You may know today's interviewee from her days editing Gawker, or you may know her from this piece she wrote for the New York Times Magazine. However, these days you should know her for her new, very buzzed-about memoir And The Heart Says Whatever, her awesome literary/culinary web series Cooking the Books and her blogs Emily Magazine and Things I Ate That I Love. She's also the co-author of the young adult book Hex Education and is just generally all over the Internet if you just look.
Which book was more challenging from beginning to end, The Heart Says Whatever or Hex Education?
ATHSW was harder by like a billion orders of magnitude. Writing Hex Ed with Zareen was collaborative and therefore fun: we would sit in Central Park near the office where we both worked at the time and brainstorm plotlines and then assign ourselves different parts of the book to work on, and when we reconvened we would work on the other person's part so there was always something new and exciting to take apart and put back together. Also this was back when I still smoked pot so I would sometimes, before I would sit down to write, get high and imagine it was inspiring me to be creative (it was inspiring me to be sloppy, and to borrow heavily from half-remembered episodes of Charmed, I now suspect).
But yeah there were parts of ATHSW -- and I don't want to make it seem like this huge bummer of a book, parts of it are very funny and lighthearted! -- but there are parts of it that I would go to sit down and write them or, later, to edit them, and I'd just start crying and I would lie on the floor and feel sorry for myself and cry, and then I'd feel totally ridiculous about crying. Also about listening to Fleetwood Mac while crying and very consciously having this be "part of my process."
What was the hardest bit of advice from your editor you had to follow when writing THSW?
One small thing that was tricky was that Amber (Qureshi, my Free Press editor) wanted me to sound less flip and conversational and bloggy, and would eliminate the fact that I say "like" in my writing, like, I just did it here. I was worried about not sounding like myself, but she was right: online "like" helps with rhythm, but in a book it's too informal. I am pleased that she let me leave one or two in, though. Keith (Gessen, my boyfriend), who did a lot of editorial heavy lifting, encouraged me not to complain or portray myself as sad, or a victim, which was really good advice but hard to follow. It's tricky to tread that fine line between coming off as constantly apologizing -- which, I hate it when other people do it and I and didn't want to do it -- and coming off as an unrepentant bitter asshole who's out to settle scores. I didn't spend a lot of time worrying about how I was coming off so it sometimes sucked to be forced by Amber and Keith to think about this. Amber would actually write things in the margin like "We don't want reviewers to say ..." and I would think, "Don't you understand that I can't allow the idea that anyone besides me will ever read this book to enter my mind, even for a moment?" But she was right.
In reading about the book I came across a lot of posts and questions posed to you regarding the topic of American young women and the memoir. Was this topic on your mind much as you wrote the book or was it something you realized you had to address after it was published?
I had suspected that I might have to talk about "my generation" or women in general and I was dreading it because this is a really hard thing to do. I'm not anyone's elected representative, and I get the feeling mostly that if we'd taken a vote I would certainly not have been elected. But I do think that the way my career has played out has given me an interesting vantage point on how odd or provocative or passionately outspoken women are treated in the current cultural landscape; it's not so terribly dissimilar from how they were treated centuries ago, when we used to burn them at the stake -- um, not to keep constantly bringing up witchcraft. Also there is a lot of tension around the amateurization of journalism, the death of print, the shifting definition of privacy, public vs. private identity -- and all these things inform how people feel about memoir as a literary genre right now. And this stuff has a lot to do with me or, more accurately, people's idea of me, but not really a lot to do with my book -- so yeah, mostly I wish people wanted to talk about my book more, and less about "me!"
What are some of your favorite memoirs?
I love almost all memoirs actually. I'm pretty easy. Even ghostwritten or co-written celebrity memoirs float my boat. But in terms of the real quality I am obsessed with Chris Kraus, Romy Ashby, Eileen Myles, and Cookie Mueller. These are not household names, I have been sad to learn, but they should be! I also LOVED Patti Smith's recent memoir Just Kids.
Prior to publishing the book, did you consider yourself very opinionated about the memoir genre? I am still surprised by how passionate some people get about the age of a memoirist, or whether he/she is too fortunate to deserve to write a memoir, and so on, but maybe I am in the minority.
Some people seem to think you only "deserve" to write a memoir if something extraordinarily great or extraordinarily unfortunate has happened to you, I guess, or if you've accomplished something spectacular. But I would rather hear a great writer describe what he imagines it's like to achieve something spectacular than read that person's take on it, though, if the person is not a writer. Mostly I go to memoirs to have moments of everyday life and experience illuminated for me in a new way. So despite my avowed fondness for Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis (which has a color photo insert that features Ione Skye's naked boobs!!!) I guess I like different kinds of memoirs than those people do.
What have been some examples of the most disturbing advice that's been sought of you? I imagine you must get a few "How can I be you only without doing any work?" questions.
People do want to know how I got to be such a "successful writer" and I never hesitate to describe the details of my "successful lifestyle" to them because people rarely seem to have done the math and realized that if you get a "low six figures" book deal, pay 15% of it to your agent and 30% of it to the IRS, and spread it out over a couple years of living in the most expensive city in the world, you're not really such a raging success. It's a sad commentary on how rare it is to be able to make any kind of a living "doing what you love" that people get so worked up over so little. I guess I sound ungrateful but actually I'm pretty sick of people talking about how lucky they are just to be allowed to ever write anything at all. It's a super shitty time to be a writer right now; capitalism has never done a great job of making sure the people who make culture also get to make a living but the Internet has fucked what little infrastructure used to exist in that department, and now it's incumbent on everyone who cares about reading and writing at all to help figure out a way to pay the people who make the things we read stat, and not rely on some amorphous "Free!" utopia to take care of shit for us. Sorry, I know that was not really the question!
If you go on vacation for a week and you're not online at all, when you come back to your computer, how do you feel? Reluctant to get back into it? Excited to catch up?
I feel voracious and like the internet is going to be this luxurious bubblebath. I usually emerge three hours later, not really knowing how the cup of coffee in my hand got there, still in my pajamas, sickly glutted and ready to force myself to take a walk around the block.
How much do you read about yourself?
I started making myself read less very, very recently. It's going okay. I think I knew there would get to be a point where it would just literally not be possible to read everything. Now I have a rule for myself that I'm allowed to read every review once -- once if it's good, once if it's bad. Otherwise I'd just start spending all my time composing 8,000 word mean corrective emails in my mind, and I am not actually interested in spending the rest of my career as some embittered hateful Zuckerman-like figure. I have all kinds of rules for myself, like, I don't have to care what people write if they: mention my appearance or photographs of me, don't actually write about the book, if they aren't writing under their real name, if they use the word "solipsistic" (my theory about these people is that they're showing off that they know the word "solipsistic") and if someone starts a sentence with "Frankly," "Honestly," or "To be frank."
Have you ever corresponded directly with a commenter? I've been tempted to ask a commenter to meet me at a specific time/place so I can punch him/her in the nose.
Oh god, I don't want to even get into this. This is really my Achilles heel. I have this weird thing where I think I can win people over but then I just end up being a total cunt. It's really not a cute look. I am trying so, so, so so hard not to do it. I resist so much of the time but it only takes one slipup to make people think you are a psycho! I need to also maybe have some sort of breathalyzer equipment attached to my computer.
What's so addictive about Tumblr? I still don't get it.
Do you have a Tumblr? I think you have to have one in order to get it. The way the "likes" and "reblogs" show up on your Dashboard mingled with the posts of people you follow is what does it for me. Intermittent ego reinforcement is super addicting. Also, cuteboyswithcats.tumblr.com.
Who's a guest you'd love to have or a recipe you'd love to have an excuse to make on "Cooking the Books"?
I have been so lucky to have so many dream guests on already -- and coming up with everyone's dish is such a unique challenge. I loved Malena Watrous's novel If You Follow Me, and because it takes place in Japan she's going to show us how to make something Japanese. This is my favorite kind of food; the taping is not for a month and I think about it all the time!
Please tickle my ego and tell me what we'd make if I were on "Cooking the Books."
If we were cooking An Off Year (which I loved, btw) we would make ...oh god! I don't know. Something you eat in the college dining hall that's kind of a weird snack you make for yourself? We'd have to really think about this. I hope we get the opportunity to.
What's a song (or songs) you've always wanted to perform at karaoke but haven't had the chance to yet?
"Angel" by Fleetwood Mac. No one has it!
What reading material is on your bedstand?
At home there is a biography of Edith Wharton, some thrift story dirty paperbacks, the new n+1 (issue 9), David Lipsky's book of interviews with David Foster Wallace, and Laura Kipnis's book about scandals that comes out this fall which is soooo gooood so far. In the hotel tonight there will be The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton and The White Album which I know is cheesy to bring to LA but I couldn't resist. I mean I am also listening to the Mamas and the Papas on the plane!
How'd your book's cover get chosen? Did you suggest it?
They wanted me to be on the cover, Wurtzel steez. I had a lot of fights with them about it and using the design of one of my tattoos seemed like a good compromise -- it's a part of me, not the whole thing. Also my tattoo artist got paid for her design, I hope decently.
Of which pieces or posts that you've written are you most proud? (Or had the most fun working on?)
My piece about Millionaire Matchmaker for n+1 is one of my all-time favorites, and I also really like most of my recent review of marriage-themed books. I had to take a little break from thinking about that stuff, though. I'm only just now ready to start reading Us Weekly again. I had to detox from "wedding culture." I also went to a wedding every weekend for most of last summer so I think that was part of the problem.
Is there another book in the works? Do you know the genre yet?
I think at this point the only way I'll be able to continue writing honestly is by writing fiction, if that makes any sense. But we'll see how I do with fiction that's not about teenaged witches. That's uncharted territory.
How does it feel to be the 256th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I have literally dreamed of this day. It was weird, I woke up and was like, "great, another dream that took place on the Internet."