“My obsessions have informed me greatly.” In conversation with Allison Gruber
Generally, when I visited Wedding Town, it was as a mere ambassador from Homoville—I wore dark suits that made me look more like someone about to deliver a PowerPoint presentation on mutual funds than a guest at a friend’s celebration. But Megan’s wedding would be different. As the Maid-of-Honor, I was practically the mayor of Wedding Town; I would stand beside the bride during the nuptials, maybe give a speech, wear a fancy dress. I was thirty that year and hadn’t worn so much as a skirt in nearly a decade, and while the idea of a dress gave me pause, I understood the garment was symbolic. The marker of my role, what one does in Wedding Town. Liberace didn’t wear bedazzled capes to bed; Justice Ginsberg doesn’t wear her robe while trying on shoes. Rather, these articles of clothing are part of the act, part of the job—and I took my Maid-of-Honor job seriously.
–Excerpt from You’re Not Edith (George Braziller, Inc.)
JOANNA KENYON: The humor in your writing had me laughing out loud (on an airplane, with the person sitting next to me tossing suspicious glances each time). And yet so many of the topics in your work are quite serious: growing up queer in a religious household, your father’s mental illness and your own struggle with “the sads,” friendships that failed when you deeply needed them, and of course, that “Oscar in the universe of bad news” – cancer. Indeed, you even discuss in your writing how many of the people around you didn’t quite know how to parse your humor in moments of seriousness. How do you feel humor functions in both your writing and your approach to understanding anguish and growth? How do you balance the need for gravity in your exploration of difficult issues with your impulse for humor?
ALLISON GRUBER: Excellent question, and I’m glad you laughed.
The thing about humor is that it must happen organically. There’s nothing more loathsome to me than those who – in person or writing – try too hard to be “funny.” It always fails. Also, when dealing with difficult subject matter with humor, one runs the risk of coming across as “sassy” – and I don’t want to be seen, or god forbid labeled, as “sassy.” The fact of the matter, at least as I see it, is that our experiences are all utterly ordinary and indifferent, our day-to-day existence is utterly stupid, mean and impartial and has to be laughed at. Frankly, I think there’s nothing more cathartic than laughing in the darkness, laughing at what’s not supposed to be laughed at.
We have this tendency as humans to want to paint situations as either “good” or “bad,” and what happens to us when we do that, especially as writers, is we are unable to see the bits of absurdity – the unlikely, the remarkable, the out-of-place hilarious “stuff” gets overlooked because we are too busy trying to capture the dominant “color” of the experience – i.e. the color of good or the color of bad. So when I write about seemingly “bad” moments from my own life, chemo for example, I’m not really interested in the fucking tragedy of it all, but in the unexpected realities – like how I’d be sitting in my chair, an IV of poison running into my chest, and texting a friend about a chimpanzee that ripped a woman’s face off. That’s real life – getting chemo and talking about animal attacks. The sky isn’t always gray. The violins never swell. The pathetic fallacy doesn’t exist but in the poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley. I think our job, as writers, is to seek out that which is not publicly verifiable, and sometimes the byproduct of that endeavor is we unearth what is really fucking funny, and the humor is not in spite of the horror, but a part of it. And if you can mine this well, if you can flesh the humor out without forcing it, readers will grasp that laughter is a part of anguish, not independent of it.
JK: In this memoir collection, the overall movement seems to follow a rough chronology – with the first essays focusing on your teenage to early adulthood, the middle essays tracking that perilous time late- and post-college, and the last essays exploring your experience with breast cancer in your thirties. And yet, there is a sense that other common threads are pulling these essays thematically into a collection that explores what it means to live and love with courage, to be “unwelcome somewhere but [stand] your ground.” I wonder how these essays came together for you as a collection, and how, as you edited and revised, you approached the need to create continuity and cohesiveness?
AG: One difficulty of putting together a set of autobiographical essays is that our lives definitely don’t, by themselves, follow a tidy narrative arc. One thing I’ve learned to do – and I suppose all essayists who write memoir do this – is to see my life, or moments in my life, as a text. I read my own life the way one might read Moby Dick – seeking out significance, meaning, symbolism, themes. This requires one to distance oneself from the work in a way that, at times, feels a bit distressing. I mean, you’re analyzing your own life, you’re fucking with your own memories and feelings and trying to tease out some larger meaning. At times, it feels like conducting a very thorough autopsy on yourself.
Working on the book, I had help from a wonderful, brilliant editor at Braziller, Lexi Freiman. She was the person who could tell me, “You may be wanting to accomplish X with this piece, but for me, as a reader, I’m seeing it as Y – is this what you want?” – With memoir, especially, this kind of feedback is essential. It’s so hard to see your own experiences objectively.
Most of the cohesion grows out of ruthless editing, and I had to really be merciless because there were lots of events, occurrences, that – in the actual living of them – felt really significant and meaningful, but just didn’t work on the page, didn’t serve that “larger purpose,” didn’t “tie in.” You have to get really comfortable with saying, “Okay, fuck it. That can’t stay.” But I think this is something all writers should be comfortable with regardless. Editing, after all, is more than half of what goes into the process. Generating language is, by and large, the easy part of writing.
When you’re editing anecdotes from your own life you are riding that fine line between honesty and invention. The themes or meaning that you impose upon your experience – that’s all invention, that’s all critical thinking and creativity. Rooting an autobiographical essay firmly in “non-fiction” is about, I think, staying true to things as they were or how they really seemed. I say “or how they really seemed” because every time we recall an event from our own life, we’ve altered it forever, and so what we’re capturing any time we tell a story from our own life, whether casually over a beer or more formally on the page, is how things “really seemed” versus how they “really were.” Facts are important for structure, chronology is important for form, but ultimately not very interesting at all – at least I don’t think so. This is why I like to write in fractures. “Then this happened, and then this happened, and then this” is boring as fuck – to both writer and reader – and if you can toggle back and forth in time without regard to “chronology” you can really focus on what’s compelling, what’s funny, what’s new and weird and pregnant with meaning.
JK: You mention in the piece “Bernie” that after receiving the diagnosis of breast cancer, you stopped many of your normal activities, including writing. And in the piece “Student Fiction,” you contrast your experience with such a life-threatening illness with the often-melodramatic renditions of death and illness that can be found in student writing. How did you find your way back to writing, and in particular, writing about your experience with cancer and the issues – both physical and social – that surround such an experience?
AG: Writing about cancer, writing about anything at all after my cancer diagnosis, was difficult for a whole host of reasons. One was the sheer shock. I was only thirty-four, I had other plans and then suddenly all I could see was death. Music, writing, film, art, teaching – all those things I used to enjoy felt, for a time, so meaningless because they couldn’t keep me from dying, and they did jack shit to keep me from getting cancer in my early thirties, at a time when things seemed to be going pretty well. So all this mental, intellectual energy you used to put toward thinking about new pieces of writing is spent thinking about death, your own death, and not in abstract terms, either. You can actually see your death, and people – doctors, family, friends – they’re all talking about the possibility of your death (even though they never say so, this is what they’re talking about). So that really stopped me for a while, because I wasn’t ready to seriously consider my own death – maybe we never really are.
But then you get over the shock. People say you develop a “new normal,” but I think that’s bullshit. Four years later, it still doesn’t feel normal to me. I still resent that I have to think about it every day. I still hate that I am a part of “that world.” I miss cigarettes. I miss the “won’t have to worry about that until I’m older” existence. There’s a sense of freedom that’s lost forever after a cancer diagnosis, and it still pisses me off. I don’t want to align myself with the disease, so that was the other difficult part in writing about it – I don’t want to be some poster-person for breast cancer. I don’t want to be heralded as a “survivor.” I don’t want people to see my writing as “cancer writing” because I hate that shit. I’ve told my wife that if she ever sees my book in the “breast cancer section” of a bookstore, she is to relocate it to general non-fiction or memoir immediately. However, quite soon after my diagnosis, I was able to acknowledge that while cancer might be the worst thing that ever happened to me, it could very well be the best thing that ever happened to my writing. Let’s be honest, for a writer there’s a certain kind of luck in that manner of tragedy.
Everyone has their strategies for making sense of their life, and writing is mine. I had to go back to writing, or else I was going to go mad. So after about three weeks, in which I stewed in the shock, like a good cancer patient, I started a blog — blogs are now, practically, a symptom of cancer. The blog was mostly for friends and family, but also a way for me to keep track of what was happening. If I lived through chemo, I knew I’d want to write about the experience, and I knew I would forget things if I didn’t write them down.
For many months, I didn’t do any formal writing, just blogging. Then I was invited to give a reading at Women & Children First, as part of the Sappho’s Salon series and while I wasn’t feeling 100%, I said “yes” to the invite and began work on a new essay – which, actually, was the Bernie essay. It was a pretty emotionally rough experience because I used to give readings all the time, but cancer has a way of bifurcating your life; I felt there was a “before cancer” me and an “after cancer” me – and, at the time, both felt distinctly different. Going back to Chicago to read when I was sick brought up all these feelings I hadn’t yet dealt with, but in any case I went. All the other readers had these really graphically sexual lesbian pieces and then I got up, skinny and bald as an egg, and read about getting a dachshund in the middle of cancer treatment. Afterwards, women came up to me wanting to hug me or tell me about their own experiences with cancer, so in that way it was a different reception than I was accustomed to post-reading. I was used to drunks saying things like, “Yeah, I have a weird uncle, too” or dudes slapping me on the back and saying, “That was fuckin’ hilarious.” Or sometimes women would compliment the work and hit on me. I wasn’t used to being received, after a performance, with pity or empathy. I wasn’t used to people wanting to tell me their stories about cancer. So while that event made me feel back on my game – in that I managed to write something new that people enjoyed – it also underscored how much things had changed, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the change.
Ultimately, I came back to writing, learned to write about my “cancer experience” by forcing myself. And it was those affirmations – laughter of the listener, acceptance of a piece — here and there — in a journal, a comment from a stranger on my blog – that reminded me that writing was a meaningful pursuit, a means of connecting with others, and though it couldn’t cure cancer, couldn’t make my life return to what it once was, it was still good and useful and worth doing.
JK: I can understand why you wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed into just the “breast cancer section” of the bookstore, as it’s certainly only one of the many aspects of life you’re exploring in this collection. It seems to me that ‘queer writer’ might be another potential label / identity that could cause your writing to be once again put on the shelves not under memoir or nonfiction, but under queer studies. But perhaps that’s an identification you wouldn’t resist? Perhaps too, it might be a means of gaining a readership of people seeking inspiration and insight into what it means to grow up as a lesbian in America today? Are there queer writers whom you admire, perhaps ‘obsessed’ about, or who influenced your understanding of yourself and writing?
AG: First off, I don’t identify as a “queer” writer, though that word has been bandied about plenty in reference to my work. The word “queer” has become synonymous with a whole host of identities – some straight people even consider themselves queer. So the meaning of that word, I feel, has been utterly obscured. Beyond that, I feel the word itself erases lesbians, and if I am, as a writer, to identify with any sexuality-specific term it would be “lesbian.” “Queer writing,” not unlike the word “queer” in its broader context has also come to encompass so very many types of writing that, once more, I’m not even sure what is meant by it, or how one is to identify with it. That said, I realize that because I am a lesbian, and because that fact is manifest in my writing, I will be (and already have been) labeled a “queer/lesbian writer.” In the 21st century, this fact of my being gay is, I suppose, a sort of selling point. In a perfect world, a book could be sold merely on the merits of its prose, but we — Americans/westerners — do like the idea of unique/special identities, and maybe, on some level, the fact of my being a lesbian makes the work more enticing to readers. I don’t know. In any case, as a writer, I really don’t find sexual identity, in and of itself, all that interesting. What intrigues me as a writer, and in writing, is how people – women, especially – navigate hardships, or interpret the unfair, awful, absurd realities of living.
I suppose I envision my readership as heavily female. I definitely write with a female audience in mind – probably because I spend most of my time in the company of women, and because my writer-friends, those who are “first readers” of new work, tend to be women. And naturally, if young gay people or cancer patients gravitate toward the work, and take some kind of comfort or solace or meaningful insight from it, that’s fabulous.
The thing about writing as a woman, or as a lesbian, or a former cancer patient, is that you can’t really control what shelf you’ll be put on. Straight male writers have it easier in this respect – there’s no “Hetero-Dude” section of Barnes & Noble – straight guys are just “writers,” you know? Anytime we put those labels on writers, on artists – “lesbian poet” or “lady novelist” — we inadvertently limit the audience, and “other” the work, positioning it as fundamentally different from or perhaps less significant than the work of straight, male writers.
As for so-called “queer writers” that I enjoy, they’re all dykes – Dorothy Allison was a game changer for me. Especially her essays in Skin. I remember reading that collection for the first time and feeling simultaneously uncomfortable and enchanted – her frankness, her directness was so new to me, so exciting. Plus, I admired the way she embraced a particular “regional” sensibility. There’s a strong sense of place in her writing, even when she’s not writing about place specifically. She’s fucking awesome. Then there’s Jeanette Winterson. Her novels I’m not too crazy about, but her collection The World and Other Places, blew me away. I’m all about magical realism, and she does that so well. I also really like Sarah Waters because I’m a bit of an Anglophile and anything to do with Victorian England and lesbians is a-okay in my book. Again, to my earlier point, all the writers I’ve just named have been pegged “lesbian writers,” and though they’ve been tremendously successful in their careers, I’d hazard that the label has kept many readers away from their work. Damn shame that.
JK: I had the pleasure of hearing you read a version of “The Mountain” back in our graduate days at SAIC. At the time, I was struck by both your humor and the delightfulness of a teenage obsession with Dian Fossey! I admit I wondered why I couldn’t have had such a wonderful obsession as a teenager . . . The theme of obsession – musical, scientific, existential, and of course literary – stands out in the many of the pieces in You’re Not Edith. How do you feel such fascinations influence and guide your writing process? How have they changed over time in your life as a writer?
AG: My mental and emotional landscape has always been one of extremes. I seldom feel lukewarm about anything; I love something wholly or I hate it completely. This, I think, has made me prone to obsessions. I also think my obsessions have informed me greatly as a writer. We’re an insatiably curious lot, writers. We are zealously interested in ideas and things.
When I was younger, I didn’t give much thought to “why” I would become obsessed with things – be it horses, or words, or Dian Fossey – because I figured all people got obsessed. I thought “an interest” was basically the same as “an obsession.” But I think part of the fun, part of the magic in obsessing is giving oneself over to the obsession, rather than opening it up to scrutiny.
Long before I wrote a single essay, I wrote poetry. In fact, I started out at SAIC as a poet. When I was writing poetry, I’d use my fixations as anchors for verse. For example, I was briefly obsessed with the Hindenburg disaster, so I used what I knew about that event to write a poem about the purpose metaphor serves. (A metaphor about metaphor – how meta!) In any case, I lost interest in writing poetry (I still prefer to read poetry, often more than prose), and then began using my obsessions as skeletal systems for essays. I could hinge a lot of anecdotes on an obsession with Judy Garland or the bubonic plague or chaos theory. And the more I wrote about myself, the more I studied my former obsessions to develop perspective on who I was.
The thing with obsessions is that they occur spontaneously. There’s really no explaining them, unless you engage in playing your own psychologist – which one, ostensibly, does when one writes memoir. So because I’m a personal essayist, I’ve conditioned myself to consider my life as a text and have kind of weakened my proclivity for obsession – I notice myself too much. Like, when I had cancer, I became fascinated with the bubonic plague and about three weeks into my “fascination” I had already picked it apart and understood it for what it was. The magic of being “in thrall” is removed when you study it too much, or ascribe too much meaning to it. So I definitely think obsessions will factor into my writing far less than they have in this first collection, simply because I’ve spent too much time thinking about their significance, too much time asking “why?” I’m reminded of this old article from The Onion, it was like, “Memoirist Blows All Family Tragedy on First Book” – I think I did that with my obsessions, unfortunately. Occupational hazard.
JK: The landscape of the Midwest that you grew up in — from the suburbs of Chicago, to the rural Iowa landscape of your extended family, to the less beloved city of Milwaukee – roots these stories in a very particular cultural setting. To what extent do you see yourself and your writing as being connected to the particular culture and traditions of the Midwest, and also the lively artistic community of Chicago? Now that you’ve moved to Arizona, do you feel your sense of cultural landscape shifting?
AG: I am thoroughly, unapologetically Midwestern, and I hope I always will be. I take great pride in being from the Midwest. I love the Midwestern work ethic, lack of pretension, the “keep on keeping on” response to catastrophe, the no-nonsense, no-frills approach to living that is so endemic to the region. My sense of humor, my work ethic, my worldview has been undoubtedly shaped by the culture and traditions of the Midwest, and I don’t try to mask that in my writing. On the contrary, I embrace this.
The literary scene in Chicago was incredibly important to my development as a writer. There was a very grassroots, come-as-you-are vibe to most literary events – again, that Midwestern lack of pretension – and a tremendous amount of passion and dedication among the people who ran and promoted those events. I was heavily involved with the Reconstruction Room reading series, for which I wrote the majority of the essays that appear in the first half of You’re Not Edith. That series was decidedly Chicago – boozy, haphazard, always surprising. Like, in a single show you might have someone read some traditional open verse, someone else read an essay, and then someone singing in drag, or shaving their head or pouring honey over the pages of a dictionary. It was wild. It was fun. And really, I always felt that Chicago’s literary community was singularly welcoming and open to experimentation – failure was encouraged. I felt tremendously supported and nurtured by that community. Truly, those days on the “reading circuit” in Chicago were some of the best days of my life, and some of the most formative for me as a writer.
I’ve only been in Arizona for a month, so I’m not sure yet how it will shape my writing. Right now, I’ve been playing with the sharp contrast in landscape – the lush, wet, cold geography of Wisconsin versus the arid, rocky, warm expanse of deserts and mountains, and thinking about how these juxtapositions correlate with emotional landscapes. I’ve undergone a great amount of change in the past several months – left a job I held for four years, moved across the country, got married – and so the contrast lends itself nicely to an exploration of my life’s more recent transformations.
JK: As I understand it, often writers of short stories and essays struggle with the daunting task of publishing collections. Could you talk about how you found a place for your collection, and what the publication process was like for you? What advice might you have for other debut writers of short fiction and nonfiction, in terms of entering the current world of publication?
AG: I got lucky. Really. Prior to selling the book, I was doing what most writers do – sending my work out to literary journals, receiving a healthy dose of rejection, along with the occasional acceptance. Publishing, even in lit journals, in the 21st century is not for the faint of heart. You have to be painfully tenacious, and good at separating the self from the work, because that rejection stings every time.
In any case, I had my cancer blog and an agent happened upon it. She left a comment on one of my posts asking if I “had anything else.” At the time, I was in the midst of chemo and still not rid of my “What does it matter?” mindset. So six months later, I’m laid up getting radiation, like literally lying on the table getting blasted, when I remember that an agent had contacted me and I freaked out; I totally thought I blew it. Of course, when I wrote her, all those months later, she didn’t remember me at first. Then I sent her the essays I had culled together from my time in Chicago, and she loved them, took me on, asked me if I had “more about cancer,” which I did, and sent her those. She started shopping the book around to publishers, and sold it within about six months. I didn’t really do anything but sit around and wait.
So it was sheer happenstance. I don’t really know how people get agents, but I know that they help. I just had a blog and some random chance on my side. I also met my wife through blogging, so maybe my greatest piece of advice would be “start a blog” – you might find an agent; you might find a wife. Joking aside, I do think blogs are great for gaining exposure, and they’re free, and as writers we’re usually really fucking broke and those submission fees add up.
I really wish I had better advice than “be tenacious” and “have a blog.” But there you have it.
Find a copy of You’re Not Edith on IndieBound
Allison Gruber’s prose has appeared in a number of journals, including The Literary Review, Ms Fit, The Hairpin, and in the anthology Windy City Queer: Dispatches from the Third Coast. A Chicago native, Gruber now lives with her wife, Sarah, in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Joanna Kenyon teaches creative writing and composition at Whatcom Community College, where she is also the writing editor for their journal, the Noisy Water Review. She received her MFA in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and writes prose and prose poetry, as well as creating artist books and other hybrid works.