Michelle Orange: The TNB Self-InterviewBy TNB Nonfiction
February 27, 2013
Hi Michelle, what’s new? Do you hate that question?
Hate is a strong word, why are we talking about hate right off the bat?
Why indeed. So, how are you, what do you know for sure?
That’s my dad’s opener. What if we just did an entire interview of false starts? Where you open with something innocuous and then one or both of us becomes too self-conscious about it to continue?
I don’t see you asking any questions.
Let’s talk about your last interviewer, a friend of yours, who in the course of interviewing you observed that he finds you “physically evasive” in person.
How did you know that?
Don’t be cute.
He did say that. People say strange things.
So you dispute it.
What it was is that I wanted to do the interview over the phone and he insisted on email. Then he admitted that he doesn’t like the phone because he “likes looking at people” (in person was not an option). Implying that I don’t, which is obviously not true, although it is true that I find being looked at more complicated, especially by a laser-eyed writer who “likes looking at people.”
You feel scrutinized.
Well that must be it. Because it’s not something I hear from other people, and yet he stated it as a widely acknowledged, self-evident fact. What I realized is that I’m very sensitive to feeling scrutinized, and if I sense that happening I become very interested in the closest window.
You learned something.
I learned it’s not as fun as you’d think to be interviewed by a friend.
It’s good that we’re talking then.
Yes, we’re safe.
You’ve told me that you think of the book as a bunch of magazine pieces, and yet it was easier to publish them in a book than in a bunch of magazines—why?
Because I have the coolest editors in the world. They wanted me to chase whatever rainbows I could or would if I had the chance.
And so you went to Hawaii.
Yes. That was not part of the original plan. But once I had the opportunity I just started booking flights—to Halifax, Honolulu, San Diego.
They must have thought you signed a book contract and decided to hit the beach.
They kind of did. But I eventually let them know I was working on some new ideas and hoped I’d have good stuff to show them.
Why Honolulu, then?
Because that is where the American Psychiatric Association held its 2011 annual conference. For a number of years I had been following the revision of their DSM manual, which is due to be published this May. I was interested in the stakes—the manual sets the terms for what we define as mental illness. This is the fifth revision, and it proposed a number of serious changes that were being fought about within and outside the psychiatric community. DSM-5, for instance, proposes a whole new category of mental illness called “behavioral addiction.” The last revision had an enormous impact, and caused certain diagnostic numbers to spike. Autism, ADD, anxious depression—the drug companies were part of it, which is the problem when one body can set down medically and legally definitions of what is considered normal and what qualifies as a psychiatric disorder. I am fascinated by all of this stuff, and I knew the conference would be focused on it. Once I heard it was in Honolulu, I thought oh hell yes.
Was there a luau?
There were numerous luaus, and I was not invited to any of them.
Are you getting any better at describing what the book is “about”?
When someone asked a friend of mine for the elevator pitch for his book, he said, “The elevator pitch is ‘go see a movie.’” I thought that was hilarious. I’m not that cranky, I like to know what books are about too. I am getting a little better—but it’s ten essays on ten different subjects, so there’s a range. One thing I think holds them together is an interest in various kinds of limits, and various ways of warping, reckoning with, or avoiding them.
The DSM, for instance, felt to me like an example of what can happen when a body with a wide and very specific influence struggles with limits—its own limits, and the greater limit to what can be known, say, about the human mind. Other essays get into: limits between people, limits to what we can know about each other; limits to how much information we can take in, generate, retain, or to how far a person can run in trying to avoid these questions.
I wanted to look at death as the ultimate limit in “Have a Beautiful Corpse” and “One Senior, Please.” The latter is an essay about my grandmother, a great movie-lover who also suffered from devastating depressions, the last one striking in the final years of her life. It is sequenced together with the Hawaii essay and “Beirut Rising,” which documents a trip I took to Beirut in the middle of its 2008 political crisis, and they all end on a beach—the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean. It felt right, after thrashing around with their more various forms, to keep winding up at the edge of a literal, physical limit.
I’d love to hear more, but our time is up.
See you on the beach!
MICHELLE ORANGE‘s essays, journalism, criticism, and fiction have appeared in various publications, including The New York Times, The Nation, The Village Voice, and The Virginia Quarterly. She is the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and a founding contributing editor of The Rumpus. The Sicily Papers, an epistolary travelogue, was published in 2006. Her latest book, This is Running for Your Life, is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Leave a Reply