The Michelle Orange Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

Today is the day to eat some novelty cake.

This weekend, today's interviewee will be in Chicago to read from her new book The Sicily Papers, a book of letters she sent while travelling alone through, well, Sicily (and I will be reading with her). She has written for Salon, The Sun Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, the Huffington Post and others. She is a frequent contributor to McSweeney's and in 2005 earned a Masters in film studies from NYU. Her most recent work can be found in The Best Sex Writing 2006 and Mountain Man Dance Moves. Her radio work has aired on the CBC and BBC and can be found on the Peabody award-winning site She recently edited a story collection to be found in Issue 22 of McSweeney's.

The Michelle Orange Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

So how did The Sicily Papers come to be published?
Last year Hobart Press, a small press out of Ann Arbor Michigan, decided to start a books division (Short Flight/Long Drive Books) and to hold a contest which would determine their first title. Elizabeth Ellen was/is the mastermind behind the books and the contest, so she might be a better one to ask about how the book came about, or why she chose the parameters she did, or why she chose the book she did. As I understood it, she was looking to publish a collection of existing material, whether it be in the form of a diary or a notebook or some letters, that told something of a story, or became something larger than the sum etc. I knew of Elizabeth as a talented writer in her own right, and we talked about whether I would submit something. I was really intrigued by her idea, because it seemed so risky, and the idea of working with her and Aaron Burch (the Hobart journal editor) really appealed to me because I know they do such amazing work, both editorially and in design. There was a small amount of coaxing, once EE knew I was considering it, and eventually I handed my letters over, because above all, I like to win things.

The Emerging Writers Network says "For those looking for something a little less than straightforward, this is the book for you to be looking for."  What do you think that means?
Ha. Well, that could mean any number of things, couldn’t it. Does “less than straightforward” also mean “more than conventional”? Who knows. It’s definitely an oddball little book, and I would agree it’s not for everyone, in fact I would hope it’s not for everyone.

So recently you fought successfully to be able to stay and work in the US and now you're travelling across this big country promoting the book.  Have you learned anything since you got the visa that either made you wish you had left after all or on the other hand confirmed your choice to remain?
That’s a tough one—securing the visa was such a draining ordeal that I might have to be insane to have regrets after finally succeeding, but having a bit more stability and not having to live one year at a time also opened up some new options. Having just been to San Francisco for the first time, and sitting here in Seattle, for instance, I guess I’m learning that there are other cities besides New York, places that might make great homes. I’d traveled to a lot of American cities before moving to New York, but in a way after I got there I had to put my head down for three years, and was working so hard just to get by and not get swallowed and spit out, that a lot of other decisions got put on hold. It’s exhilarating, actually, to take a breath and look around now. I must say though that as I learn more about this country and watch as disconcerting thing after disconcerting thing takes place at the highest levels, I have to think seriously about whether it’s practical to plan for a long-term future here. The heath insurance thing alone was such a rude awakening for a Toronto girl. I’m also in the process of obtaining Italian citizenship, so I’d like to add the EU to my pool of potential homes.

Does being an expat change your view of travel?
It certainly changes my experience of traveling to Toronto and London, my homes in Canada. I have learned, for instance, after 29 years of denying it, that Canadians actually do have accents. It is completely surreal to listen to your parents talking and hear an accent for the first time in your life, or to hear it in your own voice after a few weeks at home. I also get a lot of shit for sounding like an American. I sweat border crossings a lot more than I used to. Going back to Canada is a sweeter experience, on a personal level, and I appreciate certain things much more than I did when I lived there. I’m also grateful to have a Canadian passport, and the more I run into expats from all over the world in New York, the more grateful I am. We don’t need a visa, for instance to visit the States, the way so many other countries do. When I was in Italy in 2002 my roommate was Serbian and she was having a terrible time getting a visa for her sister to come and join her in Italy for a short stay—that was such a foreign (ha) concept to me; a lot of us are so much luckier than we know, owing to simple, terrifying happenstance. I think it’s important to remember that, and living in another country can certainly bring it to the fore.

What advice do you have for people travelling by themselves?  Especially women?
Have a basic working knowledge of the place you’re going before you go, meaning study all the pertinent maps, do a fair amount of research, figure out a rough itinerary and have somewhere to go when you touch down, so you’re not lingering around anywhere, looking vulnerable. Have your shit together, basically—a little moreso than you might when traveling with someone or in a group. Women have more practical things to think about. My dad bought me some pepper spray a long time ago and I’ll usually throw it in my suitcase, but in my experience the most important thing is to master the smile and shrug; the smile can’t be too inviting, nor the shrug too rude, and you have to be walking away or in mid-stride while you do it. Properly performed, the smile and shrug can help you avoid or get yourself out of unwanted conversations or disturbances. Don’t look intimidated, ever, and be confident in every decision you make, or at least be confident that you’ll figure it out eventually. Also: lie about everything.

What did you learn about F. Scott Fitzgerald by editing the collection of his unfinished short stories?
It’s actually a collection of stories involving some short story ideas Fitzgerald scribbled in his notebook; 17 writers picked one of the 32 ideas and use it as the seed or starting point for a story of their own. Some of FSF’s ideas were three words, some were three sentences. I probably learned more about each of the writers than I did about Fitzgerald, seeing what they did with it, and that was a great deal of fun. I knew Fitzgerald’s short fiction took on a greater range of themes and styles than his fiction, but some of the ideas are way out there, and I liked imagining what he had in mind when he jotted them down. A lot of the writers were drawn to “girl and giraffe” for some reason (that was the whole idea), so we had two people take on that one, to very different effect. The collection will be in Issue 22 of McSweeney’s, which should be out in January of 2007.

What was one of the most unexpected hurdles of editing a collection like that?
How exhausting editing is, the true blue investment you have to make in each writer and each story to be of any use as an editor. Also I guess I didn’t think that agents would figure so heavily in the equation, and in a couple of instances that seemed to cause more problems than it solved. I realized that sharing a professional rapport, or excitement about the project, with a writer is a hugely important part of the process. This particular collection contains some vastly different writers, and it was a challenge to work with them simultaneously, respecting all sorts of different aesthetics. I had a riot, and I learned a great deal. At some point Eli, the editor at McSweeney’s, said something that stuck with me, and that is that most of editing is managing concern. Your concern, the writer’s concern, the reader’s concern, the story’s concern—everyone’s concerned with making it as good as it can be, and it’s a delicate process and it needs to be managed well in order to be successful. Managing concern. At least I think that’s what he said, my phone was dying and I was sleepy. It’s possible I have based my entire editing philosophy on a bad cell connection.

Do you feel like the literary scene as you've observed it has changed very much since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was released? It seems like there might have been a lot of idealism amongst young writers or up and coming writers that maybe wasn't lost, but it seems like people became more cynical or busy or something. Maybe we should blame blogs.
I don’t have the firmest grasp on the change or lack of change, as when that book came out I wasn’t observing much, sitting behind my desk at a TV station in Toronto, writing cartoon scripts for kids and dreaming about the next plane I could catch outta there. It may just be that everyone got older, but then I was way more cynical at 21 than I am now. The other thing is that the world in 1999/2000 was so different from the one we know today; idealism feels like a bit of a luxury, and certainly in NY it seems like everyone’s time and energy is so splintered and guarded, or curdled by ambition. On the third hand, I see people like Aaron and Elizabeth at Hobart, and the Cloverfield people in LA—there are still true believers everywhere, you just have to look a little harder for them. Inevitably another book will come along that will mobilize the disaffected, brainy masses, hopefully for the good.

Speaking of which, how do you like blogging?
It’s funny, I have really only “blogged” on The Huffington Post, though I guess I have also posted the movie reviews my 91 year old grandma, Rita Boyle, writes on her ticket stubs on my friend Steve’s web site. Rita Boyle actually hasn’t been herself lately, she’s not seeing movies or writing me letters, so all warm thoughts in her direction are appreciated. I took her to see “Scoop” last time I was home, but I think that one only made her feel worse. Covering the Tribeca Film Festival on The Huffington Post was a lot fun and a lot of pressure—as a first-timer especially. The turnaround is so quick, and the gratification so instant, I could see how it could become addictive. I’d sit there checking for comments every 10 minutes, like a dork, and think: how would I ever get anything done if I did this all the time? Comments were also a downside; I was surprised that any yahoo could and would get on the blogbus and start shooting spitballs at you, and you’d just have to kind of clap your hands and go: “Democracy!” I think that jukeboxes and comment sections can be too democratic, dammit. Actually, Rachel warned me that you can’t give the site’s commenters any reason to take a pot shot, cause they will. It has to be instant and flawless; one typo and you’re run out on the rails. That shit is hard, dude, I give all respect to the bloggers

This is sort of related but do you find that you're stingier with your writing now? Like if you have an idea for something good, instead of sending it to a literary website you think, "Hmm, maybe I could get good money for this?" 
I think that a lot of writers, certainly the ones who don’t come out of journalism school, and aren’t trained to look at writing as a trade, spend many years coming to the conclusion that they should actually be paid for their work. It’s like a miracle the first time it happens. Now that I am surviving by my wits and my keyboard, I literally can’t afford to do much for free. It’s a drag, in a way, I worry that I may lose those spontaneous sparks that a cushiony set-up allows you to chase down and then give away, just so they have a home. I did that for years, and it was great, it led me to some of my closest friends and invaluable opportunities, but I was making a living elsewhere. “Find a way to get paid to do what you love” is what my dad says is the secret to life. He also said “Happiness is for pigs,” and that one’s come in handy too.

What advice do you have for writers when it comes to interviewing their own family?
Probably the same advice I’d give for any interview: be merciless and be curious. Mercilessly curious and curiously merciless. That’s a terrible motto, actually, it’s nearly impossible to say. Interviewing your family you have the advantage of access, and it’s easier to be relentless if you have a key to their house. I like interviewing family members while they’re driving, or making dinner; they can’t be as guarded because their rote attention is elsewhere, so their mouths are a little more relaxed. Or impatient—either one works.

You've also been involved in TV, radio and film. Which of those media comes most naturally to you?
TV is such an ass-kicker. I liked working in television, but live TV is like blogging in a way, the pressure is intense but there’s an element of disposability, you know? At least in public TV, the stakes are pretty low. I think I decided that I don’t have the stomach for a career in TV producing or maybe even writing, although that’s probably where you reach the most people. They say it’s the writer’s medium, but really that’s only as compared to film. TV writers are made of steel. Or cocaine. Film interests me on so many levels, I suppose it would be the medium I gravitate toward, writing about it, thinking about it, following it. I used to think I’d like to be a director, but again, I might be too soft. It is just backbreaking work, you know? Writing for film is different, though thankless. I also like actors, I like being in control, I like tables full of free food, but the drudgery is so intense. My radio experience was terrific, I’d definitely like to do more.

When you're working on a book review, what is your process? Do you  make notes while you read or write as you read?
I seem to read the book once through, not uncritically, but more for enjoyment, underlining passages that interest me. Then I read it again, taking notes in a separate notebook and hauling out the post-its. Then I look at what I’ve got and try to write a thoughtful review. Having an opinion isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes you wake up in the morning and you don’t feel like having a goddamn opinion.

How did you come to team up with fellow interivewee Stephen Elliot?
Steve and I met in the spring of 2004 in New York, through a mutual friend. I think we were both so miserable at that precise moment in time that a permanent bond was struck. That’s my version, anyway. Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure Steve had no idea I was miserable; he can muster a level of misery that trumps all rivals for the floor. My misery got trampled, much like he did in Gin Rummy yesterday on the train. We just read in Portland and Seattle (Steve was on tour to promote My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up) and this morning, in fact, he was philosophizing about the very “normal” woman in New York he would marry if he could somehow trick himself into being more like her. I didn’t make the cut, I was informed, because Steve says I have issues. That book again is My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up. First of all, that leaves out whether I would even consider marrying him, which brings me to second of all, which is that if I have issues, Steve is issues; he’s like the publisher of all issues ever, issues are what he does. He’s like Time Warner, Viacom, and Conde Nast combined in one hairy little body. I love Steve to death, he’s my big brother in a way—he gives me good advice and I try to do the same, although he probably couldn’t beat up my asshole boyfriend to save his life.

I studied in Florence for a year and part of me really wants to go back but another part of me knows that it's not going to be the same as what it was before, and that maybe it'll be a letdown. Do you feel the same way about Sicily?
It’s hard, isn’t it. I’m that way with movies too—I watched “Before Sunrise” on my laptop the other night, someone had it lying around, and I really regretted it, it sank me into a wistful funk that I hadn’t accounted for. I hadn’t seen it since it came out in ’95 when I caught it in the theatre, and had forgotten a lot, especially how cute Ethan Hawke used to be. It’s like I left a piece of myself at 20, sitting in that theatre, somewhere inside the movie, and hindsight can be painful, especially when you’re wondering if you look as old as Ethan Hawke does. I don’t so much worry that Sicily would be a letdown, but I don’t see myself going back any time soon. I’ll be back in southern Italy ASAP, though—that trip to Sicily was actually the fourth trip to Italy I had made in as many years, and each one was a revelation. I am of the mind that if you find something good there’s every reason to believe it can get even better. Things will never be exactly the same, but hopefully that’s part of the beauty of this cockeyed caravan. I look forward, for instance, to returning to the parts of Italy I love best and discovered alone with someone I care about. Getting older is not for sissies, who said that. Face your fears, Claire! Torna Firenze!

Are you a private person? Does it feel strange to have people reading your personal letters?
I probably am what passes for a private person these days, and it is strange on some level and on another level not at all strange. Once a third person had read them, as far as I was concerned, it didn’t really matter who read them, and knowing that person would be Elizabeth made it an easier decision. I didn’t have sentimental attachment to them, so there was a kind of disconnect, and Elizabeth’s passion, once she did read them, first of all surprised me, but then got me interested in the more formal aspects of how letters can tell a story, and what story these letters might tell. Writing for an audience of one, the way you shape both yourself as “narrator” and your reader—your ideal reader—there were basic narrative nuts and bolts that struck me as I looked back at this small time capsule of a very specific, precipitous time in my life. For my part, that got me interested in looking at the letters in a new light, and as part of a new project. No one writes letters anymore, also, and I think that’s sad. More people should sit down and give it a go, I think a lot of us would be surprised at what comes out once it’s just you and a pencil and the place you’re at and the person you’re thinking about.

What have you read and loved lately?
The only book I have read lately is Eggers’ “What Is The What”, I stole a galley from Steve to read on the plane. I am only midway through but so far it’s remarkable.

How does it feel to be the 158th person interviewed for
It’s a bit of a slow burn, actually.

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