Category Archives: Women Writing

Sins of the Author

[tl;dr: There’s a shorter, sillier update on this whole kerfuffle in my column today over at the Austin Chronicle.]

Last week a crazy (for me) thing happened: James Wood, senior book critic at the New Yorker and thus one of the few literary critics with broad name recognition outside academia, took issue with the introduction of my style column for the Austin Chronicle. In my piece, which is really about the Andrzej Zulawski film Possession, I take a potshot at Wood’s 2013 article “Sins of the Father,” which reviewed a literary memoir by Saul Bellow’s son alongside three other memoirs by the children (all daughters) of literary men. In his review, Wood raised the question–perhaps not in all seriousness, but certainly in all not-dismissiveness–of whether a “great” novelist can have a happy family life. 

Email correspondence with Wood has left me with a greater understanding of his personal stake in that question. In fact, I believe he framed the New Yorker piece the way he did precisely because, as the husband of novelist Claire Messud and a novelist in his own right, he was deeply troubled over the issue of how to balance a commitment to art with a commitment to family. I know I wrote my Isabelle Adjani piece the way I did because I am deeply troubled over it. We would seem to have plenty of common ground.

Nevertheless, it’s still hard for me to sort out my feelings about what happened last week. I feel resentful that in his long comments on my column and over email, Wood never discusses my work in detail or appears to know anything about me–yet many of his emails to me were either about his other writings or his personal life. It strikes me that a writer with as much institutional authority as he has should not need to bring his personal life to bear on a critique of a single review; furthermore, that it would never occur to me to excuse myself that way, because, as a woman already writing about herself too damn much for comfort, I fear I won’t be taken seriously if I appeal to the personal or the emotional; and finally, that, although he claims to have read and appreciated a few of my Chicago Tribune reviews, he was extremely quick to assume, and assert in his public remarks, that I had misunderstood his review on the most basic level.

I’m a little embarrassed at how much that last bit stings; probably, after having gone through the ritual hazing that is grad school at the University of Chicago, I will never be able to stand having my intelligence taken less than seriously, no matter how many jokes I crack in my column, and no matter what bit of pop culture, even fashion, I’m writing about. In that respect I’m much the same as James Wood: I want not only to be read and understood, but to be respected and liked as well, even when those goals aren’t necessarily compatible. 

At any rate, here is my full-fledged critique of James Wood’s review, in its original email form. It’s a critique that could never in a million years have made it into my Austin Chronicle column, because I have somehow wound up, despite having a PhD in literature and a gigantic feminist chip on my shoulder, writing a style column rather than a books column–a bit of personal context that may be all too familiar to other women out there trying to make a living with their pens. I tried to do too much in that initial column because I felt too strongly. I felt too strongly because I always do. And when I do, I always, always write about it.

* * * * *

Dear James,

I was bewildered and somewhat abashed to receive your emails last night. Like many freelance book reviewers and aspiring novelists, I have read your work for years. You’re James Wood of the New Yorker and it never occurred to me that you would swat a fly, though of course you have every right to defend yourself against any less-than-subtle characterization of your work.

And it was unsubtle. I stand by my opinion of your review, but it is absolutely true that I was flip in paraphrasing it. My defense—that I was writing a fashion column for a free alt-weekly in Austin, Texas—is not comforting to someone who’s been straw-manned. I owe you (and possibly my handful of readers) a more sustained and rigorous critique.

It is clear–and was clear to me when I first read your review a year ago–that your intent was not to humiliate and degrade women, or to suggest that they are inferior to men as artists. So why did I, in fact, feel a strange humiliation when reading your piece the first time? Why did I hang onto that anger for more than a year, so that it finally popped out, surprising me perhaps as much as you, in a 120-word introduction to a totally unrelated piece about a horror film?

I’ll try to explain. I did perceive your initial critique of Steiner’s opinion, and understand that later on you’re paraphrasing outdated attitudes in free indirect discourse, rather than espousing them. Your caricature of Steiner in the introduction is funny–though on a side note, as a former academic I will forever feel a slight twitch of revulsion whenever anyone brings up Althusser’s murder of his wife, even disapprovingly, to get a laugh. You probably know, joking aside, that many academics will twist themselves into knots defending or excusing Althusser the murderer because of the brilliance of Althusser the structuralist. As a volunteer first-responder to victims of domestic and sexual violence, I have sat by the hospital beds of women who narrowly escaped the fate of Althusser’s wife. I’m a little touchy about it. If one is going to “mock” Steiner’s rhetorical sanctioning of domestic violence and spousal murder, a discernible undercurrent of outrage seems in order. This is a matter of tone, however, and I am clearly a biased reader.

At any rate, you begin the second paragraph by stating, “It is easy to mock Steiner’s romantic provocations.” To which, as a reader, I nodded my head vigorously and wondered what more there could be to say. “But,” you continue, “minus the murderousness (and the intense maleness of the proposition), perhaps Steiner is onto something. Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?”

This is where we really begin to part ways. My quibble is not over the intent, but the execution of your argument, and the assumptions that seem to underlie it. The language is gender-inclusive in a cursory way—literally parenthetical. But it is not so easy to subtract the “intense maleness” from Steiner’s proposition as you suggest here. It feels rather disingenuous to dispose of centuries of subjugation in seven words structurally parallel to the word “murderousness”–which, again, reads like a glib dismissal of a really pernicious and horrifying position. (I should clarify that I haven’t read the Steiner article in question and hope I’m not required to in order to discuss yours with authority; I fear the Althusser line would send me all Carrie-at-the-prom and there would be no survivors. I’m just engaging with your version of Steiner here.)

Onward: “The novel may be the family’s ideal almanac, but only a handful of the great novelists of either gender had a successful family life.” The phrase “great novelists” sort of sucks all the air out of the room, doesn’t it? That phrase brings with it so many assumptions that the argument is immediately, to me, a little suspect. I suppose, looking at my bookshelves, I must agree, or at least defer to your greater biographical knowledge. Certainly the novelists I have read obsessively from prior generations—Henry James, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Willa Cather, Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark—were not known for brilliant childrearing. But then again, the phrase “great novelists” implies an agreed-on category of great novels distinct from non-great novels, and further implies that such great novels are written by great novelists–not simply novelists who’ve had the time or opportunity to write great novels. I suppose I understand why that list might include Cheever, but not, for example, Ruth Rendell; although I suppose we’ll have to wait until her son pens a memoir to know how attentive a parent she was. There are certainly lots of women writing novels today around the demands of their children, including Jennifer Egan and Emma Donoghue (whose best work, in my opinion, was written after she had a child). But again, we won’t know whether their novels qualify as “great” in the test-of-time sense for another century; we won’t be able to calculate the costs to their children of their greatness, or the costs to their greatness of their children; or, for that matter, to measure them against the sacrifices of comparably great men. So the idea that family life and greatness are antithetical isn’t just speculative, it’s utterly unfalsifiable.

Perhaps “sacred devotion to thought” is a bit misleading as well, in that it doesn’t capture the full extent of the trouble. If there are any great CEOs of history, I suspect most of them are lousy parents as well. The great bus-drivers, cops, and schoolteachers of history, who devote proportional time to their work as the CEOs but for reasons of survival rather than ambition, are similarly neglectful. As you know, the incompatibility of any career with caregiving—writing included—is the product of a capitalist system sustained in part by unpaid domestic labor, the vast majority of which still falls on the shoulders of women.

You may feel that the attitudes you were paraphrasing were historical; in my view, they are bitter realities.

This is what put me in a rage-y frame of mind when reading the article. Reading that initial, and I confess! compelling, question–Is it possible to make great art and be an adequate parent–one simply does not expect an article about fatherhood to follow. Even today, the standards of adequacy for fathers and mothers remain so vastly different that it is very difficult to take seriously any argument that lumps them into the same category, or fails to specify ongoing differences in their experiences. (As the lightest possible example of this, I would point to women performers I know who return to their artistic careers after a short maternity leave only to be addressed as “Mama” and asked, in all friendliness, “Where’s your baby? Who’s watching ___ tonight?” In my experience, this is not a line of questioning to which most men are subjected.)

The biggest surprise for me, though, was the turn your argument took in the sixth paragraph, in which, after a review that purports to pit gender-neutral family life against gender-neutral artistic life, you almost in passing turn to pitting the hypothetical talents of men and women against each other. Paraphrasing with seeming approval what you believe to be the feelings of the three memoirist-daughters, you write:  “As writers themselves, they understand the necessities and the inequalities of talent. The men wrote the books, but it doesn’t follow that in doing so they stole unwritten books from their wives.”

This strikes me as a significant, even defensive, slippage. Reading the review up until that point, it would never have occurred to me to wonder whether Styron’s wife could have been a great novelist; surely the novel thief implied by the rest of the review is family life, not the (implicitly greater!) talent of a spouse. If women novelists were, however belatedly, to enter your review, I would have expected them to do so as potentially great novelists whose novels had been “stolen” by their children, or perhaps by more prosaic partners—garden-variety lawyers and construction workers and the like. That rhetorical shift to economies of talent within the family—hierarchies, even!—spoke volumes to me.

At this point in the piece, you have failed to account for talented women at all except insofar as they are capable of memorializing dead fathers and producing narrative accounts of their lives in which they are ultimately happy to subsume themselves to those fathers’ “sacred devotions.” You say “the cold eye of these adult children is cast in the service of a warmer, more comprehensive vision,” but that vision does not seem at all warm and comprehensive to me, but rather exclusionary and ruthless. I haven’t read the memoirs in question, only your readings of them. But I am not at all surprised to find that the one child who seems unable to forgive his father, who continues to insist on his own personhood and authority at the expense of his father’s is a son, not a daughter (“But, when Greg Bellow talks about protecting his father’s privacy, it should be obvious that he really means denying his father’s publicity, as a way to keep his father to himself”). You are welcome to prefer the daughters’ memoirs to the son’s, and I’m sure you read all four with due responsibility. But it seems to me that the symbolic self-erasure you seem to endorse here is still, in our culture, easier for a woman to stomach than a man. It’s what we’re trained to do, after all, and the fact that most men aren’t may still, to this day, account for a significant portion of the world’s novel-stealing crimes.

I will say again: The argument that great art is incompatible with family life calls up so many gender-related questions that to take it seriously, even for a moment, requires a greater attentiveness to these issues than I believe you gave them. The rhetorical leap to Texas politics in my column must have seemed extremely unfair to you—I did not mean it as an ad hominem attack, but it was certainly an unfounded assumption. (If you do care about our plight down here, I hope you’ll consider donating to the Wendy Davis campaign, or to NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, if you haven’t already done so.) But, reading your review, it did truly seem as if you had forgotten us. Unwanted pregnancies forcibly carried to term have strangled the creative potential of countless women, heartbreaking hordes of women. Call it the drama of maternity! But it’s really, as you know, a tragedy.

Thank you very much for reading, James, and I welcome any response. One more thing: I am still curious as to whether you’ve seen Possession! If not, I hope you find an opportunity to do so. It really is a crushing film.

Best,

Amy

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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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The Blog Hop, or, All About My Mots d’Heures

A couple of weeks ago I was invited by Julie Gillis to participate in a “blog hop,” which is kind of like a chain letter without the threats of supernatural punishment should you fail to do it in a timely fashion. I was supposed to post last Tuesday, but I used Thanksgiving as an excuse to push it back a week, which meant I was supposed to do it yesterday. Then this happened instead. And then I got all hopped up on migraine meds and lost my fine motor skills for eight hours.

I’m supposed to answer questions about my work, which is a little daunting, because I’ve got a zillion half-baked projects right now and I can’t tell which ones I’m supposed to be concentrating on getting totally baked. (Wait, that didn’t come out right.) The YA novel? The non-YA novel? The freelancing? A non-fiction book? (I hope I don’t lose all credibility when I say that my iPhone tarot app keeps showing me the Two of Wands and the Seven of Cups. Yeah, don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, closet tarot addicts.)

But I don’t want my dog to get cancer or whatever happens to people who break the chain, so here I go.

What do you write about and why? 

Apparently I write about violently severing ties with institutions that have supported me in the past, like CultureMap and the University of Chicago. (And yeah, there were people who nurtured and supported me at the U of C. Some of them were the same ones who made life miserable, which is complicated.)

But seriously. Looking over my posts from the year, I write about two things: things I love and things that make me furious. The fact that the latter posts generate far, far more site traffic is something I feel very . . . conflicted about. I am what they call a “passionate” person. (Cue theatrical eye-roll: “Typical Aries.” Followed by sarcastic eye-roll: “Stop talking about horoscopes and tarot. They are, empirically speaking, dumb.” Followed by bored eye-roll: “Why so many parentheticals today, Amy? Get it together.” Get off my case, imaginary people!)

So anyway I am “passionate,” which means I get angry about things, and when I get angry I cannot seem to shut my mouth. And for some reason when you’re angry and sarcastic people are far more likely to listen to you than when you’re blissfully chirping about art and life, which are both things I enjoy. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t actually enjoy feeling angry. It gives me a headache and makes my stomach hurt. So I try to save my anger for the things that matter, like when someone disses The Hunger Games.

I have never claimed to write because I can’t help it, or because I would die if I didn’t. Most of my writing is just for fun, and I feel good when I’m doing it. But honestly, when I write a post like the one from yesterday, it’s because I feel like there’s something fighting to get out of me and if I don’t let it out it will tear me to pieces.

Most often the thing that makes me feel this way is misogyny. I’ve seen it wreck women’s lives on a micro- and macro-level, in the news and in the neighborhood, as it were. But it doesn’t wreck every woman’s life. More often I’ve seen it chip away at their confidence, their pride, and their precious energy. Energy they could be putting into daily tasks and daily joys, loving relationships and flourishing careers. Every woman I know is tired. “Winning” patriarchy means losing yourself wholesale, but fighting it means you lose a little of yourself every day, in the energy you expend trying to pick your battles, fight the good fight, be generous where possible and harsh where necessary, and above all stay open and loving in the midst of it all. Fighting patriarchy means you also lose its compensatory pleasures, or cling to them defiantly only to feel them randomly betray you, like when you walk out of the house feeling confident and beautiful in high heels and five minutes later get a lewd comment about them.

(Side note: In 2001, alone and friendless in Portland, Oregon, I went to a co-worker’s fancy party out of desperation and loneliness. It was some kind of gallery or restaurant opening, held in a fancy modern building packed with people I didn’t know. I wore a skirt that went past my knees, a dressy, form-fitting tank top, and a pair of high heels. I was neither over- nor under-dressed for the occasion. What I was, though, was alone. As I stood in the buffet line, a complete stranger came up behind me, leaned in close to my ear, and whispered that he could tell from looking at me I was a “dirty girl.” That pearl of wisdom dropped, he sauntered back over to the corner and resumed leering at me from a distance with his buddy. I grabbed my fringed shawl and left the party without even hitting the ice sculpture martini chute on the way out. End of side note.)

I get angry about racism and poverty as well, but I write about them less, because I’m a white woman from an upper-middle-class background in a comfortable living situation and those things are not burned onto my skin or into my bones by daily encounters. My persona on this blog has thus become “angry, comfortably well-off white woman.” I feel ambivalent about that. I’d like to be smarter about race, especially, and other issues that matter to me. But even more so I’d like to invite women who have experienced racism like I’ve experienced sexism to guest on my blog. (I’m not outing you here, but You Know Who You Are.)

Where besides the blog do you write?

Ah, that is a good question my friend! I wrote a lot for CultureMap Austin this year, but I want to be completely clear about why I have moved on from that. I said in my last post that I had already started pitching elsewhere before the incident, and that is true; I have a piece in the works for the Austin Chronicle right now, and I am working up pitches for other places. I had a few minor frustrations with CultureMap, but mostly I just felt like it was time for me to try other things. However, until yesterday I was planning to keep writing for them to promote people and events—they do more cultural events coverage than any Austin news source that I know about, and it’s easy to get an article in with them quickly. By saying publicly that I do not want to write for them any more, I did not feel like I was sacrificing anything career-wise, because I was not counting on a long-lasting relationship with them. I did, however, sacrifice relationships that I value, which does not feel nearly as noble as sacrificing my career. But there it is.

So! What besides the blog do I write, that might be a better question for me. Like many writers, I have a couple of novels languishing on my hard drive, because I can’t decide which one to really put my back into. I wish I could discuss them in detail, but I’m too chicken and I don’t want to drain the magic, if there’s any in there. One of them is a vaguely sci-fi-ish YA novel (Hunger Games meets Gossip Girl! That’s going to be my elevator pitch, if I ever find myself in an elevator with a person who you give elevator pitches to). I have a handful of ideas for a grown-up novel, including one that’s been percolating for years but that is too scary and sad for me to have written yet.

And oh yeah! I also have a semi-erotic adventure thriller set in the imperialist world of Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Little Princess meets King Solomon’s Mines. (That’s more than an elevator pitch. It’s the whole outline. Don’t worry, the sequel includes characters from the Secret Garden-verse too.)

Additionally, I’m working on a long, angry, funny essay about women’s writing and the culture of misogyny, but it just keeps shifting and changing and somehow Lacan and Althusser keep showing up, and I am so mad at them I can’t tell whether they belong in the essay or not. Maybe I’ll finish it and pitch it, and then when it doesn’t get picked up I will post it here.

Oh yes, I am also co-authoring (and performing in!) Blood, Sweat, and Cheers, the exciting brainchild of Austin’s own awesomely talented one-woman superlative-generator, Kaci Beeler. It’s an original play about the cut-throat world of competitive cheering, and YES it will involve actual competitive-style cheering by actual competitive cheerleaders, and YES I will play an angry cheer coach, and YES you will very much want to see it in 2013.

Your bio lists a lot of things you do besides writing. Are you a writer, a performer, a singer, a comedian, or just an a random angry person with a degree she doesn’t know how to use?

I’m glad you asked that, self! I am a writer who is re-finding her voice. I’m also a singer with a not-great singing voice who doesn’t really write and perform songs anymore because people only liked the funny ones and the sad ones made her cry when she practiced them. Also I don’t think I’ll ever be able to try hard enough to get better at the guitar. I am a rusty performer who has tried to get back into the game by taking improv classes, but I don’t think I’ll ever get great at improv either, mostly because I am unwilling to put the time in. I am really good at drawing mermaids and unicorns, from years of practice as a child. I write comedy but can’t call myself a comedian because I only started taking comedy seriously as an art form, like, two years ago.

Oh hey, I just realized a thing that I love about comedy! It’s this: When I hear jokes about misogyny, I feel happy, not angry. The funnier the joke and the truer it is, the happier and more recognized I feel. I now have some idea of the prodigious skill that goes into great comedy. But the most important thing it has taught me is that you don’t have to yell about misogyny to critique it. You can also make fun of it, you can taunt and tease and torment it like a bully until it runs away crying like the wuss it is. BUT you have to be really smart and good at comedy, or it’s not funny. So I’m working on that. I performed my first sketch comedy show “She-Mergency!” this summer with talented funny lady Lydia Nelson, and since then the amazing Valerie Ward of P-Graph has joined us to form our sketch troupe, Every Girl’s Annual. Performances forthcoming at This American Live and an upcoming classic sketch cover night.

Which authors do you find inspiring?

Dead? Henry James. Willa Cather. James Baldwin. George Eliot. Marianne Moore. Gwendolyn Brooks. Jane Austen. James Agee. Octavia Butler. James Weldon Johnson.

Living? Sarah Waters. Libba Bray. Emma Donoghue. Jennifer Egan. Doris Lessing. Ursula LeGuin. Alice Munro. Others!

What is your writing process?

I try to write “morning pages” every day. These are the three daily pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness journaling advocated in the cheesy yet wonderful self-help book The Artist’s Way, which I highly recommend. Emotions come out in the morning pages that don’t come out on the screen. When I find that my hand is shaking and I am frowning and writing really fast, it’s usually time to post something that’s going to make my stomach hurt.

The rest of it, the articles and posts that don’t come from the angry place, is all write, write, write, reviserevisereviserevisereviserevise, post, revise again. I would like to figure out how to stretch out that energy and harness it for slower, steadier work, on novels or longer non-fiction, but I am dumb and it is hard.

Boring part over! Here are some fantastic blogs you should check out:

Julie Gillis: Austin-based activist, performer, and sex-positive feminist writes about politics and her own spiritual path.

She Makes Me Laugh: A newly minted comedy blog by improv impresario and puzzle-mistress Valerie Ward. (Be the first kid on your block to put it on your RSS feed!)

Incremental Catastrophe: Smart, interesting, in-depth posts on media, culture, and politics by funny dude Ben Blattberg.

Skoolaid: Melissa Barton is a smart cookie–no, an intelligent layer cake!–who chronicles her fascinating experiences teaching in Chicago public schools.

Aptal Yabanci: Michael Meeuwis blogs quite wittily about being a professor in Ankara, Turkey–where apparently they actually value teaching!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview after the jump. Continue reading

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

*shorter version of this interview available at CultureMap Austin*

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

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

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

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

—————

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

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

OED: So Aubrey literally just popped in there.

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

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

SB: Amy, how old are you?

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

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

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

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

OED: Did you copy down things that you heard?

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

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

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

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

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

OED: Has he read it?

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

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

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

OED: I did, I lived at Helios.

SB: Oh, Helios! Oh my god.

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

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

OED: House of Commons?

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

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

SB: No.

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

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

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

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

OED: Oh wow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OED: When did you start writing novels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OED: It’s a good place to be from.

SB: I’m madly in love with Austin.

OED: It’s my favorite place on earth.

SB: Where are you from?

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

SB: Oh my God! Where did you go?

OED: University of Chicago.

SB: Smart girl.

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

SB: About where Cam comes from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OED: So what is your actual writing process like? 

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

OED: I mean who is, right?

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

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

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

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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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