What motivated you to write this book?

Same thing that motivated me to learn karate—having the last name “Faries,” and I can show you how good I am, just like I showed Donnie Manfredi in 1981 when I did a round-house kick over a five-foot fence and knocked Donnie into the dirt. He didn’t take the bus for two weeks after that.

 

Tell me about music and its place in the book.

The book is music. If you put it to your ear I am sure you can hear a guitar solo. I’m just not sure if it is acoustic or electric. When the first box of review copies arrived in Thunderbolt, GA, the UPS driver strutted to my door snapping his fingers and swaggering through the humidity. He put the box on the porch, did an about-face, and abruptly dropped his head and shuffled back to the truck.

Each chapter is framed in a particular song that helps contextualize the emotion of place. In the 70s, rock and roll was still defining itself and it seemed to change monthly. It was moving, just like Mother and me. In trying to find itself, it was screaming, “Hey, where am I? What am I supposed to be doing? This feels good! How about this? Oh, you don’t like that sound? Well fuck you…. How about this? Can you feel that grinding? Can you feel my chest expanding and my britches getting bigger?” I am chopping down mountains with the edge of my hand. I am chopping down palm trees and they are landing on your back.

 

When writing a memoir, is there such a thing as objectivity?

No. Objectivity in writing is a myth because the very act of selecting content is by nature subjective. Now, in my book I was incredibly objective. For example, when Mother was making love to John P. on the mattress above the Jack-o-Lantern Bar I objectively described the situation: I was happily bouncing up and down because there was only one mattress. It was as if we were all playing together. There were strippers from out of town blowing men in the parking lot while we hid from Mother’s boyfriend , Junior, in this wonderful little upstairs apartment. That scene was just described objectively (sic).

 

Tell us a little about your concept of truth in memoir, or at least truth in this memoir.

Well, my narrator will likely be accused of making certain things up. But if you ask a first grader—raised by parents who were always tripping on psychedelics—why the family had 18 dogs, he would likely recount this mystical experience where he saw them all emerge from a vaginal opening in a barn door. And that is exactly what happened. If you are going to be a little magical, just remind your reader that you are a magician and not the messiah. They will watch your magic show and even accept some of your failures, like when you pull a monkey out of a hat when everyone was expecting the same old rabbit.

 

What’s the story behind your trailer?

The story is that two wonderfully fascinating mothers trusted me with their boys for a day. I transformed them both into Chadillacs (that’s been my nickname since birth) with Big Wheels, Barbies, classic cars, motorcycles, and music. It was the closest I ever came to being a parent. And Ashley Newsome, who plays my mother in the trailer, I spotted her at a coffeehouse where we were both watching the band Shovels and Rope perform, the song “Boxcar.” It had the same emotion as the book, and I looked over and saw Ashley in bell-bottom corduroys with a beer in her hand and knew she had to play my mother. We shot various scenes from the book. took a bunch of stills, and recreated the 70s. The most disturbing element was playing Mother’s boyfriend.

 

After what is now over 40 houses in 40 years, have you managed to stay put, or are you still rambling?

I’ve got rambling on my mind. I say I’ve got rambling, rambling on my mind. But I’ve now lived in the same house for four years. That is the longest I have ever lived in a single space, though I transform that space constantly. I am a carpenter, and I have created fantastic nooks and tree houses on my property so I can ramble from space to space. But I am not very successful at that either. I run away to ape sanctuaries and mountains on my motorcycle at least once a month. Rambling does have some costs I suppose. I really only have two childhood friends. And my friends from high school always treated me as a second-class citizen. Yeah, you know who you are and you are going to be in trouble. I know karate.

 

You are at your grandmother’s deathbed right now, on the release date of your memoir. I know it might be difficult, but can you contextualize the scene for us?

I am in Iron River, Michigan in the Northstar Hospital on the shore of Ice Lake. There is a window and I can see the water. I pissed in that water, cut my foot open in that water, had sex in that water. And I think Gramma did all of those things in that same water. And aunt Molly too. She is on the other side of the bed. Grandma calls us “the smart ones” sarcastically. That is one of the last full sentences she got out. The sun hasn’t shone in three days. Gramma has that death rattle people describe. It sounds like a car crash played in slow motion., complete with people screaming. But occasionally she will cough out a feverish laugh. Sometimes she sighs and lifts her eyebrows. When I touch her hand she breaths heavily and squeezes. “Grandma, I made the cover of the paper today” I tell her. I play the music from my trailer for her, “Boxcar.” Ain’t it just like you and me to go down like that? The dust jacket on the hardcover has an excerpt that reads “We talked fast because we thought we had a lot to live. And we did. Still do. We are all still alive, even with the years of damaging relationships and drug treatment behind us—years of cheap Wonder bread full of mold, and sour milk. No one has died, at least none of the women. They have centuries left I am sure.” Well, surely not. I am a damn stinking liar. I am telling you this now so you know there are no surprises.

 

Is there something you want to say to your grandmother?

There is a difference between scratching your ass and tearing a hole in it. Step up to the magic and disappear.

The Walmart lot was cold in the night air, even for southern California. I hadn’t brought enough blankets and would need to swing by the thrift store and pick up a few more. Everything was well-lit by the streetlamps and eerily quiet. There were maybe a dozen other trailers around when I arrived, but no sign that actual people might live in them at all. I had once visited Calico Ghost Town, an old abandoned mining settlement in the hills outside San Bernardino, and this had that same sense of deathly desertion. I knew they were there, perhaps even peeking out their windows at the newcomer, but I couldn’t see or hear any of them.

Were any of the others like me? Were the rest of them just passing through? Was I the only one idiotic enough to think I could pull off a stunt like this?

Irrational fear swept through me. How could I sleep? I was more weary than I’d been in a long time, but I flicked on a solitary flashlight and tried to read a book, although you couldn’t exactly call it reading. It was more like staring blankly at the page, eyes racing over the words without comprehension as my mind created scenarios one after the other, each more horrible than the last. What if I awoke to the brisk tapping of police batons on my windows?

What if they knew I was planning on staying here longer than a night or two? What if they could sense it? What if I awoke at a tilt, all my boxes hurtling from one end of the trailer toward my head, as a tow truck dragged me away, screeching for help, muffled and buried under hundreds of books?

I had never much thought about homelessness or homeless people. Sure, there was the occasional “hobo” on the street, perhaps lounging on the sidewalk outside a 7-Eleven, begging for change, ragged, perhaps with a worn ski cap on, maybe missing a few teeth, with scraggly hair and a wizened visage.

“Don’t make eye contact with them,” my mother would say, jerking me to her side, not even bothering to whisper or even lower her voice. She spoke about them as if they couldn’t hear or understand her, or as if they had no feelings to hurt. I never really thought to question that. It was just another stereotype repeated to me, ad nauseam, from infancy.

“They’re just lazy bums. Too lazy to get a job. Don’t look at them, don’t talk to them and don’t give them anything. Half of them aren’t even really homeless, you know. They’re just faking it to make money without actually having to do anything.”

I had never thought about how those homeless people ended up there. I had never once thought to ask, “Why would a lazy person choose that life?” It seems like a really hard, scary, uncertain life. It seems like the last kind of life a lazy jackass would choose.

I was ashamed of myself, thinking back on it. In a way, this was my atonement, my penance for being so self-righteous all those years. Serves me right, I realized wildly.

It was Thursday, February 26, 2009. I was homeless. But then, it’s not really enough to tell you that I’m homeless, is it? You want to know who the hell I am and how I got here.

I was ashamed of myself, thinking back on it. In a way, thiswas my atonement, my penance for being so self-righteous all those years. Serves me right, I realized wildly.

It was Thursday, February 26, 2009. I was homeless.

But then, it’s not really enough to tell you that I’m homeless, is it? You want to know who the hell I am and how I got here.

How does an educated white girl from middle class Orange County become homeless?

The circumstances behind homelessness are as varied as the people who are homeless. In my case, as with so many others, I was affected by the global recession when I was laid off from my job as an Executive Assistant in 2008, and wasn’t able to find new work. Additionally, I think people sometimes overestimate their safety net – you take away one or two “guaranteed” cushions, such as family or friends, and you suddenly have nothing left to fall back on. I had family issues that are detailed quite extensively in the book, and all of my friends had found themselves out of work and struggling, as well. Many of them had moved back in with their own parents or already had roommates, so it wasn’t as simple as asking to crash on someone’s couch for an indefinite period of time.

 

You were raised in a strict Jehovah’s Witness household. How did that claustrophobic childhood shape you?

The very fundamentalist, insular nature of it definitely added to the normal pressures of growing up. Among other disturbing practices I talk about in the book, Jehovah’s Witnesses enforce a strict policy of shunning of any member who decides to leave. They call it “disfellowshipping” and it applies even to family members, which means that my parents and sister are not allowed to socialize or speak with me unless I decide to return to the religion. So although I discovered early on that I didn’t necessarily believe what the Jehovah’s Witnesses taught, there was an added sense of feeling trapped because you quickly realize that the love of a JW will always be conditional. You can have freedom of belief or your family; you can’t have both.

Of course, at the same time I tried to make it clear in the book that there were other issues at play in my household; that I’m not only pinning it all on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For several years I coped with physical, verbal, and sexual abuse that were not necessarily JW-specific. Being raised in the religion exacerbated it, though, no question.

 

How did your difficult relationship with your mother play into your ultimate homelessness?

Living with my mother was an extremely toxic environment to be in, and one in which I was always at a severe disadvantage and susceptible to abuse, even after turning 18 and becoming an adult. When I found myself without a job, I also found myself unable to stay with my mother and stepfather due to both the abuse and the religious differences.

 

How old were you when your mother put you to work earning money to help support the family?

I was ten years old when I got my first under-the-table job, at a beauty/tanning salon in Fullerton. When I turned twelve, my mother obtained a work permit through my junior high school and put me to work full-time, even teaching me to drive four years before I would be eligible for a driver’s license, so that I could drive myself and my sister to school and then drive myself to work afterwards. I started out in salons and restaurants, and worked my way up. By the time I was 16 and a junior in high school, I was a legal secretary at a contract law firm. My mother separated on-and-off from my stepfather, so it was just us girls. My mother didn’t work and therefore my paycheck went to the support three of us.

 

Once you were thrown out of your mother’s house, how did you end up living in a trailer in a Wal-Mart parking lot?

By sheer coincidence, my biological father (who had sexually abused me, and whom I had not seen since I was about two years old) committed suicide mere weeks before I became homeless. As the next of kin, I inherited the few possessions he had left, among which were a truck and a camper. When I was thrown out of my mother’s house, I utilized the only resources that I had available to me. The almighty Google led me to the Wal-Mart policy of allowing campers and RV-ers to stay in their parking lot overnight. I did my best to blend in with the other campers and vehicles there, some of which came and went, and some of which were more permanent “residents”.

 

You worked doggedly to find a job. How long did it take? Did getting a job end your homeless life?

I spent my days in Starbucks job-hunting on my laptop, sometimes up to 10 hours at a time, and sent out several hundred résumés every month. I did work several temp and freelance jobs on and off throughout my period of homelessness. Permanent work was near to impossible to find; the competition was enormous due to the recession, and as an additional blow against me, although I had years of experience due to entering the work force so young, I had no college degree, as Jehovah’s Witnesses vehemently discourage higher education. Potential employers could choose between the “best of the best” because everybody was out of work, and nearly every job posting I read required a college degree.

When I did find temporary jobs, they usually paid very little and I was living paycheck-to-paycheck. Scraping together enough money for first and last month’s rent plus deposit on housing was out of the question and would have taken years at the rate I was finding work. Additionally, without a permanent position, I had no reliable source of income. Even if I had somehow been able to land an apartment or a roommate, there was no way of knowing whether I would be able to continue paying rent or would find myself evicted.

 

Some people might argue that you weren’t really homeless because you were living in a trailer. How would you answer that criticism?

The Federal definition of homelessness does encapsulate “mobile homeless” vehicle-dwellers, as well as those living in hotels, as they are not considered fixed, regular and adequate accommodations designed for permanent habitation. Clearly, I was lucky enough to have a resource that many homeless people do not, and I am so grateful for it. But the “mobile homeless” are the fastest growing subset of the homeless population, with the recession, and you have to remember that this wasn’t like I was living in a luxury RV or a trailer park (which I couldn’t have afforded).

It was a parking lot. There were no utility hookups, no water or electricity. I boiled water on my car radiator to cook food. I bought a $10/month membership at a mom-n-pop gym 8 miles away and drove there to shower every other day. I purchased a jumbo flashlight at Wal-Mart and aimed it at the ceiling of the trailer at night so that it wasn’t pitch black inside, and I could read or build résumés.

I realized the legality of my staying there long-term might be shaky, despite Wal-Mart’s policy, and I lived in fear of the policy changing or an overzealous policeman having me towed. I just sort of eked out a sustainable existence and devised a routine that I stuck to as closely as possible, but it was nothing that could ever be considered a permanent solution.

 

What about your cell phone and laptop? Were those luxuries for a homeless person to hold on to?

I think that in such a technology-driven age, they are necessities for anybody, and especially homeless people if they want to get back up on their feet. Without a laptop, how was I to efficiently reach out to as many potential employers as possible? Without a cell phone, how were employers or temp agencies to contact me for telephone interviews or job offers? I wasn’t always homeless. These were resources that I had when I became homeless. Sure, I could have sold my several-years-old cell phone and laptop for a paltry sum (not anywhere near enough for even one month of rent), and bought a few hamburgers with it. But then the hamburgers would be gone and I would have thrown away some of my greatest resources.

 

Your dog, Fezzik, is an important part of your life. Was it difficult keeping a dog while homeless?

It absolutely was. Homeless men and women having pets is an extremely controversial issue. And I knew from the beginning that if I reached a point where I wouldn’t be able to take care of Fezzik properly, I would have to find an adoptive home for him, despite how much it would crush me. He is a Neapolitan Mastiff, a huge lovable lunk, and he served not only as my companion during times of loneliness (and there were many), but as my protector. Despite his sweetness, he has a very deep, formidable bark, and people give me a wide berth when they see me walking down the street with him. It was a source of much reassurance, because being not only homeless, but a homeless woman, left me in a highly vulnerable position.

 

How did you meet Matt, the fellow homeless blogger from the UK who would become your boyfriend?

We initially met via Twitter. He ran a highly respected website online that served as a community for homeless and formerly homeless individuals. He picked up my blog on his RSS feed through an initial tweet that I sent out. He asked me to write some guest posts for his site, which I did, and we be came close rather quickly.

When we fell in love, it was a very new experience for me, because growing up the way I did, I had never experienced love before. In the book, it was important to me to convey that we were not two “homeless” people; we were first and foremost two people who just happened not to have a home. Time doesn’t freeze, feelings don’t disappear, and the need for connection doesn’t dissipate just because I lost my home. Like most homeless people, I did my best to try and move on with my life despite my housing predicament.

 

Your story became a media sensation when you landed an internship with Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll. How did you make that happen while living in a trailer in California?

She was one of my favorite advice columnists because she has a very funny, down-to-earth, yet brutally honest writing style that I related to. I had been reading her column for nine years. On a whim, I wrote her a letter explaining my situation and asking for advice. Several months later, not only did she publish my letter and her response in Elle, but she offered me a telecommuting internship that would forever change my life, open a lot of doors for me, and also provide me with an expanded platform to talk about homelessness.

 

What would be your first piece of advice to a person who suddenly finds themselves homeless?

Have a good cry, get it all out, and then figure out what resources you have. Hold onto as many essentials as you can, and work out a survival plan. If you can get into a sustainable routine you’re halfway there. Positivity and hope are also so important to cultivate, because it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into depression and bogged down by it. Once that happens, it’s that much harder to shake off the inertia and get yourself rolling again. I know because I’ve been there. To dig yourself out of homelessness, you need to think positive and proactive as often as possible. Once you’re in the situation, your most important asset is, of course, yourself; your mind. Take care of it.

 

You have a new book and a job. Do you still consider yourself homeless?

I recently got a wonderful, permanent job that I adore, with awesome and supportive co-workers, so that’s a huge bonus. I’ve been there about three months. And yes, I have a book coming out, which is exciting and which I’m hoping will reach a wider audience, alter perceptions and stereotypes about what it means to be homeless, and invite further discussion as to solutions.

The Federal government would still consider me homeless, though I consider myself in sort of a limbo state. Right now, I’m living in a converted shed on a lot in the middle of the Southern California desert. I commute 80 miles round-trip to work every day from there. The property owner rents the lot to homeless and down-on-their luck individuals on a month-to-month basis, so it’s become a sort of informal homeless commune in which we live out of campers, vehicles, or converted sheds and garages. Similar makeshift residences and “tent cities” have sprung up in the news all over the nation since the recession, so I suppose we’re in good company.

It is a step up from a camper in a Wal-Mart parking lot, for which I’m super grateful. But it’s not a permanent home by any stretch of the imagination. I know that there are no “Cinderella” stories and that I’ll have to work extra hard to get myself out of this, and it’s what I do, day in and day out. What this book has given me, more than anything, is a voice that many homeless people don’t have. I’m hoping more than anything that it helps to put a spotlight on them and give them the recognition and voice they lack. I want solutions for all homeless people, regardless of background or circumstance. And if I can make it happen for myself too, then I’m just peachy with that.