May 19, 2018
POLLY BUCKINGHAM, J. NEWELL, GENEVIEVE RICHARDS, DANIEL SPIRO, & LEONA VANDER MOLEN
A CONVERSATION WITH REBECCA BROWN
To read Rebecca Brown’s work is to be led by a minimalistic and incantatory voice into a world simultaneously familiar and peculiar. Brown’s stories—true and fictional—are imaginative, obsessive, witty, often dark, and always brilliant. Through her exploration of themes such as violence, youth and aging, loss, and human connection, Brown is a master of blurring the lines between genres. In a review of Brown’s most recent book, Not Heaven, Somewhere Else, for the Seattle Review of Books, Paul Constant writes, “Aside from ‘genius,’ the other word I would use to describe Rebecca Brown is ‘elemental.’ Brown isn’t just a genius at words. She’s a genius at the invisible forces that bind words together. It feels dangerous and exciting, like if she puts her big brain to it long enough, she could completely rewrite the story of who we are.”
Rebecca Brown is a writer, artist, lecturer, curator, journalist, and performer. Her body of work includes collections of stories and essays, a modern bestiary, a memoir in the form of a medical dictionary, a fictionalized autobiography, a play, and a libretto for a dance opera. Her books include Not Heaven, Somewhere Else (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018), American Romances, The Last Time I Saw You, The Dogs, The Terrible Girls (all with City Lights Books), and The Gifts of the Body (HarperCollins, 1995). Some of her books have been translated into Japanese, German, Dutch, Norwegian, and Italian. Her work has earned several awards, including the Boston Book Review Award, the Lambda Literary Award, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, two Washington State Book Awards, and a Stranger Genius Award. She has also earned grants or fellowships to MacDowell, Yaddo, the Millay Colony, Hawthornden Castle, and the Breneman-Jaech Foundation. Her altered texts and installations have been exhibited in the Frye Art Museum, Hedreen Gallery, Arizona Center for Poetry, Simon Fraser Gallery, and Shoreline Art Gallery. Her work has appeared in magazines and journals in the USA, UK, and Japan.
We met with Rebecca Brown in her cozy Seattle writing studio, surrounded by books, windows, and endearing mementos, like her Edgar Allan Poe statuette, on a sunny Saturday morning. She showed us photos, gave us books to hold, and invited us into a little slice of her life while we talked about queer literature, collaboration, invisible illness, faith and rituals, violence, and Julian of Norwich.
LEONA VANDER MOLEN
You often write about experiences in fiction that are very close to home. I was wondering how you decide what genre you bring memories into and how that works when you’re writing it.
I think it’s mostly not a decision. Figuring out what something is in terms of genre or even in terms of theme for me comes pretty late in the process or retrospectively. But certainly in my earlier books there’s this urge to write something, wondering, what is this, and sort of figuring out the shape it’s going to take. My book of essays, American Romance—most all of those pieces someone asked me to write about something. There’s a piece in there called “My Western” about western movies and my father. Someone said, “Write something about movies or write something about the way movies see us.” So I started writing about westerns, and it was like, oh wait a minute, I’m not just writing about westerns, I’m writing about my dad. So that came in gradually. I did a talk about E. M. Forster somewhere and then someone else said, “Can you write something about Aspects of the Novel for us?” So I’m writing about E. M. Forster and all this other stuff came up. I’m also writing about student/teacher relationships, and I’m writing about illicit love. So it kind of comes in sideways.
I’m also profoundly or puritanically moral: if you’re going to call something a memoir—like the famous story of Isabel Allende where she turned three sisters into one, that’s really significant—just say, “I’m making this shit up,” right? Or if you look at the classical novels like Joyce or Hemingway, they’re novels that are based on real life. Anyway, if I’m going to call something nonfiction, I want to be really clear about what’s nonfiction.
So would you consider yourself to be a purist when it comes to truth in nonfiction? If it’s nonfiction, it’s 100 percent true?
I would say more like 90 percent. The squirrel story that appeared in The Stranger happened right here in the studio. But in the story that appeared in the paper, it looked like it happened in the house. I’m not going to say that’s fiction. Really, who cares? But I’m not going to say I spent three years in prison when I spent three nights in prison. You know, that James Frey thing. I actually had this profound moral dilemma more than twenty years ago. My book The Gifts of the Body, about being in homecare, is very closely based on my life. But some characters are composites or invented; the arc I made up. In the book, the girl’s boss, who’s a straight woman, gets AIDS. That never happened in my real life. So that’s a novel. But at one point somebody wanted to publish it in translation if we could call it a memoir. I’m like, would I do this if it could be translated and get lots of sales and money? And I couldn’t. And then, fortunately, the decision was taken away from me because they didn’t want the book anyway.
There’s so much going on now, especially in American writing, about authenticity. We’ve lost respect for the imagination or the craft of, “Oh my god, someone really put that together beautifully.” It’s like, how bad was your life, rather than what kind of artful truth can you get from it. So I’m old fashioned on that.
One of the things I do look at directly in nonfiction is memory. In the story “A Child of Her Time” in American Romances, there’s a scene where the girl, it’s me, is talking to her mother: “Oh I remember this, I remember this,” and her mother’s like, “No, that didn’t happen.” It was so important to me, but she’s like, “Well that didn’t happen.” Why do we make memories certain ways? In an essay in The Stranger, there’s a scene where I’m saying something, and my wife is like, “That’s not what happened.” I’m like, “What?” and she’s like, “Honey, that didn’t happen.” I’d made up in my mind that I’d done this really stupid thing, and she’s like, “That didn’t really happen. You felt really bad, but you didn’t do that stupid thing.” Dealing with the issue of why we tell ourselves certain stories and what are the stories we want to project to other people is interesting to me.
The Gifts of the Body has a really interesting structure. I’m wondering how you came to that structure—if it emerged organically as you were writing it or if you had it in mind when you started out.
Organic sounds like it just kind of came together. But putting that book together was so hard. I worked as a homecare aid, a bunch of people died, and then I got a writing fellowship to go away to write another book that I proposed, but while I’m away I’m writing letters to Chris, to whom I am now married, about all these memories of people who’d died because I’m away from Seattle and I’m not with my buddies in our grief. I’m like, oh I remember this time, I remember this time. And it’s like, oh god, shit, I’ve got to get to work on my book, and all I’m doing is writing about these AIDS people. So I started thinking, why don’t I make them little stories? Some of them were in the first person, some were in the third person, some were present, some were past, some of them were kind of shaped like . . . there’d be an incident, like the incident of the guy with the bath and the water, and there’s this long, lyric passage of water and lakes and birth and then back to another narrative thing about this guy and then this long, lyric thing—so really a different kind of shape—before we had the words “lyric essay,” boys and girls. And then it was like, I think I want to make a book. How do I make a book?
There was a lot of thinking about what I wanted to do after I’d written a bunch of stuff. And then at some point I had to make decisions, because this chapter is so good in third person and this one is so good in first person, and you can’t have it both ways. It was really important for me to have unexpected people get AIDS, like an old white woman from transfusion and a young, white, straight, married woman. And have that surprise of death. Because we all think, oh yeah, beautiful, young gay men die, oh that’s too bad. And then the New Testament—which is my religious practice, Christian—the New Testament has this thing about the gifts of the spirit. The gifts of the spirit are peacefulness, et cetera. But this is about the gifts of the body. This is like living in the body. So that’s how the structure came up. The chapter titles are like a devotional book in the New Testament.
A lot of people are like, “Oh my god they just flowed, it must have been so easy.” Oh no no no no. But no. You have no fucking idea. Because you want all the backstage stuff to become invisible. You have to make it seem inevitable through labor. The Terrible Girls is in some ways structured similarly. It’s not a collection of separate stories, but you could read each chapter separately.
Speaking of The Terrible Girls, and also The Children’s Crusade and a couple other books, you do this narrative style where you have one character addressing a “you” the whole time, and sometimes it’s to a very specific character, like Stan in The Children’s Crusade. How do you see that working in your books? Why do you choose that narrative style?
It’s not decisive. Some of the pieces I wrote when I was a graduate student, and they were just obsessively written. They started as these obsessive interior monologues directed at this one person, “How could you do this to me?” The first one, where that really kind of happened, was called “Forgiveness,” and it starts, “When I said I’d give my right arm for you, I didn’t think you’d ask me for it, but you did.” Obviously it’s metaphorical, but at the time I was really asking, “How could you do this?” In the wisdom of forty years, it’s obviously not a one-sided thing. It wasn’t like, I’m going write something in accusing second-person and really convey abjection. I’m going to write a letter that I’ll never send. I was getting a lot of this stuff out to this person or about this person. It was eruptive, not intentional. And then it kept going.
Really it’s about intimacy, right? In The Children’s Crusade, she’s looking for her brother and at some point he’s gone, but she’s still addressing him in her mind. She’s looking for the lost boy, whatever that is. It’s really about longing to connect or communicate with a specific individual and then expands to ask, what are you really asking for?
My latest book, Not Heaven, Somewhere Else, is structured like that. My publisher put “stories” on the cover. “Stories by Rebecca Brown.” And then a couple friends said, don’t do that because people will dip in and out. The second American edition of The Terrible Girls they renamed “a novel in stories” so that people wouldn’t just dip in and out, but read it from the start to the end, right? How do you indicate that without saying this is a novel, when it’s not? I think we’re going to call this new book a “cycle,” like a song cycle or a story cycle. The last piece of the cycle is a second-person narrative address. At the end of the book, this is a directive or it’s an imperative or it’s an intimacy.
Can you speak to collaboration and having art in your work?
I’m looking around to see if there’s any result of that. I wrote a libretto for a dance opera, where we—the dancer, the composer, and me—all went up to Centrum for four days to hash this thing out. And I’ve done work with visual artists. Some of these books over here are books of mine. This little book collaboration I did with a painter friend of mine, Nancy Kiefer, was translated into Japanese last year. And there is an issue of a magazine called Golden Handcuffs. The
editor, Lou Rowan, asked Fay Jones for some studies and then invited writers to respond to these visual works of hers and write about them. And here are these bookscbefore they were called “erasures” I was doing the same thing, but I called them “cut and paste.” And this is a whole book, The Mortals, where I painted on every page in the book after picking out words to say what I wanted. That was shown at the Frye Art Museum and Hedreen Gallery and different places. I love working with other people.
You do a lot of hybrid work. Obviously, all genres are fair game with you. Is there anything you haven’t tried but want to try? I didn’t even know you did poetry, until I found some poems online.
That’s so weird—I never think of myself as a poet. There was a period a couple of summers ago that I was in a fucking state, and so somehow, I ended up writing a sonnet a day for a week or so, and I had this great feeling of, “Well, that’s something I’ve never done!” And in this new book there are a lot of pieces that are short lines—they look like little quatrains, so I guess they’re poems. I did a sort of one-woman performance show at Northwest Film Center several years ago. It was really fun. There are at least two more books I want to do. And maybe a third. I’ve got these four essays about the seasons, and I would love for them to be a little book. Or maybe they’d be part of a book of essays. I’m working with Matthew Stadler, who does Fellow Traveller books, on a collection of essays to come out next year. He’s an amazing editor, thinker, and friend. I can’t wait to be part of his list. Roberto Tejada is also working on a book with him to come out next year.
When I think of a structure where you start writing and then things piece themselves out and you have to bring them all together, that seems like The Dogs. It doesn’t feel like you wrote it linearly.
At. All. The opening of the book is, “One night I saw a dog in my apartment.” Okay. So the night I saw the dog in my apartment in my mind, up on 17th and Madison, was in 1985. Between ’85 and ’98, that was always the next book I was going to write. I was like, I’m going to write this book of the dogs.
It took so many shapes, and there were hundreds of pages. For a long time it was this travel narrative on a bus. And the dogs were driving the bus, and they were going through the desert and the mountains. It was hundreds of pages of stuff, like all this research on dogs—Italian dogs and Renaissance and English dogs. Just tons of shit. I edited so many versions of that book. And then it got smaller and smaller and smaller and I had all these little pieces I was trying to put together of this narrative. I’ve read a lot of medieval literature. I really like the medieval Christian visionaries, the insane, physically and mentally violent images. And that’s the shape of this book. This book is not a novel. It’s not a road trip. It’s not “on the road with the dogs.” But that took years on and off. And I had boxes of drafts of a long bus trip on the road with the dogs book. You wouldn’t recognize it. So that came really retrospectively, too.
And then at some point, like The Gifts of the Body or Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, in the final shaping of the chapters, oh my god, this vision in which words were illustrated came, and once that was there I was like, now I know how it fits together. So it was a very long process. And when it really finally clicked, it did. But there were certainly many times before it that I thought, it’s clicked, but it really hadn’t yet. But I do think the final shape now is the right one. And these pieces weren’t written in order. The chapter about “I did not kill the child in the garden” came about two thirds of the way through the writing of it.
A lot of people have tried to dissect that book in terms of allegory, and everybody seems to get a slightly different meaning out of it. I was wondering how you felt about that, and then a follow-up question, how do you feel about dogs?
Well, we have cats, as you know, and we have squirrels. Dogs are fine. I love playing with them and seeing them on the beach. But we don’t actually have a dog.
Allegory is such an interesting idea. Historically, when you tell an allegory, it’s because you can’t say something directly, like, let’s go have sex. So many of the Christian allegories are about penetrating the rose garden with your lance and your spear. Highly imaginative literature is about opening things up for us. I wasn’t exactly sure what the dogs were. Is it me fighting with God? Is it me hating God and God hating me? Is it living with depression? I’ve lived with severe clinical depression, and it’s like, you’re in or you’re out of it. Is it that? There’s part of the book that’s clearly about being a female with a female body in a male world—you know, a woman is a bitch, a dog, and then how does that relate to men being wolves? All of that, the religious side of it, the medical side of it—what is it? It’s the sum of all those things.
In my experience in my apartment, it wasn’t a psychotic break. It was just like, oh shit. I wasn’t crazy. I knew something bad was going on in my head, I was aware something was fucked. But I wondered, why was it this big, black dog? Then dogs kept going in my imagination. I wasn’t actually seeing things, but I felt like I was seeing things. The mystics actually write really well about modes of perception, seeing bodily, seeing spiritually; they understood it.
Churchill was also a depressive, and he saw black dogs—that’s what he called his depression, black dogs—and, um, Kafka had black dogs and mice, and in the Catholic church there’s an order of preachers started by and named after Saint Dominic, also known as the domini canes; i.e., the Dogs of God.
The thing about allegory is that it can be read so many different ways. That complexity really appeals to me. People have different views of it, and that’s great. Even if they’re completely off the ledge with it, I’m like, whatever.
I’ve taught “The Girl Who Cried Wolf,” and students all have different interpretations. One—and it connects to The Dogs—is that it’s about psychiatric illness. And how it’s invisible.
An invisible disability. And specifically with “The Girl Who Cried Wolf,” the phrases “there, there, it’s fine” and “oh honey, the rest of us aren’t upset.” And it’s like, I know. I know you’re not upset, just patronizing, as if invisible disabilities don’t exist. “The Girl Who Cried Wolf” is in Not Heaven, Somewhere Else. For a while I considered “The Girl Who Cried Wolf” as the title of the book, but with that title it would have leaned more towards fairytale and violence, and I wanted it a little quieter. Now the title seems really right for it.
That’s the thing about allegory, it should open up possibilities, and not say, “Bing! You got it, that’s it.” I went to a reading one time and there was this one person who read one of my stories, and I just couldn’t believe her interpretation, and I was like, hmm, wow, thanks, I guess? But if you put it out there, to a degree it’s yours, but to a degree it’s not. Again though, it’s really flattering that people read your work and think different things.
In a lot of your books you put your characters through hell—literally take their arms off, sores just won’t heal, bleeding all over the bed. There’s a lot of assault, including sexual assault, and I was wondering how you chose certain actions to happen to characters and how they furthered the story?
I have a violent imagination. We live in a really violent culture. And I think also as a woman—you know there’s this thing that women aren’t supposed to express anger—I think some of that writing comes partly from holding in anger, partly from imagining anger as a way of getting through something. But again it’s not a choice. Where did the image of pushing the person down the disposal come from? I don’t know. Where did the image of pulling the walker out from the old lady and stepping on her face until she died come from? I don’t know. But clearly there’s something in me that’s got an extreme imagination and sometimes that violence is extreme—and something about physical violence expressing emotional pain, emotional violence.
There’s an interplay between what’s interior and exterior. I just read that piece about the kids playing war, “Trenches,” and in some ways it’s a commentary, certainly, about the world in which we live, and on the other hand, it’s all interior.
Right, right. Kids! And the sort of ease with which, dear God, the violence, we don’t even think about. There’s torture. Like every single fucking movie I see, there’s a torture scene. When did this happen?
Do you worry it will turn people off from your work? A lot of times the actions are working in the story really well, but readers might have a hard time with that.
There are so many books out there, and very few people read. And if they don’t like your work, they’re going to read something else. Obviously my work isn’t for everyone, but whose is? The only people forced to read your work are students. I get a little worried when I think, for example, about this new book: It’s a little too weird for these people, a little too Christian for these people. Maybe I should just publish twenty copies of it. I can’t really read this out loud there, and if I’m reading with so-and-so, this would upset them, and this is a little bit too woo-woo. . . . That’s the place where I am in my life. It’s like, you’ve written all these books and you’ve kind of made some money, but not really. I’m still teaching half-time. Didn’t get the big reviews, didn’t get the big grants. Hell, I could’ve written different kinds of books, but actually I couldn’t have. Because people say, “Oh those books are so easy to write,” and it’s like, no, you go try to write a well-done, mainstream, well-plotted, character-rich book: that’s hard. And they’re different kinds of skills. Just because you can do one thing, doesn’t mean, “Oh, I could write something if I just lowered my standards.” One, it’s not lower standards, and two, it’s really different.
You mentioned with The Dogs that you had this image of a black dog in your apartment and how that really inspired you. Were there any other occasions where you were inspired by something outside of yourself?
A couple times. Sometimes I’ve had things like, I hear a sentence, and I don’t know what it is or what it means, and I just follow that sentence. Like that sentence, “I did not kill the child in the garden,” which clearly has a rhythm to it, but also it has this mythic, like, woah! What’s that? “One night I saw a dog in my apartment”—same kind of thing. And in a book that I would like to finish and have be my next book, I remember being at the gym one time and I saw this little picture in my head of me on a raft on the Nisqually River. And then I wrote a story from that. A lot of times I’ll hear a part of a phrase and it’s very aural and it’s very rhythmic and like, what is that? What is that? I just try to follow it. Not that you can call up or demand that kind of thing.
I was wondering about that relationship with readership and publishing. Because you’ve published with a lot of really interesting, cool presses. I’m thinking the London presses—Brilliance Books, Picador, Granta Books—and City Lights and Seal Books, and I know you did handmade books.
And my next publisher is Tarpaulin Sky, which is basically one guy, a former student. Small press guy. Here are some of his books. And he has this print magazine. They’re beautifully done books. A really interesting list. But you’re not going to find them in bookstores. There’s so much interesting publishing going on. And so much publishing that I have no interest in at all. So who do we write for, who reads this, how do we access these books? It’s a funny thing.
One of the agents I sent my work to said, “I love your work, it’s really beautiful but I can’t make money. I can’t represent it, but you might think of sending it to City Lights.” So I sent it to City Lights. This was the early ’90s. The editor there was a woman named Amy Scholder, and she said she had been looking for a lesbian writing interesting work for years. There was a lot of lesbian writing around, but it was much more mainstream, traditional storytelling. She was really interested in my formal stuff and the emotional violence. They did like six books of mine, and then they turned this last one down. So then I sent this manuscript to probably four or five different people. I have an agent of record, but I’ve placed my last books on my own—the books don’t make much money. I do read a lot of small presses. And having been involved in this world for thirty-five years, I’ve met different people, and there’s certain lists I really like. Do you guys know Dorothy Press? Phenomenal. Run by Danielle Dutton in Missouri. She publishes two books a year. Most of the books are by women, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful list. I sent it to them. I sent it to Hawthorne Books in Portland. Lovely woman there, Rhonda Hughes. And they all had great reasons for rejecting my book. And I’m like, “Makes total sense, let’s keep in touch, love you guys!” It doesn’t kill me. I’ve published a bunch of books already, and I’m sixty-three. So I just send it to presses I’m interested in.
The queer lit genre has become almost segregated; in bookstores it has its own section, its own shelf. Do you think it’s necessary for it to have its own section, or do you think it can be included in the wider genre of fiction?
Being a lesbian writer in the ’70s, there was no section. There was no nothing. So we had gay and lesbian bookstores because they weren’t in the mainstream. And then they were in the mainstream, but only in a certain section. It’s so much more open now that there are actually queer characters in mainstream books in a way there weren’t before. Alan Hollinghurst can get some national book award or National Book Critics Circle Award, and he’s gay.
Anytime you’ve got hyphenated literature—Black-American literature, Chicano literature, women’s literature, queer literature, Northwest literature—on the one hand, it makes it less than, hyphenated means less than. And on the other hand, you go in a bookstore, and you think, I want to read something by a Northwest writer. Sometimes the sectioning really helps. “My grandchild is coming out and I want to read a book about transgender youth. Is there a section for that?” “Yeah, here you go, Grandma. Here’s some books to bring home to your transgender grandkid.” So it can definitely go both ways. But as a lesbian who was writing lesbian work in the early ’80s, that work wasn’t in the mainstream for a long, long time. On the one hand: “one of the best African-American writers of our time”—is someone going to say that about Toni Morrison? No, Toni Morrison: one of the best writers in America, or one of the best writers in the world. But you also want to have something where it’s just like, I don’t have to read through 500 titles before I come across one title by a Chicano author. So you say, “Is there a Chicano author section?”
I remember in the early ’90s when I was teaching at the extension at the University of Washington. I was an out lesbian and, at that time, the only out gay person teaching. At one point, somebody dropped the class because she was like, “I’m not here to learn gay literature,” and I was like, “Okay great, you probably don’t want to be here, that’s fine.” But then there was this incident in the class. A young lesbian says, “I just want to write literature. I don’t want to be categorized,” and I was supposed to say, what? You think I wanted to be categorized? As a lesser-than, hyphenated writer? I would say to adult people in this class, “Let me see a show of hands of people who’ve read. . . .” And then I named like ten gay and lesbian authors, and nobody in the class had read any of them. They were like, “I would read that,” like they had nice intentions and didn’t want to not read books by gay people, but I was like, “But do you?” I’m just saying what the reality is.
On the other side, I teach at the university up here, and I’m the only lesbian person on the faculty, which is fine—it’s a small faculty—but, over the course of the semester, about two-thirds of the way through the semester, there will almost always be at least two really thoughtful, nice, straight, white guys who come into my office and will be like, “Someone called me out. . . .” They won’t say it, but they’ll really be asking, “Did you find this portrayal of this woman offensive?” These straight white guys have not been hyphenated—they’re just targets in academia these days. So I end up actually working with a lot of these poor men because I’m able to assure them that in these particular projects, no, you’re not being offensive just because you are a guy writing about a woman in some of your work. Like, if you’re writing a story about the real world, there’s probably going to be different kinds of characters in your story, right? They’re not all going to be Mother Teresa. It’s just a really tricky time about, um, more “identity-er than thou.” It’s a really, really tricky time.
You mention your religion a lot. I was wondering how your faith plays into your writing process. I’m Jewish and it plays a central part in my writing.
I think both Christians and Jews, from what I know, and maybe people of other faiths, have ideas about the word and the flesh. And the idea of the living word and storytelling and action, the necessity of passing these stories down, is profound. It’s profound. And God is that which we can’t see, so we have to tell stories. God has been around longer than us, so we have to use the stories of our ancestors to perceive this kind of divine mystery. Story-carrying and story-making and word and imaging is really a piece of that. I’ve been reading this book Walking on Water: Reflections of Faith and Art by Madeline L’Engle. She’s such a good writer, and I think whether one is a person of faith or not, the thing about the responsibility of the writer in the world and the importance of writing is that it is an act of faith. You write stuff, and one, maybe you’ll never finish it; two, maybe no one will ever read it; and three, you may be self-indulgent. But you just do this thing as a way of self-knowledge and interaction with the world. I’ve been able to think about making art and trying to be aware of the divine as tied up together. With The Gifts of the Body and with The Terrible Girls, there’s this thing of taking a body out of the ground. There’s a bearing and lifting up a lot. And with The Dogs, there was a child lifted out of the ground and placed in a river and going towards the light. Those images happen a lot in Christianity; there’s a lot of drawing on imagery of light and water and darkness and burials that has always been really important to me.
About six years ago, I was fully received into the Roman Catholic Church. Obviously, there are things I disagree with about the dogma of the mainstream Church—Catholics don’t have female priests, there is doctrine against gay marriage. There’s the awfulness of the sex abuse crisis and cover-up. All of that is there. But I guess it’s kind of like being an American. Am I pro-Trump? Am I anti-immigrant or a white nationalist? No. But I stay in America despite that crap and for the good stuff. Chris and I are lucky to have found two very progressive Catholic parishes. And for me the notion of storytelling, going to Mass to hear one story from the Old Testament and one from the New, it’s like hearing the old stories again. It’s like a reading and then dinner together after. And saying we’re trying to come talk and eat together in peace and mercy—it’s just profound. There’s things like going to the altar, a really simple thing, but something happens there that I don’t understand but that is good. The big stuff in life we don’t really understand, we just have it and are grateful.
Do you think the occult nature of Catholicism attracted you?
You know, some of the rituals I really love. And certainly the necessity of ritual. In our community recently, we had three funerals right after the other. It was brutal. Fucking brutal. There was one young person who was disabled, a ninety-four-year-old woman who had a great long life, and a sixty-four-year-old who just fell over—boom—from a heart attack. And we all gathered there, and we all had the meal, and the priest sprinkled the water, and there was the incense, and we were just all like, okay, here’s stuff we don’t understand. We’re really sorry, and we’re going to say the prayers we’ve been saying for 2,000 years, and we will see you in heaven, or not, but we will remember you in this way.
Everybody dies. But in a community with sacraments, it’s not like they just die, and we go home and watch TV. We come together, and we say the old words and water and wine and song. One thing about structured religion is having other people to help you along. Of course, the downside is having other people tell you what to do, you know, don’t be gay, don’t be a woman, have this kind of sex but not that kind, all that, which I guess a lot of structures have.
But there was something about it, you know? I love classical music. I love classical art. That’s very Catholic, all of that western culture stuff, and then once a week, I go to a hospital and I take Holy Communion with people. Most of these people are in trouble—I mean, they’re in the hospital. But they want this, and they want to be with their family and say the old words they know. It’s this profound thing—we’re going to hold hands and say the words and eat this little thing together, that kind of ritual. There’s something bigger than us. Some people don’t think so, but I do. I’m sure there’s something greater than heaven or earth, as the philosophy goes.
Do you have rituals when you write?
Not really. I don’t write every day. I have long periods where I don’t write, months of not writing. I forgot this, but my friend asked, “Do you remember two years ago when you said you were done writing?” And I said, “No.” “And how about a year ago?” “No.” I always think I’m done writing and then something else comes out, but no I don’t have any rituals with my writing. I have conditions that are better for the writing. I have this studio, and Chris is retired now, but when she was at work, I had this very open head space. I’m just very porous. I’m very aware when I’m not the only one in the house. Last week I was in my office on campus on a Friday and there was no one around. It was perfect. Solitude is good.
Are there any biblical stories you draw inspiration from again and again?
Just literally and simply the story of bringing people back to life. People are dead and they come back. I think of it a little like the downside of bipolar depression, the feeling of, “That’s it, I’m done, no more”—the idea that there’s life after death, and then asking, was I really that dark? What was I worried about? This chemical lifting of light after dark. And the story of Jacob wrestling with the angels—it’s like, who are you? I can’t leave until I know this thing. Who are you, who am I, what’s the name?
Another story that’s incredibly troubling for me is the story of Abraham and Isaac. If you love me, you’ll kill your son for me, and it’s like, no way! If that’s the kind of god you are. It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around that, but I know it’s a story of faith. But don’t ever ask somebody to do that. There’s this book, New Animals, by Nick Francis Potter from Subito Press. They do really great work in Colorado, and there’s this story in there called “Oops, Isaac.” The angel in the story shows up and tells Abraham, don’t do it. In this story, the angel gets lost on his way to Isaac, “Oh, sorry, Isaac.” It’s great—don’t give the wrong angel the job, cause he’s like, “Sorry! Sorry!”
Also the story of Paul: he goes from being really sure and really right and pure and turns around like, “Oh what have I done? I’ve got to stop persecuting people.” And he doesn’t become perfect, he is still kind of awful sometimes. And the one with Jesus at the well and the Samaritan woman—they were so flirtatious. What kind of water do you have? What kind of water do you want? What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here. Well, neither are you. The whole idea that Jesus abdicates the role of being a big Jewish patriarch, a man with a wife and a bunch of kids and a father of a nation. No, for him family is going to be not a wife and biological kids but people who try to be merciful and kind and good to one another; a family of kindred feeling.
You said that one of the stories you’re most interested in is bringing the dead back to life. I had a question about the moral issues you face whenever you want to write about deceased people in your own life. You’ve said you’re a purist—obviously, you don’t want to make up lies. If you write about the living, you’re able to send them a copy and get their consent before it’s sent out and published, and they can say, “Tweak this. I don’t want people to know my jean size.” But if they’re deceased, they can’t do that. How do you come to terms with that?
That’s a great question. I’ll just use a couple anecdotes. In The Gifts of the Body, when I started doing the AIDS work, I totally went not as a writer. Partly, I went into that work because I was sick of writing and the writing world. But one of my clients found out I was a writer and he was like, are you going to write about me one day, and I’m like, no, this is not what I do. Not what I do. But he was like, are you going to write about me one day? Are you going to write about me? So in some ways I felt like he was commissioning me, and the book is partly dedicated to him. I really tried to honor all the people there and not be smarmy about any of them, and it was fiction.
I wrote a story called “The Widow” which is in The Stranger. It’s about a woman who dies of cancer and her husband doesn’t know what to do. It’s a really sad story. My best pal died many, many years ago and her husband had said to me, “If you ever want to write anything, please do.” As I’m writing this thing, I asked him if he wanted to read it, and he was like, “I trust your writing, but if you want me to read it I will, whatever you want to do.” It wasn’t just the story of my friend dying; it was a story about loss and grief and friendship and love. It’s called a story, and the names are changed. But that’s all. Same thing with writing about my mother. That book, Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, began after my mother died. I did the eulogy at her memorial service, and then my family, who was there, said, can you give us a copy of the eulogy, and did you write anything about when you were taking care of your mom? And then we made this book. When the book was published, my mother’s sister and her husband—she really loved her sister—came to the big opening, and we gave them a copy of the book. It was a real family thing. And so I feel like I try to do that honorably.
I was writing about them and I was writing about me, but I was also writing about the experience, what happens to someone after people die, what you remember and what you don’t remember. To the degree that I’ve been able to ask people, I have, and I think otherwise I’ve tried to honor things as much as I can and not just tell tawdry stories.
I’ve put a lot of my grief about my mom into that book. And there was also a kind of retrospective forgiveness of my father, who was not a bad man—he didn’t beat me or abuse me or anything—he was just a troubled guy not cut out to be a husband or a dad. This book is about embracing and forgiving him and getting beyond that. It’s really helpful to not suppress-contain, but to hold-contain grief. Art as a container for grief can be really helpful. Different friends have said, “I read this book a year after my mom died, and it helped.” Or, “I read this after my friend’s mom died, and it helped me understand my friend.” And that’s good that it can do that. That’s good.
I’d love to hear more about the level of mysticism in your work.
Do you know the name of the first named woman who ever wrote a book in the English language that we know is written by a woman? Not anonymous, but the name of the woman who wrote the first book in the English language? Julian of Norwich. 1374. Her book is called Revelations of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings. She was living in Norwich. She has a profound illness for three days. They think she’s dead or almost dead. And she has sixteen visions. And then she just describes them—what I was talking earlier about the mystics, bodily seeing, spiritual seeing, mental seeing—she talks a lot about that. She’s really psychologically adept about levels of perception and awareness. And she’s also really bodily. She describes being sick, and paralyzed, and hot and cold, and then she has these sixteen visions, in the course of a day, like May 9, 1374, or around then. And they’re all of Jesus, Jesus bleeding, Jesus whatever, so they’re graphic and gory. She writes little visions of what she saw and then she writes a whole chapter about what it means.
The whole thing about bodily violence, physical violence, and sexual violence: the mystics are all about that. They’re really about the body as a site to try to describe what’s going on in your mind. The violence of your mind is described as getting your head cut off. Or having things gouged into you, or having flowers blossom out of you. Right? That stuff is hugely important to me: Julian; John of the Cross; Catherine of Sienna; The Cloud of Unknowing. They’re just these bodily, intense, deep images that are trying to describe the ineffable. That which cannot be named.
When I turned sixty, I flew myself to England for a week by myself to see Julian’s church, and when I was received in the Catholic Church, I took the name Julian as my confirmation name. I wrote the people at the Children of Norwich church—there’s a little nun’s house next door—and I said, “I want to come to your church. Can I come hang out with you?” It’s this big sixteen-room place, and it was me and one nun. And I’m like, “So, can we watch TV?” The church at Norwich, where Julian wrote this book, is still there. Basically, it’s like a hole in the ground, and they say they built a church around it. I was in the church every day, and one day I closed the inside door behind me, and plaster fell off the outside door. Gasp! Oh my god! Of course, I stole the plaster.
Anyway, that stuff is tough to describe. For me, it’s one of those things about religion versus philosophy, or even psychology. In philosophy and psychology you get the idea that they believe they can explain things. And religion ultimately goes back to, “Actually, we can’t explain this. Therefore, we have mystery, therefore we have ritual, because you really can’t explain this shit.” That’s the appeal to me. To just acknowledge we won’t get it. There’s something we won’t get.
What’s interesting in what you’re talking about, and when I think about like Joseph Campbell, or the Greek notion of psyche, is that it’s so male-dominated. But you’re talking about female practitioners.
Exactly, and particularly in Christianity, the men were the scholars, so they were in the monasteries, they were reading the old texts, and there was this blossoming of females outside the men’s academy, having their own separate female world of education and music and language, because they weren’t studying the scholastic stuff. And Julian’s really big on the motherhood of God. She talks about Mother and Father God, and she talks about the blood from Jesus’s side as actually like a mother giving milk. They’re really about the nurturing-ness of the body. Really profound, whole thinking. Great stuff. She didn’t believe in hell. She couldn’t wrap her head around a god who would send anybody to hell. Theologically, she’s ultimately an optimist and had this profound experience. Her big line is, “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”
Plus, she wrote this one book in her life, but she wrote it twice. It took her twenty years. I can get behind that, right? You live in a fucking cell alone, writing this same book twice—Jesus Christ.
She lived to be really old, too. The back of the book says she’s like seventy-two?
She was old for back then. Yeah, yeah. On the other hand, she probably didn’t smoke or drink or have bad sex or anything, you know? No nasty boyfriends or girlfriends, just like, lived alone with a cat. Chillin’ with her cat.
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