An Interview with Thomas Dodson, author of No Use Pretending

Thomas Dodson is an assistant professor and librarian at Southern Oregon University.  His story collection, No Use Pretending, was selected by Gish Jen for the Iowa Short Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from University of Iowa Press.

He holds graduate degrees from the Ohio State University, Kent State University, and the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction.

His fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been awarded the 2022 Robert and Adele Shiff Award and the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. His story “Keeping” was selected by the editors of Best American Short Stories as a distinguished story of 2022. He has been the runner-up for the Autumn House Fiction Contest and a finalist for the WICW Fiction Fellowship, the Glimmer Train Award for New Writers, and the Hamlin Garland Award for the Short Story.

Thomas Dodson grew up in northeast Missouri and has graduate degrees in comparative cultural studies and in library science. He lives in Ashland.

No Use Pretending was praised for its “range of emotions and voices (Jess Walter, author of The Angel of Rome and Other Stories), the “complicated humanity” of its characters (Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy), and its “captivating vision of hope, regret, and resilience” (Tom Drury, author of Pacific).

Thomas Dodson will be reading from No Use Pretending at Bloomsbury Books, on October 30, at 7 pm and in the Meese Room of the Hannon Library on November 9, at 5:30 pm.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on No Use Pretending.

Thomas Dodson: Thanks, and thanks so much for your interest in the book!

EB: This is a wide-ranging, ideas-based collection, covering everything from beekeeping, drone warfare, fracking, Buddhism, and Greek mythology. These aren’t everyday fiction topics. Can you talk a bit about the research you do—and where your expertise as a librarian fits in?

TD: I think a lot of writers begin with a character that interests them and build out from there. I do that sometimes, but just as often for me it’s an idea or a curiosity about something that’s happening in the world.

Like with the story about the drone pilot stationed just outside Las Vegas. I was interested in these two forms of American power, both of which have to do with vision—the power to see and act at a great distance with drones, and then, with Las Vegas, the bright lights, casinos, and strip clubs, the power to sort of overwhelm the senses with capitalist spectacle and sex-as-commodity.

I could try to write an essay about all this, but honestly, I’m much more interested in exploring those issues and ideas through the lived experience of a character. That experience is fascinating to me. And getting at it—what it’s like to be a drone pilot, to be fighting a war on another continent and then clocking out and helping your kids with their homework—that requires a good amount of research that goes beyond abstractions about the ethics of drone warfare or understanding the policy positions. I needed to know, for example, what slang the pilots used among themselves, what the trailers they worked in smelled like (not good), what it was like to be married to someone living that life. The work of getting that kind of information is made a lot easier because of my training as a librarian.

Also, I agree with what John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, that a conventional story should evoke a “vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader. That dream is a delicate thing and lots of things can jolt the reader out of it—bad prose or flat characters, for example. So, it really wouldn’t make sense to load down a story with a bunch of footnotes like an academic work. Still, I want to credit the work of the journalists, philosophers, and others that made it possible for me to write each story. To that end, and to give the reader interested in a topic explored in one of the stories a place to go for more, I have a page on my website dedicated to the sources I’ve drawn from:

EB: What goes through your mind as you are developing a character? I found myself noticing a lot of small details that shaped my understanding of the characters, like the way that you mention the cat as Kenzie’s “familiar” in “Fault Trace” or the description of Sandy’s perm as being “like a halo of dishwater foam” in “Creek People.”

TD: In developing and presenting characters, I think I’m always striving for details that are particular and feel authentic. I also try not to shy away from characters who are “difficult.” I want characters to feel real, and real people are flawed in the most interesting ways. That’s occasionally gotten me into a little trouble with readers who want characters to be “likeable” or “relatable,” which isn’t at all what I’m going for. I really like what Steve Almond has said about difficult or unappealing characters; he says he’s opposed to “a mind-set that position[s] fiction as a place we go to have our virtues affirmed rather than having the confused and wounded parts of ourselves exposed.”

I’ve always been a reader who is most drawn in by stories that render the complexity, confusion—and yes, even the darkness—in human beings and their relationships to one another. Likeable or not, I hope my characters have that complexity, that they may be messed up in some ways, behave badly in some situations, but that doesn’t exhaust who they are. The reader may not always like them, but I hope as a story progresses, the reader comes to understand them and empathize with their struggles.

EB: I’m curious about the title of the collection. For me, it seemed that many—or at least several–of the stories were about characters pretending this are one way not another—trying to skip out on reality.

TD: Yes, exactly. The title has several meanings for me. Denis Johnson, probably my favorite writer, has said: “There’s nobody who can disguise himself. Eventually we’re all outed in one way or another.” In one sense, I think the stories are about that. How we try to disguise ourselves, present an idealized or false version of ourselves, to others, but also to ourselves because facing up to our flaws is difficult and humbling. We’d rather not go there. I try in these stories to put characters in situations where they have to confront who they really are beyond those superficialities and disguises.

I also want to push back a little against the idea that art should serve some social purpose beyond itself, that it needs to be subordinated to the ends of politics or edification or whatever to be truly worthwhile. I would say that art shouldn’t have to have utility in that sense; it shouldn’t be expected to “do” something to improve society or the reader. But, of course, this is a point on which reasonable people can disagree. I just intend with the title to playfully position myself on one side of that argument.

And speaking of playfulness, a more straight-forward sense of the title is simply that this kind of storytelling is a kind of adult “pretending.” I get to pretend to be someone else writing the story and the reader gets to pretend to be someone else reading it. I try to deal with serious things in the story, but I don’t want to completely abandon that sense of being a kid and playing and making up stories.

EB: I’m curious too about the arrangement of the eleven a stories in No Use Pretending. Was it difficult to put them put them in order or did it come easily?

TD: Well, I feel like with a story collection you want to try to both start and go out with a bit of a bang. So, I’ve positioned what I think are my strongest stories first and last; they also happen to be my most recent ones, written while I wrapped up my time at Iowa. Beyond that, I think the middle section all has to do with mythology in some way—a Greek myth, a sort of Kafkaesque fairytale, and a little flash piece about the mythmaking we engage in as we try to understand our relationships with our parents. Also, addiction is a definitely a theme in the book and even though there isn’t a clear arc across the stories—like a redemption narrative or something—I did want to end with “The Watchman,” which is a story about recovery and making meaning out of life after addiction rather than just the pain of being stuck in the midst of it.

EB: Can you say something about your process as a writer. The stories in No Use Pretending seem finely polished.

TD: Thanks; I’m glad you think so. I used to have some pretty dumb ideas about genre—what was “literary” and what wasn’t, but I like to think I’m past that now. I do think the kind of fiction I enjoy reading and want to write is very concerned with the style of the prose, shows that the writer has taken great care with that, is trying to engage the reader with the language at the paragraph and sentence level.

Not all fiction aspires to do that, or needs to do that; in some genres, the readers might even find it annoying: “yes, yes, get on with the plot, would you?” I used to fit these differences into a hierarchy of “quality,” or “literary” fiction versus “commercial fiction.” I can still fall into that sometimes, but now I mostly just see this as a matter of genre conventions and personal taste—even “taste” is a loaded word; let’s say “preference.” I have my preferences and I guess I just hope to reach readers who also appreciate a good line for its own sake beyond how it functions to further plot or character or some other element.

As for process, I worked on these stories over many years, workshopping to get feedback from other writers, revising each several times, and publishing them as I went along. As for my process, it’s a mess really; I have long fallow periods, or periods when I’m mostly jotting down ideas and doing research. I’ve been researching a novel over the summer, for example, but I hope to be back to the writing desk again this fall. Writing fiction has always been a bit fraught for me. I write confidently and without much stress or doubt all the time. But fiction is different. Each time I sit down to work on a story draft, I wonder all over again if I’m still going to be able to do it. Luckily, so far at least, it’s worked out.

EB: Your website warns readers “Don’t even get him started about typography, continental philosophy, or climate fiction.” Dare I ask?

TD: Not unless you want to fire up a whole other interview. That said, I’m happy to talk to pretty much anyone anytime about those topics.

EB: What’s your backstory as a writer? Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?

TD: Really a lot. I learned a great deal from reading Mary Gaitskill, Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Toni Morrison. I could go on and on.

EB: What are you currently working on writer-wise?

TD: I’m working on a novel draft called “The Tower of Abraham,” about an imagined community that forms in a vacant and half-constructed office tower in Boston’s financial district. It’s based on an actual community that occupied an office tower in Venezuela, Torre David.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

TD: Thanks so much for having me!

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An Interview Jay Schroder, author of Teach from Your Best Self

Jay Schroder has taught high school in both traditional and alternative education settings for 24 years. During this time, he developed approaches to teaching that allow him to thrive in the challenging profession.

In 2021, the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) awarded Schroder the High School English Teacher of Excellence Award, and in 2022, Jay received the High School Teacher of Excellence Award from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Jay Schroder is an affiliate faculty member at Southern Oregon University and has recently begun working with Southern Oregon Regional Educator Network (SOREN) as an Implementation Coach. Jay is also a certified instructor of Social Emotional Learning and Character Development and a sixth-degree black belt in karate.

In his Teach From Your Best Self workshops, he shares the approach to teaching that changed his life. He has brought that together in his book Teach From Your Best Self: A Teacher’s Guide to Thriving in the Classroom (Routledge, 2023).

Ed Battistella: I enjoyed Teach From Your Best Self. It caused me to reflect on my own teaching over the years. Thanks for writing this.

Jay Schroder: Thank you, Ed. I wrote the book while teaching full time and leading teacher trainings during the summer and on weekends, so this has definitely been a high-effort labor of love. It means a great deal that you found the book impactful.

EB: What should prospective teachers know going into the field?

JS: First, I think it’s important that new teachers have a sense of how hard this job is. As an incoming teacher, I didn’t fully grasp the depth of difficulty involved in teaching, so once I was plunged into the reality of it, I just thought I must be uniquely bad at it. This led me to get unnecessarily down on myself, which didn’t help. I would have loved it if someone who had done the job for a while had come along and said, “teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world—that’s why you’re struggling.” This would have kept me from being so hard on myself, so that’s the first thing I would offer.

Second, if you want to teach well, your well-being matters. Whether you show up to your job frazzled and fried or nourished and rejuvenated will have a huge impact on your ability to help your students. It’s really easy in education to let the job consume us. We tell ourselves that we’re making a worthy sacrifice for the students, but from my perspective that’s a mistake. Students thrive when their teacher is thriving. If you want your students to thrive, prioritize your own well-being.

EB: There was an impressive amount of research in your book, along with your own experiences and perspective. What should people who don’t teach know about the work of teachers?

JS: Teachers show up every day, to do a tough job under extremely difficult conditions. How difficult is it? Well, according to the results of a 2023 Gallup Poll, conditions in K-12 education are so tough that K-12 employees are the most burned-out employees in America. And, among this group of K-12 employees, teachers are the most burned out. Incidentally, the second most burned out employees in America are people who work in colleges and universities.

The burnout gap between teachers and people who work in other industries isn’t even close. For example, whereas 31% of people who work in healthcare report always or very often feeling burned out, 55% of K-12 teachers report feeling burned out all, or much of, the time.

So, the first thing I would want people to know is that the job is hard, and the people who do it need to feel supported. A kind word or a small gesture of appreciation goes a long way.

The second thing I want people to know is that teaching and learning are extremely complex processes. One of the criticisms I hear from people is that teachers should just teach academics. What they don’t realize is that before students can begin to learn academics, they need to feel safe at school (physically, emotionally, and psychologically). They need to have the social skills to interact with their classmates in productive ways. They need to have the emotional resilience to persevere with a difficult task. They need, collectively with their classmates and their teacher, to have the social skills to create a classroom environment in which everyone feels safe to share, to express, and to learn. All of these skills are important foundational pieces to learning academics. This is why telling teachers to simply teach academics is unrealistic, and frankly, wouldn’t work.

EB: What did you learn from writing Teach from Your Best Self?

JS: I wrote the first draft of the book in 4 months. Writing the book proposal and revising the book took an additional three years, and I worked on it every single day. So, the revision process actually took nine times as long as it took me to write the first draft. I kept a file that contained all of the big chunks I wrote and then cut from the book, and that file is now larger than the entire finished book. So, I learned something about the kind of labor involved in writing the best book I possibly could.

Another thing I learned had to do with what it means to be an author. Author’s typically get all the credit for writing a book, so I used to imagine that writing a book was a solitary process. In my case, however, writing this involved 15 educator beta readers, Carolyn Bond, my wonderful editor, my mentor Paul Richards who early in the process gave me the feedback I needed to get the book on a solid track, and my fabulous wife Judy (also a teacher) who gave me ongoing feedback and kept the house from falling apart while I worked on the book. So, I learned that writing a book is a team effort. Now when I read a book, I pay much closer attention to the acknowledgment section because I have a much deeper understanding of how important all the supporting people are to a successful book.

EB: I like that way you’ve applied life lessons to teaching and incorporated your karate practice. Can you tell our readers what’s mean by in shin tonkei and zanshin.

JS: In shin tonkei comes from the ninja of feudal Japan. Ninja were stealthy fighters who emerged during the warring states period of Japanese history as mercenary spies and assassins. They were hired by warlords to do the kind of dirty work that was beneath the dignity of the samurai. The ninja worked behind the scenes conducting night raids, ambushes, and assassinations. There were both male and female ninja, and rather than the brute force and swordsmanship that the Samurai relied on, the ninja would use surprise and cunning. The way of the ninja was in shin tonkei which means maximum impact with minimal effort. This means that the ninja had to be extremely patient and calculating, and in each case, know what mattered most and be able to improvise as circumstances changed.

In Teach from Your Best Self I suggest that teachers apply in shin tonkei to their jobs. Like the ninja, teachers are continually outnumbered and face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They need to know what matters most, be patient and calculating, so they can strategically focus their efforts where it will have the most impact on student learning. Trying to do everything at the same time is a big part of what has led teachers down the path of becoming the most burned-out employees in America and applying in shin tonkei can help.

Zanshin is another concept that comes from Japan. I’ve been training in karate for the past 24 years, and learning to embody zanshin has been an important part of my training. Essentially, zanshin is a mental state of relaxed alertness—a kind of open, responsive mindset in which a person is ready to respond to whatever happens. With zanshin the mind is completely relaxed and simultaneously aware and alert. It’s a state of both effortlessness and complete involvement. I think the closest term we have for this in the west is the idea of being in the zone, or in the flow state.

For the martial artist, it isn’t enough to be in this state while meditating undisturbed; the real challenge is to maintain this state under the pressure of someone’s attack.

In my own case, learning to maintain this mental state in the dojo bled into my teaching practice. As I grew in my ability to main zanshin, my students gave up trying to get the best of me. They began telling me how much they enjoyed the relaxed vibe of my class. Teaching became more fun.

In Teach from Your Best Self, I offer approaches and understandings people can use to deepen their capacity to attain zanshin and maintain it, even under stressful circumstances.

EB: You mentioned that your black belt test involved about 4 hours of sparring and that you ended up with three cracked ribs, a broken nose, and two black eyes. I’m curious how your students reacted to your appearance.

JS: On that Monday morning, I was met with a ton of questions, “Oh my God, Mr. Schroder, what happened to you?!” They wanted to know if I had gotten into a fight. Indeed, I had—100 rounds with experienced black belts.

EB: You mentioned that negativity and anxiety can be contagious. Can you give an example or two?

JS: In the novel Don Quixote, Cervantes has Don Quixote’s wise and loyal servant Sancho say, “tell me your company and I will tell you what you are.” When someone tried to attribute the quote to Cervantes, Cervantes disclaimed it, saying it was proverbial. Indeed, the Greek philosopher Euripides, in the 4th century BC wrote “every man is like the company he is wont to keep.” And in the Old Testament book of Proverbs (13:20) there are warnings about how the people around us can either make us better or reduce us. So, this idea that the mindsets and emotions of others are contagious has been observed in human beings for a long time.

As parents, we can see the impact that our children’s friends have on them. People who served time in prison will often start their story by saying, “as a teenager, I got in with a bad crowd.”

The truth is, we are all highly influenceable by the people around us. Sometimes this can happen on a cultural scale, for instance, the way people simultaneously started panic buying toilet paper at the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020.

In 1992, scientists discovered an important part of the explanation when they discovered mirror neurons in brain research involving monkeys. Mirror neurons are neurons in our brain that mimic the firing patterns of people around us. This is a great advantage when learning a complex task. We can watch someone do something and as we do, the mirror neurons in our brain will mimic the firing pattern required to perform the task ourselves. Mirror neurons appear to be integral for babies learning language. They are why when someone smiles at us, we tend to smile back.

However, these same mirror neurons make us susceptible to embodying other people’s negativity and distressing emotional states.

This has huge repercussions in the classroom as when teachers are anxious or frustrated or overwhelmed, the mirror neurons of their students copy the firing patterns of their teacher. This leads to a situation in which the teacher’s brain isn’t firing optimally for teaching, and the students’ brains aren’t firing optimally for learning.

When teachers can maintain their best selves as they teach, the mirror neurons in their students’ brains will fire accordingly, and the students will tend toward responding to the teacher from their best selves. This simultaneously maximizes student learning while making the teacher’s job easier.

EB: You talk about “hurtspots.” What are those and how can you identify them?

JS: What I am calling hurtspots are pockets of pain left behind in our minds and bodies from unprocessed trauma. Typically, we don’t have the time, space, or support to process trauma in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, so we tuck the pain away to be processed later. Then, we try to forget about it and get on with our lives.

But those pockets of pain aren’t gone, so at some point we’ll face an event or circumstance that contain elements similar to the original traumatic experience. When this happens, the hurtspot awakens, flooding our systems with the unprocessed pain from the original trauma.

Because all of this is happening below our conscious awareness, we will look to the real time situation and blame it for our emotional and physiological distress. This is why we’ve all observed people having an intense emotional meltdown, or blowing up over something that looks, to an outside observer, to be pretty minor. Hurtspots lead people to react in proportion to how they feel, not in proportion to what actually happens.

Reacting out of proportion to the situation is actually one way we can learn to recognize hurtspots in ourselves. For instance, I once punched a hole through a wall because my girlfriend at the time was out later than I thought she would be.

Another tell-tale sign that I’ve been caught in the undertow of a hurtspot is if I’m obsessing or ruminating on the triggering event for hours, days, and sometimes maybe weeks after it’s happened. Usually, my rumination will be about how horrible someone else is, how right I am to feel the way I do, or what I should have done or said.

In time, the hurtspot will die down and we’ll try to put the episode behind us. But because we’ve not actually processed the underlying trauma, the hurtspot will go into hibernation, certain to ambush us the next time we face a similar experience. People can spend their whole lives cycling in and out of hurtspots, blaming the people and circumstances that trigger them into pain.

Activated hurtspots negatively affect our ability to meet circumstances in our own best way. Whether we are teaching a class, parenting a child, interacting with a friend, or dealing with an undesirable event, learning to respond from the best version of ourselves, rather than reacting from a hurtspot, will determine how things turn out—both for us, and for the people around us.

In the book, I offer Expressive Writing as a research backed approach for bringing healing and resolution to our hurtspots so they don’t continue to dog us in our lives.

EB: What’s next for you and Teach From Your Best Self?

JS: After 24 years as a classroom teacher, I’ve recently taken a job working for Southern Oregon Regional Educator Network (SOREN) where I will be available to support, coach, and mentor educators. Meanwhile, I will be continuing to grow the Teach from Your Best Self community through leading TFYBS trainings and taking advantage of opportunities to talk about Teach From Your Best Self. Ultimately, I want to be a voice in education reform, helping to steer education policy towards creating a sustainable education system in which staff and students alike are supported and inspired to bring their best every day.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Best of luck with your work.

JS: This has been an absolute pleasure. Anyone who wants to learn more about Teach from Your Best Self and the work we are doing can go to I always love to hear from readers, so when you do read the book, feel free to reach out to me at


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What I’m Reading

Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day by Judith Tschann

The words that we use for food and eating say a lot about the history of the world and they ways that humans build culture. In Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day, Judith Tschann, an emerita professor of linguistic and English, gives us the etymologies of hundreds of words for food and drink (I didn’t count—but the word index seems to be about 500). Tschann seasons the work with relevant linguistic concepts and Peter Grimm’s clever illustrations provide the garnish. We get not just the words from Old English (brēowa > brew, eyren > eggs, raedic > radish) and French (estuve > stew, dresser > dressing, ragoûter > ragout) but others like toddy (from Hindi), port (from Oporto, Portugal), ketchup (from Chinese) and yogurt (form Turkish). Bread, spaghetti, and eggs are staples and there is plenty to drink. Tschann is clearly having fun with the book and occasionally treats readers to some etymologies or food facts “Off the Menu.” It’s a great complement to Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food.

Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass by Bill Meuelemans

Bill Meulemans is a political scientist who gets in the thick of his profession—in his 47 year career at Southern Oregon College, the University of Belfast, and Portland State University, he’s studied the mindsets of diverse political groups—mainstream and extreme in the US, Israel, and Northern Ireland. Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass is a memoir of his experiences teaching and doing research in southern Oregon, Israel, and Belfast. Many of the stories are centered in Oregon where he taught for 28 years, had a radio show on Jefferson Public Radio, and worked as a political organizer. Meulemans invited extremists left and right to visit his classes and tell their stories, and he often researched groups by showing up at their meetings.

We learn about a group of right-wing patriots who practiced dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass separating California and Oregon–convinced that one day they would have to stop California Communists from invading. We hear about a planned protest and counter-protest over the raising of the campus flag after the Kent State killings which was thwarted by some quick-thinking campus maintenance workers. When members of the John Birch call for Meuelmans to be fired, he crashed their Christmas Party to set them straight. Meulemans visited the Rajneesh compound, interviewed the leader of Oakland’s Hell’s Angels, interviewed Ku Klux Klan members in Louisiana, and talked his way into the Soviet Embassy in Washington when he took students on a field trip. Meuelemans has also worked as a journalist, political organizer, and as a staff aide in the House of Representative, so the stories have a fast-paced journalistic tone rather than being ponderously academic. He offers more than just stories though. The memoir is filled his bits of political and sociological analysis—the role of empathy, single issue politics, the Hell’s Angels’ political views, and more. A first-rate memoir.

Chris Ware Conversations edited by Jean Braithwaite

I had not known about the University of Mississippi’s before I read this. It’s are series of carefully selected interviews with the Chris Ware—the author of Jimmy Corrigan, Building Stories, ACME Novelty Library and Rusty Brown. Spanning 25 years, the interviews bring us Ware unique voice, personal history, literary, his influences, and creative process. Bonus material includes Braithwaite’s interview with Marnie Ware, and Chris Wares own cover design, and over 40 illustrations from Ware’s work.

The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay

Mark Genevich is a Boston private detective who suffers from narcolepsy and narcolepsy-related hallucinations, who starts unravelling a long-buried secret when the DA’s celebrity daughter appears in his office—or does she. Genevich evokes Jonathan Lethem and Raymond Chandler: Genevich is part Phillip Marlowe, part Lionel Essrog; And his mother is his helper. Some good plot twists and it all adds up in the end.

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The first of the Department Q series, featuring Danish homicide detective Carl Mørck. Injured in a shooting that killed one colleague and paralyzed another, Mørck is promoted out of the way to head a cold case squad. But he discovered begins to suspect that a five-year old death has more to it that it seems. Good characters and a good plot, but I have to quibble about the somewhat unrealistic methods of the villain. I’ll definitely read more of this series.

The Golden State by Ben H. Winters

I’m a big fan of Ben H. Winters’ world-building books (the Last Policeman Trilogy, Underground Airlines, etc.). In this one, he drops us into the future in the a “The Golden State” a dystopia where lies are illegal. Greetings are replaced by the recitation of facts “Two plus two is four”) and everyone tracks events in a collection of daybooks which one another by spouting facts. An elaborate system of tracking and archiving the minute details of everyone’s lives has been set up. The line between lies and other bits of speculation, imagination, and non-literalness is thin do a whole bureaucracy and enforcement arm are required to monitor and verify information. The enforcers of the truth are part of the Speculative Services, elite agents who can detect lies and are also licensed to speculate, hypothesize or lie themselves, in pursuit of the truth.

This is their story. It’s centered around Laszlo Ratesic, a bulky loner with a unruly red beard and a failed marriage. As Laszlo explains it to his trainee:

“Unwarranted speculation is no better than lying, Ms. Paige. It is worse. You want to see how it’s done, here’s how it’s done: it’s better when it’s not done at all. Our job is to reinforce the Objectively So. Not conjure realities, every one of which might extend, evolve, metastasize.” “And none of those realities can be collected back once released. Our job is to find the facts and travel between them, walk carefully along the lines of what’s true. And when we do speculate? When we do hypothesize, we do it carefully, conscientiously, in a controlled environment, and we don’t do it at all unless and until the facts support it. The Speculative Service is a bulwark.”

And later “Shared understanding is a bulwark. Clear and agreed-upon definitions of common terms are defenses against infelicity. Words mean what they fucking mean.”

Laszlo discovers the truth about the truth and the state dedicated to maintaining it. What’s especially fun it’s the extent to which Winters has thought through the ideas about language. There is, for example, a Court of Small Infelicities, which deals with “knucklehead kerfluffles like when a car dealer is challenges about the truth of “lowest rates around.”

There is The Everyday Citizens’ Dictionary, where some words are redefined, such as novel: “A true story, that is, organized into chapters or incidents, featuring a historical character or characters, building to a conclusion, suggesting or implying an inspirational message about the nature of the Golden State.”

Humor is allowed, however:

”Humor causes no oscillation in the So, any more than any other form of small social falsehood: obvious hyperbole, inoffensive teasing, plain flattery—the whole constellation of innocuous and lubricating half-truths.” Idioms too are permitted “Given that their intention and literal meaning can be gleaned from context and familiarity. They’re like humorous remarks in that regard.”

Thought provoking stuff for linguistically-minded readers.


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An Interview with Judith Tschann, author of Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day

Judith Tschann is medievalist and Professor Emerita at the University of Redlands where she courses the History of the English Language, English literature, and Food in Literature, among others. She has a Ph.D. from Stony Brook University and has received numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Mortarboard Professor of the Year Award.

Judith Tschann grew up in the Midwest and now lives, writes, and enjoys meals in Redlands, California.

Her book Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day: The Delightful History of Food Language was published by Little, Brown in 2023 under its Voracious imprint.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day. How did you get interested in food history and the history of food words?

Judith Tschann: As a kid from a family of eight, I loved our crowded, noisy dinner table. I was also a dictionary reader, flipping pages in that fat book and marking words that intrigued me. In graduate school I specialized in Old and Middle English literature and language, and as a professor teaching those subjects and various topics in linguistics, I amassed a huge pile of notes on interesting etymologies. During the pandemic, I pulled the notes on food words together into a book, and in some ways the pandemic inspired the work. I was reminded daily of missing the pleasure that comes from talking and eating with a big group around a table. Writing about food and language was not only a consolation but a source of joy.

EB: Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day has a lot of great world and word history. How long did it take you to track all of these down? What was the hardest to pin down?

JT: The word history research started long ago and included (sometimes serendipitously) other research projects, including a study of French loan words in English as evidenced by a thirteenth-century trilingual manuscript. Many of the literary works I taught over the years, from Homer’s Odyssey to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, to Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, gave me the chance to investigate the symbolic importance of food. I also read medieval recipes, cookbooks, and menus (some included porpoise and hedgehog) and many helpful historical studies like William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, and Judith Bennet’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England. The final checking and tracking down of information took about a year and a half.

One time-consuming but enjoyable aspect of pursuing the history of food language was getting caught up in stories about (e.g.) the role of coffee in the invention of the webcam, and the influence of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake on physicist Gell-Mann’s choice of the word quark. Likewise, it was fun to get caught up in the many webs of words that spin out from the same source, like sass, sassy, saucy, salsa, salad, salami, sausage, and salary, all coming from Latin sal, “salt.”

Words that proved tricky include carrot, parsnip, celery, and parsley, because it was not always clear what exact vegetable a particular word referred to centuries ago.

EB: A lot of food terms seem to be related to the who or where of their origin, but they sometimes take mysterious turns, like the word cocktail. Can you tell us about that?

JT: The history of the word cocktail sounds like the kind of explanation you might hear when playing Fictionary. The word comes from the practice of docking a horse’s tail, cutting it so it stuck up like a cock’s tail. A carriage horse’s tail might be docked, but not a thoroughbred’s, so if a racehorse was found to have a cocktailed horse in its lineage, its pedigree was considered impure. By the time the word cocktail was applied to mixed drinks in the nineteenth century, it had lost the sense of impurity, suggesting only a mixture—to many people, a delicious, sophisticated mix of spirits and other ingredients like bitters, fruit juice or liqueur.

EB: There were so many surprising etymologies, but one that will stick with me is cabbage. I had never made the connection of cabbage and Latin caput, so now I’ll never think the cabbage the same way again. Have you ever called anyone a little cabbage?

JT: I think I did call my children mon petit chou (“my little cabbage”) on occasion when they were little. It’s amusing that cabbage is both a term of endearment and a slur (if you call someone a cabbagehead). I also like cabbage for a slightly embarrassing reason. The coffee cup I reach for, when I’ve put tushy on the cushy and fingers on the keyboard, has a charming scene on one side of a man and woman tending a cabbage patch, and a huge rooster with an impressive cock’s tail on the other side. I’ve wasted a lot of time analyzing this cup—the ways in which it depicts nature vs. culture (as if!). Like the lilies of the field, the rooster looks glorious and doesn’t toil. The man and woman, on the other hand (or side of the cup), with their tidy house and little fence in the background, have clearly worked hard cultivating those many neat rows of cabbage. To me the scene says, “Get to work,” “Weed that messy essay,” though often I only get up and peer longingly into the pantry.

EB: I was amazed at the number of food words that seemed related to smells–and farts in particular—and also to body metaphors. Do you have a couple of favorite examples?

JT: Souffle, pumpernickel, partridge, and nuns’ farts come to mind, because they illustrate different aspects of lexical evolution or semantic change, as well as the difficulty of fully accounting for a word’s history and meaning. The Latin word flāre, “to blow,” gave us a many words, including flavor, flatulence, conflate, deflate, inflate, and (via French) souffle. Even if some members of this group of related words seem almost contradictory, it’s still possible to see how they could all come from a word meaning “to blow.” But with food terms like pumpernickel, partridge, and nuns’ farts, it’s not a matter of how words with very different meanings can derive from the same ancestor word, but rather a question of how some foods ever acquire a seemingly unappealing name, one that suggests yucky rather than yummy. The why and how of the name are often a matter of speculation.

Pumpernickel comes from early German pumper, “to fart,” and “Nicholas,” a personal name that could also mean a “lout or bumpkin.” Perhaps this coarse-ground bread was called “farting Nicholas” because it was hard to digest, and when others got wind of the nonce name, it stuck, and eventually over many decades, the literal meaning faded away. A similar process probably occurred with partridge, from Greek perdesthai, “to fart,” apparently because the bird makes a whirring noise when startled. The history of “nuns’ farts” isn’t about literal meaning being forgotten but rather highlighted. English speakers have usually absorbed food words from other languages without translating those words (though Anglicizing goes on), from beef to taco, bibimbap, pho, jollof. But the fritter called “nuns’ farts” is a calque or loan translation of the French “pets de nonnes.” Perhaps “nuns’ farts” sells more fritters.

Thinking about food and body connections, I’m reminded of the first time I came upon the term pets de nonnes, in a 1966 book of recipes written by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Joyant and illustrated by Toulouse-Lautrec. The pets de nonne recipe is printed on top of a dancer’s rear as she bends over and her tutu fans out, encircling the recipe. The drawing doesn’t sound subtle, but perhaps because the name of the recipe isn’t translated into English (editor’s decision?), it’s easy to overlook the visual pun, a backside version of “you are what you eat.”

Thinking about smell, food, and body connections, I’m reminded of a cluster of words pertaining to the nose. Speech sounds sometimes acquire semantic associations, and the “sn” sound of nose words can be mildly derogatory (sniffle, snivel, snort, snout, snooty, snot, snotty). Does “sn” seem like a sound-combination to avoid when naming a new food? Maybe, but not in the case of Snickers. What about positive associations between speech sounds and nose words? A vital bit of nose work is to pass along to the brain the information that something smells good. It’s an essential part of enjoying the taste of something. There doesn’t seem to be a long list of words indicating that a particular sound cluster is associated with good smells, though the oh ah mm of aroma comes close.

Sneeze, by the way, isn’t etymologically related to any of the words noted above. It derives from the Middle English word fnese, and may be the result of scribes misreading the letter “f” for “s” and then preferring the misreading, maybe because of the “sn” association with the nose.

EB: I see that you grew up in the Midwest. Are you a dinner person or a supper person?

JT: I started out a supper person in a small town and turned into a dinner person when we moved to the big city. I remember my parents discussing the words dinner, supper, and lunch when I was about five, and we were eating a meal at noon. This was ages ago, in a town small enough that my father could easily go home for the noon meal. My parents declared that farmers called a midday meal dinner and an evening meal supper. Like the farmers, we also called the evening meal supper, but like urbanites, we called the noon meal lunch. Later, when we moved to the Twin Cities, the word dinner became the more common word for the evening meal. That conversation made an impression on me. I suppose it reinforced the simple fact that different people use different names for the same thing, and it also made that fact more complicated. It mattered what words you used, because it said something about you, and others might judge you by it.

EB: Do you have another writing project in the works? I hope so.

JT: I have a novel that I hope may someday leap out of the drawer and onto the bookstore shelf, many short “food adjacent” articles, and a couple academic papers underway. One of them concerns ways of reading in the sixteenth century.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Bon appétit.

JT: My pleasure, thank you!


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