Category: Interview (Page 1 of 2)

TCR Talks with Gayle Brandeis

By: Angela M. giles

I am not sure when I first became aware of Gayle Brandeis and her work. It was a few years ago, and truthfully, it was the story of her mother’s suicide that drew me to her. There is a strange bond between survivors of suicide, a shared understanding of that particular kind of loss and the way in which our kind of grief is often messy. I read a few of her essays online and was hooked. I poured through whatever I could get my hands on by her, and her poetry is amazing, by the way. I knew she was writing a book about her mother’s suicide, and whereas saying I was looking forward to it sounds a bit morose, I was. So, when the opportunity to speak with her about writing the book was presented, I was thrilled. It turns out, Gayle is as brilliant and kind in person as you hope she is, and she has an amazing ability to distill grace from even the most painful moments.

The Art of Misdiagnosis is Gayle Brandeis’ remarkable exploration of her mother’s suicide, which occurred just days after Gayle gave birth to her youngest child. It is a story of mental illness, physical illness, and the ways we tell each other stories to avoid telling each other the truth. The narrative structure allows Gayle to present starkly uncomfortable facts about her mother and herself and gives us an account of the frantic weeks surrounding the suicide. She incorporates, often with chilling effect, segments from a documentary her mother was working on at the time of her death titled The Art of Misdiagnosis. In using the title of her mother’s unfinished work to explore a life finished so abruptly, Gayle underscores how much we do not understand about each other, even those closest to us.

Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement (judged by Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and contest founder Barbara Kingsolver), Self Storage, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a Read on Wisconsin pick, as well as a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body. Her essays, poems, and short fiction have been widely published and received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, and a Notable Mention in The Best American Essays 2016. She teaches in the low-residency MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012 to 2014 and was called a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine.

The Coachella Review: It seems strange to call a book on suicide stunning, but that is the word that immediately comes to mind. Even the visual presentation of the book is striking. Can you explain the choice of the cover photo?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much. Bob Kosturko, the wonderful creative director at Beacon Press, requested I send along several photos of my mother and her paintings to consider for the cover. My mom had been a model when she was a young woman, and I thankfully have much of her portfolio from that time, so I had some great photos to choose from. I sent at least a dozen Bob’s way, along with her own artwork, never guessing he would blend the two. When he first sent me the cover image, my young mother looking directly into my eyes, her face surrounded by one of her paintings (“Rochelle’s Rhapsody,” which refers to the electroshock therapy her sister Rochelle received as a young woman at the hands of my mother’s lover, a married psychiatrist), I started to weep. It literally took my breath away. Such a perfect cover, uniting my mom with her art. When I received the galleys, it was hard for me to look at them at first—each time I saw my mother’s face staring up at me from the little side table in my living room, I would feel an uncomfortable zing through my body. I have since gotten used to having the image around. I am able to meet my mother’s gaze now, which is maybe what writing the memoir was all about for me in the first place.

TCR: The title of your book is the same as the title of your mother’s film. You share a discussion with your mother in which she accuses your father of giving the title to another artist just to spite her. On her best days, how do you think she would feel about you using her title for your book?

GB: That is such a good question! My first impulse is to say she would be pissed, that she would accuse me of stealing her idea, her thunder, that she would never be able to forgive me for such a transgression, but I’m thinking of her at her worst, not her best. Perhaps, at her best, she would be honored; perhaps, she would even see it as a collaboration of sorts (which it did come to feel like). She often accused me of not respecting her and her ideas; I hope she would be pleased by how I came to appreciate her and her creativity freshly through this project.

TCR: When did you know that you would write this book, and when did you realize you needed to include her film? What was that realization like?

GB: I wanted to write about her and her delusions even before her suicide, but she had asked me to not write about her while she was alive, and I had held myself back accordingly. Shortly after her death, one of the things that gave me a modicum of solace was the fact that I knew I was now free to write about her; I knew that writing would be my best way to try to make sense out of everything. It took some time to be able to start to write, though—her command stuck with me even after she was gone (Plus, I was in shock and had just given birth, and it was awhile before I could do much of anything.)

I didn’t think about using “The Art of Misdiagnosis” as my title until 2013, when I was re-diagnosed with an illness my mom had thought was a misdiagnosis when I was a teenager, and I started to think about how that title could work on a couple of different levels as I explored my mom’s life and our history together. I didn’t consider weaving the film itself into the memoir for several months after this epiphany, probably because I didn’t feel ready to watch the film, didn’t feel ready to see her moving around on the screen, to hear her voice. Then, I was invited to a women writers’ retreat and realized the time away could be a good opportunity to sit with her film without any of the usual life distractions getting in the way. Once I started to watch it, I realized I needed to include the film in the book, that it would give my mom a chance to have her own voice in the text, that it would give a window into her world that she had built on her own, not just one I had constructed for her.

TCR: From my own experience, I can comfortably state that writing about a parent’s successful suicide is hard. Getting into that space both intellectually and emotionally and then writing about it can be tricky. Did anything scare you about this project?

GB: Everything scared me about this project! I was scared about the feelings I was going to churn up in myself; I was scared I might not get the writing right; I was scared I might not get my mom right; I was scared about upsetting my family; I was scared of being judged for things I both did and didn’t do. The whole enterprise was terrifying. But ultimately, I was more scared of not writing this book than I was of writing it. I knew if I didn’t dive into this project, I would be denying myself a very necessary part of my own grieving process, denying myself a vital opportunity for reckoning and growth.

TCR: A couple of themes struck me as I read; one was the difference between choice and need. Indeed, your mother remarks in an email “both Gayle and Elizabeth never understood my leaving their father was not a choice but a need.” Everyone seemed to have a need to believe your mother would be ok, that sidestepping her delusions would somehow diffuse them, and your mother had a need to hold onto the delusions; they felt like her framework. Given what you know of her final days and moments, how much of what she did, from seeking sanctuary to taking her life, was choice versus need?

GB: Another really compelling question–and such good insights; thank you! Yes, my family did really have that need—perhaps delusional in our own way, surely steeped in denial—to believe my mother would be okay, and yes, her delusions really did provide a framework for her life (I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before but, oh, that hits home!). It breaks my heart, but I think so many of her final decisions were fueled by fear, by a force that was driving her rather than one she controlled. She sought sanctuary because she was scared people were following her and wanted to harm her; she may have taken her life because she was afraid her family was going to have her locked away. But there is part of me (perhaps, that same part that needed her to be okay) that hopes there was some clarity within her in those moments, some crystalline part in the midst of all the fear that made a conscious decision to leave this world, a final assertion of her own sovereignty.

TCR: The other thing I noticed is the role of women. Not that the men weren’t important or present (and certainly your husband was a strong figure), but men seemed to provide places of sanctuary whereas the women provided comfort and understanding. From you getting treatment from your friend Celia and being able to release negativity from your body to the fact that the description of your mother’s final moments happened to be conveyed by a female, there is such a strong sense of female community in the book. Was that intentional?

GB: I love this observation! This was definitely not intentional, but it makes perfect sense to me. I may have had a complicated relationship with my mom, but I’ve been lucky to have so many women in my life who have provided strength and healing and community and a different kind of nurturing than my mom was able to give. My mom didn’t trust other women—she always felt in competition with other women—which breaks my heart. I am so deeply grateful to all the women who helped midwife me through my journey with grief and am so happy to hear a sense of female community comes through in the book. I should mention I also felt buoyed by women writers whose example of writing bravely also helped carry me along, writers like Lidia Yuknavitch and Roxane Gay and Emily Rapp and so many more; so many women’s hands held me up—literally and metaphorically—through both the lived experience of my mother’s death and the writing of it.

TCR: You talked a lot about how your role as the Sick Girl and your mother’s role as the Mother of the Sick Girl were so linked that it was hard to tell who was sidekick to who. I felt that way while reading your book. At times, it was your story. At times, it was your mother’s story. You do such an amazing job detailing the measures you took to keep the Sick Girl narrative with your mother going, was it hard balancing the two stories while writing the book?

GB: It took a while to figure out that balance. I ended up cutting 20,000 words from the manuscript after it was under contract with Beacon Press—almost a full quarter of the book—because I realized I was spending too much time on my own life outside of my relationship with my mom, and it threw the balance out of whack. I’m glad I wrote those pages for my own understanding, and I’m glad they’re not in the book. I needed to focus more tightly on the two of us, our story together.

My former agent actually wanted me to drop the whole Sick Girl narrative from the memoir—she was concerned it would make readers uncomfortable—but I knew that it, more than anything, captured the complicated dynamic between me and my mom and informed our relationship the rest of her life. Rather than take it out of the book, I amicably took myself out of that agency.

TCR: The way you have chosen to present this story, her story, and your story is very different from other suicide memoirs I have read. You have a few threads going, your letters to her after she died, the narrative timeline, her film, and the four research pieces. What led you to the decision to construct the memoir in this way, and was any thread more challenging than the other?

GB: The different threads came about organically. After my therapist suggested I write a letter to my mom, the letter kept growing and growing, and at some point, I realized it could be a good way to give a deeper context to the present-tense narration I was writing. That present-tense narration was definitely the most challenging thread for me because I had to put myself directly back into those often traumatic moments as they were happening; the letters allowed more time for breath, for reflection—the present-tense story didn’t have that luxury and could be exhausting and painful to write. Other pieces flew to the manuscript like metal shavings to a magnet; as I started going through my mom’s files and our old emails, certain documents jumped out at me, really demanded to be included. The research element didn’t come until a later draft. I was thinking about doing more research to give further context to my family’s story; then, a writer friend suggested something similar, and I was off and running. Research was a welcome break from delving into my own story; plus, it shed new light on my own story (Learning about factitious disorders was so illuminating for me!). With all these moving parts, including the transcription of the film, crafting the manuscript became a bit like putting a puzzle together, as I arranged and rearranged the different pieces to see how they could best fit. That was actually quite a soothing process for me; the writing, itself, was so wrenching, so emotional, and the crafting gave me some distance from it, turned it into something for my mind to play with.

TCR: How did your sister feel about that part of the book and your project, in general?

GB: She has given me her full-hearted blessing, which I am more grateful for than I could ever say, especially because it took a while for her to make peace with the project. I almost stopped writing it for a stretch of time because it was so painful for her—she told me it felt like a kind of violence for me to be revealing things that she wasn’t choosing to reveal, herself, and that was so incredibly hard to hear. But she did a lot of processing around the issue and saw that I was sharing my own story, which was different from hers (even though, of course, our stories overlap), that we each had a different relationship with our mom, that our mom had expected different things from each of us, and she understood I needed to write this for my own well-being. I feel so lucky and thankful to have been able to work through the hard stuff that the memoir stirred up together, so grateful to have this amazing woman as my sister.

TCR: I particularly liked the inclusion of your mother’s film and appreciated the different type-set and her artwork. Toward the end of the book, you state, “I still don’t know what to do with your film. All I can do for now is weave it into my own story, give you a chance to speak for yourself.” Do you have other plans for the film, or will you let this stand as its moment?

GB: I’m still trying to decide what, if anything, to do with the film. It’s not something my family wants to release in its entirety because it has a lot of information that may not be medically sound; I was considering making my own mini-documentary, where I could be in conversation with parts of the film, the way I am in the book, but haven’t had the time to make that happen. I think I may post snippets of it online so readers who are curious can get a taste of it and see my mom in action.

TCR: I know the story exists because your mother committed suicide, but can you imagine, realistically, another ending?

GB: It’s hard to imagine another ending at this point. Her last psychotic break was so much worse than any other before it; I don’t know if she could have climbed out of it. From what I’ve read and from conversations with psychiatrists, I know her kind of delusional disorder, which, of course, was never properly diagnosed, is incredibly hard to treat successfully, and it had reached a new level at the end. Had she lived, it would have been very hard to interact with her; I would have felt unsafe having the baby near her if she had stayed in a similar state. When I think about this alternative, I do feel a sense of relief that she is gone, and then I feel guilty for feeling that way. But that eternally hopeful-to-the-point-of-denial part of me does sometimes wonder if, eventually, she might have gotten to a more lucid place again, if I ever would have gotten my mom back.

TCR: What is the one thing you would like us to be left with after finishing the book—the one thing you want your reader to know?

GB: It’s hard to choose just one thing. Really, I want readers to take from the book whatever they each individually need. I would love for people to put the book down feeling less alone, perhaps, or more open-hearted, more free to tell their own story. But I don’t want to prescribe their journey. I want each reader to find it for themselves.

Angela M. Giles’s work appears online at The Nervous Breakdown, The Coachella Review, Medium: Human Parts, and other journals. She has been featured in print at The Healing Muse and is a contributor to Shades of Blue, an anthology on depression and suicide from Seal Press. She is an editor at The Manifest-Station. Angela lives in Massachusetts, where she conquers the world, one day at a time.

TCR Talks with Helena Echlin and Malena Watrous

By: David Olsen

When I found out that Helena Echlin and Malena Watrous, two instructors I’ve taken classes from at the Stanford Online Writer’s Studio, were collaborating on a YA novel, I was curious about their work. When I heard what their book was about, I was even more intrigued. A book about “mean girls with superpowers,” sounded entertaining and original. The protagonist, fifteen-year-old Laurel Goodwin, wakes up to find her older sister, Ivy, missing from their shared bedroom and is forced to team up with mean girls from Laurel’s high school to find her.

After reading the book and seeing all the amazing reviews online, I caught up with the authors, who graciously agreed to do a brief interview for The Coachella Review.

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TCR Talks with Melissa Febos

by dein sofley

In her new memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos explores the legacy of her two fathers: her birth father, a Native American, with whom she reconnects over the course of the book, and the father who raised her, a sea captain.

Sections weave her quest together with moments taken from her childhood through escapist tendencies that manifested in sexual obsessions and a drug addiction in her young-adult years and into an obsessive love affair with a married woman that triggers Febos’ fear of abandonment. Historical tidbits expand the narration along with digressions into texts ranging from Homer and Jung to the film Labyrinth. The book confronts the legacy of addiction, the traumatic “legacy of abandonment, of erasure” that was Febos’ birthright, and considers the forces that command utter devotion that can both destroy and redeem us.

Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Whip Smart. Her essays have appeared in publications like Tin House, Granta, and the New York Times. She’s on the board of directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and teaches writing at Monmouth University and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She lives in Brooklyn.

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: When I first read the title of your memoir, Abandon Me, it seemed like a dare. What was your intent in choosing the title?

MELISSA FEBOS: The title came to me suddenly; it wasn’t something I considered with intent. Usually, a title is the last thing I add to a piece of writing, but with this book, it came to me before I’d written the book. I suppose there was a lot of intention in it, but not of my conscious, thinking mind. It felt like a message from the deeper regions of my intelligence and imagination. The dual meanings arrived more as an instruction for how to direct the book. The title suggests the place I hoped to arrive at by the end of the writing process, and indeed, it was. That is, I wanted to move—both within myself and within the book’s progression—from one definition of abandonment to another. Perhaps the dare that you felt was a dare I made to myself, an entreaty to transform abandonment from a fearsome thing to a sought thing, a thing one might demand, through the alchemy of writing. So, I think the title helped guide me in some ways, like a lighthouse or North Star.

TCR: Portions of your memoir appeared as essays in various publications before the book was published. Was the aim of your essays to amass a collection and create a memoir?

MF: No. For a while, I was simultaneously writing the essays and ruminating on this book (for which I already had a title, written on an index card and tacked on my wall). About four essays in, I realized that they were the book. There was some repetition in the essays that I thought would be redundant in a book (if I ever thought about it), though it turned out that part of the book’s work was to examine particular events from multiple perspectives, to highlight the prismatic nature of pivotal moments and the multiple narratives we can build around them. I still consider the book an essay collection more than a memoir—the pieces are discrete, especially in terms of form, though I do think they cohere into one complete thing.

TCR: In the book, you seamlessly mingle your ruminations with astronomy, psychology, mythology, history and analyses of pop culture. Ferdinand the Bull, Jung’s Red Book and the film Labyrinth figure prominently. Many of your references circle around and through the larger story, bending time and elucidating overarching themes. What was your process in writing, researching and incorporating such a broad range of outside sources that you assembled into a cohesive narrative?

MF: The integration of outside sources was an organic process, and not one that I planned. The process of writing is also that of thinking, for me. I don’t quite know what I think about a subject until I write about it. It’s difficult for me to “think” abstractly, difficult for me to progress through ideas. I have to materialize the process somehow, and writing does that best. This book is, among other things, a record of my contemplation of a set of experiences and ideas: different concepts of “love,” identity, addiction, attachment, abandonment, and so forth. I had some urgent questions that were prompted by my own choices, such as: How could a person so versed in psychology, with so many years of therapy and recovery under her belt, have gotten embroiled in such a harrowing and compulsive, such an “unhealthy” love affair? Or, why had I never been curious about my birth father until I was thirty-two? Why this lifelong tendency for self-erasure through substances, people, and even stories? And how had building narratives been a survival tool, and also a way to hide from truths I feared? Since childhood, I have looked to texts for answers to my biggest questions. Books have always felt easier to ask than people. Unlike people, I am not beholden to them. They have no reaction to my confidences. I can put them down or return to them at any point. And they are consistent, even if my interpretations change over time. The questions I needed to answer in this book were so vulnerable. I had a lot of shame about the choices I’d made, ways that I’d behaved toward other people and myself. So, I went to my texts. Most of the sources that I bring into Abandon Me are old confidants—books or films or thinkers that I’ve consulted for a long time. I did some, but not a lot of research into new sources for the book. If the incorporation of those texts didn’t feel germane to the story, I wouldn’t have included them. But because it was so much a story about seeking insight, it felt very natural.

TCR: In your memoir, you wrote that “Books were my obsession, but music more succinctly captured emotion than any combination of words I found.” Do you listen to music when you write? Are there certain artists or albums that you listen to, to evoke a certain era or emotions when you’re writing a given topic?

MF: I do. I almost always listen to music when I write. Usually, I’ll find a handful of songs whose emotional tenor really matches that of the piece I’m working on, and then I’ll listen to them over and over for the duration of writing it. Sometimes, for an important scene, I’ll just play one song on repeat while I write it. The music works as a kind of emotional metronome, and helps me stay focused on the feeling that I’d trying to nail. It also helps me to easily re-enter the piece, or the scene, on a different day, or on an airplane, or in a café or a waiting room. Music helps me create a private space that I can enter and work, no matter where I am.

TCR: As a writer, writing her life experience, how do you maintain the emotional distance required for you to sustain objectivity of your subject matter?

MF: Oh, I don’t think I do. Objectivity is a fantasy! No one is ever objective, least of all about themselves. And in a significant way, I didn’t have much emotional distance from my subject matter, either. One of the primary storylines in the book is that of an intense love affair, and I wrote the majority of the book while I was still in that relationship. I consider this now, in hindsight, and it shocks me a little. Because I, too, have talked about the importance of objectivity and emotional distance to my students, as surely your teachers have. But I also know that this was the only way for me to write this book.

I think part of what we mean when we say “objectivity” and “emotional distance” is simply that our perspective has changed in some fundamental way. And sometimes that change can happen very close to an experience. It keeps changing, yes. And I’m sure I could write the story of that relationship with a more layered perspective from a farther vantage point. But that is not the book I wrote. And it isn’t the story I wanted to tell, either. I wanted that story to be primarily concerned with the immediacy of it all—I wanted to capture the blistering heat of it, the madness, the small ways that I abandoned myself over and over until the only thing left in my life was her. In a pragmatic way, I needed to be close to the experience so that I could remember it. I have a terrible memory! I take notes on everything I might write about, because I so quickly forget.

More importantly, the story I wanted to tell was of the trance of that love, the elaborate illusion of it. And so, in retrospect it makes sense that I wrote much of it from inside that dream. Because once you leave an experience like that—which is essentially an altered state, a different kind of reality with its own laws and logic—it’s hard to understand or even quite remember what being under the spell felt like. I think it’d be much harder to write a convincing portrait of it. You know that scene in Labyrinth where Sarah eats the poison peach and goes to sleep and she’s in this beautiful dream about a masked ball, and she’s in a beautiful dress, dancing with David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King? And then she realizes that she’s dreaming and she smashes the mirrored wall with a chair and the whole beautiful scene flies into shards and no longer exists? Well, it’s like that. If you’ve ever been in an incredibly fucked up, addictive, myth-building, relationship, you’ll know exactly what I mean. And if you haven’t, well, I hope you escape that particular fate. I think I do, anyway. My point is, to free yourself from that dream, you really have to smash it. And once your denial is gone, it’s gone. You can never go back. It’s like any addiction. Once you look at the truth, you can’t un-see it. And the time when you lived in the dream seems unbelievable, your past self like a zombie whose logic you can’t fully enter any longer. The most accurate portrait of that time I could have written was from inside it, and so I’m glad I did. And there was a change in perspective, a dramatic one. I stopped writing the book for a few months and I lived it. And then I knew exactly how my book ended.

All of that said, I do think it helps a story to have access to a greater spectrum of understanding than is possible from inside an experience, or even shortly after it. The other half of Abandon Me, fortunately, is about my childhood. And it’s been a long time since then, so I had access to a greater range of insights, if not the same degree of detail that the more present timeline had. I’m not sure that either narrative thread would have worked alone. The childhood material was rich with reflection, but needed the immediacy and conflict of the love story to galvanize it. And the love story was relentless and vivid, but needed the insights that the childhood sections illuminated in it as anchors.

TCR: Jung posited a realm of the mind, sometimes conscious often not, called the shadow. He thought that the function of the shadow was to shut away thoughts, memories and feelings that we had forbidden to consciousness for one reason or another. My understanding is that all of BDSM involves explorations of parts of ourselves that we may have previously been aware of only in deep shadow, possibly buried beneath experiences of trauma and/or feelings of shame. From your experience as a dominatrix could what’s considered kinky merely be a desire to reunite with a part of ourselves that was lost in the shadow? Do you think that acting out sexual fantasies can provide another form of reclamation of forbidden feelings and foster healing?

MF: Yes. Though I don’t know if all BDSM involves that. I mean, insofar as everything we do does. I think we are always being driven by these shadow parts, often more so for their hiddenness. We fear them, and so avoid them, and so have little insight into the ways that they govern us. Freedom lies in facing them. So, I think any process that includes facing the parts of ourselves that we fear, or feel ashamed of, will be healing, will enlighten us. This is one of the reasons that I write. It is the primary way that I face my own shadow parts. It’s possible, even, to think of all human relationships as opportunities to do it. I love all of Jung’s writing about the shadow self, and to some degree think of my whole life as a long series of efforts to illuminate my own shadows. Through BDSM and my work as a dominatrix, the process of recovery, finding my birth father, and living through this painful relationship. I have often had to go to dark places to find those within me, to draw out their hidden parts. And writing is the way that I process those experiences, the way I come to understand their meaning.

TCR: In a New York Times interview you said, “So much of this book is about the prismatic experience of being seen, about how excruciating it is and how starved we are for it—especially those of us who have an instinct for secrecy.” The act of keeping secrets requires omission. Like the labyrinth that Sarah ultimately created to solve, as a child you used to take objects from your house, bury them in the yard and then hide the very elaborate maps you drew pinpointing the locations of your treasures. Do you think that the proclivity for secrecy is a necessary act of individuation that leads to the inevitable “discovery that we are irredeemably alone in certain respects…” as psychiatrist R. D. Laing once wrote? Might the secrets we keep map our own transformation?

MF: It’s so interesting that you describe the labyrinth as Sarah’s creation. That is essentially how I came to see it, as I wrote that essay, but I don’t think I ever say it so directly. I mean, that’s a long chain of things to think. I’m not sure that progression is always, or even often true. Secrecy is certainly a natural and important stage of development for children (Jung also writes a lot about this), but I’m not sure that it always leads to revelation of our aloneness. I’m not sure that’s even true for me. Secrecy was an acute form of aloneness, yes. I love the idea of our secrets mapping our own transformation, and I do return to my own early instincts for secrecy a lot in my work. My secrets have mapped my transformation, yes, though I am very secretive! I’m sure unsecretive people have other habits that can be traced to decode some foreshadowing of their transformations. Here is what I think: we do build our own labyrinths, or choose them. We find ways of surviving the catastrophes that life deals us, and those survival mechanisms often lead us into the labyrinth. Secrecy is among these, for me. Letting go of them has been a big part of finding my way out. And the terrible beast that I face in the center, that fuming minotaur, is always me.

TCR: Writing has provided a way for me to express the things I’m too scared or not yet ready to say out loud. How has publishing your secrets affected your personal relationships and your relationship to writing about your life experience?

MF: That is too big a question to answer here. Or rather, it is too big an answer. I would need your whole journal for that, and the next issue, too. I will say this: I, too, began writing because it felt like the safest place, the only safe place, to put words to some things. And finding that tool saved my life. I mean that literally. I think I would have overdosed, or been killed, or killed myself, or at least been consigned to live a kind of walking death, had I not found I way to whisper the truth to myself.

And publishing those truths has also saved me, in a different kind of way. It has brought me closer to other people. Strangers, sure, but more significantly, the people I love. It has forced a kind of honesty that I am rarely brave enough to attempt in any other way. Intimacy is born in this risk. To be seen, you have to be seen. It is that simple. It is a terrifying exchange. Or, it requires what often feels like a terrible risk, a risk whose stakes might break you. And I won’t soften it: there have been moments when I felt like it did break me, exposing my most frightening truths, my most vulnerable self, and the consequences of that. But it has been worth it, entirely. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If the cost of intimacy is brokenness, then I will pay it again and again. We don’t know our own resilience until we survive, again.

TCR: In your memoir you wrote, “Sometimes you have to break your own heart to mend it.” You also thanked Amaia for enabling you to see the importance of belonging to your story in your acknowledgements. Do you think that longing begets belonging? Could you please speak about your experience of breaking your own heart?

MF: I don’t think that longing begets belonging, necessarily. I wish that it did, for all our sake’s. But maybe I do think that healing your own heart necessitates breaking it. So much of our suffering springs out of attachment—all of it, the Buddha would say—out of our devotion to a particular ideal, the object of a lover, a self-conception, money. We worship so many things that aren’t real. We are always chasing the stories of our childhoods, trying to correct them. This striving, chasing, and longing is a kind of love, or resembles something we call love. And to be free of it, we have to let go of that love. We have to stop believing that our lover can save us, or complete us, or make us happy. We have to smash the precious ideas of self: our victimhood, our self-hatred, our resentments. We hold these things closer than many things we supposedly “love.” And I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that it breaks our heart to let them go. In many ways, Abandon Me is that story. It is a story about all the things I held precious, that I worshiped even when they poisoned me, or isolated me from others, or prevented me from belonging, that I had to let go so that I could be free. So that I could finally sit down inside my own story and inside myself and claim all of it, including the parts that I had rejected or feared or abandoned. That feeling of belonging? I had not known it before.

TCR: I once read that desire is life’s longing for itself. Your efforts in unraveling your identity through writing may include, as you wrote, the desire “to be known perfectly, as only a creator could know us.” After all of your struggles with various addiction, fearless self-searching, yielding to your feelings and scrutinizing over the details of your life, do you believe that it’s possible for any of us to be fully known?

MF: No. I don’t believe that we are knowable in a way that matches that particular desire. I don’t believe that the “self” is as solid a thing as we like to believe. Insofar as we can meet that desire to be known, to be unconditionally loved and seen, I think we must do so ourselves.

 

 

Dein Sofley teaches refugees English in the sanctuary city of Chicago. She earned her BA from Columbia College Chicago and is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction from UC Riverside’s low-residency program. Her work is forthcoming in Writers Resist

TCR Talks with Ragnar Jónasson

By David M. Olsen

On a recent visit to Reykjavik, Iceland, I found a great little bookstore in the downtown area. Eymundsson was a three-story establishment with a coffee shop on the third floor. I sought out the section by Icelandic authors and came across an impressive display for Ragnar Jónasson and his Dark Iceland Series. I knew that Nordic noir was very popular throughout the European zone, so I purchased a copy of Jónasson’s bestseller Snowblind. I read the first chapter that night, and tore through the rest of the book in a few days. Needless to say, it’s a gripping read. It tells the story of Ari Thor, a rookie police officer in an isolated Icelandic village investigating the mysterious death of a writer. After I finished it, I emailed Ragnar to see if he would be interested in doing an interview, expecting never to hear back. To my surprise, he responded, so I asked him a few questions about his books and his writing process over email.

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TCR talks with Zoe Zolbrod

BY tracy granzyk

Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir, The Telling, was published in May of 2016, and it will undoubtedly remain a “go to” book for both survivors and family members of those who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. In The Telling, Zolbrod comes to understand and accept the grey her own experiences have equated to within, while at the same time gives readers an example of how trauma and tragedy might be assimilated and used to empower one’s self. Especially poignant and game-changing in the memoir are her experiences as “Mama Bear”; a new parent with an immediate need to protect not only her children, but all kids from suffering the same experience she did. While Zolbrod never takes refuge in the title of victim, her honest pain exposes the depth to which she is still able to feel, never seeming to shut off and others out as a result of what was done to her.

As a writer, Zolbrod’s voice is both authoritative and accessible, and the narrative flows smoothly through different time periods of her life. She serves as both teacher of topic and craft by threading four Research Shows chapters within the story’s framework, allowing her to break off from the narrative, which she described during our conversation as a respite from the emotion inherent in diving back into such a painful experience. As a person, Zolbrod’s warmth and kind soul are what I was first drawn to during the interview that follows.

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TCR Talks with T. Greenwood

By Chih Wang

T. Greenwood’s new novel, The Golden Hour, is a beautiful, haunting mystery folded into the personal drama of a woman finding her artistic truth. When she was thirteen, Wyn took a shortcut through the woods on her way home. What happened there would send Robby Rousseau to jail and forever mark her as a cautionary tale to other girls. Twenty years later, living next door to her ex-husband, Wyn is unhappily painting generic landscapes to pay the bills when she learns that new DNA evidence might set Robby free.

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TCR Talks with Caroline Leavitt

By David Martinez

caroline-leavittCaroline Leavitt’s new novel Cruel Beautiful World is a stunning, heartbreaking book. Set against the background of the Manson murders, it tells the story of a young girl’s dangerous affair with her high-school teacher, and her family’s loss and grief. It winds its way down a path between longing and darkness, guilt and forgiveness, and leaves the reader breathless in the end.

Caroline Leavitt is a New York Times bestselling author with a long and impressive list of achievements. Her work has been translated into many different languages, and has appeared in a slew of magazines such as Salon, Psychology Today, Publisher’s Weekly, People, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She has been the recipient of the New York Foundation of the Arts Award for Fiction, was a 2003 Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellow Finalist, and a National Magazine Award nominee for personal essay. She teaches novel writing online at Stanford University and the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and lives in Hoboken, New Jersey with her husband.

cruel-beautiful-worldI got to email, and learn from, Leavitt about her recent book, her writing process, and the sometimes-thin line between fiction and nonfiction.

The Coachella Review: So, to start off, what was your process for writing Cruel Beautiful World? How did it go from an idea to the page, and how was the development once you started putting it down on the page? Did it change a lot from the original idea?

Caroline Leavitt: I always start with whatever is haunting me. I have been wanting to write this book since I was seventeen, when the girl who sat in front of me in study hall kept talking about her fiancé, who was much older and a “tad controlling.” A year out of high school, I heard that she was murdered by him when she decided she wanted to date other people. I was haunted. But I didn’t understand her, how she could have stayed with someone who had violence in him, how no one helped her. How could this have happened?

Then, ten years later, I got involved with a guy who was quietly and subtly controlling. When someone tells you something over and over in a loving voice, it’s hard not to believe that person, especially if he is talking to you in a rational way, as if it is for your benefit. I was only a hundred pounds but he felt I could be skinnier. He monitored my food until I was down to ninety-five pounds (and I still felt fat). He wouldn’t let me see my friends and he didn’t like me interacting with his. I was with him for two years and finally was able to break it off when he went into my computer without asking and deleted a whole chapter of my novel, replacing it with Groucho Marx jokes. When I protested that it was my work, he said quietly, “Listen, Caroline. This is the way it is with us. There is no You. There is no Me. There is only Us.” I suddenly understood my high school friend, and I began to write.

I wanted it set the in the years when the joy, peace and love of the sixties transformed into the violence of the 70s, when four kids were killed at Kent State for protesting the invasion of Cambodia, when Manson went on trial, when peaceful protest became violent. The cruel and beautiful world, so to speak. There was also the whole sense of what you saw was not really what you got. People in the 60s felt that if you had long hair and wore flannel shirts and talked about peace and love, why then, you were a hippie and one of them. But look at Charles Manson. Everyone thought at first that he was just a hippie, because he had the hair and the flannels, and he lived “back to the land” in a kind of commune. No one ever thought he and his members were killers. That’s why I put the Manson trial in as background music, sort of. Lucy keeps staring at the girls in the news. They’re beautiful, happy, smiling, madly in love with Charlie. But they’re also controlled. They are also willing killers.

Cruel Beautiful World changed a lot as I was writing. Suddenly, I found myself writing about my mother in the character of Iris, because my mother had actually bloomed in her nineties at an independent living place. The sibling relationship of Charlotte and Lucy became my own fractured relationship with my sister. We were best friends and so close that we were almost the same person—up until she turned twenty and then she became troubled. And I began to realize that I was very much Charlotte, always trying to fix my sister, to get her to have a better life—and instead, I was making things worse.

I think there were about twenty-eight revision of this novel!

TCR: What’s your process for writing your other books? 

CL: Every novel is different, and more challenging. I always feel that I have what I call “writers’ amnesia,” where I forget how to write a novel. I forget how hard it is. But I do always start with some question that haunts me, one that I hope the novel I’m writing will answer. How do you become part of a community when the community doesn’t want you? How do you care for another person without losing yourself? When do you know when to give up control?

Once I figure out that (I call it the moral question), I start mapping out where I want the characters to go. What is it they want and why? What’s at stake for them? What is the misconception they carry that actually keeps them from getting what they need—which is something different and more profound. What is the moment when all seems lost and they realize and heal this misconception?

I always have to know the end, and the beginning. Then I can find my middle.

I write what I call a writer’s synopsis. Thirty or forty pages that detail what is going to happen in the book, and then I show it to a story structure guru I know and he tears it apart. I try to boil it down to a solid skeleton, and then every other thing about the novel changes from draft to draft.

I also always have to have a great first chapter. That chapter tethers me to the book. When I am struggling in the middle of the novel and starting to think that I should not be a novelist at all, but maybe dental school is in my future, that first chapter calls me back. It says, “hey, you did this, and this is good. You can make the rest work, too.”

Then I sigh and go back to work.

TCR: What are you reading now, and what has been some of your inspirations?

CL: I am always reading about four books at once. Right now, I’m haunted by Dan Chaon’s Ill Will. He’s one of my favorite authors because he keeps getting darker, while still staying literary and I love that. I love to read novels where the author shows me something I’ve never seen before, where rules aren’t just broken, but smashed. I can’t tell you the name of another novel I’m loving now because I’m reviewing it right now, but it’s a debut where the author moves backwards and sideward through time, and reading it has been a revelation for me. It’s shown me what else can be done with writing!

John Irving always inspires me. He writes deep, moral fiction, and he takes chances. I have one of his quotes on my wall about writing that says, “If you don’t feel you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then what you’re writing probably isn’t very vital.  If you don’t feel that you are writing over your head, then why do it?” I loved that so much I tracked him down and wrote him a letter, and to my surprise, he wrote back. He said he had never said that quote (!) but he agreed with it.

TCR: Cruel Beautiful World deals with complex issues: sex between an adolescent girl and her high-school teacher, abuse, murder, and devastating loss. As a writer, how do you handle some of the heavier sections? Is it difficult to push yourself into some of those dark places?

CL: Sometimes it is cathartic, especially if I know the character is going to be okay in the end. Other times, when there is going to be no happy ending, it is so difficult, I don’t go to my desk because I’m terrified to write a scene. I dread going to that dark place and I have to tell myself, this is the writer’s job, to go to the places so other people don’t have to, to make it real, to tell the truth. I cried through a lot of places as I wrote. My editor, Andra Miller, kept telling me, go darker, go deeper, and then I’d have to go back and feel everything all over again. Writing this particular novel was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

TCR: I read the NPR piece where you talk about how this book was influenced and somewhat inspired by real events. I know that with my own writing I have some family and friends who don’t love the autobiographical and “real life” elements in my work. Is it difficult for you to make the transition from nonfiction events to fiction, and have you experienced any conflict with family and friends who may not love the almost nonfiction parts in your work?

CL: Oh, such a great question. Some people who knew the high school friend of mine were angry with me for writing the story, though it really wasn’t her story. They thought I was going to make her family and friends suffer more by having this all unearthed again. But I never mentioned her real name, and I was always careful to say that this isn’t her story—it jumpstarted from it. Plus, I loved her. I was deeply sympathetic to her once I understood her, and if that could help someone else from making the same mistake, that was a good thing.

It’s more difficult with my family. My mother, who inspired Iris, has dementia and she can’t read anymore, which brings me great sadness. I intended Iris to be a love letter to her. It’s incredibly painful that she can’t know or read my work or even understand the story, as she’s always been a champion of my work. But the sisterly relationship is more difficult. Like Charlotte, I spent most of my life adoring my sister and trying to fix whatever was wrong with her life. And she resented me deeply for it. I had to learn to let go, to let life wash over me and let her try to heal herself. I have told her the novel is part love letter to her, but she refuses to read it, which also brings me great pain.

Actually, I was sued with my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, because a family in Pittsburgh, where I was living, had the exact same names as my characters and the exact same situation, with a mentally ill daughter. I was furious that they thought I’d be dumb enough to use real names, plus I had no idea who they were, and the origins of my novel came from my relationship with my sister and with a mentally ill girl who lived down the block from me. I was really upset, and my publisher made me change two of the names!

I’ve found that people don’t recognize themselves, but often they think they are in a novel when they are not.

TCR: One of the aspects that I love is that you’re true to your characters. The book is in third person, but when it’s Lucy’s chapters it’s Lucy’s voice. When it’s Charlotte’s chapters it’s Charlotte’s voice. When it’s Iris’ chapters it’s Iris’ voice. Were these personalities fully formed before starting their lives on the paper, or did they develop more as you wrote? Was it a struggle to keep them straight, or did you find them overlapping from time to time?

CL: That is the best compliment ever. Thank you so much.

I have a method. My agent once told me to find photographs of people who I think look like my characters and paste them by my computer so we both are looking at one another all day long. At first, I thought that was a silly idea, but my agent is really brilliant, so I gave it a try, and I found that every day, being surrounded by the faces of my characters, they became more and more real to me. I just felt that I KNEW them. I knew the clothes they’d wear, I knew how they would think, what they were afraid of. It’s important not to have photos of celebrities or anyone smiling, but real people photos. People looking frightened or hopeful or sad. Works every time for me.

I also spend about six months before I start to really write getting to know everything I can about my characters, why they do what they do. Sometimes I have them write me letters in answer to a question, like, “Why are you pissed off?” And the words just flow. The characters take on their own life.

All of these characters are still totally alive to me. Sometimes I think I see them walking on the street and then my heart breaks because I want to call out to them, but I know I can’t.

 

David Martinez is a student at the UCR Low Residency MFA program, where he studies fiction and dabbles in poetry, nonfiction, and screenwriting. He has dual citizenship between Brazil and the United States, and has lived all over Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the United States. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

TCR talks with Bruce Bauman

Cover-Broken-SleepBy Heather Scott Partington

Bruce Bauman’s novel Broken Sleep is six hundred pages of madness. But it’s madness with intent. The author’s postmodern rock and roll saga takes on politics, art, and the idea of inheritance. Moses Teumer, a professor suffering from leukemia, goes looking for his real parents to find a bone marrow match. He discovers his mother, Salome Savant, was a young artist impregnated by a rumored Nazi; Salome was told after Moses’ birth that he was dead, while he was skirted away in a quick adoption. When Moses finds Salome, he also discovers he has a half-brother, Alchemy Savant, who is a star in the most famous band in the world, The Insatiables. But in a book where characters believe they can time-travel through their DNA, nothing is as simple as it seems.

Bauman, senior editor of the well-respected but recently defunct literary magazine Black Clock, is a professor for CalArts’ MFA and Critical Studies programs. His work in Broken Sleep is unlike anything I can remember reading. Its multi-layered plot, titles, character names, discography and puns operate on a level unlike most contemporary fiction. Bruce and I caught up recently by email after our panel at the LA Times Festival of Books (“Fiction: Finding a New Normal”).

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Lenney on Lenney: TCR talks with Dinah Lenney

By PAM MUnter

Dinah2A graduate of Yale and the Bennington Writing Seminars, Dinah Lenney also trained at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse School, home of the esteemed Sanford Meisner technique. Like writing, acting has taken her to myriad places—stage, screen and theater—allowing her to play a wide variety of roles.

Dinah has taught both acting and writing courses all over the country. She has also spoken at a TED conference at USC, a presentation integrating her interest in all the arts, “When Life Meets Art.” With Mary Lou Belli, she wrote Acting For Young Actors: The Ultimate Teen Guide.

And she has written two memoirs, the first (Bigger Than Life: A Murder, A Memoir) the story of her relationship with her father following his brutal murder. The second (The Object Parade: Essays) is a collection of autobiographical essays. More recently, she edited and contributed to a collection of flash essays, Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, with Judith Kitchen.

In between books, Dinah has written essays and reviews for literary journals, anthologies, and newspapers—both online and print. She is currently a Senior Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and have two grown children.

The Coachella Review: Let’s start at the top. Why did you start writing?

Dinah Lenney: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember—since I was a kid. I wrote to entertain myself and I wrote to let off steam—to figure things out—because if I didn’t write it down, whatever it was, I thought I’d burst. And that’s still why I write. I write, therefore I think, y’know? And not the other way around.

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TCR talks with Jacqueline Kolosov

By Joelyn Suarez

This interview accompanies Jacqueline Kolosov’s essay “Afterwards.”

Jackie & Marah profileJacqueline Kolosov is a widely published author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She has two YA novels out this year, and co-edited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. Her collection of essays, Motherhood, and the Places Between, is forthcoming. One of the essays included in the collection is the 2013 recipient of the prestigious Burns Archive Prize for Nonfiction in the Bellevue Literary Review. She also teaches in the Department of English at Texas Tech University.

Kolosov took the time to talk with The Coachella Review about everything from her intriguing versatility as a writer to reproductive technologies and the Syrian refugee crisis.

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