[This blog first published on Huffington Post, Dec. 21, 2017.]
I adore author Abigail Thomas—as a writer, teacher and as a human being. So when she put out the word via Facebook that her nephew was reading from his new book in my neck of the North Carolina woods, I told her I would be there. I went to the reading for Abby, but I was delighted to discover Thomas Mira y Lopez and his wonderful collection of essays, The Book of Resting Places: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead (Counterpoint Press, $26).
Mira y Lopez, 31, is the 2017-2018 University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Kenan Visiting Writer and teaches at UNC in the English department. Originally from New York City, he holds a bachelor’s from Williams College and an MFA from the University of Arizona. He loves the Mets, maps and books. Here, he shares the story of his book and his writing life.
What do you say when people ask what your book is about?
I say it’s a book about where we put the dead and why. My father died while I was in college, a little over ten years ago now, and I became interested in how spaces of the dead, both literally and metaphorically, function as reflections of us. America is an exception as a country in that its cemeteries offer perpetual care of the dead; the assumption is that once you’re in your plot in the ground, you’ll remain there forever. I wanted to know what that says about us, about how we treat our land and our history, about what we attempt to remember and to forget.
I love the look and feel of your book. The simplicity of the cover – the image of the shovel; the choice of black and white; no dust/book jacket. Was this your vision for the book? If so, why?
It’s actually something we—my agent and I—went back and forth with Counterpoint about until we worked towards this. I had never thought of the shovel as a possibility but it feels right to me, something that’s both playful and surprising. I love the size of the book and the paper over boards, which Counterpoint was able to do at the last moment. It gives it the feel of a gift, this little volume you can walk around with.
You perfectly blend your personal story with the historical, the research that you did. How challenging was it to get the mix just right?
Oh man, it was very challenging. A few times the mix felt like it came just right and that was exhilarating, to set up the subjects in such a way so as to produce the desired resonances and layers. But more times than not it was a struggle. I get carried away when I research—everything becomes fascinating, everything seems to have some connection to the subject matter at hand—and so I had to figure out which leads were dead-ends and which I could round into shape.
When did you know, okay, I’m writing a book of essays?
I started writing this book in grad school and that was the time when I learned about the capacity or possibility of essays, something that felt profoundly exciting. So I decided fairly early on that that was what I wanted to write. The structure of a graduate program and its workshop seemed more aligned to me with writing essays than working on a full-length project. Of course, figuring out what type of book, or what type of essays, I wanted to write became a whole other matter.
Which piece was the most challenging to write? Why?
“The Eternal Comeback,” I think, which is an essay about cryonics—the practice of storing bodies at extremely low temperatures with the hopes of future technology bringing them back to life—as well as the people who sign up for it. The amount of information to synthesize proved a challenge, alongside knowing when to include my own story and how much to press upon that. Ethically as well, I wanted to listen to and respect the reasons why people chose to sign up, while also acknowledging my own skepticism.
Which piece is your favorite? Why?
I don’t know if I really have a favorite, but I feel as if I have a couple essays or passages that I secretly cherish, moments that feel like outliers in some way but that I would also defend. In this collection, it’s “Capricci,” which is an essay about the 18th century Venetian painter Canaletto who produced these cityscapes that are a combination of real and imagined architecture. It has nothing to do, technically, with resting places, but at the same time it’s also all about substitution, alternate selves, and the practice of seeing something the way we want to see it instead of how it really is. All of that, I’d argue, matters when we start to think about how we remember the dead.
Your father died in 2006 when you were in college. Do you have any regrets about that period of your life as it relates to your dad?
I do. The book lays these out better than I will be able to here, but I didn’t know how to handle his illness and so I tried to pretend like nothing was happening. I was out of the country when he was sick and I regret not moving back to spend time with him and my mom. There’s obviously nothing I can do about it now, except recognize that tendency in myself and warn others.
How did writing the book assist you with your own grief?
There’s a definite value to the thinking that such writing necessitates. It’s a sort of reckoning really; it asks you to scrub away all the film and dead cells that build up over time. And it’s helpful as well to place an individual story in a larger societal or cultural context, to examine it from multiple angles, to know that it signals larger avenues of thought.
Where are you now with his passing?
This is a book of resting places, obviously, but it’s also a book as resting place: one more place where we attempt to remember or preserve the dead. I’ve found that writing it has been another way to maintain contact with my dad, to obsess and study over things the way he might have, and so letting it out into the world also means letting it—and him—go in some sense. That’s been tricky to deal with.
This is your first book. How has the reality of being published differed from what you imagined?
In a way, it’s a lot more diffuse than I expected—my agent is in New York, my editor and publisher are in California, and I’ve been in North Carolina and Ohio—and so the good news that arrives often catches you unaware, at moments when you’re not really able to digest it. And you have to become a different person during the publishing process than you were when you wrote the book. But everyone throughout the process has been amazing. It’s a shared labor, and a humbling one to realize how many people breathe life into the book.
What do you want your students to take from your book?
From a craft perspective, I hope they see it as a way to consider what happens when the personal is taken from another angle, when it’s juxtaposed or paralleled with research or journalism. I go on and on in class about how any topic or object, no matter how mundane, can be interesting if you ask the right questions about it, if you situate it in the right context. And I hope they see it as a reason to write with honesty, to recognize that you have to give a part of yourself away when you write.
You come from a family of writers – your late grandfather was renowned science writer Lewis Thomas, who wrote The Lives of a Cell. Your aunt Abigail Thomas has written several books and is probably best known for her memoir, A Three Dog Life. How have they influenced your writing life?
They’re there all the time. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think most writers write with a few imagined readers in mind; my aunt and my grandfather form a part of those for me. I’m lucky to have that. Although I have to be careful not to try to write like them because that won’t fly.
Who else has influenced your writing life? How?
Oh so many, of course, in ways that I know about and ways I don’t. For this collection, I looked mostly towards other essay collections that had a shared theme but also diverged from that theme in refreshing ways. So I’ll say Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land, John D’Agata’s Halls of Fame, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point and Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Joni Tevis’s The Wet Collection.
What would your father have thought of your book?
He would have liked it, I think, and he would be proud of its existence. He might have grumbled at certain parts. We didn’t have the same reading habits—I remember showing him an Italo Calvino book I was reading while he was in the hospital and he just rolled his eyes—but I believe our thought processes worked in similar ways.
What has been the reaction to the book?
Not to be evasive, but I don’t know if I can answer that, just in the sense that I’m not with each reader, in their mind, when they sit down with it. What’s meant a lot is sharing it with my family and my friends, many of whom were with me around the time my dad died and afterwards. Writing can be so solitary, and it takes so much time, that to finally put something in their hands (or, rather, give them a link to click on) means the world. And to get notes—from people I both know and don’t know, from people whose work I admire—is deeply buoying, just to know there’s some connection or transfer there.
What do you think happens to us after we die—regardless of our resting place?
Oh, who knows, probably nothing. I will say whenever I think of heaven, I’m prone to think of it, spatially and temporally, as this vast and endless concept. But instead of eternity, maybe it’s just a five or ten minute alteration in brain chemistry that takes place around or shortly after death. Though perhaps that makes it sound like I’m advocating for the afterlife as DMT trip—there are certainly worse options.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a couple of things, testing them out and seeing if there’s breadth or breath enough to make them a full-length. I have a nonfiction project about secrets, another about antiques, both of which take impetus from what I was previously at work on. And then maybe some fiction about Brazil, the country where my father was from, a place I’ve always had a complicated relationship with. Those three are circling around and hopefully I’ll know which will stick soon.
What do you wish someone would ask you?
Taking a shortcut here but, you know, no one’s asked me what my dad would think of the book. I had never had to think of that before. I’m glad that this was occasion to.