The Jessa Crispin Interview

July 16, 2004

Today is the day to get 5-4-3 on the double play.

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Today's interviewee is a smartypants chickadee. I first met her in Austin,where she ran the highly-regarded blog Bookslut. Now she lives here in Chicago, running the even more highly-regarded blog Bookslut. (Bookslut is not just a blog, by the way; it also features columns and reviews and a nudie drawing of the editor.) She's sarcastic and funny and has interviewed just about everyone other than Jesus, but I still like her anyway.  

The Jessa Crispin Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

As a literary community, how are you finding Chicago? Chicago is all about the poetry readings. There are more monthly poetry series here than I have ever seen. That's pretty hardcore. The only problem I see is people leaving. They decide in order to "make it" they have to live in New York City. I think that's bullshit. It is sad, though, because I have a very hard time sitting still. As much as I love Chicago, I'm already thinking, "Oooh, you know where might be a good place to live? [Fill in blank]" Instead of saving money for retirement, I save money for the next big move.

What have been some of your proudest days for Bookslut? Getting named one of the 50 best websites by was huge. Also, being on the cover of the Reader was fun, although it did make for a few awkward moments at the bar. "Hey, aren't youÖ" The Reader article was also one of my most ashamed moments for myself personally, because when the photographer said, "Okay, why don't you take off your shirt," I immediately said, "Okay." Evidently I had no shame, it just took this little incident for me to figure this out.

How long do you think blogging, as a phenomenon in and of itself, will be popular? You've been doing this long since blogs were the news.
Everyone has a blog. Dead celebrities have blogs. Inanimate objects have blogs. I think it will die down a bit, and those who are dedicated or have nothing better to do will continue on. But I think most people start blogs for the same reason I did: lots of time on their hands at their day jobs. I don't think that will change, so blogs will probably remain popular until the next distracting thing comes along. Although, I do have to say, blogs are a big step above my days getting paid for playing Minesweeper.

How do you decide which books to review on Bookslut?
I am sometimes asked to review books but it seems that agreement can indicate an agreement to give a favorable review. The books I review are usually whatever catches my eye. But that's just for what I personally review. I let the other reviewers decide what they want to read (with a few exceptions). It's really a community decision. And it's not always based on what's good or what's bad. I really liked Binnie Kirshenbaum's "An Almost Perfect Moment," but it was a little fluffy. I didn't think I could come up with 750 words about it, so I blogged about it instead, told people it was worthwhile. So reviewing comes down to, Was this interesting, either in a good way or a bad way, and did it spark something in me other than "It was pretty good" or "What crap." The reviewers have the same freedom. If I send them something and they just can't come up with the desire to review it, it's not like I withhold the free books until they write something.

You've said in interviews that you've gotten some negative feedback on Bookslut. What is usually the rationale behind this feedback, and does it ever get easier to receive criticism for something you're not getting rich from?
I get everything from personal attacks to incoherent rantings to "hey, maybe you should back off a bit." Sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it's a bit rough. If it's particularly vicious, I have to remind myself that if this person can get so worked up as to call me a bitch for making a grammatical error (something that has happened before), perhaps it says more about them than it does my worth as a human being. Also, and this is just a tip for all those readers out there: if you're going to send hate mail, you should spell check. And maybe use the shift button. Because there's nothing funnier than an e-mail that says, "Your stupid!!!!!" And I'll probably post it to my blog.

Name drop for us. Who are some authors who you've interviewed or talked to through Bookslut who have been kind, interesting or otherwise gossip-worthy. Kathryn Davis was the first good interview experience I had. It was the first where I wasn't cripplingly nervous, and I actually had things I really wanted to know. And she was so nice and funny and charming, I am dying to meet her in person one day. Peter Trachtenberg let me eat off of his plate at the Handlebar. And the Killing the Buddha guys, Jeff Sharlett and Peter Manseau, bought my unemployed ass an iced tea once. I once overheard Ruth Reichl curse. I was picking up a friend at O'Hare, and she was there. She was so stunning, I nearly followed her around the airport. Anthony Bourdain is even more gorgeous in person, if you can imagine that. Oh, and Calvin Trillin looks disturbingly like my father, and some of his jokes are just as bad as my dad's, too.

Who are some of your favorite literary reviewers/interviewers and why?
I really like the Washington Post reviewers. I never understood why the New York Times book critics are held in such esteem, when the better talent is so obviously at the Post. And the Guardian's profile writers are great. Even if I've never heard of the author before, I love reading the weekly profiles they run. Why? I guess just because over time I've come to realize I agree with them more often than not, and they're very persuasive, although in opposite ways. If Lehmann or Yardley say something is really good, I'll pick it up. If the Guardian says something is crap, I'll think twice about it. Also, both newspapers can make me reread a book. Yardley does a 'second reading' feature occasionally, and it always makes me want to go pick up that book again. And as far as interviews go, Atlantic Unbound is one of my favorites. They almost always pick very interesting writers, and they allow the interviews to go on forever. And they keep it in question and answer format. I hate it when it turns into a profile, and the interviewer starts talking about what the writer is wearing or how they stir their teaÖ (I'm looking at you, Independent.)

When you go on vacation, do you get mad if you can't access the internet, or, like me, do you use it as an enforced online break?
This is how sad I am: when I'm away from the Internet for too long, I call my boyfriend to ask him to check my e-mail and read it over the phone to me. So, so sad.

How do you know when it's time to turn off the computer?
When I realize I've hit reload on the I Love Books forum for the tenth time without any updates. That's when I'm desperate and I need to just get away from the computer. Or when I start ordering things on Damn Amazon and its one-click shopping.

Any interview white whales thus far?
I was supposed to interview Salman Rushdie, but it fell through at the last minute, thanks to the boneheadedness of the newspaper I was freelancing for. I am madly in love with him, so maybe it was for the best, as I'm sure I would have tried to sit in his lap or something. But I would love to get the chance to interview him and have it go through this time. I think he's fascinating.

What magazines do you subscribe to?
Atlantic Monthly, Bust, Lucky, Esquire, Commonweal, US News and World Report (I have no idea why I get this, it just shows up in my mailbox. I swear I never paid money for it), Texas Monthly, Gourmet, Entertainment Weekly, Columbia Journalism Review. Wow, that's a lot. I didn't realize until I just wrote them all down. Of course, it's the serious ones that are stacked up, months behind, while Lucky is devoured the moment it comes through my door.

If you were to start a magazine, what kind would it be?
I have a thousand ideas. If only I could find a rich investor, willing to let me do whatever I wanted. I still mourn the lack of a really good literature magazine, now that Readerville is gone and does not seem to be coming back. Although I did cheer when Book died. This was the magazine that put Nicole Kidman on one of their covers in some sort of attempt to trick people into buying it. Honey, you got a little desperation on your chin there. Might want to wipe that off. It amazes me that with so many magazines out there, there are still such gaps in coverage. Why is there not a gardening magazine that is not geared to, say, my grandmother? I am currently obsessed with my little vegetable garden, and I want to read about gardening! We can have a magazine devoted to infertile couples (which they should really rename "Inconceivable"), but we can't have a magazine that tells me what I should be doing this month to prevent my tomato blossoms from shriveling up and dying before producing fruit? Seriously, someone give me a lot of money, and I'll do this magazine since no one else will. Also, why few good women's magazines? I mean, we have, what, Bust? Is that it? That's so sad. Men get Esquire, we get Cosmo. Please, someone change this. Give the girls an Esquire. Quit treating us like we're whores. Thanks.

What is the last book you've read, what are you reading and what are you reading next?
Last read: Epileptic 1 by David B. and The Winshaw Legacy by Jonathan Coe. Just finished reading two seconds ago: An Unfinished Season by Ward Just. Reading now: Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives by Andrea Tone and I Know You Are But What Am I by Heather Birrell. Read next: This is America?: The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas by Rusty Monhollon. Or maybe So I am Glad by A. L. Kennedy. I don't know, I haven't worked it out quite yet.

Does your mom still avoid Bookslut for its drawing? Do you ever feel restricted from writing/blogging anything with the knowledge that family members have access to sensitive subject matter?
Shawn Badgley
made that thing up about my mother not visiting Bookslut because of the drawing. She's not that holy. She doesn't visit because I swear too much. The one time she did visit was the day I made reference to anal sex, said "fuck" three times in one post, and cursed God over something. Now she'll never come back. I don't really post sensitive subject matter. The blog is pretty book-focused, and my life rarely comes into it. If it does, it's usually my love for cheese or something harmless. There have been some alcohol references. I was unemployed at the time and, frankly, drinking a lot, but that's expected when you're out of work. But maybe my lack of qualms about discussing my life means my life is really boring. Damn, I need to go have some anonymous sex and post about it.

I envy you and Bookslut for all the great work you've done thus far. Do you envy anybody or are you pretty secure in your role in literature and the web?
I envy anyone who can make some money at it. I know it is literature we're talking about, and really no one is making money at it. I would just like to not have to cobble together rent money from three or four sources any more. I do spend twice as much time working on Bookslut than I ever have at a day job, which is a little funny to me. Here I am, the girl who has never followed through on anything, with Bookslut two years old now. I wouldn't have put money on it when I started.

You worked at Planned Parenthood and at a sex ed center in Austin. It seems like kids are getting much more sex ed than they were several decades ago, yet there are more teenage pregnancies. From your perspective from your experience there, what's up with that?
They're getting stupid sex ed. Abstinence-only education continues to take over schools, and as someone who had to chant "Don't be a louse! Wait for your spouse!", I can tell you abstinence-only sex education makes you stupid. There are some embarrassing stories I could tell you about my early sexual encounters and how naÔve I was, but I'd have to be on my deathbed. But so many sex ed teachers are not allowed to even show a condom, let alone tell you how to put it on. They can't say things like, you can get STIs from oral and anal sex, too, because God forbid the kids find out these things exist. So, really, most kids get sex ed from television and movies, which are bad places, and they do stupid shit. Of course, it's not just the kids. I had adults, adults, call me on the phone and use phrases like, "I just put it in a little," while asking about whether they might have caught herpes. At least I was never naÔve enough to think I could have "just a little" unprotected sex with someone with an active herpes outbreak. Listen up, politicians! The kids are going to be having the sex! Give them condoms and show them how to use the goddamn things!

Name a popular author you dislike and an unpopular author you like.
By popular, I'm going to define as "trendy" or "if you don't like x, you're not cool." I really dislike Nicholson Baker. I don't get it at all. Vox to me was so boring and so not sexy. I could barely get past the first third of The Fermata. It's just all so bleh. Everyone around me loves him, and I can't get through any of his books. But I proudly like Chuck Palahniuk. It's very trendy right now to dislike him and say he's formulaic, but I still buy everything he writes on the release date. Not that I'm going to show up at his readings dressed up like a waiter or anything, but I do get all tingly when he has a new book out.

What are you hoping to get for your birthday?

I'm very into cookbooks right now. They're very pretty and very expensive. I usually have to buy them used or remaindered, so I'm hoping someone will buy me a couple. I also am in desperate need of a new computer, but that's a fantasy, not a realistic hope.

How does it feel to be the 99th person interviewed for
It's one of the proudest moments for