Leah Dieterich Talks About Monogamy, iChats, and the Leap to Memoir

September 21, 2018 | 7 books mentioned 12 min read

Vanishing Twins: A Marriage (Soft Skull Press, 2018) is a rumination on desire, creativity, and the people who complete us. Told in elegant, precise vignettes, author Leah Dieterich uses ballet, philosophy, pop culture, and literature to gently tilt and examine the many facets of her identity.

Dieterich got in touch with me when she moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, this year—I’m a recent transplant from New York—and we started going to readings and writing events in PDX together. Earlier this summer we spoke about monogamy, performance, and craft at her dining room table, a fuzzy outline of her sleeping daughter on the baby monitor between us.

The Millions: Was there a particular incident or feeling that spurred Vanishing Twins?

Leah Dieterich: I was writing a novel that was based on myself and my advertising partner, where I was imagining that we were running away from our jobs and responsibilities and taking a VW van up to Big Sur. I had been working on this novel for a couple of months, and then this one night when I was writing at a café in Santa Monica (where I ended up writing most of the book), it started to take a different turn.

I started writing about the French ligature with the O and the E smashed together, and I really didn’t know how it fit into the scene that I was writing, but it was coming out. I remember feeling so good about it but also concerned. I knew I wanted to follow this thread, but I had no idea what it had to do with the novel. At the same time, it felt like an epiphany. I realized that instead of the novel, this was what I wanted to write about. I wanted to explore my actual life in these weird ways—not necessarily as straightforward memoir, but using the interests I have in language and in other writers and thinkers to explore certain events and themes in my real life, rather than trying to make things up. I finally gave myself permission. I said, “I just want to write about my own life and that’s OK.”

coverTM: I’ve been reading a lot of Sheila Heti, somebody who’s known for straddling that line between fiction and non-fiction. How Should a Person Be? is a “novel” but—

LD: I think the subtitle of that book is A Novel from Life.

coverTM: Yes! And Motherhood has an unnamed narrator, but in How Should a Person Be? the narrator is also named Sheila. And of course real-life Sheila also has a best friend named Margot, same as in the book. Were you ever tempted to call Vanishing Twins fiction?

LD: Yeah. Once I started being really honest about my story, I got scared and thought, “Maybe I should call this a novel.” It felt like a way to hide, perhaps. I tried to query agents with it as an autobiographical novel in the vein of Sheila Heti’s book, but in the end, the agent who wanted to represent me called it a memoir (since I think I’d had a casual conversation with her about whether to call it fiction or nonfiction) and I was like, “OK. If you wanna call it a memoir, and you think you can sell it as a memoir, then let’s go for it.” I didn’t really have to do anything to the book to call it a memoir. I’d already changed all the names of the characters from my life, and since that’s totally acceptable in memoir, I just kept them the same as they’d been when it was called a novel. The names were an important part of the narrative or structure of the book—having all three of my main characters’ names begin with E.

TM: I was wondering about that choice.

LD: Yes. I wanted to make them feel sort of interchangeable. I wanted them to overlap.

TM: Did the people—the three Es—know you were going to write about them?

LD: Yes. I had written a short story inspired by my relationship with Elena before I started this book, and she’d seen that. My work colleague, Ethan, also knew; I had written a short story with characters inspired by us that I’d shown him. That scene actually appears in the book.

Eric (my husband) always knew that I would be writing about our life. I didn’t have him read the book until I thought it was ready to send out to agents. At that point, I’d already had my mentor, Sarah Manguso, read it and give me edits on two separate occasions over the course of two years. The first time my husband read it, he said it was beautiful but he didn’t like the way that he was portrayed. To his credit, he was like, “I’m not the audience for this book and I still think you should send it out.” I did send it out, although somewhat reluctantly, and luckily I didn’t get an agent for it then. It was kind of a relief because if someone had been like, “We want this,” and then I would have had to decide if I wanted to sell the book knowing he was unhappy with it, that would’ve been horrible. Some of the agents that rejected it had interesting feedback that I read to him and he total agreed with. I thought, “If I work on the book with this feedback in mind, hopefully it will satisfy this, or any other agent, and also my husband.” I showed him the manuscript before I sent it to a new batch of agents and he was like, “This is amazing–this version totally solves all of my problems and I think it’s incredible.” In the end, it worked. He was happy and I got an agent, but it took a year of revisions until I queried again, right before I was about to give birth to my daughter. That had been my deadline for myself.

I think the process of revising the book helped our relationship in a certain way. It helped me have more perspective on the time in our lives that I was writing about, to have delved into it more deeply. I think that’s why the book ended up being better. I think before, I was just scratching the surface with his character, and mine too for that matter. We weren’t full people on the page.

TM: So it wasn’t that you didn’t include enough about him, but maybe you just needed to include—

LD: The right things. I was so selective in what I had chosen to remember, but luckily, I had a lot of documentation. During that time in our life, we had been living apart, (he in New York and I in Los Angeles) so much of our communication was written.

TM: Emails?

LD: iChats. A lot of instant message. I would save all of the conversations that felt significant, both with him and with Elena (who lived in London). I had all of that. I knew that I would do something with it someday, so I saved it all. I literally went through about 20 chat transcripts that were each two to three hours long. This is weirdly masochistic and totally the way I operate, but instead of just reading them, I transcribed them all word for word. I had read some of them many times already for research, but I tended to skim them. Transcribing forced me to relive them. I spent a few months just doing that every single day. I’d be at the coffee shop crying over my laptop because I felt like I was in that moment again, but this time I could be the observer, too, which was even more heartbreaking for me. I could drop into the role of myself eight or nine years ago, but also see her from a distance.

TM: That’s crazy to think about going back through and kind of reliving it.

LD: It was amazing.

TM: You incorporate a bunch of outside texts into Vanishing Twins. Did you write the narrative first and then go through and add in the research bits? Or would things jump out at you as you were constructing the story?

covercoverLD: That’s a great question. One of the main outside texts is A Lover’s Discourse, by Roland Barthes. I was obsessed with that book. I’d bought it while we were living apart. I hadn’t started writing Vanishing Twins yet, but years later when I was working on the book, I’d be writing these little snippets of action, a scene I remembered from my life and it would remind me of something from A Lover’s Discourse, or from Adam Phillips’s Monogamy and I’d think “I should go get that and look at it.” When I’d feel blocked, I’d transcribe all of the quotes I’d underlined in these books. That way I felt like I was always accomplishing something even if it wasn’t generating new material. Once I copied down all the things I’d underlined, they started finding their ways in or inspiring new sections.

When my husband and I moved back in together after living apart for nearly three years we went to dinner at a friend’s house in LA and the friend started talking about Adam Phillips, and he was like, “Have you read Monogamy? It’s amazing.” He brought this little book down from the shelf. I don’t remember perfectly because I was really drunk, but I remember being upset about the book and its title, because though my husband and I had closed our open relationship, I was still very anti-monogamy in theory. We borrowed it and my husband read it, and was like, “This is amazing. I think you’d really like it.” I was resistant but I acquiesced and once I did, I was like, “Oh my God.” I was floored. That book changed my life. It complicated everything I thought about monogamy and made it seem dangerous (which I liked) and a worthy challenge, instead of something boring you do out of laziness.

[Monogamy] is so short. There’s basically just a paragraph on each page. They’re vignettes, or propositions. As I began writing Vanishing Twins, that book started to find its way in too. I write in a program called Scrivener. Do you use it?

TM: I don’t, but people love it.

LD: I really love it. Especially for this type of book where there’s a lot of short sections that are interchangeable. I would spend hours rearranging them. It’s really easy to do because each section is listed in a column on the left and you can just drag and drop them and move them around. Before I started using it, I was using Word and I had like 20 pages and I just couldn’t keep track of everything. I think having Scrivener helped the book start to grow, just from a file organization standpoint. It’s a really important part of how the book came together.

TM: In Vanishing Twins there’s heavy use of white space—it’s a distinctive form. Were there other writers besides Phillips who gave you permission or encouragement to do that? Was there a particular blueprint you used as you were constructing the book?

covercoverLD: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was my blueprint, really. That moment I described, when I was working on the road-trip novel and I began writing about the O and E ligature. That was when I was like, “I want to write nonfiction. I want to write lyric essay or memoir in the vein of Bluets or Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay.” There’s this thing in L.A. called Writing Workshops Los Angeles that Edan Lepucki started. That’s how I met Sarah Manguso, actually—I took a one-day poetry workshop with her. Anyway, they had a memoir class, but I was like, “There’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to actually get to this class on time after work and/or have time to participate and read everyone’s work,” but I thought the teacher and the syllabus sounded really interesting, so I contacted her.

Her name is Chris Daley and she’s now running WWLA, and I said, “Can I just do an independent study with you?” And she said yes. We met at a coffee shop and I showed her the pages I had, and said “I love Maggie Nelson and I love Sarah Manguso. I want to write a book that is about my life but is not straightforward memoir. I want it to be more…”

TM: Lyrical.

LD: Yeah. I told Chris, “Here are my pages. I love Bluets. What advice do you have for me?” Some of the pages were about the œ ligature and some were about my open relationship and some were about twins because concurrent to wanting to write this book, I had also had the idea to write a movie about a young married couple who are struggling to grow as individuals while maintaining their bond who meet a set of identical twins and end up getting into a relationship with them—the woman with the one sister and the man with the other sister.

Chris said, “Maybe twins could be your blue.” It was like a lightbulb went off over my head. But it was her head. Then she said, “That’s just a thought—it doesn’t have to be that.” I wasn’t even listening anymore. I was off and running. I hadn’t seen how I could connect all these seemingly disparate ideas and concerns but once she presented it to me, it was so obvious.

TM: It’s always interesting when someone else can see the common themes in your work more clearly than you can.

LD: It made it so much easier to write, because any time I was trying to come up with new material, I would be like, “What about binary stars? Those are twins.” It was like a prompt.

TM: Before writing this book, you existed in two different artistic spheres: dance and advertising. I wonder how ballet and writing ad copy influenced the writing of Vanishing Twins?

LD: To write for advertising, you have to be very concise. I was telling someone the other day that there is a rule that you can’t have more than six words on a billboard. So I was used to cutting things back to their core. Sarah Manguso is all about concision and cutting everything you possibly can, which for me was easy because it’s what I did all day. That I think, definitely informed my style and the way that I write.

For dance, I don’t know. That love of performing might be one of the reasons I write memoir. It’s a way to put myself out on stage in a way. I think I miss that from dancing, that feeling of being out there and being exposed. Somehow I think if I was writing fiction, I would feel more like I was hiding and that wouldn’t be as satisfying.

TM: In the book, you talk about making the decision to cut your hair short and stop wearing makeup—abandoning what some might refer to as performative femininity. At the time, your husband is not into this change. I wonder if that issue has persisted—are you aware of femininity as a performance still?

LD: Ever since I started writing this book I feel like it has allowed me to express the fullness of my identity so I worry less about how I dress or how long or short my hair is. I don’t need my appearance to do all the heavy lifting anymore. My hair is really long right now and I like it, but of course I still sometimes think, “What if I cut my hair really short again?” but I resist because I know my husband likes it longer and at this point in my life and relationship, I want him to find me attractive just like I want to find him attractive. I have a LOT of opinions about his appearance so it’s only fair that he should have them about mine. I’m sure I’d have to have those negotiations with anyone I was in a long-term relationship with, regardless of their gender. I rarely wear makeup anymore which is something I’ve carried over from my more tomboyish days, but occasionally, and I should say VERY occasionally, I put on some lipstick.

TM: It feels a little like a costume to me at this point, especially after having kids. I wasn’t wearing it for a long time because I was too busy, but I do now on occasion. My kids will be like, “You look different. You look pretty.” It’s so weird that they notice that, and weirder that they like it, that they’re already receiving cues about what is “pretty” and that they’ve attached a value to that. It’s so bizarre.

LD: It is. I feel the same way. I’ve always felt weird about wearing makeup that is observable—stuff like red lipstick. I own it and think it’s pretty, but I still feel the same way I felt when my mom put lipstick on me the first time for Halloween when I was eight, and I felt like I couldn’t close my mouth. I still feel like that. I don’t know how to hold my mouth when I’m wearing it.

TM:  Did you feel a duty to be honest in this book? Were there things that you specifically left out because you didn’t want to hurt somebody?

LD: I did leave things out. There were other relationships I had while we were open, but they weren’t as significant. They felt extraneous and would have complicated the narrative. I think that was one of the main things I learned about memoir­—that you don’t have to talk about everything. That was the thing that was hardest for me to realize: I have the freedom to give this thing a shape.

is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage/Anchor (June 2019), and a novel, forthcoming from Knopf in 2020.

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