Category Archives: Schoolin’ Life

To Answer Your Question, Sir

During all the hubbub surrounding the passage of HB2 and the suppressing of women’s constitutional rights here in Texas, I was asked a very reasonable question by a very kind friend. He’s a guy I like a lot. I have been pondering his question since he asked it, and I hope he takes this post in the spirit it was intended.

Anyway, his question is not exactly what spurred me to write this post. I’m writing it now because I’ve seen the same question asked several times following the Trayvon Martin verdict Saturday night. It’s a question people ask a lot during weeks as horrifying as this one. After a particularly violent round of racism or misogyny or homophobia plays out on a national stage–after a teenager has been shot and killed and his killer absolved, or a woman has been sentenced to 20 years for protecting herself against an abusive partner, or the rights of 13 million women have been systematically bullied out of existence–it surfaces again and again:

What can we [non-marginalized allies] do? What can we [men] do to fight sexism? What can we [white people] do to combat racism? 

It may surprise you, if you have asked this question recently, to find out that not everybody wants to hear it. Depending on who you are and whom you’re asking, you might get your head bitten off. You may be told to back off, be quiet, and stop making it all about you. Or you may be given an icy rejoinder instead of the folder full of anti-racism or anti-sexism instructions you were expecting.

This can lead to hurt feelings, which is a shame, because nobody wants to hurt your feelings. In my experience, during shitty times like these, most of us just want to talk about what it feels like to be the target of institutional violence among other people who know the feeling, and with the people who are closest to us. We may want to express our outrage and grief in public, or we may want to sit in silence for a while and hug our knees.

Just to be clear, I’m a white cis woman living in a patriarchal, racist, heterosexist country. I’ve had plenty of advantages in life. My privilege is considerable. As someone who is both an oppressor and oppressed, I can’t claim to be speaking for victims of racism or other types of discrimination. I am working off my own experience as a member of a marginalized group. So if you read this and feel I’m not speaking for you, please feel free to let me know. I have tried where possible to listen and defer to those who are experts in their own oppression. (And I know there are other posts like this one out there, so if you know of a good one, link to it in the comments.)

So first I want to explain why some of us get so mad when people who do not share our particular oppression ask the question, and then I want to honor the good intentions behind the question itself and do my best to answer it. First off, it’s not really the question itself that’s the problem. It’s WHEN you ask, and WHOM you ask.

I’m angry because you only asked it today. To me, that implies that you never noticed this type of thing (racism, misogyny, etc.) going down before, or you didn’t pay attention to or believe the people who told you about it. It implies that you are only asking now because it has become so obvious you can’t possibly ignore it. It implies that you only asked because it made you sad. Tragedy begets empathy, and empathy is important; but why should I have to get kicked right in front of you for you to believe me when I say people want to kick me?

We all have bystander disorder when it comes to social justice; we look the other way until we are forced, by someone or something too big and bold and upsetting to ignore, to stop. But imagine how it feels to be the person shouting for help the whole time, or giving up on shouting for help because they’re tired of being dismissed or ignored or even attacked for it. Now something made the national news, and now you are finally paying attention.

I’m angry because you asked me. To me, this implies that I am your only or best source of information about this stuff, which is not true; and besides, we’re tired right now. We’re tired of educating you on your terms. We talk and talk and talk about this stuff, and you stifle a yawn or ask why every single thing has to be seen through that lens. (Because I can’t wake up and not be a woman, that’s why.) By the time you ask us to talk, our jaws hurt and we have a headache, and we’ve just been smacked in the face so hard that you are finally taking notice. We are tired right now from being oppressed, and we should not have to have this conversation with you on demand, when there are other resources out there. Think about waiting at least until the initial trauma is over and using the time to do a little research on your own.

So what CAN you do? 

Listen, believe, and defer. Listen to us when we talk about these issues. Believe us when we say something in our world is happening because of racism, sexism, ablism, homophobia, etc. Listen and believe not just the first time, but the hundredth. Racism is still there the hundredth time. Defer to our expert knowledge of our own oppression. We have lived it, through no choice of our own.

And please, please, do not discount us when we occasionally sound (to you, to ourselves) like crazy people. Being a woman in a patriarchy, or what have you, can make you feel crazy, and then that craziness can be used to disenfranchise you; that’s called “gaslighting,” and it’s a tool of the oppressor. But members of marginalized groups aren’t crazy; they’re sensitive. (Have you ever noticed how quickly the connotation of the word “sensitive” shifts from positive to negative when it’s thrown at someone else? “I think I’m a pretty sensitive guy” vs. “I think you’re just really sensitive.” Think about the payoff of that shift for a moment, and then think about gaslighting again.)

Oppression does make a person sensitive, in the same way that dogs have sensitive noses and cats have sensitive hearing. Just as one instrument is more sensitive than another to the thing it is meant to measure, so most women are more sensitive to misogyny, black people to anti-black racism, Asian-Americans to anti-Asian racism, etc. Walking around in a female body is the best crash course in sexism any man can have; just ask Dustin Hoffman, or this guy. But as long as a man can take off his lady clothes or add a Mr. to his name and be accepted as a man, it doesn’t make him an expert. Sensitivity is a survival skill. The fact that we are sensitive is only a problem for people who don’t want to feel implicated by problems they have the privilege of being able to ignore.

Try not to say “I feel bad” over and over. Watching people get oppressed does feel bad, but it feels worse to be oppressed–just like watching someone get treated for cancer is extremely painful, but not as painful as actually having cancer. It’s fine to have bad feelings, but be judicious about where and how you express them. Bringing your sadness about it to the person who is most directly affected by it may feel like solidarity to you, but to us it may feel like a request for comfort–or, worse, absolution. “Don’t worry, you’re not the problem,” we feel compelled to say. “I’m not talking about you.” But sometimes you really are the problem, or at least you’re not part of the solution, and we just don’t want to hurt your feelings, so we squash our own.

Susan Silk and Barry Goldman have a great piece about the right way to structure intimate interactions around trauma and grief. It’s called the “ring theory of kvetching.” I think it was originally written about relationships with sick people, but it works very well for oppressed and marginalized groups as well, particularly in these heightened moments. The idea is to picture any traumatic situation as a bull’s-eye, with concentric circles coming out from the person most directly affected. The person at the center of the trauma (i.e. the one with cancer) should always be exactly that: at the center. The circle of people who interact directly with the central person are experiencing secondary trauma, too. But whenever possible they should be taking their sadness about the central trauma to the next circle out, to their friends who are less directly affected, not inward, to the primary person. We do not ask the person who is more directly affected by the trauma than we are to absolve or take care of us. That is not their job. We have cats and therapists and other friends for that.

Do not apologize for being in a position of privilege. Your being a man/white/cisgender/financially stable is not the problem. Somebody is going to be those things. The problem is the social, political, and economic structures within which those characteristics make your life worth more than others’ lives. The energy you waste apologizing could better be spent helping. Privilege is not a sin to atone for. It’s a tool you can use to help. Atoning implies you’re helping in order to make up for being who you are; but helping is what all of us should be doing, to the extent that we can. In religious terms, it’s the difference between penance (atonement) and mitzvah (duty).

Do apologize for doing something that hurts others—even if you didn’t mean to. Apologizing IS the right thing to do when it’s you who made the mistake. If you’re not willing to apologize for a real harm that you caused, even if you didn’t mean to, your other apologies are going to seem kind of disingenuous. So, wrong way to apologize: “I’m sorry, on behalf of men, about misogyny.” Right way to apologize: “I’m sorry I linked to that article; I thought it was funny and I didn’t see how problematic it was, thanks for taking the time to explain it to me.” Resist the urge to dwell on your feelings of shame over having made the mistake. It’s harder to be oppressed than to have the embarrassing realization that you’ve contributed to oppressing someone else.

CALL SHIT OUT. You’re in a bar, and your friend makes a nasty slut-shaming joke. Call it out. You saw a movie with a bunch of friends who liked it. You liked it too, except for that one awful character who was a creepy Asian stereotype. Call it out. Say it out loud: “Fuck that shit.” Somebody makes a rape joke. It’s a comic you like. Call it out: “Fuck that shit.” (You can even call yourself out. You find yourself starting to talk smack about your body as a way of bonding with other women, the kind of talk that can start off a round of competitive body-shaming, which is triggering. Call it out: “My bad. Fuck that shit.” See, it’s fun!)

One side effect of male privilege, white privilege, etc., is that people listen to you and take you seriously when you talk. The fear you feel that keeps you from calling shit out is the fear of losing that privilege, being lumped with the boring old oppressed people, and feeling for a single moment what people feel who don’t have a choice in the matter. Examine that feeling! And in general . . .

Examine your privilege. Contrary to many of our (for me, Protestant) instincts, privilege is NOT a sin for which you have to atone. It is a tool that you have been given and others haven’t. That’s not fair, obviously, but throwing away privilege isn’t usually an option even if you think you want to. For instance, throwing away male privilege or white privilege is literally impossible, and throwing away class privilege doesn’t make you a saint unless you gave it to someone else. Far more useful: get used to seeing it, noticing that it’s there. It’s natural and comfortable for your own privilege to be invisible to you; fight nature, fight comfort. Handle your privilege with care, because it’s dangerous. Use it to help others, because it’s powerful. Above all, don’t ever deny it. That is the most insulting thing you can do. 

And yes, if you are successful at leveraging your privilege for others, it might eventually, one day, disappear. That’s something you have to look in the face and see for what it is. Equality means you might lose some of your edge. Decide whether you’re okay with that and act accordingly.

Talk amongst yourselves. This would be a great time for you to reach out to other men/white people/straight people etc. who want to be allies and brainstorm ways to make a difference as an above-mentioned with like-minded above-mentioneds. Remember, I don’t know what it’s like to be a man any more than you know what it’s like to be a woman, so I don’t know all your available options. Listen to this dude about men’s leadership role in ending sexism for inspiration, and share it with dudes you know.

Be prepared to be wrong, even when you’re trying. Let go of your ego for a minute. Be embarrassed in private, then let it go and resume trying. That’s how we cope with mistakes.

Do your research. Believe it or not, there are whole institutions devoted to the study of these problems, and courses, many of them free, which you can take to learn more about them. If you live in Austin, I highly, highly, highly recommend the Safeplace Volunteer Training for a complex introduction to issues of violence against women. Yes it’s 40 hours; consider it a free course, even if you don’t go on to volunteer, though hopefully you will want to. There is no way you can sit through that training and not come out the other side with a better understanding of institutionalized violence against women, and the intersectionalities of race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality that contribute to it. There are resources like that in your town. Look them up.

Ask more specific questions. Instead of “What can I do?” ask, “Where can I donate?” Instead of “What book should I read?” ask, “What’s a better place to start, bell hooks or Judith Butler?” In other words, do your homework, and ask questions that imply you are actually ready to do something.

Follow up. This is the hardest part, for everyone, including me. Don’t sit around flagellating yourself, but keep paying attention and trying to find ways to help. Sign up for the Safeplace training course and attend every session you can. And when you find you’ve slacked off or lapsed in paying attention or let time pass without doing what you meant to do, don’t waste time beating yourself up. Just try again.

Forgive us when we’re bitchy. Nobody’s perfect. We’re not either. Sometimes we snap and snipe, sometimes we say things that sound over-the-top or vengeful or ungenerous. Please understand why and give us space for our anger. Your continued empathy is a balm to us, especially over time. My husband’s continuing efforts to understand misogyny have made me a stronger and better feminist, because he supports and loves me and forgives me when I let my anger get the best of me, and that has made me trust him and given me hope. Be that person for someone in your life. You have that power.

Once more with feeling, these things are not useful: ATONING, SELF-FLAGELLATING,  APOLOGIZING FOR HAVING PRIVILEGE.

These things are useful: LISTENING, DEFERRING, BELIEVING, LEARNING ON YOUR OWN TIME, APOLOGIZING FOR ABUSING PRIVILEGE, ACTING, STAYING INTERESTED PAST THE MOMENT.

Thanks for reading.

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Teaching Tigers

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is the one book that all high-schoolers universally adore. We give it to them to read at home on their own, while in class we cover the core curriculum via decontextualized slices of Don Quixote and the Odyssey, nuggets of Confucius and Dante.

I was not pleased at having to re-read the book, and found myself equally entertained and irritated by it. But I will admit to being more intrigued by its ideas than I was the first time around. Pi, the main character and predictably unreliable narrator, has two obsessions–zoology and theology. Throughout the novel, the narrator struggles to separate human aspirations from animal behavior, but they remain frustratingly entwined, all but inextricable. Humans are animals, the book says over and over, but are we just animals? Or does the power of storytelling elevate us beyond the reach of our animal bodies? Is storytelling just a complicated lie to cover our savage nature, or are we in fact capable of sublimity?

These questions are very compelling when you’re facing a classroom full of students who are half-human, half-monster.

I don’t mean that pejoratively. It’s what makes them so interesting. Like minotaurs and mermaids, they have certain human traits, but they frequently behave like beasts, easily distracted by sex and the weather and all the familial drama that is constantly fogging up their home lives. (It’s easy as an adult to forget how much the family drama affected you when you were locked up with it every single day, with only a tiny corner to call your own.) They are, in fact, quite like Pi; they are [SPOILER ALERT] at once thoughtful, philosophical young people and sullen, feral beasts. They are one part starving human and one part part seasick tiger.

I try to nudge them toward humanity by giving them the stories that will make them feel human. I give them The Life of Pi and refrain from criticizing it, instead letting them get caught up in its whirlwind, getting caught up in the whirlwind myself, and then experiencing with them the disappointment and betrayal at its abrupt ending. I read aloud the gory parts of the Odyssey and encourage them to picture the action movie in their heads. I try to explain, futilely, it seems, how poems make meaning not just through their words, but through the shape those words take on the page, the sounds they make when you say them aloud. How parallelism, for instance, can give substance and form to ideas that we know to be true but that our brains would otherwise reject–we call them paradoxes.

“How can surrendering be the same as continuing?” I say. “How can mortality be the same as eternity? How can a person hear deafly? Speak mutely? Why would Marianne Moore write a poem entirely about impossible things?”

How can surrendering be the same as continuing, indeed? In the classroom, there is no control; the harder you push, the harder they push back.

The seniors, in some ways, are the worst. They truly are like caged tigers (“So is that a simile or a metaphor?”), stalking back and forth in their cages and glowering at me through the bars. They’ve been to college campuses; they can smell freedom. They are as emotionally ready as they’ll ever be to step into the big world, but they’re still stuck in a narrow one. They can feel its limitations, but they have no way of transcending them intellectually. They don’t know what it’s like outside the cage, how hard it is to survive, how many rewards there are in freedom and how lost you can feel when you’ve lost your taste for them.

They don’t see a person when they look at me; they see a grown-up, and grown-ups aren’t yet people to them. They think they know what people are like from watching TV and movies, but they don’t recognize the one standing in front of them. I am just one of many adults who stand guard at the cage door, keys dangling provocatively from our belts.

In a strange way, it’s kind of a relief to be misrecognized in that way. It lets you hide in plain sight. I am reminded of my interview with Aspergers Are Us, the sketch troupe made up entirely of comedians on the autism spectrum. This is New Michael Ingemi and Noah Britton talking:

NMI: That’s why it’s so awkward to make eye contact. Because when someone’s addressing you, they’re acknowledging you, that you exist—

NB: They’ve reminded you that you’re a human. And when you’re reminded that you’re a human, that’s really painful and unpleasant. And that’s one thing autism interventions try to do, is force us to do that, which hurts. It’s physically painful.

NMI: Because we’re not human, we’re animals.

There’s a kind of safety in not being human, because the rules of human behavior–compassion, empathy, politesse–don’t apply. For an animal, the only thing you have to worry about, beyond survival, is the fluctuation of power, the jostling of alpha, beta, and omega. And, of course, that’s survival too.

This week, I kicked a girl out of my classroom. I really should have done it months ago. She is a chronic eye-roller. I worry that she will strain her ocular nerve. I worry that someone will hit her on the back and she will look like a white-eyed zombie for the rest of her life. I have seen the northern hemisphere of her irises precisely three times. I want to tell her that her eyes are lovely when she uses them to look at people. Instead I let out an explosive breath of air and I say: “I’ve had it. Go see the principal, Katherine.” (That’s not her real name. Did I mention they all have the weirdest names these days?)

After she left—eyes now squinched with tears of rage and humiliation—the other students, no doubt as sick of her theatrics as I was, started snickering. And I, guardian and treasurer of the humanity of our nation’s youth, said: “Don’t laugh, [last name]. You’re next.”

You know who else said those exact words? The gym teacher played by Tom “Biff Tannen” Wilson on “Freaks and Geeks.” Yes, I have officially become Coach Fredricks.*

Yeah, it sucks making kids do something they’d clearly rather not be doing. All you can do is keep telling them stories and wait for them to feel like humans.

The same day that happened, I assigned my class a literary analysis. I wanted to give them a choice between poetry and prose (too may choices, I always give them too many choices), and I quickly picked “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning for the poem, because, duh. For the prose option, I was temporarily stumped. Finally, I decided to use the “double-consciousness” excerpt from Chapter 1 of W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk.

Empathy is a decidedly human preoccupation. To save time, I went ahead and allowed my heart to break before class even began. My school is full of white kids. It’s a private school in a largely segregated town. I do not have a single black student, nor have I seen any on the campus. I knew the DuBois excerpt would taste like medicine to them, that only the most sensitive among them would even feel shivers of discomfort, that others would fail to draw any connections at all between the experience of a black man in 1903 and their experience as white teenagers 110 years later. 

“Why should that matter?” I asked myself, ashamed of my initial indecision, and then thought, “It does matter, that’s why I’m assigning it,” and that decided it. 

In class, I pointed to them one after the other and enjoyed one of the few powers a high school teacher retains–the power to command students to read out loud. As I conducted this depressing symphony of not-caring, the last student in the class began to read the double-consciousness paragraph. “One ever feels his twoness–an American, a Negro, two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” It’s not medicine, it’s straight up grain alcohol.

The kid reading the passage is bright but has been checked out all year. He seems to have given up at some point. I have been prodding him with praise and threats, but it’s not working. He began reading, droning through the difficult first sentence. Then, suddenly, there was a change. He leaned forward. He slowed down his reading. He frowned a little, and his eyes opened a little wider.

I noticed, or remembered, that he’s not white. He has brown skin. He’s not Mexican, he’s South American–adopted–but I’m sure ninety percent of Texans who meet him casually assume he’s Mexican (with all that entails in a border state). I had grown so accustomed to his sullen silence that I didn’t even try to make eye contact with him in class anymore, so when he suddenly spoke, I had to turn my head to look at him.

“It’s about how people see you? And how you’re always thinking about it,” he said. “It’s about how you always have to think about people looking at you, seeing only this one thing about you. You’re different.”

Twice at the University of Chicago, I was reading James Baldwin in an undergraduate class. Both times, when we came to Baldwin, the majority of the students became glazed and restless, while one student perked up, engaged for the first time. Both times, I intuited in a flash that the student, not feeling entirely white, had picked up on high-frequency notes that the other students couldn’t hear, had read the plain, straightforward words as a secret message just for them. Colorblindness is not the absence of racism, and there is a special kind of invisibility that comes from being the only non-white student in a white classroom. James Baldwin and W. E. B. DuBois work on these students like lemon juice on invisible ink. While the rest of the students saw this as “black writing,” they saw it as truth. The text looked straight at them and recognized them as people.

We don’t always know who we’re changing and how. I have said many times that a teacher doesn’t get to see the difference she makes, and that is the hardest part about caring, the thing that wears teachers down over time. We don’t get to see the difference we make. Every lost kid drags a cohort of lost adults behind them. They are animals, and we are animals, and no story you can tell is ever going to change that. So we feel like failures. We can’t tame them. We can only feed them and try to listen to the stories they are telling us about our own humanity. 

*Why is it such a joy to call some kids by their last name? The world may never know.

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Number 23

I recently heard the saying, Hold on tightly, let go lightly, for the first timeIt’s true and it rhymes, which, in the world of aphorisms, is like being both valedictorian and prom queen.

I have never had a problem with holding on. I can grab things and pull them toward me by sheer force of will. It’s the letting go part that’s hard.

My two major accomplishments of 2011 came neatly twinned in December: a wedding and a PhD. My endings and beginnings were all muddled together until I couldn’t tell which was which.

“You’re almost done,” people had been telling me for years, “Don’t give up now.” Also, “Hang in there.” I did. “Hold on.” I did. “Someday this part of your life will be over.” It is.

In 2011 I held on tightly. In 2012 I had to relax my grip and let go.

I’m still working on the lightly part.

* * * * *

In 2012 I re-entered the world. That is in itself no small accomplishment.

At this time last year I had just climbed out of a hole and was still blinking my eyes in the Austin sunshine. I had no idea what was happening in contemporary fiction. I did not read or even know about literary blogs like The Rumpus and The Millions. I had no sense of Austin’s literary scene, a small pond, but one that is positively teeming with flora and fauna. I had just started reading for pleasure again, after a long period of time when just going into a bookstore caused my stomach to flip over in anxiety. I began with The Portrait of a Lady.

Hold on tightly, let go lightly.

In 2012, I let go of academia. It was hard letting go. It felt like letting go of more than just the life I had imagined at 26–teaching in a vibrant, bustling university, reading and discussing theory with my peers, writing sophisticated books on Henry James, or whatever I thought I was going to write on. The sign that I have let go is that I don’t remember how much more it meant to me than just that. I don’t remember why I thought that was the thing I needed. When I picture myself happy in academia, I picture certain moments in grad school: winning awards or grant money, delivering papers that people complimented me on, a handful of incandescent moments when I actually seemed to be helping a student learn something. Or the moment I got into the PhD program, which felt at the time like being proposed to on bended knee by a guy you’ve been in love with forever as fireworks explode overhead and a skywriter spells out your name.

My husband and I just fell in love and decided to get married. There were no bended knees involved.

* * * * *

In 2012 I picked things up and I let them go. I took improv classes, experimented with selling homemade cards and wedding cakes. I applied for jobs in publishing, marketing, and teaching. I proposed a women’s comedy night at a local theater. I started writing two novels and a nonfiction book. None of these things panned out, exactly.

But just because I have let them go doesn’t mean they’re gone.

I may not have a women’s comedy night, but I have a women’s comedy troupe. I don’t have a book of essays on female writers, but I have interviewed six of them (and one very nice dude as well). I don’t decorate wedding cakes for a living, but I did decorate one for a friend, and she loved it beyond all reason. I didn’t expand Dance Dance Party Party’s numbers greatly, but I did spend almost every single Sunday evening in 2012 dancing. I don’t mean to boast, but I have developed a few pretty sweet moves in that time, most of which are not appropriate for weddings.

I published 24 articles in CultureMap this year, and although the professional relationship ended on a sour note, I am still proud of my accomplishments there and grateful to them for giving me a place to learn. I published one cover article on Austin’s literary scene for the Austin Chronicle, and The Rumpus, a cool-kid literary blog out of San Francisco, linked to it. It showed up in my RSS feed.

I was going to write 24 posts on my blog this year.

This is number 23.

Hold on tightly, let go lightly. Happy New Year.

Listen Here: Reflections on Learning to Interview

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

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

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

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

Here are some telltale signs of a bad interview:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Just” Teaching

MITT ROMNEY: I love teachers.  

BOB SCHIEFFER: I think we all love teachers.

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

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

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

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

“Just” teach.

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Intellectual Negging at Shakespeare & Co., a Womansplanation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HIM: Um, neither is really my thing?

HER: I meant for me, not for you.

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

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

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

HIM: [Silence.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 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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