by Andrew Farkas
The traditional interview begins with a description of the surroundings where the interview took place, though in the present tense as if it were taking place right now and somehow being beamed onto the page. For instance, “I meet Cris Mazza at Insomnia, a coffee shop in Columbus, Ohio, that is situated mostly below street level. It is jam packed, as always, full of twenty- and thirty-somethings chugging French Roast and Guatemalan, everyone trying to be more authentic than everyone else, while playing chess and checkers, arguing about the greatness of various bands, informing each other how wrong all of their ideas are . . . but luckily we’re able to find a table. Though Cris doesn’t look like she quite fits in with the tattooed and rather punk rock clientele, some are even holding on with both emaciated and bleached fists to the Goth style, the very purpose of Insomnia seems to be that no one fits in here, the only club suitable for this mob being Groucho Marx’s. I felt this would be the perfect location to discuss Mazza’s memoir, Something Wrong With Her (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013, $18), a book about ‘sexual dysfunction’ and the social difficulties (especially the difficulty of fitting in) that have ensued in her life from this ‘problem.’”
Andrew Farkas: It is customary to comment on the physical surroundings of the location of the interview. How do you feel about this tradition?
Cris Mazza: It’s something I’ve always hated: It’s always done in present tense, as though there’s a tape recorder running and the interviewer is giving a voice-over as he or she conducts the interview. It’s so fake. I’m not likely to read any interview that starts with that pretentious present-tense “We meet at a chic vegan Thai ice cream bistro in the Amazon rainforest . . .”
[The interviewer has decided that, through whatever diabolical means necessary, he will trick Cris Mazza into one day meeting him for an interview at a chic vegan Thai ice cream bistro in the Amazon rainforest.]
Next, the introduction lists the accomplishments of the person being interviewed. For instance, Cris Mazza has published seventeen books (eleven novels, five story collections, and a collection of essays), won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for her novel How to Leave a Country (Coffee House Press, 1992), and directs the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In this way, interviewing has always been a form that needs an excuse. “This is not just me talking to some friend of mine for no good reason and publishing it,” the beginning of every interview ever says.
AF: It is also customary to list the accomplishments of the person being interviewed. But how likely are you, no matter how many accomplishments the person may have, to read an interview with someone you’ve never heard of?
CM: Sometimes I wonder why novelists are being interviewed, and am not inclined to read an interview with a novelist that’s about a novel because the novel should be self-contained. I suppose the same could be true of a memoir, although with a meta-memoir like Something Wrong With Her, I think having interviews going on after publication are part of the whole project—a story largely about writing the book—because the writer didn’t stop learning what she was writing about, having insights and revelations, after the manuscript went into production. It had to be forced off my computer and I had to will myself to stop going into it and adding updates. So for this kind of project, interviews are a way for the story to be continued toward . . . well, there’ll never be a resolution, but continued bumps and layers. But I’m circling your question instead of answering it. I would have to put myself in a study and have them hand me thirty interviews and see which ones I read over the course of a month. Since, in interviews, I would want to read to see how a writer personally handled issues like isolation, envy, disappointment, not being understood by critics/editors/agents . . . so maybe the answer is that I wouldn’t be as inclined to read an interview with a first-book writer, unless it was a first book published later in life. Just saying that challenges me to find one and read it. I could get back to you after I do.
AF: You mentioned meta-memoir. When you first told me about Something Wrong With Her, you called it “meta-creative nonfiction.” Could you explain what that is?
CM: In the first place, I think all memoir has to be “meta” based on the simplest definition of metafiction, that it “does not let the reader forget he or she is reading a fictional work.” I don’t believe any memoir allows the reader to forget he or she is reading a work of memoir. The first giveaway is the first-person narrative: that narrative didn’t spontaneously appear in a thought-bubble above the reader’s head, it’s a consciously created manipulation of language to tell the writer’s personal story. So just the words “a memoir” on the cover of a book make it, in my mind, “meta” in the sense that no one is pretending the author didn’t write it, that the author isn’t that first-person narrator, that writing didn’t take place on a keyboard (for contemporary memoirs), that the author wasn’t fully aware that a memoir was being produced when he or she sat tapping on that keyboard.
But even knowing that a traditional memoir is consciously aware of itself as a memoir doesn’t make critics call it a meta-memoir. I used that term from a very early point in constructing this book because I knew it was a book that needed to be read while it was being written. That what was happening and what I was learning / feeling / deciding while I wrote—and how I realized & decided—were part of the story being told. It was circular: how the writing influenced my mood, preoccupations, decisions, etc., and then how those things in turn influenced the form and direction of the manuscript. I wanted both sides of that process to show as much as possible in the “finished” book (if it can be said to be finished . . . I simply had to stop).
I’m not sure I can effectively give a succinct statement of what metafiction did to or for fiction—it has to do with the nature of reality and reality’s “place” in art, and art’s relationship and place in reality—but I believe the parallel in meta-nonfiction is more user-friendly. If the work—and everything involved in the work—of writing the story is part of the story, it may lay bare the reason for producing a memoir at all. Why do people watch or read “true” crime dramas: not because the crime happened to them or to someone they know, not because it was committed by anyone they know, but because the intuitive, investigative, psychological, and forensic work of “putting things together” is inherently interesting, maybe because it’s how most people live their own lives, whether they know it or not. So even if every memoirist doesn’t want to see a memoir that way, wants it to be a story told with the retrospect of time, with wisdom gained from distance, and wants the events of the story to be what’s important to the reader, a different kind of memoir like this one can also be significant to a reader: just seeing how someone put pieces of life-evidence together and was somehow altered (I do not want to say “healed”) by the process.
After the introduction has been laid down, it is then the job of the interviewer to slowly fade away into the questions being asked. This makes perfect sense because it is the interviewee who is important, interesting, the reason people are reading. But because the surroundings have been described, and because the interview is set up to seem like two people hanging out, drinking coffee or beer in a public setting, this interviewer, anyway, has always imagined other interviewers slowly turning invisible, while the interviewee turns to the crowd gathered and speaks.
. . .: Along with being a different take on creative nonfiction, this is also a book about so-called sexual dysfunction. You even use the chauvinist word “frigid” to describe yourself. How do you see Something Wrong With Her in comparison to other books about sexual dysfunction?
CM: This is something I’m not going to be able to answer (as asked) because I am unfamiliar with any other books about sexual dysfunction, unless by “dysfunction” one means “addict” or “fetishist” or if it’s a book about sexual withdrawal after some sort of sex crime. (Not that I’ve read books about those conditions either, but I’m aware they exist.) I didn’t seek to read anything in “the tradition” of books about sexual dysfunction because I wasn’t going to model or form this book based on emulation of or rivalry with or transgression of what already existed. But I did look (I don’t think I can call it intense searching) for information or accounts of similar sexual experience, and only found it either in (a) anecdotal material about menopausal consequences (usually insinuating it was sexual deterioration from a better, more “normal” sex-life), and (b) in Nancy Friday’s research from the 1970s and ’80s when hundreds of women answered her research questionnaires for books on women’s sexual fantasies (incidentally, soliciting contributions rendered her books “unscientific”), and books by Shere Hite (a sexologist whose books were considered scientific). This showed me that there are many anorgasmic women (the percentages vary, with the alternate percentage being “normal” women). My cursory extension of research into contemporary times included mostly my own observations and mental data-keeping on how women speak (and write: blogs, Facebook postings, as well as memoirs, interview answers, etc.) with rhetoric—infrequently direct, usually implied—that says they do respond wildly to sex provided the partner is good enough. Sex talk is open, free, common, routine. But no one is openly, freely insinuating they never respond much. No one tacitly bragging about that. An update to the old Masters-and-Johnson sex studies was recently made into a TV documentary, using videos of some of the “typical” (we were supposed to assume) respondents who had been interviewed in the study. But for the statistics/percentages of “those who never orgasmed,” there were no representatives among the live example interviewees shown sitting on a bed, either alone or with a partner, seemingly answering the study interview questions. None of them had been offered (or else declined their invitation) the chance to sit perkily on a bed in front of a camera and voice the answers they’d given on the survey. I thought: they should’ve asked me. I guess I see Something Wrong With Her as one of that other percentage, sitting on a bed in a TV studio looking into the camera, the one who volunteered. Whether they wanted me to or not.
[The interviewer sees this scene as taking place on a sound stage reminiscent of The Dating Game, pastel asterisks everywhere, even Chuck Barris surprised by the response.]
. . .: Throughout you use jazz terms to describe situations and actions in your life. But jazz, as I’ve come to understand it, is all about improvisation (you even discuss this when you point out that jazz musicians don’t really use sheet music, instead they use the rough notes found in a fake book). And yet, since you show us that you have dramatized parts of your life in your novels, and then re-dramatized them, and now you’ve written a memoir about those same moments, Something Wrong With Her has a classical music connection: the idea of getting it right (or, if you will, of penning the definitive sheet music), instead of improvising. How do you see this friction between jazz and classical music playing in your memoir?
CM: Stan Getz said, “It’s like a language. You learn the alphabet, which are the scales. You learn sentences, which are the chords. And then you talk extemporaneously with the horn. It’s a wonderful thing to speak extemporaneously, which is something I’ve never gotten the hang of. But musically I love to talk just off the top of my head. And that’s what jazz music is all about.”
I guess I would say that those events or moments that I transcribed into a journal, then dramatized, sometimes re-dramatized, finally cut-and-pasted into a memoir . . . those would be the chords, the key signature. Chords, even in the fake book, are the same whether they come under the title “Make Someone Happy” or “Bessie’s Blues.” (Not that all tunes have the same chords, just that when a particular chord appears under two different titles, the same notes build that chord in each. Then the soloists improvise with the notes in whatever chord is given.) Something Wrong With Her was, I think, a sort of improvisation with the chords of my life. The way a book has to differ from a jazz solo is that it had to be made “final” at some point. But so did the recorded solos of Getz, Miles or Coltrane. (And someone came along and wrote out the sheet music for those solos for less inspired players to play, note-for-note). Still, it’s obvious there was a weak link in my attempt to make this book more like jazz while a novel is more like classical music.
There was a freedom while I wrote, though. But when I say freedom, agents say “this isn’t a memoir that will sell.” Because I didn’t follow a familiar shape. I don’t think there was a familiar shape in what I felt I needed to say and why. That’s why it’s more like jazz. I was exploring the chords for the tune while I was playing it. Still, there’s long been a rift within jazz as to how free improvisation is. Thelonious Monk said, “They speak of freedom. But one has no right, under pretext of freeing yourself, to be illogical and incoherent by getting rid of structure and simply piling a lot of notes one on top of the other. There’s no beat anymore. You can’t keep time with your foot . . . There’s a new idea that consists in destroying everything and find what’s shocking and unexpected; whereas jazz must first of all tell a story that anyone can understand.” That’s the “literary” jazz I hoped this book was emulating. Monk also said, “play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing, even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.” Put that together with his plea for a beat, for a “story anyone can understand,” and you have the quandary of non-traditional writers. “All you can do is play melody,” Getz said, “No matter how complicated it gets, it’s still a melody.”
. . .: The experience of reading this memoir is a combination of looking through a scrapbook (a writer’s scrapbook, or even a jazz musician’s fake book), but also looking through a detective’s notes (a detective who has been on the case for a long time, like Leonard Shelby in the movie Memento). How did you come up with this form, or why did you decide to use this form?
CM: In some ways, the form grew out of necessity. I knew I had a box full of journals kept in college. I knew there had been a “black hole” in the first collection of personal essays I had published—the period 1974 through 1980. I knew I had experienced events and situations during that time that had “marked” me. I felt there must have been a reason I skipped that time in the first nonfiction book. Right there was one of the first questions that got me started: Why did I skip the most difficult material? The initial answer to that question, which helped me start the book, was a hypothesis that could not be sustained . . . or at least that was overwhelmed by other material. I thought it would be a book about how incidents of sexual harassment, before there were sexual harassment laws, had been influential or affecting in an interesting and/or significant way. Perhaps were part of the bedrock for a lasting dysfunctional sex-life. (I cannot say for certain when I realized the book would be a search for that answer, about my sexual dysfunction, and not just some answer pertaining to my over-influential male mentors and incidents of sexual harassment.) At any rate, this made it necessary to read all of those journals. It was the proverbial can of worms. Recalling for me easily a dozen specific incidents—how hotly important they were at the time, then somehow nearly completely faded from memory.
At the same time, coincidentally (not part of the book’s research), I was getting back in email contact with someone I had known all during that period of time. It was natural to tell him some of what I was working on, because he knew the other significant “characters,” but his responses and memory-contributions and—mostly—his questions, one particular question, brought to the fore just how significant he had been in all of my braided (and unraveling) situations all along. This was one of the first major things that happened during the writing that became part of the writing, ultimately the major portion of the story that writing-the-book would tell. Re-connection with Mark brought out the letters I’d written to him, our yearbook inscriptions, the cartoons he’d drawn, eventually the songs he’d written. Each item—examining it, thinking about it, sharing responses with him over email—shaped how I would be using it, what it would say to me, what it said about me (or him), etc. Then using selections from my published fiction became another memory-exercise. I had to remind myself how I’d fictionalized certain events in order to better remember them, and also so that if I dramatized the scene again it wouldn’t be a deadened copy compared to the fictional use (I eventually elected to only use the fictional scene whenever possible, instead of the pretense of re-dramatizing the same scene again for the sake of this book). I was curious why I’d changed certain things, why I’d used certain images or metaphors. It became not an author providing critical insight to her own work but forensic self-analysis.
. . .: You point out that it’s perfectly fine for a woman to write about sexual transgression (rampant sex, illicit sex, etc.), but that it’s actually taboo for a woman to write about having trouble with sex. Why do you think that is? At this stage, shouldn’t all people be “allowed” to talk about any sort of sexual viewpoint?
CM: Oh, certainly allowed! It seems, from my observation, to be a personal taboo. In the face of an openly sexualized culture, who wouldn’t keep their failing in society’s biggest contest a secret? And no one’s saying culture shouldn’t be openly sexualized. I guess. I’m not sure a male pop singer dry ass-humping a virtually naked female pop star with her tongue hanging out is the epitome of high art. But look at that recent controversy. (Add in Beyonce at last year’s Super Bowl, and a few other recent public debates along this line.) Sex is depicted or acted out or represented in such a way that shows the female in the throes of fervor. No staged portrayal of sexual activity shows the female hesitant, lacking hunger, less than fully responsive . . . or in pain. (The latter would be a depiction of rape and wouldn’t make the song or whatever is being sold very appealing. I hope.) A fully sexualized woman is, frankly, considered more complete. (And maybe she is.) So while women writers are willing to display their incompleteness in so many other ways, from eating disorders to their bodies being mutilated by cancer treatments, from mental illnesses to obesity, whether or not they write with the inclusion of any complicity in their kinks, flaws or deficits, if sexuality is involved as well, it’s usually to ensure the world that despite these things, they are still complete that way. Unless their story is that they experienced abusive sex and/or incest . . . or were sex addicts (revealing damage done to their egos when sex becomes identity), none of which indicates anorgasmia. Memoirs from sex workers—surrogates to call girls, dominatrix to fetish satisfiers—are usually not exposing character flaws or deficits, but illustrating other layers of our sexualized culture, and by the way, it’s not all that new: look back to Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker, 1971, and Anias Nin’s unexpurgated diary in 1986.
. . .: What surprises me about your view of your condition is that, throughout your life, you’ve thought that you did something wrong, or that if something would’ve happened (for instance, if “Harlan” would’ve allowed your relationship with your “master teacher” to take its course), then your sexual development would’ve followed a more “normal” path. And yet, from the very beginning, I wondered if there might be a concrete physical problem outside of your control (and anyone’s control outside of a medical doctor) that caused you to have difficulty engaging in sex. Why do you
think it took so long for you to decide that it wasn’t any fault of yours, but that it might be an actual, physical problem?
CM: I’m not sure I have decided it wasn’t any fault of mine. Note my subtitle. “I shaped it: the snowball that swelled into sexual dysfunction frigidity.” Despite my discovery of certain physical links between certain types of sexual dysfunction (i.e. the link between weak or damaged pelvic floor muscles and vaginismus), it simply seems too big a coincidence for there to have been a physical reason for vaginismus (and maybe anorgasmia) in the same person who, for whatever unknown reason, was petrified of sexual contact as a pre-adolescent through her early twenties. (If I’d had more therapy with more therapists, I suspect many of them would have been digging for those mythical un-accessed memories of early childhood sexual abuse.) It seems obvious the fear helped feed the pelvic floor dysfunction, so why couldn’t it have helped beat down other expected “normal” developments? There have been sexual studies of anorgasmic women, and their experiences usually include most of these: (a) strict and/or religious backgrounds where sex was depicted as sinful or immoral, (b) other forms of sexual repression often relating to negative body image, (c) lack of childhood and adolescent masturbation (often related to the first two items), (d) ill-informed (or otherwise repressed) male partners. (Interestingly, many of the individuals in these case studies had children, and none that I found reported pain, although I also don’t remember any sex researchers asking about pain. In my mind, pain has to be related, a snowball effect that would gather up and crush sexual-response as it rolls.) From the list above, I can claim a full one and two other partials (as can most women my age, although we might all have different ones and partials). Was my childhood steeped in religion? No. Was I ever told not to touch myself? No. Were my parents overly sexually repressive? Maybe, but no more so than most, and only by saying very little. So far I seem just part of that huge segment of my generation (or of adult women) called “most.” So one of my motivating questions in writing was why? And I don’t think I was able to answer it. Only circle and poke at it. Luckily there were other motivating questions, always developing as I wrote further.
. . .: There are authors who, over time, show us that all their novels take place in the same universe, and that their characters all exist in that universe (Thomas Pynchon and Bret Easton Ellis come to mind). But with your work it seems the events are the ones that exist all together, that up to this point you have been wandering through alternate realities, and now you’ve reached the real reality. In other words, you’ve made a palimpsest of your life which you display by including your memories of a particular moment, then the journal entry about a particular moment, and then the fictionalizations you’ve created from that very same moment. What effect do you think this process has had on you (as you say in Something Wrong With Her, you see yourself as an anthropologist here), and what effect do you believe it will create in the reader?
CM: At first, I was looking at my fiction just to try to help my memory dredge up details from a lived experience. But I found that turning experience into fiction—the act of doing so—was part of my relationship with an experience, so turning my attention to the techniques offered as much insight as the content. In addition I was also experiencing—and narrating it while it happened, because I hadn’t known it was going to happen—how a writer’s relationship with her work alters, even develops further, when the two (writer and work) are brought back together with the added complication of distance and maturation. Simply, when I looked back at the fictional accounts of events in this new context, I discovered that what I’d thought I known (or was in control of) about using experience to develop fiction was incomplete. Seen another way (using the anthropologist metaphor), I was examining any artifact I could turn to—anything more tangible than memory—for answers to various (and some not articulated) questions. A writer’s work is obvious artifact (in that it is still there to be poured over), but also, if a writer’s relationship to his/her work can be gleaned from that artifact, it can provide more implications—not about the work, which has to stand on its own without the writer’s relationship to it or any personal issues to supply “meaning”—but about the life being examined. It’s the “writer’s relationship to the work” part of this formula that isn’t usually available to anyone except the writer (and maybe his/her therapist). Memory is also not a good way to access my relationship to a past work; but I had those journals and letters where the raw in-the-moment me transcribed experience into language. So the raw material started as reaction to an experience . . . and in how that reaction was then utilized in fiction I was able to discern subtle aspects about myself I hadn’t been aware of. I didn’t have any expectations for an effect this would create in the reader. I didn’t see it as satisfying any “need” any reader has to see my particular relationship with my own work, but that readers (and people) in general seem to be interested in forensic exploration: How an archeologist or historian or detective can put together pieces of a “story” from physical artifact or evidence. And that any of us can do it, if willing to find (or keep for decades) and gather together the pieces.
. . .: You point out at one point in Something Wrong With Her that novels aren’t realistic because people’s lives don’t braid together in neat ways, which in turn lead to plot arcs and, ultimately, resolution. And yet, people often find novels that follow those conventions to be the most realistic, the most like life. How does your memoir attempt to expose these novelistic conventions, then, as being unrealistic?
CM: I don’t know how people find those novels to be “realistic.” I do find many of them satisfying and pleasurable, but I think that’s one of the kinds of satisfaction one gets from art, having nothing to do with “reality.” I think the “like life” people see in traditional novels has to do with psychology more than how life works. The pathos of human response is recognizable, therefore seems real. It’s so simplistic to say this, but the literary tradition of “realism” is not the same thing as “realistic.” Any “ism” denotes a doctrine, theory, system or practice (could add the word formula), so realism is a way of writing novels. I’m not sure the most realistic writing possible—durational time describing every minute of time in a slice-of-life story—would satisfy literary realism.
OK, sorry for the rudimentary definitions, but sometimes I need them to straighten myself out before starting to circle again. I think this memoir can expose those kinds of conventions of realism (or novelistic conventions) to be un-lifelike because, (a) even where there is “braiding” (several different older male mentors, some thinly related in the professional world; or one event bouncing me to another involving seemingly unrelated people, etc.) . . . the braids unravel and/or some of them “go nowhere” (the Jehovah’s Witness who would touch me when he’d had a drink then tell me I was “too worldly,” the master-teacher whose sexual advances suddenly ended); and (b) there is so little resolution, especially to the whole sexual issue, and regarding Mark (at least there’s little actual resolution in the book). Certainly no resolving outcome in the form of triumph or overcoming. And cathartic crises? Well, as my mentor said of me in the 1970s: she goes from crisis to crisis without learning anything.
. . . : In addition to novels in the realist mode being unrealistic, you also point out the expectations readers often bring with them to creative nonfiction: it must be “the hyperbole of experience” (as you say). How do you work against this expectation and what effect do you hope to convey by working against this expectation?
CM: Let me give the beginning of that quote of mine. (Now I know what it feels like to be taken out of context!) I was talking about how an excerpt from Something Wrong With Her had been rejected by a graduate-student run literary magazine, and their comment was that “it wasn’t special enough.” My next comment was: “I can read their disappointment this way: nonfiction simply must be beyond the grind of life, it has to be the hyperbole of experience.” Perhaps unfairly translating their comment, I was typecasting a mainstream notion of what nonfiction “has to be.” Trauma and recovery. That’s a pretty good pigeonhole for how many agents/editors view commercial memoir. And the trauma: incest, war, body-devastating drug addiction, violent sex crime, violent cancer and violent cancer treatment, gender reassignment, bad parents, good parents lost, inexhaustible sexual dark side. And any number of other startling, downright ghastly situations that do merit publication (if written well) if only for the sake of expanding the awareness of those things in comfortable, safe lives. Are there too many trauma memoirs or have they become the definition of memoir, thereby pushing out others whose experience doesn’t “measure up”? When I showed my first nonfiction manuscript to my then-agent (Indigenous: Growing Up Californian, eventually published by City Lights Books), she said, “Cris, this isn’t a memoir, it’s a John McPhee book.” OK, I can see now that John McPhee doesn’t really write memoirs, so the comment wasn’t a complete slam at either me or McPhee. (Maybe more at him than at me.) Remember, I thought Something would be a book about experiencing sexual harassment before there were sexual harassment laws, and whether or not it might have something to do with how my sex-life developed (or didn’t). Most of my experiences would not meet the “hyperbolic life” criterion. Instinctively aware of that (since the “this isn’t a memoir” comment was vivid), my earliest conscious plan was that I was going to contextualize my experiences against the almost-simultaneous development of the law, and I even had a dim idea that I might gather some other stories from friends or acquaintances. But I could see, almost immediately, that this would be a task for a true literary journalist (like Laura Hillenbrand), and maybe one who was also a psychologist and/or law expert who already knew a lot of stuff about the law itself (with corresponding examples) as well as how women’s sexuality has been affected by these kinds of experiences.
Luckily, some of the other incidents that changed the path this book took were starting to occur, and this ostentatious plan was abandoned almost immediately. But, I do think any plan like that—based on an instinct that my experiences didn’t measure up to the standard for memoir—is related to how the hyperbolic-life characteristic, and the quantity of acclaim and attention heaped upon authors of trauma-memoirs, is teaching too many of us that we’re not as worthy—as writers—because we didn’t have a life savaged by abuse, victimization, disease, poverty, etc. (This is also the commercial book industry looking at writers as salable commodities—are they exotic, beautiful, and damaged enough?) I kept working against that expectation because there was nothing else I could do. The situation of my life at the time, and what writing the book was contributing to it, made writing it one of the necessities of life, along with eating, sleeping and breathing. But still, while working on the book, there were a few people I did talk to about it, and I probably became a tape-loop of insecurity, “Who will want to read this,” “who will care?” I received encouragement in return: that the countless numbers of others living with quiet chronic angst will relate. And then it happened when the book went into production: A publicity intern I’d never met, who lived 1000 miles away and was 30 years younger than me, read the manuscript and emailed me to say, “I keep asking myself, ‘Did I write this book?’”
It is true that in many interviews the dialogue itself takes us to the conclusion. Yet this convention persists, much like the description of the surroundings, the list of accomplishments, the disappearing (and sometimes reappearing) interviewer, to make it seem like the interview itself has occurred in a particular place over a relatively brief span, a brilliant conversation we all wish we had, we all wish we were having all of the time, though our own conversations may never measure up, and since that is the case we desperately wish we could’ve been present at this discussion, but luckily someone was present to write it all down . . .
AF: These days, interviews are often conducted over email, or even if they do take place at, say, a coffee shop or bar, they are heavily edited afterwards. Tell us about your experiences being interviewed in the past.
CM: Not always over email. Of course, I was publishing before we all had email. I remember being very nervous when interviewed by traditional newspaper journalists who asked questions then only jotted notes while I was speaking. I spoke slowly, tried to pause often, to give them time to write everything. It helped me think, but still, saying what you want to say, getting it to be what you really mean, and making it complete in that context was . . . well, impossible. I was, however, frequently surprised in a good way at some of the one-liners they attributed to me. A professional feature journalist knows how to synthesize what you’ve said into a pithy quote.
[Oh, well there is that. It seems, then, that the Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass scandals were more of scope, rather than tradition. They made up too much, while actual journalists take quotes from actual people and make them sound better.]
CM: There used to be a journalistic practice for these kinds of interviews where after the interview article was written up, the journalist would call and read just the quotes over the phone for the interviewee to verify that’s what he or she said. But they would not tell you how that quote appeared in the interview, and none of these pre-email interviews were in the Q&A format, so the journalist or interviewer was using narrative scene, dramatizing a dialogue we supposedly had, using both direct and indirect quotes. Since I couldn’t really remember the dialogue either, I don’t know if they rearranged the order of topics when turning it into a narrative article. I was interviewed for Poets & Writers in 1996. I think it was partially done over the phone, and then I may have been able to go over how my answers transcribed in writing. I think it was not the former journalistic tradition where I was only allowed to verify what I’d said, but also not formatted in Q&A. I think the interviewer read me large portions of the galley they provided to him. We do have it much easier now with email interviews. I’m less at the mercy of someone else’s memory, someone else’s ability to take notes and to understand his/her own notes, and how I looked or sounded while answering.
AF: What do you see as being the purpose of an interview?
CM: I’ll answer for this book: the purpose of interviews is that it’s a continuation of the process of “writing the book.” The process of writing the book is partially what the book is about. Having an interview afterwards isn’t necessarily part of the process of writing every book, but in Something Wrong With Her, I was so frequently shifting course (or being sidetracked) based on what writing the manuscript (or Mark) was showing me. So having me look at it again afterwards and talk about it in an interview is another of those shifts. While writing, I was talking to Mark (and myself) and responding to new perceptions (sometimes his). In an interview, an interviewer has the new perceptions, so I have to look again with that context. I see things that are still incomplete, I react to certain parts differently, thus “the book” is still developing, and I’m still both extending and experiencing it.