The Next Big Thing

I was tagged to participate in the Next Big Thing by my friend, the beautiful writer Sari Wilson. It’s a sort of blog-oriented chain mail where writers ask some other writers to post answers to questions about their current projects, and those writers post and ask more writers, and so on.

Sari’s responses appear on her blog Muttering. Next up will be Laura Bogart, whose fierce nonfiction I have admired on The Nervous Breakdown, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere and whose fiction I look forward to reading. And Eiren Caffall and I have tagged each other. We’re all answering the same set of questions.

A shelf of one's own
1. What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The first page of my draft consists of a list of potential titles. Right now I’m leaning towards Telling, or In the Telling.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Soon after becoming a parent, my mind and body still reeling from that enormity, I learned that an extended family member was in prison for a crime he committed against a child. This news brought some of my earliest and most distinct memories into new focus, and my brain started to churn.

3. What genre does your book fall under?


4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Gotta pass on this question. I’m not even good at this game with fiction, and my mind is absolutely blank when the character I’d be casting for is me.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

It’s about the times I’ve told people that I was sexually assaulted as a child, which also becomes a story about family lineage and contemporary parenting.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

There’s a third way: publication by one of the many good indie presses, which often consider unagented manuscripts but give an author some institutional support. That’s how I published my novel, CURRENCY, and the experience was pretty great. I would consider going that route again. But first I suppose I will try to find an agent.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’m still working on it, but the end is in sight. I’m thinking I will have spent about 2 to 3 years on the first draft, or first and a half draft, since on a sentence level I revise a lot as I go. I have found my stride, now, but I have a full-time job and two kids, and blocks of time are hard to find.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The book I find myself turning to most often for guidance and inspiration is Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick. I’ve also looked closely at The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, Half a Life by Darin  Strauss, The  Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliot, and The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith. These books all have a raw urgency and searching quality to them that I don’t see in most memoirs. They seem very alive to me in a way I hope my book becomes. I’m especially interested  in works where there’s a conversation taking place between a then and a now. Where the story still seems somewhat open and unfolding.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I don’t know if I’m inspired so much as compelled. I feel a need to make sense of various currents in my life in the best way I know how, which is through writing. And I also feel an urgency about shedding some light on the issue of child sex assault, which both exists in the shadows and in the form of  stock cultural images that don’t always fit the reality experienced by many of us.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There are some good sex scenes as well as a couple bad ones. (The fact that sex is the first thing that comes to mind when I look at that question is itself a topic explored in the book.) I’m also feeling good about this book as a piece of writing, as a work of literature. However terrified I feel about this exposing personal nonfiction seeing the light of day, I sense I’m on to something, and I’m not letting go.

WILD: The Journeys of Our Youth

Like many, I had been hotly anticipating Cheryl Strayed’s memoir WILD, about her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. I had been so hotly anticipating it, and reading so much about the hottness of others’ anticipation, that I got a little worried. How could it live up? And there were points in the first, oh, thirty pages or so when I was almost ready to say, yeah, it can’t, quite, not to that much hype, not to someone like me who’s already gleaned much of the backstory from essays and columns. But those moments flew by and before I knew it I was shushing my husband, burning midnight oil, walking to work under the weight of my lunch- and-laptop-stuffed backpack with the crunch of the trail in my ears. I love this book!

Its merits have been detailed elsewhere, and will deservedly continue to be. One of the things that resonates closest to home for me is just the fact of a woman’s solo journey. It occurs to me—without immediately being able to trot out much support—that it’s becoming an archetype, this vision questy sort of trek undertaken by a woman in her twenties, the punishment and purification of the trail or the road met outside of a vehicle, the necessity of the solitude and the way gender informs, deconstructs, falls away in its face. Maybe it just seems like an archetype because I’m reading this one book now and have read maybe a couple solo-women-traveler anthologies and have lived a version of it,  talked to other women who have. It’s ready to be an archetype. We need it.

I’ve wrestled with the large role the journeys I took in my twenties continue to play in my writing and in my imagination, in my sense of myself. At times I’ve felt sheepish about it. ‘This is the last time I’m going to write about Southeast Asia,’ I told myself about the essay that’s going to appear in The Beautiful Anthology. Shouldn’t I have other grand themes by now? And I do, to some degree. But to another degree, I don’t, actually. The hitchhiking and backpacking remain cornerstones, bedrocks of my identity. Even motherhood—the painful antithesis to solo voyaging, it would seem, and the start of new story lines—I’ve seen differently because of the solo-journey lens.

I’m writing about the hitchhiking trip in the memoir I’m working on right now. I’m writing about stuff even further back, stuff I’ve often told myself to let go of. Why keep fingering it, picking at it? I sometimes fear I’m destroying it by doing so,  creating a false construct in its place. But I’m taking from WILD something that I need, which is permission to continue to examine crucial moments and milestones, to go back to them repeatedly, to allow their importance to remain and illuminate even as my life rolls on. What happens when we’re young—young children, young in our sense of ourselves as adults—is important.

I think at times I’ve been too ready to devalue youth, especially my own female youth, which is something I deride others for doing. I can view the years separating me from youth as a divorce, where one stage can no longer lay claim to what’s found in another. But we exist at once. That’s what I more often feel lately. It’s one of the nice things about getting older, how much we can contain.

Women can do this, take on mythic journeys and be forever changed, and there is a literature of it. There’s coming to be one. WILD. So good.

Talking to Lisa Carver

I recently interviewed Lisa Carver for The Rumpus. We talked on the phone for two hours about her new book __________, which includes paintings she did as part of a memory-reclaiming process that led her to recall the torture, exploitation, and sexual abuse she lived through as a child. It’s a strange, heartbreaking, beautiful, raw, brave, informative, confusing, and emotional book. You can buy it here, and I recommend you do. As both an object and a pulsing piece of life, an organism, it just blows so many other books out of the water. There’s that talk of incest narratives being sure things providing cheap thrills (yes, this talk started might have started in 1995 with Kaite Rophie’s “Making the Incest Scene,” but the sentiment has legs) and about dysfunctional family stories and big sex-filled messes being the easy, go-to fodder for salable memoirs, but yet it seems to me this book, dripping with all that and more, has had a quiet reception, even given that it’s self-published. It’s easy for me to conclude that it’s too real—and too weird, too, probably—for even the indie masses.  But those judgements could have easily applied to Lisa Carver herself since the day she hit the stage in 1980-something-or-other, and yet that didn’t stop her from making a splash.

I was so excited and nervous about talking to her. Yes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edith Wharton, Graham Greene, Nadine Gordimer, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro—but Lisa Carver meant , well, not more to me, but . . .  She was my friend in my mind. Or she was who I wanted to be my friend. She’s exactly my age, but I thought she of her as the cool older girl. I didn’t have celebrity crushes. No Madonna or Exene or whoever. I watched and longed for and studied the women at the bar with the shorn hair, the purple hair, the double nose ring; the outlandish, off-hand style and impeccable connections; the ones who knew the bartender, the band, everything, everyone. Most of these crushes were had when I was still a teenager, or close to it. And I got to know most of the women, eventually. And then usually the bubble burst. Not necessarily from disillusionment; sometimes it burst into friendship—we’re all just people. But Lisa Carver. There’s something about her sentences, so casual yet so carefully constructed, and the way they seem to loop to her brain and her loins and her energy. And then to talk to her about newly exposed childhood memories of the most profound assault and a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder in the context of the world’s skepticism about such things, and in the context of my own wrestling with them . . .  It was a very meaningful conversation for me.

I had to edit the hell out of the interview to make it digestible as even a long-form online piece. Same with the introduction. Lisa Carver! Lisa Carver! She’s done so much! I have so much to say! I rattled on, and then I halved it. Here’s something that got chopped: How I discovered Rollerderby in the magazine rack at Reckless Records, where I was shopping with my boyfriend in maybe 1991. I mean, I liked to shop for records, too—for about the ten minutes. And then what to do for the next hour? Finding a zine in the magazine rack that was brimming with gossip and sex and conversation was a thrill and an oasis. It made it OK to be a girl in the record store. Later, I would religiously pick up Rollerderby at Quimbys, when the store first opened on the corner of Evergreen and Damen and I lived just above it. Sometimes the content missed for me. Lisa’s obsessions were not all mine. Horses? No. Dismissal of Kurt Cobain and promotion of mandatory sparkling eyeshadow wearing for all ladies? I could only humor her on that. But the zing and rhythm and logic behind the sentences remained breath to my brain. I don’t think she’s gotten enough kudos as a writer.

In the interview, after I’d hit on all my questions and we’d wandered off into nooks and crannies of them and I thought we were winding down, I asked Lisa whether she had anything else she wanted to get into. And she did. And it was important. And I cut it from the interview. So I’m including it here.

Zoe: Is there anything else you want to get into?

Lisa: Yeah, we didn’t talk at all about substance abuse, and that’s part that a lot of people can relate to, and it’s a big part of how a lot of people find out about what they’re repressing. So I don’t have a. . .  I don’t know what I would want to say about it. I think it’s hugely important, and I see it among everybody.

Zoe: When did you totally quit drinking? And I know there were drugs involved too.

Lisa: I quit doing cocaine and in 1999, and I quit drinking and Xanax later, like a couple years ago. I was never an everyday person. I’ve never driven drunk. Alcohol and drugs were really a side story and were never a driving force in my life like they become for a lot of people. It was another way I abused myself, like anorexia. But what really bothers me is that my mother was a pills addict, multiple pills addict, and I didn’t really know it until…. I think until I wrote this book. And it’s probably why she let these things happen to me.

I’ve always been drawn to addicts. It really appeals to me, that kind of person. It seems like… wild and extreme and in pain, all things I relate to and enjoy being around. So I don’t think I’ve ever really loved somebody who didn’t have drug and alcohol problems. I idealized it. And of course I’ve always loved artists, writers and singers who killed themselves. So now to realize if my mom hadn’t been an addict she would have stopped it. She would have taken me away and protected me. Because she wasn’t a bad person. That just makes me completely change my feelings. Now I feel like throwing up about numbing yourself out to what’s real. But as I think about it, my mother was probably abused as a child and that’s why she got together with my father and why she became an addict because it was all. .. familiar.

Zoe: You mention that your dad was also abused as a child.

Lisa: Of my dad definitely was. There are lots of stories in the family about how deeply and badly my dad was abused. He had bones broken. And all of my aunts were said to have been molested by my grandfather, even as adults, and most of them committed suicide. My family’s all messed up. And then my mother’s parents died when she was a teenager, and all I have are her stories and they’re very sugar coated. But I do know her mother never liked her and said she was ugly and didn’t do well at school, and my grandmother adored my mother’s brother who was good looking and tall and on the basketball team and got good grades and knew German. My mother’s father was sort of a bum, and my mother said her happiest memories were when he would almost kidnap her and take her in the wagon away and her mother would be really mad, and I wonder about that…

Zoe: Your mom was also really ill, right?

Lisa: So many people have been abused as children. If you don’t let it into your brain, it plays out in your body. Every disease my mom had, she made it worse by doing nothing she was told, doing everything the opposite of what would make it better, and then she would doctor shop to get more and more drugs. She had more and more organs removed. She died of cancer at only 53 years old, and the reason she died was because she had hardly any organs left. Most of her functions were being done artificially at that point, so there was nothing to fight the cancer. Instead of managing her stress she was taking more and more and more drugs.

Zoe: Are you seeing someone now? There are a lot of patterns to be broken, a lot of patterns it seems like you want to break.

Lisa: I have the boyfriend I’ve had for going on five years now, and it’s very tumultuous. He of course is an alcoholic with mental disorders and social-emotional craziness. And I really feel close to him and not judged by him. Because he’s way worse than I can ever be, so I feel really really good with him, really super good, but on the other hand it’s . . . the craziness, all of a sudden it doesn’t look so good when you step back from it. It just looks abusive. So, um, that’s been . . . We tried to navigate how can these two unhealthy people who are really drawn to certain dynamics make this work. How can we act like normal people, because we’re not like normal healthy people, but we don’t want to be like we are any more. We don’t know what to do. I really literally do not know what to do right now. I mean . . . We live together. I don’t know how to live with somebody I love. And nor does he. But, we’ve been doing it, crazily.

Zoe: How old are your kids now?

Lisa: 17 and 9.

Zoe: I have a ten year old and a three year old.

Lisa: Ooooooo. I wish I had a three year old.

Zoe: Well, you know. Sometimes. They’re good to borrow.

* * *

There’s a lot more to Lisa’s story than anyone knew, then she knew, until now. But she’s still Lisa Carver. Not too much longer into the conversation she got me to make sex confessions, which I’m not going to share here.

I’m very glad she wrote and published __________.

Christmas with Marie Calloway

Orchestrating capital C Christmas for two kids takes a lot of labor and attention, but throughout the wrapping, unwrapping, cooking, and cleaning, I’ve been distracted by the story “Adrian Brody” and by the reactions it’s provoked. Won’t you join me in my obsession? You can read the story here, at Muumuu House. I recommend you do.

But if you’re going to skip it (it’s long) or read it later, here’s the minimum you need to know: The piece is written by a young woman writing under the pseudonym Marie Calloway, and it first appeared on her blog as a work of nonfiction. In it, Marie goes to New York and hooks up with an older intellectual she became aware of and then propositioned online. The man has a girlfriend and is apparently well-known enough in certain literary circles that his identity–and thus his girlfriend’s–is obvious to some even when his name is changed.

I was completely drawn into the story. It nakedly addresses so many issues I’m perennially interested in and currently writing about or around: Gender, youth, age difference, sexuality, power, honesty, attraction, ethics, transaction, responsibility.

I was even more fascinated by the responses to it. Kate Zambreno’s post about the whole brouhaha was my starting point. Kate’s novel Green Girl was one of the most interesting things I’ve read this year, and I’ve been walking around writing an essay inspired by it in my head, especially since discovering a forgotten cache of journals from my early 20s and recalling…. but I digress.

This New York Observer profile of Maria Calloway  provides the juiciest gossip behind the piece.

This reaction by Roxane Gay in HTML Giant asks interesting questions about the ethics of writing so openly about a situation that affects a third-person: in this case, the male character’s real-life girlfriend.

The ethics Roxane examines and the power dynamics between a hot young thing and an older intellectual male and, especially, the question of whether you should ever sleep with a writer if you have any sense of privacy or want propriety over your own story reminds me of the issues surrounding the novel You Deserve Nothing, which is about a high school teacher who has an affair with a student and which was written by Alexander Maksik, a high school teacher who had an affair with a student. Few people knew about Maksik’s firsthand experience with his subject until Jezebel broke the story after Maksik’s student lover herself contacted the blog. She and some of her classmates were upset about how closely the fiction aligned to the facts, how similar some of the female character’s dialogue and correspondence were to the student’s own. They’d tried to get the attention of the book’s publisher and The New York Times, which had reviewed the novel glowingly, but they got no response.

On Gawker, Hamilton Nolan harshes on Marie Calloway and what he sees as the droves like her, young women writing confessionally about sexual exploits and the people who think there’s something meaningful in such writing.

Here’s Marie Calloway’s reaction to the reactions.

And I’m missing some good ones. If you head down the rabbit hole, you’ll probably find them yourself.

I’m one of the people who believes there can be much that’s meaningful in reading and writing about first-person sexual encounters. I also believe that we all have a right to write from our lives. Or maybe the matter of “a right to” is moot. We’re going to write from our lives if we can’t stand not to, and then we’ll have to face the ramifications. And I understand why there will likely be ramifications. The anguish and frustration Masik’s student apparently feels struck a chord with me. Maybe she should make some art of her own about the situation. Among the many things it’s been accused of, “Adrian Brody” has been called revenge lit–a girl’s getting back at the smart guy who walked out when she wanted him to stay. But putting something down in words can have a purifying, clarifying effect. And some pretty great song lyrics can fall under the category of revenge lit. How much does the gender of the writer have to do with the reaction of the public when the topic is sex?

There’s a lot to work through here. To tell you the truth, it was fun, but I’m glad Christmas is over.

Update: The Rumpus posted an excellent interview with Marie Calloway herself. Here.