October 09, 2018
For the kids reading this, coming of age in the 90s wasn’t for the faint of heart. It was like the 70s but with pushup bras instead of no bras. Nobody watched their language – twelve-year-olds might as well have been twenty-one. Families were broken; “dysfunctional,” we called them. Dads were disappointing, dads were nonexistent, dads took us aside and told us our mothers were crazy. Moms were over it; moms did their best; we blamed our moms for not protecting us from our dads, from the world. Tanya Marquardt grew up in Vancouver; I grew up in Ohio; you grew up in Oklahoma; New York, Kentucky, Oregon, Texas; it’s all the same pain with a different accent. Teen angst, abuse, abandonment. In Stray, Tanya tells the story of an angry young woman just discovering that her voice is a rebel yell. She hit the road at sixteen against a soundtrack of weird industrial noise bands like Skinny Puppy, and found that a BDSM dungeon can sometimes be a better option than home bitter home. Managing to stay in high school despite it all, with Stray and her work in the theater, Tanya Marquardt has turned trauma into art.
You famously talk in your sleep. Can you talk about the process of recording yourself and the most surprising thing you learned?
Alongside the book, I’ve been working on a performance piece called Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep, which is about my experience as a lifelong sleeptalker. In 2015, I started recording my sleeping self on my iPhone and discovered that I have an entirely different ‘person’ that rolls around in my head. She has her own desires; she talks to herself, to me, to people I don’t recognize, and to the people that are sleeping next to me. And when I listen to the recordings, this sleeping self sounds like a younger version of me, a cup ½ full little creature walking around in my brain when I am unconscious. Sometimes she talks like a child, other times she seems to have some kind of mysterious, poetic knowledge.
That is creepy as hell.
At first the recordings were not overly extraordinary but then my sleeping self introduced herself to me: “Hi, my name is X,” and then said, “We can talk if we need to.” At one point she said, “I want to see you.” At first I thought maybe this sleeping voice was trying to heal trauma from my childhood. Then I thought maybe I am speaking to a ghost, or have some sort of proof of our collective dream world. Which both freaked me out and intrigued me. I took the recordings into the studio and chronicled my attempts to reach “X” with Harvard sleep researcher Deirdre Barnett. I did ‘meet’ X in my dreams through a process that she developed called Sleep Incubation, the experience of which is hard to put into words and one of the reasons I am making it into a dance theatre piece. It felt like all kinds of things simultaneously — like meeting my inner child, like meeting an angel, like meeting a ghost. I thought it would be scary, but in the end it wasn’t.
This is reminding me of the horror doc on Netflix called The Nightmare about sleep paralysis. There’s so much going on psychologically, and yet it sounds supernatural.
It felt like hanging out with this lovable little kid who just wanted to have a tea party and then send me off on a wild adventure. Since having the experience, I do know that I feel more grounded, like I’ve met and integrated a part of myself that had been separate for a very long time. And I guess I thought that since I have a history of childhood trauma that I was broken, and the experience has made me realize that the opposite is true. There is a place inside each of us that can never be broken, that will always be intact. It was a positive experience; I recommend it.
When did you realize you were a writer? And when did you first fantasize you might publish a book one day, and was the book you envisioned Stray?
My mom tells me stories of when I was little and she would find me copying out her handwriting with crayons. And I would make little books all the time, so I think I always had a desire to make stories. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I thought I might take writing on as a profession, and much later before I thought I would publish a book. I started out as a poet and a playwright. The poetry fell away by the end of high school and the playwriting stuck. It wasn’t until the early aughts that the idea of writing a memoir came to me. I had written a play called Transmission and had given the title characters personal stories of trauma inspired by my own family. Watching the piece was awful and for a long time I didn’t know why — the actors were amazing, the design was gorgeous, and I thought it was some of the strongest writing I had created at that point. But then I realized that I was hiding by giving my personal stories over to a fiction, and that if I was going to open up a discussion around trauma and its effects I needed to tell my audience what happened to me, and to my body. I wrote a couple of essays and one was shortlisted for an award in Canada. This encouraged me to keep writing, and I eventually came to New York to get my MFA from Hunter. I thought I was going to write about my family, but after a few failed attempts, it was clear that I actually needed to write my own story — how I ran away, where I went, my chosen family, and how I discovered myself as an artist.
Format wise (play, book, music or dance performance), does it feel the same in your brain when you begin to work on a new artistic project? What’s your process and how do you know when it’s “ready”?
All of my pieces, whether writing or performance, begin with a physical impulse, a sensation or a feeling that haunts me and seems to be calling for attention. As I give that sensation space, it reveals itself to me, whether it is a memory, a dream, a response to something I’ve seen or am intrigued by. And because I make different kinds of art, I explore that work in different ways — a piece of writing might turn into a dance, which might turn into a monologue and then into a personal essay and so on. For example I have a show based on Stray, with the same title, that I created with Tim Carlson of Theatre Conspiracy and director Mallory Catlett, a punk show version of the memoir that we have been workshopping and touring since 2014. So moving fluidly between genres makes sense to me.
You ran away from an abusive home life as a teenager and fell in with a group of mostly older goth misfits who took you to BDSM clubs in the 90s. That time in your life has obviously shaped who you are and the art you make. Did you learn it in the club?
I learned through theater and acting classes in high school, but quickly saw the parallels at the clubs, where people were performing for one another in the dungeons, watching and being watched. So I saw theater mirrored in that environment. It was one of the few places where I felt safe, and where I could express my impulses through form.
You were sixteen at the time. Can you elaborate on the appeal of BDSM for such a young person? The popular perception is that it’s a spanking kink. Is it a practice, and is it still a part of your life?
No one but my close friends – who were also underage — knew I was sixteen. (It was the early 90s and a lot easier to get into clubs.) At that age, I wasn’t sure what I was into. I was having awkward sex that had nothing to do with my pleasure and everything to do with ‘just getting it over with.’ My relationship to my own desire wasn’t something I could have articulated. I did engage in sexual behavior that I think was more than what I could fully understand at the time, but I learned a lot. The clubs taught me about sexual empowerment and consent. Both sub and dom had an intimate relationship, safe words, and conversations about how to meet each other’s needs well before engaging. I began to see myself as a person with sexual power in my own right. I could pursue pleasure and ask for what I wanted.
For me BDSM is about playing at power exchange. Even though many of my friends were queer, I was very closeted and afraid because I had experienced sexual assault. Consent had been taken from me, so I avoided actual sex, and opted instead to watch my friends have sex with each other, with made me feel safe. Being involved in BDSM as a teenager, I did see relationships that were complex and nuanced. I discovered my queerness — my desire for women, for men, for non binary people. That time in my life has colored my sex life for sure.
Are there any “scenes” from your life that, as they were happening, you thought, Someday I’m going to tell this story?
I wrote at a fever pitch when I was a teenager and filled diaries monthly, but wouldn’t have wanted that writing to see the light of day. Back then I was more interested in poetry; angsty, overwrought sonnets. I don’t think I knew about memoir then even though I had read The Diary of Anne Frank by that point, but no one told me that was a literary work. I thought of it more as an artifact; a piece of history, because it was found and published posthumously. I was ignorant about the scope of memoir then. It’s looking back as an adult that I can see the trajectory — that this intimate connection that I was having with my diary would serve as a survival tool and that I was developing my voice as a memoirist, as a writer who mines and investigates their memories for material.
Was there a scene in the book that you ultimately cut but you wish had stayed? I’m always curious about all those millions of pages we write that get reworked and reworked but for various reasons need to go.
There were a lot of scenes from the BDSM club and of my own sexual explorations when I was going to the club that I left out of the book, and sometimes I regret leaving them out. But also, I wanted to save them for another book, so it was one of those ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations. In the end, the narrative was strong without the scenes, so it felt okay.
When I was writing about things I didn’t want to write about, I could never approach the material sober for a first draft. There had to be a haze of something to act as a barrier between the pain and the page. Then reading and reworking those details in the light of day is another fun process. Did you cope with chemicals?
Though I would never recommend this, I was plastered for the first draft of Stray. It wasn’t the writing that kept me wasted — I was going through a particularly horrible breakup, had just moved to New York from Canada, and was beginning to deal with the trauma I had experienced as a kid. Booze and sleeping with strangers was my way of coping, and as traumatic memories came up, it was booze that acted as the literary grease I needed to get those memories out onto the page. There are some sections in the book I don’t remember writing initially, and waking up to that work, scrawled incoherently in my journal, was very otherworldly. It felt like even that drunk part of me was pushing to get the story out. I want to stress that this was what I did at the time, and I know many, many writers who used other tools, like therapy, running, friends and family etc. to get this kind of writing onto the page. It was actually getting sober that helped me to finish the work, and to deepen it into a fully fledged piece of writing — one that takes into account the impact of what happened to me and to my body, that includes my internal life at the time and as an adult looking back at that time. I was only able to do the editorial heavy lifting, especially towards the end of the process, when I was going word-by-word, line-by-line, because I was sober. I know that I can do it again without chemicals. Writing saved my life when I was a drunk, I wouldn’t be alive without it. But it’s the exploration of craft and of words and stories that also keeps me going. That and therapy. Lots and lots of therapy.
How long did it take to write the book?
It evolved over about ten years.
Which reminds me of another question I ask everyone: do you have any weird writing rituals or favorite ways to procrastinate?
Sugar fuels all of the writing I do and all of the ways that I procrastinate. Like lots and lots of fucking sugar. Honey in strong cups of Earl Grey tea help me write. Donuts and chocolate bars while watching Queer Eye help me procrastinate. I also like writing in the bathroom and always have, not just because I live in a studio apartment in Brooklyn. I write in spiral bound notebooks with Bic pens too — it’s how I wrote when I was a runaway, and I’ve tried writing fancy pens and expensive black notebooks and it’s not the same. Bic pens make me all dirty, and I like it when my hands look messy, like I’ve been sticking them into the dirt.
This book is with Little A, the literary imprint of Amazon. What’s it been like to work with the evil empire?
I’ve had a great experience working with Little A. Carmen Johnson was a fantastic editor. On the TV and film side, Amazon has held space for some amazing artists, like Jill Soloway. That’s exciting to me.
You teach writing at Hunter. What have your students taught you?
I am so grateful that I get to teach memoir and performance, which I can talk about endlessly. The students at Hunter come from all over the world and many are first generation immigrants, POC, and queer and trans folks with such varied interests, from public policy and physics to mathematics and music, anthropology and art. Hearing their personal stories in my memoir workshops has changed me as a human being. They are fierce and creative and here to change the world. They make me believe in the future.
Readers are naturally curious about what your family thinks about your memoir. How did you handle those conversations with them?
This book surprised me in that it helped me to better understand my mother and we talked a lot about the memories that came up when I was writing the book. I think it brought healing to our relationship, one where we apologized to each other and listened to one another and I’m really grateful for that. I also sent a letter to my close relatives before the book was published, outlining the memoir and its themes and that it was my story, based on my memories. I said that they could read it if they liked, but also that they might be sad or upset by what they read, and that I wouldn’t be offended if they decided not to read it. Besides my mother, I haven’t heard from any of my family about the book. I don’t know if they have read it, and I don’t know how they feel about it. Which is maybe the subject of another memoir.
There’s a lot of music in the book. Last question: What were the albums/bands that you credit with saving your life?
When I was a runaway I listened to a range of stuff, though I would credit Hole’s Live Through This and Siouxsie and the Banshees’s Kaleidoscope as lifesavers. Courtney Love’s scratchy, take no prisoners screaming was the perfect container for my teenage rage, and my friends and I would blast that album as loud as it could go when out for our midnight joy rides. Siouxsie I loved for the opposite reasons. She was articulate and graceful, defiant but in this ethereal, poetic way. I wanted my art to hold both of these things at once.