Dothan, Alabama.

I love Dothan.  I’ve got family – got kin down there.

 

I grew up in the South too, listening to those same old black gospel records as you. Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Mahalia Jackson.  I used to sing that high part on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (attempts chorus.) Um, that was before my voice dropped.

Those records are incredible.

 

So, I learned something about interviews from your new book. 

Oh yeah?

 

 

HOW TO RIDE AN ELEVATOR

Several years ago when the relationship I assumed was both nearly perfect and my last turned out to be neither and ended car-off-cliff style, I experienced an unexpected and profound personal awakening.

This awakening arrived convincingly disguised as the most miserable and debilitating period of my life; a life which would now be trimmed short from the disease of ruination.

So complete was this state of psychological collapse, it even followed me into elevators.

A round-up of high quality tweets from people in the world of literature…

Benjamin Percy:

 

There are some parts of your book that are downright gross. You brush your teeth with Ajax and peel off your psoriasis scabs. Who wants to read about stuff like this?

There’s nothing wrong with Ajax. It gets the disinfecting job done and smells great! Of course the scab thing, yeah that’s not so pretty. Having to go back in my mind to when my OCD was at an all time high (as a teenager) was a scary place to be (and yes, most of the time–disgusting) for sure, but it wouldn’t have been an honest account if I didn’t go there. I don’t think I could have just told you about the times I had to carry around water in glass jars because I was afraid of spontaneously combusting without taking you through the whole process as it happened. I didn’t particularly enjoy writing about scabs. But it’s out there now. What can I do?

 

One blogger’s review called you Augusten Burroughs with bleach and you can kind of see that in the parts where you write from the point of view of a small child. Is that good? Do you like Augusten Burroughs?

A lot of people don’t know this but Augusten and I are secretly married. It doesn’t matter that he’s gay. We’re married and that’s how it is so it’s not like being compared to my husband who loves me because we’re married? Of course that’s good. As far as what it’s like to write in a child’s voice, I’m pretty immature anyway so thinking like a kid wasn’t exactly a chore. Plus, there’s still so much of that spazzy girl in me who has to do a lot of receptive OCD stuff every day. I still have most of the problems I write about in the book, like it takes me an hour just to get ready for bed because I have to make my “rounds”—you know, checking things, touching things. I’ve got these routines I have to follow to comfort my brain.

 

So you’re cleaning the house at eleven o’clock at night?

Usually, I try to wait until at least midnight until everyone in the house is just about to fall asleep so no one gets in the way of my vacuuming.

 

That’s a little not normal don’t you think?

Sure. But I don’t care anymore. It took me a long time to get to that place. It’s basically a place of, “screw it!”, meaning, I can’t live by a code that’s going to get me approval of what living a “normal” life should be. People who have bad panic attacks or feel nervous all the time—so much of it comes from the constant running dialogue of, “Will they see me mess up? What will they think if I still wear Zips because I’m into Velcro buckles?” Once you can let that go, even if you let it go just a little, I swear, it’s the most freeing feeling in the world. Medication helps that a lot. I try to stay doped up as much as possible.

 

What would you do if didn’t write? Are OCDers better at some things than non-OCDers?

Well, I heard the entire board of directors of the League for Promotion of Even Numbers has all had their share of OCD. As for myself I can’t multi-task anything because organizing pencils according to size and frequency of use can get in the way of answering phones and sending out emails.

 

Do you have any hobbies?

I never excelled at much except for writing. I can act a little, like in the theatre. Which is basically just lying with extra makeup on so of course I’m good at that. Other than looking up symptoms on wrong diagnosis dot com (right now I’ve got a weird pain in my left side which I’m pretty sure is the onset of pleurisy) I don’t have a lot of ways to keep myself busy. In the book I talk about my first real job at a dry cleaners. I couldn’t count back change and I busted a super expensive embroidery machine then just walked off the job because it never occurred to me to do anything else but run away.

 

Interesting you should mention running away. In the book you do a lot of it.

Before you judge let me tell you about the time I was 13 and I was sent to live at a nursing home my grandmother owned. I ran away from there, that’s true, but I had to share a room with an old man who called me Whore all day. That was just his name for me. He said, “Hey Whore, come change my diaper.” And it’s not like when Augusten calls me Whore. This was completely degrading, so yeah, I bailed from that scene in a hurry.

 

But you don’t write like a victim. Nothing in the story gives us the feeling of Woe is Me.

I throw myself onto Facebook and update my status to passively aggressively hint that someone has done me wrong. That usually brings the gratification I’m looking for. But for the book, I guess I just had to get over myself. This starts to happen the more you look at the complete absurdity of OCD. If you can step outside yourself for just a few minutes and really look at yourself doing things like counting all the red cars in the parking lot before you settle on a parking space ‘cause if you don’t something bad will happen to your best friend— I mean even Keasy’s Cheify would call that weird. Besides, I’m not going through anything millions of people aren’t going through right at this very moment.

 

So what keeps you going?

Working on new writing projects. Reading. Feeling cross and jealous of other writers who have what I don’t, then friending those writers on Facebook and spending an embarrassing amount of time looking at pictures and status updates of where I think I should be in my life in order to be happy. That and hand sanitizer. And of course being Augusten’s wife.

 

 

When I first began my screenwriting career, I had high hopes for my female characters. As long as they didn’t do anything like grab their crotch or spit after singing the national anthem, I thought things would be fine.

Clearly, I was wrong.

In Hollywood, you learn fast that women characters, much like women in general, are expected to be above all “likable.” Sure, she is allowed to be a bit wacky, but only if she is also meek. She can have a high-powered job, but only if she still cries in the bathroom during lunch breaks. She may have interests or hobbies, but they should be related to meeting men. Alessandra Stanley put it best in an old New York Times review when she called it the ‘Ally Mcbealing’ of American women.

Though for me, it’s nothing new. In some of my early drafts of How To Lose A Guy the heroine Andie Anderson was caustic, witty and above all else, comfortable with her sexuality. She also realized that her job at a glossy woman’s magazine was somewhat shallow, but at least it paid the rent and that was good enough for her. By the time the studio got done with it, however, Andie was a serious reporter stuck in a vapid magazine job. She was the ‘How To’ girl who dreamed of writing pieces on war torn Bosnia. All sarcasm was erased, and for all intents and purposes she was a virgin (though she had a friend who was a little trampy). These changes ostensibly made her character more likable. Likable trumped real. The movie came out, grossed a fortune, and one could argue, Hollywood was right. But I always wonder how it would have played had we kept her “real.” Would it have tanked? Or played even better?

I ask the question because in reality – at least by Hollywood standards – just about every woman I know is unlikable. Still, this doesn’t stop the movies and TV from perpetuating the myth that women are generally ditzy, clumsy, girl-next-door types whose main goal in life is to find a man (The only exception to this rule being when they are crime solvers, in which case they are consummate loners unable to ever have a real relationship because they are haunted and dark.)

The reality is that women (both fictional and real) are constrained by this nebulous likability factor while male characters can do just about anything. Imagine if Neil Labute’s In the Company of Men, a black comedy that makes fun of a deaf woman – and a movie I quite liked – had been made in reverse. You don’t have to work in the film business to know that The Company of Women would never have even made it past a first draft – if that. Or what about Scent of A Woman, staring Judy Dench as the foul-mouthed, blind ex-army officer? How about Mamet’s 12 Angry Men remade as 12 Angry Women. Or maybe an adaptation of John Dollar – a brilliant novel that is basically Lord of the Flies with girls. The sad truth is, it’s not going to happen.

Of course, film and TV present a fantasy, an escape from everyday life. But do people really not want to see real women? Does the public not want to hear women speak in their true voices, which span the spectrum from prim to irreverent. Are we still living in some sort of backwards world where women can, in theory, be anything they want to be, as long as they adhere to a certain role model?

It’s sort of depressing if you consider it. That’s why, in addition to writing screenplays, I turned to writing books, believing it would be a creative outlet where I would be allowed to express my worldview without having to give myself over to the bland dictates of being likable. A few years ago, I penned a coming-of-age memoir set in New Jersey. Surely I would have free reign to render the quirky, true-to-life characters that peopled my childhood — my lecherous gym teacher, a vindictive jazz musician who once terrorized me, and even a sexually charged, timbale playing chimpanzee. And while many reviewers embraced my story, there were plenty who didn’t.

But not for the reasons I expected.

Getting critical reviews is never a pleasant experience. As a writer, you simply hope for the best, bracing yourself for the reviewer’s poisoned arrows. But while promoting my memoir, a trend began to emerge. I was compared, with an alarming frequency, to cult author Charles Bukowski, although, frankly, I’m not sure the comparison was positive. More disturbing, though, my work was taken to task for being both profane and vulgar.

Puzzled, I searched for reasons why I was getting this reaction. I thought perhaps it was because my brother cursed a lot, a fact I translated onto the page. But then I recalled David Sedaris’ brother a.k.a “The Rooster” who cursed constantly. And fine, I described how our front yard became a boggy mess after the septic tank exploded, but didn’t Augusten Burroughs discuss his bowel movements without repercussion? No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t come up with any references to support how my memoir, which didn’t include sex, violence, or drugs would deserve such a description. I looked up early reviews of Trainspotting and saw terms like “calculatedly outrageous,” and “winningly sarcastic.” I checked out reviews of Elmore Leonard, a writer I greatly admire, and found several reviews applauding his female characters, in particular his creation of Honey Deal as a “smart, ballsy, sexy, take-no-prisoner female.” Now I consider myself a pretty smart, ballsy, sexy, take-no-prisoner female, yet somehow a 79-year-old man’s creation is more pitch perfect than the real deal?

Finally, while in New Jersey I did an interview for a local paper, and the reporter (male, early 30s) asked me why I was so mean.

I was taken aback by the word. Mean? The word ping-ponged through my brain. I can be dry, even sardonic on occasion. But mean? No. A straight shooter. Yes. I wondered if he was confusing the two.

Later, the reporter’s question started to burn. Why is it when a man describes the world around him in a way that’s scrupulously honest, he is described as brave, groundbreaking even? Yet when a woman writes about her world in a similar way, she is … mean.

The only answer I could come up with was that, as a woman writer, I was expected to be likable.

You see, I didn’t write about any of those safe female topics in my book. I never yearned to be prom queen, or battled with my weight, or suffered an unrequited crush on the quarterback. Instead, I wrote about being abandoned by my father, living in a crumbling house with an assortment of ill and handicapped siblings. I wrote about being perceived as an outsider by everyone around me. I wrote about feeling like a stranger in a strange land. This was my truth and it was through this prism that I saw the world around me. I was an emotional nomad who navigated the landscape of divorce in the 70s. A scrappy survivor of the mean streets of suburbia, who didn’t indulge in self-denigration or self-destruction.

So maybe I do have more in common with Bukowski than Bridget Jones. Driven by a need to find higher meaning in the world around me I took to questioning the world as I saw it. After all, alienation, sarcasm, and cynicism are not the sole domain of men, although sometimes it might seem as if they are. Back in the 50s and 60s, a group of disaffected male writers named themselves the Beat generation, playing with the paradox of the word to mean both “tired” and “upbeat” at the same time; although women were involved in the movement as well, they were often relegated to the sidelines, cast in the role of hostess, girlfriend, muse. The writing style of the beats was chaotic, gritty, and non-conformist, reflecting the burgeoning counterculture movement of the time.

Even though it’s been almost 50 years since the Beat generation, women are slowly breaking into the territory first staked out by Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. And despite the pressure to conform, to be likable, to break down and pine away and play helpless, we are resisting, enlarging the boundaries of our worldview with our gimlet eyes and bringing in the experiences of our own upbringing: the anomie of suburban life, the possibilities of the internet, the prevalence of divorce, the increasing fungibility of identity.

A growing number of female writers and performers don’t want to toe the line and be likable anymore. As I considered my role in this regard, I remembered a line Jack Kerouac once wrote, “The only people for me are the mad ones … they never yawn or say a commonplace thing.” And that’s when it hit me. Every generation has its movements, and perhaps this is ours. We are Mads. Mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved. We are nomads displaced by cultural circumstances who are now trying to find a place to call home. We are mad to experience life on all levels. Mad to connect all our million little pieces. Mad to find our own truth. We write mad lit — and yes, it’s cynical, unflinching, and irreverent. Our stories are populated by female characters who don’t want to be Meredith Grey or Carrie Bradshaw, created by female authors who don’t want pink covers and cute little cartoons on their books.

To the reporter who asked me why I was so mean, I now have an answer: I’m not mean. I’m mad. And if that makes me unlikable, so be it. Because let’s face it, being mad is a hell of a lot more interesting.