This past year, after seeing that authors often receive less attention for their sophomore novels, Slate teamed up with the Whiting Foundation to create a new literary prize, The Slate/Whiting Second Novel List. Five authors and their second novels were named to this list, among them revolutionary and experimental poet Eileen Myles and her novel Inferno. In an essay describing why Inferno was included in the list, writer and editor Sasha Weiss noted, “It will teach you that yearning has always been the primary emotion of New York’s artists.” The book follows young writer Eileen Myles in 1970s New York as she navigates her writing and sexual life in the East Village.
Much like the fictional Eileen Myles, the real Eileen Myles came to New York in the 1970s to write–she wrote for magazines and journals and performed her poetry. Though she has left before to direct the writing program at the University of California at San Diego, she is back in New York now, and will always remain a staple of the underground literary scene. Though she has written books of poetry and essay collections, Inferno is technically her second novel. She just barely slides in under the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List’s rules. But Eileen Myles never was one for fitting nicely into one category.
If you could nominate one book to the Second Novel List, what would you choose?
I don’t really think about second novels. I don’t know when anybody’s novels came out, in what order.
How did your experiences differ between writing your first and second novels?
I knew I could do it after I wrote Cool for You. So I wanted to sharpen the detail, tell one story. Which I didn’t entirely do but it was a poet’s story. I dealt with one institution, not many.
How do you transition between writing poetry and prose? Can you write them both at the same time or must you finish one piece before changing forms?
One relieves the other. Poems are like sweating while you’re working on a novel. A novel gives you something to do while you’re waiting for your poems.
The cover of Inferno notes that it is a “Poet’s Novel.” What do you hope this descriptor tells people?
It’s tipped. In the same way that poetry is expressive or limited or expansive this novel is taken on by someone with a bias.
You are known for your open explorations of sexuality in your work, including a scene in Inferno that involves “Eileen” prostituting herself. Is there any subject, sexual or otherwise, that scares you?
Sexual violence. Mostly the things that scare me in life, scare me in writing. I don’t touch things till I feel I can handle them, or have a handle on them some way.
Inferno is set in the Village in the 1970s, like many other books, including Rachel Kushner’s second novel, 2013’s The Flamethrowers. What keeps writers returning to New York as a setting and subject? Do you think we’ll run out of things to say about it?
It’s set in the East Village. Very different from the Village. I haven’t read RK’s book so I don’t know which village she writes about. But I bet it’s west. We live in New York. Lots of writers live in New York. Weirdly I was mostly living in San Diego when I wrote Inferno. Which means it was fiction.
When talking about Inferno and the character Eileen Myles, you once said “Like everybody else, I really don’t know who I am.” Does writing help you get any closer to figuring out who you are? Do you think someday you’ll know?
No. Absolutely not. Hope not. Writing gives you an opportunity to make momentary portraits. But not of me. More of a situation that someone like me found herself in. If I said that in an interview it wasn’t a cry for help. I meant that finding out who I am isn’t the point. What could the answer be. I write cause I like writing. Please don’t put an apostrophe before cause. I take punctuation very seriously. Mostly I take it out.