For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, what’s the most accurate thing someone else has said about it?
Shannon Hanks at the Elliott Bay Book Company said in a review “Her characters live flush up against the confinements of their lives and are often silenced in the greater noise of the rest of the world. Still, they demand to be explored and known on their own terms.” Also, the review used the phrase “deft little heartbreaker,” which I would like on business cards.
What have you read/watched/listened to/looked at/ate recently that will permanently change our readers' lives for the better?
I just made a cup of chile-spiced hot cocoa with rum and vegan marshmallows, which was fantastic. I might have eaten more delicious things this week, but I’m skeptical of permanent change, so the cocoa wins on the basis of most instant gratification. I’ve been listening to Jenny Lewis’s Acid Tongue album on repeat, because I just moved to a new apartment and I’m too lazy about playlists to have a good one for packing/unpacking, and it’s been making my life better at least. I’m in the middle of reading a new book called Harlem is Nowhere, which is so far pretty great, and cuts through a lot of the reductive language people often use to talk about gentrification.
Whose ghostwritten celebrity tell-all (or novel) would you sprint to the store to buy (along with a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius so that the checkout clerk doesn’t look at you screwy)?
Lil Kim’s, and there would be no shame or irony involved.
Have you ever been a Starving Artist, and did it make you brilliant, or just hungry?
I was raised by and around people who grew up poor, and had enough economic fluctuation and insecurity in my own childhood, that it was never possible for me to romanticize economic instability. I always felt I owed it to the sacrifices that were made for me to, insofar as it was possible, make sure that my life was, if not particularly lucrative, always self-sustaining for the foreseeable future. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been able to do that without having to put writing aside. I’m also lucky enough to have a friend who reminded me, when I was panicking about the financial fluctuations of a writing life, that there is not enough money in the world to keep all the people you love safe.
I spent most of my adolescence hungry in a literal and more deliberate sense, and I think it’s not accidental that I mostly worked through that right around the time I started taking writing seriously. There’s a joke to be made about people prone to addictive and destructive behaviors rarely giving up one such behavior without substituting another, but I prefer to think of it this way: you can’t be an artist unless you’re able to give yourself permission to take up space.
What would you characterize as an ideal interaction with a reader?
I would like my book’s interaction with a reader to leave the reader slightly changed: ideally both shocked and recognized. Actual in-person interactions with readers always make me exceptionally nervous and awkward. As a writer, I’ve gained a lot from the advice and support of other writers, but as a reader I’d generally prefer not to interact with the writer at all. It took me years to appreciate the value of living in towns where there were frequent readings and author visits, because my general attitude toward interacting with a writer was always who is this person and why do they want to interfere with my completely private relationship with this book I am about to read? There have been times I’ve loved a book so much that I’ve been terrified of meeting the author, lest they do something that would somehow ruin the magic, and other times I’ve hated a book and been afraid of meeting the author and having the author’s charm undermine my legitimate aesthetic objections. So, when someone introduces themselves as a person who has read my book and wants to talk about it, I am generally confused about what they want from me and afraid of either ruining the book for them or obligating them to be dishonest about their reaction to my work. I guess in my ideal interaction with a reader, we would talk about anything and everything but my book: other people’s books, politics, the weather, the reader’s childhood trauma, anything that made it a conversation between two people and not some awkwardly formal conversation between a reader and a writer. Maybe for good measure it could happen in some incarnation of my now-closed former favorite bar, where after midnight for $10 they would give you a glass of champagne, a half-order of French fries, and two house made chocolates of your choosing.
Have you ever written anything that you'd like to take back?
In terms of actual published writing, not really. Most days I think of writing like a line on a graph that will never quite reach zero—you’re never going to be perfect, so my goal in writing, as in life, is not to be perfect but to be forgivable. There’s nothing that I’ve published for which I can’t forgive myself, and there’s even a bit of relief in encountering a bit of writing that seems exceptionally flawed. When you’re trying something risky (and writing should be a risk) the fear is often worse than the thing that you’re afraid of. So, when I am writing something new, and I think maybe this sentence/paragraph/idea is terrible and I can’t tell and when it goes out in the world people will know it is terrible and they will laugh at me and I will be embarrassed and oh god I should just stop now, I think, well, it is happened before that I have written a failed sentence/paragraph/idea, and probably someone laughed at me for it, but it didn’t kill me, and I didn’t get an cease and desist letter and shredded membership card from the Official Bureau of Writerliness, so I guess it will be OK and whatever I’ll just fail better this time.
In terms of less formal writing, I once went through my aim and GChat logs and cut and pasted some of them into a word document called "IM correspondence with people to whom I am no longer speaking" (let’s just pretend that’s a normal thing to do so that we can move on with the anecdote), and I got to single-spaced page 150 before deciding it was a stupid and tedious project and giving up. But I kept thinking about how many words I’d wasted on this kind of stuff. Most people these days have these sad electronic emotional records of years of our lives, and there’s something startling about having it in writing. When something’s written down in front of you, you can see that on like page 50, this friendship/relationship/correspondence with a needy stranger is completely dead and devoid of redemptive quality, so it becomes incredibly perplexing that the interaction then goes on for another 50 pages. Maybe the sensible thing to do is regret that the second 50 pages of communication happened at all, but I find it more bothersome that they happened in writing, that I’m forced to reckon with the actual pathetic words and not some more romanticized memory in which everyone was a better version of themselves. It’s almost enough to make a person want to actually go back to speaking to people on the telephone—but only almost.