"Stephen O’Connor’s historical-fantastical novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings may be very long but its chapters are short, dense with observation, and precisely aimed at the interior life of the titular characters. Each one reads like a prose poem—elegantly shaped, brimming with indelible images—bearing plentiful revelations about race, colonial life, power, and sexuality. Insights are rendered with abundant craft and arrive—via the author’s counter-intuitive deployment of the present tense—with bracing immediacy. This is speculative history designed to implicate the reader, as we are never far from the here and now: 'It turns out that Thomas Jefferson is neither dirigible nor cloud nor breeze, but a bronze monument hundreds of feet high, and all of us are trapped inside him, though some of us claim to have come here voluntarily.'”
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor: A fictional account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings told in conversations, fragments, and dreams. An excerpt is available at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading — the site’s editor called it “experimental, metaphysical, deeply unsettling, and important.”
A debut novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in whose story the conflict between the American ideal of equality and the realities of slavery and racism played out in the most tragic of terms.
Novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird and Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks are a part of a long tradition of American fiction that plumbs the moral and human costs of history in ways that nonfiction simply can't. Now Stephen O’Connor joins this company with a profoundly original exploration of the many ways that the institution of slavery warped the human soul, as seen through the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. O’Connor’s protagonists are rendered via scrupulously researched scenes of their lives in Paris and at Monticello that alternate with a harrowing memoir written by Hemings after Jefferson’s death, as well as with dreamlike sequences in which Jefferson watches a movie about his life, Hemings fabricates an "invention" that becomes the whole world, and they run into each other "after an unimaginable length of time" on the New York City subway. O'Connor is unsparing in his rendition of the hypocrisy of the Founding Father and slaveholder who wrote "all men are created equal,” while enabling Hemings to tell her story in a way history has not allowed her to. His important and beautifully written novel is a deep moral reckoning, a story about the search for justice, freedom and an ideal world—and about the survival of hope even in the midst of catastrophe.
“A brilliant, huge-hearted act of the moral imagination. O'Connor has written a kind of quantum historical novel--simultaneously fiction and nonfiction, wave and particle. With dreamlike fluidity, the story moves from the real halls of Monticello to Jefferson's musings in the afterlife, from meditations on the phenomenology of color to what the theft of dignity means. This book creates new facts to live by; it's stranger and braver than I know how to describe. Open to any page and you will see what I mean."
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!
“By turns delicate and luminous, then searing and straightforward, Stephen O’Connor’s novel sings – it is an epic dream and an epic read. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson come alive in this book, beautifully imagined, and so well-rendered that they become achingly human.”
—Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award winning author of Salvage the Bones
“Expansive, riveting, and startlingly original, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings seamlessly interweaves fact and fiction to make one of the most mysterious and politically charged relationships in all of American history heartbreakingly vivid and real. A richly imagined meditation on the human capacity for self-deception and on that troubling zone between exploitation and love.”
—Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train
“This is an extraordinary book, and I can’t remember reading anything like it. It imagines the most intimate aspects of slavery in the way only fiction can—everything is freshly shocking and freshly human. And its wildly original use of dreamscape, fabulism, and philosophy gives us the layers these characters deserve, as it re-invents the historical novel.”
—Joan Silber, author of Fools: Stories
”This novel is a history of oppression; it's the story of a complex relationship; it’s an American epic of Homeric proportions. Stephen O’Connor has brought into this work what I have long admired in his other writings – a wild imagination, a commitment to social and political concerns, and elegant, at times elegiac, prose. This is a tour de force.”
—Mary Morris, author of The Jazz Palace
UPDATED Book Tour
April 5th, PUBLICATION DATE; book-launch reading & conversation with Mary Morris at Greenlight Books, Brooklyn.
April 9-10th—Los Angeles: L.A. Times Book Festival.
April 11—Los Angles: Cal Arts.
April 12th—San Francisco: readings at Orinda Books and Book Passage.
April 13th—SF area events TBA.
April 14th—Portland, OR: Powell’s Books
April 15th—Arlington, VA: One More Page Bookstore.
April 16th—Washington DC: Politics & Prose Bookstore.
April 28th—New York: Reading/Dialogue at Bookculture Bookstore with Idra Novey
May 1st—New York: Reading at the Slipper Room.
The Soros sisters’ eyes are the blue of lunar seas, their complexions cloud white, and their identical pageboys well-bottom black. The term “beautiful” has never been applied sincerely to either sister, though Ivy, the youngest by two years, might be deemed the better looking, because she has detectable cheekbones and a waist narrower than her hips. Isabel has very little in the way of body fat, but is square-shaped from almost any angle. Even her face is square-shaped. It’s been that way since birth....
FOR THE FULL STORY, CLICK THE LINK IN THE COLUMN TO THE RIGHT
(Originally published in CONJUNCTIONS 60 and BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2014)
A collection of excerpts from THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS can be found under an earlier title at the link to Electric Literature below. For more information about the book, visit the Viking Penguin website and search by title or author.
"I must confess that I am not a great fan of the terms “post-structuralist,” “post-modernist” or any of the other monikers people use to talk about contemporary art and literature. For one thing, these words are impossibly vague. When you get into a conversation using any one of them, you often find that everybody in the room means something different by it. At the same time, there are ways in which the terms can be narrow and restrictive, and mechanisms that people primarily use to inflate their sense of their own importance and to dismiss their competitors. I believe that every form of art is valid and useful and should be pursued, at least if it is honest, intelligent, and in some way or other helps us to engage more deeply with life. The only art I don’t like is that which conspires to make us believe lies."
Also listen to Stephen O'Connor talk about fairy tales, chicken legs, falling in love, fate and the power of imagery in fiction in the Common's podcast of his conversation with Jennifer Acker.
"...Ivy’s primary area of study is the financial futures market, where traders make billions by buying and selling absolutely nothing. Isabel investigates apocalyptic cults, and is particularly interested in the notion of the apocalypse as moral reckoning. The thesis of her book, Revenge: The Ethics of World Destruction, is contained in its opening sentence: “As the extinction of life on earth will have no positive or negative effect on the rest of the universe, it is an event entirely without moral significance, and it is precisely this insignificance that inspires the moral furor of apocalypse cultists.” Revenge has been submitted to seventeen university and academic publishers, and so far has no takers...."
--From "Next to Nothing"
"The first we knew of the soldiers was their bellowing from the snow-silvered hillsides, then the thundering of their boots. They poured through our cemeteries, our stone gates, down our streets. They filled our alabaster plazas with their ignorant grunts. “They’re back!” we hissed over our kitchen fences. “Someone’s got to stop them! Something must be done!” But it was already too late...."
From "My Dreams Would Seem So Close"
"The new girl sat at the computer in the corner playing Ziggurat, Panic! and U-Turn. This was in the pine-paneled section of the Labyrinth, which is where the Minotaur had been hanging out lately, mainly because he didn’t remember ever having been there before, and he liked sleeping on the pool table...."
"It seems that this story is actually happening and that I am one of the characters in it. I am at a vacation resort—rattling fan palms, turquoise harbors, chickens everywhere (crowing, making fretful clucks)—and a gigantic golden cloud is making its way toward us across the ocean. This cloud, gleaming sublimely in the vacation-bright sunshine, is death—but not just death; it is the end of the world. No one seems to know what brought this cloud into being or why the world is ending, but there is no question: When the cloud finally rolls onto our shores it will be as if none of us, and nothing we have done, seen, heard, or believed in will have ever existed...."
"Most people imagine ghosts as the leftovers of cancelled lives, but, in fact, they are only possible lives that never happened. That doesn’t mean ghosts exist, however. They don’t. Possibilities exist. And life is dense with possibility. But as long as something is only possible, it is nothing. Ghosts sorrow. They are haunted by the lives they might have lived. Their longing has no end..."
For the full story, click the link below:
"...He was twenty-eight; she was twenty-two, but they both had the cautious gestures and expressions of people decades older. There was pain in their eyes. His showed the expectation that he would be hurt, but also an alertness to the pain of others. He was more comfortable with those who had suffered: the victims of this world. Her eyes revealed the history of her pain—but only in the form of her determination never to experience it again...."
"Roland’s longing trailed after him as he walked, a sort of dirigible, attached by a silver filament that tugged and tugged without ever lightening his step. 'Why’s that thing always following you around?' his brother asked. 'Haven’t you already got everything you could possibly want?'...”
No Tokens Launch 11/6/14
I enter with my usual portable joys, my bags of will-anybody-believe-this?, my 4:00 a.m. truth.
This is a small house, gray-windowed, shedding shingles on our vast and rusted prairie. And here my actual life
murmurs amidst your cheek’s blond fog, and our hopes loom against their negatives in this altering
From "Now and Again"
I am happy to announce that "Long Time," the 300 word story that eventually became CREATED EQUAL, an 800 page novel about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, is available for the first time since 2009 in "BEST OF GIGANTIC: Stories from the First Five Years," an anthology that also contains excellent writing by Lydia Davis, John Haskell, Etgar Keret, Sparrow, Deb Olin Unferth, Laura van den Berg, and many other fine writers. To order it as an e-book, click the blue link below.
"Sally Hemings is sleeping. She is a countryside to her children, who swoon on the fragrant breezes blowing out of her nostrils, rising off her silver-threaded hair, and wafting above her valleys and hills. All of her children are gathered around her bed, some of them kneeling on it, marveling at her sleep, some of them not believing in it, some of them feeling betrayed...."
--From "Long Time"
"Theoretically, she is of the highest importance, but practically she exists only in the negative, in the way that happiness is sometimes only the absence of pain. Let us say you have been given no choice but to leave, and, late at night, too tired to drive, you pull onto the uneven shoulder, step out onto gravel and dust: no cars for forty miles, nothing but a sliver moon and some dark mountains looming over desert...."
"...What Marie sees is the bad haircut of a thirteen-year-old who wants to look like a rock star. And under that unruly helmet of hair, she sees dog brown eyes and lips exactly the dusky red of raspberries. She sees a long jaw just slightly uplifted by hope, and a long, slender torso hollowed by an extreme lack of confidence. She sees an odd-looking young man who could just possibly be handsome if weren’t so heartbreakingly lonely and afraid...."
"Nothing would have happened if it hadn’t turned out that, exactly as the vitamins splattered out of the dropper, Simon took a deep breath—probably in preparation for a cry. The brown fluid swerved, mid-air, away from his tongue and down his throat. His eyes went wide; he gagged and fell silent. After a few seconds I realized he wasn’t breathing, and that his lips were turning blue..."
In some ways, Thomas Jefferson finds death more appealing than life. Nothing he does matters anymore, and so he is able to lose himself more completely in the moment. Now he is lost in the emerald translucency of locust leaves in dawn light. Now in a cloud of indigo butterflies fluttering over meadow grass. And now his heart is broken by the contest between joy and despair in every note of birdsong. Birds have three springs inside their heads, and seven cogs, and are not actually capable of choice, and yet, all day, every day, they sing of joy’s inability to outlast despair. There is something in this that Thomas Jefferson finds unspeakably beautiful....
"...[T]he single most important lesson I have learned standing at the front of a classroom is never to fake it. I can’t help my students by pretending to know something I don’t know, or by relying on some impressive but only half-comprehended bit of critical dogma or vocabulary. If I speak to an issue in the classroom, I want to be sure that I completely understand every aspect of the problem I am dealing with, that I can express what I understand clearly, and that I truly believe everything I am saying. I apply exactly the same standards to my writing. Some of my work strikes many readers as profoundly mysterious, if not downright impenetrable, but I work as hard as I can to be sure that I understand the implications of every scene, image and word, and that they all work toward some sort of effect and/or significance that seems right to me...."
"Hope" -- APOGEE
A NEW excerpt from NOBODY HERE KNOWS ANYTHING, a novel-in-progress.
"So anyway. My foster mother’s name was Mrs. Bingham. She weighed like two hundred and fifty pounds. This big, fat woman. And there was this other girl there. Chardonelle. She was a foster child too. Mrs. Bingham was getting paid for keeping us. That was the only reason. She used to make us. You know, when we been bad. She used to make us get down on our knees and thank God she was so generous that she took us in. “Without me y’all would both be dead!” she used to say. “So y’all thank God for bringing you to me!” And she would sprinkle sand on the floorboards so that it was extra painful...."
[For the whole excerpt, click the link above and turn to p. 46.]
"You Must Be Strong" - BIG BRIDGE
A brief excerpt from NOBODY HERE KNOWS ANYTHING, a novel-in-progress.
"I saw that my mother was gone and I picked up my pasteboard suitcase—sand-colored, with the loveliest honey-brown leather on all the edges and the handle, and two shiny brass fasteners—and I moved with the crowd...."
Photo: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times
Sunday, March 27, 2011 "On Saturday, Tim Curry captivated the sold-out crowd at the Getty as he read Stephen O'Connor's story "Ziggurat." It was part of the three-program "Selected Shorts" series at the Getty, run by New York's Symphony Space..." -- Carolyn Kellogg
To read more about this amazing event, and to see a slide show featuring Stephen O'Connor, Tim Curry, T.C. Boyle and others, please click on the links below. The program will be broadcast three times during Selected Shorts 2011-12 season, and will be available as a CD and on iTunes.
The first time I read Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”—at around age twelve—I had the distinct impression that I was discovering myself, that in his language and images, and in particular in his always surprising juxtapositions and narrative turns, I was experiencing something essential about the way I was and wanted to be in this world...
My favorite way to start a story is to get myself into a jam. I try to sit down at my computer with an utterly blank mind—that is with no idea of what I am going to write. As rapidly as I can, I jot down a sentence that is both surprising (to me, at least) and has some form of narrative potential. Then I try to follow the sentence with another that would seem profoundly incompatible with it, at least in a sane or coherent world. That’s the jam I like to be in, because then my challenge is to make this impossible world seem as natural and real as the world outside my window, and out of that challenge come all sorts of unexpected images and ideas....
INTERVIEW BY CATHERINE LACEY
Catherine: What one attribute (or attributes) do most (or all) of the characters in Here Comes Another Lesson have in common? (Feel free to answer this question by inverting it.)
Stephen: One of the things that has most disconcerted me about my books is that almost everything I have written — fiction or nonfiction, realistic or not — tells the same story about a character who tries to do the right thing and fails. In my memoir about teaching in the public schools, Will My Name Be Shouted?, I am that character. In Orphan Trains, a nonfiction account of a controversial 19th century child welfare effort, Charles Loring Brace is that character. But this character also appears over and over again in Here Comes Another Lesson, just as he (or she) also did in my first collection, Rescue. He’s the Minotaur in “Ziggurat,” the Iraq veteran in “White Fire,” Charles in the “Professor of Atheism” stories, and so on. The reason I am disconcerted is that I never set out to write about this character, and only find out that I have after the fact….