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A few years ago, a copy of The Albino Album (Lambda finalist, 2013) landed in my mailbox. Like many of the books I review for Lambda Literary Review, I was unfamiliar with the author, but I flipped open the cover and started reading.
Since that day, Chavisa Woods’ name is always on the tip of my tongue when I’m asked to name some of my favorite writers. Besides being a two-time Lambda nominee, she received the 2013 Cobalt Prize for Fiction and the 2009 Jerome Foundation Award for emerging authors; she’s been a featured author at The Whitney Museum of American Art, City Lights Bookstore, Town Hall Seattle, The Brecht Forum, The Cervantes Institute, and St. Mark’s Poetry Project; and her writing has appeared in The Evergreen Review, New York Quarterly, The Brooklyn Rail, Cleaver Magazine, and Jadaliyya.
Needless to say, I eagerly anticipated her new short story collection, Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country, out this month from Seven Stories Press. As soon as my copy arrived, I dropped everything (sorry-not-sorry TBR pile) to soak in her gorgeous prose, brilliantly drawn characters, and inventive plots.
Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country does not disappoint. I can’t think of any other book that captures the essence of America the way this collection does—it is nuanced and provocative, heartfelt and funny and wise. Of it, Booklist says, “…tight, intelligent, and important, and sure to secure Woods a seat in the pantheon of critical twenty-first-century voices” and I couldn’t agree more.
Woods took some time to talk with Lambda about the war and outsider themes of Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country, creating sympathetic characters, magical realism, goth culture, and more.
The stories in Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country are fantastic as stand-alone pieces, but they also feel like they’re in conversation with one another, which makes the collection work really well as a whole. How did you choose what to include?
I wrote these eight stories with the collection in mind. All of the stories, you may have noticed, include a war, sometimes at the forefront, and sometimes at the periphery, but a war is always there. There are characters dealing with both Iraq wars, the war in Afghanistan, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, as well as the religious “war between good and evil,” the war on drugs, and class warfare. This was an integral part of the book for a number of reasons.
Ongoing, and unacknowledged war is somewhat a benchmark of American culture, and this is definitely a book about America. The war theme, also, strangely, plays into the goth theme. One of the main characters, the girl in the titular story, is obsessed with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and feels the impact of the violence of that war very deeply, and references it as a reason she dresses goth. She is reflecting the gruesome death her country is responsible for, that she also feels responsible for, and wants it to be visible.
In 2011 and 2012, I saw several articles about emo and goth scenes emerging in Iraq, among teenagers and young adults, and they specifically reference the war and all the death they saw every day as being an influence on their aesthetic, so I was also thinking about that when I wrote the title story. I was thinking about goth as a sort of costuming that sometimes works to make uncomfortable realities visible.
All of these stories also, are about someone being very out of place. Most people in the book find themselves places they don’t belong, often, the places they were born. When I wrote all of these stories, I was thinking about all the very specific elements that make up the poor, rural heartland, and I really wanted to paint a full picture of something very uniquely American, these eccentric individuals who feel out of place in their own home, and who are willing to see and experience and acknowledge what is happening in a way the people around them are unwilling to do.
The collection opens with cigarette smoking and closes with cigarette smoking—and this really struck me. In the opening story, cigarettes are a means to avoid asking questions and in the closing, title story, cigarettes are “something to do.” But is there something more here, something metaphorical or symbolic in all this smoke?
Absolutely. Cigarettes are very cool, they give a person an edge, they are rebellious, and even relaxing, but they are also self-mutilation.
And, nowadays, they are mostly the vice of the working class and poor. I love smoking. It’s one of my favorite things in the world. But I also have asthma, and smoking makes me very, very sick, and I have had to quit. But it’s a struggle. Even just writing about it now, I want a cigarette. I feel most grounded and calm when I’m smoking, but it’s also killing me. And when I go home to visit, that is when it’s the hardest not to smoke.
I’m from a small, very rural town of 1,000 people. I have family there who I love and many terrific close friends there. So I spend a few weeks a year there. But, still everything else is still there too, all the things that were hard to deal with as a kid. There are very, very poor people who are in a lot of pain, and dealing with very difficult situations on a daily basis, whom I’m also close to. There is an active KKK in the county. I go out to bars to drink, and there are very racist, sexist and homophobic people around me, and you know, it’s nerve-wracking. I hear some pretty horrible things when I go out. Some of it is hard to take in. I usually end up breaking down and smoking there and also making myself sick.
And a lot of people from there smoke, and they smoke a lot. And I understand why. Especially people struggling with very severe poverty. They smoke a lot because it’s like something they can do to alleviate stress and anxiety. They can’t take a vacation, or go to a spa or get a massage, or go to therapy. But they can smoke. It’s an affordable little thing they can give themselves as a treat, but it’s also killing them. And I think that is a big metaphor; the thing that the poorest people are doing to get through the things that are hurting them, is also totally deadly.
There are a lot of different types of physical and psychological self-mutilation in Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country. Chain-smoking is one of the primary means of this. And that’s because it is both a thing that allows the characters to endure some of what they endure, but also, they probably wouldn’t need to smoke so much if they weren’t enduring these horrible things, right? Smoking in many parts of these stories is a sign that something is wrong. Something upsetting happens, the character reaches for a cigarette. “I need a smoke,” you know? People say that when they need to calm down.
So smoking is the physical manifestation of everything they are dealing with. It is self-mutilation, which is just a means of making an emotional pain, physical. And smoking is a long-form self-mutilation. It is nearly constant, it occurs all throughout the day and has a cumulative effect, which is also how living in poverty or in hostile environments impacts a person. So, smoking is really just a metaphor for the daily lives of many of these characters.
“How to Quit Smoking in Nineteen Thousand Two Hundred and Eighty-seven Seconds, Usama,” takes a bizarre twist at the end—why/how did you decide to blend realistic elements (rural meth labs, Osama bin Laden’s death) with otherworldly ones (UFOs, flying couches)?
[LOTS OF SPOILERS HERE.]
Two of the stories in this collection are magical realism, and the others are just realism. I love magical realism because it doesn’t require you to create a whole new universe and set of detailed rules and new laws of physics, like sci-fi. When phenomenal things happen in magical realism, the reader just realizes this was always possible in the world they have been reading about, even if they didn’t realize it at first. And, if you go look at the story again, you may see, it’s not a twist at the end. The supernatural possibilities were there from the get-go. This comes in around the third page:
We clopped up the wilting porch of the trailer where rotting furniture was rotting in the rain on the drooping, decaying wood. The porch was threatening to metamorphose into an organic life-form, or perhaps just mold itself back into the wet ground. Maybe the porch would liquefy and become a moat around the trailer and you’d have to float on the couch to get across. Maybe even, the couch would become an organic life-form and give you a guided speaking tour of the trailer moat as it floated you up to the door.
For months, my brothers had been telling me about these green floating gaseous orbs they see coming out of the woods that they think are coming from UFOs landing out there. But I think it’s more of a combination of mold, the meth kid cooking out in the field, and also, last year the EPA cleaned off about fifteen miles’ worth of toxic topsoil from this area. This was a prime county for asbestos factories in the seventies. The land is flat. It rains a lot. The toxic water seeps and sits. Oh well. Green, glowing orbs are a lot more fun to think of as alien life-forms than all that other crap, especially if you’re living with them. Especially if there’s nothing you can do about them.
See, even the fact that the couch would start talking and become a tour guide was foreshadowed.
This is kind of like extending a metaphor, and it’s almost a joke at first, until it becomes a work of art.
There is a line by Richard Brautigan I read years ago, that actually changed and deeply influenced the way I write stories which are magical realism. This is from the book, A Confederate General from Big Sur. A character here is talking about things he’s heard about a Tribe of Indians. It begins: “I’ve heard that the Digger Indians down there didn’t wear any clothes. They didn’t have any fire or shelter or culture.” Now, these are pretty normal racist things people in that area have probably said about the Indians there. But then it continues, and begins to get a bit more outlandish: “They didn’t grow anything. They didn’t hunt and they didn’t fish.” So, that’s pretty impossible, because, how did they eat, right? Then it goes into the realm of completely absurd: “They didn’t bury their dead or give birth to their children. They lived on roots and limpets and sat pleasantly out in the rain.” Of course, they had to give birth to their children. That’s impossible. Brautigan takes this initial, minorly absurd racist statement and extends it into the impossible, both completely othering this Indian tribe as if they are supernatural creatures, and (if you are a keen reader you will see he is mostly) mocking the racist rumors about this tribe, because “alien others” is obviously how the white settlers viewed these people.
Similarly, in “How to Quit Smoking in Nineteen Thousand Two Hundred and Eighty-seven Seconds, Usama,” I just take the spectacular and very real events that are already occurring, the spectacular pain, the spectacular filth and decay, and the spectacular notions of the backwoods people who claim to see UFOs everywhere, and I allow it all to extend into reality. It’s not a huge leap from where the story began, really. I don’t think it is.
In “A New Mohawk,” the narrator wakes one morning with the Gaza Strip on his [is it ok to use this pronoun or would their be more appropriate?] head. How did this idea come to you? I’m also curious about the narrator being trans—why this gender identity for this particular story?
Sheldon is definitely “he.” Sheldon is a man. He’s very much a thirty-something New York guy. He is transgender. And there is no reason for it. The story is not about his gender, at all; it’s not about the fact that he is trans, though it is present. Of course, he has to deal with it sometimes, because that’s how it would realistically play out. I could have easily made this character a straight non-trans man, and the story would be almost exactly the same, except for the few times other people bring up the fact that he is trans. The argument with his mother, the talk show hosts, and him going to a queer clinic instead of a regular emergency room, are really the only things that would have played out differently at all.
A lot of people, magazine editors and readers, have tried to tie the character’s trans identity into the Palestine/Israel conflict aspect of the story, wondering if I was attempting some sort of metaphor there. I’ve been asked if I was trying to speak to the “two-sidedness” shared by trans identity and the conflict. I wasn’t. I didn’t have that in mind, and most trans people I know are not “two-sided.” The political aspect and the character’s identity are totally unrelated in this story.
I really want to stay away from only telling stories about people who are minorities which deal exclusively with their identity. Most people in my life are queer or very weird, and they deal with all sorts of things every day, and most of the time we don’t even think about the fact we are queer unless we face some conflict around it, specifically. If I have a black character in a story, that story is not necessarily about race issues, and it’s the same with queer and trans characters and poor people. Middle-class, straight white non-trans people should not be the default characters. This should not be considered a blank slate. It shouldn’t be like, if there is a minority character in a story, that’s all they get to do… deal with their identity.
So yes, Sheldon Peters is a man (who happens to be trans) who wakes up one day to find the Gaza Strip on his head, and he has to deal with that. He has to deal with that, realistically. I tried to write this story as realistically as possible. Like, if this actually happened in a universe very similar to ours, but where this was possible, what would it look like? That’s what I did.
And where did the idea come from?
This story was actually spawned from a dream I had. I think I’d been reading a lot about the Weather Underground, and thinking about their creed “bring the war home,” and it was during, I believe, one of the major conflicts between Palestine and Israel in 2012, and Israel was really just bombing the hell out of Palestine for two or three days straight, and it was on the news every day, and I went to a couple of rallies, and it was all very intense and heartbreaking and gruesome, and I felt like the rallies were pointless.
I had this crazy dream. I dreamed that I woke up with a section of the separation wall (dividing up the Palestinian territory) on my head. My dream was much gorier than the story I wrote. There was thick wet blood all over my face, and dead people and dust and rockets were falling from my head, miniature ones. I freaked out and immediately went to the president, and I put my hands on his desk and started shaking my head, as if I were flinging water from my hair at him, but it was blood and tiny bodies and rockets I was flinging at him. He stood, and took my hand, and held my hand up to my own face, and under my nails, I saw these green, animate faces. They were all the same face. They were Pol Pot’s face. He kept turning and winking and smiling at me. The Cambodian dictator was under my nails, posing for me. I felt sick and guilty and very afraid. Then I woke up.
I thought about that dream for a long time, and eventually, it became this story.
The story “Zombie” really moved me. Where did the idea for it come from?
When I wrote “Zombie,” a coming-of-age story about two young girls (11 and 12 years old) who make friends with a homeless woman who is addicted to meth and has taken up residence in a local cemetery, I was thinking of Boo Radley, and classic coming-of-age stories and films like To Kill a Mocking Bird, Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, The Secret Garden, Stand by Me and Now and Then. And I was thinking of Charles Bukowski’s poem, “The Man With the Beautiful Eyes.”
I was thinking a lot of this Scene in Now and Then, where the girls all meet this Vietnam vet who tells them the truth about the war and shares a cigarette with them. And I was thinking about Stand by Me, and how the boys witnessed something gruesome, and traditionally age-inappropriate and learned difficult but much-needed life lessons that ultimately made them see the world in a new way and brought them closer together. And I wanted to take this trope of kids making friends with a reclusive and troubled adult who is a misunderstood loner with a heart of gold. I was thinking about all the stories I’ve seen where kids encounter a troubling adult who is separate from society, either because of some shunning, or eccentricity or addiction, who treats the kids like a peer, who the kids often fear at first, but who ends up imparting some much-needed wisdom to the kids.
These more classic coming-of-age narratives typically put kids through things that are slightly inappropriate for their age, but are ultimately good for them, and I wanted take that, and I wanted to twist it really hard. I wanted it to reflect more of my own experiences as a kid with these types of people. You could think of it as a bleaker coming-of-age story, or an updated version, about working-class kids coming of age in the era of meth and deep economic division, perhaps.
What are your thoughts on portraying Tanya as a sympathetic character, one the reader truly feels for in the end, when lots of other people might write her off as a meth-head?
As far as writing a “meth-head” as a sympathetic character (I know you’re saying it as a sort of quotation [Absolutely.]), well, I try not to use the word meth-head, of course, because this is a person, a person who is addicted to meth. But you know, maybe I should use that word. She is a meth-head. Sure. What’s wrong with saying that? A meth-head is still a person. That’s been something that has thrown me, actually. I don’t remember where but someone described her as “a meth-head” who is nonetheless charming and sweet, like this was an…anomaly
I have known people addicted to amphetamines, and uppers… meth…and who have killed themselves with it. And it really depends on the person, but it doesn’t necessarily make you evil if you weren’t kind of evil already. I don’t know. People keep saying this about Tanya, what you eluded to people thinking, that she is “surprisingly sympathetic.” Weirdly, I don’t actually think I wrote Tanya as very sympathetic, at all. And I didn’t think she was charming, either.
She cusses and lies, and talks constantly without listening, and steals, and is selfish and delusional, and more than a bit dangerous, and accusatory and explosive. The fact that she still retains some small amount of humanity is just realistic. If you (one, I mean, not you specifically, Sara) went out and actually got to know most homeless people who are suffering from addiction, it would probably break your heart. You would want them to get help. You would think their lives were pretty unfair and impossible. And I think that’s why people have this reaction to Tanya, like she is an anomaly, like it’s strange she is a sympathetic character, because the sad truth is, most of the people our society is throwing away, underneath all the damage, there is a very vulnerable, relatable human there. And it’s easier to think they are crazy, useless, evil, dangerous meth-heads than to look at everything that is really happening, and see them as fellow humans. And looking away is a big part of this story, as you know.
So that’s why I wrote her the way I did, because that’s what I know to be true.
We’ve talked before about your characters, because I find them so well-drawn and full of humanity. But I’m also fascinated by your cunning and inventive plots. Do you find one or the other more compelling? When you sit down to write, which do you usually start with? Does it differ from story to story?
The plot and the characters are inseparable in my mind. But I am a materialist. I believe we are deeply products of our environment, and that is true for my characters. If they are full of humanity, it is because I allow their experiences to shape them, and for them to affect one another.
Sarah, the main character in the story “Revelations” has a very active inner world, and a certain, conflicting inner-nature, yes. That nature is in conflict with her environment, but her environment has also shaped aspects of her nature. Probably, in a more liberal area, she would have felt happier and more comfortable. But where she is, she is a staunch Christian who feels tormented by her own beliefs, and is ready to torment others with them.
The characters never exist autonomously from what is happening to them. It’s strange, after I read a story I wrote, I have a tendency to talk about the characters as if they are people, who have nothing to do with me. I don’t always even feel like I created them. I feel like I told their story, and it has as much to do with what they went through as who they are. Those things, to me, are inseparable. But that’s also how I feel about myself, I am everything I have gone through and how I reacted to it. That is who I am, all mixed up together as this idea of a “person.”
In the title story, the narrator is a queer Goth in a rural, small town, and speaks very eloquently to the idea of not belonging. But despite this outcast status, the narrator also gives off a real sense of love for the place she feels trapped by. Can you talk a little about this paradox?
Sure. Well, she loves herself, and this place created her. It’s also a place that is torturing her. It’s a difficult dichotomy to find one’s self an outcast in so many spheres in your own home. Home will always be home, in some way. I feel that way.
I have a nostalgia, for instance, for the Southern Baptist church I attended three days a week until I was seventeen. When I was seventeen I walked out because my pastor compared homosexuals to child rapists and murderers, and I never went back. And I hate that man. And when I think of the church, it makes me sick to my stomach. But it also makes me long for aspects of it. I was baptized there. I spent a large portion of my life there. I had my first kiss in the back of the church yard. I sang in the choir with my grandpa, whom I loved so dearly, and learned to play the piano with my dad in that building, and learned a lot of important things about standing up for myself and my beliefs there. I fed homeless people with my grandma there. I was part of a tight-knit group. I can still remember the way it smells and see the rafters and the red carpet, and think fondly of many of the people who were part of my congregation, even though, ultimately, the beliefs of that church created a deep and painful rift between myself and many of my family members for many, many years.
That is part of what this character is dealing with, and she is very punk about it. Being part of an evangelical congregation is a singularly intimate experience. These are people you are literally standing alongside in a battle against Satan. But the main character in this story, as a teenager, is suddenly being viewed by her fellow Christian soldiers as defecting to the other side, because she is queer and goth. So, it’s complicated, because of course, she did love these people at some point, and they loved her. And she has a love for where she is from, because it is part of who she is. But I think, in this story, mostly, the character displays a very open, though somewhat conflicted, animosity toward her small Christian town, and has become outright antagonistic toward the other members of her congregation.
One of the major themes in Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country is war. Was that something you purposefully set out to do, or did it come about more organically?
This was intentional from the beginning. In a few of the stories, this is at the forefront, but in most, it is peripheral, because that is how most Americans deal with the ongoing wars, peripherally. Our military is ceaselessly slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people, and we hardly think of it anymore. But it is always with us, at the same time. It has to be. I don’t know how anyone can write a realist book about the United States of America without ever once bringing up the ongoing wars.
I read the section from the story “What’s Happening on the News?”, about the boys who join the military, at this downstairs theater/bar, and these young men who were on break from West Point were there. They’d accidentally stumbled upon my reading in search of a mid-day beer. And I was somewhat nervous about reading what I had prepared, after these young soldiers came in and joined the rest of the audience that was made up of downtown artists. The piece is very critical of the military, and of their recruiting techniques, and how they specifically go after poor young people, and why young people choose to enlist. I thought these guys would be angry, but surprisingly, they loved it. They came and bought books and had them signed and talked to me after. They thanked me for writing about them. They said, “No one talks about the war. No one talks about the soldiers. No one acknowledges this is even happening.” They were happy to have someone paying attention to the war they were fighting. And that’s really sad.
Maybe this is part of my Christian upbringing, but foreign affairs weigh on me, because I feel an obligation to others. I see foreign affairs as taking priority over domestic social issues, because, the way I see it, if our government is slaughtering people overseas, and sending soldiers out to die, that takes priority over anything else. Our first responsibility should be to ensure that other people are not being killed in our name. Our first responsibility has to be ensure the welfare of others who are suffering “because” of us, for our so-called freedom, or security.
This idea probably comes through in my writing, and what probably also comes through is that I am absolutely heartbroken that, for so many Americans, the opposite is true. Even many Democrats easily overlook their candidates’ records on the wars if they know that social and domestic policy will be bettered. That is really sad to me. Because if everyone thinks this way, no one will ever be safe. The wars will never end. The wars have begun to become endless in my lifetime, and I am stunned. I am sickened and stunned by this dystopic reality we are living in, and I think we are all responsible to try to stop it.
I know art is art, and that I shouldn’t conflate it with life, but because many of the characters come from backgrounds similar to yours and you write about them with such intimacy, I wonder, how close to the bone do these stories cut?
It really depends on the story. Many of the stories are total fiction, and a few of them are deeply personal, fictionalized retellings of some real-life experiences. People often think that all the main female characters are me, and that I went through the exact things the characters are going through or know someone who did. And that is definitely not true. None of these characters are me.
The girl in the titular story is pretty close to being me, but then, she is much more fabulous, and tough, than I was, and there are plot elements of total fiction in that story. Many of the stories use elements of real life, but the plot is very much fictional. I have met and been friendly with homeless women who were drug addicts. None of them lived in a cemetery or said the things Tanya said. I am not anything like Gillian. I attended a Southern Baptist church but (unfortunately) I never uncovered a secret demonic-orgy-cult holding meetings in the church basement.
There is one story though, that is very, very autobiographical, and that is “How to Stop Smoking in Nineteen-thousand-two hundred and eighty-seven Seconds, Usama.” That story is very close to reality, though also, bizarrely it is one of two sci-fi/magical realisist stories in the book, so of course, that makes it totally fictional. I don’t know. Anna Karenina was in many ways very autobiographical. Tolstoy was very much like the character Levine, but that is definitely a work of fiction.
It would be an impossible task to parse out exactly what is and is not real in my stories, because the real and the unreal are all mixed and blended now. Ultimately, these are all works of fiction, because none of it was written as things happened exactly, and, while two are somewhat close, none of the characters are actually me, and most of them are not me at all.
When I last spoke with you for Lambda (about The Albino Album), we talked a lot about music and how it informs your writing. In regards to Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country, are there any particular songs or albums that influenced the stories or the collection as a whole?
Yes, music is a big part of my life. My dad is a musician (singer/songwriter), who turned me onto punk and indie-rock as a kid. My grandpa led the church choir and my mom and brothers write songs and play guitar. I play the trombone, was trained as a classical vocalist, and am dating a huge music buff. The Albino Album was written as an album, a sort of mix tape. I loved incorporating popular songs into that work a, like, a built-in soundtrack to the book.
I didn’t do that as much in this book, but I do give some shout-outs in places to some good and bad goth bands. Specifically, the main character in “Zombie” is into glam and goth rock, good and bad. By this I mean, Siouxsie and the Banshees is good, and Godsmack is bad. She doesn’t differentiate though. She’s 12.
All of the chapters in The Albino Album were named after songs. In Things to do When You’re Goth in the Country, one song did make its way in as a story title, and is referenced in the story. “Take the Way Home that Leads Back to Sullivan Street” is a story in the book and the opening line to the song “Sullivan Street” by the Counting Crows. And I know, I know, everyone who likes the same music I like hates the Counting Crows. I get a lot of shit for it, actually, but I like them. I liked them as a kid and I like them now. They are just so emo and have good melodies. They aren’t my favorite band or anything, but this particular story was based somewhat on a person and time in my life I really associate with this band. This person listened to them a lot and introduced me to them. And that was a very dark, dark and sad and violent time, so maybe, for me, their songs have been infused with very gorgeous, intensely troubling and goth emotion simply due to the impact of nostalgia. But when I hear some of their songs, I get chills down my spine.
In this story, as the main character is leaving a very difficult and violent scene, she references a line from the song, “where all the bodies hang on the air.” She comments on how fucked up it is to associate this song with her lover, because it’s not really romantic, and maybe she should have seen it as a red flag. And I really get that. I really identify with that. Of course, I wrote it.
Last but not least, as I’m always curious: What are you reading right now?
At this moment, I’m dabbling in a few things and looking for something to grab me and keep me for a few weeks. I am halfway through a non-fiction book I am LOVING, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli. That book is just brilliant and makes physics very accessible. I loved the quantum physics chapter. I just started reading Roxanne Gay’s Difficult Women, and I re-read the beginning of Ulysses last week, but probably won’t continue that, and I recently re-read some of Harlan Ellison’s stories from Shatterday, which I always enjoy, and just began reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
I think I’m going to go all the way through that one and Difficult Women this month and next. (Infinite Jest might take me a while.) I’ve also ordered Steven King’s It. I want to read It again before the movie comes out. I read It when I was twelve, and I don’t think I really retained all of It, but I remember loving It. So, that will be fun.