Self-interview, huh? How often do you talk to yourself?
Kind of a lot, actually. I’m an only child who’s never had any kind of a roommate, so I got used to getting away with it. Besides, it comes in handy on public transit. I apparently have one of those faces that says: Talk to me. Confess. Strangers sit next to me on buses and start telling their life stories. There’s something overwhelming about being that approachable, and on days when I feel like I don’t have enough to offer in return, which is most days, I ride the bus holding a book and wearing headphones, but sometimes that doesn’t work. I rode into Chicago once with a teenage runaway who had told me all about her boyfriend troubles by the time we arrived, and out of Chicago once with a man who’d just gotten out of jail and needed to talk about it. I ran into a woman I’d never met before in a hotel lobby and she began telling me about the measures she was taking to escape an abusive marriage. A man on a bus in Missouri once sniffed me, and somehow got from inquiring about my perfume as a potential gift for his wife to telling me about the problems in his marriage. Three bus drivers in three different states have proposed to me. Once, I was hungover and limping across an Iowa City parking lot because I’d twisted my ankle the night before, and a man came running over and said I looked like a writer and maybe I could help him, and handed me a cassette tape he said contained government secrets. On my second day in Paris, people came up to ask me for directions in several languages that I didn’t speak. Years ago, in an Amtrak snack car, I sat with some guys who, apropos of nothing, asked me if I thought they’d be extradited from the state they were visiting in order to face drug charges in the state we’d just left. Last week I was standing at the bus stop with about ten people, and a woman walking by ignored all ten other people and stopped and stood in front of me and kept talking until I took my headphones out. She asked me if I was ready to have my palm read, and when I said no, gave me her address and told me she’d be there when I was ready. I’m hoping this is the beginning of a narrative arc that leads to me being told I have superpowers, preferably the zappy lightning bolt kind.
Anyway, since I am currently without zappy powers, I find talking to myself in public cuts down on the number of people who trust me enough to launch into personal conversations.
Hold on. What was on that secret tape?
I don’t know. I never listened to it. I didn’t have a cassette player at the time.
What? Someone chased you down in a parking lot to give you a tape with purported government secrets on it, and you never listened? What kind of a writer are you? Where’s your sense of curiosity?
I’m the kind of writer who finds people really beautiful and interesting and compelling and lets the world come at her right until the point where I can’t handle any of it, and need to zone out completely for a while. That was one of those days. Or, alternately, I’m the kind of writer who grew up on mysteries and legal thrillers, and I knew that entanglements with secret cassette tapes never end well for the listener. Anyway, like I said, I didn’t have a cassette tape player at the time, and I moved a few months after that, and then I moved again a year later, and that tape got left somewhere in Wisconsin. (IF YOU’RE READING THIS, SECRET AGENTS IN CHARGE OF TAPE RECOVERY, PLEASE NOTE THAT THE TAPE IS IN WISCONSIN. DON’T BE RANSACKING MY APARTMENT IN DC, UNLESS YOU’RE GOING TO FINALLY UNPACK ALL THE BOXES I SHOVED IN THE CLOSET. WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR IS IN WISCONSIN.)
Scott Walker is probably invading the UW English Department now, looking for your old desk.
I hope you’re happy.
What was with all of that moving anyway? Is that why there are so many distinct locations in your book?
I think the characters in my book would have moved a lot even if I’d stayed put—short stories are more often than not about transitions. But I got used to moving a lot as a kid, and I got used to, for better and for worse, the possibilities that came with it: there was always something new and shiny and potentially better around that corner over there, there was every two or so summers the chance for transformation. I’m a Scorpio; I like transformation. While I was writing the book I moved primarily for writing. There was a luxury in starting as young as I did—I was 20 when I moved to Iowa for the workshop—and I didn’t have to worry about what a move would mean for my kids or my relationship or the career I’d left to be a writer, because I didn’t have any of that. I had a cat. She liked airplanes. I went where I wanted to, or where they were going to pay me to write. I had finished high school and college early enough that I wasn’t supposed to be in any particular place doing any particular things. There were things for which I felt responsible, but they were not chosen responsibilities, and so it was less damning to be failing at them, and back then even the time I wasted felt like time I’d been gifted in the first place. I got to see a lot of the country that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
When the book came out, there were a lot of reviews or interviews that introduced me as just out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I would be a bit taken aback, because that whole experience feels like it was a very long time ago. It was only five years ago I graduated, but I’ve had four jobs and six addresses since then.
Is this going to be the part where you get all romantic about MFA programs?
I’m not romantic about MFA programs. I’m in favor of critical analysis of all structures and institutions. I just think a lot of the supposed critical discourse around MFA programs is lazy and sloppy and boring. That’s a pretty self-serving opinion, no? Not really. I’m arguing not against criticism of MFA programs or work that comes out of them, but for better criticism of MFA programs, or more precisely, criticism of the work that leads us into a discussion of process, as opposed to criticism of process as a stand in for discussion of the work. The better formed a criticism is, the more devastating it is. In spite of the fact that I’m a writer with an MFA and I teach in an MFA program, I rarely feel devastated by a criticism of workshop, or “workshop fiction.” More often than not I just feel annoyed by the way the argument is formed. I’ve read reviews where critics call a particular book or story overly workshopped, and I always think How do they know which stories the author workshopped and which they didn’t? I wouldn’t let my undergrads get away with an argument like that, because the premise is unverifiable.
As a person who finds value in good criticism, I’d rather read the review that gives me something to learn from or something to argue against or something that clearly situates the critic’s aesthetic desires, than a review with some vague assertion that the problem with the book is workshop, even if that more specific review might be harder to read because I couldn’t dismiss it offhand. For example, I wrote a book that opens with a teenage girl having sex with two brothers in the same night and ends with arson. My book may have any number of problems, but those problems are not that there’s no action, or that all of the plots are all interior, so when I see criticisms like that I think either the critic’s Saturday nights are way more interesting than mine if arson and brother-sex don’t register as action, or the critic is reaching into a laundry list of gripes about contemporary or “mfa” fiction, instead of taking the time to precisely articulate their gripes with my book, and then I disengage, instead of engaging, which is the opposite of how discourse works. The funny thing is that reading criticism of books is almost exactly like being in an MFA program and reading workshop letters. Reading a review that says the problem with any particular book is that the author went to “workshop,” is like getting a workshop letter that says “The problem with this story is that I don’t like your shoes and I assume you were wearing them when you wrote it.” Until and unless you’ve actually fleshed out the argument linking those things, I’m going to assume they’re unrelated.
I don’t like your shoes.
They hurt. Grammy always said suffer for beauty. It applies to both footwear and writing.
Yeah, OK. Remind me of that the next time you end up carrying your heels home from the metro. Speaking of our grandmother, I read on the internet somewhere that she tried to drown you or something?
Sigh. No, you read on the internet that there’s a story in my book where a black child has a white mother and a white grandmother who is not very kind to her, for reasons both race-related and not. Because I am also a black person with a white grandmother, some people seem to have assumed that story is true, in spite of the fact that my actual grandmother herself married a black man and had four black children, and has probably never been to Tallahassee unless it was when she was working as a traveling saleswoman, and has probably never been in a country club, unless it was when she was working as a bartender. Also, I did not burn down my high school and I did not lose my virginity the day that Tupac died. I write realism, but creation of a convincing illusion is my job. I don’t understand why people think it’s cool to be all wink wink nudge nudge aren’t you really writing memoir? I don’t go around asking people how often they get away with faking their way through their jobs, and pretend it’s a compliment. Then again, I guess most people’s jobs aren’t to be liars.
How come in this whole self-interview you haven’t talked that much about your actual book?
Talking about my book makes me feel like a stage parent, jumping in to answer the question my kid should have answered on his or her own. I wrote words and sent them out into the world as a book, and if they’re not enough to speak for themselves without me explaining them, then there’s really no point in talking about them at all. If you want to know about me, or what I think about things, you should ask me questions. If you want to know about my book, or what it thinks about things, you should read it.
Now you’re just being difficult.
It seems to be happening a lot lately. Why are you more ornery than usual?
I don’t know. Juggling multiple jobs and a public/private self is kind of tricky sometimes. Don’t you think it’s kind of weird that I picked a career as a writer in part so I could basically sit around the house all day in my pajamas thinking about words and not having to deal with anybody, and then the reward for that career working out beyond my wildest dreams is that I am a professor and a mildly public figure and I have to talk to people all day all the time, often in this public and explicitly performative way? Doesn’t that seem strange to you? I like the moments where those interactions transcend the performative, and they make everything worth it, but it’s sometimes hard to predict when they’ll come around.
Why does basic human interaction feel performative to you so often? Is this because you, like the characters in your book, are an outsider?
I don’t like that word. I don’t even know what that word means.
Don’t you keep using it in interviews?
Only when I’m responding to questions that were framed that way. Part of why I don’t like the term “outsider,” is that it implies that “inside,” is the actual center of things, that the space we think of as “inside,” is somehow fixed or inherently desirable. In most of my work there is no proper and unproblematic center. Partly this a function of having written a book in which some of the characters come from backgrounds where they are marginalized, and don’t want to fully assimilate into anything so much as they want to be themselves and not have that limit their possibilities. In a broader sense though, it’s a product of the book being set in and therefore in part about a particular cultural moment— a moment in which there is less and less of a blueprint for adulthood, where there isn’t an official threshold to cross to be a grown person. That may be a frightening thing on occasion, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
So your book is about adolescence?
No. There are eight stories and only two are about adolescence. The book is, I guess, substantially about the gulf between the people we discover we are and the people we imagined we’d be someday.
The sort of gulf that might lead a person to frequently talk to herself?