Author Archives: amyegentry

Listen Here: Reflections on Learning to Interview

In the eight months since I started interviewing people for CultureMap and for my own blog, I have spent a lot of time listening to myself on tape.

The very first stage of my development as an interviewer was simply accepting that my voice sounded like that. It is simply too awful to describe. Ordinary language quails at the task: Desperate concierge? Groaning escalator? Pubescent wombat? If you interact with me on a daily basis, I can only assume that it takes all your energy to refrain from shuddering, and that after we are done talking you immediately run off and buy yourself a box of petit fours to reward yourself for the effort. I apologize to all of you.

However, that phase passes fairly quickly. If the interview goes well, and I deliver my guttural wombat noises briefly and infrequently, I can ignore myself and focus on transcribing the interviewee’s answers. Perversely, I love transcribing. It feels like a Gillian Michaels tape for your carpal tunnels. You turn your brain down to a one and your fine motor skills up to a ten, and try to get the words into your ear and out of your fingertips as quickly and with as little interference from the command center as possible. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are so much jettisoned cargo. As long as I’m able to identify the phrase “wll thta’s a rayly goo quqqstin” using context clues, it’s good enough for the transcript.

With my fingers flying and my brain on vacay, it’s a lot easier to rise above the fact that I sound like a moron. Easier, but still not always possible. Because there are some interviews that just don’t go well. These are obviously the interviews with Big Shots, the writers I respect and admire most. I usually write a ton of questions for these authors, and yet mysteriously wind up sounding like I have no idea who they are or what they have done to deserve to be interviewed. That is because once the interview begins, I am in a survival situation. It is as if the interviewee has hijacked my subway car and is holding a gun to my head, and I have to give Christian Bale enough time to get into his Batman outfit. My one goal is to keep the interviewee talking so that I won’t start talking. Because that, to paraphrase Egon Spengler, would be bad.

Here are some telltale signs of a bad interview:

  • I say the phrase “That’s really fascinating!” between five and seven times.
  • I say the phrase “Let me just look through my notes” at least once.
  • I ask about a favorite movie or book. (Follow-up question? “Oh, I’ll have to check that out.”)
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee does not laugh.
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee laughs nervously in response.
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee begins to sound frightened.
  • I interrupt myself in the middle of a question to say, “You know what? This is a stupid question.”
  • I ask if I am keeping the interviewee from something important and perhaps should let her go, and when the interviewee replies in the negative, I say, “Are you sure?”

Listening to these interviews is excruciating, but instructive. I feel that I have learned from them a few basic things about the art of interviewing.

First and foremost, the key to getting what you want from an interview is letting go of what you want and just waiting. My wonderful, kind editor tried to tell me this right off the bat, but since I am a narcissist with the patience of a toddler, it was hard for me to swallow. I am not good with waiting. If they did the marshmallow experiment on me, I would spend 30 seconds staring desperately at the door, then I would eat the marshmallow, and then after 30 more seconds I would start pounding the one-way mirror and yelling that my blood sugar was dangerously low and I better get some more marshmallows in here stat.

And interviewing is all about waiting. First you have to wait through the silence after you ask the question and before they answer. This can take up whole fractions of seconds. As a result, I have had to dedicate a whole portion of my brain solely to yelling silently at myself during those pauses: Don’t follow up yet! They don’t need further elaboration! They’re just thinking! Shutupshutupshutup!

But there’s a second kind of pause that’s even more important: the halftime pause, when the interviewee’s subconscious comes out on the field and does an elaborate dance number and everybody switches channels to the Puppy Bowl. (That metaphor is probably not worth examining too closely.) Really what happens is the interviewee talks for a minute or two, finishes what she has to say, and falls silent.

At this point, the brain police have me tied to the mast, and the silence is my siren song, calling me out to sea. I am mentally writhing in agony, my brain screaming, Odysseus-like, I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it! Please let me talk! I was born to fill silences! This is aaaaaawwwwkwaaaaarrrr. . . [trails off in a gasp of agony].

But the halftime pause is crucial. Everyone I’ve interviewed has been interviewed before, and they all have a basic idea of how they’ll respond to the same questions they’re always asked. They listen to the question, take a moment to register which answer is required, and go. But eventually they run out of script and they pause. And somewhere in that breath, having done their duty by the question, their brains are having a nice time free associating, and they are likely to have an actual new thought that seems worth mentioning. Or maybe they hate silence too. Either way, if and when they open their mouths again, the next thing that comes out will almost always be less rehearsed, less guarded, and more speculative. The first answer isn’t exactly a lie, but the second answer is almost always the truth.

By the same token, I have learned never to retract a stupid question, or apologize for asking it. It’s not that there are no stupid questions–I have asked a million of them. I usually know when I have asked one by the fact that I am silently clubbing myself on the head and mouthing the words “stupid stupid stupid” in the pause before the interviewee responds. The thing is, in golden instances, and not as rarely as you would think, the stupid question actually turns out to be the smartest question you could ask.

I’m not talking about a boring question–that’s different. I mean a truly out-there, stupid question like “Are you religious?” or “Why is there a pancake scene in all of your novels?” that just flies out of your mouth before you can stop it. The advantage to such a truly stupid question is that it is probably one that the interviewee has never heard before. Which means it may actually catch them off-guard, and they might go ahead and say out loud what they are thinking. They may even be prompted by pity to say more than they usually would.

“This poor wombat-girl sounds like she’s on the brink,” they might be thinking. “I’d better start talking before she decides to enter another graduate program.”

There’s always a slim chance that they will acknowledge the stupidity of the question by responding curtly, thereby setting into motion an hour of googling nearby masters programs in social work. But you know what? That’s just bad manners.

Early on, when I had just started doing this, I overheard one rather well-known writer make a crack about a journalist at a rival publication who had interviewed him earlier that day. It could not have been for my benefit, because although I was standing right there and he had been told I would be interviewing him, he had only the faintest idea who I was. The well-known writer made a few snarky comments about how “weird” the interview went–which, undoubtedly, it did, since the interviewer, I presume, was speaking to one of his literary heroes. He capped off his remarks with a huge eye-roll and the following statement: “Oh yeah, and he told me he’s a writer. I was like, great, good for you, dude.”

So this last lesson that I have learned from interviewing people turns out to be basically the same lesson I learned from waiting tables for years and year: It’s easy to tell when someone thinks of you as a human. And it’s just as easy to tell when they think of you as a talking appliance that produces comically human-like phrases from time to time.

It’s perfectly true that there’s only one crucial participant in the interview, and it isn’t me. But just because I could easily be replaced by another, better journalist doesn’t mean that I’m literally a fungible commodity, like silver or crude oil. Just because I try to be invisible for an hour doesn’t mean I have actually disappeared. And just because my job is to make you look good doesn’t mean that I’m actually a mirror. It turns out you can learn a lot about people when you really listen.

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Emma Donoghue Says All the Smart Things (and Still Gets Mansplained To)!

Twelve years ago I picked up a racy-looking paperback with a gaping bodice on the cover and a dictionary definition on the title page: “Slammerkin, noun, eighteenth century, of unknown origin. 1. A loose gown. 2. A loose woman.”

As it turned out, Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin had a lot more to do with slimy breeches than heaving bosoms. Set in 18th-century London, the novel is almost straight naturalism, a grimy, depressing, but riveting story that follows a young girl on her path from prostitute to refugee to [spoiler alert!] murderess. Mary’s psychology, such as it is, is almost entirely molded by outer circumstances, accidents of birth and station and bad timing. Given her environment, it only takes a soupcon more than the usual amount of envy in Mary to set the wheels in motion that lead her to her ghastly fate. It’s enough to make you listen to your elders.

It wasn’t until I read the historical notes at the back of the novel that I realized this wasn’t just a realistic story, it was a real story. Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it was inspired by a gruesome murder about which the historical record says little. Many (though not all) of Donoghue’s other books have done the same type of historical reconstruction work: The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, and the short stories in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits and Astray, her latest collection, which covers four centuries of wanderings, migrations, and peregrinations from the micro-perspective of those caught up in the crosswinds. Emma Donoghue thinks like an academic and writes like a woman possessed by the ghosts of historical nobodies, whose minor, idiosyncratic histories tell a larger story about their time.

In 201o, Donoghue’s contemporary novel Room appeared, a gut-wrenching account of a mother and son in a captivity scenario out of your worst nightmare. Room‘s unconventional narrator is a five-year-old boy who has lived his entire life in a tiny, one-room prison with only his mother for company. Trapping the reader inside a child’s head is far from just a gimmick, or even a tool for ongoing dramatic irony. It conveys at once the airless, stunted quality of life in the room and also the astonishing potential of the human mind, its almost sublime ability to reach beyond its narrow limits to the incomprehensible beyond. Jack and his mother shape one another asymmetrically but wholly; Room is Emile written as a love story between mother and child, boxed in by their bond of love and the utter dependence of one on the other just as they are by the literal prison around them. Room was masterful, and it should have won the Booker Prize, or the Orange Prize—it was shortlisted for both.

So, given all that, let’s just say I was excited to get a chance to interview Emma Donoghue for CultureMap. I was nervous, and consequently listening to the recording was not fun: I sound dumb as a rock. I asked questions that made it seem like I hadn’t actually read any of her books; I blanked and failed to listen properly or follow up. Luckily, Emma Donoghue was smart enough for the both of us, so my awkwardness didn’t ruin the interview.

And anyway, I’m proud of it. It’s a landmark for me. At the beginning of 2012, having just graduated and not knowing what was next, I conceived of this ludicrous idea to interview all my favorite contemporary female writers. Jennifer Egan and Emma Donoghue were at the top of the list. Along the way, I’ve fallen in love with a dozen more female authors, and have been fortunate enough to interview a couple of them. But to speak to someone who was an initial inspiration for this project, whatever it is, that was really something.

Interview after the jump. Continue reading

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Scientology! Co-ops! Motherhood! The True Confessions of Author Sarah Bird

*shorter version of this interview available at CultureMap Austin*

When I asked around for names of people’s favorite contemporary female novelists a few months ago, a number of people mentioned local Austin writer Sarah Bird, including writers I respect, like Libba Bray and our own Monique Daviau. So when I had the chance to interview Bird for CultureMap (shorter piece here), I immediately took the opportunity to buy and read her most recent book, The Gap Year. I knew it was about a mother/daughter relationship that grows strained during the daughter’s senior year in high school.

But I was unprepared for how intensely the book sucked me in. It was really funny but also heartbreaking, even frightening at times. The book alternates chapters between the two characters’ points of view during the fateful year when daughter Aubrey suddenly falls in love with a football player and starts behaving like a total stranger to hip, single alterna-mom, Cam. Interwoven within the story is Cam’s sorrow over Cam’s ex, Aubrey’s father, whom she lost years ago to a Scientology-like cult. I read the thing in 24 hours, pulled on not only by the mystery of Aubrey’s transformation, but also by the writing. Deceptively breezy, it is often beautiful and always intelligent, even on the few occasions when the plot resolves a bit too neatly. It really proves what Libba Bray said in my interview with her a couple months ago, that a book can be razor-sharp without being pretentious or, as she put it, “hiding its heart.”

I try not to over-identify with my interview subjects, but there were several points where  I felt an unexpected shock of recognition. It was a pleasant surprise that she had lived in the ICC co-ops while attending grad school at UT, but what really threw me for a loop was the traumatic break-up with a boyfriend who becomes invested in a religion you just can’t reconcile with reality. Bird lost a boyfriend long ago to Scientology; mine was a Mormon. Despite the different religions, I got chills reading that section of the book, and listening to her talk about it made me realize how rarely I have encountered another person who had experienced that particular type of tragedy.

So anyway, here she is, ladies and gents. I hope to read more of her.

—————

The Oeditrix: The first thing I noticed was the structure of the novel, the two alternating voices. Had you ever written anything like that before, and how did you decide to use that structure for the story?

Sarah Bird: Had I ever done anything like it? No, I hadn’t. No I had not, and oddly enough the novel I’m working on now, the same exact thing is happening. Unbeknownst to me. I mean, in Gap Year I thought I was telling the mother’s story because that’s the story I know, and emotionally that’s what I was living through because our son was getting ready to leave, going away to college. I was all distraught about that. Surprisingly. Much more than I had ever expected to be, it was far more emotional than I thought it would be. So I thought I was writing that story, because that’s where my emotional anchor was. So I was writing her story, and you know, like, the good angel and bad angel on your shoulder? So it was her, and then the other angel on the other side was sort of like, sneery, and going, Yeah, that’s what she thinks. That’s her story. And I kind of gradually realized that I was hearing my voice from that age. So I had to let Aubrey tell her story. Which was fun, I enjoyed it a lot.

OED: So Aubrey literally just popped in there.

SB: She was a surprise. She just started talking to me, and she had a lot of commentary. And it was also, I wanted to get to that feeling that parents, particularly mothers of boys, have. Unless you have a very unusual boy, you know, they go into the nonverbal years, and, you know. They stop holding your hand, they stop curling up on your lap, and they stop telling you about their lives. And so you have this stranger living in your house that you know on some level, but you also realize that—certainly my parents didn’t know what my interior life was. And I for sure wanted to get to that feeling of parallel lives that starts happening of necessity when children separate.

OED: I was really struck by how authentic both of those voices felt. 

SB: Amy, how old are you?

OED: How old am I? Oh! Sorry there’s like a cat altercation going on here. Yeah. I’m 34, and I have not had a child as yet.

SB: But you’re much closer—you’re kind of right between. That means a lot to me that it rang true for you.

OED: It really did! When I started the novel I also thought this was going to be the story of this mother. And the voice is so strong and so sassy, and then all of a sudden the daughter spoke up and I was like wow, this is an equally strong voice. So it’s interesting to hear that it was based on your own memories. My next question was going to be—You have a son. You do not have a daughter.

SB: No, I don’t. And I’ve been so happy that, at signings and whatnot when I’ve gone around, so many readers come up and they take my hand and say, I know you have a daughter, because I went through the same thing. I’m glad it came across. I sort of had a secret weapon in that when our son was in high school I volunteered at the attendance office, so I was one of those ladies writing up passes and excuses. I was sitting behind the desk, and essentially I was invisible. And invisible with a notepad in front of me! I was this little imbed in the high school world, and that’s how I was able to get the current details and language and stuff.

OED: Did you copy down things that you heard?

SB: Yeah, I was taking notes the whole time. I mean it’s just amazing what these young people would say right in front of me. Apparently I’m deaf, so that’s good.

OED: How did you decide to make it a daughter, instead of a son?

SB: Once I realized that I was going to have a character that age I knew very clearly it could not be a male. I also knew that if I made the character female, that would put enough distance between my son and that book, so that he wouldn’t feel like I invading his privacy, or reporting on him. Which was was exactly what happened.

OED: You mean he did think you were reporting on him?

SB: No, he didn’t. I asked him, how do you feel about my writing a book about someone this age? And he goes, It’s a girl! It’s a completely different species. You know, like, you’re writing about lemurs, and I’m not a lemur. So . . . we’re fine.

OED: Has he read it?

SB: I don’t think so. I think the only book of mine that he’s read is Alamo House, because he lived for a while in an off-campus co-op. That’s kind of a cult book, because that’s set in an off-campus co-op, and so that passes around the co-ops, and I think he’s read that one. But I don’t know.

OED: Is it set in the UT co-ops?

SB: Yeah, Seneca House. Why, did you live in the co-ops?

OED: I did, I lived at Helios.

SB: Oh, Helios! Oh my god.

OED: For years and years every person I dated lived in one of those co-ops. I couldn’t escape them.

SB: It was so strange, because it was such a good experience for me. I had moved here from Albuquerque and was going to graduate school, and I didn’t know anybody, and I moved into this co-op and immediately had a group of friends, and a place to be. At the time I was there, Seneca House was graduate women. Graduate, vegetarian, feminist women. A serious, studious group. So I talked about it a lot, and so my son said, oh, I’m going to go live in a co-op. And the co-op he lived was “clothing-optional.”

OED: House of Commons?

SB: 21st Street. Let me just say, here’s a little secret: nobody you want to see with their clothes off is going to be stripping down. It’s going to be everybody that you don’t want. Anyway. So he followed in my footsteps and did that.

OED: And was he shocked by how different it was?

SB: No.

OED: That was a fun time for me too. It was not a particularly studious time. But it was a fun time, in those co-ops.

SB: No the co-ops have changed pretty dramatically from when I was there. I mean they always were sort of wild, but not, I mean, whoa.

OED: So you were here for your MA in journalism. And had you been writing your whole life before that?

SB: I had written for magazines. And—hold onto your hat—I wrote for True Confessions magazine.

OED: Oh wow!

SB: Yeah. And made more more money in the early seventies than I would make now on a magazine article. They were great. I mean, they’re out of business now. But that was literally pulp fiction. It was literally pulp fiction, but that was where I started. But by the time I went to journalism school I had been publishing in magazines and writing articles and things like that.

OED: Tell me what it was like working at True Confessions. I’m dying to know.

SB: It was amazing. I mean, it’s just great training. Inadvertently, because—I started writing to make money. I had been an au pair in France, when I was 19 or 20. And when I was over there I was trying to learn French, but you know. My French was better than the three-month old babies I was taking care of, so I wasn’t learning very much. So I got these photo-romances, that’s what they called them. They’re like, they have them in Mexico too, they’re photos, like cartoons but with photos. And they were like, Oh Guillaume, je [san je fais le blague?] So I was reading those things to learn colloquial French, how people actually spoke instead of what I had learned by reading Molière, which wasn’t very colloquial. But you know, it kind of occurred to me. They were so bad, it was the first time I was reading something that was discernibly bad writing. A little light went on, and I said, I could probably do that! So when I got back home I searched out a similar market, and there were the True Confession magazines. Equally bad.

OED: That’s pretty amazing. So you were writing stories—

SB: I was writing “I kidnapped my own child!”, “I seduced my parish priest!” . . . really they were pretty tame. Everything back in those days was pretty tame. They were just a great way to learn how to plot a story. And it was really great to learn how to write to a certain audience. I had the blue-collar and working class, and it was just such great timing to figure out how you capture that world, so. I wish they still existed.

OED: Yeah me too, I would write for them.

SB: Yeah I know, I feel so badly that all the places where I started and made a living when I was starting as a writer, they’re vanished. But at this point True Confession magazines were dying out, even then.

OED: When did you start writing novels?

SB: I had this goal that I’d publish my first novel by the time I was 30, and I did. It was a mystery. I had a state job by then, no wait, it must have been before then because I got—I’m losing track. So it was before I was 30 that I published a mystery novel, Do Evil Cheerfully, from the Blaise Pascal quote, “Men never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” And it was about this Scientology boyfriend that is why I ended up in Austin. I followed him to Austin. And he became a Scientologist. So I wrote that novel, and I had him dead on page one. He was dead, he was floating in the bathtub with my hairdryer in it.

OED: That Scientology experience, it must have informed the part of The Gap Year about her ex-husband.

SB: Oh my god, yes! Exactly right! You’re exactly right! That’s all very, very, very true. I just never figured out the answer to how someone so intelligent, that I was so crazy about, could go for this malarkey. As Joe Biden would say.

OED: There was something very real about that the description of the marriage dissolving, it was very hard to read at times, there was something really authentic there. Until the [ex-husband] character showed up, it seemed like a fun thing, a made-up job, you know, what if someone worked for the Scientologists as a bodyguard, but then . . . 

SB: Yeah, it’s such a jokey thing. Just to say “Scientology,” or “Moonie.” But you know, they suck people in, and then lives are over. He tried to get me to join up, he had me take a beginning course that, oh my God it was like a horrific combination of assertiveness training and a kindergartner’s birthday party. It was just an odd, odd experience. Which, all hail to the Austin libraries, they saved me from it. I was not lured into white slavery and signed away 99 lives to Sea Org. After I took this course, I was sort of dazed and heartbroken. So I did what I always do: I researched it. I went to the library, walked in there to research Scientology, and everything I came across, the articles had been razor-bladed out. I went to the librarian and said what’s the deal, there’s nothing here. And she said, oh we keep some of that stuff behind a desk, because these guys come in and cut the articles out, or steal the books. So we have to keep them locked up. So anyway, that’s how I found out what I found out about Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard. So yay, go Austin Public Libraries.

OED: But it did bring you to Austin, that experience. And you’ve been here ever since?

SB: Yeah, since 1973. I mean, ostensibly I came for graduate school, but it was because of this guy.

OED: Do you feel like you’re from Austin at this point?

SB: You know, that’s any interesting question, which kind of goes to a deep psychological thing. But I grew up in an Air Force family. And if you grow up in the military, where you move a lot a lot a lot, and your primary allegiance is kind of to the mission, to the Air Force, to America, I don’t know, there’s just this essential non-rootendess about you. So I think that just got baked into my identity at such an early age that. . . but if I’m from anywhere, it’s from Austin.

OED: It’s a good place to be from.

SB: I’m madly in love with Austin.

OED: It’s my favorite place on earth.

SB: Where are you from?

OED: I’m from Houston originally. I came to Austin for school, but then for years I went to grad school in Chicago.

SB: Oh my God! Where did you go?

OED: University of Chicago.

SB: Smart girl.

OED: Well I was smarter still by coming back after I was done, really the smartest decision I ever made. I married my husband here, and I have a lot of friends and family. I just love being back. I was in Chicago, a big, culturally wonderful city, but it doesn’t hold a candle to how great it is to live here. Anyway. Another question that kind of goes to that, about The Gap Year: Cam strikes me as kind of an Austin hippie, or a hip Austin mom. Most stories of teen rebellion are kind of the opposite, there’s a conservative or strait-laced parent, and the child rebels. That’s not the story you told, so tell me a little bit about that. 

SB: About where Cam comes from?

OED: About the dynamic. I mean, the daughter wants to be more normal, essentially.

SB: That kind of came from–I have five brothers and sisters. And this is a great blessing to a novelist, to be one of six children, in that you see these people from the first moments of their lives. And it gives you a deep understanding that so much of who we are is hardwired. Obviously Cam sees that in her work. And I saw that with my son. When he was born, I looked into his face, and he made himself known to me on some really fundamental level that never changed. I knew. And so I think, this is just, you know, this great roll of the dice, about parents and the temperament of their child, a mother and the temperament of her child. What that child needs, whether the mother can supply it, and how those pieces fit together, and form and deform each other. So I’m interested in that, and I would say Aubrey was somebody who came into the world with a temperament that craved order. And obviously Cam had come from too much order, and she was giving what she thought was the greatest gift she could to her child, and it made Aubrey feel insecure and unanchored. And so that’s what she sought out. She sought out that stability.

OED: It’s a scary thought to somebody who has not had children, it is kind of your worst fear. You know, what if my child rejects me not just because I’m their parent, but because of different personalities. Like, they just don’t like you.

SB: I mean obviously as a parent you have a huge advantage in that you form their world. That was the other thing that I wanted to get at, is how much parents form their world, creating these little football players, or whoever, that are expressions of their parents. And your parents are always going around going, oh I just want him or her to be happy. Yeah, as long as it involves a degree from Yale, that’s an okay happiness. But community college, that is not an okay kind of happiness.

OED: Do you think those expectations of parents from their children are a common source of the gap between parent and child? 

SB: Children come into the world, and they’re dependent on these big humans to feed them and protect them. So by and large, you want to please your parents. I think it’s unusual not to want to please your parents, and not to feel tremendous grief when you don’t. And sometimes, you know, the little person you get is not the person that’s going to fulfill your expectations. We’ve all heard stories about that kind of sadness—Laurence Olivier, who always wanted to be an actor, and his father wanted him to have a respectable profession. Just sometimes. More often than not it works, and there’s just this happy blend.

OED: One thing that was most terrifying to me was that it all revolved around cellphones. The scariest scenes to me were the ones where the mother was calling and calling and calling, and yet when I was growing up we didn’t even have cellphones. But just the thought of not being able to reach your child—it was written in a very terrifying way. Is that a feeling you’ve experienced?

SB: Of course. I mean that’s the curse of cellphones, you just immediately go into red alert when the person on the other end doesn’t respond immediately. I think back to when I took off and backpacked around Europe. Just by a fluke, the letter I sent to my mother telling her that I had arrived safely and everything was fine went into our mailbox, which in my house fed into a closet, and it went into the pocket of a coat. The only letter that ever got diverted like that. So she didn’t know for months that I was even alive. That just literally couldn’t happen now. That’s horrible for parents, but on the other hand, that complete break is what I think turns the key for a lot of children, and then they begin to appreciate their parents, after they’ve had that. I’m curious about whether that happens as much when you remain in constant contact.

But it’s definitely, it’s a terrifying experience when you cannot get your child to call you back. Much more common with boy children. All my friends who had girls, the girl’s like, Hi mom, I’m walking across the quad, oh I better hurry  up I’m gonna be late for class, hey listen, can you send me my that hair thing that I left there? It’s in the top drawer, yeah okay, Pat’s looking for me, see you, talk to you. And then they hang up, and a few minutes later the phone rings again. That’s a month’s worth of communication with a boy.

OED: Can you tell me about the quote in the front of the book: “The anchor or the arrow?”

SB: Oh yeah, yeah. That. That came very clearly to me in a dream that I had when I was eight months pregnant. I woke up with that in my head, and I saw that it was always this little conflict between whether you’re launching your child into the world, getting them prepared for the slings and arrows and the harsh reality, or are you the nesting place? The home where they always have to take you in? I just remembered that very clearly when our son reached that age, when I said, Do I need to toughen him up? Is this a cruel thing, that he’s never known anything but approval and love, and toxic love is a selfish thing? So that’s what Cam was facing.

OED: I wanted to ask about suburbia versus living in the city, another theme I noticed in the book. There was such a strong thing in the book about her yearning to be somewhere else, and I wondered where that came from.

SB: I exiled myself to the suburbs. I’m not really in the suburbs, I live in the Northwest hills. But I had always lived in Hyde Park and Crestview, and pretty central Austin, so it really felt like I was out on the edge of the prairie when I first moved here. And that I had somehow sacrificed my essential identity to be a parent. We needed a bigger house and we could afford one here. So I gave that to Cam, which I think is not an uncommon identity crisis that parents have, that you have given that essential part of yourself up. Sycamore Heights was kind of Hyde Park. . . And kind of knowing that probably I wouldn’t have really blended in there either. So. This dynamic plays out in a lot of places, like in Albuquerque, places I’ve visited and friends I know, they kind of have the same turmoil. Like moving out of New York into the boroughs, that stuff. The changes you have to make when you become a parent.

OED: Can you talk about your sense of humor? There were lots of parts in the book where I laughed out loud. 

SB: I love it when people say that, but I’m also just wincing, because the book I’m working on now is intensely serious. It doesn’t have a single laugh in it. It’s like my other complete laugh-free book, The Flamenco Academy. It’s just whatever shape the book takes. I’m very lucky that I have an editor that’s never forced me to do a quote-unquote “Sarah Bird” book, she lets me go wherever I want to go. But I would say I grew up in a very, very funny family. My family is super articulate, highly verbal. It was one of those big Catholic families that are somewhat competitive, and we were always playing to the laugh. To get my mother to laugh, that was the big gold star for us. It’s still tons of fun when I get together with them. They’re still the funniest people I know.

OED: You say competitive in the sense that there’s a lot of you?

SB: There’s a lot of you, but also that kind of humor is competitive. You’re trying to top someone else’s laugh, or get the laugh, or make the kill shot. I kind of grew up in comedy camp.

OED: Tell me a little bit more about the book you’re working on now, the serious one.

SB: It’s very serious. It’s very serious and it’s very complicated. I’m just now speed-reading it. Something’s not working, and I have to sort of speed-read it to take my main character’s emotional pulse. I actually have two main characters, like Gap Year, double point-of-view thing. It’s the story of an Okinawan girl during the Battle of Okinawa who was conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army and forced to serve as a nurse in their cave hospitals. So it’s her point of view juxtaposed with a contemporary military brat stationed on Okinawa. In both cases what I wanted to talk about is the price of empire, and how those costs are always born by the young. [Pause.] So that’s a laugh riot.

OED: What put it in your head to write it right now? 

SB: I’ve just been very concerned about the rise of militarism in America. Things like, how infrequently in the campaign they talk about this immense colossal defense budget we have. From doing the Yakota Officer’s Club I learned so much about the Battle of Okinawa, and I always wanted to go back to that, because more people died there than in Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined, yet very few people know about it. Including me, who was there. So that was always lingering. And then I wanted to talk about military families today. So that’s what I’m stirring into the pot.

OED: And do you have any other ideas on the horizon? Do you know what you’re next book after that would be? 

SB: No I don’t. Not really. I do have some idea, but I don’t want to encode them in my brain in any dangerous way.

OED: Are you the kind of writer who has a lot of ideas?

SB: No. No, I’m really not. That’s kind of why I switched from journalism to novels, because I realized I only get about one really good idea a year. I can’t go chasing magazine assignments. No, I don’t, and I don’t keep notebooks of my ideas, and I don’t write things down much. I get attached to things if I write them down. So it has to occur to me over a long period of time, and then I start pursuing it.

OED: So what is your actual writing process like? 

SB: Kind of sporadic. I have months where I do nothing but research, and months where I do nothing but write all day, and then months where nothing happens, so. I’m certainly not a model of discipline.

OED: I mean who is, right?

SB: Well, I know a lot of people who are.

OED: Do you think you’re strongly associated with Austin for your readers?

SB: Well, I came from New Mexico, and I was so freaked out by Texas when I first got here, it was so strange and bizarre. So I wrote Alamo House, my first novel. I meant it as a satire. And then I discovered that Texans, and certainly Austinites, have the best sense of humor in the world. So my blistering satire was warmly received. [Laughs.] I think it’s sort of been a two-way love affair.

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The Wire Mother, or, Politics and Paranoia in the Academy

Last week I wrote a post about the ambivalence I felt as a PhD accepting a teaching job whose value would never be acknowledged by my graduate program. Three hours after posting, I was added to the University of Chicago English Department’s PhD Alumni listserv. (I graduated eleven months ago.)

The overworked department administrators were always kind to me, and I do appreciate being added to the list; however, the immediate result of the email was acute arrhythmia. The next day I got the cold sweats when the University of Chicago Alumni page retweeted my post, despite the bump in pageviews.

When I wrote the original post, I wasn’t actually thinking all that much about the university, honestly. I was thinking of, and writing for, my fellow in-betweeners, my colleagues in confusion, “the ones who left,” as I strangely think of us, even though not all of us did. We are the ones Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius euphemistically call “post-academics” in their terrific book about finding careers outside of academia–which is published, in a hilarious bit of irony, by the University of Chicago Press.

One of my post-academic compatriots had a therapist who had herself been through grad school hell. She had a sign posted in her office that read, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

Anyone whose anxiety issues first appeared in grad school will tell you that this is literally the funniest joke in the world. And like all the best jokes, it’s funny because it’s true.

* * * * *

Immediately after posting a couple of days ago, I realized with a jolt that I had failed to mention the many, many skilled and hardworking teachers in post-secondary education, professors working everywhere from community colleges to liberal arts colleges to Research I institutions. It’s not because I don’t know any great and humane teachers in the academy. I know tons. They are my former professors, my acquaintances and close friends, my family members, even. These professors care about their students. They struggle to improve their teaching. They work long hours and are usually underpaid. It was truly irresponsible of me to leave them out of the picture. Why had I done so?

I did it because I was treating the academy “monolithically,” a critique I heard second-hand from a professor who did not want to comment on the blog itself. It’s true that I treated the institutional stance toward non-academic life, specifically non-university teaching, as monolithic. It is not. However, to borrow one of the many useful terms I learned in the academy, I would make the case that it is hegemonic. I believe that although many, many individuals in the academy, maybe even the majority of them, do care about teaching, that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem with the way teaching is perceived in the academy. It just means that the problem is institutional in scale, not individual.

The same source suggested that my views had been unduly influenced by my own personal academic experience, to which I can only say, guilty as charged. However, she then went on to say that I had made “ridiculous assumptions” about how academics see colleagues who leave the academic world.

If this is a ridiculous assumption, I am not making it alone. I got far more responses to this post than anything else I’ve written for this blog–in the comments section, on my Facebook page, and in my personal inbox. I will cite a few of them here to illustrate my point. (None of the private or anonymous comments were used without permission.)

First things first. I started out complaining about the University of Chicago’s attitude toward non-academic jobs for its graduates. Here’s an unsolicited comment from someone I don’t know who graduated from the same department I did:

A few years ago I challenged the dept about the fact that they don’t list alumni with non-academic jobs (or show any interest in them). I was told that they couldn’t put such info on the website or it would tarnish the dept’s reputation as a serious program in the eyes of prospective students and applicants.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Another anonymous commenter confirms this view, saying that faculty response to her “other” jobs post-graduation” was “utterly shaming,” even when that job was working at an extremely prestigious academic journal.

And another:

I have a friend who decided to become a high school teacher and her advisor promptly dropped her–he has put off reading her completed dissertation and scheduling her defense for almost two years since she’s no longer pursuing “academic employment.” 

This is not a huge sample size, but anecdotally and based on my own experience, these stories are not very surprising. Moreover, I have never heard this type of story told about any high-status job other than academia–as a friend of mine remarked, no lawyer or doctor would ever look down on someone who decided to quit a massively demanding job to do something else that made them happier (with the possible exception, sadly, of raising a child). Maybe we’re all just trying to cover up our own academic failings, which I don’t believe is the case, or maybe the assumption that academics often look down on non-academic jobs isn’t so ridiculous after all. Unless we’re just being paranoid.

But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

* * * * *

If that’s the perceived value of teaching outside the academy, what about teaching within the academy? I heard stories about that, too:

when i did a campus visit at X earlier this year, one of the committee members told me that he had taught at Yale before moving to X. When he received a teaching award, his colleagues all sent their condolences — because no one who had received a teaching award had ever been tenured.

The most shocking part of stories like these is that if you have been a grad student, they are not really shocking at all.

But! Duh, you are thinking. Yale, you are thinking. All these examples, you could point out, come from Research I universities with English departments consistently ranked in the top 20 nationwide, by whoever ranks those things. What about all of those professors toiling away at liberal arts schools, at inner-city public universities, at community colleges? They’re not suffering from delusions that they are living the always-scare-quoted “life of the mind.” They are too busy grading, or endlessly meeting with kids in office hours to help them revise their papers, or staying up late to put together a terrific lesson plan. They teach, and they care, and many of them get tenure.

To this, I respond—I hate to burst your bubble, but in the rarefied heights of academia, in the top ten English graduate programs in the nation, those jobs are not valued very highly either. I have heard so many anecdotes from colleagues who were visibly and palpably snubbed by professors, often by their own advisors, for having taken jobs like these. I wish I could give the stories in more detail, but they are not my stories and I will not tell them without permission. People have their reasons for not talking about these things in public forums.

Yes, most (though not all) of my anecdotes come from departments renowned for this type of occluded elitism. Nonetheless, there is no denying that they are the top departments in their discipline, that their professors are the top academics in their fields, that a recommendation from one of these professors opens doors. They wrote the books we cite, they headline the conferences we travel to. They are the scholarly tastemakers, the critical vanguard, the leading lights who set the standard for the most prestigious jobs in the field. Students continue to fight to get into these universities because in a nearly non-existent job market, they continue to place students in academic jobs–“good” ones, though again, the definition of a “good” job is determined entirely by the people doing the placing.

As suggested by the former University of Chicago grad student cited above, professors want to maintain that prestige for the department, thereby continuing to attract the brightest students, and they know how to do it: promoting the importance of research, and, by extension, demoting teaching to secondary status. (Tertiary if you account for wearing cool clothes.)

Anyone who doubts this is invited to meditate on the phrase “icing on the cake.” It’s a phrase I heard a dozen times when I was applying for jobs, a phrase used to describe the value of teaching on the academic job market. Every professor in my department, even the ones who themselves value teaching, will use this phrase (or sometimes the less colorful “bonus”), meaning sure, talk about your teaching skills in an interview, it won’t count against you. But it won’t get you hired either, much less tenured. (Conversely, as many of us have seen, the lack of it won’t get you fired.) I assume that these professors, who are at the top of their field, and whose most pressing business is to get their students academic jobs after graduation, know of what they speak.

I have approximately a zillion anecdotes that demonstrate the undervaluation of teaching in my department, but again, I do not want to tell others’ stories without their permission. So instead I will directly quote another commenter, this one from a prestigious public university, who actually changed her focus from literature to rhetoric and composition out of frustration with the sexism of her lit professors. Although she had always loved 18th-century literature, the classes this student took in rhet/comp were more interesting, more humane, and more generally acknowledging of female existence than the lit classes:

The seminars were awesome! And the things that we were talking about were so smart! And the faculty were supportive and helpful, and they thought that ladies were smart and that teaching *well* (not just teaching, but doing it well) was important. . . . In leaving lit, those old white 18c dudes think that I have made a *huge* mistake. Because anything rhet/comp is considered “service work” and is (*gasp* oh no!) feminized. . . If they were any good at teaching, they would realize how hard it is and how much research goes into being a good teacher.

Rhet/comp is the study of writing and argumentation. Writing is a demonstrable skill with copious uses in non-academic jobs. Teaching someone to write is difficult, but progress in writing is relatively easy to assess, which is perhaps why the field tends to be more teaching-oriented than literary fields. So it’s no surprise to me that, with the exception of certain theoretically-oriented departments like Berkeley, rhet/comp doesn’t get a lot of respect in English departments. Anyone who’s seen an English professor’s nose wrinkle at the though of teaching freshman comp classes knows that it is considered “service work.”

And as the commenter pointed out, that makes it women’s work, and women’s work is undervalued. Is anyone really surprised that attitudes toward feminized work within the academy reflect attitudes toward feminized work in the outside world?

Well, yeah, I was kind of surprised, since I went into academia to teach. I thought that was what professors did! I entered grad school with the comically naive goal of standing in front of a classroom in an elbow-patched blazer, teaching the books I loved, and getting summers off to write my novel.

By the way, if I had a dime for every academic who got into it thinking they would write their novels in the summer, I would be the saddest millionaire in the world. Creative writing is seen as a quaint and slightly embarrassing hobby in  academia.

* * * * *

Is teaching, especially teaching writing, institutionally undervalued in academia? After all this, I confess it’s hard for me to say, given my own experiences, which some would call extreme. They may be, although, as I argued before, I believe those attitudes coming from on high affect the way teaching is valued (or not valued) at all levels. Still, they create a certain myopia, as another commenter from my department described:

. . . on the other hand, at one of my mla interviews, one of the questions they asked was, “why do you want to be a teacher?” — it’s hard to be very sure when most of the grad students you actually know were raised on the same wire mother.

If you are unfamiliar with the wire mother, it’s shorthand for a classic experiment in screwing monkeys over for life conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Basically, you isolate the baby rhesus monkeys from their real mothers and give them surrogate “mothers” made of wire and cloth instead, and watch what happens over time.

I don’t know whether any of those monkeys went on to finish their doctorates, but they exhibited intense, crippling anxiety and misdirected aggression throughout their lives. I had to laugh, juvenile as it was, upon learning that in these monkeys “[s]ex behavior was, for all practical purposes, destroyed,” as  “isolate females ignored approaching normal males, while isolate males made inaccurate attempts to copulate with normal females.” Maybe that’s why I didn’t have a boyfriend for six years!

Other bizarre behaviors exhibited by these children of cold, pointy, comfortless mothers included “clutching themselves, rocking constantly back and forth.”

Oh, rhesus monkey. I’ve been there.

* * * *  *

I feel deeply, deeply complicated about the wire mother that is University of Chicago. I don’t want this post to become an autobiographical list of all the cold, pointy, comfortless things I witnessed there, but it’s hard to stop once you start. It’s hard to communicate to people just how traumatizing those things were, so you just keep going, which is why, after all, I am still writing this at 4:30 in the morning when I have to get up at 7:00.

It’s been eight years since Thomas H. Benton asked (pseudonymously) “Is Graduate School a Cult?”; longer still since Margaret Newhouse wrote “Deprogramming from the Academic Cult“; and over ten years since Lisa Ruddick observed the dehumanizing influence of the academic hierarchy in her post-9/11 article “The Near Enemy of the Humanities is Professionalism.” But if my recent experience and those of my peers is typical, not a whole lot has changed since then.

For a more recent example, see this humorous but dead-on comparison of grad school to a cult by a grad student who, by the way, was once literally in a cult:

1. On the first day you arrive, you’re reminded that you’re part of a small, elite subgroup with access to specialized knowledge that the average person can never hope to achieve. You’re congratulated for choosing to come to graduate school and leaving behind the shallow materialism of the world.

2. Despite what a great achievement it is to get into graduate school (or so they tell you), you start to notice that your only reward seems to be working harder than all your college friends.

The pride in suffering that keeps you in a place like this even when you have to be doped up on Klonopin to bear it, this cult-like tribalism that says you are being torn down for your own good, that you will emerge the better for your wounds, is everywhere on display at the University of Chicago. It is a mentality perfectly articulated, literally inscribed on the body, by the t-shirts worn proudly by undergraduates all over campus, bearing the legend: “University of Chicago: Where Fun Comes to Die.”

* * * * *

The question of how this all pertains to sexism and the undervaluing of “women’s work” is something I can’t quite handle yet. It is at once a personal issue, a political issue, and a the-personal-is-political issue, all tangled up in a big, messy knot with my particular experiences of humiliation at the University of Chicago. I entered the university by way of an MA program whose students, despite being basically cash cows for the university, get treated very, very poorly within the English department. I fought hard for legitimacy and respect, and eventually I must have won it, because I was admitted into the PhD program the very next year. Having lived in two worlds, I am intimately, painfully familiar with the difference between being valued and being ignored, sometimes even openly despised, within the same intellectual community.

Did I get a huge rush every time a professor gave me the head-nod of approval in class, or liked my work, or treated me as an important person with good ideas? Absolutely. Did I feel giddy every time I won some department-wide competition for a scant resource, whether it was money, an award, or teaching (which, although the professors don’t care about it, acquires value among grad students precisely because it’s a scant resource at U of C)? Yes, yes, yes.

The first time I got the magic head-nod, I nearly hit the fucking ceiling. I trembled for hours. That’s approval addiction. Approval is not the same as support, not by a long shot. But in an environment where actual, steady, dependable support is hard to come by, you’ll take it. Any port in a storm, any mother in a monkey cage. I leapt for the gold ring again and again, transfixed by the moment of exhilarating warmth I felt, the knowledge that I was doing well.

Like all addictions, approval has diminishing returns. But that doesn’t make it any easier to give up. I wish I didn’t still want it. The job placement page is just a bookmark in the vast tome of not-giving-a-shit that I, paranoid, feel emanating from the university where I spent six years learning how to feel inadequate, even as I piled up successes within the department.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not trying to forget you ever existed.

If this sounds crazy, you’re just going to have to believe me when I say that I never felt this way before I attended the University of Chicago–not as a child with my parents, not in grade school or high school, certainly not in college. If it helps, I have plenty of witnesses from my pre-grad-school life who can attest to this. I’m married to one of them.

To make a long story short (too late!): No, I don’t believe non-academic careers are much valued in academia, and no, I don’t believe teaching, either in a university or elsewhere, is much valued in academia, and yes, I think this attitude disproportionately affects women, and no, the quantities of good, hardworking teachers in the academy do not really change the question of how much they are valued. The fact that I had it relatively easy in academia, the fact that I was a valued and respected member of my department who also avowedly loved teaching, does not change the question either. If anything, it’s even more damning to me. Even while I earned approval from the department again and again, I couldn’t help but absorb those attitudes, and eventually they became toxic to me. And that is why I left.

Emma Straub Majored in Tater Tots, and Other Fun Facts about the Author

A couple of days ago I got to talk to Emma Straub, whose debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures I picked up in Shakespeare & Co. and read on the plane ride back from Paris (yeah, that’s right, I got the UK cover, uh-huh). Straub is coming to the Texas Book Festival this afternoon, so I asked my editor if I could interview her. She was super nice, and had some awesome things to say about her own experiences of becoming a (paid) writer. Here is the looooong version of the interview–you can find the original article here. Enjoy!

———

The Oeditrix: How did you get the idea for Laura Lamont?

Emma Straub: I was working on something else at the time, another novel idea that wasn’t really going anywhere, and I came across the obituary for the actress Jennifer Jones. I was so moved by her life story as presented in this four or five paragraph obituary. And I just thought, that is a novel! There was so much drama, and so much happens. . . . Laura Lamont’s life has certain things in common with Jennifer Jones’s, but I really wanted her to be her own person, and not some fictionalized version of Jennifer Jones. So I stayed far way from her after that.

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“Just” Teaching

MITT ROMNEY: I love teachers.  

BOB SCHIEFFER: I think we all love teachers.

I just accepted a job teaching writing at a small private high school with a liberal slant and a hippie-fied aesthetic. I have applied to many teaching jobs, but I fought hard for this one, because it sounded better than any job I’ve applied to so far—perfect for me, in fact. I have been walking on air since I got the offer.

And then this morning I woke up with a sudden panic in my chest.

The woman who founded and runs the school has a PhD in rhetoric and composition and helped shape the writing center at a major university. She left academia 40 years ago, disgusted by male peers who, she hinted, ran the department like a cross between a Chuck E. Cheese and a gentleman’s club. She believes in her school, she believes in her kids, and she believes in her lifestyle, which as far as I can tell involves a lot of time spent working and reading in a cozy armchair next to her spouse in the shabby but beautiful house they have filled with books and precious artifacts.

Despite this, there was one moment of our meeting when her face clouded over and she said, “I’ve never done anything my whole life, except just teach.”

“Just” teach.

* * * * *

From what I can tell, the University of Chicago, where I got my PhD in English, considers me deceased. If you don’t believe me, look at their “job placement” page, which lists every academic job their graduates get, no matter how transient or low-status, but makes no mention of the writers, teachers, consultants, journalists, programmers, lawyers, etc., who come out of their program every year.

As far as the University of Chicago is concerned, not only was my graduation in December 2011 my most recent accomplishment, but it will always be my most recent accomplishment, unless I get a university job down the line. Many academics consider the world outside of academia devoid of all intellectual stimulation and rigor, and the decision to leave seemingly strikes them as tantamount to abandoning the “life of the mind” for an endless parade of Katy Perry tunes, American cheese, reality TV, and trips to Six Flags.

This is obviously silly, and good, smart academics certainly don’t think that way. But this assumption about leaving academia masks certain others that are decidedly less silly. Assumptions that most people never articulate when you’re thinking of leaving, because they’re too painful, too gendered, and maybe sometimes a little too true.

For a man, opting out of academia sort of implies choosing corporate lucre over the intellectual life, which is a bit déclassé. But for a woman, it is far more likely to mean choosing a low-status job in the public sector over a high-status (if still underpaid) university job.

If you lined up in a row all the women I know who left grad school, they would look something like a female version of The Village People. Public school teacher, public interest lawyer, nurse—all models of civic responsibility, public servants who keep our society running on public-sector paychecks, and with no expectations of the deference granted their high-status peers. These are the people who are lauded on bumper stickers instead of listened to in election years. And they are disproportionately female.*

They are also the smartest women I have ever met. They are writers, thinkers, activists, poets, performers, and artists. Their conversation has made me smarter and their accomplishments have inspired me to do more. Selfishly, I hope they will eventually become mothers, so I can meet their brilliant kids.

Kids who will grow up to be . . . . well it depends. Are they boys or girls? Do they want to have a family? How much? Will someone else be able to help take care of the family? Support it financially? Will they be willing to tough it out in a career where they’re either an outnumbered minority or an undervalued majority?

How important will status be to them, and what will they sacrifice to chase it across the finish line?

* * * * *

I think I will love this job teaching high schoolers to write. I love it already, and I haven’t started yet. Sitting with the director of the school, going over the class material, imagining myself imparting the fundamentals of self-expression, which I picture getting these kids into good colleges and then good jobs after that, I think, this is so much more fucking important than anything I ever did in grad school.

“You have to learn how to express yourself,” I imagine myself telling these kids. “When you know how to communicate your ideas in writing, people take you seriously. You can tell the world your thoughts, your experiences, and the world will listen. You can argue your points. And then you can achieve . . . ”

I picture myself really thinking about this one. I guess it depends?

“Anything,” I would have to finish, even though I don’t really know what that means anymore.

Once when I lived in Chicago an exterminator came by the apartment. We made small talk as he wandered around, poking the long nozzle of the pesticide sprayer into closets and checking for ants under the sink. His head and shoulders deep in the kitchen cabinets, he asked me what I did for a living. I said “student.” He asked about my post-graduation plans, and I said, “I hope to become a professor and teach English at a university.”

He emerged from under the sink right away. He said, “I got a lot of respect for schoolteachers. They got the most important job in the world. My mother was a schoolteacher, my grandmother too. You gotta be really smart to be a schoolteacher. They got the hardest job in the world.”

His head disappeared back under the sink, but he went on talking about it for some time. I felt a little squirmy. I wasn’t the one he was talking to. I wasn’t a noble public servant. I was in school because I loved ideas. I was in school for the life of the mind. I was in school—let’s face it, I was in it because everyone told me I was smart enough to win the whole game, to wear the tweed suit, to be a professor. I felt a million miles away from being the person this man thought he was talking to. It made me feel a little guilty, like I was getting away with something.

Before he left the apartment, he shook my hand. “Good luck with the teacher thing,” he said. “It’s a tough job. I really admire you.”

I’m still not the person he means. I’m not taking on the overwhelming odds against public school teachers. I’m not working with the disadvantaged kids who need it most. The kids I will teach are just shy, or weird, or they’ve been bullied or ignored in bigger schools, and their parents can afford to send them to a small hippie school with tiny classes. If being a teacher is the hardest job in the world, I hardly qualify as a teacher at all. But I no longer feel a million miles away from the person the exterminator thought he was talking to. If I work hard, someday I will be “just” a teacher, too.

In making decisions about our lives, we measure out what we can handle in tiny little increments, slivers of difference. We weigh our talents and our passions, our dreams and our guilt, what we need and what we can give, what the world says and what it means. And if, at the end of the day, we feel womaned by these decisions, we put it into next week’s lesson plan.

 

*They were also disproportionately women of color. Women of color left my program in tiny, silent droves while I was there.

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Hey, Here Are Some Links!

Because it must be Friday somewhere:

-Terrific interview with Heidi Julavits on the Rumpus. [Ben Marcus told her there were too many descriptions of clothes in The Vanishers. Spoiler alert: THERE WEREN’T.]

-Alyssa Rosenberg claims that nerd misogyny was forecast by Buffy S6. As a staunch defender of S6, I feel it my duty to say “I told you so.”

-Sarah Sentilles on sexist reviews of women’s writing–especially about religion.

Intellectual Negging at Shakespeare & Co., a Womansplanation

Yesterday we ate lamb testicles in Paris. It was the most expensive lunch I’ve ever had, and it was worth it. “Remember those lamb testicles we ate?” is a phrase I fully intend to integrate into my vocabulary, and I hope Curtis will always answer, as he did last night, “Those lamb testicles were so amazing.”

After our lamb testicle lunch, we wandered around the corner to Shakespeare & Co., the English-language bookstore and lending library Sylvia Beach ran for American ex-pats in the 1920s. I was there ten years ago, but must not have gone past the first room, because I did not remember it being so amazing.

The cramped rooms twist around one another like a baroque series of stomachs in a fantastical beast. Nooks and alcoves, curtained or cushioned and decorated with newspaper clippings and old photographs, appear around every corner. Improbably-shaped bookshelves line the narrow staircase and arch over the doorways, almost as if they’re supporting the sagging walls instead of weighing them down. Under a display table, a sunken wishing bowl holds pennies, euros and pounds.

This is not even to speak of the selection. English-language books not just numerous but also different than I’m used to seeing, by authors barely read in America—oddballs without genre like Michael Moorcock, humorists taken seriously like Jerome K. Jerome. Dalkey Archive Press paperbacks, vintage Rebecca West hardbacks, and a volume of Grimm’s fairy tales illustrated by Mervyn Peake and introduced by Sarah Waters. Not to mention a theory section stocked with all the Derrida, all the Barthes, all the Deleuze and Badiou and Ranciere. It was like Domy, Powell’s, Half-Price Books and the Seminary Co-op rolled into one, then crammed into a space the size of our apartment.

Because the bookstore is so small and so full of people, you can hear every conversation. Most shoppers murmur softly in French or English, gently jostling one another for a better glimpse of the display table or reaching for the shelves nearest the ceiling with a quiet “pardon.”

As I peruse the Doris Lessing shelf, a man’s voice rises above the others. One of those voices that, while not particularly loud, never lowers itself even when personal space is at a premium or silence is requested (subways and library stacks, respectively). And because he is speaking English in perfectly audible tones, I feel not only obligated to listen, but entitled to that delicious thrill of judgment which is the compensation for overhearing conversations you’d rather not.

The young man, of slightly less than average height, wears a backpack. Over the course of my visit he converses with two female compatriots, not at the same time. Having glimpsed a sign on the register directed at NYU exchange students, I automatically assume these three are from NYU, though it doesn’t really matter if they are or not. The young women speak with excitement and curiosity. The young man consistently mistakes their attempts to engage him in conversation as serious appeals to his superior knowledge, and proceeds accordingly.

HER: I can’t decide which of these to buy! They’re both amazing. What do you think, which one?

HIM: Um, neither is really my thing?

HER: I meant for me, not for you.

HIM: Well, I don’t know, because I would never read either one.

He comes up with ingenious ways of expressing his lack of knowledge and interest in such a way as to make it seem like a fascinating aspect of his personality about which every girl is dying to hear more.

HER, holding up a children’s book: I loved this when I was little. The illustrations are so beautiful.

HIM: [Silence.]

HER, holding up a novel: How about this, do you know if it’s good?

HIM: Yeah, I read it, but it’s been soooo long ago, I don’t really remember anything about it. Like early in high school? A long time ago.

I have to congratulate this dude on getting a jump start on a time-honored convention of academic discourse. “You’ve read X, right?” “Yes, but it’s been a long time.” In academia, everyone knows this is code for “I haven’t read it. Please do not reveal that you know this. Instead, give me a detailed summary so that we can converse comfortably about it, and so that in the future I can pretend I’ve read it more convincingly.” It should be noted, however, that, ridiculous as this encrypted dialogue is, it sounds a lot more dignified coming from a professor in his fifties than from a 20-year-old. A 20-year-old has barely had time to forget anything.

HIM: If you think getting a motorcycle is going to save you money, you’re wrong. It’s incredibly expensive to run and seriously inconvenient. I mean, Iguess if you’re getting it to look cool, fine, but if you’re getting it because you think it’s going to be cheaper or something, it won’t be.

HER: Well anyway, I’m pretty excited about it. It’ll be ready for me to pick up tomorrow.

These two women, both petite (I cannot help thinking this was one reason he enjoyed talking to them so much) were being mansplained within an inch of their lives. Hostages in a tight space, they gave this guy the benefit of the doubt, possibly for no other reason than a desire to share their enthusiasm with someone, and resignation at being stuck in Paris with this blowhard for the entire semester.

How many smart women, do you suppose, are at this very moment listening to men in bookstores and music stores and movie stores throw cold water on everything they’re saying, treat them like idiots, just because they can get away with it, and because they’re too busy intellectually negging these women like some kind of nerd/Mystery hybrid to realize they’re just being plain rude—not to mention inaccurate, ill-informed, or at the very least, over-confident in opinions that could use a little fresh air and opposition?

The sheer lack of intellectual curiosity of the mansplainer is only rivaled by his paranoia that if he doesn’t give an opinion dump right away, the girl might not think he is the smart one in the conversation. How many women are nodding along because (a) they’ve been taught that manners are important, (b) it’s just too tiring to try to penetrate this nonsense, and, worst of all, (c) on some deep level, based on implicit and explicit messages they’ve received over the course of their lives, they believe the mansplainer must be right–or at least right enough to not be worth arguing with?

I want to grab that guy by the backpack straps and say, One of these days, these girls are going to get wise and run out of patience with you. So you better practice listening to them, otherwise good luck getting laid in your thirties.

But the truth is, some girls will become women without ever running out of patience for this guy. Telling the mansplainer he was raised in a barn will not solve the problem unless you also take the women aside and say, Hey listen, you get that this guy is just being a douche, right? You get that he’s afraid of your brain and is pretending you don’t have one, right? You get that he sees you as a source of continual reassurance to shore up his self-worth, right? And you get that you do not have to take this bullshit, that you can express yourself back, forcefully, or, if you don’t feel like it, just walk away with a pained look on your face and find someone better to talk to?

Maybe the young women in the bookstore already know this. Maybe he started talking to the second one because the first one walked away in irritation. Maybe both girls are in the process of figuring it out right now, and this guy is part of the lesson plan.

By the time I got to college I was already becoming aware of it, but I could have used the knowledge a lot earlier. Every time I think back to Libba Bray’s keynote address at the Austin Teen Book Festival, I think, Where was this when I was young and literate and pissed off and didn’t know why? Where was this when I stopped wearing makeup and shopping at the Gap and started coming to school with unbrushed hair, in knee-length cut-offs and baggy tee shirts? I didn’t know I was a feminist then. I didn’t have a name for my anger, or anyone to tell about it.

When I get back to Austin, I start teaching writing classes at a tiny private high school run by a woman who left academia decades ago. I will have only six students in each class—not a lot of teenagers, but a lot of time with each one. These are students who have had trouble fitting in socially at the big wealthy public schools in the west hills of Austin, nerds and weirdos and the occasional miscreant. I’m not really clear on whether these kids are considered “troubled” or not. I guess I’ll find out soon.

But if they are, I can relate. I’m troubled too, by lots of things. I want to help high school girls put a name to their anger so they can start talking back. Everyone will benefit from this, including the budding mansplainer in the front row.

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“The Roy G. Biv of Female Experience”: A Big Ol’ Interview with Libba Bray

*vital note: You can find an abridged version of this interview on CultureMap Austin. Enjoy!

Preparing to interview young adult novelist Libba Bray, I wrote at the top of my notebook page, “THE GOAL IS NOT TO BE HER FRIEND.”

Though seemingly written in reality-TV-ese, these words of advice are reasonable. If there’s anything that Jennifer Egan interview taught me (and dear God let there be something), it’s that a reporter should never secretly want the approval of the interviewee, because that is the road to a little town I call Klonopinsville. So I rode into this encounter in full battle armor, having banned myself  on pain of death from all forms of gushing, as well as any appeals to common ground or comments that might be construed as hints at my own humanity.

Imagine my surprise when Libba Bray turned out to be a human herself, with a gift for hilarious turns of phrase and a healthy supply of anger against patriarchal politics and religious shame-mongering. She was brave, open, weird, and funny. When I tentatively followed up a question about her religious upbringing by asking her about her current spiritual beliefs, not only did she answer me at great length, but she asked me the same question right back. And then listened to the answer.

At Libba’s request I’m not putting up that part of the interview, but there’s a ton of fascinating stuff in this version. She talks about her gay Presbyterian minister father, the life-changing car accident that left her with a glass eye when she was 18, and the crippling depression that followed. And oh, thank god, she talked feminism. She brought it up on her own, and she nailed it time and time again. Listening to her on the phone, I was pumping my fists and silently cheering.

While there are no plans for matching friendship bracelets, I believe if it came down to a reality TV-style survival situation, she would have my back.

——-

OED: How did you get started writing YA, after being a playwright?

LB: The first books I wrote, I actually wrote for a packager. They hire people to go, “McNovel, drive-through, please!” They would say here’s your premise, we’d like you to write a book. It taught me an awful lot. If you can outline a book and then write it in six weeks, you can do just about anything. But I wanted to write my own stories. My first idea, honestly, was, man, wouldn’t it be cool to write a Victorian “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”? That was the inspiration [for A Great and Terrible Beauty], and then I just kind of kept noodling around with it. I loved Victorian novels growing up, I loved Wuthering Heights and I loved Jane Eyre and anything gothic.

OED: You say that it was “love at first sight” for you with YA. What was it that drew you?

LB: I want to say, the sincerity of the story telling? I just read this great quote by Junot Diaz. He was talking about true intimacy, and he was saying that it was the willingness to be vulnerable and to be found out. I loved that phrase, that you were willing to be found out. That’s what I felt that YA did. It wasn’t pretentious, and it wasn’t hiding its heart. It wanted to be found out. The first YA book that I remember really falling in love with was Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas. Rob Thomas went on to make “Veronica Mars,” and he’s from Texas. . . I felt this kinship. It just felt very honest to me, and I appreciated that. It was kind of a relief. It felt like those moments when you go to a party and you’re standing around for a long time going, I don’t fit in here, and what am I going to talk to these people about, and everybody’s getting drunk, and then you find this one person and you end up sitting in some corner talking about all these arcane things, and then before you know it you’re having a conversation about the meaning of life and it’s four o’clock in the morning? That kind of feeling, that kind of intimacy? I felt like that’s what I got from YA.

OED: Do you think that sincerity is part of why there’s been this big boom in YA fiction?

LB: I always hesitate to generalize about YA because it’s so vast . . . But I would say the teens, our audience, keeps us honest. Because they can smell bullshit a mile away, and they will call you on it. And so you really kind of have to be willing to get down to it. This is one of the things I always say when I’m doing writing workshops when teens. I always say, “You can lie, because fiction is made up of lies. But just don’t bullshit me. And there’s a difference.” So I think that’s it . . . you don’t have to bullshit.

OED: I’m not a big follower of YA, but I was walking through Bookpeople one day and I saw your covers and the first thing I thought was there’s somebody who—you’re working within the YA wheelhouse but you’ve done so much different stuff, and that seems to be kind of unique. So I wonder if you could talk about playing with different genres.

LB: I like to read a lot of different stuff, and I think that’s part of it. As rudimentary as this sounds, some days I wake up and I think “I would like to wear an outfit that’s very Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.” Or, “Today I would like to dress like Devo.”. . . I like horror, and I like political thrillers, and I like supernatural things. But I also really like satire, and I like Thomas Pynchon and I like—trying to think of something far afield from Thomas Pynchon, but my brain cells are not working! I mean I like so many different things that I couldn’t imagine being tied to one kind of storytelling, that’s just not the way that I am. I am an eclectic person, and so, because my interests are quite varied and my reading tastes are quite varied, I feel like it would make sense that my storytelling would also be quite varied.

One of the things that was tough for me in writing the Gemma Doyle trilogy was, there’s humor in there, but the humor is very particular to a Victorian sensibility. And so it’s corseted, for lack of a better term. It’s restrained. So it was kind of fun to then be able to open up the throttle and write something like Going Bovine. All of my friends who knew me really well, when I came out with A Great and Terrible Beauty, all went, “Huh, that is not the book I thought you would write.” And then when I wrote Going Bovine all my friends went, “Oh yeah, I totally get that you would write that book!” But anybody who’s read the Gemma Doyle trilogy, they went, “Huh, that is not the book I thought you would follow up with.” [Pause.] Or perhaps I just have a penchant for career suicide.

OED: It is interesting because those Gemma Doyle books, I remember seeing them on the shelf for the first time years and years back, they’ve got the sexy young adult thing going on with the covers.

LB: They were pretty daring for the time, the covers.

OED: I kind of made a beeline for them for that very reason. But it’s a trilogy, and there are so many YA series that can stretch on and on. Especially since those books were so successful, to go in a different direction seems very daring in a way.

LB: She eats danger for breakfast! And then she gets, like, a little repeating action. Danger repeats on her. Yeah, it was a craaaaazy thing to do, but you know you must [parodic serious tone] tell the story you need to tell.

OED: I’m right in the middle of Beauty Queens right now. And I have to say, I love it. And I think it really has to do partly with, like you said, the release of the corsets. I thought, Oh, all bets are off! Also being a Texas Girl, as soon as that Taylor [Miss Texas] character opened her mouth I was like there it is! That is the accent, I can hear it. I was like, oh, I know those girls!

LB: I’m not gonna lie, it was really fun. I hail from the home town of two Miss Americas you know. I’m from Denton, north of Dallas. I always say it’s like Tatooine with a Walmart.

OED: In Beauty Queens, the satire that you mentioned really comes out swinging. That is a book with a very intense point of view, which is part of what makes it so delightful to read. And I wonder, people have asked you about gender in your books before, but also the critique of consumerism and all that, is that something you feel really strongly about?

LB: I heard Lois Lowry speak this summer, and I loved what she said. She was talking about how people say to “write what you know.” And she said, “I want to write about what troubles me, what keeps me up at night.” And I thought, yes! That is part of it, is that there’s something that’s like, I’m not entirely—I have all kind of thoughts and feelings about that, but I feel like I need to explore that.

A few years ago David Levithan called me up and said, “I have an idea for a story and you need to write it. Let’s go have lunch.” He said the magic word, which was lunch. And so we went to have lunch and he said, “Okay here’s the one sentence: planeload of teen beauty queens crash on an island.” And I was like aw, dude! I want to write that book! But I was finishing up [the Gemma Doyle trilogy], so I said, “Okay, but it’s going be a while before I can get to that.” My first thought was, I’m just gonna do a crazy, crazy book, like a full six-pack of crazy. I thought that would be so fun, to lampoon that kind of stuff. And then when I actually got down to writing it, I thought, I don’t want to lampoon these girls, because I feel for them. The truth is that so much had happened in terms of setting women back in that amount of time, and I was really troubled by that. I thought, why is there so much misogyny? I mean I know that misogyny is always with us, but why is there so much misogyny? Why are we so hard on ourselves? I had walked into the grocery store or 7-11 or something, and there were all those magazines up front, you know like the tabloids and People. And every single freakin’ magazine cover was “So-and-so, what will she wear! Look at her engagement ring!” “So-and-so tells you all—she wants babies!” You know. And it was all so just reductive and regressive. Hey man, I love being married and having a baby. I have a son, and I enjoy motherhood and all that. But it became almost Stepford Wife in the way that we were supposed to kind of parrot these things back. It’s like, “Of course my family is the most important thing!” All of these things that just felt like a corset again. And I thought, what is going on that this kind of stuff is happening? And I felt troubled by it, and I felt angry.

And at the same time I had a lot of questions about gender. I think that one of the things that I enjoy about writing is that it forces me to question my own status quo. It is really easy to get complacent and think, well I believe this, or I think this. And when you start getting in there and digging around in the guts of the story, you’re like, I thought I believed this, but I don’t know, I’m not really sure, maybe I’m just really guarded about this. Maybe I’m not willing to be vulnerable about what this feels like. I think sometimes in literature we can also kind of police ourselves.

I know a lot of people talked about Twilight, and they would say, oh, but the heroine is so, she kind of lets this man make her decisions. And I thought, that may not be the—I’m saying fantasy here, because it’s the only word I can think of, it’s not really the right word. But you know, like, that may not be the particular fantasy or trope that works for me. But could we ever deny that—Listen man, I read Wuthering Heights! I wanted me a little Heathcliff action. I mean like, why can’t we indulge that fantasy and also be like, “And now I would like the ERA passed, please. Also, this lipstick is fuckin’ killer.” I always say I want the whole Roy G. Biv of female experience. I don’t want it to just be Roy, or G., or Biv. . . . Also I was pissed off, I was pissed off about everything that was going on, the way that we were being sort of chipped away at. Also I really love James Bond, and I was like “I want a female James Bond.” And there’s a way in which they could all be Bond girls, but instead they become Bond.

The one thing I was very, very clear about was, I did not want this to be a big cat fight. Because my experience with my own female friends is that we have been there for each other through everything, and that we’re a support system for each other. I didn’t want it to become this female against female kind of thing, because that wasn’t my experience.

OED: The book is full of women who are struggling with their identities, not just as women, but as people of color, or disabled, or transgendered people. A lot of the heart of the book seems to come from that struggle with identity. So I wondered if there was any basis for that in your own life, if your experience either as a woman or with your identity has informed that. 

LB: Absolutely. And this actually gets back to your question, too, about why does YA appeal. One of the things I always say is, “Because we never stop coming of age.” It doesn’t matter if you’re 14 or 40, you’re still working on identity, you’re still trying to figure out who you are, and who you are now. Like all right, well who am I now? And I think that never goes away. It’s interesting, when I started writing Beauty Queens I thought Adina [the feminist character] was going to be my touchstone. And that did not turn out to be the case at all. In fact, the passage that I wrote where I went, that’s it, now I’m under the skin of the novel, was Mary Lou. There’s the whole part where she talks about her sister Annie, and she talks about sex and sexuality. And I think that was a huge part for me. Growing up in Texas, where there is this sort of—you’re supposed to be alluring, but also have a sort of Britney child-bride thing. You’re supposed to be sort of alluring, but also kind of wholesome. And you’re not supposed to take charge of your sexuality. And I just did not feel that way! I was like, well I feel kind of large-and-in-charge about my sexuality! And I grew up in the church as well, you know, and I thought, but I feel so, you know, I feel really sexual, and why is that I have to hide that? Why is the world is so afraid of that? Why is it that I have to apologize for it and pretend that I don’t have it, that I don’t enjoy it, that it’s not like this great juicy awesome thing? Why is it that I have to feel shame about it? And that has bothered me my whole life. I think it is a real push-pull for women, and I think we get a lot of mixed messages, and I think we give ourselves mixed messages. And we give our daughters mixed messages, because it just perpetuates. And that is one of the things that I would love to be able to just completely deconstruct is that whole . . . I think it is very much tied into religion.

OED: How restrictive was your Presbyterian upbringing? I also was raised in a Presbyterian almost mega-church myself, so . . .  

LB: Really? Was it really conservative?

OED: Well, it had not been so. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s when I was really young, it was really inflected by that hippie movement. . .

LB: Sounds like we had very similar—yeah, the church you’re talking about is exactly the one I know, so keep talking.

OED: Now there’s big screens with bouncing balls, and everything is projected onto these screens, and there’s a praise band, and now it just seems so conservative to me, I just can’t stand it. But when I was growing up in it, as a young child, it was a very loving nurturing kind of hippie-ish place for me to be. 

LB: I had almost exactly the same experience. And a thing that informed it was the fact that my father was a minister, and my father was gay. I was 14 when he came out to us. The message from my liberal, Democrat, Presbyterian, the-Bible-is-an-allegory folks was, “This is fine, and there’s nothing wrong with being gay, and we can talk about it. But you can’t tell anybody, because your dad could lose his job, or worse.” So my dad was in the closet, but then so was I, because I had to keep it a secret. I’d go visit my dad and his lover, and we’d go out to Oak Lawn, which was the gay area of Dallas, and it was like leading a secret life, a double life. Someday I would love to be able to write about it, because it was a really interesting thing.

But I had the same kind of thing, where when I was young and we were living in Corpus Christi—this would be the late ‘60s early ‘70s through the ‘70s—because of the hippie movement, and because of the Civil Rights movement, I think there was this wonderful opening up of the church at that time. I felt the same way, it felt kind of hippie-ish. Kind of like, “Agape, y’all!” And then when we moved to Denton it was like the climate changed. The ‘80s had come in, and the religious right starts kicking in. It was a sea change. It felt restrictive to me. Definitely those mixed messages about how girls were supposed to be. And my mom, God bless her, she’s lovely, but she came of age in the ‘50s, postwar, with very different messages about how you were supposed to be. I think she’s very cool, I love my mom, but certainly the message was, “How about this nice dirndl skirt?” It was like, How about I die first? How about I stab myself through the head with a knitting needle? I was not wearing that ugly ass thing!

OED: Church clothes, right?

LB: Church clothes, exactly. So, certainly that was an influence on me. And again it gets back to the why’s of things. Why is it this way? Okay, this is what you say, but how is it that you’re basing an entire system of oppression on it? If you get to say, well God told me. . . Where am I supposed to go with that argument? Well, tell God he’s wrong! Or have your God talk to my God, because my God isn’t saying that. One of our Gods is wrong, and I’m just sayin’, I’m going to put my money on mine. . . . That is part of what I wanted to get to in Beauty Queens too. Just pay attention to the rhetoric. Pay attention to the messages. Because if you can deconstruct the rhetoric, it’s like “The Matrix.” Those are the bullets that you are trying to learn how to dodge and make fall in front of you. But if you don’t know how to think critically, if you can’t hear a message like “Well, we really want to protect women” and understand that “protect” really means “oppress”—Yes, it makes you angry to hear that, but then you also have to think, where does that come from? I have to snake it back to where it comes from. What is the fear, what is the threat that it seems to pose for these people? Because unless you can trace it back, you can’t really start trying to root it out at the source, you can’t really try to fight. But when push comes to shove about somebody trying to take your rights away, you can try to do all that, but if you’re up against somebody who’s irrational, you just have to fight like hell. You just have to say Oh hell no, you are not taking my rights.

OED: Yeah, sing it. What’s going on now is just making me feel that way every day.

LB: It’s mind-boggling. . . the hate that is coming out.

OED: Unbelievable.

LB: It’s not just one or two misguided people. I mean like, this is scary stuff. And it is I don’t know did you by any chance, I don’t know if you ever read my blog, but I had done a blog post, it’s called Transvaginal Overdrive, and it was a hysterical post. It was spelling out, here’s all the legislation, just in case you were asleep, here’s what’s been happening. But it is terrifying to me.

OED: Have you seen , this is a pretty awful and bizarre thing to see, the Youtube video that’s a commercial for “legitimate rape” as birth control? It is hilarious satire, it’s perfectly done, and it’s very informative as well. But it’s harrowing to watch at the same time. It’s almost too scary. . . Now I feel like I’ve taken us on this road.

LB: No it’s fine, I love conversations that go all over the place. Just like I like to write lots of different genres.

OED: I do too! I was going to ask you, so you’re writing from a place of anger and curiosity and sort of trying to work out these feelings. But do you also write specifically to educate? Is there a pedagogical thing behind your writing for young girls specifically? 

LB: No. Because I think that when you get into that, it’s a PSA and not a story. There always has to be a beating heart to a story. It gets back to that Junot Diaz quote, your willingness to drop all your defenses and explore yourself, with a sort of brutal honesty. And if you are adopting some kind of pedagogical perch, then you’re not there. You’re not inside your story, you’re outside of your story.

[religion stuff]

OED: Can you talk a little bit about your accident? Only if you want to, but you brought it up earlier and I understand that it was a pretty serious accident that had a long-lasting effect.

LB: So it was about three weeks after high school graduation, and I was driving my dad to the airport. He was actually flying off to the Presbyterian General Assembly. And I had gotten the car, I had had it about a month. It was stick, not automatic. So I was getting a little more practice, and he asked if I could take him to the airport and I said sure. As I was coming back, it was raining, and I hydroplaned. I went into a spin, my brakes locked, and you know just that kind of panic of, like, not being in control of your car. And . . . um . . . I was right near a major intersection, and I thought I don’t want to go into the intersection, so then there’s a grassy median, and I thought, okay, if I can just get to the median. Well I say “okay,” but I was in panic. All I can think is maybe I hit the gas instead of the brake, because it was like clutch, brake, you know, all that stuff. I hit this big light pole. The front end of the car caved in, and I hit the steering wheel so hard with my face that it broke it off at its column. I basically broke my face. I lost my left eye, broke my legs, although I didn’t realize that until they were getting me out of the—and I definitely had, while I was out, I had that “see your life in reverse” moment. I can remember that. And so yeah, so. . . . I was in exploratory surgery for nine and a half hours, and then I was in the hospital for two weeks in Dallas while they tried to put me back together. It was quite physically painful. I broke my jaw, they had to wire it shut, and I couldn’t breathe because my nose was completely demolished, and my cheekbones.

But the big thing was about the eye. I couldn’t see, because I couldn’t open my right eye, so it was like being in a sensory deprivation tank in a way. The doctor would come in, and he would shine a flashlight, and he would say, “Tell me when you can see the light.” And for a while on my left side, there was some residual light. And then by day three, I remember he came in and said “Tell me when you can see the light”. . . . . and it was a long time. I thought, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to go “Psyche! I wasn’t even shining a light!” I thought, he’s clearly shining a light, and I can’t see it. I can’t see it. And he said, here’s the deal. You have damaged your eye basically beyond all repair. Um. And he said, you can keep your eye, but it will look unsightly and the risk of infection is good, and if you get an infection then it can travel to your right eye and you can go blind. Or you can remove the eye and we can fit you with a prosthesis. And I remember my parents were really upset, because they were like, you can’t ask her that! And he said, she’s 18. She has to make the decision, because she has to live with it for the rest of her life. Of course I said, take it, I don’t want to go blind.

Even at 18 there’s some of that magical thinking of childhood. You just think, well, this can be fixed, this can be a do-over, I’ll be fine, by the time they finish with me I’ll be good as new. And then of course, by the end of the summer, um . . . . they fitted me for my first prosthesis and I finally got my jaws unwired, and I looked at myself. And I was like, that’s not my face. That is not my face, and what the hell is this piece of plastic where my left eye used to be. And it hit me. It was like a death. It was that realization of, like, oh wait a minute. This is not a do-over. And also coming to terms with mortality at 18 was pretty heavy. Because you think of yourself as so invincible. Um . . .  so it was huge.

I moved into the dorm and all my friends were going out to parties. I had not really dated much in high school, and I remember my teachers always saying, when you go to college, I swear, you’re going to get dates. So I thought, wow, when I got to college, that’s when things are going to be fun. And here I was in college, and I felt like I was getting robbed of the experience.

And people can be cruel. There was a guy I had worked at an independent bookstore after school when I was in high school. One of the guys who used to come in there all the time, he was a filmmaker—pretentious asshole. I ran into him on campus when I moved into the dorm, and he didn’t recognize me. I told him who I was, and I told him what had happened. And he said, Oh I wondered, he said, because you know, part of your face, over here, is as beautiful as it always was. Except the rest of you looks like Frankenstein. Yeah. Like, oh, thanks for that.

I felt broken on the inside as well as on the outside. The only thing I can say is, it was just despair. I was suicidal. I was so depressed I stopped going to class, I was in the same pair of sweats for like two weeks. There was a lot of self destructive behavior, I call that my Lindsay Lohan period. I had no one to talk to, I felt completely cut off. I would listen to side four of Quadrophenia over and over again. Pete Townsend kind of helped save my life. But the other thing, one of my graduation gifts was, somebody had given me a journal. And I started to write in it, because that was the only way, honestly, to keep from killing myself. I just started to write down everything I thought I couldn’t say out loud. And that was when I discovered how powerful writing was. Because it literally saved my life. And then I began to do it for its own sake, I began to look forward to the writing. And that’s what got me through.

OED: Wow. That is really an amazing story. Isn’t that amazing, that that experience actually became formative for your writing. 

LB: Yeah. I mean, to get back to our larger spiritual questions, there’s a part of me that’s like, well now, huh . . . There is that trial, there is that—and then the worst possible experience of your life turns out to be the thing that saves you.

OED: That’s pretty intense. 

LB: That is pretty intense. Now maybe you should ask me about, like, nail color. “That was okay, cool, thanks Libba. But like, what I really want to know is like, okay, Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift? Okay, you can only pick one!”

OED: “If you could be a type of tree what would you be?” . . . But yeah, I was going to ask if you had read Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me.

LB: I have not.

OED: The main character is a model who gets into a terrible car accident and her face has to be completely reconstructed. The first part of the book is about her walking around and feeling unrecognizable, the feeling of being unrecognized, for a model who’s been looked at her whole life. 

LB: Yeah, I mean certainly I was not a model! But just the experience of not having the same face.

OED: That must be so weird.

LB: And it’s also such a crash course in perception. Because people treat you differently. It doesn’t matter that you’re the same person, people treat you differently.

OED: Well that kind of goes back to that whole question of identity. I mean, that seems to be a profound interrogation of the whole concept of identity, right? 

LB: Yeah absolutely. I mean, I think it’s one of the things that’s really interesting about David Levithan’s book Every Day. There is a character, and his—and I just said “his”! There you go. The character’s name is “A”, that’s it. The character has no gender, no culture, no race. It is a pure being who wakes up in the body of somebody different every single day. Trying to get past your notions of gender, of race, of culture, of sexuality. Those boundaries that we erect are kind of fascinating to me. Because I think there’s so much more fluidity.

OED: Yeah. But they’re so hard to tear down. I mean you go around, you think that you’ve done away with that sort of thinking and then you go and assign a gender automatically, and it’s male! 

LB: Right, exactly.

OED: I catch myself all the time reading about characters in books, and I’m just picturing a white guy. And I’m like, Oh right, because people are just white, right? Like, automatically! You know, the default position is that. It’s amazing how you can spend so much time working to erode that, those ideas, and still be weirdly imprisoned by them.

LB: I know. It’s like when you’re a kid, and you go, well infinity goes on until . . . uh, hold on.

OED: We haven’t talked about The Diviners much. So, you took off the corset from the Victorian Era, and now you’re in with the flappers. . .  

LB: Wow, Diviners. So I basically just took everything that I’m interested in and threw it into a big Cobb salad of a series. The Diviners is set in the 1920s in New York City. It combines horror and politics and, I suppose, superheroes, in a way. The inspiration for that was, I was writing it as historical and supernatural, but at the same time I had wanted to write something about post-9/11 America. Because, and this is four or five years ago, I thought, we are doing things like waterboarding, we are torturing people and calling it “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Is this really the America that I belong to? You know, what is it, this America, how is it that we’re letting this happen? . . . So I started reading up on the 1920s, and I was doing this research. And as I looked at it I thought, well holy cow, we never learn anything do we? Because there were all these uncomfortable parallels between the two, like the anti-immigration fervor, the fears of terrorism because of anarchism and the red scare, and the eugenics movement, which is scary as hell. So you know I’m looking and start reading about all of this stuff, and I thought, wow, the monsters that we think we’re fighting are never as scary as the monsters that are actually happening. And so it is a story about America and politics, and the American myth, and flappers and booze and things that go bump in the night. And monsters.

OED: I absolutely love the heroine.

LB: She’s pretty unapologetic.

OED: She’s fun to hang out with.

LB: You know that if you ever got stuck somewhere, she would have the gin.

—————————————–

Postlude: Libba Bray making me feel better about the Jennifer Egan thing.

LB: No, I have been there. My friend Laurie still talks about my John Turturro story.

OED: Oh my god, you met John Turturro?

LB: Yeah, because he used to live in my neighborhood, and he was on the train one night. And it was like I had fucking Tourettes, man. I don’t know what my deal was. I went up to him–and first of all, whatever possessed me to go up and speak to him?–but I went up to him, this was maybe 15, 18 years ago, and I went up to him and was like, “I just have to tell you, I think you’re really great.”

And he was like, “Thank you.”

“I just, I just, I think you’re great.”

He’s like, “Thank you.”

I was like, “No, I mean, like Barton Fink, you were, you’re great. You’re so, so great.”

And he moves away from me. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“Just, yeah. No, I’d go see you in anything, I would see you in anything. You’re just, you’re so–” And inside I’m screaming Shut up! Shut up! Jesus Christ, shut your pie-hole! And it’s like I can’t stop, I cannot stop telling him how great he is. And he is so gracious, and the doors open and he bolts. And I’m standing on the subway going, I just made an ass of myself. I made an ass of myself with John Turturro. Yeah.

OED: So now there’s this person that will now forever think of you–like they’ll ever think of us ever again!–but like, if they do, they’ll be like, oh remember that crazy person who just was completely out of line every second? Yeah, totally.

LB: So, you’re among friends.

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The Time I Humiliated Myself in Front of My Favorite Living Author, and Then Got Over It

Six months ago I called up my favorite living author, Jennifer Egan, who had recently won a Pulitzer Prize.

It was my second interview, ever.

I screwed it up, embarrassingly, horribly. I stuttered and stumbled and even managed to piss her off a little bit. My favorite living author.

After I was done quivering with self-hatred, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and wrote the article. Then I pitched it to the Hairpin, who accepted it, and then, two days later, rejected it.

Having failed to place the article anywhere, I decided to put the whole thing down the memory hole and NEVER THINK ABOUT IT AGAIN, except, of course, in the middle of the night, when turning over all the reasons I would never be a successful freelance writer, novelist, or human being.

And then, this evening, I interviewed bestselling YA writer Libba Bray, who is a warm, friendly, high-spirited, eclectic Texas girl raised by Presbyterians. And lo, it was as a cleansing balm poured o’er my soul. We laughed about funny stuff, we mulled over serious stuff. At the end of the interview, I somehow told her about my interview with Egan. She responded with a story of yammering at John Turturro in a subway. A shroud lifted.

So, here it is folks. Here is the article that gutted me. It turns out it’s not that bad after all.

The Invisible Woman

Jennifer Egan wants to be invisible.

“That’s my kind of ultra-fantasy.” She immediately clarifies: “It’s not a fantasy of self-effacement or self-erasure. It’s the desire to get to see things that I can’t see if people can see me.”

The irony of this wish for invisibility coming from a woman with one of the most recognizable faces in contemporary fiction is not lost on either of us. Egan admits that she is not entirely comfortable with the visibility that came with winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her fourth novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. But from what I can tell, Egan’s preoccupation with seeing and being seen did not begin last year.

Her first two novels, after all, were called The Invisible Circus and Look at Me.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

Since we were speaking over the phone, Egan was, of course, invisible to me. Which served me well during an interview that was, shall we say, humbling.

I went into the interview hoping to ask her about gender in her work, in her life. However, starstruck by this woman whose prose I have been reading rapturously for a decade, I tripped over my fandom and started yammering. Listening to the tape, I hear myself self-describing as an “aspiring novelist” (ew), mentioning the “flash of recognition” I feel when reading her novels (double ew), and, in a desperate moment, revealing that I have written fan fiction in which she bests Jonathan Franzen in a gladiatorial battle to the death.

All things considered, I was probably better off not observing her responses. However, this also made it harder to gauge her reactions to my questions about gender. Ever since the notorious 2011 interview in which she appeared, in a passing comment, to disparage “chick lit,” Egan seems cagey about speaking directly to gender issues. I don’t blame her. The backlash against her, especially within feminist circles, seemed disproportionate to the crime, as if the fact that she was female made Egan’s remark—which she firmly calls “stupid”—even more offensive. One wonders: Had Franzen, my personal straw man, said it, would it even have shown up on the radar?

Questions about gender have dogged Egan throughout her career. Back when The Keep was published, a review by Donna Bowman expressed relief that Egan’s work could no longer be mistaken for “chick lit”: “[Egan’s] previous novels pigeonhole themselves in typical women’s-fiction categories by their synopses (model finds self, teenage girl finds self) and cover photos (youthful female faces).” Bowman even went so far as to recommend that Egan adopt a masculine nom de plume. Obviously, that measure proved unnecessary for Egan’s success. However, that horrible review has stuck with me over the years, and Egan’s “chick lit” comment brought it back to me in full force.

Moreover, women’s experience seems central to most of Egan’s novels, especially Look at Me. The main character of Look at Me—the character who grounds the novel in a way—is a model named Charlotte who becomes effectively invisible, in the modeling world at least, when reconstructive surgery renders her unrecognizable in the wake of a car accident.

I was curious about why Look at Me, which has enjoyed a recent vogue, never seemed to be discussed in terms of gender. When I suggested that female experience was at the center of the book’s symbolic language (well, something like that), she bridled.

“I didn’t exactly think of it as sort of emblematic of female experience per se. I mean go ahead and say it, it’s just that that’s not exactly how I framed it for myself. I was interested in looking at the image culture’s interaction with identity in the most extreme way I could devise. And so definitely it would be a woman, because I do think that these things—although men are catching up! But the construction of image, and the critical importance of it to some degree in one’s life, I think it is greater for women.”

This last part seemed like a small victory. But when I followed up with a question about the other major female character, a teenage girl also named Charlotte, I felt that Egan was losing patience with me. “You know, I feel like I don’t really do this kind of literary criticism on my own books. I feel like it’s for you to say. I mean you have every right to your opinion, but you can’t get me to say it for you.” I backpedaled. She continued. “You have to remember, this is really an old book. I don’t remember exactly how I thought of some of the stuff as I was working on it. I may not be able to match your level of scrutiny.”

“You mean you haven’t been sitting up reading and underlining passages in preparation for this interview?” I joked, uncomfortably aware of having done so the night before.

Trying to ease up on the scrutiny, I asked her to explain her frequent statement that Look at Me was her favorite of her novels, beating out the Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. “Look at Me may be more flawed. In fact, I’m sure it is. Structurally, I felt the difficulty as I was working on Look at Me of keeping it from sinking under its own weight . . . . I mean, I felt like I was being buried alive.” And then she said the thing that made me happiest, because of course when you agree with something it makes you happy: “But all of that being said? I feel like, at its best, Look at Me is better.”

Look at Me contains perhaps my favorite scene in contemporary literature, and it’s one of Egan’s favorites, too. In the scene, Charlotte, the model whose face has been disfigured and reconstructed beyond recognition, gets one last chance for a comeback in the modeling world. The catch? She has to let the make-up artist cut her face, making tiny incisions that, as they bleed, will render the photographs more “real” and “authentic.” It is a simple but grotesque premise satirizing the obsession with “authenticity” that permeates image culture, an obsession that ends up destroying what it sets out to reveal. Set in the giddy, chaotic environs of a fashion shoot, the cutting scene crystallizes the novel’s most trenchant themes. For me, that scene is the razor blade that slices beneath the skin of the novel itself, revealing its purpose and defacing it at the same time.

Perhaps Egan’s biggest accomplishment is how believable it all seems, so believable that you almost feel as if you had heard about it somehow, or even seen it in the pages of Italian Vogue. Egan described it elegantly: “I love to get to the space in which things are completely crazy and yet also make sense. That’s my favorite place to be as a writer. It’s hard, because if you tip just a little too far in either direction you either have something that’s just like wacky and ridiculous, you know, or something that’s just not crazy at all. So you have to be in that realm where something is both. And in Look at Me, for sure, that scene of the cutting . . . .”

A dryer buzzed in the background, and Egan interrupted herself to apologize for doing her laundry while on the phone, leaving the sentence I most wanted to hear hanging in the air. It was clearly the middle of a busy day for her; she had to pick up her kids in fifteen minutes. She never returned to that scene, and I didn’t either. Instead, moving down my list of highlighted passages, I asked her about the two teenage girls who have sex in a swimming pool near the beginning of Look at Me. Occurring very early in the book, it seems to be largely forgotten in reviews and interviews—probably because the book itself seems to forget about it. The two girls, Charlotte (the model) and Ellen, encounter one another for a single instant at the very end of the book, and there is never any acknowledgment of their past relationship.

I tell her that as a reader I felt somewhat devastated by the way the interaction seems to disappear as soon as it happens.

Egan then explains what I take to be a central technique of her fiction: “walking away.” “I don’t want books to be about what you think they’re going to be about. I feel like—let’s just establish that and then toss it away. Let’s just move on. I’m not interested in a book about fleeting homosexual experience among teenagers. It’s not I can’t write that book. I don’t want to. I’m not interested enough. But that little facet of something bigger? Sure. Then I’ve gotta get on to the bigger thing. I was happy to leave it behind.”

She elucidates further as I reflect on how left behind I felt, and whether that was the point.

“I love if I can introduce a theme that you could build a whole book around, and then just walk away from it. I like doing that. I guess I feel like . . . it’s almost as if we can all imagine what that book would be. And because we can all imagine it, there’s really no need to write it. So let’s just let those intimations hang there and move on to something different that we haven’t thought of yet. . . . And the idea that it acts as a faint undertow, under all the very different things that go on to happen, is exciting to me. I like that.”

The use of the word “undertow” is suggestive. I picture the swimming pool, the bodies vanishing, submerged under glowing water.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

Egan’s constant return to the technical problems she encounters and solves in her work reminds me of Henry James’s preoccupation with his process in the prefaces to his New York Edition. He, too, deliberately left central elements of the plot uncertain, the truth about them invisible to the naked eye. Egan praised this ambiguity in The Turn of the Screw, which she called “superb, flawless.”

Her discussion of the 2006 novel The Keep sounded especially Jamesian to me. She began, she explained, with an indispensable gothic trope: the castle. “And then I also really sensed that there would be a prison. And I thought, maybe the prison was near the castle? I’m thinking of The Invisible Man, where there’s the university, and then nearby this kind of asylum.” More invisibility! I took a note. “I thought, well maybe it’s kind of like that, and the action moves from the castle to the prison. Maybe someone escapes from the prison. I just wasn’t sure what kind of environment would contain both of them. . . .

“And at the same time I was also having this huge voice struggle. And so then one day as I was basically hammering away at this, I found myself writing the words, ‘I’m trying to write a book.’ And as I wrote those words, which were just a statement of fact, I realized that what I was dealing with was a third-person narrator who actually turns out to be a first-person narrator. And it was really critical, that moment, I suddenly thought, ‘Oh my god, I get it.’ It all came to me that it wasn’t that the prison was near the castle, it was that the prison surrounded the castle. The castle was within the prison, so that actually there were sort of concentric circles of, kind of, world inclusion. It wasn’t that the structures all inhabited one landscape. It was that they surrounded one another.”

In other words, the third-person narrator, who you think is telling a story about a man, is actually revealed to be another man entirely—a first-person narrator who, like Egan, is “trying to write a book.” A man behind the scenes. An invisible man. “Was there any determining factor that caused you to realize that the main voices of the book were going to be male? Because we spend so much time inside of these two men’s heads, which is very different from the two books that came before.”

“The maleness of that world seemed to be inherent to the vision. I don’t quite know why, I mean there are plenty of women in gothic fiction. In fact, the fact that the person who gets lost in the gothic world and cut off is male is actually kind of a reversal of the most typical gothic story . . . it is often a woman who becomes helpless and lost in the gothic environment. I think I really liked not having it be a woman, actually having it be kind of a hipster . . . And yet, I felt like, this book can’t be quite as unrelentingly male as it seems. I felt, there’s a female element here that I’m not seeing.”

There is. Egan found that invisible woman in the last pages of the book. I won’t unveil her here.

“But it’s a very male-dominated book, and honestly I think men liked it better than women did on the whole. . . . I think most of the bad reviews were by women, and some of the really good ones were by men. Because I have a public email address, I do get mail, and it seemed like a lot of the most enthusiastic reactions came from men.”

As she said this, I recalled another male character in The Keep who gets lost underground, in the exposition. “So, is [The Keep] a book about lost men?”

She thought about it. “I guess in a sense the gothic is always about lost people. They’re never where they belong in gothic stories. Because the sense of . . . of . . . imminent disembodied communication which tends to infuse the gothic, it doesn’t really happen when people are just living their normal daily lives.”

I think to myself, I am having an imminent disembodied communication with my favorite living novelist right here, in my combination kitchen/living room, right in the middle of my normal daily life.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

At the end of our second 45-minute session, Egan, who seemed unsure what my interest in her amounted to, asked me what my project looked like. Having retreated from my main objective early on, all I could do was stammer something indeterminate about gender.

And now, just as we were wrapping up, Egan finally addressed the issue head-on for the first time. “I feel like the gender issue is so hard to—I’ll be curious to hear what you have to say about it, but I don’t have much of a synthesis of it. I find—in the end I find myself just wanting to forget about it. I feel like yes, there are definitely issues and things to be explored, but it feels somehow like my time is best spend just trying to write better books.” I asked her how she thinks her gender affects her experience as a writer. “I don’t think I’m a woman writing, I’m just writing. I don’t know what it would be like if I weren’t. And that’s true for all of it. There’s no way to know how things might have played out differently, but one thing is for sure: I can’t say that I haven’t been given a lot of rewards. In a way I’m the last person to be able to speak to the question of discrimination right now. I feel like I’ve been absolutely lavished with praise and rewards.” There’s a pause. “I’ve been over-praised and over-rewarded.”

I, personally, do not think this is the case. Though possibly overexposed?

She continued. “That doesn’t mean there are no problems for women writers, that’s for sure. But it means that I’m probably the least equipped to analyze them right now.”

That seems reasonable, and after hanging up the phone, I tried to take the advice of my favorite living novelist: walk away, move on.

But it’s advice I’ll probably never be able to hear. My fantasy has never been invisibility. It’s flight.

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