Claire Dederer's first memoir was called Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses. It was well reviewed, and popular enough to land on the New York Times best-seller list in late 2010 and early 2011. It was also a more complex self-inquiry than its digestible, zeitgeisty package would have you believe. And yet, that very package made it the kind of book that you might carry cover-side-down if you took it out in public.
Dederer's second memoir, Love and Trouble, offers no such superficial difficulties—the cover features a grainy portrait of the author as a young miscreant, defiantly side-eyeing the lens with a suspicion common to the pre-selfie era. But what's inside might make you blush. The "Midlife Reckoning" promised in the subtitle consists of a frank, almost lurid candor about the challenges that attend a privileged existence: marriage, motherhood, career—the archetypal prerogatives of white, liberal bubble-dwellers from time immemorial.
But this time isn't immemorial. It's now. It's the last 40 years of Seattle—a recognizably generational parameter—revealed through one restless woman's struggle to see, become, invent, reinvent, and ultimately forgive herself for the unruly impulses, ideas, and secrets that are the components of that self.
Dederer is artful but unstinting with those secrets, revealing an inner life full of uncomfortable, though oddly comforting, revelations about her sexual past, present, and possible future. If the details aren't especially startling, her willingness to disclose them is.
On the day her book was published, we sat down in a noisy restaurant to discuss the process by which she allowed herself to tell all.
I've known Dederer a little bit for a long time, since we were both hired as token people-under-50 at the sclerotic Seattle Weekly of the mid-1990s. I was fired for incompetence (which I aestheticized into refusal to compromise); she thrived. We were never close, but as distant colleagues in the ever-diminishing puddle of local, wishfully-hyphenated journalists, we're certainly not not friends.
I've always admired her wit, prose style, and critical discernment. But more than that, I've always been somewhat in awe-from-afar of her seeming ability to reconcile success (she wrote for august publications, published a real book, got and stayed married, etc.) with the scoff I always sense in the Seattle I love. Which is to say: Her ability to seem both normal and cool.
A cynic looks at a title like Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning and thinks: What can an exemplary person like her tell me about the suffering that life indisputably is? And what kind of problems do smart, lucky, beautiful people even have anyway? But this is internet thinking, and obvious folly.
And Love and Trouble turns out to be about how not-exemplary the inner life of the author is, a bracing examination of a life spent trying to seem, and of the lifelong struggle to give the habit up, even when it's the only thing keeping you from indulging in damaging behavior. In her Atlantic review, Laura Kipnis identified this trait as "the surprisingly long half-life of adolescent inchoateness."
Dederer's brazen candor offers the consolation that can only come from someone else outing their indefensible yearnings in a way that makes you realize you're not alone, which you obviously suspected, but then why didn't you have the guts to admit it to yourself and others while writing lean, funny sentences in a structurally adventurous book?
When I interviewed Dederer, I came prepared with a list of sentences from her book that made me wonder whether she hesitated before disclosing them to the world. I tried to avoid the recurring question she later identified as "How could you write this?" But there's no denying that's what I wondered.
With admiration, I might add.
Let's start with the choice to write the first chapter ("You, Now") in second person. Obviously, there are only three options, but I'm curious about whether you tried it other ways.
I mean, the book could be called I Tried It Other Ways. I've been writing this for six years, so I've tried it every way. The book is really about sadness. I intensely dislike lyrical writing, or writing that gets called in review language "resonant." Every time I went to try to describe my adolescent experience, or my present-day experience in traditional memoir prose, it had this quality. I mean, it's not like it was bad writing. There was sort of a beauty to the writing that I really hated. I was struggling with that for a couple of years.
The formal play in the book was something I was doing to amuse myself. I didn't think it was going to go in. I didn't write the "You, Now" chapter out of some concept about the functionality of the second person. I sat down one day trying to get at the ideas in this piece of writing, and started writing in second person sort of spontaneously. And it had an energy and a life that really surprised me. The formal play gave me an oblique angle on things, which made them fun, where, in first person, they're not. I've been working with students in second person a lot over the last couple years. It creates an immediacy, and yet a distance at the same time. There's this self-accusatory thing—I'm looking at you as the reader, but I'm also distancing the self from the self. It's making the self-referentiality overt.
Several chapters are built out of lists—"How to Have Sex with Your Husband of 15 Years," "How to Be in Seattle in the '90s," "A Is for Acid: An Oberlin Abecedarium." Were these more formal play or did they have a greater function, like breaking up the litany of self-disclosures?
I actually was very careful about how I presented them in the book, so they wouldn't cluster. It would have been tempting to write the whole book that way, because it's a fun way to write. The book is not written from a cathartic impulse. It's not written from a place where I was processing my emotions in the writing. I don't believe that's the function of memoir, and I don't believe that good art is made that way.
But, I was still sad when I was writing the book. I found it very hard to be funny. I think the forms helped me be funny. In some ways, they were strategic. They were just ways for me to bring myself closer to the humor. But again, they create distance. For me, probably the most important living writer is Geoff Dyer, in terms of influencing my own work. The reason he is so perfect to me, and so funny, is because of the way he externalizes his distance from himself, and his loathing of himself, and his observation of himself. He sort of takes you by the hand, and the two of you are looking at him, and you're both just like shaking your heads sadly. The forms are almost like a fast track to doing that.
I mean, I haven't thought about this a lot, but I really wanted to include to-do lists in the book. When I was young, I wrote diaries, and when I was old, I wrote to-do lists. I went from being a useless person to a utile person. I think that list-making is almost like an expression of motherhood. Organizing the material.
Right, but when you make the transition from useless to utile, isn't it meant to alleviate your sadness? If you're writing a book about a life of reckoning with sadness while also being sad as you're writing it...
Yeah. It didn't work, right? Except for that we can never know what a disaster I'd be if I had remained the same. I think I'd probably be a lot sadder if I had continued drifting along being useless.
On page two, you refer to yourself as a "disastrous pirate slut of a girl." Obviously the phrase is great, and you elaborate on it later, but it's harshly self-critical, and yet also kind of self-aggrandizing. Did you wrestle with that phrase?
I was just talking to somebody about this who's writing a memoir of addiction. One of the things when you're writing about having been a bad kid, or a bad grown-up, is that you do have to be careful about the war-stories, self-aggrandizement piece of that. That's something that is really a problem in female writing about one's own sexuality. Most of the examples we have are Anaïs Nin or people who are supposedly writing about their sexuality, but they're also self-presenting as sexual in a way that one feels is for a male reader. Or for a desirous reader. That was something I was very conscious of pushing back against. That self-aggrandizement about using the word "slut," and sort of the ownership of it. That was something I was really not interested in. But "pirate," yeah... that's got a certain swagger.
So much of the book is about your self-possession within that swagger. The disastrous pirate slut was clearly an identity you invented, and relished, and only later came to understand. Or sort of understand.
Yes, and I think that gets at one of the inherent problems in the book. One of the things I'm asking throughout is "Did I like it, or didn't I like it? Did I want it, or didn't I want it?" The dynamic we're talking about, where I'm in an uncomfortable position with these words has to do with... You know, at the end of the book, I still don't know. One of the main literary projects was "What if you write a memoir where there's no resolution? Where you don't get better? Where you admit we don't change?"
On page seven...
Oh my God, we're only on page seven!?
Well, it continues onto page eight. "You have a slew of inappropriate e-mail friendships with men. They're not quite romantic, but you shouldn't have to say that." This is such a weirdly universal contemporary experience, but those are often the hardest ones to address directly. Did you struggle with disclosing that?
When I was working on this book, I was talking to a lot of other women about what I was going through. A lot of women exactly my age. All of them were having inappropriate e-mail relationships. And I'm sure a lot of men are. And is it inappropriate? Are we just having these conversations that look different because they're in letter form? I do think that we're heading for hell in a technological handbasket. And we don't really understand how these relationships work, or how to have them. How to navigate the immediacy of them, the distance of them. All the way down. I observe it with children. I don't think we know what we're doing, or the power of these relationships.
They're still so new.
It's so new! And it's so powerful. We haven't had any time to adapt. Everybody's sort of dealing with the unknown ethics of these relationships. Meanwhile, I'm seeing all these women having them. I didn't really understand what I was doing when I was writing this book. I just kept going. Which is what you're supposed to do. I did know that I had been so sad and so alone in a way that I had never seen—or in a very tiny, almost minimalist way seen represented in literature by or about women. So I did feel a responsibility when there was something like that that was shared by all of us. Disclosure became more pressing, because I was trying to say something that I was seeing happening to all of us, but to tell it within my own story. I mean, that's really ponderous, but that was my process with this.
You have a husband and two children and a public and private life as a writer and a person. How broken can you allow yourself to seem as the character before you can kind of pull it back and reenter polite society?
Right. Yes. Navigating that was done in the context of knowing this other responsibility: "I need to show this thing, because I've been so alone with these feelings." Men see these feelings represented in every great work of 20th-century literature. Over and over, memoir and fiction. There is some fiction about women that kind of does this, but the only sexual midlife woman that we really see ever is Drenka in Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth. And she's always in relationship to the male character.
Who is a great invention, but she's mostly there as a license for Mickey's total hedonism, who then gets cruelly taken away. You don't have access to her inner life.
No, not at all. So for somebody who's my age to be having sexual yearning, and the sadness, all the stuff—it is told from a male point of view. I haven't seen it. I was alone with it. So that was the motivator. I didn't want [my husband] Bruce to read it. Was I telling my husband I was having inappropriate e-mail relationships? No. Was I telling my kids? No.
And when I was writing it, I was just like, "Ah, I don't want anyone to see this. I'm just gonna do it." This is what I do. This is my way of doing it. I write it, and then I see how I feel. Then either I move forward with it or I don't. But I challenge myself, usually, to actually write it, and then assess. Not writing it is not an option. (1) Was I scared of making my family upset by saying this? Yes. (2) Was I concerned about seeming broken on the page? No. That was what I was doing so that some other woman sitting in her house who can't get out of bed would feel less alone.
That's so Jennifer Aniston. To ask a question of oneself and then answer it.
Am I asking a rhetorical question out loud and answering it? Yes I am.
But you can ask me more about that, because I know people are interested. It's the same question: "How could you write this?"
I know, I'm just trying to avoid asking that every time. Right there on the next page: "You don't quite imagine them when you're fucking your husband, except you do actually." That's way more something you're not supposed to admit than the e-mail thing. It might not be a universal experience, though it also might be. Still, it's one that you could easily never be busted for having. No one would ever have to know. No feelings would have to be hurt.
Right. There was no reason I had to put that out.
Except that it's the actual project of the book to risk it.
It is the actual project of the book. The fact is that this book does exist in a context. And its context is this: It's my second memoir. My experience of the first memoir, where I was really learning how to do it as I did it, was that the moments when I did that, when I revealed the things that I didn't need to reveal, and that there was no cause to reveal—the moments in the book, which I can isolate, where I was terrified before I published, because I was saying these things—those of course are the moments where readers will weep, throw their arms around me, hug me, and say, "Thank you for saying that! I thought I was the only one."
So when I was writing this book, it was the project. It's again that problem of sex writing. You can't just put it in there to be exciting. The only way any memoir ever works is if there's some central problem that the character is living out. Everything else that's not related to that problem falls away. When you put shit in a memoir that's not related to the central project or problem of the memoir, then it becomes a series of anecdotes or events. I was writing for that imaginary person who was feeling these things and didn't know other people were. But, always, there is a family that I love, that I'm still in.
Turning away from the lurid disclosure department and toward a socio-journalistic observation: "Seattle is not a big city for crying. Seattle, in fact, is famously emotionally stoppered. There are many theories as to why this is the case; some say it's because of our dominant genetic and cultural heritages: Norwegian and Japanese. Whatever the reason, Seattle is a place where you are not supposed to emote. You are supposed to endure."
That's very much a passage that's from a Born-Here. It's got a kind of throwback, Emmett Watson–y kind of vibe. I love that stuff. I love that really broad local—I love Betty MacDonald. I love hyper-local old-fashioned kind of writing in that way. Maybe journalism dies hard. But go on with your question.
Given that the city is full of new people, do you think this archetype is still true? And to what extent do you still feel comfortable—even as someone who was born and raised here—claiming Seattle as your own?
I don't know. It is very broad. Probably my highest value in all writing is humor. I like to teeter on the edge of things being broad. It's an interesting place to be. Is it still true? Who the hell knows. I don't understand anything about what the city is now. That's actually a really interesting question to write about. But losing your city is something every aging person goes through. The death of your own city, and that every person who's dying gets to have that experience. Like the chapter about the U-District ["Scratch a Punk, Find a Hippie"]—that place is not mine anymore. There's someone else inhabiting it. I feel that. It's part of the passing of my relevance.
At least it's me dying and not the city. I'm in favor of that.