Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Joely Black

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200x300Joely Black is an astute highly talented author who has created a complex world in her Amnar series of novels. She holds a Phd that covers 19th century history and a lot of geography. Her concerns as a writer involve the way ordinary people get caught up in huge political shifts. She uses Amnar to explore consciousness, the power of religion, political end economic systems and hierarchies. The themes of dictatorship and ideology pervade the books. I highly recommend reading one of her novels. Start with ‘The Inheritor’ then read ‘The Execution’.

She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about authoritarianism and pathology.

Do you think it is possible to delineate an antithesis between matriarchal and patriarchal hierarchies and what does the difference say about power as it relates to gender?

It would appear from studies of matriarchal societies that still exist that the difference is not simply one of which gender rules and which way equality is imbalanced between them. A matriarchal society isn’t simply an antithesis of a patriarchal one, and in fact it seems they’re difficult to define, as it requires more than simply identifying the gender of “rulers” or perceived “leaders”. It would be inaccurate to say that the UK during the Thatcher years was a matriarchal society, just because the Prime Minister and monarch were both female.

I’m not an expert on matriarchal societies themselves, but I am aware that they are generally thought of as organising along kinship lines, tend to be agricultural in their economic basis, have different concepts of holiness and what is deemed to be sacred, as well as seeing marriage and family in much wider terms. As far as this relates to power and gender, I have always felt that while there are of course differences between genders at a fundamental level, everybody operates on a spectrum and that some women are just as capable of tyranny as are men.

I have to say here, one of the difficulties of researching and understanding these societies is that it’s easy to approach with an agenda to demonstrate men as evil and women as good, and their societies as correspondingly corrupt or pure. Neither society is going to be perfect; a matrilineal one that emphasises clan and community over individual is necessarily going to sacrifice the rights of the one to appease the many, whereas a patriarchal one with a strong ideology of domination, control and power is always going to create inequality.

What we do know about matriarchal societies suggest that when women have control (i.e. over goods and the supply of food and provisions in society) they operate very differently to patriarchal ones, with power spread horizontally between representatives of clans and families, all of whom have a say in decision-making. It would be hard to acquire a large amount of obvious political power in such a situation, but doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals could not exert a more subtle influence or sway over others.

Hannah Arendt said in ‘The Origins Of Totalitarianism’ that  bureaucracy and racism were the main traits of colonialist imperialism, itself characterised by unlimited expansion. How does the world you have created in your Amnar fictions illustrate the nature of despotism and in what ways do you see Hannah Arendt’s observation as relevant to the social models you are dramatising?

Within the world of Amnar, we have one city state – Amin Duum – that has, in the transition to democracy, voted in a despot. In coming to power, the leader Tiom had to make absolute enemies out of the traditional Amnari civilisation through the use of violent purges, but also built up an ideology for his own people of eventual expansion, planning to conquer and “save” the Amnari people outside the state from the apparent tyranny of their own society. Whereas regimes like Hitler’s focused on the inherent superiority of one set of people, Tiom can’t really escape the fact that once upon a time, his people were Amnari too, so he uses the idea of rescue and protection as a justification for expansion. The “Tiomke” of Duum have been raised above their peers by the discovery of his personal ideology and the dream of a “better world”, and their attitude toward Amnari is one of both hatred and pity.

By the time the book opens, we see that Amin Duum is now a world dominated by a combination of fear and overwhelming bureaucracy – it’s more visible in Commander Vasha’s life, as he spends much of his time followed around by a ledger-wielding assistant who manages his time and takes messages. Every office Vasha enters, even that of Tiom, is full of clerks filling in forms of one kind or another. Getting from one place to another is almost impossible without filling in endless paperwork, something that’s even slower in the Amnari world because of the lack of technology like typewriters to make the process quicker.

The power of racism to create a united people is a powerful one in despotic regimes, and it can be broken down in many different ways. Aside from the presence of a small, “inferior” race called the Taija, who are constantly victimised by Tiom’s guards, everybody in Duum is aware of where they sit in a complex social hierarchy, with hatreds aimed at various different groups that prevent them from united against the oppressive regime. Therefore, inhabitants of the three cities hate each other, especially residents of the larger, poorer South City, which is regarded as a waste pit for the dregs of humanity.

I found Hannah Arendt’s work incredibly useful for creating and building the state of Duum under Tiom. Her observations on the Eichmann trial were particularly useful for me, because they helped me understand how bureaucracy can be used to dampen down the human emotional response to horrific events. I did not – and could not – reproduce the industrialised killing of the Nazi regime, but many of its features as expressed by Arendt’s study appear in Duum. It was also useful to look at the psychologically destructive techniques employed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the approach of the Khmer Rouge who used the idea of people becoming infected with an illness to explain those who refused to join their own campaigns. It was really important for me to understand and then explain how people could go from a relatively good, socially wealthy situation to one of poverty and suffering and yet still support the leader who created it. Although none of the regimes mentioned did quite the same thing, they did help me understand how it’s possible for leaders to inspire people to live in desperation and fear but for the majority not to challenge it.

In ‘Obedience To Authority’ Stanley Milgram showed clearly that when confronted with a figure of authority people will engage in acts of cruelty towards strangers, deferring their moral responsibility to those seen as in control. Thinking of the Nazi regime and that of Amnar do you agree with the philosopher Edmund Burke’s comment that ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’  and to what extent do you think Milgram was right?

I think this is where writing Amnar became really interesting. I’ve actually seen live taping of people repeating the Milgram experiments, which adds a new layer to our understanding of what was going on. Participants often repeatedly question what they’re doing, but around a third to a half will go on to give fatal electric shocks during the tests. It’s possible to see that they don’t just willingly give shocks to people but protest frequently. In one case that I saw, an individual stated that he conveyed responsibility to the white coated researcher, but he still carried on.

To a great extent I do agree with Burke. The Nazi regime in particular has been the source of a lot of fascinating material on how “good” people can come to commit acts of evil, fictionalised accounts like “Good”, demonstrating how a liberal man could end up a member of the SS because he made a series of very small decisions, none of which were, by themselves, responsible for his transition into somebody who could commit or condone acts of pure evil. This is what makes the regime so fascinating to study and on which to base tyrannical regimes.

You start to understand that people rationalise what’s going on around them all the time, possibly because they’re looking out for themselves and it’s easier to do nothing than to stand up and fight. It’s easier to shrug at a book burning, for example, than to lose your job, career and home. These choices, which make the political and moral stand so difficult to take, are what gradually change people. Of course, you have examples like Adolf Eichmann (to return to Hannah Arendt), as well. He claimed that he believed he was doing good precisely because he was doing what he was told. The influence of authority is often so subtle that you don’t know until you’re right in front of the worst possible evil, that you’ve been led there by a small series of choices that seemed trivial at the time.

He was also at a remove from the cruelty for which he was responsible. Going back to the second question of bureaucracy in totalitarianism, this is what makes it so pernicious. Every individual is such a small cog in a big system that it’s often impossible to see how your own acts could possibly be wrong. You can rationalise yourself out of making your own life painful by saying that what you’re doing isn’t the actual act of killing. Understanding all of this, I had to really think about how to work with a character like Vasha, who is not necessarily a bad man, being shunted into a position where he is exposed to the violence inherent in the regime, and to develop Io’s character as she quietly and persistently challenges authority by being the “Queen of the Awkward Question”, as she terms it.

It’s important to remember that not everybody will persistently follow authority. Part of looking at the Milgram experiments was understanding how people coped if they disagreed with a regime, what sort of people did, and how they squared it with their own ethical values. The Nazi regime was one that went out of its way to transfer moral consciousness from the killers, to prevent the breakdowns that took place amongst killing squads early on in the conflict. People have to do a good deal of mental work, but it’s perfectly possible to perform a mental switch so that the moral act becomes the act of murder. When the victim is face to face, that appears to be harder (judging by the experience of the squads). One of the things I’ve wanted to show in the Amnar series is that not everybody is swayed by authority, but that it is also incredibly hard to resist the pull of the majority.

Milgram’s work has actually made me wonder about myself, and whether I would be capable of withstanding that kind of pressure from authority. We are so socially conditioned to agree with authority, and with the majority that I would probably query anybody who felt certain that they’d be the one to stand up for good in a despotic regime. It is much, much harder than it looks.

In ‘The Authoritarian Personality’ Theodor Adorno tried to postulate a set of criteria by which to define personality traits and their intensity in a person on what he called the Fascist scale. Adorno came up with nine traits that were believed to cluster together as a result of childhood conditioning. They include conventionalism, authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, anti-intraception, superstition and stereotypy, power and toughness, destructiveness and cynicism, projectivity and exaggerated concerns over sex. To what extent do you think these are relevant to the personality of a despot and how do they relate to the despotic characters in Amnar?

One of the biggest difficulties doing extensive studies on the personalities of dictators is that they aren’t all that common, so you can’t do large-scale work, which makes it hard to identify personality traits that might “diagnose a despot”, if you like, in the same way that you can diagnose egomania or schizoid personality types.

However, when you look across the various most famous figures who stand out in history for their tyranny, even just those of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, you see common threads, and even though Adorno refers to the scale as “Fascist” it could apply equally to extreme left-wing dictatorships as well, although the qualities shift and often take different forms. The essential question is “How did this person become who he is? Why does he believe what he believes?” and I think Adorno’s work goes some way toward offering a framework on which to build an understanding of how an imaginary dictator emerges from the crowd and goes on to control it.

When I started working closely on Tiom himself, and the people who surround him, it was vital to know how they maintained their authority and how their personalities worked. I understood from histories of both Hitler’s and Stalin’s governments, that they both kept a constant fear and distrust amongst their ministers and officials as a means of ensuring people couldn’t possibly gang up and overthrow them. All of these personality traits appear somewhere in the Tiomke leadership, although the interesting part of it has been how differently they are expressed.

So far, I haven’t explored Tiom’s background and childhood in the books themselves, but I did have to answer questions about where his views on the world came from. As a writer, when you’re not just commenting on research but producing fiction, there’s a point where you have to start looking at how they interact as people with other people, and that was the hardest part. In Traudl Jung’s diaries, for example, Hitler appears as charming and often kind and erudite, which is a far cry from the monster people want to imagine. It became a matter of looking at how these traits are expressed in language, behaviour, and dialogue.

One of the features not mentioned is charisma, and I found that to be the key that makes so many people fall for despots. Curiously, though, it was also an opportunity to demonstrate that it’s a wily trait, expressed in one of the “good guys” just as much Tiom himself.

Gunter Grass revealed in ‘Peeling The Onion’ that the way Fascist control worked was through the carefully engineered dissemination of information at various hierarchical levels. How does this relate to the world of Amnar and do you believe that Chomsky’s notion of Manufacturing Consent is relevant?

The use of information and indoctrination is absolutely crucial to Amnar, and it was a core feature that I knew I had to have in creating the regime in Amin Duum. The two are very different but related concepts in understanding totalitarian systems. Obviously, in the former case we have the strict control of information, that access to information for some groups is not just better than others, but that there is a degree of privilege that comes with knowing you have insight into secret plans and details, while others do not.

In the case we have the concept of manufacturing consent, whereby people are indoctrinated into an ideology that will of course lead to them supporting actions taken by the leadership without question, because they believe they are right and proper. Tiom created, very much like Hitler, an historical discourse that was published as a book, which gave everybody a standard, accepted history of the city. Dissent from this text was completely banned and books that disagreed with this history were burned.

Teaching children everything they would learn from this book created early indoctrination, and a devotion to Tiom as a saviour figure. Like many dictatorships on the left and right, control not just of what people can do but their time is important. The creation of youth groups, where the young spend most of their time away from their families in situations where they are constantly fed certain types of information and are taught that questioning this is a sign of weakness or ill-health or poverty of mind, is another vital feature of these systems, which explains the appearance of the Junior Youth Movement and the Youth Movement in Amin Duum, both acting to control what children and young adults learn, but also making them tools of dissemination of a particular ideology.

There is actually very little mass media in Amnar, which makes the control of media bodies as explored by Chomsky slightly less relevant than it would be in a modern society. Newspapers are a relatively new development and appeared in other states before Amin Duum. Tiom takes advantage of the lack of media to spread a message solely through the use of the Youth Movement, making constant “proclamations” not unlike the slogans and announcements that appeared in Maoist China. There are also no big corporations in Amnar; in this sense the Tiomke regime is much more like communist dictatorships than Nazi Germany in that it did away with the idea of elitism creating massive inequality.

On a personal level, for characters, it was important to show that questioning what’s going on is very difficult given the level of indoctrination involved. After travelling in China for a while I was amazed by the extent to which people are capable there of not seeing things they are not supposed to see (rather reminiscent of China Mieville’s The City and The City). Studies of the psychology of belief show that people filter reality according to what they already believe, so of course to be raised in an environment where you’re constantly exposed to certain propaganda will make it harder to make that leap into outright dissent. I raised this with Io, this is what makes her so uncertain at first. Something tells her what she sees around her is wrong, but because of the way she’s been raised, it is very hard for her to make the jump to say with authority that “this is wrong.” It would mean challenging everything she’s been raised to believe about the world.

You cite Dostoyevsky as an influence. In ‘Crime and Punishment’ Raskolnikov attempts to place himself above the law through his interpretation of the Nietzschean position of the Ubermensch and he fails. Why do you think he lacked the ability to turn himself into a psychopath and do you think he was ultimately seeking the reassurance of guilt?

I think this relates back to your question regarding the psychological makeup of dictators, but not just that. One of the arguments that I’ve faced as an atheist is one that suggests that without a supreme being dictating order to humans, we have no sense of right and wrong. When I think of Raskolnikov’s attempt to commit murder, his failure to detach himself from what he had done and to truly see himself as above the law (rather than just attempt to convince himself of the idea), I’m reminded of that argument.

This goes back to everything we’ve discussed here from question two onwards, whether you consider the Milgram experiments or Theodor Adorno’s Fascist scale. How do we understand what is good and what is bad? How do we develop a sense of right and wrong? And why is it that some people will do outrageously awful things to other people or participate at a bureaucratic level in industrialised killing, but others will face death because they refuse?

I’m not sure if this is the answer you’re looking for, but it seems appropriate to consider Raskolnikov’s actions in light of all of this, and consider the nature of whether or not people are born good or bad, in some way made good or bad, and whether it’s possible to jump that barrier, either way. Raskolnikov might be rather like the members of SS squads who could not cope with the mass murder they were forced to carry out at superior’s orders, in the sense that it goes against something fundamental in us as a species. His crime was intimate, and as I said earlier, it is hard and emotionally damaging for people to cause that kind of harm to other human beings, if they have to look that person in the face as they’re doing it. There are people, though, who are perfectly capable of that kind of killing, the people we think of in society as psychopaths.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the Adolf Eichmann situation, of being a cog in the machine who never really sees the slaughter directly and can more easily rationalise it. That said, we haven’t touched on Zimbardo’s controversial Stanford prison experiment, which shows that people can commit horrific crimes against each other if placed in the right environment. I’m not sure if we could consider Eichmann a psychopath since he was removed from the actual act of killing in a way that made rationalisation of his actions easier. Based on what I’ve learned, it seems harder to do this if the human effect of the crime is more immediate.

At this point, I’m tempted to suggest that Raskolnikov failed because without the right mental setup there from the start, and that regardless of motivation, there are certain things that we as humans struggle to be capable of doing without suffering some form of psychological trauma. We’ve discussed here what compels people to commit or to persuade others to commit horrific acts against others, but the consequences are equally fascinating. Much of this rather relates to later books in the Amnar series, although I will hint at a breakdown in one of the characters facing the reality of the regime after a lifetime of devoted support. Privately, I wonder if guilt is one of those mechanisms we have for defining what is right from what is wrong, and that rather than seeking reassurance from guilt, perhaps Raskolnikov is demonstrating that he has one of those mechanisms and that it overpowers his philosophical reasoning for committing the crime in the first place.

Do you think killing and fucking are related?

Definitely. Perhaps not so much the bureaucratic killing where all the emotion is stripped from the act, but there is a passion in both acts, as we use a powerful physical force on another human being. Killing is just as intimate an act, even if the emotion behind it is completely opposite to the one we experience when we fuck. Whenever I write either, I’m aware of the visceral sense of both – as though we drop that higher-brain connection just for a moment and function from the lizard brain. All that sweat and movement and force and energy are propelled into an act intended to physically impress onto another person exactly how you feel, one way or the other.

Franz Kafka in his story ‘In The Penal Settlement’ shows the absolute control over the human body by a dictatorship. He describes the use of a torture and execution device that carves the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin in a script before letting him die. Deleuze and Guatarri in ‘Anti-Oedipus’ developed their theory of the body without organs and postulated that the schizophrenic is reacting against the pathologies of capitalism, while RD Laing theorised that mental illness is sometimes a symptom of pathology elsewhere and that the patient is actually being coerced by mainstream psychiatry to cooperate with something that is diseased.

How does the concept of the social control over the body within a therapeutic or punishment structure relate to the fictional world of Amnar and what are your views on these positions?

It isn’t overtly stated until later in the book, but there are several uses of the body, and what is written on the body, as a means of social control or delineation of status. Although public execution and more private torture are used in the Tiomke regime, there are those left alive, scarred by burning, who are kept alive as symbols of what happens to people who have fallen victim to the “sickness” of supporting the Amnari. Nenja in particular is left with burns over her face, and the use of the face as a location for physically visible symbols of punishment is common in Tiomke Duum.

On the other side, the use of tattooing in Amnari culture on graduation or the achievement of a position, especially amongst the Servants, symbolises that these go deeper than simply being titles or jobs in the conventional sense. I was interested in the way that a Servant (one of ten senior warriors and watchers, very highly respected) takes on a role for life, under an indenture which is carved as a tattoo into the flesh. One character, Cosai, while being tortured by the Tiomke, uses the fact that she has this tattoo as something to cling on to; although to us that loss of freedom might seem awful, to her it becomes the thing that keeps her fighting, because she realises that whatever the Tiomke do, she has something that gives her value that they cannot touch.

I’ve been fascinated with Laing’s work, despite the fact that he is largely regarded as an outsider and most psychotherapists would probably look askance at his work. I have experience with mental illness, and the way that it causes you to step outside the conventions of society. My interest arose because it can feel as though you’re being asked to join in a kind of collective madness, that in order to function as a human being you have to spend a lot of your time in denial about the fact that very little in our lives makes much sense. I have my doubts that schizophrenia is a reaction to capitalism, but certainly extreme forms of depression and anxiety could be seen as a sudden realisation that much of what we do in life is madness. When I say that, I’m thinking specifically of the way we as a society cycle between boom and bust, buying into ideas about house ownership and capital that only lead to bust when the markets collapse.

To relate it specifically to Amnar, one of the means used of separating the faithful Tiomke from those who question the regime is the idea of mental sickness. It was used by the Khmer Rouge as a way of explaining people who said that life before their reign was better. A “memory sickness” was used; similar uses appear in China as well. In the same way, I made use of Kafka’s creative legal nightmare from The Trial, that at any moment people could be accused of a crime but cannot know what that crime is. Tyrannical control seeks to undermine the individual’s faith in their own sense of what is real, and this struck me as crucial to creating a realistic sense of torture and suffering in the Tiomke regime. It isn’t so much pure physical pain that breaks people, but the endless assault on their sense of who they are as people.

Robert A Heinlein in ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians who returns to Earth and starts a religion. It inspired Charles Manson. Science Fiction authors often create a complex mythology to illustrate aspects of the human condition. To what extent do you think religion is a power structure that is different from those discussed and how easy do you think it is to start a cult?

Heinlein isn’t the only author who’s inspired people to start cults, although I won’t go about naming names as that tends to lead to people like me getting sued. There seems to be something about a really well-built fantasy world that inspires a sort of devotion, probably because there is something about taking a story right outside the boundaries of our normal lives and into an entirely imaginary one that allows the reader to make connections about their own lives. It also gives a sense of meaning and certainty in an otherwise uncertain and frightening real world.

I’ve never gone about starting a cult, so I’m not sure how easy it is, but I do see a great many connections between the power structures and methods of control used in religions and those used in either cults or totalitarian regimes. After all, the latter are given the name “totalitarian” because they require a level of fealty and devotion that other political systems don’t.

It’s common amongst the more staunch atheist thinkers, such as Christopher Hitchens, for example, to describe religions as a dictatorship, with the dictator in the sky, rather than in a government office. I can see clear parallels in the call upon believers to have faith, no matter how strange or unpleasant the demands of the invisible dictator. I suspect, although I’m not sure that there are many studies on the subject, that the psychology behind it is very similar. We are wired to believe what we’re told, rather than to question – especially authority figures – and the same underlying principles swing into operation whether you’re talking about a religion or a dictator.

As we’ve seen in the last ten years or so, religion is also a tool used in regimes in order to inspire a greater level of devotion and adherence to whatever law they have instituted. The idea that a god is behind it, enforcing it, and that the punishment for transgression is eternal, puts extra force for many people living in dictatorial regimes. Others, such as Communist ones, react the opposite way. In both fascist and communist regimes leaders have felt that religion is a distraction and that people cannot be devoted to both leader and church.

Not all religions are the same, however. It is entirely possible to move in and out of some safely, to question without putting your own life at risk. Much of that depends where you live, the specific denomination you belong to, and the people around you. Religions also profess to have something that political systems simply can’t, and that is the offer of eternal life, a solution to the fear of death. There was something of a death cult within the Nazi regime, that there was a nobility in dying for the sake of their beliefs and the country, but as a rule unless the system is specifically religious, they don’t offer any consistent message of redemption or of a specific sense of what happens after death.

There is a strong tradition in literature to take political messages and commentary out of the present time and place them in fantastical contexts. From George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, authors choose not to place their stories within the specific world on which they are commenting. What made you choose to create a fantastic world rather than, say, set a story within Maoist China or Nazi Germany?

I had a few reasons for doing it. The first was that the fantasy world came first. When I was young and still learning, I wrote to have fun and the world was where I went to play. As the world grew and I grew up, I felt very strongly that if I was going to create a world that involved a despotic regime that it should be done right, and avoid clichés of traditional fantasy villains. Dictatorships operate in certain ways and because I was writing something deep and very involved, I wanted to make sure it felt very real.

The second major reason was that I think there is a power in taking things out of original context because it gives them more impact. I think stories about China, Russia or Nazi Germany have to be very specific to their time, and you need to be very involved in that world, but you’re also constrained by the rules that operate in that world. It’s difficult to step back if you write about Nazi Germany and say that this is not unlike the way dictatorships at the opposite end of the spectrum work. Placing something in a purely fantastical context often gives a story more punch. I’m inclined to say that unless the story is original and brilliant to the standard of, say, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, that we’re better off with the real human stories that survive about those times.

I also wanted people to be able to have fun with it. I know that some people reading this interview might feel a bit overwhelmed, but Amnar is intended to be an enjoyable ride, even if it is a very dark one at times. I didn’t want it to feel as though the message was everything, and that people couldn’t sit back and read Amnar without any knowledge of the deeper work that went into it. One of the things I love as an author is the way people interact with characters, telling me they hate so-and-so or love so-and-so. That kind of personal connection is a very powerful thing, and I didn’t want the background to be so overpowering that any sense that the people were real and their experiences genuine was lost.

I have to admit to being nervous about the idea of somebody of my generation being able to effectively reproduce the experience of living through those times. I have mined the archive for real stories of experiences in order to make the world as accurate as possible, without having to worry about pettier details that don’t matter but can destroy a story set in historical context. A few years ago I toured China and was lucky enough to encounter one guide who went shockingly off-message when she described growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Her mother, a party worker, had been denounced and imprisoned. As a very young girl, our guide had gone to visit her mother and found her in the compound, beating her fists on the floor in the snow. She committed suicide three days later. As an adult, she still felt a great deal of pain about the way people behaved during those times. These are the kinds of stories that bring all the research to life, and I don’t want to ignore them at all, but write in a way that allows me to bring them out rather than absolute historical accuracy.

Thank you Joely for giving a brilliant and unforgettable interview.


Black links:

Joely’s website is here.

Her Amnar series e-books are available online at and Smashwords.

Download ‘Amnar: The Inheritor’ kindle edition.

View samples and download kindle and other versions of ‘Amnar: The Inheritor’ and ‘Amnar: The Execution‘.

Joely’s take on this interview featured at Zen In Heels.

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