Reader Meet Author

I’ve been interviewing someone for a magazine, and it was an unusual interview to conduct because the person I talked to is my friend and longtime pen-pal, Sacha Mardou. She’s a comics artist—she draws under the name Mardou—whose work has lately gotten some good critical attention. Interviewing her this way was interesting for me for a few reasons. First, because she’s interesting, and we found ourselves talking about lots of different things, including 90s indie bands, the idea of “acting” in comics, Neil Diamond, the Woody Allen story “The Whore of Mensa,” and the way Sacha discovered comics—through music magazines, like Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl on the cover of the UK’s now-defunct Deadline magazine. These topics kept us in an engaged conversation for over a week. It was nice for me to get to know my friend better this way.


But what was most useful to me, I think, was what this experience taught me about interviewing—or, if not taught, encouraged me to consider. I have always found interviewing people to be inherently awkward, and I don’t think I’m very good at it. It’s an unnatural set-up. This isn’t how conversations are supposed to work, with one person interrogating the other, and both people pretending to find the whole thing pleasant and ordinary. There’s a huge power imbalance too, because the interviewer has made the interviewee vulnerable, which is easy to forget when you’re the one conducting the interview. (This became much clearer to me once I’d been on the other side of the table, so to speak, and had my first experience of being interviewed. It’s too bad every journalist isn’t forced to play that role at some point.) As the interviewer, you’ve got your list of questions, things you want—and in some cases, need—to know in order to write the article. But they’re not always easy questions to ask, and many times they’re things that would violate all ordinary rules of politeness if you asked them in any other social situation. As a person who possesses politeness at a molecular level, this was a big hurdle for me to get over. But honestly, the thing that bugs me the most is the falseness of the interview process. It’s supposed to look like a conversation—and indeed it works much, much better the more like a conversation it goes—but it’s not a conversation, not really.

Turns out, interviewing a friend is a conversation. What a treat! Sacha and I blathered back and forth, and I didn’t feel obliged to hold back my own commentary the way I would in a more formal interview with a stranger, and this made things flow a lot more smoothly. Anything extraneous, or that went too far into the realm of the personal, I simply left out of the finished piece. (The interview will run as a straight question-and-answer format.)

I have a feeling that this is closer to how I should conduct all my interviews, but I wonder if that’s possible. How comfortable and chatty can you be with someone you’ve just met? If the person is an artist, having an encyclopedic knowledge of their work is a necessary first step—it’s as close to knowing that stranger as you’re going to get. I knew a great deal about Sacha’s work and artistic background before I started the interview, but that was from knowing her personally. And as she hasn’t been interviewed a ton, I don’t think I could have found much of this out through research alone. So it’s tough. Maybe we arts journalists should only ever interview people we know. Maybe it’s like the idea I gleaned from The Wild Braid, a book of interviews with the poet Stanley Kunitz (which was published the year he turned 100!): In order to deeply understand a poem you must know something of the poet’s life and circumstances. I can’t remember exactly what he said now but this is the gist I got, anyway, and I felt confused by it and disagreed with it at the time. But now I’m reconsidering it. How useful is my opinion of Sacha’s art if I know nothing about her as a person? It might be good enough for me as a casual viewer, but it’s surely not enough for an article on the work that offers any real insight on it at all.

I’ll post a link to the interview when it runs.

Hooray for you

There’s a wonderful speech at the end of Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s stirring documentary film about the drag ball culture created by gay and transgender black and brown folks in NYC during the 80s. Dorian Corey delivers it, while she looks into the mirror and pats on layer upon layer of makeup, which is the way she conducted much of her interview. Several people were interviewed at length for the film, but she’s probably the oldest (and eldest, if you will), and her interview is the backbone of the movie in a way, which leads to her serving as a kind of narrator. To sum up her life as a drag performer, she says:

“I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark. You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it.”

I’ve watched this movie a couple dozen times and plan to keep on watching it whenever the mood strikes; it’s made a huge impression on me, with its lessons about what it means to survive and thrive and give a name to whatever it is that you are. This speech in particular is touching because it’s really, ya know, positive, despite the fact that it was delivered by a person who seems, in addition to being funny and intelligent and unceasingly dignified, pretty sad and embittered. (I’ve left out the more famous final line, which—breathtaking as it is—casts the rest of the quotation in a different, darker light. Look it up if you want.)

To a very young person, Corey’s speech probably sounds like resignation (especially that bit about aiming a little lower), and this view is completely supported by the culture we live in, which idealizes youth and considers mature a bad, embarrassing word. (In talking about all this with my husband he reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon we saw recently, in which one child says to another, “What do you want to be when you give up?”) But realizing that you don’t have to bend the world, but that you probably ought to work to make it better in your own small way, could be considered the essence of adulthood, the true definition of maturity, at least according to the philosopher Susan Neiman, whose new book, Why Grow Up? I’ve just started reading (and will try to read double-time, since it’s been out for two weeks and I’d like to review it). It’s interesting to me to note that I tend to consider this the essence not of maturity but of punk, at least the iteration of punk that my friends and I have adopted for ourselves, which talks about never giving up on your ideals while also refusing to blindly believe in dogma, which kind of inevitably leads you to conclude that the best thing you can do is use your life to make the world a little bit better and more beautiful for the people in it. And yeah, enjoy it, too.

Neiman is a philosopher and the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, which hosts lectures and other programs to engage “the public” with important thinkers—to take their ideas out of the academy and share them with the rest of us. Unsurprisingly then, her book is easy to understand and serves as an introduction to some of the major themes of the Enlightenment, with a special focus on Kant and his ideas about reason and experience and the importance of both. I look forward to digging into this book further because it’s already making me feel fired up—in a somewhat punky sort of way, actually. In her introduction she paraphrases Paul Goodman in his 1960 book Growing Up Absurd: “When consuming goods rather than satisfying work becomes the focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents.” Which is as relevant now as it was 55 years ago.

Memoir, community, and going on tour

Microcosm, the independent press that published my first two books, interviewed me recently for their blog, and they included this Polaroid of me holding a giant library card, in which I look happier than I have looked in any picture since the “first day of school with braided pigtails on the front porch” one was taken. Here’s the interview, have a look!


Libraries in books

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I love the library, and I love thinking and reading about the library, too. This week I’ve been enjoying Tessa Hadley’s novel, The London Train, and this morning I encountered this perfect depiction of the exchange between librarian and patron in a public library:

At first she had thought it might be her duty to encourage the borrowers, talking to them about the books they were choosing, but she quickly learned that they looked at her with shocked faces if she tried, as if their reading was a private place she’d intruded into. The whole point of her role was to be neutral, she realised, not engaged or committed. The hand-to-hand exchange at the issue desk—taking the books, opening them, date-stamping them, handing them back—was a soothing ritual of community. Even when she was helping the asylum seekers who came in to research information on the Internet in support of their appeals, she never discussed the content of what they were looking for; they only strove together through the process of finding it. This exemption from the effort of relationship seemed to her to be a relief to them both.

Book blogger

I’ve been reviewing books for newspapers and magazines for a while now—something like 13 or 14 years, when I stop to think of it, which is about as long as I’ve been writing professionally at all. In that time, the newspaper business has changed a lot. It’s a change I’ve been hearing was coming since I was the editor of my high school newspaper in the ’90s, all Max Fischer-serious with my personal projects and extracurriculars, busy burnishing aspirations of going into the business. Everyone knew that the Internet (and “desktop publishing,” as it was called back then) were about to change the media landscape in some major way, but we didn’t know exactly what form it would take. It’s a change I’ve watched unfold with an almost magical swiftness in the 15 years since then, and I’m amazed and excited by what it means for people who wish to make their own media. To become the media, as Jello Biafra famously phrased it. I still write for newspapers—and some folks still read ’em—but there are limitations to the media that a blog doesn’t have.

I’m looking forward to stretching my legs a little here. I plan to use this as a place to share my thoughts on everything I’m reading—not just the books I’ve been assigned to review—and to do so in a more casual, colloquial, and occasionally profane way than I’m able to do in print and on someone else’s dime. So here you have it—notes on books from the little house in Philadelphia where I live, my contribution to the Books Blogosphere. In the coming weeks I look forward to talking about an interview I’m working on with a comics artist I admire, the novel I just checked out of the library, and Philly’s Bloomsday celebration, which I look forward to every year and never miss. Hope to see you around, and please feel free to say hello and share your comments.