July 16, 2012
Jennifer Spiegel is a way bigger freak than me. I base this solely on her excellent debut story collection, The Freak Chronicles, a suite of stories that includes among its retinue the tale of college girl stalking Mickey Rourke and a coed indulging in some extracurricular international relations with a Russian street artist. Spiegel’s stories are sexy but never salacious, and deeply humane. Her heroines spend a lot of time traveling the world and grappling with the complicated moral terrain they encounter.
She seems to have a big mouth, so I was wanted to toss a few provocations her way. Here’s what happened…
One thing I admire about your work is that you’re what I call a “head up” writer. That is: your characters are forced up against the world around them, all the obvious sorrows and injustices colliding against their own internal strife. So. My question: how do you manage the struggle not to moralize?
Well, thanks for saying that because, of course, there is a tendency to moralize. The truth is that I have a natural inclination towards international stuff, and I’m not entirely sure from where that comes. I’d say my political “development” (seems like this should be in quotes) surrounded, mostly, civil rights and race relations. We all loved MLK in our house. My parents had pets with names like Gandhi and Baba Ram Dass, who I just looked up for the first time ever, having grown up thinking he was some East Indian philosopher who probably associated, at one time or another, with George Harrison. Turns out, he was really a Jewish guy from Massachusetts. Then there was, on top of the madras-print-steeped childhood, a strong Judeo-Christian religiosity. The point: yeah, my fiction probably “worries,” if you will, over that meeting place between internal and external strife, that collision site at which large-scale ethical issues rub up against personal morality.
South Africa was the perfect geography, frankly. I don’t think I ever quite got over the fact that, there, on the tip of Africa, this outrageously beautiful landscape (cloud-cover rolling over mountaintops like the land of Dairy Queen, two oceans merging, vineyards with little Dutch farm houses, purple wildflowers with baboons or starlings or zebra, forests by the beach, parts that look like that new Dr. Seuss movie The Lorax) comes up hard against some of the ugliest human behavior ever. Real human ugliness, nothing subtle about it. And yet, no matter how one-dimensional my own thinking might be, no matter how much of an egocentric judgmental American I was, I couldn’t help but note that the people there were real people. I wanted to dismiss the whites with a wave of my hand and call them Nazis—and I probably did a few times—but, I hope, my treatment of South Africa and other places embraces the full humanity of the folks who live there.
You have three degrees, including an MA in politics. Was writing always the thing, or did you flirt with the equally pathological world of politics?
I did! In truth, a career in international relations was supposed to my safety-net. While I went around telling everyone I wanted to be a writer, I planned for this glamorous diplomatic position that wouldn’t involve any sort of statistical analysis or budgetary know-how but would involve lots of European cobblestone streets, a little London Yard, and probably some hobnobbing with Salman Rushdie and Sting. Alas, I got the degrees, acquired the student loan debt, and obtained the entry-level positions.
It turned out that I really had no political ambition whatsoever—like, none. I just liked the part about drinking free office coffee and sneaking a covert Xerox copy here and there. Not only did I lack ambition, I also found myself increasingly bitter about the whole thing. At one time I really believed in political revolution. I believed in the possibility of political upheaval for international peace. I believed in saving the freakin’ world through political means. I guess I got disillusioned—not by any one thing. Old white guys had something to do with it, if you must know. Then, I literally had this moment: politics wasn’t going to cut it. Art was better. Art was more revolutionary than politics. I’m heading over to the other camp, I thought.
Mind you, this wasn’t some odd or unprecedented thing at all. I’d been writing the whole time. It did mean, though, I was unemployed with massive debt.
The stories in The Freak Chronicles show incredible range, but you seem preoccupied by folks who feel outside the range of normal. I’m sure none of that traces back to you.
My husband Tim would like very much to be normal. I don’t really give a shit. There’s a measure of abnormality around here, though. This morning, I couldn’t find anyone, so I looked in the garage. There was Tim sawing away at a pipe with his hacksaw, two little girls in attendance. “Oh,” I said. “You’re making your wedding ring.” As it came out of my mouth, I realized how nuts this sounds. Later, we took the kids to Big Lots and Tim got a better one out of the gumball machine. I offer no further explanation. The only thing that makes me hesitate a little on the weirdness factor is my children. I’ve got kids, and I don’t want to screw them up.
In fiction, I’m interested in eccentricity—not perversity, really, though I might be a little interested in that too. But I’m more intrigued by characters who not only don’t conform to the norm, but characters who can’t. I also know that when people—writers—spout off about how crazy and unique and quirky they are, it sounds moronic.
Mickey Rourke: sexually obsolete or gloriously leathery?
I get to pontificate about Mickey Rourke? Oh, how I’ve waited for this moment! Thank you for asking about Mickey. Truly. Because, you see, I’ve given this a lot of thought. Mickey and I go way back.
But, well, as much as it pains me to say this—and it does pain me—I guess I’d have to say that Mickey Rourke is now sexually obsolete. I hope he doesn’t read this, because I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings. In reality, he kinda grosses me out. When everyone was going nuts over The Wrestler, I was longing for some deep cleaning, a hardy loufa, and an anti-bacterial soap product that got into the pores and moisturized at the same time.
But I will assert that Mickey Rourke, at one time, seemed to embody a sexual presence that I don’t really think I’ve seen on film in a long, long time. Unless I’m too old myself to recognize it. Perhaps I’m sexually obsolete as well.
Based on the global locales, it seems like you’ve done a lot of traveling. Is there anything you’ve done overseas, as the good old Ugly American that haunts you? (Bonus points if it’s sexual!)
What have I got for you? Hmm. And how should I answer this candidly, knowing my longsuffering husband and beautiful kids may read it (some day). Not to mention all that I’ve already put my mother through. Let’s put it this way: I am the Ugly American. You probably are too.
I could answer this with specifics, with dirt—but the thing that I remember really absorbing from my travels is that, despite all of my global ideals and U2 anthems, I was still undoubtedly, inescapably, arrogantly, even proudly American. And that’s pretty ugly. I couldn’t escape my American identity. No matter how many famous art museums I’d been to that exposed me to the beauty of others (read: foreigners), I still walked into a room like an American. This has less to do with the fact that my teeth suggest braces, and more to do with how I walk into a room, how I make demands—psychic demands—on my environment.
Despite my very big mouth in print, I’m fairly unassuming. I’ve got manners. As long as you’re not my husband, I probably won’t embarrass you at a party. That said, Americans have this psychic presence. We go places, and we take our nationality with us, our assumption of grandeur, of control, of power, of rightness. And I know that I, Ugly American, inevitably walked into many rooms with my national identity making subtle demands on everyone there. Make way for the American Girl.
To ground you in specifics, I have one memory of holding onto the strap-thingy inside of a crowded bus in Budapest, Hungary. I was talking to another American kid, and it was at the end of the Cold War, right after the Berlin Wall had come down, and we were practicing our Russian (at that time, many college kids studied Russian) in this packed bus. The Hungarians looked mortified as these two American kids boisterously and loudly mangled the Russian language, the language of their former occupiers. Speaking Russian was pretty taboo, but, hey, we didn’t know, nor would we care. We rather enjoyed the attention.
What question should we have asked but didn’t?
“So, Jennifer, is it true you’ve got another book coming out on September 4, 2012 and, if so, can you say something profound about it?”
Why, yes, Steve, I do have another book coming out on September 4, 2012. While The Freak Chronicles is a short story collection, Love Slave is a novel. My hope is to bill it like so: “Richly droll and wincingly candid, Love Slave is sort of Annie Hall meets Holden Caulfield, Gen X in need of health insurance, Dorothy Parker à la Eddie Vedder.” I’ve been told that comparing my stuff to Salinger is a massive no-no. So, how’s this instead? “Love Slave is sort of Annie Hall meets Philip Roth meets Lorrie Moore meets Dostoyevsky.” Too much?
I didn’t think so either.
Jennifer Spiegel has an MA in Politics from New York University, and an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Arizona State. She teaches college classes. A short story collection, THE FREAK CHRONICLES, is forthcoming in June 2012 (Dzanc Books). A novel, LOVE SLAVE, is forthcoming in the fall of 2012 (Unbridled Books). She lives with her husband and two kids in Arizona. Please visit her at www.jenniferspiegel.com.