Real and Imagined

Essays and Novels by Amy Tatko

Stories All Around Us

“If you walk into Montpelier’s public library these days, you might notice some new books on the shelves.”

So the story began. The storyteller was seated beside me in the faux-living-room set of a local television studio as he smiled at a camera and told the story to an imagined but soon-to-be-real audience scattered about Vermont.

He told them about a writer who got fed up with waiting for her dream to come true and decided to publish her books herself. For him, this was a tale of someone taking control of her own destiny. He was also interested in the pivotal moments when the writer lived in Russia and left journalism to write novels.  

Last Sunday morning, in the studio of Vermont’s WCAX, Channel 3 (CBS), I was the story - for about three minutes. The friendly anchor of the morning show wrote the lines that introduced me and a very condensed version of my writing life. He asked me a bunch of questions about the parts that he found most compelling, and I answered them. We had a nice conversation, and then my story was over, and he moved on to the next one.

As it turned out, though, my little TV spot did not air live as planned.

“Two of the Thai soccer players were just rescued,” a producer in a headset came to tell me just minutes after I had arrived that morning. CBS kept interrupting the WCAX team’s script with breaking news. They might not be able to fit in my interview. They may need to record it later and air it next weekend. He apologized.

I nodded and assured him that I understood. My books could wait. On the other side of the world, a much bigger story was unfolding. A dozen teenage boys and their soccer coach were trapped inside a cave. They had survived there for more than two weeks. At last, some were being rescued. The world was watching and waiting. The people of Thailand had all their hope pinned on those boys. I, too, was hoping with all my might for every last one of them to get out of that darn cave and into their families' arms.

And so, in an unexpected plot twist, my personal story and a global rescue story overlapped. The story of the trapped Thai soccer team made a wave whose ripples washed ashore in Vermont. We are all connected. Our stories bump into one another. The tales of our lives overlap and intertwine, and we find again and again that we are more alike than different, more connected than alone, more universal than individual.

I don’t watch television. We don’t own one. Yet, I have a new appreciation for the stories that the TV reporters and anchors across our country tell about the people in their communities in order to entertain, inform, and connect (“Only connect.” - E.M. Forster) with their audience. After all, a television audience is a group of individual human beings like you and me who probably just want to enjoy their coffee and a good story on a Sunday morning while keeping up with what’s happening in the world.

The anchor at WCAX spends his days telling super-short stories of real people’s lives. He gives his audience glimpses into the identities and adventures of their fellow Vermonters. Everyday, he finds new stories to tell. They may not get much time, depth, or detail, but the brevity of his stories is refreshing and effective nonetheless.

Stories are all around us. They are everywhere all the time. The news anchor and the songwriter tell a story in just three of four minutes. The poet tells a story with beautiful imagery and rhyme. The essayist tells a personal story with a universal meaning. We all tell our stories every day at the dinner table, in the offices at work, over the phone to an old friend, in posts on social media, in email to our relatives and childhood friends, in the line of the grocery store… everywhere, all the time.

Real or imagined, stories are how we explain ourselves and our world to one another. Can you believe that all twelve Thai boys and their coach made it out of those caves alive? What a story.

And as one of our greatest storytellers ever, Jane Austen, knew better than anyone: We all love a happy ending.

Now that the boys in Thailand are safe and recovering, please kindly consider tuning in to Vermont’s Channel 3 this Sunday morning (July 15) at 8:30 to hear a short story about yours truly.


Help!: Bookless Reader

I depart in a few days for an annual vacation that features the sea, a beach, palm trees, and me reading book after book. Lucky me? Nope. I’m doomed. I’m suffering the ultimate reading crisis: no books. None. Nothing. I can’t decide what to bring. Everything looks disappointing. Nothing entices me. It’s all meh meh meh. What is a reader to do? And am I nuts? Has this ever happened to you?

I have done some good literary-psychological sleuth work. I believe that I know the cause of my condition, as well as the proper course of treatment. What I lack, though, is a cure.

The cause? As advertised back at the start of the year, I’ve just finished reading two whoppers back to back: Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Miserables. The tale of Jean Valjean and his darling Cosette runs a plump 1305 pages. I loved it! I did it! Alas, though, I find that in the psycho-emotional-practical aftermath of reading a massive novel for several weeks, I struggle to make the transition into the next book. I’ve lived with Hugo’s characters, story, setting, and themes for so long that I need a sort of reader’s vacation or a cleansing of the literary palate before I feel ready to plunge into the next novel.

And so, each evening, instead of reading, I stand before my shelves, I look at titles, I flip through pages, I ache and pine for the next amazing novel.

As I stood unanchored and drifting in my bookless sea in the middle of the Bear Pond Books (support indie bookstores!) fiction section yesterday, suddenly the treatment for my condition came to me. I won’t find my next book and the right novels to take on vacation until I know what I am looking for. What do I want from a novel right now? Instead of standing in front of bookcases and reacting, I need to get in touch with my inner reader, determine what she wants, and set forth to find it. Eureka!

OK, so… what do I want to read right now? No idea. Ugh. The old stuff looks too familiar or too serious or too white male. The new stuff looks too unimportant or too self-important or too derivative. Holy schnitzel: Have I lost my mind altogether? All those amazing books to discover or rediscover, yet all I can do is complain.

Hmm. What do I want from a book? From a novel? EVERYTHING! I want it all! Come on, writers, produce a novel that draws me in with lush language, a strong and distinct voice that I’ve never heard before, an original and unpredictable story like no other, wise insights into the human condition, and of course characters that I will love and detest—and that I will LOVE to love and detest, rushing to them each day to see what they say and do next. Ahh, yes, this is what I am looking for. Where are you, beautiful book? What is your title, amazing Everything novel?

Here are the top contenders and my reasons for considering them:

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea because I have read everything that Urrea has written so far, and I loved darn near every word, which is saying something, eh? This is his newest, and it just came out, so I’m feeling a combination of elation that one of my favorite writers has given us another gift and angst about spending $27 on a big heavy awkward-to-hold hardcover (yup: I’m in the paperback camp). This novel features a Mexican-American family in the midst of high drama and heartache over the course of a single weekend when they reminisce about their motherland, recall how they left it for southern California, and prepare to mourn their beloveds. This promises to be a great story delivered with Urrea’s incredible wit and wisdom, plus his stunning, stellar prose. I’m tempted!

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens because I love Dickens, I know that he will deliver on a great reading experience that combines a good story and characters with wonderful writing, and I am happiest when I am deep into a big novel. My hesitation: David Copperfield under my palm tree in Mexico? Lighten up, woman! Plus, I’m really sick of dead white guys right now. I need me some Zadie Smith or Barbara Kingsolver or Chimamanda Adichie or…

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison because I want to read more Morrison, her writing is amazing on every level, and I really like and value reading fiction about the African-American experience in this country.

In the category of rediscovery, I am thinking about re-reading these:

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf because it is in my Top Ten All-Time Favorites but I haven’t read it since 2014 (third reading). The language is gorgeous, and the narrative is at once tight and expansive, which awes me again and again as a writer. In the past, this novel has allured me as a reader and inspired me as a writer. Why wouldn’t I want that while on vacation?

Persuasion by Jane Austen because Austen needs no explanation: she is always perfect, always a master, always pleasing and impressive and provocative. This was her last novel and represents a turning point in her work. It contains all the best qualities of her previous work but with a greater control and constraint, more subtlety and nuance, and it is her most poignant love story, I think.

Finally, one non-fiction book has leapt off my bookshelf this morning and asked me to consider packing it for vacation:

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace because DFW was one of a kind, these essays make me laugh and cringe and think about life in ways that no other author invites, and popping in and out of essays while also reading a novel sounds like the perfect vacation cocktail. (I miss you, DFW. RIP.)

If you’d like to vote on any of the above titles or send your own suggestions, please email me at, or post on my Facebook page or Twitter feed.

And pronto, please! I board my flight in a matter of days, dear readers, and I remain, as I yelp this little plea for help, bookless. Sigh.

Monsters Within

This evening, I am hosting an intimate dinner for three guests: Frankenstein’s monster, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and the President of the United States of America. I quiver and quake at the thought of sitting down to dine with this wickedest of all monsters—our current president—but everything in life is less scary with loved ones by our side. Victor Frankenstein’s creation has been my dear friend these many long years, and the hunchbacked Quasimodo is my newest literary pal.

I have faith that together we can take on the president in a discussion of the monsters within, labels of Other that misunderstand and ostracize, and the simple—yet incomprehensible to many—notion that our external appearance does not dictate our identity and how we experience life, unless we say so ourselves. Nobody else may decide this for us, Mr. President.

As a writer, I rarely mix the political with the literary. The current president, however, is driving us all to new extremes. My literary friends and I wish to talk some sense into him. Mary Shelley’s monster and Victor Hugo’s hunchback want what we all want: to be loved, which means to be seen by others as we see ourselves, free of judgments based on a physical appearance over which we have no control. Yet, Shelley and Hugo gave them insurmountable obstacles to acquiring love. A grotesque exterior featuring a horrific face means that nobody can see the human within. The monster on the outside provokes hurtful reactions from others, while a yearning, kind-hearted, just-like-us person remains trapped inside.

The monster of Frankenstein speaks eloquently about his aching desire for friendship and love:

Now and then the sweet voice of a bird burst forth amidst the universal stillness. All, save I, were at rest or in enjoyment: I, like the arch fiend, bore a hell within me; and, finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.

The “arch fiend” is Satan from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. At this advanced stage of human civilization, we all are aware that a lack of love, attention, and connection creates monsters. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Quasimodo the Hunchback also yearns for love and connection. He is the gentle and devoted protector of the lovely Esmeralda. When a mass of angry and misguided people attempt to liberate her from his protection inside the towers of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the results are destructive and disastrous. Quasimodo faces the same fate as the monster of Frankenstein. Ignored, misjudged, and misunderstood, they cannot find connection or friendship, and so in despair and frustration, they turn to anger and violence.

Did you hear that, POTUS? “Only connect,” sir.

The possibility of connecting with anyone escapes poor Quasimodo, who is described in this way by his French inventor:

We shall not attempt to give the reader any idea of that tetrahedron nose, of that horseshoe mouth, of that little left eye, obscured by a bristly red eyebrow, while the right was completely overwhelmed and buried by an enormous wart; of those irregular teeth, jagged here and there like the battlements of a fortress, of that horny lip, over which one of those teeth protruded, like the tusk of an elephant; of that hooklike chin; and, above all, of the expression, that mixture of spite, astonishment, and melancholy, spread over all these features. Imagine such an object, if you can.

The infamous Hunchback of Notre-Dame is not merely a man with a hump on his back. He has a severely deformed face. He is a cyclops. He is grotesque. He is, alas, a monster.

Imagine, if you can.

Imagine what your life would be like if you were grotesque, a monster. If you were ugly. REALLY ugly. The ugly cannot hide. Our popular culture, our art, our values have programmed us to prefer beauty and to diminish or reject the ugly. Do you see the unspoken advantages that physically appealing people receive? And what of society’s responses to ugly people, the way that we treat them, the disadvantages that they encounter?

The culture’s current definition of female beauty is more narrow than ever. This nonsense has been damaging girls and women for years. Studies about teens’ use of social media has confirmed what anyone who watches them on their phones already knows: They are obsessed with creating, documenting, and controlling images of themselves, and they seek constant attention and feedback about their faces and their bodies. In middle school, most girls edit their selfies before they post them for others to scrutinize and, they hope, admire.

Now, here’s the strangest part of this phenomenon of caring so deeply about one’s appearance: As we move through the moments of our days, we are unaware of our own physicality. We forget about it. It disappears from our consciousness when we engage in any meaningful activity. Seated at my desk, writing these words, I am no more aware of my face or my figure than I am of the weather in Tasmania or which television channel that monster in Washington is glued to. We do not think about how our face looks as we stand before another person and engage in conversation or as we work on a project or laugh with friends or chat over dinner.  

Yet, even as I forget my own face, YOU are staring right at it while we converse. This creates the odd yet powerful paradox of your relationship to my physical being versus my own experience of my physical self: I look at myself only a few times each day for a few moments in a mirror, but others look at me all the time and thus make me aware of my appearance. What a strange way for us all to go through life, inside of these containers that we must store our Self in and that others constantly assess, judge, and like or dislike.

Poor monsters. Frankenstein’s pieced-together man and the hunchbacked French cyclops are lovely folks. They never get a chance, though. Nobody can see beyond those faces.

As for our president, there is much here for him to ponder. Human dynamics and interactions are complex, which is hard for him, so I’ll leave him with one simple observation: The wickedest monsters lurk among us hidden behind ordinary faces, grotesque and distorted within their human psyches, and eager to judge and misjudge the rest of us with the stroke of a pen to veto a law or the pull of a trigger to destroy us forever.

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