Category Archives: Interviews

Vagina‘s Voice, or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Young Feminism

I’m a grumpy old feminist. (And if almost-35 doesn’t seem old to you, just focus on the “grumpy” part.) I started noticing patriarchal bullshit when I was 15, before I knew what to call it, and that’s 20 years of noticing and stewing and bitching and getting over it and then noticing some more.

If there’s one encouraging thing about the wash-rinse-repeat cycle of feminism, post-feminism, and conservative backlash that we seem to be stuck in these days, it’s that people are still finding names for the soft oppressions of patriarchal culture and disseminating them via this messy tool we call the internet.

But, to borrow from Dazed and Confused, I keep getting older while the feminists stay the same age. Every couple of years a new micro-generation of awesome, talented young women go through the phases that all awesome, talented young people are entitled to, and I have to continually remind myself that all lessons have to be re-taught and re-learned, and many have to be lived firsthand.

I started this blog with a vague sense of discomfort over certain habits and expectations younger women I know grew up with, habits I perceived as confusingly anti-feminist, or potentially so, although I struggled to figure out why. While I don’t have a clear answer about what makes a feminist (nor does anyone, nor should anyone), I still find it incredibly frustrating to watch strong, cool, smart women go through their I’m-Not-A-Feminist phase, or, down the line, their Feminism-Means-Whatever-We-Do-Is-Totally-Fine-And-Unproblematic phase. (Of course we can do whatever we want. But nobody is free of structural inequality and the cultural systems that help prop it up–not black women, not white men, not me, not you. I don’t believe it’s in our DNA, but it’s in our brains, and it’s just as hard to root it out as if it were in our DNA. All you can do is look at it long and hard, and keep looking.)

That’s one reason why Hillary-Anne Crosby made such an impression on me. I first interviewed the founding editor of Vagina : : The Zine when I was researching my article about Austin’s booming print culture a few months ago. I found so many great journals and independent presses to write about that I ultimately didn’t have room to delve into zines (embarrassment of riches!), but I was intrigued by Hillary-Anne’s personality and presence, enough to do a follow-up piece on her for the Austin Chronicle. [Disclosure! After the interview, Crosby asked my sketch troupe, Every Girl’s Annual, to perform at the upcoming release party this Saturday.]

I’m not sure who I was expecting to walk in the door of Cherrywood Coffeehouse to talk up a zine called Vagina–more visible tattoos, perhaps? Definitely not the bouncy, upbeat, up-talking 23-year-old with a pixie cut and a huge smile who walked through the door. Crosby, despite her zine’s in-your-face name, is the opposite of confrontational. Ultimately, my surprise is a little embarrassing in that it reveals a lot about my own preconceptions about the V-Word and about feminism itself–that in its most active and purest form, it’s loud, prickly, and above all, mad.

I’m a grumpy old feminist, but I really liked this perky young feminist a lot. It relieved me to hear her call herself a feminist, and it heartened me that she seems so young and confident, and it didn’t scare me that she seems to have lots to learn. So do I. Ladies and gentlemen, the voice behind the Vagina.

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THE OEDITRIX: So tell me a little bit about how Vagina : : The Zine got started.

HILLARY-ANNE CROSBY: I started it the second semester of my last year in undergrad. Basically I was really bored with things in general, the past four years, and then I was going to graduate in a few months, and I had worked my way through school so I didn’t have any journalism internships. That was my major and that was what I wanted to do. I was kind of terrified of how bad that was going to hurt me when I graduated. And so I kind of just made this my own little internship to try and grind my teeth on something, so that I’ll have learned stuff in the past couple of years, and I was a viable future employee. And that’s how I decided to start doing a zine. I’d never even seen a zine. I’d only heard of them, a couple months prior to that, and I hadn’t even seen one. It was just trying to figure it out as you go along.

OED: So how did you decide to make it a showcase for women’s work?

HAC: I was a photojournalism student, and a lot of had these websites and these blogs full of our work and no one  was seeing them. Like, yay, I have a website! And there are a million websites out there. I wanted a place where they could really share their work with a wider audience who was really looking at it rather than browsing it, flipping through Facebook and things like that. And so I just decided to make it all-girls. I had really no reason for it at the time, that was just my decision. And I called it “Vagina” in my head as, like, a nickname that I had given it before I could decide on a name. But I’d been thinking about it for so long that after our first meting came on January 2, I was like, all right, Vagina. We’re going with it. It’ll stand out. At this point I hadn’t really thought about any other names because I’d just nicknamed it for so long.

OED: Would you say it’s a feminist zine?

HAC: My definition of feminism is just respecting and supporting women. I think that’s what feminism comes down to. So I label us a feminist magazine because I think that everything that we’re doing is respecting and supporting women and their different views on things. We have girls that write really openly about their sex lives, or abortions, or their dream of being a stay-at-home mom. I mean it’s kind of across the board. Instead of being like, oh you need to lose ten pounds and also maybe dye your hair blond. Where it’s like, sure, if you wanted to do those things! But this is to support women in general and all their different opinions and what they want to do.

OED: It takes a lot of guts to call yourself a feminist these days. I think having a magazine that calls itself “Vagina” already paints a certain picture of what you guys might be. The name has this very confrontational kind of connotation to it. Your vision is a little bit different than that.

HAC: Yeah. When you bring that word up it’s like a punch, it’s really in your face. I almost never said the word “vagina” before I started this zine, because it was so in your face and it seemed really aggressive. I was brought up with that being an offensive word that you should never use. But the whole point of the word vagina is just, here’s this sex organ that you have. Or maybe you’re male and you wish you had one! I don’t know. But it’s not like this offensive thing. It’s not meant to be. But I feel like in our culture we’ve made it that, and so Vagina’s also kind of about being—feminism isn’t meant to be aggressive and in your face. No one wants to beat you over the head because you’re a man, or because you want to be a stay-at-home mom. We’re really acculturated in a really specific way. I like that about Vagina, that it scares people into the open. That’s why I like having our events at Cheer Up Charlie’s versus a really dedicated literary space. A lot of people come that are just there for the bar that night, and they would come across the zine, and they would be like, Is it porn? And I would be like, no it’s not! It’s just the word “vagina.” I think it’s great that it’s so in your face, that it gets your attention, but we’re trying to normalize it more and more, basically. I say “vagina” all the time now. My tote bag is not with me but it says “vagina” on it in two different places. I have a lot of interest in trying to normalize feminism and maybe stop believing all these stereotypes that we grew up with. I have a few friends that were like, Oh I don’t consider myself a feminist. And so I was like what, do you think a feminist is? And a few months later they would come back and be like, yeah, I’ve been thinking about that, I’m a feminist now, I guess. They’d grown up saying “feminazi.” Just like you grow up thinking vagina is a bad word. I guess we’re all just trying to make that transition.

OED: So the zine started as an experience-building thing. Do you think you’ll keep it going?

HAC: Honestly in that first meeting, I was like, I think I’m going to give this a year, and if it dies, it dies. If it’s not successful, no big deal. But it didn’t die, and I was really happy about that. It’s grown since then, and I kind of don’t ever want to stop now. We love that we’re not a magazine, not a journal, we are very specifically a zine. That [points to a copy of the zine] is computer paper and some staples, you know. And I love that, I love it so much. Maybe in a few years, if we had a big enough following, I would love to make that transition that Bitch and Bust made, from being a zine to being a more, like, grown-up zine that you can call a magazine. I would love that in the next few years to happen. I can’t really imagine it happening right now, but it would be my dream. Those were my inspirations, Bitch and Bust. So I would love that to happen, to really sell on newsstands, maybe on glossy paper. Maybe stop stapling them on my kitchen table! But I love doing it, I love doing a zine.

OED: Are there other feminist magazines coming out of Austin right now that you know of?

HAC: I haven’t seen any. I get a lot of jokes, people who are like, I’m going to think about doing like, “The Gentlemanly Penis.” And I’m like, you should! No one’s doing it. If I can start a zine, having never seen one? Zines are the easiest.

OED: You have a significant online presence too. So why is it even necessary to have a physical publication that’s an object?

HAC: I am really into print journalism in general. I wish I had been a newspaper person. I love that physical object, having something you can sit down and read, versus something you’re going to glance over. You can glance over a website any old time, while you’re on Facebook. I do it too. As opposed to having this physical handmade product that we put time and effort into. And people really buy it! You can read all of this on our website for free, we put the stuff that’s in here online a couple months after it comes out. You can read all of it for free. But I think people like that you can buy the thing that was made by these girls in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes my tears get on here! [pointing to zine]—I don’t think any of them show it. But this one–like, I myself don’t sew, but for a past issue I used a sewing machine, and there were all these problems where like my blood would end up on the design, and I’d be like, here you go friend! It’s really blood, sweat, and tears that go into it. When you make the layout, it comes from scratch every time, we can’t just pop anything into our layout. I think people really like that. I crafted this for you, you can sit down and read it whenever you want, you can throw it in your bag and mess it up versus just browsing it online.

OED: Are you into craft culture more generally?

HAC: Yes. If you had seen  our first two issues, it was literally, like, HEB bags, and inside were the pages, and then it was yarn or glue. Our first issue was a SXSW special issue, and I hand-stitched the letters onto the cover. I remember sitting in my design class stitching one night, and my professor, who was also really into zines, was like, everybody grab one! We’re all going to stitch while we do the lecture! It was cute, there were twelve of us stitching “vagina” into a bunch of brown paper bags. I love craft culture. And we’re getting more and more connected. I’m the only editor here in Austin, it used to be so much easier to have that assembly line, but now it just me and my kitchen table and a stapler.

OED: The making is just you?

HAC: Me and any friends that take pity on me that week.

OED: Anything else about Vagina : : The Zine you’d like people to know? 

HAC: I  really like to drive home how we’re kind of meant to be an alternative to a lot of women’s magazines and everything. Like I’m sorry, and I’m not even trying to be like super-vagina-feminist about this, but I hate Cosmopolitan. I’ll try and read it and I’ll come away really disheartened, and not really sure how I feel about myself. Vagina is meant to be for that woman who’s confident and isn’t wanting to change who she is to fit a certain mold. Who likes who she is. I like how this wide array of girls that write about how they want to be homemakers, and then there are girls who write about masturbation. I love the complete dichotomy and how we’re meant to be for a specific woman who’s confident and funny. That’s how I feel about Bust and Bitch, especially Bust. Bust is this awesome alternative: do you want to learn how to do your hair real pretty? Awesome! Do you want to read about punk music? Here it is! Versus trying to fit you into these specific molds: how to give your boyfriend orgasms—rather than how to give your girlfriend, or yourself orgasms. I’d rather focus on that than on losing 10 pounds and seventeen sex moves you’re not going to remember.

OED: That could be a spoof title: “Seventeen Sex Moves You’re Not Going to Remember.”

HAC: I made this whole double-page spread of all of these spoof headlines. I never have put in the issue how much I loathe Cosmo because I think that would be kind of mean. Personally, when you know me, then you’re like yeah, you would loathe Cosmo. But I feel like it would be too mean if I put it in print.

OED: For someone who runs a magazine with a confrontational name, you’re very polite. 

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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.

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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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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!

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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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“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.

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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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Guilt, Realism, Dessert: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Kaci Beeler‘s FOOD PORN exhibition goes up today as part of the Fusebox Festival; in fact, she will have already started painting the 12-hour mural at Salvage Vanguard by now. I interviewed Kaci for CultureMap Austin, but had to cut out so many juicy bits—Kaci’s porn habits! Kaci’s next project! Kaci’s education as an artist! Kaci on Disneyland!—that I decided to run a longer version of the interview here.

Of course, there’s no room in the article or the interview to talk about my friendship with Kaci, the weird circumstances under which we met (five people crushed into a Honda Civic on a 13-hour road trip to Marfa), the role she has played in my getting to know Austin the second time around, and above all, my continual amazement that I could have so much to learn from a woman nine years my junior. In fact, before I interviewed her, my next blog post was going to be about how impressed I am with the younger women that I know. It’s nice timing to have done this piece just when I was thinking a lot about Lena Dunham, another young multi-talented woman with an exciting career ahead of her.

——

ME: So can you talk about your subject matter?

KACI: It’s been Austin through dishes that I particularly love from local establishments. . . . It’s been dessert recently. I just felt like I wanted to cover more desserts or something.

ME: What drove you toward desserts?

KACI: I think it’s just the textures and the colors and the softness of desserts, or something about that . . . just the lusciousness. Piles of sugar in different forms. And I just think that the savory stuff is beautiful, but I found the desserts even more compelling to try and capture. Just from a personal enjoyment standpoint. I was drawn to those images more than the savory dishes, though I like both. I was going to do a cheeseburger series, but then I put that on hold.

“Cupcake from Hey Cupcake! Trailer,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: Next year.

KACI: Yeah! [Laughs.] Maybe.

ME: You mention texture and colors, so those are visual aspects that you as a painter are interested in, in terms of technique. But you also said, the lusciousness, the piles of sugar, the delightfulness of the dessert. I wonder if you’d talk a little bit more about what is it thematically that speaks to you about the desserts?

KACI: I want to create beautiful objects, and I think that that is the quickest pathway to that goal.

ME: Because desserts are the most beautiful objects?

KACI: For me. And they’re kind of cute, and I have this sort of cute aesthetic that I’m interested in. But there’s something more to it, I guess. There’s that idea of things being kind of sinful and feeling guilty about it. I definitely have my own set of guilt about eating, and I try not to eat a lot of sugar lately. But I always felt really drawn to that, to drawing desserts, almost so much so that I can’t articulate it well . . . When I was a kid I drew little pictures of ice cream cones and pie slices and banana splits and cake and stuff like that, all the time, on the edges of my papers in school. And every time I saw something . . .  like little fake food, I always liked miniature food. I had a dollhouse, and I would make, out of clay, little food dishes and such. And I don’t—it’s just weird, I don’t know. I think every artist has some kind of image or something they’re obsessed with, and then they sort of use that as an inspiration. And I think this is what I’m obsessed with right now, in a way.

ME: It’s funny you bring up the word “guilty” because the exhibit is called “Food Porn.”

KACI: Right.

ME: And you talked just now about the association of desserts with guilty eating, like something that’s wonderful and desirable but also that we feel guilty about, and that everyone has their eating issues. But it’s funny to link it directly to porn.

KACI: Do you want to know why it’s called that? I actually call it that because other people have said that my paintings were food porn to them. And it was said enough times and suggested, that I was kind of like, I can see that. I sort of love that implication. In a way it’s fun. It’s a little naughty.

ME: What does it mean to you?

KACI: Just indulging in the image of food and the idea of it, but without actually having it in front of you.

ME: Ah, okay!

KACI: You know. Like pornography. [Laughs.] You don’t have it, but you can imagine it, I guess it opens up your imagination to your fantasy of pie eating, or whatever.

ME: Not to be crass, but you don’t actually get to, like, taste anything when you’re looking at food porn . . . but I think for most people, regular porn . . . there is a kind of . . . participatory aspect.

KACI: [Laughing] I don’t actually indulge in pornography. So maybe I’m even more removed from that or something.

ME: I love the realistic capture of the textures next to each other. You talked about the softness of the desserts, but they’re often on a plate, or they’re next to a chair, or a shiny surface, with a strawberry, there’s so much to work with there.

KACI: I feel like, going from one to the next one, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over, because every one has different challenges. Sometimes the colors are super diverse within one piece, like this one [“Cupcakes from the Hey Cupcake! Trailer”] but then sometimes the colors are very similar, liek in this one [“Mini Cream Puff and Lemon Meringue Tartlet from Whole Foods Headquarters”], where it’s a very simple pallette. And I like playing with that, with the subtlety with the textures and things.

ME: There’s actually a lot more texture than you would think!

KACI: That’s what I find really fascinating about doing representational realism. Your brain takes in a lot of information very quickly and sort of generalizes it as you go through life, and you think, that’s white, that’s brown, that’s whatever. But then when you start looking at it, it’s very subtle. And to really capture the form of it takes a lot of study of color . . . I enjoy seeing if I can make the form come out of nothing.

“Coconut Cake from Dolce Vita,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: So for you is realism mostly about technique? Is that the excitement for you, the challenge in technique, or is there something else about it that you really love?

KACI: That’s a good question. I think technique is the key to that, or at least I really enjoy the technical side of it. Which has its own . . . subset in the art world, of people thinking it’s not good enough, to focus on technique without anything behind it. But I’m just drawn to copying things, or mimicking things, or trying to see my way through an aesthetic. I feel like I like to do that with the theatrical work I do, is take things I like and re-appropriate them in a new way. And I think that’s why I’m drawn to realism in art. I mean, maybe it’s just what I was exposed to whenever I went to art museums as a kid or something. The Dutch works, great opulent serving trays filled with . . . it’s just so . . .

I think that realism in art can make you see something in a way that you actually can’t in real life, even though it’s mimicking real life. I think that the paintings that I make look better, often, than the actual thing itself looks. Whether I’m slightly manipulating it, or it’s just filtered through a camera and then filtered through my eye and then filtered through these soft oil paints . . . Some people argue, why paint that if you could just take a photo of it. But I think the end result is very different from a photo. And if you hold the reference photos up to the paintings, there’s very many little differences, it doesn’t look the same. Even though people think the paintings look like photos, if they saw the photo, they would realize that it’s not the same.

ME: Speaking as a person who enjoys representational realism, in art and literature, I think I can say that one of the things that’s most pleasurable about it as an audience, as a viewer, is seeing the way that all the visual information that we process very quickly in order to resolve objects into known objects, having that information separated out for you in a painting. Being able to see your technique in putting together these images to make them look as close to the real thing as possible is very pleasurable for us. It’s like we’re getting to see through your technique in a way. And your technique is all about, well it looks to me as if a great deal of it is about breaking things out and seeing things—instead of seeing them as a whole automatically, sort of seeing them in pieces and components. Is that right?

KACI: Yeah! And deciding what to highlight and what to downplay in any given image. And what is my eye drawn to that I then want to emphasize.

ME: The farther you stand back the more photographic it looks. But even looking at it, really the real pleasure for me is to see that line between something that looks photographic and then to see it suddenly blur into colors, or suddenly not look photographic. Does that makes sense?

KACI: People have said that before. I can totally see it, because it’s not perfect, and you can see the brushstrokes pretty easily. Or I’ve decided, eh, I’m not going to make that logo look a certain way, or something. And if you look closely enough you realize, oh, it’s not quite right. But yet it’s right enough at times to where you get a real sense of the place or the look of it.

“Mini Creme Puff and Lemon Meringue Tartlet from Whole Food Headquarters,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: Yeah. One reason this one is so successful [“Cupcake from Hey Cupcake! Trailer”] is that the sense of place is so vivid. I mean anybody who’s been to South Congress can really see this, it looks so familiar. Even the type of sunlight that’s filtering down, the way it’s flashing off of the food truck. But also it seems like another part of what you do here is about focus? It has to replicate the feeling of lack of focus in the background, for example . . . It calls your attention as a viewer to the quality of the visual information that we take for granted, so I think that’s cool. It’s also yummy looking.

Why are there no people?

KACI: It’s not about people. [Laughs.] . . . I feel like images of people are very compelling. When I do graphic design for shows, I always want there to be people in the posters. I think people are drawn to looking at people. So if there was a person in here, you’d be distracted by it . . . Although there have been some interesting things happen because of people. For instance there’s this one painting [“Blackberry Cobbler Ala Mode From Threadgill’s”] where Roy [Kaci’s husband] was wearing a red shirt, and he was sitting across from me, and it reflects it in this fork, and in the table, here.

ME: That’s really cool!

KACI: I really like that about this one.

ME: Do you ever have bites taken out of the food?

KACI: I thought about doing that, and then I decided not to. I wanted it to be whole. As if the viewer or someone who’s looking at it felt like it was waiting for them, and not tainted by some other person in some other story.

ME: I like that, it goes along with what you were saying about the desire that you have as a viewer for the object itself. It has this—for me, desserts are so aesthetically pleasing because they’re perfect. They’re like a perfect little world that you’re gonna destroy.

KACI: It’s like this beautiful little thing that’s been given to you! And especially when it’s packaged in a very personal, one-single-little-serving kind of way. And I like that! I mean that’s why so far I’ve just been painting slices of cakes and not a whole cake. . . . Sometimes I put the fork or the spoon, this utensil you’re very comfortable with, right there next to it, so you kind of get an idea of scale. And it feels like it’s waiting.

ME: That’s true. These two that I just saw, the utensil is on the same side, it’s on your side. It’s like, this is your dessert, and there’s your fork, and you’re going to pick it up and take a bite.

How long has realism been your tool of choice in painting?

KACI: I mean I’ve done other styles, for sure. But how long. . . I guess, when did I get serious about making work? I’ve always been very serious. Since about seventh grade or something, I was just trying. For a long time as an artist you are incapable of making the things that you want to exist. Because they say that your taste grows faster than your ability does, when you’re doing any kind of art work. So you have an appreciation for things before you can actually make them. So it takes many years of going, I’m gonna draw this thing! And then not really knowing how to do it, and starting it, and being disappointed with the outcome, and then over time slowly building up the skill.

But I guess realism is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve done illustrations, I’ve done comics and graphic novels, but the thing that gave me the most pleasure in the finished product was realism. And I think maybe that’s—I had a lot of guilt in the past about that, being, like, not good enough for the art world, for an artist. Because it’s like, “That’s commonplace,” you know, “That’s typical” . . . But then I just decided at one point, fuck it, I’m just gonna make what I want to make, because I only have this one life and I’m not gonna sit around waiting to figure out something that’s not what I want to do, just because I think it’s not going to be well-received. And then once I started doing just what I wanted, just purely what I wanted, then people were really overwhelmingly positive about it.

ME: You’ve now said the word “guilty” twice in reference to these paintings.

KACI: I know, I’m totally guilty about it!

“Blackberry Cobbler Ala Mode from Threadgills,” 10″x10,” oil on canvas

ME: First it was guilt over the desserts, and now you’ve said that in your artistic past you had feelings of guilt about loving realism. So do you think those two are related?

KACI: It’s totally related! It’s actually something I almost don’t even want to admit, because I feel like it’s like some form of cowardice or something. . . But when I went to this Vermont Studio Center residency, a lot of artists would talk about certain types of art that people were making as “wall art” or “photo-paintings,” as a derogatory way of speaking. And I did sort of feel the old guilt that I had had before seep back in, and now I think I still feel that way. . . . But I’m trying to become okay with continuing to follow what personally interests me, and not getting mixed up in this other hype about what a person should be pursuing based on what’s been pursued before.

ME: What do you think has been the biggest learning experience for you? As far back as you want to go, for your artisitc life.

KACI: Do you mean as far as technique, or an epiphany?

ME: Whatever, to you, seems . . .

KACI: I jumped around different majors in college before I ended up in art. I think it was another thing where I was avoiding it out of a sort of guilt factor. But then I missed it too much, and so I ended up returning to it. I’m always trying to balance the theatrical things, the things I want to do performance-wise and the things I want to do visually, because they don’t often overlap, and you’re often forced to choose. So for a while I was an acting major, and then I was in set design, and then I finally moved into art, which I am super grateful for. And then when I was buckling down and working, I very much was trying to do it all as best I could even if I didn’t enjoy the medium or the form, and I think a lot came out of that. I feel like I came out of that with actual skills. And it felt good. People always say, oh an art degree, good luck making use of that. And I’d been told that before . . . and after . . . and during . . .

ME: People are the worst.

KACI: Yeah, they’re really the worst. [Laughs.] Well-meaning naysayers, is what I call it. But then I was like, no I actually have skills that I can use. So that was one great period of growth. It seems obvious, but it was very true. And then another one was that I had this great painting professor at St. Edward’s named Hollis Hammonds, she’s an awesome lady. And she was the one who told me, “Your whole goal as an artist can just be to make beautiful objects.” And that was when I really finally felt permission to make what I wanted. She said that, and that took a little while to sink in, but she was very supportive of what I wanted to do. I think that a lot of the professors at St. Edwards were very supportive of helping you to enhance what you want instead of building you into this tortured artist soul that you find this dark piece of yourself and then put that on the canvas.

ME: So what you don’t want to do is this dark tortured corner—but what do you think you do want?

KACI: I’m really happy in my life right now, I’m really having a great time in Austin. I want to make pieces that really engage the viewer and give them something they can enjoy. Because I think so much in life is really unenjoyable, in some aspects. There’s a lot of terrible things out there, and I don’t want to put any more tortured things in the world. I don’t even want them to be too challenging for people. I think there’s enough of that. I make the work that I would want to walk into a gallery and see. So before I started it, that was the kind of thing that would draw me. Something that was really well done realistically, and very—not overly happy, I mean not like the colors are super saturated. But I guess they are really happy.

ME: They may make people happy. Or they may make people hungry. . . . What about the feeling I get, when I see your painting, of wishing that I had the object instead of the copy? And feeling almost a little bit teased?

KACI: Oh yeah! I think that’s another unintended side effect of the work that a lot of the people have said. They also felt teased. But then I was like, Go get it!

ME: It’s in Austin!

KACI: It’s in Austin! And if you’re looking at it, you’re probably in Austin. And if you’re not, you should come here anyway!

ME: In Austin you are probably best known as a performer. As an improv performer, and an operator of the Hideout. But you also have this whole identity as a visual artist, and not everyone that knows you casually may know that about you. Is there a big disjunct between those two personalities? How do they get along with each other?

KACI: They are different and I think it’s important. One is done mostly totally alone, and one is done surrounded by lots of people. But they have things in common, I keep finding over time. . . I’m an extravert, so I really like being around people, so I was more easily drawn into the theater things. . . .Whereas with visual work, it’s very much me making time for it, me pushing myself to buckle down. To go into work, to create a deadline, to create a goal. . . . I do graphic design and stuff and commissions, and that helps sometimes, but that’s—I get overwhelmed with all of them. Time with people and different projects, and, like, dealing with those different personalities. I do like to then take some time out and focus on just me and what I want. Being alone and working on this thing, and just working really hard, so much that I hate it, I hate what I’m making. And then I have to go away from that and get back to being around people. I think I need both of those things really bad. I think without one of them the other part would suffer for it. . . . It makes a little hard to identify myself when people ask me what do you do? Who are you? Because it’s like well . . .this, that, and this and this sometimes, and also this.

ME: Do you have a next project?

KACI: I was particularly drawn to Dutch portraiture, and one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is a series of self-portraits done in the Dutch style—very glossy and clean—but taking in more of my theatrical interests. Basically costuming myself like famous female archetypes or characters from well-known plays and films, and getting good photographs of these things, but then painting them in the Dutch style. Very much trying to convey emotion, but with the emotions and aspects of these characters through myself filtered through the style of painting.

ME: Wow.

KACI: It’s really ambitious.

ME: It’s awesome.

KACI: I’m really drawn to it somehow, and it seems even more self-indulgent than anything . . . But I honestly want to make these paintings convey these different characters as best as possible, so some of them very light, frivolous and fluffy, and some of them very dark, depressing, weighed-down. Like Lady Macbeth. Versus Ophelia.

ME: I was just going to ask who your top five were. What characters made you want to do this, did any just pop to mind instantly?

KACI: I was thinking about the little girl in the Bad Seed.

ME: [Freaking out.] YES!!!!

KACI: And also something like Ophelia, the idea of an ingenue. But then also Lady Macbeth, or some total fucking bitch, some crazy bitch. . . .Because I do this acting work, and you very much get cast as you look. I mean, I would never be cast as Lady MacBeth, ever. But could I convey that?

ME: You get the chance to.

KACI: This is what I want to do. I don’t know I’m very excited by this project, and also I find it a little daunting.

ME: That sounds really awesome. And it won’t be all cupcakes this time.

KACI: No. I can’t imagine an instance of cupcakes.

ME: Not even one cupcake?

KACI: Yeah, somehow all these people are also holding food.

ME: I meant metaphorically, like personalities. Like you’ve got the Bad Seed, Lady MacBeth . . . .

KACI: Who knows what I’ll do when I’ve done more of the research? Have you ever been on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyworld or Disneyland? There’s these really great portraits. You go on this elevator and then it slides down to take you down to where this ride starts. But while the elevator is going down, a narrator starts talking about the house. And every painting looks really cutesy and nice, but as it goes down, the painting changes, and it becomes these evil portraits. A little girl looks really sweet, but then she’s holding a bottle of poison. Or somebody’s standing there really nicely, but then they’re on a wire or tightrope over a pit of alligators, and it looks like they’re gonna fall off and be eaten. I think that was in my head a little bit, the idea of some sort of narrative within a portrait.

WHAT I WISH I HAD SAID: I can’t wait to see what narrative emerges from your series of self-portraits, and I hope it involves alligators.

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Women’s Work and Craft Culture: An Interview with Emily Matchar

[You can read my article about women and DIY, which uses quotes from this interview, here.]

I first found Emily Matchar’s website, New Domesticity, in the aftermath of my DIY-wedding-related frenzy. Now, three months after getting my PhD in English, I handcraft greeting cards, raise chickens, make my own marshmallows, and fantasize about abandoning my academic job search to become a DIY wedding planner. I emailed Emily because I was curious about her take on the gender politics of DIY, and she emailed me back that she could relate to my situation: “I had my own ‘WTF am I doing?!’ moment while up at 3 a.m. hand-stamping wedding invitations to save $100 on printing costs, while neglecting a work deadline that would have netted me way more.” After she sketched out the basic history of the DIY movement, from Kathleen Hanna to Martha Stewart, we started getting down to how contemporary DIY culture affects women’s lives.

Faux mercury glass candle holders, in process.

ME: You talk about your own relationship to DIY. Did that change over the course of writing the book?

MATCHAR: I think it probably confirmed some things that I thought, which was that DIY, when it goes beyond a hobby level, is really counting on people undervaluing their labor, and women undervaluing their labor in particular. This sort of domestic DIY is very much a women’s movement. It’s hard to know what conclusions to draw from that, because it’s not like, oh poor you, you’re doing DIY, you’re spending too much money! But there’s a sort of growing extreme DIY ideology of simple living or radical homemaking, this sort of idea of, why would you work in an office to make money to buy things that you can make yourself? That’s the driving ideology behind some of these extreme DIY movements, and I think ideologically that’s so flawed. Because, one, there are a lot of reasons to work besides making money, and two, it’s a question of how you want to spend your time. Yeah, I would rather make all my own bread to avoid having to work on an assembly line. But would I rather bake my own bread to avoid having a potentially more fulfilling and socially important job? And there’s very much, in this ideology, a very heavy strain of “working sucks,” and the workplace is terrible. It often seems like it’s just irredeemably terrible for women, and that it’s a feminist act to reject it and do things yourself. And I’m pretty wary of that.

ME: That’s really true. I talk to my friends about this all the time. Second-wave feminism was so predicated on getting out of the house and having a meaningful career, which, thank god, right? But there seems to be among women of my generation this kind of irritation with, why isn’t work fulfilling? For 90 percent of men, their jobs are not super fulfilling either. But I feel like women of my mindset and political inclinations view it as something that is going to be super fulfilling intellectually and psychologically and emotionally, and most of the time, let’s face it, it just isn’t that. But when you bake bread, you really feel an incredibly strong connection to that work. 

But why housework? Why does it have to be women’s work, why does it have to be girly crafts, why does it have to be baby clothes? What is it that we crave about that stuff? Why does it have to be weddings? Why aren’t we building shit? DIY is also a hardware store thing. So why is it that the things we make have to be these stereotypically gendered things, do you think?

MATCHAR: Well I mean sure, there are tons of women who go to the hardware store and build houses, but you’re right, it’s not part of this whole aesthetic. I think for girly stuff, there was already a pre-made script for that. And these are the kinds of things that women make, women make baby hats, and women do their wedding invitations and calligraphy and stuff like that, so there’s much more resources and learning available. I think when women officially started to reclaim this stuff as a feminist act, the very idea of it being so traditionally feminine was appealing. Hey, this was denigrated because it was traditionally feminine, so let’s do it. These are areas of life that have a sort of natural space for DIY – like a wedding, you’re making all this stuff, having a party, it’s a big transition. That said, there is a fair amount of DIY that sort of has nothing to do with that . . . I know lots of women who make IPod cases. And, you know, tampon holders.

These vintage pillboxes with homemade lip balm were my bridesmaid gifts.

ME: Okay, but the cute aesthetic is so predominant in DIY. I’ve recently had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with a lot of women in their early twenties, and cute is just what they do. They make their own stuff because that’s what cool, and to me, there does not seem to be a trace of irony, or if there is irony, their relationship to it is completely different than mine. I don’t think it would occur to them to be like, why am I spending my time doing this? Why do I like cutesy things? Where did that come from? These are smart, well-educated, and often super successful and self-confident women who have just grown up with the assumption that baking cupcakes is a really cool way to spend your time. Which it is! But it seems like kind of an unquestioned assumption, whereas women closer to my age got into it via ironic appropriations of women’s culture. When did that shift happen, I keep trying to figure that out.

MATCHAR: That’s a huge question. I don’t know exactly how that happened or to what degree it has happened. I’m 29, and when I was 18, it would never have occurred to me to make cupcakes, I would have thought that was really, like, embarrassing.

Or really girly . . . I would have worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. For the longest time that was one of the reasons women didn’t do that stuff, because it was denigrated as girly and there was a lot of sexism toward it. Women shied away from it because they wanted to be taken seriously. And then there was that reappropriation. I think now if you’re 18, you have the privilege, and that’s wonderful, of not having to worry that if I wear, you know, glitter cupcake earrings people won’t take me seriously.

ME: But do you think that’s true? Does it really not undermine their ability to be taken seriously in the world? Speaking to my friends who are in careers, they still have to scrap for every piece of respect they can get, do you know what I mean? 

MATCHAR: I think you’re totally right that yes, women still have to work hard to be taken seriously, and not being too stereotypically girly is part of being taken seriously. It’s just a luxury of growing up now that they don’t realize that, because it’s much more subtle, so that you grow up thinking, sure I can do cupcakes. And yeah, you will run into, a little bit later in life, people who aren’t going to take you seriously. But also I worry a little bit about just the sort of . . . how to phrase this . . . the . . . not to knock cupcakes, and we use cupcakes for so much symbolism beyond their actual meaning. But there is this idea that like . . . There’s a disillusionment with the workplace, which is something that I write about in my book, and there is this very strong idea that if you make something smaller and simpler, it’s more fulfilling. And the whole idea that a wonderful career for a woman is having a cupcake bakery.  I’m not saying it’s not. I mean if you’re a serious baker, that seriously wants to be a baker for life and you know what that entails, good on you. But the idea that that would be a cultural ideal.

Embroidering handmade cards is my favorite way to ruin my eyes.

I have so many friends, women who are in really hard careers that are sometimes very stressful, sometimes very disappointing, and who go, “God, I wish I could just start an Etsy shop and just knit all day,” or “I just want to start a bakery.” And I’m like, but you don’t really! Which I get, and people should do whatever they want to do. But the idea that work is hard and demoralizing, and that it’s maybe better to focus on the small things, is a little bit of an insidious cultural thing right now. I see a lot of people on blogs say, you can’t reach for too much. One of the ways people always introduce themselves on blogs is you know, my name is Anne, and I like pink cardigans and kittens and copper teapots. And there’s something very childish about it. And I’m not criticizing the people individually, but just the idea that you’re the sum of your whimsical interests. Does that make sense?

ME: So, do you have a magical answer for me about whether I should stop doing DIY and invest all my time in starting to earn income for my family?

MATCHAR: Well, how broke are you? [Laughs.] I mean you know basically as long as people are doing it for fun, and fulfillment, or people are doing it to make money but they have a very concrete goal in mind, and they have a very good idea of how that actually works, that’s great. I think it’s when we get into the slightly delusional space where we’re like, oh, we’re saving money. You are saving money, but at a really big cost of time. So as long as you’re enjoying growing all your own vegetables, and it’s not taking away from your ability to earn a living, if you, say, had to move somewhere else, or your vegetable garden got eaten by bugs . . . when you start going, well I’m spending three hours a day gardening and raising chickens,  and therefore  I don’t have time to do other things. I think that’s probably not a solid financial plan. But most people figure that one out pretty quick. You should check out that book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter [by Jennifer Reese]. She talks about that exact topic.

ME: I definitely need to check that out. In the mean time, don’t forget to look me up on Etsy. I have some great handmade cards.

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