"I have a persistent fear of being a strange person in a normal world. I know this fear is not uncommon. The worl—and I along with it—hopes to be normal, someday. Sometimes, though, it is better not to hope for this. The world has a long history of being strange and surprising, and in difficult times it is useful to think that this strangeness itself can be a resource." —from "Marvelous Things Heard: On Finding Historical Radiance" (Fall 2017, Vol. 58, Issue 3)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
This is a hard question to answer. It brings up memories of that uneven little-kid thick-pencil printing, with half the letters backwards, and a story I wrote about a dinosaur—I folded the pages carefully and tied them together with string so that they wouldn’t get mixed up—and a badly-spelled letter that I wrote to my mother while she was traveling when I was very small, which she kept. It reminds me of how much I hated learning cursive when I was in the second grade, and how strange and difficult and ugly some of the letters looked to me, like the capital ‘G.’
I don’t know what the first pieces I wrote were.
The first thing I ever published was a term paper for a class where we were asked to make up a system for color-coding a text, color-code it, then take the text away and just analyze the colors that we saw. I loved that. And it’s easier to remember.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Trying to write well about the ancient world means it’s hard to escape the influence of Anne Carson, whose work I’ve loved since I was an undergraduate. Writing about the natural world brings up Annie Dillard and the amazing prose of Rachel Carson. But often I run across sentences by accident that stay with me for a long time and unfold in my work in ways I don’t expect or understand. Here’s a sentence I read three years ago that I am still working through, from the prologue of Frédéric J. Pont’s Alien Skies, an introduction to the study of planetary atmospheres: “On the planet Isis, when the weather turns bad, a hail of red-hot glass droplets flies in the air at the speed of sound.” I still don’t know what to do with that.
What did you want to be when you were young?
A dinosaur, a tree, a lawn, a stonemason, perfect.
What inspired you to write this piece?
A lot of different things came together at the same time for this piece. So much writing about the ancient world is aimed at narrow specialist audiences, and I think the conventions of academic analysis can hide how surprising that world should seem to us now. To me, the sheer surprisingness of the past is very important. I also worry that, in both academic and non-academic contexts, people look to the premodern world for justifications of contemporary political stances. There are robust and difficult conversations happening right now in medieval studies and in classics about how these fields have been used to justify white supremacist ideas, and that’s only one example. When I tell people that I write about the late Roman Empire, one of the first things they ask nowadays is, “Do you see any parallels to today?” Without realizing it, we want to turn other worlds into echoes of our own—which ultimately makes them much less rich and surprising. So this piece is partly about how difficult it ought to be for us, now, to claim that ancient worlds are like ours in any straightforward way.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I spent two formative years in Rome at two very different points in my life, so that city, real and imagined, has a strong hold on me. But the truth is, I enjoy living in different places whenever I can, because relocating forces me to pay attention to the world in a new way. That out-of-place attentiveness influences my writing. I think wiser people know how to cultivate it while standing still, but I haven’t learned how to do that yet.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Does procrastination count as a tradition?
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
It really depends. I write everything for my friends, even when I don’t tell them so. But sometimes it’s one friend who seems like the right person to ask for a first response, sometimes it’s another. I also sometimes just text sentences I’m working on to friends, with very little context given, and they are fantastic about that. I’m lucky; I have very patient friends.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’ve recently pushed myself pretty far outside what I’ve done before, what I’ve been comfortable doing, and started making short pieces in puppetry. I can’t really explain the overwhelming attraction puppet theatre has for me right now; it’s a beautiful art form. There’s something about the complete vulnerability and honesty and bluntness of the physical world that comes out in puppets—and that, to me, is part of the strange and hilarious and beautiful condition of anything, or any of us, being in the world at all. And the relationship that a puppet demands from its puppeteers is also, somehow, weird and difficult and beautiful, and yet utterly direct. It’s absolutely compelling. I’ll admit that I don’t totally understand why puppetry is becoming a medium for the kind of thinking I’m trying to do right now. I just know that there’s something there that I can’t ignore. Luckily, the friends I’ve made through puppetry are also very patient, and have been willing to sit with me while I try to figure it out.
What are you working on currently?
When I’m not working on puppets, I’m trying to finish a book provisionally called Life: The Natural History of an Early Christian Universe. It’s an attempt to describe what it might have felt like to live in an ancient world whose natural laws and supernatural tendencies were very different from ours.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve been reading parts of John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World; Terrance Hayes’ How to be Drawn; Firmicus Maternus’ fourth-century treatise on astrology (the name Firmicus Maternus is so much fun to say out loud— try it, it just sounds good); the Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance.
CATHERINE CHIN is a writer and historian based in Sacramento. She teaches in the Classics program at the University of California at Davis.