In the chaotic and often overwhelming world of publishing, I like to think there’s a subtle looking out for each other that happens among women writers. Even if you don’t know each other extremely well, there’s a rope that binds us, a safety net, a hand up, a knotted protection spell that’s always in the works. Of course, that’s not always the case, but I’d like to think we work in service to words and in service to each other. Though, Erika L. Sánchez and I have only met once or twice, I have been watching her exceptional career rise to new heights for some time. First I was a fan of her poems in the 2017 release of Lessons on Expulsion, and then I became a fan of her young adult fiction with her book I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter which was both a National Book Award Finalist and a New York Times Bestseller. In the interview that follows, the two of us finally had the opportunity to exchange our thoughts about, not only the nitty gritty of the writing process, but also how one navigates the joys and challenges of a living a life wholeheartedly dedicated to words. —Ada
Ada Limón: Erika, it’s such a pleasure to get the chance to talk to you here. I’ve been watching you and reading you for some time now. You are a star! Your young adult novel I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is just a year old and still doing so well (deservedly!). You’re traveling a great deal and speaking and reading all over the country. I’m positive you and I have passed each other in various airports at some point or another. Because we’re friends on social media, I just saw a picture of you with Judy Blume. Oh the company you keep. This might be a strange question to begin with, but the caretaker in me wants to ask you, how are you holding up? All of this attention for the work is always welcome, but it isn’t always easy. You’ve become a real icon and leader for young Latinx writers—how are you juggling your public persona and your personal life?
Erika Sánchez: Thank you for your kind words. It’s been such a surreal experience. I’m very grateful for the attention my books have received. When you publish, you hope for the best, but you just never know how your work will do out in the world. Part of the reason I wrote these books was because young Latinx women are rarely allowed to tell their stories. I grew up reading almost exclusively white texts. Thank goodness for Sandra Cisneros. Reading The House on Mango Street in high school was the first time I ever really saw myself in a book. I felt so invisible for most of my life, that it’s sometimes hard to believe that people actually care about what I have to say now. I’ve participated in many events, talks, and readings in the last year and a half. The picture you reference was from the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner where I received the 21st Century Award. My entire family was there and I got to meet two of my heroes. It was such an amazing night. I feel a great deal of responsibility with this new visibility. I use the platform to speak out about immigration, sexual assault, mental health, and racism, and to encourage young women of color to pursue their passions. Sometimes this work is exhausting, but I’m really grateful that I get to do this. When I’m not teaching or traveling, I’m usually at home recharging. I spend a lot of time reading in bed with my cat. I’m an introvert by nature, so I need a lot of time alone after my events.
This current administration and the consequent xenophobia is completely horrifying, but I see a definite shift in the literary world. People of color and LGBTQ folks are publishing books and winning major prizes. I can hardly keep up , which I find so exciting. I just saw you on the cover for Poets & Writers! How amazing is that? I see The Carrying everywhere and it also deserves all the attention it’s gotten. It’s truly stunning. I feel really haunted by it. The way you write about the female body is so devastating that I had to put the book down at times. Though I love writing more than anything, I know that the process of it can be so emotionally taxing. There are times that I even feel it physically. There’s an essay I’ve been avoiding for this very reason. I’d also like to know how you take care of yourself. How do you write about grief and stay healthy? How do you find that balance? And is there any advice you can offer women writers who tackle these kinds of difficult issues?
AL: Thank you, Erika. I am so thrilled to see you getting the
attention you and your writing deserves. It does my heart good. And the work
you are doing is important on many levels so I’m glad to hear you are able to
rest and recharge when you can. I agree that the act of writing is a physical
thing. It can be healthy to purge dark things, but it can also excavate old and
new suffering that needs to be attended to. The body can’t always keep up.
While I was working on The Carrying, my body was hurting quite a bit, my
vertigo was intense, and I had an overall feeling of sickness most of the time.
I feel better now and no one is entirely sure why, but the body is a mystery.
What’s interesting for me is that, regardless of how I’m feeling physically, I
really do feel my best when I am writing, it’s a place to be free, to be in the
body and the mind in a new way, to remember what being free looks like and
feels like. The best advice I can offer anyone is to do the work, but also not
to force it, not to drag it out kicking and screaming. Sometimes we sit down to
write the hard stuff, to burn shit down, to light it up and make our words a
bomb. Those explosions of rage and sorrow can be powerful, but we also have to
remember to be tender and kind to ourselves. That we are allowed happiness too.
A sense of peace. If we intend to own our suffering, we must also own our
power, our peace.
Do you find the process of writing freeing? Or does
it feel like incredibly hard work at times? I’d love to hear more about your
writing process and how you shift between both your poems and your prose?
ES: Writing is what makes me feel the most connected to the world.
It’s an act of survival, because if I don’t do it, I literally feel like I’m
going to die. That’s not exaggeration. It’s freeing in the sense that I’m able
to take suffering and transform it into something beautiful. That’s the goal,
at least. Though I do love the act of writing, it is definitely work. As I
mentioned before, it’s physically taxing. Sometimes I get short of breath and
can’t sit still. I feel the grief in my body. I pace a lot and talk to myself.
When I wrote the bulk of my novel, I was recovering from one of the worst
depressions of my life and working an incredibly stressful full-time job as a
public relations strategist. I’d write all day for work then work on my novel
all evening. Whenever I had a free moment, I wrote. I felt possessed by it. It
really helped me heal. Poetry is very different for me. It requires much more
time and silence. There are poems that take me years to finish. They usually
come in pieces. I began the earliest poem in Lessons on Expulsion when I was a senior in college, so it was about a decade of
Sometimes I wish I were the kind of writer who wakes up at 5 a.m. every day and gets to work, but I don’t operate that way at all. I’m not a morning person and I’m pretty unstructured. Writing is the center of my life so it informs everything I do. I think about it always—when I’m running, cooking, shopping for groceries, or performing any mundane task. That’s why I carry a notebook and pen with me at all times. You never know when inspiration is going to strike. I write in bed, on airplanes, at the coffeeshop. I’m also constantly reading, which, of course, is central to the process. I just finished A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande and it blew me away.
There is so much quiet yet searing beauty throughout your collection. You take what might be considered mundane and make it sing. There’s a description of a dead animal that made me gasp. That’s what I love most about Emily Dickinson. She found so much wonder and never even left her bedroom. I kept wondering about your influences in this book. Who were your spirit guides? Who do we see in The Carrying? This is your fifth collection, so how have your literary models evolved?
AL: Oh Erika, I feel the same, I wish I was as disciplined as some
folks to write at certain times of day or for a certain number of hours, or to
plunge deeply into something even when life is calling on you. I tend to be
similar in my work, there are long moments of silence and then suddenly I am
writing more than I ever have without realizing it. The Carrying does
have quite a lot of dead animals in it doesn’t it? I laugh that the all my poor
poetry animals are always dying or already dead in my poems. Except my dog, my
dog will always live forever no matter what reality tries to tell me.
Let’s see, who is in my book? I think there is a great deal of Lucille Clifton in my book, that way she could be straight forward and searing at the same time. I think also of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and her honesty and courage in that book. Of course Lucille Clifton and Marie Howe were my teachers so their influence is with me. When I’m really writing, it’s often hard for me read poetry, I tend to read novels and non-fiction because I’m such a mimic, if I read a great deal of poetry, I’ll try to copy it! My biggest influence might have been Natalie Diaz since she and I were writing poems back and forth during this time (four of mine are in the book).
I know that I still suffer a great deal from self
doubt. There are mornings that I get up and think everything I’ve written is
horrible. I usually can claw myself back into a place where I acknowledge the
good work that I’ve done (and sometimes I really love my own poems!), but you
are who you are regardless of success. Do you think success has changed you in
any way; do you think it has changed your writing?
ES: I think hating your work is part of being a writer,
unfortunately. I have those days, too. I expect a lot from myself, and if I don’t
meet my standards or expectations, I can be quite brutal. Then there are times
in which I can appreciate what I’ve created, and that is such a gift. Sometimes
I look at my books and think to myself, I made these! And it blows my
mind that strangers all over the country are reading them.
I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and I struggled for many years before I got any significant recognition, so it’s been a long journey. I’m so grateful for all the attention my work has received because there were times I seriously doubted myself and my life choices. I didn’t have many role models. I didn’t know any professional women as I was growing up. I do think success has helped my confidence. I’ve always been very outspoken, but knowing that people actually care about what I think now makes me bolder. Might as well use whatever influence I have to try to dismantle systems of oppression. I’m tired of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism—essentially, hatred in all of its forms. We are constantly faced with hate crimes now. This presidency has given people permission to act upon their ignorance and fear, and it’s truly terrifying. I’m not entirely sure what to do, but I know I won’t shut up about it.
Also, I’ve spent a lot of my life either poor or broke, so it’s such a relief to have financial stability. I can buy myself things without falling into a spiral of guilt now. I live the way I want, and I know what a gift that is, particularly as a woman of color. The women who came before me weren’t even allowed to read or write. They weren’t permitted to move freely or live alone. They were expected to get married and be cared for by their husbands. I have traveled all over and I live by myself. “A room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf encouraged. Though I would eventually like a partner, I have really appreciated the time I’ve had to myself.
You also live a life centered on literature. You
travel quite a bit and are very prolific. What has your writing provided for
you, especially as a woman?
it wildly lucky that we can have a life centered around our writing? I feel
grateful about it every day. When I was a kid, I could never really imagine a
“dream job.” I mean, I thought about jobs, but nothing sounded like
what I really wanted to do, which was to stay home and write and read and think
of things and then go out and talk to people about the things that I had
written. I assumed a job like that didn’t really exist. How could it? Because
my mother was an artist, and my stepfather was a writer, I had a model of a
creative life. But they also both waited tables. I always assumed if you wanted
to be a creative person then you also had to wait tables, or have some other
job that took the majority of your time (and energy). Or you worked in education
like my father. Who was amazing and inspiring as an elementary school principal
and as an administrator of instruction, but had very little time to write, play
the guitar, very little time to himself.
It wasn’t until 2010 when I became a full-time writer. I worked
for magazines for 12 years before that. And even “full-time writer”
is somewhat of a misnomer. I travel and teach and speak at universities. Like
you, I’m on the road a lot, but when I’m home, I’m fully home and my time is
very much my own. I am still amazed that I make my living through my creative
work. I’m also to the point now where I am able to say no to things. I think,
as women, we are convinced or guilted into thinking that we should give our
time, dedicate our time, donate our time. We get guilted and shamed into saying
yes to waving our speaking fees or yes to writing work that doesn’t pay. I’ve
just now started giving myself permission to say no. It feels powerful,
marvelous, like taking all my clothes off and running through a field, saying
no is a party, it’s like magical weapon, a tool I never thought I’d have access
to. This way, I get to say a big fat enthusiastic YES to my writing.
Speaking of, I have one last question for you and then I’ll let
you get back to your busy life and your exceptional writing. It’s been such a
pleasure talking to you and spending time with you here on the page. Before we
go, is there any advice you’d like to offer to a writer who is starting out?
an admirer of your work, it’s been so great getting to know you better. Advice
for the youngsters… That’s a great question, one I get asked a lot. I always
tell them that they should only pursue a career in writing if they absolutely
love it. You have to take great pleasure in both reading and writing for it to
be worth it. (Personally, it never felt like a choice to me. I believed it was
the only thing that would ever make me happy.) It’s just such a hard career
that I really wouldn’t pursue it otherwise. (Of course, you can always
“write on the side” of whatever else you’re doing.) Also, make
friends with rejection. Not everyone is going to like your work, and that’s ok.
You can’t please the entire world. No matter what you do, there will be people
who don’t agree with what you’re doing. I’ve been rejected so many times, but I
kept going because I truly believed in my work.
I also like what you said about saying no. I totally agree. We’re
often expected to work for free. I did when I was younger, but those days are
over. I volunteer my time or resources for worthy causes when I think it’s
necessary, but I still need to make a living and my time is valuable. I worked
really hard to get to this point and no one is going to make me feel guilty
about being compensated for my labor.
Lastly, I think it’s so important to build community. You have to
support other writers. The act of writing can be lonely, but then spending time
with my fellow weirdos makes it all worth it. I’m grateful to have met so many incredible
people doing this work. This is the life I’ve always wanted.
you for your generosity, Erika. What a perfect place to end: on a living a life
that we have always wanted. Now, let’s go write.
There’s a line in my book that reads, “I have been so many things along my curious journey: a poor boy, a nigger, a Yale man, a Harvard man, a faggot, a Christian, a crack baby (alleged), the Spawn of Satan, the Second Coming, Casey.” My reading tends to be torn between—or at the nexus of—all these little (or ginormous) vestibules of myself.
Sobonfu Some’s The Spirit of Intimacy helped me rethink ritual and relationship. Lucille Clifton’s sublime poems in Good Times gave me many nuggets of joy during a difficult year. Richard Siken’s Crush was so devastating when I first read it in 2016, that I try to read it again every year. I don’t think I’ll do the same for Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, though I’m glad I spent time with it, once.
I was glad to write my book without first reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, though I was even more glad to finally read it once I finished, and to know that I was writing in that tradition. Also, it’s hard to complain about anything in my writing life when I compare it to Mr. Douglass’s.
A critic told me, this summer, that my book reminded her of reading Beckett’s Endgame, which I took as a compliment. I read the play myself soon thereafter, and I suppose it was a compliment, though I am a bit less sure now.
Edouard Louis’s History of Violence is a book I keep evangelizing about, along with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Everyone seems to evangelize about Elena Ferrante’s novels, but I have found her Fratumaglia to be so vital as an example of making a creative life on your own terms. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet did the same. So too did The Gospel According to Luke. I think it was Oscar Wilde who suggested Jesus was an artist. Something like that.
Speaking of Jesus, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son knocked me out. The way he describes the sun. I mean. Yes. So much of my work is trying to take old images, old stories, and bring new language to them—maybe that’s any writer’s job. Johnson got it done, as did Anne Carson with Autobiography of Red. Loved it so much I named a character in my book “Red.”
Perhaps the most important books I read this year were: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Not important in terms of being the greatest books (though I do believe The Color Purple might be one of the most important queer books ever). These books were important because they helped me better situate myself in certain lineages—or rather, know which lineages I would like to belong to—Genet and Walker, rather than Austen and Hemingway. Not that I am conflating the four into two pairs. But there seemed to be more life and danger and strangeness in the former, and that’s the kind of work I’d like to read and write.
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Earlier this year, I read several great books on migration, borders, and identity-making in the United States: Valeria Luiselli’s powerful and riveting Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, which follows Central American refugee children as their cases are heard in federal immigration court in New York; Francisco Cantú’s quiet and disturbing The Line Becomes A River, a memoir of the four years he spent as a Border Patrol agent in the Southwest; and Gloria Anzaldúa’s classic Borderlands/La Frontera, which brilliantly blends memoir, poetry, and critical analysis and offers an original view of hybrid culture at the border. These books deepened my understanding of the border experience—an experience I share with millions of others—and gave me valuable context for interpreting the current administration’s disastrous immigration policies.
Much of my energy in the spring was consumed with line edits for my new novel. I’ve always found this to be a very delicate time, when I’m finally finished with the writing, yet not quite ready to let go of the book yet. So whenever I needed a break, I picked up trusty old favorites like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Toni Morrison’s Jazz or Thornton Wilder’s A Bridge of San Luis Rey and read a few pages at a time.
Later in the year, I read and greatly admired Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which explores how war is lived and remembered—or misremembered—by Vietnamese and American people. I read Terese Marie Mailhot’s gut-wrenching memoir Heart Berries in one sitting and thought about it for days afterward. I also loved Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a deeply affecting book that I wanted to read again immediately after I finished it.
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The way I usually tell it is that I met Jordy Rosenberg outside Cafe Express in Provincetown in 1994, we immediately got into a fight about queer theory versus Marxism, we didn’t speak again until the following summer, and we’ve been friends ever since. Now, in a startling and barely believable plot twist, we’ve both come out with debut novels in the past year: Jordy’s Confessions of the Fox (One World, 2018) and my Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Rescue, 2017), each of which has been described as “picaresque,” each of which is as queer and trans as possible. At the time of this conversation, we lived in the same apartment building in Northampton, Massachusetts, but by the time you read this, we will have moved into what we have been calling the “queer commune.” Below, we attempt to make sense of this trajectory. —Andrea Lawlor
Andrea Lawlor: When we first met—maybe 25 years ago?—we were students (well, you were a grad student) and we talked about science fiction and queer books constantly. Now you’re a scholar, a tenured professor with a monograph about capitalism and religious passion in 18th-century literature. But of course, that whole time, you were also writing fiction … I remember an early novel draft that had lesbian ghosts, is that right? Can you talk about your path to writing this novel, Confessions of the Fox, while also having another career?
Jordy Rosenberg: It was 24 years ago, and we were both working food service jobs in Provincetown for the summer. Actually, you were working food service while also party-promoting at the Crown and Anchor. What was your night called? Was it called Boots? I remember one flyer for it which had the word “BOOTS” written in bold, and lots of xeroxed cutout photos of boots.
AL: The night was called Pussy Galore. I am tempted to go through boxes and send you that exact flyer.
JR: No need. I have that flyer committed to memory. That flyer really, really spoke to me.
But the main point here is that I will go to any Lawlor parties I’m invited to—then and now, whether it involves boots or science fiction or being novelists or … whatever. When we met I was just applying to graduate school and I was really in love with critical theory and philosophy. I wanted to write fiction too, but novel-writing felt to me like a comparatively tremendous gamble compared to academia. A large part of that had to do with queerness and having a difficult relationship with my family where I didn’t receive a lot of support. It was a different time, and the tenure system was more intact then, so I just gravitated toward prioritizing academia, while also writing novels on the side. I also think maybe I had developed a kind of asceticism that I associate with my relationship to queerness at that time—like I was allowed to have my queerness, but I would have to give up some other pleasure or gratification maybe? I think fiction writing is what I decided I had to sacrifice for the sake of sex, if that makes sense.
AL: Oof. Yes. That actually makes total sense.
JR: Anyway, over the course of 18 or so years, I was writing and then throwing away novels for not being good enough. Being a published author of fiction just didn’t seem like a dream I was allowed to have (or keep). Finally I committed to Confessions. But wow it took a while.
To go back to you and the party-promoting and our mutual love of science fiction, can you talk a bit about your own path to writing Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl? I’ve known you through all of it, but we haven’t really talked much about the journey itself, which maybe makes sense because these things only seem to take on a narrative arc once there is the arrival of a kind of endpoint.
AL: I know! We know everything and nothing about each other’s writing life. It was ages before you let me read Confessions, and then when I finally read a draft, what was so surprising and compelling is how much of yourself you’d brought to it—in the footnotes of course but also in the form of the novel, and in Jack’s character. It’s funny to read a roman à clef when you maybe have the clef.
JR: Good one. You do have the clef.
AL: To answer your question, though, as you well know, I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was 30. I’d made zines and written a little Chandler/Joey slash (did you ever read that?) but nothing else up to that point. My girlfriend, who was in film school at the time, basically said, “Why are you in that soul-crushing job? You’re a writer.” And I thought, if she can go to film school, I can at least try writing a story. I took a night class at Gotham with Carter Sickels and, not long after, took an unpaid leave of absence from the soul-crushing job, got laid off, and got on unemployment—the second-most important thing that happened to me as a writer (the first being my girlfriend’s encouragement). I had a story I wanted to tell about young queers with slightly boring superpowers but had no idea how to start. I began to re-write Greek myths for practice, just stealing the plots, and in my attempt to retell the story of Tiresias, I wrote what became the opening section of Paul.
Later I was in grad school, and Samuel R. Delany, my teacher, said, “I think you’re not done with Paul.” So again, I listened to good advice, and I began to try to figure out what Paul would do next. The Tiresias story fell away fairly quickly, and then I was adrift. I tried outlining, tried to understand three-act structure, tried to impose a plot, but kept coming back to my sense that I just needed to follow Paul, that my structure was going to have to be a little queer as well. I finished a draft of the novel as my MFA thesis at UMass (and you were down the hall, professing!) and then sent that out to some very kind agents, one of whom suggested I try to amp up the tension, find more conflicts. I dutifully excavated what I thought was pretty solid three-act structure, but wasn’t able, ultimately, to write a book in which Paul “learns a lesson.” This agent was really sweet about it and said to send him my next book. I ended up doubling down on a more episodic structure because I realized my reluctance had to do with my understanding of how people change, how I’ve changed—really slowly, recursively, making the same mistakes over and over. I was incredibly lucky to know the wonderful Hilary Plum and Zach Savich, who edit the Open Prose series at Rescue Press and encouraged me to submit. Hilary is a phenomenal editor—gentle but incisive—and she pushed me many times but always in order to help me make the book I was trying to write. And now it’s out! Hard to believe. You also have worked with an amazing editor, to whom you’ve dedicated your book! What’s that relationship been like?
JR: First of all, I did not read the Chandler/Joey slash. I’m sorry about that. Are you mad? Do you still have it? I’ll totally read it now.
Anyway. I totally get what you’re saying about the ways in which sometimes the process of trying to get literary representation can reinforce certain conventions about what a novel is “supposed” to look like. I, too, find this a kind of baffling and often artificial directive. In my case, it wasn’t so much the departure from genre that posed challenges but the way in which I was maybe trying to combine and multiply genres. Confessions is based in research I did on primary source documents about the 18th century’s most notorious prison-break artist: a real person named Jack Sheppard. What I’d noticed about that archival material was that it repeatedly presented Jack as very genderqueer—he was generally described as very lithe and effeminate and impossibly sexy. I came to feel that this genderqueer sexiness was a way for writers at the time to conceptualize the appeal of a life lived outside of the regular rhythms of the capitalist workday. So for example, because Jack was so irresistible, he’d recruit others into a life of crime. Or, his gender queerness was a way to account for how his prison breaks were possible: He was just so flexible and tiny that he was able to wriggle free of prison walls. I wanted to run with this connection I found in the archives between gender queerness and hatred of/escape from capitalism, and sort of literalize it as an explicitly fictional—actually almost science fictional—trans origin story.
My amazing editors, Victory Matsui and Chris Jackson, were really essential to all of this. The book is a thriller, but an experimental kind of thriller with a number of parallel plotlines intersecting and weaving through each other. Victory and Chris were a genius team at not only exploding and recomposing these elements of narrative structure, voice, and tone, but also thinking through all of this alongside a number of other questions around trans representation, writing queer and trans sex, and the histories of racialization, imperialism, and the prison system. My relationship to One World became easily the most important and most intimate working relationship of my life.
I have a question for you about formal experimentation along these lines. One of the most fascinating elements of your novel, to me, has to do with its incorporation and remixing of what has become a really dominant trend in contemporary writing—the blending of theory and fiction. You can think of Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts as a good example of this, but there are others. Paul Preciado’s Testo-Junkie is another that people may be familiar with, but this practice is perhaps best exemplified in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands. I see Paul as a new twist on what has been a very queer and feminist genre of blending theory and fiction. But rather than annotating your own text with theoretical elements that lie outside of the plot structure of the novel, you incorporate them into the plot of the text in a way that highlights the characters’ (and the author’s?) desire for theory—and at the same time, you destabilize the authority of that theory.
So for example, there’s this moment where Paul and Jane are talking, and Paul tunes out for a second to think about some questions to do with gender and femininity, and when he tunes back in he’s missed something Jane was saying: “He had not been paying attention to the correct thing, in this case Jane’s disquisition on wanting-to-be vs. wanting-to-do, which as it turned out when he made her repeat her point had something to do with Barthes’ distinction between a readerly and a writerly text.” So you’re incorporating theory into the narrative flow of the novel and kind of (could we say?) performing this readerly vs. writerly text distinction (or confounding it) by withholding the actual Barthes quote and surrounding it with the characters’ desire for and disregard of the theory in itself. Do you want to talk a little more about how you felt the book engaged with this scene of queer theory in the ’90s, and how you thought about writing about that?
AL: I haven’t thought about this at all, and yet when you explain myself to me, I think you must be right—I did do that smart thing you said I did! As you can see, Paul did not fall far from this tree. OK, but seriously—I don’t think of myself as writing with the intention of engaging with critical theory. Critical theory was a hugely formative part of my life, starting in the early ’90s. I had many questions for which I thought critical theory, specifically queer theory, had the answers. Like many young people encountering such thought, I read in a frenzy of excitement and despair. I tried so hard to read Gender Trouble on my own, for instance (if only I’d had your beautiful essay “Reading Gender Trouble on Mother’s Day” way back then!). I understood maybe a 10th of the Butler or Barthes or Foucault I was reading, but it didn’t matter. I wanted always to be around other queers and other seekers, and the world of queer theory was a world of queer seekers. My heroes were academics—as you may remember, I went so far as to make a Judith Butler fanzine, which I then left laying around casually to impress girls. That was what I knew of being young and queer in 1993, and so that’s what I gave to Paul. It’s been a huge relief to me in my life to realize I don’t have to produce theory—that I can be grateful for the work of scholars and critics without having to participate in that work. I’ve been procrastinating this very email exchange (written from one floor above you) because I forget I don’t have to write like an academic. And because I’ve been excited about the way you think for almost 25 years of friendship and always want to live up to that.
JR: Well speaking of living up to, I remember that Judith Butler fanzine (titled Judy! for those readers who want to peek at this magnificence) took my breath away back in 1993. You saw something about the way that queer theory was becoming this object of desire—and also the way that queer street politics were taking shape as a theoretical field that got disciplined in and by and through the academy. I had just graduated from all those years of college where I was supposed to meet people I connected with intellectually, but I didn’t meet anyone whose brain compelled me as much as yours did until that year we were both working in P-town.
When my friend Amelia Morris and I decided to start a podcast about motherhood called Mom Rage, my first thought was, “We need to get Meaghan O’Connell on the show!”
O’Connell’s first book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, recounts her accidental pregnancy at age 29, her harrowing birth story, and the angst and anxieties of early motherhood. She writes honestly and with humor about looking at her own body in the mirror soon after returning from the hospital, about her complicated feelings surrounding breastfeeding, and about the time she fled a library story time, unable to connect with the other moms. When she writes, “I couldn’t figure out whether motherhood was showing me how strong I was or how weak. And which one was preferable,” I nod with recognition, and I cheer when she writes, “What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?” Meaghan is a brilliant writer. I am so glad she became a mother so that she can convey on the page all the muck of parenting that seems—while it’s actually happening to me—impossible to convey.
As hosts of Mom Rage, Amelia and I start every show sharing our own struggles and frustrations as parents, and we investigate the unfair expectations and assumptions placed on mothers. We then interview a guest: authors, healthcare professionals, and regular parents just trying their best. Meaghan fulfills two of those three categories. We talk to her in episode 4.
After our podcast conversation, which focused on parenting and her expectations for her soon-to-be-born second child, I sent Meaghan some questions via email. These were about the craft of writing a book like hers; they were my way of asking, “How did this masterpiece come to be?” She was kind enough to shed some light on her process.
The Millions: You were penning regular columns on parenting for The Cut before your memoir came out. Were you writing the memoir alongside these essays? I’m curious how the shorter work informed the book, and how writing about parenting related to parenting itself. More to the point: How does writing help you process motherhood?
Meaghan O’Connell: I was. The book came out of the regular freelance writing I was doing and then became its own, separate thing. I would have loved to only write the book but couldn’t afford to do that. So it was a year or two or three of being completely immersed in this subject, for better or worse. At the beginning it was where my brain was anyway, so it was very convenient in a sense. Like being paid to think about what I was already thinking about in the first place.
Web writing became a sort of farm team for my brain. Some of it ended up being adapted into the book; some just led to deeper thinking; some was about getting things out of my system. It was also nice to publish little things along the way, proof of life, getting to feel like I was part of the conversation, etc.
I thought writing a book would be so much more overwhelming than writing a column, but I was surprised by how much safer it felt. Just spending the time on it, in what felt like a secret document. And then the year of editing that went into it! It is overall much less terrifying than writing 1,000 words in two to three days and then seeing it online with a comments section under it. That is a different kind of fun!
Writing helps me process everything. There is a sweet spot for me with essays where I know I have a lot of ideas about something, but they’re only 60-80 percent formed, and getting to that last 20 percent can happen in the writing. Or maybe it’s just 10 percent more and you leave the rest open because certainty is a lie. That’s what’s been funny about doing interviews. If I could easily talk about this stuff in a way that is neat or cogent, I would not have needed to write a book about it.
TM: What was your process for putting this memoir together? Was each chapter considered a discrete section, planned ahead of time as a separate essay, or was it all in your head as an overall arc?
MO: Well, I will start by saying I never thought of it as a memoir! It’s certainly autobiography, and I wouldn’t argue it’s not a memoir, but the m-word has really only come up now that the book is out.
In the writing (and selling) of the book, it was always “essays.” Granted, some chapters (technically the word “chapter” is not in the book either! But I keep falling back to it, so maybe that is a tell) are more essayistic than others, meaning there is more of an attempt to figure something out, with a central question or a central idea, and others are more story-ish.
So to answer your question, there wasn’t an arc. I thought of the book as a series of distinct essays around different ideas or experiences: pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, sex, gender roles, etc. The list was always changing, and it was never as neat as that. But still.
The structural challenge all along, though, was that the birth is a natural climax. But it couldn’t be at the end. I had a few talks with editors about putting it at the beginning. It wasn’t supposed to matter whether it was chronological. Part of me wanted everything out of order.
But then you write all these words, and I really wanted it to feel like a cohesive BOOK, not just a bunch of essays “packaged” as a book as a career move (you know the sort of book I mean). I wanted it to be its own world. I wanted it to be propulsive. Or I was afraid to want this and resisted it, feeling it beyond me, until I sent the first draft to my editor. I got the sort of feedback that you dread but more so because you know it’s true, that you have work to do, that it’s not quite there yet, etc.
The trick for this particular book was how to have each essay/chapter have a mini-resolution but not enough of one where the book loses momentum. It also took me a long time to figure out how to end it in a way that could carry all the emotional weight that came before but not be false or too tidy or undermining. I think at one point I literally Googled “suspense.” I was semi-resentful initially at having to even think about this stuff—what was I, a fiction writer?—but really, I was just in uncomfortable territory, doing something I didn’t know how to do yet.
Then one day on a walk it came to me as almost a revelation: I could structure the last chapter the same way I did the pregnancy chapter (“Holding Patterns”)—short, numbered sections written in the present tense. This form can feel like a cheat to me, and I think people use it when it isn’t justified, so I hesitated. But when I realized it would solve the bigger problem—of resolution and suspense and so on—I just went for it. It wasn’t as simple as cutting the last few paragraphs of every essay that came before and adding them to this last one, but in many cases that’s exactly what I did. And it still feels like a cheat, but I think it works enough to not matter. I don’t know how else I would have solved the structure of the book.
TM: What books on motherhood and parenting did you look to as you were writing yours? I certainly felt a spiritual connection to Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, which you quote in the epigraph: “Oh dear, they say. Poor baby. They do not mean me.” I’m curious what other books lit your path, and why they spoke to you.
MO: Well, once I started writing mine I actively avoided reading anything too similar, but I read them all already and had the books sort of ringing in my head, spurring me on.
I read all of Rachel Cusk’s other books, for instance. And Maggie Nelson’s. I remember reading a passage in The Red Parts that unlocked something for me—I’m looking through the book now and nothing jumps out, and I don’t even remember what I took away from it. What I remember and miss now, being out of that stage of the writing process, was the feeling of something being unlocked. It was always a little beyond language, just a sense of possibility, a door opening in my brain after I’d been hitting a wall. Despondency giving way to hope.
I read a lot of Sylvia Plath, which I guess is funny. Her journals, her poetry. Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which is a genius book. Then a lot Anne Sexton poetry. I also read Knausgaard. Book 5 and then reread Book 2.
I mean if Sylvia Plath can write Ariel and if Knausgaard can write My Struggle…
As a person, I am self-conscious and shy and I second-guess myself, but as a writer I am trying to break out of that, to be unabashed and unapologetic (about being abashed and apologetic) in a way I wish I could be in life. I think I turned to writers who really know how to wield and twist the knife, to remind myself that in this realm, I can be that way, too.
TM: It feels like we’ve gotten some terrific mother-centric literature in the past few years. Moms are really enjoying some cultural relevance right now! Any hypotheses of why that is?
MO: I could answer this a dozen different ways and none would be the full picture. But from a publishing perspective—maybe the least interesting but most straightforward way to look at this? My theory is that there were a few breakout hits three to five years ago and we are currently in the next wave of that. Of bigger houses acquiring books that might have seemed like more of a risk before Graywolf published The Argonauts (2015) and On Immunity (2014), for instance. A book of personal essays by an unknown entity about something “ordinary” is a hard sell in publishing, but it’s maybe easier than it’s ever been? Again, look to 2014: Graywolf published the breakout Empathy Exams and Harper Perennial published Bad Feminist—in an interview for Scratch, Roxane Gay said her advance for that book was $15,000.
2014 was the year I had my son. So all of this was happening as I started writing my own book. Whether writing about this stuff was respectable, or intellectual, or ART, felt like less of a question than it had ever been. I imagine other writers had the same experience.
TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?
MO: Well, this being The Millions, I have a very relevant answer: Lydia Kiesling’s forthcoming novel, The Golden State. I love the voice and prose style so much, I could have stayed swimming in it forever. It’s the perfect mix of bleak and funny and angry and desperate and tender. Also motifs such as string cheese, cigarettes, small-town restaurants, road trips, work emails—I JUST LOVED IT.
For more about Mom Rage, be sure to access all the episodes here.
I’ve tried to come up with so many different themes for this year and the way I read my way through it. The year I read all the Russians! The year I read all the sad white woman poetry! The year I tried and failed to read all the books I’ve been hoarding under my sofa! And all of those are true, but none of them are all the truth. For me, reading comes in waves; these are the ones I’ll remember from 2017.
There was the week I spent in March reading The Master and Margarita on a river bank while my family kayaked in circles. My surprise when I discovered the book was infinitely more fixated on Pontius Pilate than on tequila is both embarrassing and, I maintain, not wholly unreasonable. My surprise when I found myself silently rooting for a demon cat on rampage in Soviet Moscow was just fun. Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire is biting, his characters insane, and his story strangely and deeply moving. I recommended the book to everyone I talked to for months, and I recommend it now. And as a kind of bonus, The Master and Margarita somehow, eventually, led me to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, now one of my all-time favorite essay collections.
Later, over the long Texas summer, I filled the days and nights with women writers and what must have been gallons and gallons of sparkling water. Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God felt like a miracle to me—why hadn’t anyone recommended it before?—and I fell through Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Jane: A Murder, The Argonauts, and The Art of Cruelty in a matter of days. I read Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a sharp and challenging look at how we’re failing to respond to the migration crisis striking Central America and the U.S. Then I picked up the collected poems of H.D. for a cooling dose of classicism and a biography (or three) of Joan of Arc, who reminded me how to fight.
It was also over the summer that I looked around my apartment and realized (not for the first time) that I own far too many books I’ve never read and keep accumulating more. I spent the next few months trying to read through all the books stacked around and under and over all my furniture. That meant a lot of Graham Greene—The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory, both immeasurably powerful books I’ve already stacked in my reread pile—and finally finishing Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which I resisted and resisted until it undid me completely. It also meant trying to force my way through a tattered old copy of the Essays of Elia, for some reason, which made me abandon the whole project.
There’s one book, though, that I’m thinking about more than any other as we all collapse towards the end of 2017: Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation. Though first released in 2014, when the national conversation about vaccination was much bigger than, say, any talk of an immigration ban, I’m willing to argue this book has grown more significant over the years, not less. Biss’s elegant explanation of our interconnected fates, her careful consideration of what we owe one another and her gentle (and not-so-gentle) unraveling of our isolating, protectionist instincts is a powerful reminder that we don’t—and can’t—move through this world alone.
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“I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.”
– Emily Dickinson
The first one was the size of a piece of American cheese. It had a photo on the cover of a horse tossing its mane and a silver lock that opened with a key.
Then came a procession of cheap spiral notebooks. After that, possibly a high school graduation gift, came a hardbound book that could only be called a journal. Finally, there was a Microsoft Word file that started out strong but eventually faded from thought, as only electronic files can.
In the intervening years, I’ve tried several times to get back to journaling. I’ll bring home a notebook and then not manage to fill it. A year or two later, the process repeats: new notebook, new entries, precipitous silence, and empty pages.
What does an unfinished journal mean? I’m afraid it means poor discipline, a nonchalance in the face of lost time. But the reality is probably less dramatic. I’m busy: just getting through the day can take so much effort that doing the secretarial work of recording it can feel like a strange, self-imposed burden. Also, the emotions that made me write when I was younger — melancholy, heartsickness, wistfulness — aren’t as acute as they used to be.
And then there’s the fact that social media is already doing some of the administrative work of a journal. Facebook reminds me of my anniversaries and milestones with the dedication of a dog bringing my slippers. It’s almost too easy. My various feeds are always right there waiting for me. Together they promise that my past is a smooth, open road retraceable just by scrolling.
But the record I leave there feels ephemeral. I worry, too, that in the very act of sharing my memories with a corporation, I’m partially forfeiting my right to them. Keeping a journal — not a blog for an audience, but an actual journal — feels like a form of aesthetic and personal resistance. It feels a little bit subversive.
But before trying again and failing, I decide to ask around for advice about how to keep a journal. What I hear back is that there are countless ways to keep a journal, none necessarily better than the other. One friend sends herself occasional emails, which she later pastes into a Word file. Another uses Instagram to document her daily reading. Still another loves a good journaling app.
I start digging around online, and I keep coming up on the term “micro journaling.” As the name implies, this is a short-form style of journaling that encompasses practically anything from the one-sentence journal to the bullet journal. One form of micro-journaling that I really enjoy is a text-messaging service that sends me a daily text asking what I’m grateful for. It then catalogs my responses on a private webpage where I can scroll back through them chronologically. The focus on gratitude feels a bit too… sanctimonious for my taste. But that’s just the pretext; you can always reply with a grievance, a joke, or a description of your sandwich, an adjective that best describes your day (you get the idea).
Micro journaling is a nifty way to get into the rhythm of record keeping, but I can’t help but gravitate to blank hardbound books, free of dates and requirements. That openness is exciting, but it can also be intimidating. I order a nice old school journal, but when it arrives I find myself wondering exactly I’m supposed to write in it. How does one journal as an adult? I think of Samuel Pepys, who gave posterity a lively account of the 17th-century world of coffee houses and taverns, and of Virginia Woolf who held a mirror to the early 20th-century literary elites. Both writers — and countless other less famous journalers besides — understood that a detailed diary can be a gift to the future.
My future self will want to know what I thought of these turbulent times. But I bristle at the idea that I need to “comment.” The Internet has tangled up my inner and outer lives in ways my younger self could never have foreseen. I know for sure, though, that a journal entry isn’t the same thing as a Tweet or a Facebook post. A private notebook can be a place for Holding Forth on Topics, but it should also be a place for writing down last night’s dream or sketching an aggressively shaded palm tree while thinking about something weird that happened at work.
I’m turning this over when I come across Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. Barry is a cartoonist, author, and teacher whose recent books are devoted to changing the way people think about their own creativity. Syllabus is based on a workshop Barry teaches called “Writing the Unthinkable.” The main course requirement is keeping a notebook — and not just any kind. Each day’s hand-written entry must contain these items: 1) a list of seven things you did, 2) a list of seven things you saw, 3) something you heard someone say, and 4) a sketch of one item from the “saw” list. Don’t even think about skipping the sketching step.
Even before I try it, I sort of fall in love with this approach. I like its clarity, its belief in the undramatic work of record keeping. Barry explains that if you journal this way for a while you’ll start to “notice what you notice.”And, sure enough, a month in, I do notice I’m more alert to visual details and spoken conversation. I’m also increasingly comfortable sketching. Oh, and I love not having to write in complete sentences.
One day, though, I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts when I come across this line: “I am no longer interested in hiding my dependencies in an effort to appear superior to those who are more visibly undone or aching.” I have complicated feelings about this book, but that observation about vulnerability feels forceful and true, and I feel the urge to write it down.
However, there’s no provision in Barry’s method for copying down quotations. What I need, I guess, is a second notebook for recording my reading — namely, a commonplace book. The history of the commonplace journal traces back to the Renaissance, a time when readers typically read several books at once, savoring lines across volumes, rather than consuming titles one by one, as most of us do today. Commonplace books have long been a favorite resource of writers. Ralph Waldo Emerson kept commonplace journals, convinced that his best thinking happened in the company of other minds. Wallace Stevens began his own commonplace book in a fit of contrition after years of disfiguring library books with marginalia.
But I don’t love the idea of managing two separate journals. What if I just added passages from my reading to the same journal where I keep my Barry entries? After all, there’s a long tradition of writers and artists treating the journal as a glorious catch-all. Pretty soon, my journal is an ever-growing collage. Any reading I happen to be doing makes its way into the notebook: a couple of sentences from Yiyun Li’s memoir, a juicy paragraph or two from The Pillow Book, and this simple statement about vibrant urban neighborhoods from Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Blocks must be short…streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.”
Adding quotations frees me up to include other kinds of entries: to-do lists, ideas for projects, lists of weekly goals. I default to my Barry-style entries, but anything that wants to go in goes in.
So I have a journal now. Only, it has to be asked: What’s the point? Why do this?
One reason to journal might be the freedom to be completely honest. A notebook can be a confidant for your darkest thoughts. But, the thing is, unless you plan to destroy your journal, there’s a good chance someone will read what you’ve written and be hurt by it.
I’m more persuaded by the idea that journaling aids memory. Think of all the good ideas, conversations, and meals you’ve lost simply because you never took the trouble of writing them down. While it may be smart to let yourself forget certain painful memories, it seems like an excellent thing to remember what you love so you can go on loving it.
Also convincing: the argument that a notebook is good artistic practice. “The habit of writing for my eye is good practice,” wrote Virginia Woolf of her own journal. “It loosens the ligaments.” Writing, then, can make one more agile, more prepared for future work. In rare cases, the journal itself is the work.
These practical reasons for journaling motivate me, but I wonder if it’s actually a good idea to focus on what journaling does or accomplishes. It reminds me of way that “life hacking” discussions online have co-opted journaling as a productivity technique. It reminds me, too, of a something I’ve often heard, that journaling makes us more introspective. I don’t know if that’s true, but even if it is, what’s the use of feeling smug? We’re all just looking for some proof that we exist. We’re all just groping for a lever to pry open time.
Sometimes when I flip through my journal, I feel like nothing so much as a collector. I already know that I’m often less interested in life than its interpretation, its rearrangement. I delight in my most uninspired utterances, like a collector dusting a shelf of dolls.
In fact, even when it is disorderly, a journal is a celebration of order. Keeping a notebook is a little like keeping a home (is this why more women than men gravitate toward journaling?). The work is tangible yet infinite. I take less satisfaction in dealing with my apartment than my notebook, but I occupy them in similar ways: distractedly, messily, but with rare bursts of affection, even cautious love. I think I even understand the romantic logic of the hoarder: there’s stuff in every corner, and some of it could be precious.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
I’d been hearing about Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, All Grown Up, long before it went on sale. Early readers loved it, and their praise produced a kind of roar across the Internet, one full of joy and ferocity. People were grateful for this story and this character: Andrea Bern, a single woman who doesn’t have kids, and doesn’t want them. When I finally got my hands on a copy, I saw what everyone was talking about; Andrea is like so many women I know, and yet, she is unlike most female characters in fiction. She is also more than her demographic (as we all are). Through a series of droll but big-hearted and compassionate vignettes, Attenberg depicts a profound and authentic portrait of a woman as she moves through this beautiful yet often unjust world. In All Grown Up, there is joy, loneliness, pleasure, despair, grief, hope, frivolity, and matters of great import.
The Millions: All Grown Up is told in a series of vignettes about Andrea’s life — there’s one terrific, pithy chapter early on, for instance, called, simply, “Andrea,” about how everyone keeps recommending the same book about being single. There are a few chapters about Andrea’s friend Indigo: in one she gets married, in another she has child, and so on. Some are about Andrea’s dating life, and others focus on her family. I’m curious about how working within this structure affected your understanding of Andrea herself, seeing as she comes into focus story by story, but not in a traditional, chronological way. I also wonder what you want the reader to feel, seeing her from these various angles, some of which overlap, while others don’t.
Jami Attenberg: I made a list — I wish I could find it now; it’s in a notebook somewhere — of all these different parts of being an adult. For example: your relationship with your family, your career, your living situation, etc. And then I created story cycles around them, and often they were spread out over decades. As an example: what Andrea’s apartment was like when she was growing up versus how she felt about her apartment as an adult in her late 20s versus her late 30s, and how those memories informed her feelings of safety and security and space. A sense of home is a universal topic. And then eventually more relevant, nuanced parts of a specifically female adulthood emerged as I wrote, and little cycles formed around those subjects. So the writing of this book in terms of structure was really an accrual of these cycles.
The goal was to tell the whole truth about this character, and why she had become the person she was — the adult she was, I guess — so that she could understand it/herself, and move on from it. The fact that it’s not linear is true to the story of our lives. The moments that inform our personalities come at us at different times. If you were to make a “What Makes Me the Way I Am” top 10 list in order of importance, there’s no way it would be in chronological order. And to me they’re all connected. I’d hope readers see some of their own life challenges in her, and if not her, in some of the other characters, even if they happen at different times. Everything keeps looping around again anyway. (We can’t escape our pasts, we are doomed to repeat ourselves, we are our parents, etc.)
TM: In my mind, and likely in the minds of others, you lead an ideal “writer’s life” — you’re pretty prolific, for one, and you also don’t teach. You now live in two places: New Orleans and New York City — which seems chic and badass to me. Plus you have a dog with the perfect under bite! Can you talk a little about your day-to-day life as an artist, and what you think it’s taken (besides, say, the stars aligning), to get there? Any advice for writers who want to be like you when they’re all grown up?
JA: It took me a long time to figure out what would make me happy, and this existence seems to be it, for a while anyway. I’m 45 now, and I started planning for this life a few years ago, but before then I had no vision except to keep writing, and that was going to be enough for me. Then, after my third winter stay in New Orleans, I realized I had truly fallen in love with the city. And then I had a dream, an actual adult goal. I had two cities I loved, and I wanted to be in both. So it has meant a lot to me to get to this place. I worked so hard to get here! I continue to work hard. No one hands it to you, I can tell you that much, unless you are born rich, which I was not, and even then that’s just money, it’s not exactly a career. And I think the career part, the getting to write and be published and be read part, is the most gratifying of all. Unless success is earned it is not success at all.
My day-to-day life is wake, read, drink coffee, walk the dog, say hi to my neighbors, come home, be extremely quiet for hours, write, read, look at the Internet, eat, walk the dog, have a drink, freak out about the state of America, and have some dinner, maybe with friends. Soon I’ll be on tour for two months, and that will be a whole different way of living, though still part of my professional life. But when I am writing, it is a quiet and simple existence in which I take my work seriously. I have no advice at all to anyone except to keep working as hard as you possibly can.
TM: I’ve always loved the sensuality of your writing. Whether the prose is describing eating, or having sex, or simply the varied textures of life in New York City, we are with your characters, inside their bodies. What is the process for you, in terms of inhabiting a character’s physical experience? Does it happen on the sentence level, or as you enter the fictive dream, or what?
JA: Well thank you, Edan. I’m a former poet, for starters, so I’m always looking to up the language in a specific kind of way. I certainly close my eyes and try to be in the room with a character, and inside their flesh as well, I suppose. I write things to turn myself on. Even my bad sex scenes are in a strange way arousing to me, even if it’s just because they make me laugh. It’s all playtime for me.
All of this kind of thinking comes in the early stages but also in my final edits of the second draft. Most of the lyricism of the work is done before I send the book out to my editor. Her notes to me address the nuts and bolts of plot and architecture, and often also emotions and character motivation. But the language, for the most part, she leaves to me.
TM: My favorite relationship in the novel is between Andrea and her mother. It’s loving and comforting even though there are also real tensions and conflicts between them. Can you talk about creating a nuanced, and thus realistic, portrayal of mother and daughter?
JA: It is also my favorite relationship! I could write the two of them forever. I am satisfied with the book as it stands but would still love to write a chapter where the two of them go to the Women’s March together, and Andrea’s mother knits her a pussy hat and Andrea doesn’t want to wear it because she only ever wears black. I have pages and pages of dialogue between them that I never used but wrote anyway just because they were fun together, or fun for me the author, but maybe not fun between the two of them.
Their relationship really comes from living in New York City for 18 years and watching New York mothers and daughters together out in the world and just channeling that. These characters are very much a product of eavesdropping. I try to approach these kinds of family relationships like this: everyone is always wrong and everyone is always right. Like their patterns and emotions are already so ingrained that there’s no way out of it except through, because no one will ever win. But also there is love. Always there is love. And that’s how I know they’ll make it to the other side.
TM: This novel has so many terrific female characters, who are at once immediately recognizable (sort of like tropes of contemporary womanhood, if that makes sense) and also unique. Aside from Andrea and her mother, there is Andrea’s sister-in-law, Greta, a once elegant and willowy magazine editor who is depleted (spiritually and otherwise) by her child’s illness; Indigo, ethereal yoga teacher turned rich wife and mother, and then divorcée and single mother; the actress with the great shoes who moves into Andrea’s building; Andrea’s younger and (seemingly?) self-possessed coworker Nina. They’re all magnetic — and they also all fail to hold onto that magnetism. Their cool grace, at least in Andrea’s eyes, is tarnished, often by the burdens of life itself. Did you set out to have these women orbiting Andrea, contrasting her, sometimes echoing her, or was there another motivation in mind?
JA: These women were all there from the beginning — all of them. I had to grow them and inform them, but there were no surprise appearances. I never thought — oh where did she come from? They were all just real women living and working in today’s New York City, and also they were real women who lived inside of me. I needed each of these women to be in the book or it wouldn’t have been complete. And also I certainly needed them to question Andrea. For example, her sister-in-law in particular sometimes acts as a stand-in for what I imagine the reader must be thinking, while her mother acts as a stand-in for me, both of them interrogating Andrea at various times.
And also always, always, always in my work the female characters are going to be the most interesting. Most of the chapters are named after women. I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted a collective female energy to buoy this book. We’re always steering the fucking ship, whether it’s acknowledged or not.
TM: Were there any models for this book in terms of voice, structure, tone of subject? Are there, in general, any authors and novels that are “fairy godmothers” for you and your writing?
JA: Each book is different, I have a different reading list, but Grace Paley is my mothership no matter what, because of her originality, grasp of voice and dialect, and incredible heart and compassion.
As I began writing All Grown Up, I was reading Patti Smith’s M Train and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and when I was halfway done with the book I started reading Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls. I was not terribly interested in fiction for the most part. I wanted this book to feel memoiristic — not like an actual memoir, that one writes and tries to put in neat little box, perfect essays or chapters, but just genuinely like this woman was telling you every single goddamn, messy thing you needed to know about her life.
Those three books all feel like unique takes on the memoir. Patti Smith just talks about whatever the fuck she wants to talk about, and Maggie Nelson writes in those short, meticulous, highly structured bursts, where you genuinely feel like she is making her case, and in Chelsea Girls Eileen has this dreamy, meandering quality, although she knows exactly what she’s doing, she’s scooping you up and putting you in her pocket and taking you with her wherever she wants to go. So all of those books somehow connected together for me while I was establishing the feel of this book.
And when I was finishing I read Naomi Jackson’s gorgeous debut, The Star Side of Bird Hill, which is also about family and a collection of strong women and coming of age, although the people growing up in her book are much younger than my narrator. But it was just stunning, and it made me cry, and the emotions felt so real and true. So I think reading her was an excellent inspiration as I wrote those final pages. Like you can’t go wrong with heart.
TM: Since is The Millions, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?
JA: I just judged the Pen/Bingham contest and all of the books on our shortlist were wonderful: Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott; We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams; The Mothers by Brit Bennett; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Hurt People by Cote Smith.
Best Debuts: My debut novel was released this year, so I read a ton of debuts, mostly to reassure myself that all great debuts — like all great novels, really — are promising and flawed. As a reader, I look for debuts that excite me and make me anticipate the author’s next book, so some of my favorites this year were Desert Boys by Chris McCormick, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn.
Favorite Overall Reads: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a brilliant reinvention of the slave narrative genre, a story with huge personal and historical stakes. We’ll be reading this one for a while. I also loved Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, which is inventive and lyrical and meditative, a coming-of-age story driven forward by the beauty of its language, not plot.
Couldn’t Put It Down: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I love books that reset their terms partway through the story, and this book does so in dramatic fashion. What begins as a historical queer romance becomes a crime thriller and the entire world of the novel resets in a fascinating way.
Best Post-Olympics Read: You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. A creepy, unsettling page-turner, both a domestic thriller and exploration of the darker aspects of women’s gymnastics: the toll that intense competition takes on young girls and the punishing brutality of a beautiful sport.
Obligatory Maggie Nelson Post: I’m late to the Maggie Nelson party, but I read The Argonauts and The Red Parts this year, two books that made me think and feel deeply. I love her ability to always write with expanding empathy, as she delves into the personal and the political, invoking theory and pop culture and literature.
Best Conversation Starter: Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, because everyone I’ve talked to seems convinced that he could fake his own death even though, as Elizabeth Greenwood proves, death fraud is extremely difficult to pull off. This book is a fun exploration into a bizarre topic, but it also speaks to deeper existential desires. In a world of constant connection, who hasn’t wanted to disappear and start over?
This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:
Maggie Nelson is known best for her non-fiction. Often described as some combination of “lyrical” and “philosophical,” Nelson’s five book-length works of nonfiction have won her a steadfast following. She might be described as a “writer’s writer.” The evidence is in how often her books are named by other writers in our annual Year in Reading series. Bluets, a meditation on the color blue, won praise from David Shields (“utterly brilliant”), Stephen Elliott (“excellent”), Haley Mlotek (“I read Bluets twice in the same plane ride.”), Leslie Jamison, Jaquira Díaz, and Margaret Eby. Meaghan O’Connell wrote of Nelson, “She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair.” Many of the above writers also praised Nelson’s more recent The Argonauts, “a genre-bending memoir,” as did Bijan Stephen, Olivia Laing (“It thinks deeply and with immense nuance and grace”), Karolina Waclawiak (“I found myself underlining on nearly every page”), and Parul Sehgal. Nelson herself appeared in our Year in Reading last year, shining light on books by Eileen Myles and Ellen Miller, among others.
Claudia Rankine, poet, has received especially wide acclaim for her “provocative meditation on race” Citizen: An American Lyric, a book that (perhaps along with Between the World and Me by last year’s “Genius” Ta-Nehisi Coates) that can be pointed to as a literary catalyst. Many may have first become aware of Rankine earlier this year, when her book — wielded as an object of protest — was caught by cameras behind a ranting Donald Trump at one of his rallies. MacArthur rightly describes Rankine as “a critical voice in current conversations about racial violence.” Ed Simon named Citizen this moment’s best candidate in his search for America’s great epic poem.
In its announcement, MacArthur says artist and writer Lauren Redniss “is an artist and writer seamlessly integrating artwork, written text, and design elements in works of visual nonfiction. Redniss undertakes archival research, interviews and reportage, and field expeditions to inform every aspect of a book’s creation, from its text, to its format and page layout, to the design of the typeface, to the printing and drawing techniques used for the artwork.” Redniss is probably best-known for 2011 National Book Award finalist Radioactive, a vibrantly illustrated biography of pioneering scientists Marie and Pierre Curie. Our own Hannah Gersen described it as “elaborately beautiful.”
Gene Luen Yang has smashed stereotypes with his vibrant graphic novels, American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile (with Derek Kirk Kim), and Boxers & Saints. Our 2010 interview with Yang explored his influences and his work.
The lone playwright to be named a “genius” this year is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. “Many of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays use a historical lens to satirize and comment on modern culture, particularly the ways in which race and class are negotiated in both private and public settings.”
Sarah Stillman has become a byline to look for in The New Yorker, carrying out journalistic investigations that have raised public outrage and spurred recalcitrant politicians into action. “Taken” is perhaps her best-known article. It investigates how local police forces have used the principal of “civil asset forfeiture” to plunder citizens and enrich themselves.
In a recent feature in Afar magazine, Chris Colin describes three friends he made while traveling in Tokyo. They accompanied him to restaurants around the city, talked with him about relationships and parents, and were paid by the hour to hang out with him.
Colin was reporting on the service Client Partners, which provides simple, platonic friendship to its customers. At first he chalks this up to a phenomenon he calls “Japanese wackiness,” in line with cat cafes and host clubs. But in a country with an overworked, rapidly shrinking population and high suicide rates — a country still recovering from the twin blows of the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster — Client Partners seeks to address a societal crisis rather than fill a niche demand. The deluge of photos on social media and gaggles of people hanging out in subway stations are all a mask, the professional friends tell Colin. There is a deep loneliness there, an unmet need for human intimacy.
In The Lonely City, set 6,700 miles from the young skyscrapers of Tokyo in the older, grimier blocks of New York City, Olivia Laing conducts her own investigation into the way loneliness is expressed in the metropolis, using art as her point of departure: Andy Warhol’s endless audio tapes, the epic bloody watercolors hoarded by Chicago janitor Henry Darger, the terrifyingly public Internet-cum-social-experiments of Josh Harris. “Loneliness,” she writes is “a populated place: a city in itself.” Laing draws on the “fertile as well as frightening” sensation of loneliness — a state of being experienced from Tokyo to New York, felt by a quarter of American adults and a greater percentage of British ones — to tackle not only why and how loneliness is experienced, but the fruit it brings forth. How does art resist the isolating effects of solitude?
The success of Laing’s book is that it doesn’t require the reader to know much about — or even to be particularly interested in — the New York art world. It’s more about the people that populate it and the stories that make them who they are. The Lonely City draws on social science, gay culture, AIDS history, and the influence of technology, weaving in snippets of memoir. Laing’s prose is elegant and concise, with a breath of Joan Didion: a painting is described as a “cool green icebox,” loneliness as a “city, perhaps at dusk, when everyone turns homeward and the neon flickers into life.”
The book moves seamlessly between Blade Runner and Ludwig Wittgenstein, from art to attachment theory, from Henry Darger to behavioral psychology and Harry Harlow’s experiments with “monster mothers.” In its interdisciplinary scope and mix of culture, theory, and memoir, The Lonely City brings to mind other nonfiction hits of recent years, books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts or Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. These books are written by complex, fiercely intelligent women with deep capacities for rigorous research, analysis, and synthesis. The topics they tackle are tough and human: queer identity and modern families in The Argonauts; the various trespasses and violences of empathy (as well as its tenderness and necessity) in The Empathy Exams. Laing has likewise done the legwork; her evocations of the various artists that make up her book are penetrating and full of reversals.
There’s Andy Warhol, of whom Laing writes, “[He was] famous for his relentless sociability…almost never without a glittering entourage and yet his work is surprisingly eloquent on isolation and the problems of attachment.” She paints a particularly loving and detailed portrait of David Wojnarowicz, whose first memory is of horseshoe crabs and who liked to hang by his fingers from the window ledge of his bedroom. (Laing refers to him by his first name; the intimacy is startling.) The connections and conclusions she draws are coherent, nuanced, and sometimes surprising. See, for instance, how she juggles the delicate politics of communication and the double-edged blade of confession and intimacy:
It’s about wanting and not wanting: about needing people to pour themselves out into you and then needing them to stop, to restore the boundaries of the self, to maintain separation and control. It’s about having a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego.
The Lonely City is smart and crisp without being jargony, and the wide cast of characters and complex ideas are laid out in easy-to-absorb ways. Laing’s research and insight into the queer art community in New York, both before and during the AIDS crisis, is particularly rich ground. Through Laing’s book we can see the systemic causes of loneliness — an individual experience, but one that comes from an interplay of a broad variety of societal factors of exclusion and inequality. As she tells us, “Loneliness is personal, and it is also political.” This is important, and where The Lonely City is at its best. Laing carefully shows us how social deprivation as a result of poor environment or systemic prejudice can result in a lifelong struggle with socialization and belonging that colors an individual for life.
But this is not just a book of cultural criticism and social research. Like The Argonauts and The Empathy Exams, or Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City, Laing also incorporates memoir. Curiously, this is where the book feels most flat. We get snippets of her time in New York, subletting various friends’ apartments and moving around different neighborhoods. We hear about a Halloween party and a little bit about a failed relationship, about where Laing likes to walk for her morning coffee and the hours she spends on Twitter. We know Laing is lonely, because she says that she is. But though her analysis of the lives and motivations of the artists is deep and compelling, she very rarely turns that same analytical lens to herself, and in the rare moments she does, doesn’t push through to any type of conclusion.
In one of the lengthier personal passages, but also one of the most confusing parts of the book, Laing describes a struggle with gender identity:
I was not at all comfortable in the gender box to which I’d been assigned…I’d never been comfortable with the demands of femininity, had always felt more like a boy, a gay boy, that I inhabited a gender position somewhere between the binaries of male and female, some impossible other, some impossible both.
What do we do with this information? It’s striking; we feel it must have some significance to Laing’s project. But as part of Laing’s narrative it mysteriously drops out and isn’t returned to.
This invites the question that arises again and again in popular discourse around writing: what do we want from our nonfiction writers? Confession? Resolution? In her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, Leslie Jamison uses her own history of heartbreak and self-harm to talk about the icon of the “damaged” female and the shadow she casts on the modern-day women who are afraid of being her. “I am not a melodramatic person.” It’s personal. It digs deep. Jamison is not afraid to share a lot. Even if she were, today’s readers have such an appetite for these explosive, confessional personal essays that it’s too late to be afraid.
Laing, by contrast, is reticent. She doesn’t share much of herself. Unlike Nelson or Jamison, Laing doesn’t seem committed enough to the memoir strain of her cross-genre book. We wonder, then, why she traverses the personal at all. In some ways this highlights one of her opening precepts: “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorize.” A running theme in her book is the difficulty of tackling loneliness head-on, in writing or in speech — and why, perhaps, so many artists approached it in elliptical ways.
We are aware of Laing’s loneliness as she researches and engages with the artists in the book, so we also see her dogged (but perhaps not always completely truthful) optimism about the ameliorative effects of art for combating loneliness. Was Henry Darger’s disturbing art really about “the reparative impulse” of collaging together the self’s fractured, lonely parts? In all her description of the generative side to loneliness — the stuff that comes from loneliness, Laing never quite answers the question: Were these artists’ lives made happier because of their art?
Reading a book about loneliness when you are lonely is tricky; the reader looks for a solution to the problem. Writing a book about loneliness when you are lonely must be even more difficult. At the end of The Lonely City, Laing does not offer up novel “answers,” either to her own loneliness or the reader’s; it’s not clear, even, whether the book feels loneliness is a problem to be solved. (Indeed, the best conclusion from Laing’s personal experience comes after the book ends, in the acknowledgements: “writing a book about loneliness…has been astonishingly connecting.”) Her closing prescriptions — to be kind, to stay open — are the stuff of motivational blogs. It’s hard to fault her for this; it’s not, after all, a self-help book. As anyone who has been lonely knows, it can’t necessarily be cured — either by friends who are paid by the hour, or by a book.