentary called One Day All Your Cities Will Be Salt. It was about how one day, all our cities will be salt. The angels will never come. Nothing we’ve ever done will last, not even our bones. The dead we’ve piled like so many trophies to record our glory meant nothing. Salt. That’s it…On the way home Eleanor put her head on Sam’s shoulder, and leaned in close like he could save her whole life…”
I found myself thinking about those sentences long after I finished the novel, the way they effortlessly capture both love and dread, the way someone could feel like their partner could ‘save’ them, despite just being told that nothing they’ve “ever done will last.” How did you balance contrasting two tonally very different narratives, and did you always know this novel would include a love story?
I only ever write love stories! They’re the only way I can talk about anything at all. Most of my favorite movies are all love stories (Moonstruck, Punch-Drunk Love, Wild at Heart, All the Real Girls). For me, talking about love opens the world up. All my poems were love poems and I wrote every one of them towards a love I had no idea if I’d ever really get to know. So here I am writing these novels about people being in love. I don’t care to write about plot. I love to read it and to watch it, but personally I have no interest in figuring it out. I swear to God I recall Garielle Lutz calling plot a hole in the ground that a body is put down or into, but I can’t find any proof of this. So I write about people in love and the conditions of the world they live in as they move through it.
As for the other part, I don’t know! I don’t think our partners can redeem us at all, but I think opening our hearts to love can get us there. If you mean how do I balance huge romantic gestures with the end of the world I would say I guess like what else am I supposed to do? It just seems like the only way to go about it, is all.
Quite frequently throughout the novel, there will be flashbacks to earlier time periods, often accompanied by both the mention of different historical figures such as Giovanni Medici and political references such as the Anti-Pinkerton Act. How did you approach the impressive amount of research it must have taken to complete this novel? I just thought it was great that your first acknowledgment was to “Wikipedia, the encyclopedia of the people.”
So from the beginning, this was a love story set in a bad dream about America. As I was writing, it was impossible to avoid that it was set in America, and that America was a terrible place to try to live in, because we don’t seem to ever really know or talk about our history. So as I was writing these things, I’d be like there’s no way I’m remember this right about Lincoln saying some fucked-up shit and then I go and look it up and he’s like the races will never be equal and they never should be and slaves should never have the right to vote, and then I was playing Red Dead Redemption 2 and I got mad about the Pinkertons all over again, and I looked them up, and I had no idea how we’d institutionalized their thuggery, how wrapped up we were in these things. It’s fun to write this stuff because you write down the worst thing you think America has done and then you look it up and it’s not only worse, but there’s so much more you can tie to it. And these things just keep popping up! A cop shoots a kid and you’re like how many kids have been shot by cops and you can look it up (it’s at least 111 since 2015 and 23 of them are under 15), I couldn’t not think about these things, they were part of what it was like to be alive, so they should be part of the book.
The idea of the book being a thing that contains an experience of the world, one where there’s a love story and it keeps being interrupted by the world, how you think about what to make for dinner and then a bomb goes off somewhere and you’re reading about the bomb and the place and you still have to make dinner, it felt important to try to write a book that could feel like that.
I first discovered your work through your poetry. It Is Going To Be A Good Year is one of my favorite poetry books of all time! How did your background as a poet influence the writing of your novel? Were there any similarities between writing a book of poetry versus writing a novel?
Mostly I just write these novels the same way I wrote poems. I feel a feeling and I try to think of images and events that’ll evoke that feeling and then I see where it goes from there. I’d write poems and poems and poems until the poems started to seem like they were in dialog with each other, and then I’d try to hold those poems in the back of my head, and see how they fit together, and then I’d start writing poems that were slowly starting to talk to each other, and then I’d hold them all in my head, and I’d see how they fit, and what might be needed to keep the whole of it moving.
I write these novels the same way. I keep a notebook with me on the train (I don’t really commute into the office much anymore so I’ve lost this and it does in a way suck because I get a lot of good thinking done on the train) and I write things down, or record little voice memos, and I think about what I’ve written, and I think about how it all fits, and when I get a new scene or some dialog or an image or a setting I see where that might go, in the back of my head, which has to hold the whole of that world, at all times, in case I ever figure anything out. From a process and practice standpoint, there is very little difference in how I write a poem and how I write a novel. So at least there’s that.
I really enjoyed reading your series on the Fanzine, where you wrote about movies that spoke to you. Are there any particular movies, or television shows, or other literary works that you find your novel in conversation with?
Thank you so much! Those were so fun to write. And OK I touched on this before with the love stories above but also absolutely Godard’s work, Une Femme est un Femme, Bande à part, Pierrot le Fou, at one point I tried to rip off Weekend for this book but that was when it was a different book entirely. Godard in that period was great at having people fall in love and being unable to not talk about the politics of the time. For me, Europeana and Renata Adler’s Speedboat were what showed me how to write this, where it could go, and how it could go there. Clearly Wings of Desire (I should probably call it Der Himmel über Berlin if I’m gonna use the French titles for Godard? I don’t know this stuff, I have a B.F.A. in Ceramics).
I steal from TV all the time. Louis CK is a piece of shit but Louie showed me so much in terms of how to deal with the strange intruding on New York City in the most mundane ways. I steal from The Leftovers whenever I can, the episode International Assassin is a perfect work of art. James Tate’s work is a big influence, as is the open contempt America has for its people.
You’ve accomplished so much already–It Is Going To Be A Good Year, several chapbooks of poetry, a novella, and now Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World. Are there any projects you are currently working on? What can your readers look forward to in the future, that is, if we all survive this pre-apocalyptic world?
Right now, I have got nothing but a series of notes for a thing I want to start once all this settles down. In theory it starts normal, and then all of a sudden the trees won’t stop growing, and then it’s later, and there’s this small town in a forest of trees that blot out the sun, and people are just, I don’t know, living, and then something else happens, and after that things more or less don’t stop happening, and then maybe it’ll end. Now you know as much about this book that I may never actually write as I do. I’m gonna try to fix this Western I wrote. I think I can do it. I am just going to keep writing love stories where the world is something we can only barely explain. It feels like the one true thing I can try to do.
Regina Rosenfeld (editor; she/her) is a writer living in New York City. She attends Barnard College of Columbia University.