So what’s with the nipple on the cover of Slut Lullabies? Are you trying to embarrass people on the train?
You’re at least the fifth person to mention public transportation in relationship to my cover. When I first showed the cover photograph—which was taken by my dear friend Susan Aurinko, to people, several immediately said we should crop out the nipple so readers wouldn’t be afraid to take it on the bus. My editor, however, fought the good fight for nipple inclusion, pointing out (rightly so I think) that anyone who wasn’t afraid to read a book with a title that seems to indicate musical porn wouldn’t be scared off by a little Seinfeld-esque nip action either. I’ve got to admit, though, that since the book has come out, quite a few people have mentioned the looks they get on the train while reading it. This makes me very happy.
I’ve heard a rumor that your mother-in-law stopped speaking to you after reading your first novel. Who’s stopped speaking to you since Slut Lullabies came out?
Well, I hate to tell you that your timing sucks on this question. For four years, one of my favorite cocktail party stories has been the fact that my mother-in-law not only stopped speaking to me for six months after reading My Sister’s Continent, but she also obsessively re-read the book every time her ire started wearing off, so that she could become freshly outraged and call up my husband and scream about what a pervert I was. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that story. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law died literally one week before the release of Slut Lullabies, so her death sort of retroactively rescinds the humor quotient of that whole episode, at least temporarily, and makes it all just plain sad in retrospect.
Not to worry, though: I have new cocktail party stories for this book regarding my consistent ability to inspire wrath in others with my writing. Slut Lullabies is much more autobiographical than my novel was, so there were several people I had to pretty much sit down and have a talk with about particular stories in my book that were, let’s say inspired by them. I mean, I fictionalize things, but in a way that makes it even worse because usually I’ll take a small kernel of truth—something either I or one of my friends actually did—and then I’ll make it a hundred times worse in the story than it ever was in real life, so that everybody looks even more fucked up. In one friend’s case, I had to literally take her to lunch and make her read the story right in front of me, and I explained to her that if she was pissed she had to just vent right then and there and get it out of her system, because we have too many friends in common and it wouldn’t be fair to them if my utter tactlessness resulted in everyone in the group having to suffer.
I’m extremely fortunate that, thus far, this logic has actually made sense to people. The alternative, I guess, would have been that everyone I wrote about mutually blew me off and continued their friendship with one another only I’d have been excommunicated from the group. Which would have sucked.
Wait a second—you’ve gone a whole two questions without bringing up the dire state of publishing in the United States. I thought all you ever talk about in interviews is the dire state of publishing.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m going to spare you that usual diatribe. In part because I actually think the publishing industry may be on an upswing in some regards. I mean, five or six years ago, all anyone in the book world could talk about was how nobody read books and literary culture was dying. The NEA kept coming up with these bleak studies pronouncing that less than half of Americans had read any book in the past year, even, like, a cookbook or a manual on golf or something. It looked like some kind of Armageddon for literacy. Now in the past five years or so, that dialogue has completely changed. I don’t hear anyone talking anymore about literary culture being dead. Now what everyone is obsessed with is how people read—increasingly on electronic devices of some sort rather than in the form of printed books, magazines or newspapers. Now the dialogue is about the death of print media. To be clear, I love physical books and the feel and smell of paper, and I also have a lot of opinions and feelings about the fact that it is almost impossible now for literary journalists to get paid for writing book reviews or essays, as opposed to the landscape ten years ago when that was still a viable way to bring in an income for a lot of writers who didn’t get paid for their actual fiction. However, that said, the internet revolution and the creation of online literary communities from Bookslut or The Rumpus to of course TNB, has proved beyond a doubt that people are still reading, are still talking about books, are still vibrantly concerned with the connection between writers and their audiences. I’m saddened in some ways by the decline of print media, but I also feel that the way literary dialogue has moved online has put to rest the entire, century-long lament that the “book is dead” or that nobody cares about literature. It has now been proven that the word “book”—like many words in our language and culture—simply continues to evolve, and what reading a book means for the next generation is not the same as it was for me growing up. But people are still reading, and in fact the playing field of who can gain an audience and who is entitled to a voice in cultural discourse has been radically leveled over the past decade. I’m not saying this transition to a more online information and entertainment era is not without its costs, but overall I think it’s an unbelievably positive development that globalizes and equalizes access to literature and engages more people than ever before in the community of books.
So you have three young children, teach at two universities, and have two books out . . . yet the bulk of your professional life has been spent editing literary magazines and book presses—for free or nearly free—taking time away from your family, your paying work, and certainly your own writing. What are you, some kind of Mother Teresa of indie publishing?
Why yes, I am indeed a Mother Teresa of publishing! Thanks for noticing!
But seriously, here’s the part where I have to point out that . . . well, so is basically everyone who works in the indie press arena. If people who are willing to be radically underpaid and overworked for the sake of championing deserving writers weren’t apparently growing on trees, the state of publishing would be far, far more dire than it is. In fact, even editors at the big New York houses are pretty underpaid—though I’d gladly take their salaries—so this is really true across all publishing. The book industry would collapse if editors—any editors—were actually in their jobs for the money. Most collapses in the industry, as it is, have been due to the shareholder, corporation model that is trying—and to some extent succeeding—at making publishing a wholly economic system. For as long as publishing has existed, it was always a “given” that there were aspects of literary art that existed outside of economic commodification. Trying to make every book translate directly into profit for stockholders has been absolutely a disaster in the industry. It has made a small group of people very rich, but it has mainly made things even more financially dire for the majority writers and their editors than they used to be, and has cost a lot of editors their jobs or excluded talented people from publication.
What’s the best reason a big New York editor ever gave for not publishing you?
An editor at Houghton-Mifflin once told my former agent, Bill Clegg, that she kept having to put my novel down and leave the room because it was so disturbing. I took this as a huge compliment.
Wait, Bill Clegg?! You mean that famous writer who wrote Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and is all over Vogue and Vanity Fair?
Yeah, he was my agent before he was a writer. Lots of weird shit went down. You can read about that here.
Okay, so not counting any writers you’ve published, anyone you consider a friend, or certainly anyone who used to represent you, what are your ten favorite novels?
1) The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality count as one, because they’re by the same author, Milan Kundera, and all his books are kind of in dialogue with one another.
2) Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow
3) The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
4) The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
5) The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas
6) Rules of the Wild by Francesca Marciano
7) Two Girls Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill
8) Beloved by Tony Morrison
9) Lithium for Medea by Kate Braverman
10) The Hours by Michael Cunningham—and here I have to add that this list is not in order of preference. The Hours would be close to the top. I consider that book a very intimate friend.
What book have you read in the past year that you didn’t expect to care about but instead totally rocked your world?
Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries. It was the best book I’ve read in the past few years.
Another drug memoir? Don’t you know we’re all sick of drug memoirs?
Actually, I’ve only ever read three drug memoirs in my entire life, all this past year, so I was not sick of them. And Elliott’s, Bill Clegg’s, and Tom Hansen’s American Junkie are all extremely compelling books. Until I read The Adderall Diaries, I never had much interest in memoirs, period, on any topic. But The Adderall Diaries shouldn’t even be called a “drug memoir” because that’s far too reductive for what it does. It has more in common with classics like In Cold Blood. Stephen Elliott is a genius and The Adderall Diaries is his finest book. Too many people may not read it because they think they know what they’re going to get—I was one of those people and only picked it up because I was going to be reading with Stephen in Chicago, which someone else had set up for me. I thought I should read one of his books so I wouldn’t look like an asshole when I met him. Now I could be his pimp, I worship his writing so much. I should add that his project, The Rumpus, is also one of the most exciting online communities besides TNB, and their new Rumpus Book Club is doing a lot to build dialogue and make the new directions the book world is taking feel exciting rather than depressing.
Oh, yes, getting back to developments in the book world that are exciting . . .
I know! TNB is starting a book imprint! I’m over the moon. Let’s hug!
I’m already sitting on your lap.
Okay then, get Listi’s ass over here for a group hug.
Wait, so if corporate publishing sucks so much, and all the really cool developments are happening elsewhere, why do you still have a fancy New York literary agent and why is she submitting your latest novel to the big publishers even as we speak?
(Sigh.) Okay. Because I made about 25K this year, and it was the most money I’ve made in a single year since I “became” a writer in the mid-90s, despite the fact that I probably work seventy hours a week. To be honest, I have really mixed feelings about continuing to chase the carrot of that “big deal.” I’m happy in the indie world. I feel I fit well here, and that people are extremely supportive and get what I’m trying to do with my work, and I’ve formed nourishing connections with my readers. I have a feeling I might not be as happy at a really big house. But I would like to get paid someday, you know? Is that wrong?
Why are you asking me?
I guess because part of me worries it is wrong.
You’re stupid. Everyone wants to get paid.
I’m not sure that makes it the right goal. I mean, for example, a lot of my (non-writer) friends will say things to me like, “You should write a chick-lit novel and make a bunch of money!” They don’t really understand that this is like saying to me, “You should become a brain surgeon because I’ve heard the money is good,” or “Did you know you can make a lot of money smuggling exotic animals?” I mean, there are a lot of ways to make money—if I were just looking for a way to make money, I can think of many more sure-fire ways than writing a book that’s more “commercial” than the ones I actually do write. However, what’s more important is that I feel like writing as a “product” like that—writing strictly for an economic goal—has nothing in common with why I write. It doesn’t make that kind of writing bad or less valuable, any more than being a brain surgeon is bad . . . there are many professions that are very noble that pay well, so it’s not a matter of good or bad. I’m just talking about the fact that the things that drive me to write—the ideas that compel me and obsess me—don’t have a damn thing to do with writing according to a mass-market formula. I don’t have any more interest in some of the ways one can be paid “for writing”—maybe doing a pop series or ghost writing or, say, cranking out parenting articles for women’s magazines—than I do in becoming an attorney or a banker or a kindergarten teacher. To me, those things are wholly separate from what drives me to write. If I just wanted to make a decent living, I would probably teach high school English or go back to being a therapist, rather than trying to write things that fit within a perimeter that enables me to get steadily paid, instead of the things I want to write. It’s not just the act of writing that I’m seeking—it’s being able to write what I care about.
Speaking of Stephen Elliott, he said once that the world does not really owe you a living if you’re choosing to just pursue art on your own terms, and while I would like to make more money, I agree with him on this. I certainly had the education and options to pursue other lines of work if I’d chosen to. I write what I do because I love it—because emotionally I can’t not do it and still feel whole. I am, on some level, very okay with the fact that this does not mean the corporate New York publishing world owes me a fat advance for doing whatever the hell I want.
One of the constant refrains you hear from those publishers is that your work is too dark and too graphically sexual for “the market.” But you seem like such a sweet girl. Why are you such a pervert?
Uh . . .
Are you really a pervert or are you just pretending in your writing?
I’m not sure that’s the right question, actually. I feel like those kinds of black and white dichotomies are exactly what I try to resist in my fiction. So let’s just say that I don’t fully understand why some people seem to find my work as shocking or perverse as they do. Sometimes I worry that my sense of those things may be off, because I just don’t see my writing that way—usually, I think my characters are really funny. I feel incredibly intimate with most of them and don’t see them as dark or ominous—just as haunted in the way most people are, so that they can be their own worst enemies. I notice that my characters tend to be about five to ten years behind where I am in my own life, so at this stage I’m only just starting to write about characters raising kids or in longtime marriages. So most of the characters in Slut Lullabies are younger and lead lives more in flux than my own when it comes to interpersonal relationships. But everyone was young and unmoored at one time, so it surprises me the way the current lifestyle status of the writer—or her gender, age, personality—predisposes people to think they know what that she “should” be exploring in her work. Like that a fortysomething woman with three kids should be writing “Mommy lit” or something—god, don’t even get me started on the ways American culture seems to put Motherhood and Sexuality into mutually exclusive realms. That de-sexing of mothers, or women over thirty-five, or whatever, doesn’t allow for a full expression of humanity or reflect the lives of most women. It’s also hilarious to me that if you seem like a “nice” person, people are shocked to find out that you write about sex. I’m not clear on why writing frankly about sexual dynamics would make people think someone was not nice. Sex is a social pursuit—I’d be willing to bet that friendly, nice people actually have more of it than surly, introverted people. The common sense here eludes me . . .
Okay, fair enough. But speaking of perverts, and speaking of your rapidly advancing age, can you explain why you are so traumatized by turning forty-two? What’s the big deal about that number?
My forty-second birthday is June 22, and yeah, I plan to stay in bed and cry all day. For anyone out there who has read my first novel, My Sister’s Continent, you may remember that my protagonist, Kendra, was carrying on with an older man, Michael Kelsey, who was forty-two. At the time I started writing about those characters, I was Kendra’s age (twenty-three), and I briefly debated making Michael older than his early forties, but ended up concluding that if he was any older than forty-two, no reader would possibly believe that Kendra would actually fuck him. Apparently in my twenty-three-year-old mind, forty-two was the outer limit of fuckability. Any older than that, and even a literary suspension of disbelief would be impossible because you would be such a decrepit old troll. So I am now officially going to be the same age as Michael Kelsey. My husband, incidentally, is turning forty-three next month, so clearly we can never have sex again. The show’s over.
In all seriousness, I don’t really know if I can explain the genuine emotions I’ve been having about now being the same age as Michael’s character in my novel. In reality, these emotions of course have nothing to do with sex. They have to do with the way, in fiction, characters remain forever the age they were in your book, whereas you continue to age and change. My feelings have to do with the fact that literary characters are immune to time in this way, whereas human “characters” are not, and that I am now the age of the Kelseys—Michael and his ex-wife, Leigh—instead of the age of my protagonist twins, Kendra and Kirby, is weirdly powerful for me, and has made me think a lot about time and change and mortality (which, in all fairness, I’m a little obsessed with anyway.)
In My Sister’s Continent, you wrote about identical twins, one of whom is a lesbian. In Slut Lullabies, one of the stories is told from the point of view of a gay Latino man, and another from the perspective of a teenage boy who has participated in a gang rape. Do you worry about assuming the voices of characters of different genders, races or sexualities than yourself? What gives writers the authority to mind-hop in this way?
I think many writers are drawn to characters who are outsiders in a fashion, and I’m particularly interested in the way people are “othered” by their sexuality in a variety of ways. But othering or marginalizing also overlaps with class issues (which can be tied to, but by no means mutually exclusive with, race), with youth, with issues of illness or physical ability . . . and in the end I’m probably more fascinated by exploring the way my characters alienate themselves, and why, than with what other people may do to them externally. All to that end, I confess to being completely uninterested in issues of who has the “authority” to write what. Or I should say that I’m interested in that debate in theory, but in practice I write what compels me, and follow the characters who speak to me, and I don’t have much concern for political correctness. I write—and read—on a more emotional level. I just want to be punched in the gut and obsessed.
Much literature in the world would not exist if writers had been afraid to write as another gender or as a member of another culture. This has been a prerogative of writers forever, and I think the Dead White Boys club has taken a lot of flack for it, but in reality thank god they tried—even when they didn’t do a perfect job—or we would have nothing but books about privileged white men prior to a certain time period. I’m not interested in only writing about people who are exactly like me. Part of the huge appeal of fiction is to try on someone else’s skin. When I was younger, it never really occurred to me to write from a guy’s point of view, but to be honest now I can scarcely imagine writing an entire book without getting inside any of the male characters’ heads.
Two of the stories in Slut Lullabies are explicitly concerned with issues of faith, and with God as a forgiving, loving entity vs. God as a punishing rule-maker. How do you conceptualize God?
I don’t believe in any god. But when I’m my characters, I believe what they believe. Religion is a major, major factor for many people in all cultures. I went to Catholic school and my childhood diaries are full of fears about Hell, which seems so heartbreaking now, because I do believe if there were a god of any kind powerful and wise enough to create a world, it would not go around sending little girls to hell. For most of my young adult life I struggled with issues of extreme guilt and fear surrounding religion, about sex in particular. When I hit my thirties, I finally let go of that and for a few years I enjoyed a healthier, more fulfilling and self-accepting view of God. But when push came to shove, I stopped believing about a decade ago. I tried extremely hard to hold on to my faith—to permit it to become less conventional and less tied to organized religion: to be one of those people who was “spiritual” if not religious. I tried to be a Deist, if not a Christian. But in the end I wasn’t able to hold on to any of that. Faith isn’t something you can force. Sometimes I envy spiritual people because I think faith can provide enormous comfort—although it also, of course, can inspire wrath and fear and violence. I’m interested in the dichotomous nature of what faith and religion provide believers, but I’m just not a believer anymore, even in a loose sense. Faith can be a transient thing, though, so this may not always remain the case.
Tell us a secret.
Come on. Tell us something a little embarrassing, at least.
Fine. I was so obsessed with the Harry Potter series, which I started out reading just to humor my daughters, that after I finished the seventh book and knew these characters were never going to do anything new, I fell into a mini-depression. If that doesn’t undermine everything I’ve said about corporate publishing, I guess I don’t know what does.
So what’s the worst reason a big New York editor ever gave for not publishing you?
Saying my novel was “too British for an American audience.” I still do not even know what that was supposed to mean.
Huh. Neither do I. While I try to figure it out, I’ll close this with an easy one. What’s your philosophy of life?
Oh, you’re right, that is easy! I lived with a woman named Sarah back in college, in London in the late 1980s, and although she died when we were only thirty, back when we were twenty and sharing a flat she told me once that there are two things that are important in life. She said, “You have to be honest, and you have to be really mellow about harsh things.” I’ve lived more than two decades since that conversation, but I’ve still never heard it put any better than that.