It’s not a slapstick book, no. But the gap between what you expect and what you get instead—the ludicrously unexpected—is the definition of a punchline. If readers find the book funny, that’s probably because it’s about a life in which incompatible values coincide. I straddled social classes. I straddled opposed definitions of womanhood. This made for predicaments: the wrong words and behaviors in the right setting; the right words and behaviors in the wrong setting. And I prefer being amused, not stricken.
You and feminism came of age at roughly the same time: leaving behind early ideals and recalibrating these to fit real-world contingencies. What was the difference between what you hoped for and what was possible?
Feminism and I came of age at the same time from opposite directions. I was headed for traditional marriage. My supreme ambition was that my future husband be reasonably sober. I liked sewing and cooking. Writing was a secret hobby, “an emission.” When I was jolted awake to new possibilities, I held onto old possibilities. If feminism started out as a manifesto that revealed itself as harder to put into practice than anyone had figured, the reverse happened to me. I started out in a world arranged for men and realized that marriage was harder for me to put into practice than I’d figured. My failure to be a successfully conventional wife “caused” my career. I got a PhD because I was single again. Or because I was involved with an unemployed or unemployable man and someone had to be the breadwinner. To everyone’s surprise, especially mine, I turned out to be good at school. Lost chances, routes denied: these became detours to a better life.
Rosellen Brown said your book raises questions about what changed for women “not disillusioned but unillusioned” about pursuing opportunities men always had. What illusions got lost?
That getting jobs previously reserved for men would be the big equalizer. But vestigial sexism—even in the workplace—isn’t eradicated by hiring policies, or because you have the right wardrobe or voice pitch or whatever. Centuries of beliefs fuel sexism. Women are unconsciously complicit too. We’re not acculturated to negotiate for money, for fairness, to insist. I had opinions but no conviction about them until I was at least forty.
Another illusion was that “sexually liberated” means the same thing to women as it does to men. In theory, the sexual revolution equalized women’s pleasure and prerogative. It’s probably an improvement on fetishized virginity, true, but it’s made sexual attention more menacing. Its biggest lie was that it would make the double-standard disappear.
It’s a book about how you moved up in the world but dated men who did not. You “dated down.” Is this inevitable for women with aspirations?
When I was young, people said “you’re educating yourself out of the marriage market,” or “you can’t have it all.” I’d roll my eyes. But I secretly worried they had a point, badly expressed. I’d once in a while see a marriage with two serious careers—rare enough back then that they were the subject of newspaper feature stories and ongoing speculation. People wondered whether the husband was threatened by his wife’s career, whether housework was shared. Today, apparently, if I understand Cheryl Sandberg, this problem is entirely solved. You lean in, but also pay a nanny, a housekeeper, a cook, a lawn guy.
It’s still true today that men are interested in an accomplished woman in complicated ways—whether the man is less accomplished, more accomplished, roughly equivalent. Old instincts about who’s attractive and how that relates to traditional gender roles didn’t vanish in a generation or two. No one thinks twice if an ambitious man marries a woman with no aspiration except to facilitate a gracious lifestyle. Yet my spellcheck won’t recognize “househusband” because the concept is rare, so new, though “housewife” is of course overfamiliar. When a woman’s career is intense, whether the man’s is or isn’t, the notion of who’s wooed and who’s wooing can feel strangely uncharted, even for women.
Do you use real names for ex-boyfriends?
No. But I draw attention to the fun to be had while inventing names.
Were they proverbial “bad boyfriends”?
No. If I scapegoat anyone, it’s me. Most were kind, decent. They were all terribly interesting, perhaps too interesting for the long haul. We’d run out of common ground. I was changing fast. Quickly, I was no longer the woman they’d first met. In ten years, I lived in five states. In ten years, I went from being a waitress at the Topper Café who moonlighted at the X-rated drive-in movie theater to being a professor who’d published a book that won a pretty big award. I had social class vertigo. I barely knew who I was, so it was a lot to expect my boyfriends would. They may have felt left behind, out of options. But few people are “bad”. I don’t believe books in which the narrator is put-upon and the secondary characters are conniving. That’s self-pity, self-congratulations, so monotonous.
What is it like to meet people who’ve read your books and know your secrets?
It’s only awkward if it’s someone I know in real life who doesn’t usually read who’s now reading pruriently. But I worried about that when I was writing fiction too, because people conflate you with even your fiction because it came from your brain. I worried about it more with fiction because I was younger then and cared how I seemed to everyone. I’m writing for the public, but I’m not hoping for approval in every demographic. I think of the writer-reader contract intimately: one reader at a time, a reader invested in the subject. Also, by the time I’m done writing, it feels like a book, not like life.
Even sex scenes?
People get so excited about sex, as in: sex has been had here! Even fairly tame sex. What’s interesting isn’t technique or bodily fluids but when and where the sex took place—not just “that Tuesday night,” but that decade with its sexual politics, or in that social environment with its mores. I don’t use salacious details, though I’m clear whether the sex was fair-to-middling or ecstatic. And since it’s a book about my “education” told through the lens of serial monogamy, sex is relevant. Yet what makes sex in books fascinating is people. In literature, sex is a trope. In life it’s probably just sex, though I suppose it can be symbolic. But in books, it explores conflict, emotions, agency, power.
Have you written about men’s lives with the same interest that you write about women’s lives?
I’ve written fiction from the male point of view, so I hope so. I’m not uninterested in men’s lives, and there are overlaps between “the male condition” and “the female condition.” But there are differences. Men have different constraints and freedoms than women. And, to be honest, women readers are well-informed about men’s constraints and freedoms because we’ve read a lot of books about men. Growing up, I read what the bookmobile delivered, or what the paperback book rack at Rexall Drugstore had for sale. I have three degrees in English too. For years, I struggled to even find books by or about women. At some point, it was inconceivable that I shouldn’t be writing about women.
What women writers were you exposed to during truly formative years?
When I was in college, “contemporary American women writers” were Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Mary McCarthy. It’s not only a short list, but this was around 1980, so “contemporary” was a fluid term. I flipped through my college anthology to be sure, and these writers weren’t assigned either—I didn’t find underlining or margin notes. I read pop culture writers like Elaine Dundy and Erica Jong. I read the poetry of Heather McHugh and Diane Wakowski. I discovered Jean Stafford, a great writer now mostly remembered as Robert Lowell’s most shat-upon ex-wife, but several of her stories are among the best of the last century. Two big-deal books for me were Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets and Lee Zacharias’ Helping Muriel Make it Through the Night. Female characters with feistiness and bravura. Both authors were a few years older than me. I read those books and studied the author photos, thinking: yes.
Okay, “truth.” How do you depict a memory without creating significance where there was none?
Though an event might have been insignificant in 1975, or 1985, if you’re remembering it now, it’s significant. Memoirs don’t depict experience. They interrogate it. Finding significance later is a mature consciousness weighing in: hindsight, which is essential. But hindsight is interspersed with immediacy: your naïve, younger self too. But not all of the time. Unmediated experience is life, not art. My standard for “truth” is that something happened, and I have my perspective, though someone else of course has his or hers.
Also, when you play events for comedy, everyone notices that and accepts that the realism of comedy has slightly different rules. Certain notes are held longer. Certain details get forcefully juxtaposed. That’s still a matter of perception enhanced by hindsight. It’s not jeopardizing truth, because truth is subjective: an individual perception.
What would your current self tell your former self?
Not to worry so much about bad decisions, miscalculations, because it all turns into information you use, not just as a writer (though there’s that too), but for living well.
How would your former self respond?
She’d tell me to shove off. She needs her trials and error. That’s “education.”
DEBRA MONROE, the author of six books, is known as “fierce” writer who presents “ever-hopeful lost souls with engaging humor and sympathy” (Kirkus Reviews), for prose that’s “rangy, thoughtful, ambitious, and widely, wildly knowledgeable” (The Washington Post), but also “deliciously wacky” (Publisher’s Weekly), “fine and funky, marbled with warmth and romantic confusion, but not a hint of sentimentality” (The Boston Globe). Her new memoir, My Unsentimental Education, recounts how she moved from one social class to another, with impostor syndrome by day, while at night she kept dating what the book jacket copy politely calls “blue-collar men,” though most were unemployed, small-time drug dealers, or guys in bands. Both the story her steady rise into the professional class and a parallel history of unsuitable exes, this book reminds us how accidental even a good life can be. Phillip Lopate writes: “This picaresque memoir of a woman with brains and desires (not always operating in unison). . .tracks a runaway life with consummate control and aphoristic wit.” Her previous books have won many awards, including the Flannery O’Connor Award. She’s published nonfiction in the New York Times, Salon.com, The American Scholar, Guernica, and her essays have been shortlisted for Best American Essays. She lives in Austin, Texas and teaches at Texas State University.