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Your book is about the many birds who live with you—they seem to be in every corner of your house. How does that affect your writing?

Well, it is sometimes strange to have animals talking to me when I’m working. But they can be helpful. For example, our African gray parrot, Mia Bird, often sits in my office and commands me to “Focus! Focus!” as I write. That usually does the trick if I start drifting off. One time, a rainbow lorikeet named Harli was quarantined for a few weeks in my office—we separate and observe new birds before introducing them to the flock. As I worked, Harli would settle on my head and groom me, kindly plucking a hair or two along the way. By the time her quarantine period was over, I had a small, perfectly shaped oval of bare scalp on the top of my head. Still, I did get a lot of writing done during those few weeks.

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So, you wrote about the dead guy again.

You mean my best friend who died five years ago in a mountain climbing accident nearly ten years to the day after he’d been mauled by a grizzly in Yellowstone Park? Yes, I did write about him again. The book is called Altitude Sickness.

 

Why?

Well, we were best friends for over two decades and, like I say in the book, we got together and broke up more times than the earth has rotated the sun, so I’d say his sudden death at the age of forty-two was fairly earth-shattering. We loved each other deeply and his death nearly destroyed me. And I’ve been a writer most of my professional life, so it’s kind of hard to bypass all this.

justin_martin_photoSo you’ve written the first book ever about Pfaff’s saloon. Why didn’t somebody write this book earlier?

It’s a daunting challenge, research-wise. My subjects were a group of wild, decadent, and very talented artists, properly considered America’s first Bohemians. During the 1850s, they hung out at Pfaff’s saloon in New York City. They lived loose, unconventional lives, which makes them rich subjects. But they lived those lives 150 years ago. It required a ton of research, but it was also truly rewarding to bring this mostly forgotten but vitally important artists circle back to life. I often felt like a time-traveling cat herder.

Erin Marie Daly-26Researching and writing about drug addiction and personal loss sounds not only challenging, but very depressing. What kept you going as you were developing the book?

Guilt. When my brother died, I was shell-shocked. I felt a strong sense that I had failed him. Pat was 10 years younger than me, and our dad was sick with cancer for most of Pat’s life (he died when I was 19 and Pat was nine), so I spent a lot of time babysitting Pat when we were younger, and there was a maternal aspect to our relationship. But I also tried to foster openness and honesty between us, which is why I didn’t understand the secrecy of his addiction. Hiding is a part of addiction; no one wants those who love them to know the depths of their darkness. I didn’t know that at the time, so I felt that Pat was either making stupid choices or actively trying to hurt me—sometimes both. And because of that misperception, I was angry with him. I had no experience with addiction and I certainly didn’t know about the link between painkillers and heroin. I ended up saying things to him like “just stop doing drugs,” as if it were something he was doing for fun. He wasn’t. His downfall was hard and fast, and shocking in the context of our family. Of course we’d had tragedy with the loss of our dad, we weren’t perfect, but we loved each other and lived in a great community where this type of thing didn’t happen.

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Let’s get this out of the way first. You make it clear that you love music, especially Dave Matthews and Tori Amos. Tell me about that.

It’s that obvious? Good! Actually we had to cut an awful lot of the lyrics I wanted to use from the manuscript because of copyright laws, so what remained is the toned-down version. Music and lyrics have always wiggled their way into my conscious and unconscious mind, so writing a memoir without them as a backdrop didn’t feel genuine. I also hold out hope that Dave or Tori will hear about my book and call me up on stage with a spotlight shining into the audience or something crazy like that. I haven’t evolved past 8th grade with my sappy groupie fantasies.

Author Photo linocutSo, you just weathered a really difficult Upper Michigan winter. I mean, the icebergs just melted in Lake Superior, and all these eager bastards are swimming in it already. What did you do to inaugurate the summertime, symbolically or otherwise?

I drank from the hose.

meryl-gordonHow did you pick the topics for your two books, Mrs. Astor Regrets, about the final years of Brooke Astor, and The Phantom of Fifth Avenue, a biography of Huguette Clark?

The ideas came straight from the headlines. Both of these women were centenarians from the Social Register who became front-page news towards the end of their lives. They were at the center of family fights and prosecutors’ investigations. I was drawn to trying to understand the mysteries in their histories.

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As my second book The Ministry of Thin comes out this month, the question I keep being asked is this: what does a ‘recovered anorexic’ have to tell us about body image and feminism?

Quite a lot actually. I believe that, as women, our desire for thin is getting way out of control. I believe that many women who do not have an actual eating disorder have profoundly disordered eating; diets such as 5:2 are normalising deeply abnormal habits. You may roll your eyes (as I do) at the crazy tongue-patchers, drip dieters, intermittent fasters. You may laugh at the Werewolf or Vampire or Caveman devotees. But no matter how feisty or feminist you think you are, I bet you’d like to lose weight. 

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Was it really that bad?

Fuck off.

 

Y’know, being a dad…wife in the war, Middle East, etc.

It was a fairly constant struggle for me: The fact that it wasn’t that bad at all. In fact, many times—a lot of the time—it was quite excellent. I can’t really adequately describe what it’s like to get rip-roaring drunk by yourself, as the bats fly overhead, wife in Baghdad, with the sound of the call to prayer ringing out over Istanbul, the moon coming up, and you light an illicit cigarette and the hum of the earth is loud and…A grilled fish lunch at an old cantina in a secluded cove north of Beirut, with the table literally in the water, catching up with an old friend from Riyadh, the waves licking up over the table cloth, sea froth kissing the food with salt water, cold bottles of beer…Or to have Christmas in Erbil, in northern Iraq, the odd situation of your wife agreeing to watch the kid while you put on a suit that doesn’t quite fit, so you can get in a taxi and try to track down Christians who fled Baghdad, in the wake of a bombing at a church that killed dozens, to find a woman who will speak to you, in the middle of the street, on Christmas day, with the taxi idling, getting a good enough quote to go back to the house, so you can file a story, so you can sing “Jingle Bells” and squint in the sun of northern Iraq, and later that night, toast it all with a bottle of duty-free scotch.

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Aren’t you a little old for this sort of thing?

No.

 

But really – you’re on Social Security, aren’t you?

Yeah, and Medicare. Remember what Richard Pryor said? “You don’t get old bein’ no fool.”

giffelsauthorphotocredittoTimothyFitzwaterDavid, I’d like to begin, if I may, by saying “thank you” for taking the time to talk with me. I’ve been a big fan of yours for as long as I can remember, and this is kind of, almost surreal for me.

Please. It’s my pleasure. Don’t be nervous. You’ve got five minutes.

 

Some might say that The Hard Way on Purpose is the greatest book written about coming of age in postindustrial Akron, Ohio, in at least the past half-decade. Would you agree?

Considering the publishing industry’s insatiable appetite for essay collections about life in America’s Rust Belt, that’s high praise. Thank you.

Liza Monroy_005Wait, you did what?

I married my best friend for his green card shortly after September 11, 2001. He’s gay and from a Middle Eastern country I call Emiristan to help protect his identity. His student visa was expiring and he would have had to return to live in the closet in a homeland where he could be killed were it found out that he happened to share a gender with the person he romantically loved. I much preferred for him to stay in West Hollywood and with me. In Emiristan, he would likely have had to enter an arranged marriage with a woman, so he entered one with me, instead. Ours had fewer restrictions and no expectations.

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The Library of Congress breaks down your book into these categories: Children of drug addicts—Massachusetts—biography—drug addicts. What genre would you put your book into?

I really dislike reducing any work of art to a DSM-IV listing. My mother was more than her addictions and mental illness. And I am more than her daughter.

ag2Like writing this memoir wasn’t exercise enough in accelerating through self-consciousness and isolation, now I have to interview myself about it?

Apparently.

 

You’ve been quoted calling your new memoir, The End of Eve, “a comedy about domestic violence.” What’s up with that?

When I was working on the book I found it a bit tricky to explain to people what I was doing.

I’m writing about lung cancer!”

“A great project about watching my beautiful, crazy, abusive mom die!”

I must have sounded so depressing. People would go all doe-eyed. So I started saying I was writing a comedy about domestic violence. Well, that didn’t go over so well, either. Because, of course, domestic violence isn’t something to laugh about. But here’s the truth: I grew up in a violent household. My relationship with my mother always included some level of violence. But it also included a lot of humor. Some days, aking my mom laugh was the only way to get her to put down her weapons. It was the only way to get her to drop the drama. And laughter is a real way to relieve tension—that’s not just a quirk of MY family of origin, it is what is true.

JenPercy_authorphoto_creditMichaelKreiserYou switch from past tense to present tense halfway through Demon Camp. Why the shift?

I wanted to show a change in my psychology and relationship with my subject matter. Present tense gives the reader a sense of immediacy; it allows us to experience the world as it is being perceived at the moment. It is raw and unprocessed information. The moment I arrive to Portal, Georgia, where a great deal more people believe in demons than do not, my ability to process the world at any remove had begun to fail. It’s like the first time you step off a plane in a foreign country. For a while, the country is greater than you. You see everything. Feel everything. It’s too much. You’re a sponge, really. So, I felt consumed by Portal. This shift also represents, on a formal level, what a traumatic memory can do to someone. It can trap them. The immediacy of a traumatic memory is one of its distinguishing traits.