For as long as the blue-eyed Shaw sisters can remember, they knew that their parents planned to one day take their own lives.
It was often a topic of conversation. Patricia and Peter Shaw would discuss with their three daughters their determination to avoid hospitals, nursing homes, palliative care units - any institution that would threaten their independence in old age.
Having watched siblings and elderly friends decline, Pat and Peter spoke of their desire to choose the time and manner of their deaths.
She could have been researching for her next academic work as a scholar of Early Modern theater; she could have been writing the next in her long line of bestselling romance novels or grading her students’ Shakespeare papers, but instead Dr. Mary Bly spent her entire Thursday creating a single, delectable, chocolate trifle. She transformed herself for the afternoon into one of the Regency heroines from her historical romance novels, following a custard recipe from a centuries-old cookbook. She boiled milk, added sugar, beat the eggs, and combined them. Thickening the custard without corn starch meant whisking it madly over a low heat, and when it was finally thick enough, she added brandy and poured it over the chocolate cake she had spent the morning baking. On top she layered cherries and the whip she had made the day before.
There are plenty of grocery stores near her Upper West Side apartment that carry corn starch, but that’s not the point. Mary Bly thoroughly enjoys the process of creation. In the same way, under the romance-writer pen name Eloisa James, she enjoys writing her books, mixing ingredients together into a delicious happy ending. In the literary world, many would consider romances trifles—sweet, rather than mentally nutritious, but Eloisa is as thoughtful and creative in writing her stories as she is in making her trifle. It’s pure fun for her; if her stories were desserts, she would be licking her fingers as she wrote.
We are conditioned from a young age to think of humanity as somehow separate from Nature. Nature is the blank slate against which humans define themselves, from God’s command in Genesis that humans “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” to modern environmentalism’s call to preserve it. Nature is the passive recipient of our actions; we are the active, vital force that exerts ourselves on it.
Dogs trouble this duality: they are of nature but no longer belong to it; they are part of human culture and yet remain wholly alien within it. If, as Georges Bataille once wrote, “every animal is in the world like water in water,” this does not apply to the dog, who exists on the borderlands. We still don’t know for sure when and how the wolf became the dog — the dog’s origin is lost in the same mist of time that is our own. It’s almost as if both human and dog appeared at once — as though each depended on the other for its existence. And yet their place will always be at the edge of the camp, or on the doorsill: protective and loyal, and yet steadfastly never quite one of us. You can never hope to maintain a hard and fast distinction between humanity and nature so long as there are dogs.
It may comfort you to know, however, that we are not the first generation to witness the death of great magazine writing. That bell began tolling, some would say, as far back as 1911, when a run of unprofitability forced Samuel S. McClure to sell off McClure’s—founded in 1893, and the birthplace of the muckracking narrative journalism of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens—to creditors who slowly bled it to death. Sure, the 19th century also produced long-running magazines like National Geographic, Harper’s, and The Atlantic Monthly. But as avid readers watched the likes of Munsey’s and The Century follow McClure’s down the hole, the stench of death was already upon us.
Last August, Anne Rice posted a call to arms — on Facebook, of course — warning that political correctness was going to bring on literary end times: banned books, destroyed authors, “a new era of censorship.” “We must stand up for fiction as a place where transgressive behavior and ideas can be explored,” she proclaimed. “I think we have to be willing to stand up for the despised.” I, a fan of transgressive literature, could not pinpoint why I found her post to be so much more vexing than the usual battle cries of P.C.-paranoiacs. I finally had my answer after reading Han Kang’s novel “The Vegetarian”: What if “the despised” can stand up on their own?
There’s one scene that stands out as being especially difficult. I essentially called it the “Matt sets up the third act” scene, and it’s just a monologue. We had this concept of what the third act is, which is that we’re going to launch Matt into space in a tin can. That’s it. When we explained that that was going to happen, we needed to explain why, and we needed to explain the velocity involved in what’s going to happen, because one of the things that’s hard about filmmaking is speed can be difficult. For example, if you look at race cars on tracks, you need to see them blowing past something to understand that they’re moving at a high rate. It’s perspective. The problem with launching off the surface of a planet is, we really wanted to sell how dangerous all of this was about to be. It was this exposition that I was struggling with, of just Matt Damon talking.