Hmmm … 16 books.  Why do you keep writing?

Do we ask teachers why they continue to teach a new class every semester?Do we ask doctors why they continue to treat new patients?Sorry, this question makes me testy. (So, next week in therapy: why did I ask it of myself, and publicly?)

Answer: Perhaps I can’t bear to leave the safe world of my vicarious life.Or I still have more to say?Or the things I have to say, I haven’t said right yet?Or I haven’t finished dwelling on, obsessing over, experimenting with the fragments of my experience?Or is that the same as really being alive?Is it because if I’m not writing I don’t know if I’m alive?

What about you, as a person, destined or doomed you to be a writer?

I used to think it was my predisposition to communicate only through my written voice.To be willing to exist only there, if necessary.Or to feel comfortable existing there, only meeting, connecting with or “touching” other people there.How much more smarmy new-age etherial can I get?My procivity to play alone, games with made-up narratives and invented characters as my playmates.And how my first powerful feelings were incited by books.

What mistakes did you make in your career?

First, I should’ve learned to type correctly in high school.I am very fast, but use only one finger on each hand (the middle finger!), and I have to look down at the keyboard.This has prevented carpral tunnel syndrom, but given me neck and upper back issues that now keep me away from the keyboard.

And maybe I should’ve spent more time away from the keyboard for other reasons as well. Maybe I’d be a better dog tainer, would’ve continued to play my trombone and been a member of some kind of band. Maybe I’d know how to dance, would’ve hiked the continental divide or caught a muskie by now.

I wonder if I shouldn’t have “let” too many books be published too quickly.Because those books, some of them, didn’t have an opportunity to have a life before the next one came along.Lack of patience?Lack of maturity?But I could claim those for the rest of my life and still be working on a first book.

But here’s my retrospect: In 1993 Coffee House Press bought two novels.Who wouldn’t be ecstatic?For some (sensible?) reason, we decided to have them appear in consecutive years, and start with the one that was written first. It was the least ready to go, and — if I may congratulate myself — I did, without being told to do so by the publisher, tear into a revision that actually gave it some kind of … shall we say, plot.But I know if I’d waited, and let them publish Your Name Here:___ first, I could have revised Exposed again and really nailed the interior monologue.Maybe, for that reason, I abandoned all first-person after realizing that, but then had to return to it again a decade-plus later, with all my new awareness of how difficult it really is, in Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls.

What are you working on now?

This. Following up on a book when it’s newly released is part of a writer’s work now, as we all know. So I’m talking about the book, writing about the book, writing about writing the book, writing about why I write about talking about the book.I used to actually write books.

Last May I finished the most recent book I’d been working on, a hybrid memoir. When I started it, I believed it was memory-exploration of events I’d experienced 30 years ago, asking whether I’d encounteredan atypical form of sexual harassment just before sexual harassment was defined into law, and pondering if it had altered (or even defined) the course of both my intimate and writing life (as well as the places they are one-and-the-same).But I ended up (also) writing a book about what I experienced while writing the book, as 30-year-old situations — and the people who’d stayed in my memory ever since — came crashing back into my life.

What’s changed in literary publishing since your first book came out in 1989?

All you need to look at are the details: my first book got a Kirkus review that used the word lascivious twice.People magazine called me and asked for a photo because they were considering a review.They eventually didn’t review it, but still …That book, and my 3rd book, had feature reviews in the NYTBR (not on the front page, but also not “in short.”)My 2nd book was reviewed, among other amazing places, in the Wall Street Journal.All through the 90s, my books were reviewed in a laundry list of daily newspapers.For my first novel (and 3rd book) the publisher contracted a publicist who set up a driving book tour where most of the stops also had a media connection — radio, local cable TV or newspaper — and American Bookseller trade magazine thought it unusual enough that I was driving myself, alone (in a Mazda pickup), on this tour that they did a one-page profile on me called “Driving the Bookstore Highway.”All this without me being expected to do any of my own “networking.”I wrote the books, I did the readings, I answered the interview questions, I showed up where I was supposed to.

Now do the math: take away those daily newspaper book pages, increase (significantly) the number of independent press books being released, reduce the amount of grant money available to independent presses, and add the wildly capricious factor: the internet. You have an industry by 2002 that experienced book publicists were saying they barely recognized anymore.

I think what I’m doing this exact moment exemplifies almost everything: I’m doing a self-interview.In pauses for thought, I check my email to see if any of the feelers I’ve sent out for reading events or other types of exposure have garnered responses, to see if the publicist I hired needs anything or has news, and check Facebook to see if the dialogues I have going on there involving similar issues (including, now, suddenly AWP looming) have any updates or responses.

We all know we’re supposed to contribute, heavily, to the publicity of our books.But the word self-promotion is still nasty. Some group blog sites have rules for posts: no self-promotion.We filter the most egregious self-promoters off our Facebook feeds. We don’t admit this.We’re caught in the middle, pretending not to be talking about our books while we’re talking about them.We don’t admit this.Whereas it used to be a book itself might create an “industry buzz” (often with the help of an agent or publisher), now instead the key is to “build a platform,” and spend time networking. We don’t admit this. And we’re all networking among other people networking for the same purpose — and, if lucky (no, it’s not luck, but we don’t admit what it really is), will become an internet or blogosphere darling, or will say or do something that goes viral.Themarriage of these euphemisms would be: book publicity now requires that one become an internet virus.Don’t worry, to those who have succeeded, sometimes it’s a bug the rest of us wouldn’t mind catching from you. I’ve encountered some interesting, provactive books; met some smart, funny people — most of whom I’ve still never seen in “real life,” whatever that is anymore — and have been inspired by many who donate time, energy and talent to this little world of ours: notibly Gina Frangello, who, on the list of literary contributions she makes, runs the fiction aspect of this site. I’ve met writers like Kristin Theil, Davis Schneiderman, Carol Novack, Ryan Stone, Jane Carman, Stacy Bierlein, Charles Blackstone, Angela Stubbs, and so many others, who write reviews and host readings, not to mention all those too-many-to-list who edit lit mags and have their own book-review blogs. But I do want to list some of the writers/editors like Gina, Dan Wickett, Bryan Tomasovich, Kevin Watson, Joe Taylor, Lidia Yuknavitch, Ted Pelton, Debra DiBlasi, Jonathan Messigner and Zach Dodson, Brad Listi and Greg Olear, Stephen Elliott, and so many others, who are dedicating more than their time —their entire lives, it seems — to running independent presses.Somehow we need to have a more-than-virtual party for them; some kind of real bash where we celebrate them.Maybe at the Chicago AWP in 2012.I’ll bring the bean salad.

And now for the question you’re most often asked (and least happy to answer), but today you can digress and the interviewer  won’t notice: “What is chick-lit today, and what do you think about it?”

Here’s the latest chapter: this blog popped up in my Google alerts:

No “chick lit” for me, many with shopping bags, shoes, wedding rings or baby rattles plastered on their pastel covers.  But god how that term makes me cringe.  Who was the asshat who created that melodious moniker?  Oh, that would be feminist novelist Cris Mazza. Seriously, I think I threw up a little in my mouth.

War of the Words: Gender Feud Over Lack of Recognition for Women Writers, September 4, 2010 by Megan Kearns: http://opinionessoftheworld.com/2010/09/04/war-of-the-words-gender-feud-over-lack-of-recognition-for-women-writers/

Yes, I’m that Asshat.

I didn’t follow my first impulse to blast the “but have you read any of my work?” argument.Instead, I emailed her privately, and as well posted this on her blog:

A few decades ago, when I kept notebook journals in pencil, and didn’t share my every thought with a cast of acquaintences, I bemoaned the fact that there was this thing called “women’s fiction,” but no parallel category, “men’s fiction.” Since before I ever edited the Chick-Lit anthologies (1995 & 1996), I was saying that the literary establishment’s view was simply: Men write about what’s important, and women write about what’s important … to women. Which seems exactly what you’re lamenting in your post. The problem we have in overcoming this *is* marketing movements (some would call them “opportunities”) like the chick-lit feeding frenzy. The truth of it is that once the media successfully highlighted the first few seemingly alike books with the brand-name, a formula was born, and, alas, too many women were more-than-willing to follow the recipe and cash in. Then the sheer plethora of these books — with the sameness of their appearance, marketing, content and characters — solidified and publically validated the already existent condescension about writing by women. So some of “us” helped make “our” problem bigger … and if my part of the blame is that 1995 avant-garde, non-commercial, ironically-titled book, Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, then I guess I’ll take my lumps now.

Megan answered:

Cris, thank you for commenting on the discussion! You are truly a gracious person. While I may be upset with the terminology, I completely agree with you that whenever women write about a topic, it almost automatically becomes relegated to the sphere of “women’s issues.” I know my big mouth sparked debate here but rather than bame, how do we move forward in garnering equality for women writers?

I just wanted to put that into print, again: that I am a truly gracious person!When, in fact, I can be (as closer friends will attest) bitter, jealous, depressed and astonished at what passes for significant writing, as well as aghast that, in my small naïve way, that I actually may have helped make the divide between fiction and this thing called “women’s fiction” wider, until some argue that chick-lit comprises every novel written by a woman who isn’t named Annie Proulx, Marilyn Robinson, or Toni Morrison.

But Megan’s blog subject (prompted by the Picoult-Franzen debate of August-September 2010) and flurry of commentary induced a few new definitions of chick-lit that could actually answer that second question I’m always stumped by:

What is your new book about and how did you come to write it?

Both new chick-lit definitions were provided by a commentor named “Steve” whose alter-ego (perhaps the same person posting under a different name) informed us that indeed Steve had read many of the books he was now lumping into one category, and it was “his job to know.”

First he gave us this:

That green-lettered ‘definition’ of chicklit is what’s called in debate circles a straw man: it’s designed to be knocked down. Here’s a more accurate definition of chicklit: “a sub-genre of fiction whose novels are populated almost exclusively by female characters, whose conflicts are exclusively familial and matrimonial, whose crises are almost always benign (stubbed toes, dropped phone service, etc), whose conclusions invariably involve hugging, and whose audience is obviously exclusively female.”

And when Megan countered with her (thoughtful, considerate) opinion, Steve continued:

Boy oh boy, what a picky-literal little knitting circle we’ve got here! OK, since some of us have a problem with playful exaggeration … let me strip my definition bare of it and stress: chicklit authors may put things like school shootings or heart transplants in their wretchedly undercooked books, but those things are strictly window-dressing for the books’ main crises, which always revolve around how that window-dressing affects the main female characters’ lives and how those female characters feel about it all. It’s all written with a kind of suffocating ‘dear diary’ insularity that would make the eruption of Vesuvius boring (“as the ash and pumice rained down on the villa where once she and Fulvia romped in innocent childhood games, Marcia felt a sudden, ineluctable sense of peace; volcanoes could destroy a garden, but best friends were forever”). Pile up all the pro forma police cases or courtroom scenes you like, but the ultimate point of all of it is to be safe.

In a way, it’s difficult to argue with our Steve. (My knitting needles are clicking furiously here.) Best friends are forever . . .

No, I mean, Steve is correct that too many books are “undercooked” with the “dear diary” first-person girlfriends-talking point-of-view that forgets to incloude first-person’s main attributes of unreliability, distance, irony, and dual-personality of speaker and character.Of all the traits and flormula that commercial Chick-Lit brought to the literary table, it was the overabundance of the faux-memoir first-person diary-style(-or-not), I’m-talking-to-you-about-me, pretending-to-be-unselfconscious writing style, frequently (and mistakenly) called “voice.”As though anything other than first-person POV couldn’t be called voice.

In addition, yes, Steve, some books are about how global issues and crises affect individual lives, and how people feel about their lives, during, as a result of, and even in spite of various mammoth social ills and hopeless societal tragedies.

So, a few years ago, I decided to write a book in that wrechedly undercooked — I mean overused — first-person POV, but to do it literally and utterly self-consciously, with every messy piece of baggage first-person provides — yes, provides, allows, offers:Digression (as much as I wanted), self-consciousness (gobs), distance (let’s make it over 2 decades), character duality (who is this person I’m narrating?), self examination (yes, that dirty word exposition), and the story being as much about the writing of the story as what happens in the story. Dare I say it: how a character feels about what has happened to her (and around her) can be what happens to her as well.And him, if I chose to make the character male (as I did, in an earlier novel, Girl Beside Him, to which a male editor said to my agent, “But men don’t think about their erections this way.”)

But back to Steve’s dead-on criticisms of what he calls “chick-lit” (as well as his dead-wrong assumption that how one feels about expernal crises is not important enough) … and back to “what is your new book about and what caused you to write it” … I decided after railing against the overuse and misuse and watering-down of first-person POV, I had to write one using all its messy glory, and I wanted to answer Steve before I ever heard his complaint: yes, Steve, some books are about how global issues and crises affect individual lives, and how people feel about their lives, during, as a result of, and even in spite of various mammoth social ills and hopeless societal tragedies.

I believe this could apply to books of literary value by most if not all of the male writers I’ve read.Unless they’re writing chick-lit too.

But, Steve, one other thing you said resonates deeply, and I think is perhaps the utter truth of the dividing line between … we’ll say it’s between significant writing and frivilous (and if women fall more to one side than the other, shame on them) … and that is your conclusion, “but the ultimate point of all of it is to be safe.”

The first time I read from Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, in a feminist bookstore in Madison, WI, during an event on the Wisconsin Book Festival schedule called “New Feminism,” I selected a segment that imagines the beginnings of an affair between a 30+ year old high school English teacher and one of his 16-year-old students.Their intimate scenes were written with no overtones of coersion or shame or self-loathing or powerlessness, with no losing of dignity or self-respect, with no disgust for the man or victimization for the girl.And this idea, I knew, when I looked down into the steely faces of the silver-haired 60-something stalwart feminist women in the front row of the audience, was not “safe.”

Have any of your books been safe?

For me they are the safe world of my vicarious life.Where I can try things, say things, push boundaries I haven’t had the opportunity to try, say or push in any sort of wordly life. (Worldly? Whatever do I mean?I’ll skip that question, except to say it has nothing whatsoever to do with religion.)

But in another way, writing should never be safe.If safety is to only go where you know approval has already been established and the only possible effects will be genetic endorsements: laughter, warm emotions, or familiar empathy. It’s cliché, but true, that art is meant to provoke.And the act of provoking, whether you’re a military general or a writer, isn’t supposed to be safe.(Sorry about the military metaphor, which is actually useless, since literary writing — unlike political manifestos — has not to my knowledge ever intended to overthrow, eliminate, occupy or dominate an “enemy.”)So in the larger arena of writers who provoke, I think the most interesting are those who are provoking themselves, probing their own conflicts of opinion or value, not staying in the safe terrain of offering a view they are already confident about, or which polls say will be commonly approved.

So Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls was initiated when I provoked myself with a startling sit-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night question:Would my life be better now — would I perhaps have different difficulties those that have stayed with me since my 20s — if my supervising teacher had not stepped-down his sexual harrassment but had accelerated his flirtations and taken them further?It had been everything we now “know” sexual harssment is — confusing, disturbing, disquieting — but also everything we don’t want to admit: seductive, tempting, flattering, consuming. Definitely a contribution to my failure to become a high school teacher, but was my failure sealed because it happened at all, or because it stopped too soon? Considering what developed in my life since, wouldn’t this particular sexual harassment have been good, at least for me?

I went back to San Diego, to my college mentor who had arranged the student-teaching assignment, to ask if he had warned the high school administration to cool down their 30-year-old master-teacher.The answer to that question almost became moot, when my mentor told me my former master-teacher had been arrested for statutory rape for an affair with a student.Upon looking up the details of that case, I discovered that the rape case had been dropped because the afair had been decades ago: he’d had the affair during the time I was his student teacher, at the same time he’d been, I thought, making sexual advances on me.My first tacit reaction: Why her?

So I became obsessed, but did my stalking in my imagination, in a novel.I had to admit — and thus provoke myself further — my reasons for believing it wasn’t fair for her to cry foul now, since she’d “won” the attentions of a man I thought could’ve set a better course for my life.Around that same time, I learned about the illegal sex-trade where young girls are kidnapped from Mexico and further south and forced into prostitution.The meshing of the two stories seemed natural: as the one that seemed to incite the most public outrage was the one that involved a blond 16-year-old surban girl. The novel became about a form of helplessness, another form of disability: the kind where we can’t make a dent in enormous social ills, and sometimes not even in our own regrets.

Oh wait, I’m supposed to be responding to questions, not blasting off on a direct-address monologue, right?

And such is the beauty of true, sloppy, complicated, self-conscious, multi-layered, multi-linear first-person narrative.Who is this person who wrote this self-interview?Did it used to be me, or is it another me waiting in the future for the time I come back and read it?

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CRIS MAZZA has authored sixteen books, most recently Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, a novel. Her other fiction titles include Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and the critically notable Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? In 1995 & 1996, Mazza was co-editor for the original Chick-Lit anthologies: Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, and Chick-Lit 2: No Chick Vics. In 2006, her essay, "Who‚s Laughing Now: Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre," explaining the co-opting and corrosion of the title, appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and Chick Lit: The New Woman's Fiction (Routledge). In addition to fiction, Mazza also has published a memoir, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. A native of Southern California, Mazza grew up in San Diego County. She currently lives 50 miles west of Chicago and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She can be found online at www.cris-mazza.com.

6 responses to “Cris Mazza: The TNB 
Self-Interview”

  1. zoe zolbrod says:

    Now this was a self-interview. I love the way you parse Steve’s response and your evaluation of the use and abuse of first-person. That articulates exactly something I haven’t been able to exactly put my finger on.

  2. Henning Koch says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Chris. I found the section on self-promotion particularly interesting. I have just had a book published with Dzanc Books (there’s my plug!) and I am hoping that people will just read it and enjoy it without the need for me to drop my trousers and do a headstand on the Empire State Building.

    Second, I suppose the reason one keeps writing books is that it is an open-ended process, with no end point, no finish line. I guess you and most other writers would agree. After all, carpenters keep making chairs. And they get better and better.

    Third question, what is the Chicago AWP in 2012? Great idea to have a big celebration for the new grass-roots movement in small presses.

  3. I really like how thorough you are about your experience with the publishing industry in this interview, and how generously and honestly you share your experience! 🙂 Thanks, so much! Cheers and warm regards, H

  4. Cris Mazza says:

    AWP is Association of Writers and Writing Programs. The 2012 conference will be in Chicago.

  5. […] to fluffy, innocuous “chick-lit,” or as I prefer to call it women’s commercial fiction.  Author Cris Mazza recently wrote about her thoughts on “chick-lit” (a term she coined), the … Regarding women’s commercial fiction in the 90s, Mazza argued, “…The literary […]

  6. Great interview, Cris.

    I’m just reading and enjoying your new book right now, so it was interesting to look this up and see the parts about the making of the book. Also like you’re playing with the interview form and what you have to say about publishing in its current state.

    Best,
    Bonnie

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