The interviewer walks slowly through the garden gate, looking around, inspecting. I notice now that the Italian cypress needs to be trimmed; the Boston ivy has survived the Santa Ana winds but is wild and everywhere.
I greet her as she approaches the door. She does not smile and I wonder if something in the air bothers her or she is simply not a smiler. Either she wears the look of a woman about to disapprove or I’m now ridiculously sensitive, having agreed for the first time to an interview at my home.
The interviewer keeps looking around. She has a notable resemblance to my mother. Before I can invite her into my living room she walks quickly into the kitchen. The black suitcase by the kitchen door, tagged from San Francisco International, takes her attention. “You’re going to unpack that soon, right?” she says. “You returned from San Francisco days ago.”
She knows my book tour schedule so I take this to mean she has done her research—a careful interviewer.
“Oh, I’ll get to it. I’ve been really busy lately,” I say lamely.
Upstairs in my bedroom sits another unpacked black bag, that one from the previous trip to Chicago, but I’m not about to confess to this.
“But the clothes,” she says, drawing in her breath. “They’re going to be a mess when they come out.”
“Maybe not,” I say. “I’m a good packer.” She raises her eyebrows. “In fact, Gina once made fun of the way I line sleeves with tissue paper to keep them from wrinkling.”
It’s a contradiction, I know, packing so carefully, then not caring to unpack.
The tissue trick comes from my Aunt Marianne, who isn’t an actual aunt but a close family friend. She also told my sister and me to consider traveling with a bottle of champagne. In a pinch one could even wash her undergarments in champagne. Aunt Marianne was the closest thing to Diana Vreeland or Coco Chanel my mid-Michigan hometown would ever experience. I never buy a handbag without imagining that Aunt Marianne would approve.
The unpacked suitcases, of course, would ruffle Aunt Marianne too.
The interviewer’s eyebrows stay raised for a remarkably long time. “Gina,” she says, in a somewhat reprimanding way. This is perhaps a faux pas, to have mentioned my friendship with Gina Frangello, the editor who assigned this interview, this early in our meeting.
“I was going to suggest we walk down to the plaza for Starbucks,” I say brightly. “Or we could drive over to the promenade,” I suggest. “The ocean view—it’s so clear today.”
“Outside Southern California, plazas and promenades are simply called strip malls,” she says, shaking her head. I feel defensive for a moment and want to point out the strip malls don’t have stacked stone and palm trees, but that’s no way to start an interview.
“Plus, you have a coffeemaker right there.” She points to the Grind & Brew not so successfully hidden behind the toaster.
“Oh. I don’t actually know how to use it,” I admit.
“It’s new?” the interviewer asks, throwing her messenger bag onto the counter.
“Oh no—I’ve had it for years. It was a wedding gift from my sister’s ex-boyfriend’s parents.” I hope maybe this information, specifically the word “ex-boyfriend,” will lead away from the Grind & Brew and toward discussing my book.
“How is it that you never learned to use it?” The eyebrows again.
“I prefer to go out for coffee. It gives me a break from my desk. And if I have people for dinner, I simply ask one of my dinner guests to make the coffee. After all, I made the meal.”
“How gracious,” she says. “And no one has ever called you out on this—on not having a clue about your kitchen appliances?”
She correctly assumes that there is more to my kitchen I cannot figure out. There is a red electric hand-mixer and the beaters never stay on correctly. They fly across the room and make a huge mess. And that Good Grips jar opener, Jesus Christ. I take a deep breath and remind myself that actually I can use the toaster. I toast a mean bagel so no one is going to starve here.
The interviewer literally taps her foot. If Aunt Marianne had ever had an interviewer to her house there would have been an espresso machine and homemade pastries and possibly someone well-paid to help with it all.
“Oh yes,” I say. “One Christmas, my mother’s fiancé tried to instruct me how to use this stuff. I thought that was obnoxious.”
“So you find the helpful actions of perfectly nice men obnoxious?”
We stand at the island in my kitchen. This is not going as planned for either of us, I believe. “Are we talking about my book now?” I ask. Because it seems possible that question could be her lead-in.
“Are we?” she says, but doesn’t wait for a response and moves to a new question. “So do any of your actual ex-boyfriends recognize themselves in your work? Do they hate you?”
“They didn’t exactly adore me to begin with,” I laugh. She doesn’t.
“And there are not as many real life ex-boyfriends as the book would lead you to suspect. I was a late bloomer. I had my first kiss at sixteen. The man who would become my husband moved in with me when we were twenty-three. So my entire dating life was seven years, but I chose so badly that in seven years I acquired a lifetime of material.”
The interviewer looks at me blankly. She is the first person I have ever said this to who has not laughed at least a little. “I see,” she says.
“If I had been really worried about that sort of thing I would have employed the Joyce Carol Oates rule.”
“The Joyce Carol Oates rule?”
“Yes. If you are writing about a man in your real life, give him a small penis. He will never recognize himself. She does not mean that he will never admit that it’s him. She means that he will be completely incapable of knowing that it is.”
“Nice,” she says. She moves from the island, takes a seat at my kitchen table. I hear my dog outside barking at ravens in the canyon. “May I have a Smart Water?”
“Of course. But how do you know I have Smart Water?”
At this, she looks at me like I have three heads. “I’m trying to refrain from lecturing you about the plastic bottles.”
She fidgets in her seat while I get her Smart Water. She really does look like my mom.
She gulps down half the bottle at one time. I assume this interview may be nearly dead in the water, no pun intended, and begin to wonder how to apologize to my publisher for fucking it up when she goes back to her messenger bag and pulls out a notebook.
She clears her throat. “Your characters seem to be blessed—actually let’s say afflicted —with a certain wanderlust.”
She sits down again. I join her at the kitchen table. Okay. Now we are cooking.
“I love this word, wanderlust,” I say. “The strong desire to hike or explore or wander …. I discovered only recently that this word comes from German Romanticism. There is another German word I love, fernweh, which means an ache for distant places. But I’m embarrassingly not well read in this area—German Romanticism. Even though my father kept his German language books his entire life. Just before he started dating my mother he had been an exchange student in Germany, in a small town outside of Hamburg. And for a brief time I lived near the Goethe Institute in Chicago. So at some point certainly I should have adventured into German literature.”
The interviewer yawns. “So, the way you go on and on about a single word … I assume ‘Linguistics’ is your favorite story in the book?”
“It is a story that is important to me and was very important for me to write, but I’m not sure I have a favorite.”
When I was a young teen and Aunt Marianne gave her legendary advice to adults I always did my best to eavesdrop. I have no idea why I think of this while my interviewer takes her next gulp of water, except that Aunt Marianne was so often my favorite.
“I see,” the interviewer says. “You have said before that this book represents eight years of your creative life.”
“Probably even more than that,” I say.
I look outside and don’t see my dog at her favorite spot in the shade, but hear her barking echo in the canyon. Once Aunt Marianne recommended to my mom’s friends that they hold ice cubes against their husband’s testicles to make their erections last longer. I thought this was hilarious. The only thing I knew about erections then was that a boy in my class was really embarrassed by his and the way he got them inexplicably during advanced algebra.
The interviewer looks over her shoulder again to the Grind & Brew probably thinking how I’ve spent nearly a decade writing only one book all the while neglecting suitcases and not knowing how to make the coffee. I used to be organized, I almost tell her.
“I see. Is it true you once said you wanted to become the Liz Phair of short fiction?”
I laugh. She doesn’t.
I remember saying that once, years ago after too many drinks with my writing group at Café Med, but it worked into the conversation then. I’m not sure such a claim is going to work out of context, so I’m slightly relieved that she puts her pen down and stretches her hand at this moment.
“It would be fantastic to be the Liz Phair of anything, I think.”
“How much of this book is true?” she wants to know.
“That’s a very difficult question to answer. Stories ideally take on a life of their own so that later even the author may not remember which moments she experienced and which she created.”
The interviewer lowers her eyes, completely dissatisfied. “That’s cute,” she says, “but I’d really like to know how much of this stuff really happened.”
It’s official. She is a fembot for my mother.
“It’s fiction,” I say. “It’s not factual, but it’s true. My husband’s family is not like the family in ‘Blink and Release Me’, but the way one feels when they read that story—that’s the way they used to make me feel.”
She starts with the foot tapping again. “Can you be more specific, not about that story, but about the book as a whole. Some of these scenes must be autobiography.”
“Oh,” I say, finally getting it. “You want something more tangible, like a percentage.”
“I like numbers. A number would be great,” she says. There is almost a smile.
“A writer I love, Pam Houston, says her fiction is 86% true. That sounds right to me, but my number would come in slightly lower. I love fantasy, so let’s say 72%.”
She nods, still not completely pleased, but scribbles notes at least.
“You seem to have a weird thing about poets.”
“I’m probably too hard on them in ‘Ten Reasons Not to Sleep with a Poet’.”
“Do you write poetry?”
“No, but there was a time when I read a lot of poetry. Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, and Mark Strand. Carolyn Forche and Marie Howe. There is a biography of Anne Sexton that I love.”
I decide against telling her that the man who gave me the Anne Sexton biography insisted that I looked like Sexton and sounded a bit like her too. I don’t think this man ever met Anne Sexton; his university library had recordings of her readings. Of course I don’t look like Anne Sexton at all, but like that there is a man out there who believes I do.
“What are you working on now?”
“I’ve just started writing a novella.”
“That sounds profitable,” she says.
“Tell me some of the short fiction that influenced you as a younger writer.”
“’Jakarta,’ by Alice Munro; ‘Two Deer’ by Rick Bass.” I love this question, the chance to list my idols. “‘People Like That Are The Only People Here,’ by Lorrie Moore.”
I could go on and on, but the interviewer holds up her hand for me to stop. “The barking out there,” she says. “That can’t be your dog? You don’t seem like a dog person.”
She stands and goes to the window. “Because there are no dogs in your book. Nearly 200 pages and not a single dog. I kept thinking, Why the hell doesn’t at least one of them have a dog? I mean, really, who the hell knows so many dogless people?”
“I wasn’t a dog person when I wrote the book. Since then my young daughter convinced me to become one. That actually is my dog out there.”
We stare out the kitchen window and Lilly is at the gate now, barking to her best friend Miles, an adorable Pekingese who lives nearby. “Yorkie or Silky?” the interviewer wants to know.
“Morkie, actually” I say.
“Figures,” she says, grabbing for and gulping down the remaining Smart Water.
“What is her name?”
“And you’re not kidding,” she says, taking this in. “So who is her friend out there, Lululemon?”
This time I’m the one not laughing. I have indeed promised my daughter that our next puppy can be named Lululemon.
“I think we’ve covered all my questions,” she says, “but I’d love to play with your dog. Whatever she is, she’s really cool. Do you mind if I photograph her? Do you mind if I call her Champ?”
And before I can answer she is outside in the garden, pulling Lilly’s pink ball from the ground and throwing it to her. It’s true that Lilly is the easy girl around here, the one who is organized and often guesses correctly how things work. Lilly catches the ball and runs fast to the interviewer. No matter what the interviewer calls her, she will be ready to make kisses.