Emerson Whitney’s Heaven was recently named a finalist for the Believer Book Awards. In celebration of this and Heaven’s one-year anniversary, we chatted with Emerson about how the project has evolved for them and what they’re working on now. Read an excerpt of Heaven here or get a copy for yourself.
McSWEENEY’S: Through gorgeous moments of memory woven with sharply explored theory, Heaven deals with bodies, motherhood, gender — and specifically, the ways the language falls short in understanding these things. How do you think about the paradox of exploring languages’ shortcomings using language itself?
EMERSON WHITNEY: Oof. This is a good one. It is sort of like trying to fix a broken hammer with a broken hammer, isn’t it? But I guess play comes to mind and how prismatic all of this becomes. I feel so conscious of all the words I’m using right now in response to this question, and I guess that’s the attempt: to address consciously the moving thing that is language and to maybe use linguistic experimentation to pry up some old ideas that are contained in the words we use and even the ways we use them. I write about the linguist gap throughout Heaven. Language itself is always missing something, so I guess I wonder what can happen if we collaborate with the negative space instead of pretending it’s not there. That’s what poetry and theory are for me: a conscious playfulness with the shortcomings of language that sometimes result in new ideas.
McSWYS: The Believer Book Award citation says that Heaven feels like “a conversation with [one’s] smartest, most thoughtful friend” (which I love). I’m curious if you have a specific reader in mind when you write — do you see yourself in conversion in that way?
EW: I was so honored to see this line about friendliness! It’s such a gift to have Heaven read like that. I’ve had a daily journal since I was eight, and every entry starts “Dear You.” It’s been like that since third grade. I don’t know who the ‘you’ was in third grade, but now, the ‘you’ is sort of everybody? Like maybe I’m writing to whoever picks my work up after they find it, or maybe I’m addressing the energy of writing itself, which really is my best friend? Whoever it is, I love this ‘you.’
McSWYS: Heaven is just over a year old (happy birthday!). How has your relationship to the book shifted over that time?
EW: YES. It’s been an incredible year. I’m so grateful for how Heaven has been received. I think I’m really just still so happy about the book, and mostly, I’m less afraid to be vulnerable in my work. The reception has helped me see how powerful autobiographical vulnerability is.
McSWYS: You’re in the midst of a new book, which in some ways is a companion to Heaven. Can we get a little sneak peek? What can we look forward to there?
EW: Yes! I’m very excited about this. The book is about masculinity and storm chasing, dad-ness, and failure. I am someone who has masculinity projected onto my body, and I was at a particular moment in my life where I was questioning if I wanted to go further in — to take testosterone and kind of enjoy the volume of that. I don’t want to, though, and in the process, I started realizing I just wanted to grow up a little bit, to have some more agency. The book is about interrogating what ‘agency’ is in this context. In some ways, I’m asking how to “mature” without using the portal of gender to get there.
I just saw an ad this morning on IG for St. Vincent’s new album. I guess it’s called Daddy’s Home or something. In the ad, she says, “to become daddy is simply to become yourself and to become comfortable in your own skin.”
I guess (like St. Vincent?) I’d started to wonder if I wanted to be daddy now. Like who was I going to be? Should I be? At the time of my writing the book, I was getting divorced. I’d been married and in an SM relationship with my pro-domme ex, who I’d called Daddy for almost ten years. I was pretty confused about how to go from being a 30-year-old boy to anything else. I started looking at my influences, and that brought me to the project of storm chasing. I went on a tour where people pay like $4K per person to go chase tornadoes. This real nice forecaster person let me come on the tour for free. It became a tour of these concepts.