My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
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I never met a kinder man than the homeless alcoholic who introduced me to the father of my kids. He was my teacher through a period of my life which was both an actual and an allegorical journey. We were wrecks but our relationship was complete. Sufficient. He was much worse off than I. But I was a lost spirit clad in a dirty pile of threads. We stumbled through the rocky streets of the city to find our way to green woods where dogwood bloomed … We went along with each other, never having sex or dreaming of it … We sought a difficult route to the nirvana of a woodland setting, hand in hand, imagining a prospect both physical and internal. A white tree is reflected as a white tree in brown water. No matter what you want to say about it, I saw a pure soul when I saw him.
—Fanny Howe, Saving History from Radical Love
(Nightboat Books, 2006)
Fanny Howe is the renowned author of over 40 books of poetry, fiction, and essays. Born to an illustrious Boston family of artists and scholars in 1940, Fanny Howe became involved in the civil rights movement and then married African American writer Carl Senna, with whom she had three children, including novelist Danzy Senna. After the breakup of her marriage, Howe moved to California where she taught literature and fiction writing at the University of California for many years.
It was in San Diego, in 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, where I met Fanny when I was a student in her graduate poetry seminar. One Saturday, I ran into her at an antiwar demonstration and we spent the day marching together. Soon after, I sat down to read one of her novels, The Deep North, which contained some of the most evocative, beautiful prose I had ever read. Love-struck, I fell headlong into a prolonged and drunken stretch of reading and studying her work. That stretch, and our friendship, has lasted these 23 years—sparking several collaborations, including an intertextual collection of poems I wrote called The Only Thing That Matters which will be released this spring by Syracuse University Press.
In an age when many American artists and writers seem focused on projecting an aura of glib certitude, Fanny embraces radical indeterminacy. Reading her fiction feels something like facing a patch of wilderness—startling, beautiful, yet terrifyingly mysterious. Themes such as race and class, poverty and theology, women and oppression, are not merely explored, they are exploded—in a cascade of startling provocations. Linear chronology is abandoned in favor of reckless narrative swerves. Characterization is loose, intuitive. Impressionistic story lines give birth to a proliferation of quixotic passages, arcane speculations, and intoxicating digressions. The only traditional aspect of Fanny’s fiction is its unyielding pursuit of beauty. Five of her most important novels have been recently collected and republished under one edition called Radical Love (Nightboat Books).
Ever the itinerant teacher–thinker–Catholic mystic, Fanny Howe never stays rooted for long. It was therefore a stroke of luck that she landed for a stint at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University this past year, not far from where I live in Baltimore. Last spring, we spent a gloriously sunny day together, walking, resting, and talking—about her life, her ideas, and her writing, mainly her novels, since I have been an avid reader of them for so many years. In the luxuriant garden of her rented flat, I recorded part of our meandering conversation. After transcribing the interview, I went back with Fanny and we added the missing parts.
Kim Jensen You’ve been teaching children’s literature for a while and are finishing a two-year post at Georgetown. What books did you love as a child?
Fanny Howe Many I can’t remember. I think the books I read the most were more seductive than instructive because of their illustrations. I still swoon over Tom Kitten. If you look closely, you can see that Beatrix Potter’s watercolors are filled with both vagueness and detail. Distance is her medium. And the Greek and Roman myths adapted by Nathaniel Hawthorne had pictures strong in outline fitting to their certainties—gleaming helmets and dragons. But I think Ferdinand the Bull and The Little House were very helpful to me as a young child. The characters stood their ground and were not defeated, although they were weak, passive.
KJ There’s a whole category of books that teach children how charming and useful it is to be a failure.
FH Stuart Little is one of my favorites. Stuart is an outsider from the moment he is born as a mouse into a human household. As an odd phenomenon, he is given chores to do. He is useful, brave, and clever. A servant to the family. But his independent adventures almost always result in disasters. When he is alone, he goes through hilarious struggles and, at the end, he sets off into the world as a complete failure.
KJ In your own novels, there is the recurring fairy tale-like figure of the neglected or isolated younger child who sees herself as a failure and who identifies with servants and outsiders. Overshadowed by others, she retreats into her imagination, shielding herself from an adult world that hovers like the menacing boot of an indifferent giant. Can you talk about your own childhood, and how it relates to this prominent motif?
FH I grew up during the Second World War and the Cold War. It was an ominous time for a child. Absent fathers, McCarthy, threats of annihilation… . When it stabilized, I found myself in the arms of a lovely little city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, with lots of trees and gardens and alongside a very powerful and gifted older sister [Susan Howe]. My Irish mother, Mary Manning, produced plays at a theater she founded called the Poets’ Theater, which now enjoys some notoriety in the poetry world. They performed Frank O’Hara, W. S. Merwin, Violet Lang, John Ashbery, Yeats, etcetera. Weirdly, the quality of the plays was of little importance to my intrepid mother who believed in trying things out, rather than believing in them.
My father, on the other hand, believed in fixed principles and moral laws. He was on the side of the disenfranchised. He taught the Constitution at Harvard and actively defended civil rights. He was the center of my life, but he never held our mother back from her drinking or anything else. My sisters and I took on the problem of her dramatic mood swings in very different ways. We left home early, didn’t get college degrees, went into the arts, and had bouts of mental distress. Neither of us struck it rich. We basically stayed at the same income level as our parents for our whole lives. When my younger sister was born, I was nine and it was at that moment that I became critical of my home base and began to rebel against institutions, parental approvals, and other constraints.
KJ Your youthful rebellion led you to dropping out of school, then to being “exiled” to Stanford University where you did poorly and never graduated. Is it at Stanford that you began to develop a political position?
FH Well, I had already been indoctrinated by my father who talked about politics with me over the dishes. In retrospect I think that I always, from birth, was worried about imbalance. By the time I left home, my father underwent the conversion that a few white men did. He woke up to the existential reality of race in America. Vietnam was secondary for him during that awakening. He could think of little else but racial injustice—and so that had a huge impact on me.
At Stanford I was obsessed with the Russian Revolution. I took Frank O’Connor’s legendary class on the short story, called “The Lonely Voice,” which made a lasting impression on my literary consciousness. I wrote stories and prayed, was a socialist ideologue. In reaction, I married a conservative but troubled microbiologist whom I left three days after the assassination of JFK.
KJ I think your readers get fleeting glimpses or literary versions of this ill-fated marriage in some of your early novels like Bronte Wilde, First Marriage, and even The Deep North, in which the female protagonist is drawn, almost compulsively, toward various iterations of the Waspy prep. Is it around this time that you start writing fiction?
FH After I left the man, I moved to the Bowery in New York, where I wrote pulp novels with titles like West Coast Nurse and Vietnam Nurse for money. Paradoxically, these classless achievements relieved me of my shame at being such a dropout and taught me how to construct plot and make a little money at the same time. I didn’t leave the apartment without my dog because, frankly, I had a morbid fear of human beings. Writing for money justified staying locked inside. That nurse fiction was practical, proletarian, and while everyone laughed, and still does, over the schlock I was writing then, I was never ashamed of it, for some reason. I was instead ashamed of myself. I couldn’t handle New York and returned to Boston as a failure. My father rented me a one-room studio in a building under construction. Then he died.
KJ Your father’s death was traumatic for you. Was it after his death, when you were in that studio, that you stopped writing for money?
FH Yes, I became a night secretary instead. Filing in the dark and writing fiction and poetry by day.
KJ I’ve always been curious about this: Whom did you think of as your audience at that time? When you wrote, who did you think would be reading it?
FH I never thought too much about my audience, really. Of course, I wanted to be a winner like Françoise Sagan—with the same reading audience. But she was French. Because of my sort of Irish childhood, Northern California education, and friends in New York and Boston, I read quite a lot of Italian, Latin American, Haitian, African, Russian, and British fiction. So my reader was often imagined in other cultures and in their ways of thinking about the world. Not always, of course, but the combination of profound subjectivity with social consciousness was not so macho as it was inside American literature of that period.
KJ Can you explain more what you mean by that?
FH Think of Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Hemingway, Richard Wright, and on. If you then read Julio Cortázar or Eugenio Montale, Marguerite Duras, Philip Larkin’s Girl in Winter, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing … damn! And what a relief when the hypersensitive Salinger arrived. But I don’t want to set up an argument or an extravagant claim, because I am really talking about an atmosphere and a contrast in atmospheres. It seemed that subjectivity had a better chance outside of America. Young female fiction writers in America, if they were at all experimental, were the bottom of the barrel. It was pretty much penises and guns around here after the war.
KJ You were 27 years old when your first collection of short stories, Forty Whacks, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1967. Around that same time your first collection of poems, Eggs, also came out. You were supposed to be “the hot new thing.” The New York Timescalled you “an exciting and promising writer.” Though Forty Whacks already shows an offbeat sensibility, after that your writing became increasingly experimental. Can you talk about the shift?
FH If you go back to my early novels published in paperback by Robert Wyatt at Avon Books shortly after Forty Whacks, you will see that I was already off the track. Houghton Mifflin rejected the way I was writing after 1968 and so, from then on, I was a small-press writer with publishers who let me do what I wanted. First, the Fiction Collective, then Sun and Moon Press. When I was desperate for money later on, Bob Wyatt suggested I try young-adult fiction, and so I was back to so-called pulp, but this time it was not so low because I knew my audience: my children and their friends. At the same time, I was writing poetry, and poetry remains the main influence on my prose.
KJ How did your marriage to Carl relate to all of this?
FH I married him in 1968 and began teaching at the same time. I had three children in the next four years and continued to write with fervor whenever I could. This was, of course, the tailend of the civil rights movement and the beginning of women’s liberation. My two novels from Avon came out, and then I turned to the Fiction Collective for the next two. In my thirties, during the most difficult time in my life, I was the most religious in spirit and the most committed to social justice. Reading up a storm and pushing three children around Boston’s Jamaica Plain in one pram. My husband and I shared many literary interests, one being Simone Weil. He was writing plays and teaching literature, writing and editing at Beacon Press. Our marriage was fertile and alive for a time.
KJ The husband figure in many of your novels tends to be gifted and brilliant, an outsider with a quick mind, but frustrated by an inability to find a form or a voice. He is often portrayed with a cruel streak, as the product of unjust social forces that have stunted his ability to be compassionate. Are these echoes of Carl or is this a composite figure, a commentary on what a lot of women have to put up with?
FH You may be thinking of Saving History and Famous Questions in particular, but I don’t think it was a reaction to Carl. Perhaps because of my father, I felt close to men and their problems. At the same time, I was scared of rage. Men can be violent when they get mad. I hate that. I also have no understanding of successful men who feel they deserve what they have. I only trust people who are funny, men or women, or who admit to having made horrible mistakes. There is such a revolution taking place right now in sexuality and power relationships that critical consciousness will have to come from bodies we don’t even know exist yet. Thinkers can only do half the job. The world is like a child we never dreamed we would have, a big disappointment, out of our control, and here only for reasons to do with DNA and other personal histories—not our fault, so to speak. We are responsible for the child but we don’t know how it feels about us. Half the story is missing.
KJ In Indivisible there is McCool, an enigmatic but mean-spirited Irish musician who is depicted in that same mold. Talented, dissolute, generous, brutal. But the thing I love about your portrayals is that they are associative, rhythmic, and lyrical, so that anyone can see the charm and allure, even of the destructive. But back to you, what happened to your marriage?
FH In a sense our daily life was screwed in too tight to the exact time in which we lived. There was no air around it, only the sensation of being squeezed inside a racial and economic mold. We were seriously poor and without models. But in the end it was a failure of love.
KJ Love, especially romantic love, is almost impossible to keep alive when the social and economic pressures are cold and divisive. More universally, Balzac wrote: “The human heart may find, here and there, a resting-place short of the highest height of affection, but we seldom stop in the steep, downward slope of hatred.” I’m not suggesting a devolution into hatred in your particular story, but just that love, as of yet, remains the most difficult yet necessary task.
FH I agree with you. It has never been more difficult than now when life lasts so long.
KJ On the subject of love, a collection of five of your most important, most experimental novels was recently issued by Nightboat Books under the title Radical Love. It’s a massive, important collection, representing two decades of work. Sometimes when I am reading your work, especially the stuff about love and marriage, the descriptions of landscape and weather, the passages about the Sisyphean struggle to just get through the day—I feel that’s it, she’s done it. Nothing more can be said!
FH (laughter) Lots more can be said, but now it will be differently said because of the shape of publishing and cyberspace.
KJ Absolutely. Still, my gut reaction is that you really did justice to your particular moment. So can you talk about this body of writing and why you chose to call it Radical Love?
FH I named it after a series of paintings by Franz Kline with that title. His paintings are black slashes on emptiness. Once I used the word radical for social reasons, but now it is more in the realm of disappearance, of crossing out, of a radical love being one that is outside the spectrum of daily life. For me, it describes the reach of a feeling that goes beyond description and may even be unknown to the person who experiences it. The five novels together are about lives that barely intersected, that had wildly different trajectories out of the same place and time. Ireland makes an appearance in the stories, but mostly it is a study of Americans during the second half of the 20th century. So it is trying to account for profound loneliness and its consequences. And the characters have passed through each other’s lives without noticing. Their contact has nothing to do with the plot or story, but only with existence in the same time and place. It’s about how much happens simultaneously, associatively. That’s why the real love stories are friendships, and children are always present, watching. The movie that you and I both love, A Separation, could be called a radical love story in that the presence of love (or truth) divides the people and holds them together by staying invisible, and therefore remains mesmerizing.
KJ Beyond their existence as records of 20th-century American loneliness, your stories have posited an innovative form and structure. The narratives are often ruptured or interlaced with poetic and speculative passages that are, to my mind, somewhat analogous to the way the chorus intervenes in Greek drama, particularly Sophocles—adding a layer of history, musicality, and lyricism, conjuring the larger context of the story, ramping up the emotional consequence.
FH Yes, they shatter toward poetry. I wrote them in blocks, numbers, and spaces. I was committed to making sense out of random parts. Contemporary poetry seems to have the same goal, from Ashbery to Rae Armantrout, from Kamau Brathwaite to Jean Valentine, and way on to the young. What is given is what you have to work with and it’s never enough. There are stops, starts, leaps, and returns to reexamine. But form is calling your name, like the Muse clattering along a street in high heels. Form is your name. You have to answer or be humiliated. My novels were my callings back and forth and seeing how many vows were broken.
KJ Many of them are almost epistolary novels, written with God as the interlocutor. The sheer genius of this device is that you can say almost anything, in any order, because God would understand all the lonely ravings, the mystical references, the obscure assemblages.
FH God, or the gods, stands among the flat-out raving ruins.
KJ The most deranged of all of your novels is probably Saving History. I wrote my master’s thesis on it, in relation to feminist and postmodern theory but also in relation to liberation theology—a huge influence for you. The core premise is that a mother goes to the San Diego-Tijuana border to buy a liver on the black market for her dying daughter.
FH The subject, the sale of body parts, was sickening to me and reflected my nausea at the atmosphere of San Diego. Greed and pretension; squalor and the demolition of canyons and cliffs for acres of cheap housing; the border with its helicopters and people riding buses with their ID cards. I read a news story by Alexander Cockburn on the sale of body parts and it set me off.
KJ The book’s title and plot are taken from an idea in liberation theology called salvation history, the profoundly spiritual idea that there are anonymous, underground acts and minutes that somehow save the world from downward thinking. Do you believe this?
FH I know there are anonymous, heroic people who dare to speak up, who still sacrifice themselves for a greater good. They are out there. They lift the atmosphere. They are planted through all of recorded history, but more often their deeds are unrecorded. There was such a tremendous period of reassessment and revolution in the ’60s and ’70s—that naturally included lots of downward thinking. What I have always wondered is: What is a person? Are we even recognizable to ourselves? The existential and secular answers describe the limits to being human, but I think that Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutiérrez, two of the greatest liberation theologians, went way under to the mystery of consciousness, to a ground of being that has to be acknowledged for anyone to live without fear. It is unrecorded life. I wanted to let it into the daily.
KJ Part of my early thinking about your work was that it was a deliberate attempt to write the subversive feminine consciousness—a suppressed, marginalized consciousness. I was trying to situate your writing within a body of post-postmodern women’s work that emerges from an anonymous sensuous matrix rather than from the fixed bourgeois individual—in that sense, a Marxist project. Later I realized that your fiction might also fit with what Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous called écriture féminine. Can you comment on any of this?
FH Not really, though I am tempted. I really write at a very primitive level, and don’t know why I am doing it. I depend absolutely on the reader to understand where it all stands in a cultural context. It may well fit into a scheme of thought that is happening everywhere. The thing that was strange to me was the urgency of doing it. I was possessed!
KJ As prolific as you are, I believe it! (laughter) On the gender question again, basically the only thing your almost schizophrenic and deeply religious novels have in common with grandiose male fiction—for example, the 19th-century greats Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky—is the fact that they are constructed of language.
FH The 19th-century writers looked down on the world as God would. I was looking up from under, which is the feminine fate that is no longer serviceable. That must be why I was screaming off the pages. I wrote one novel after another in a fever. Seven of them belong together.
KJ So in terms of the “fate of women that is no longer serviceable,” were the modernist women writers like Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, and Doris Lessing also “looking up from under” as you say? Do you identify with this lineage, which could include James Joyce, who was of course quite a “feminine” writer?
FH Yes, though they are all very different. Djuna Barnes? Wow. Nightwood made an impact on me. I think poetry is making the novel change into something weird and powerful. And this is coming out of the strength of American women poets on the cusp of the 20th and 21st centuries. Let’s mention Zora Neale Hurston at first, and then Bernadette Mayer, and then you can continue into Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino and dip into Dawn Lundy Martin and Ntozake Shange—poets who moved around prose and different subjectivities freely inventing.
KJ The intersection of gender and writing is fascinating. And as much as I am in love with the idea of the poetic underground—the Emily Dickinson model for women—without a certain dose of masculine ego, where would literature be? I’m immediately thinking, for example, about the late great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish whose body of work came to fruition as the culmination of a huge talent but also from a national tragedy—a historic injustice, a poetic tradition, and a wide appreciative audience.
FH Most of those kinds of great, powerful spokespeople of our time have been men who articulated their moments very clearly—the anxiety and problem of their historical moments. But a woman has a different problem. A woman’s problem IS men!
KJ So the idea of the celebrity writer-intellectual doesn’t interest you? We sure love some of these activist authors, like June Jordan, Cornell West, Toni Morison, Adrienne Rich, Gore Vidal, and James Baldwin. Do we need these public visionaries who can capture the larger public imagination?
FH It’s not really an issue because they do exist, they have always existed, the writers and artists who light up the times they live in and are not afraid of the spotlight. But Alice Walker, Carolyn Forché, and Russell Banks would be the first ones to say that the quiet, resisting ones need to be there too. But more importantly, back to the idea of salvation history—there is still one more thing that is indefinable and not immediately useful. Its presence transcends public attention: beauty.
KJ So how would you capture the presence of beauty?
FH It’s the presence of something else wanting to be born. It’s like a figure that we are rushing for, both to touch and to save. It flies ahead—and we rush after it. We reach for it. Everyone has glimmers of beauty, but a lot of people don’t have time to study it because of troubles, trauma, torpor … So that becomes a responsibility of artists and writers—to make time to study it.
KJ What other responsibilities do writers have?
FH You know the answers already. You married a Palestinian exile and have two grown children with him; your lives have been marked by his past and his country. You have been an activist forever, and both of you are artists too. You know that we all, no matter what we do, answer to the time we were born in. We are the time we inhabit. Whether it is Dickinson or Beckett. The artist who documents the situation, whether by paint, film, or writing, is an observer who may feel guilty for this outsider role unless he or she is encouraged.
KJ Exactly! If you are a writer who is daily outraged by the obscenities of ethnic cleansing, poverty, war, political corruption (the ugly elections!), it’s easy to feel guilty and isolated when your fundamental task—writing—is a private one. It can seem disconnected, solipsistic. I mean, we all want to do things that matter. Maybe that’s why I’m obsessed with this question of audience, the act of communication or making meaning.
FH God knows you’re right to be in agony over this problem. I love the great, brave ones who do this to large assemblies. Others speak to small groups of students or stay home and attend to family and neighbors. Some of us are shut-ins. It’s a symphony. The problem for each of us is ego and being American. I have seen artists gutted by too much attention, by overperfecting their position, by cultivating an iconic position and power.
KJ So how does your relationship to religion fit into this?
FH I see something in all religious traditions that tries to meet the requirements of human life at a meaning level. They use music, a space to sit in quietly and acknowledge imagination and sorrow, sharing intimate time with strangers. The question, Can something have been true once and not be true anymore? is very important to me. I have always loved the language of theology from every culture.
KJ Do you still go to church?
FH I’ve been going for 30 years. Here in Georgetown I have been going to daily mass, which is short and sweet. The Sunday Mass has become the site of intense anger, constant internal argument, outrage, and boredom.
KJ When I was growing up and going to Catholic Church, there were always these older women who would come in quietly and sit alone in the side pews. So now you’ve become one of them?
FH (laughter) A horrible image, but yes. I once approached one of them who was insane. She walked me around Mission Church in Boston pointing out the faces of Christ that were wrong. “No, no!” she said. It seems she had been visited by Jesus and was furious at the misrepresentations. I’ve become one of her kind! Negative theology.
KJ Why keep going to Mass?
FH I made a vow on June 4, 1982, and I’m not going to break it. I don’t agree with many of the teachings. But this is the interesting part of being Catholic: The heresy that comes along with it. Indistinguishable from the rites is the rage, the arguing, the rebelling, the mind on alert. I like to be on alert. And I like to be in an atmosphere where people examine one more completely insane vision of the universe.
The church has done tons of practical good for the poor, has managed to accept the maddest among us, has a huge margin for visions, and has handed along, through the strangeness of dissecting time, one set of gestures.
KJ As an activist, I’ve always believed that it is organized action that topples systems of oppression. Do you believe that there is something in the contemplative life that helps liberate oppressed peoples?
FH I do and while I understand why some believe that religion holds people back from certain kinds of progress, I also believe that every person is real and unlimited, not a tool or a target, smashed in a second. Because of injustice, an afterlife to correct it is a kind of law outside nature. But I think that an inner and contemplative life for individuals erased by slavish labor gives dignity to their time for an hour a day or week. Raw communism failed to take into account the sleep, sex, dreaminess, weakness, and sorrow of the individual, the imagination of the person, and the beautiful openness of being animal.
KJ Is there a corollary in the secular world for those of us who just can’t muster up the requisite faith in a God or an individual soul?
FH The arts. The darkness of the movie theater, and the luminous images scattering before us—wonder! Paintings, poetry, music, all of it and thought …The mind is an organ of the soul.
KJ Does it matter if there is a God watching us?
FH Yes, call it what you will, it matters that there is full knowledge somewhere, that injustice is being noted, and that there is a source for courage that you can call upon. Everyone doubts, but I would have to say that Hindu cosmology is as graceful as the Trinity. To be saved only means to matter. You matter. Your life has meaning.
KJ You’ve made it clear that you’ve never obsessed over questions of audience. For you, knowing that your audience may be small, who is the ideal reader?
FH Oh that’s a good question, a hard one. (long pause) Well I’m happy you’re my reader.(laughter) I suppose—you, your generation.
KJ My generation is getting older, Fanny. You may want to think younger.
FH Well you on down, then. Yes, younger people. But also people who don’t usually read fiction or poetry. Maybe just plain thinkers. Anatheists, people who keep coming back to the question of truth, even though it’s impossible.
KJ And what would you want them to understand—out of the novels, out of the poetry?
FH From the fiction: A look into the shadows of unrecorded time, which belonged to the world in the last half of the 20th century—shadows that have colors. Shadows of bodies and their little gods. From my poetry: A glance at the light and its crackling delivery. Contradiction. A longing for paradox. Someone’s brain on alert on the streets. Not books, but brain and body. How it felt to be here with Big God and little gods and to stare at them.
I suppose I am trying to describe radiance—a preserved radiance—and to show that there is an invisible “elseness” to everything. You go on because of it, but it’s the thing you can’t quite see. And then I would hope also to give younger writers a new form, a new way to think about stories.
KJ So you are positing a whole new way of thinking?
FH Exactly. (Tape clicks off.)
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.