INCONVERSATION

AUTOFORENSICS
CRIS MAZZA with Kathleen Rooney

The daring experimental feminist author Cris Mazza is not easily reduced to a collection of numbers, but here are some key stats: she is 57 years old, she is the author of 17 books, and she, like an estimated 15 percent of all women, is anorgasmic. In her just-released memoir, the stunningly honest and formally audacious Something Wrong with Her (Jaded Ibis Productions, 2013), Mazza explores this prevalent but still ill-understood sexual condition. Employing a pastiche of her previous selves—jpegs of her college journals, old notes, sets of letters, and other ephemera—she brings an unsparing eye to the details of her own life and the lives of those who’ve played important parts therein. In perhaps the book’s boldest move, she invites Mark, a long-lost-but-now-re-found lover—to engage, in real-time, in the memoir’s composition via his personal emails, some of which reply directly to drafts of the book as it was taking shape. Mazza’s decision to let a "character" that other memoirists would have had remain silent actually speak indicates what a vital expansion Something Wrong with Her is for the field of memoir. So too does it show that Mazza, one of the co-editors of the original chick-lit anthology, Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction (Fiction Collective 2, 1995)which first used that term but for a vastly different kind of fiction than most people think of when they hear the phrase today—is much, much more than an "urban girl looking for love.”

Kathleen Rooney (Rail): Ander Monson refers to your approach in this memoir as a form of “autoforensics.” I’d call it a detective story, in a way, for how—with a cool and unsparing rationality—you lay out and critique the evidence—journals, photographs, emails, cartoons, etc.—of your various past selves as well as your present one, but a detective story in which you are both the “investigator” and the “perpetrator.” How do you define your project here? Did you consciously set out to resist the neat arc—illness, realization, struggle, then healing—of similar books about female sexual dysfunction, or did this resistance arise organically as you went about the process of composition?

Cris Mazza: The simple answer would start with no, I didn’t consciously set out to resist the expected arc for this “type” of book, because I had no idea what type of book I was writing. I didn’t even know what book I was writing—thus the abandoned premise is still included in chapter two (marked as a previous version). I’d thought the book would be about experiencing sexual harassment in the years before it was defined by courts, and how that might have affected my ability to have a “normal” intimate relationship. But it began to dawn on me that the problem had been there much earlier than the incidents of sexual harassment in my mentor relationships. That particular realization, however, was only one of many, a byproduct of working through the false start, deciding to get the journals out and use them after I’d already begun, and then—coincidentally, and not at all a part of writing the book—getting back in touch with Mark and beginning, at first tentatively and then full bore, to compare notes on our shared pasts. Seeing Mark’s perspective and alternate memoirs definitely put me in a position of seeing myself as a kind of “perpetrator,” plus I had all these materials—particularly journals and letters to Mark, but also my own early fiction—to not only use as evidence but to help stimulate my memory, and thus the dual role you suggest developed into my method. 

Rail: Because of this book’s expansion and interrogation of the memoir form, it invites the reader to consider both why you wrote the book the way you did as well as why you did not write it in other ways. The press materials point out that this is “a memoir about anorgasmia—the inability to have an orgasm,” and that “Research suggests that at least 75% of women cannot reach orgasms through vaginal intercourse, and upwards of 15% are completely anorgasmic.” Within the book itself, there are times when you get quite clinical about Pelvic Floor Dysfunction (PFD) and vaginismus, and dispelling the myths that surround such conditions. All this suggests that you could, conceivably, have made more money, come out with a bigger press, and had a broader therapeutic impact by writing a book more straightforward in its medical and explanatory focus. I’m not suggesting you should have done so, but I am curious to hear about your decision-making process and why you shaped this book the way you did?

Mazza: Possibly the reason I’ve never made more money in this business is that my books get formed and developed, as you put it, organically, and don’t follow a straightforward, expected or familiar route.  I figure out what I’m writing about as I write it, and then decide the process of getting to what I realize is an important part of what the book is about, so there’s no impulse to produce, afterwards, a rationally explained and researched report on what I learned.  Look how the clinical parts of the book that you reference are in the middle of the book, not the end, and yet they seem the “answers” to the “something wrong with her” problem the book sets up via its title.   When I was investigating and composing (and designing) those parts of the book, it did briefly occur to me that it could be (or look like) a more mass-appeal book if it was researched then recounted straightforwardly. But there would have been some issues I wouldn’t know how to get past, one being that in a book, as you put it, “more straightforward in its explanatory focus,” my sexual experience and anorgasmia in my two marriages would have had to be developed or dramatized, but I had (and have) maintained a resolve to leave my second husband completely out of this because he does not deserve to be embarrassed by association. I made that clear in the beginning of the book, and it might be flouting a memoir tenet to state that I was writing the book as though he didn’t exist. So I did not shy away from that traditional structure because I would have had to show myself being anorgasmic through two marriages—I could have done that—but my second husband and I are good friends who trust and care about each other. Basically, I wanted to protect him from, well, the author.  Additionally, my preoccupation had become the shared exploration (with Mark) of my earliest sexual and social experiences; a preoccupation that did not leave much room for considering how the story could gain more market share if I learned what that kind of book looked like and stayed in those parameters.  Another part of me did not feel my experience with sexual dysfunction was “big” enough to be the basis for a commercially published mass produced “healing memoir.” (Besides the fact that there’s no true “healing”: the book wasn’t going to end with an orgasm!)

Rail: Related to such notions of genre, marketability, and mass appeal (or lack thereof), I want to mention that you are one of the co-editors of the original chick lit anthology, Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, as well as its 1996 follow-up. In these collections, you were the first to apply that term, but for a vastly different kind of fiction than the "urban girls looking for love" narratives which it’s defined as now. You’ve since gone on to become known as a writer unafraid of exploring sexuality. Why do you think the term “Chick Lit” took on the connotations that it did, and how do you feel about that transformation?

Mazza: For the same reason that some dedicated feminists were disturbed when we used the title ironically, it succeeded wildly when used without a trace of irony because the country in general, in every sphere, wants to embrace “chicks” but is not led to admire women who are defiant to the stereotype. Women writing fluffy stories about girls buying shoes, going on diets, searching for a husband? “Great,” the patriarchal world says, “let them do it, let them succeed, let them make big money entertaining each other (and lining the pockets of their corporate Daddies). It’s easy to ‘allow,’ even cheer for, because we (patriarchal society) don’t have to respect them for it.”  I know that’s my own jaded opinion, based on zero research, as is this: The other factor that allowed commercial chick lit to succeed was women voluntarily donning the stereotype of “chick,” writing what was expected from a “chick,” and enjoying all the attention received for being a chick. Because of what happened when the title was taken and used this way, I’d like to apologize to every feminist who raised her eyebrows at the ironic usage we hoped would spit zingers at the stereotype, because it backfired if it then helped provoke a reversal in any progress toward equalizing the respect a female writer could expect versus a male. I mean, hasn’t the chasm now, in some ways, widened? Remember in 2011 when Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer and it was reported as a news story that Franzen lost, not that Egan won (and featured his photo, not hers). 

Rail: Staying just a little while longer on these subjects of taxonomy, you are known as an author who publishes on small and/or independent presses. In fact, in this book, you mention that you took a class in “small-press publishing,” then add in a footnote that, “In the past 20 years, I have, categorically, altered this term to independent press.” Why do you make this distinction? And why do you publish primarily with independent presses, and how do you think this has shaped your career, and even your writing itself?

Mazza: Firstly, the word small is a prerogative when used as a modifier for “publisher.” It might be a one-person operation, but one could call the press innovative, creative, cutting edge, visionary, even idealistic, so many other possible modifiers. Why choose small unless the comparison to “big” is intended? If the modifier is going to differentiate, I prefer independent because these publishers are not corporate. Some are set up as for-profits and many are not. That’s not the modifier that interests me. Are they independent, that’s all I care about, because it says so much about why they do what they do. But I didn’t plan on publishing exclusively with independent presses. When I started publishing I barely knew there was a distinction. My college literature classes had used so many books from independent presses that they were all just publishers to me, without a modifier. I submitted to publishers where I thought my work fit, based on what I’d read. So starting with my earliest publishing experiences, I knew what it was like when a publisher allows a writer to maintain creative control over the book. Revisions, design, art, titles, publicity blurbs, etc.—all aspects included my input, and in the case of revisions and titles I always had the last word. (This was also true of all of my covers except two, so I can’t include art or covers in the “always had control” category.) This kind of respect given to the author, as well as not having any of my books go out of print (so far), have been the trade-off I’ve accepted. It must have affected my writing in that I have not (at least not yet) learned what it takes to excite a commercial marketing/sales department, so I never thought about that while immersed in a project. I had agents—and one editor at a commercial house—who believed I could learn to produce that kind of book. And a few agents thought I had done so with Homeland, Waterbaby, and Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls (my last three novels), but whether it was because I had a learning disability, was just stubbornly unwilling to compromise, or I was already typecast by commercial editors, yes, I guess publishing with independents affected my career as well.

Rail: On the book’s cover and on the title page, you’ve included what looks like a hand-written edit, but which is actually part of the finished sub-title, so that it reads “I Shaped It: The Snowball Swelling into Sexual Dysfunction FRIGIDITY (What other word is there?).” Why use this move of exposed revision—leaving traces of something that could have been altered without any record—and why, to you, is “frigidity” the best—or perhaps the best and only—word for your condition?

Mazza: To your first question, exposing major revisions is a motif of the book. I call it a book that needed to be read while it was written. As I mentioned, a large portion of a “false start” (or a different premise) remains, labeled as such, in the second chapter. Also one of the book’s missions involves the title’s implied question (what is the “something” that is wrong?), so refining or revising the “answer” in the subtitle seemed to suit how the book works.  Hypotheses, different perspectives the directions of the self-analysis were fluidly (although not always gently) developing. 

Having the subtitle revision displayed in my handwriting (and including the handwritten parenthetical question) also underscores the handwritten journal pages that appear in the book and touches on the me-now vs. me-then motif: it’s the same handwriting, but also different. The earlier examples are so raw, or coarse. Or maybe the later example is more undefined with less clear edges. 

The second part of your question about the word “frigidity” and my hypothetical question “what other word is there?” comes from an e-mail exchange I had with the editor who published the second chapter as an excerpt. She did not like any woman using that term because she felt it was misogynistic and coined by men, putting blame on a woman. But the complexity of culpability is another of this book’s interests, so the word fit in that context. Similarly, the power of the word’s metaphor could be more complex: instead of the woman being cold, couldn’t the word imply “being left out in the cold”—what it feels like to not be part of the world of heightened sexual excitement—that seems to be happening all around me in every media venue?  

Another reason for including the parenthetical comment was that I’d wanted to complete my alliteration accentuating the sibilant sound of “sexual,” but “frigidity”—which in one word can say so much—simply has no S-sound at all. “Dysfunction” does have the S-hiss, but didn’t allow for the gray area of culpability that “frigidity” does. With the cross-out, I get to use them both and keep some background sibilant tone.

Rail: Relatedly, much later in the book, on page 203, you discuss etymology again, this time in relation to the lexicon used to refer to female genitalia, writing, “If, in my 20s, I had been aware of some of these other diverse and compelling, and not-at-all-pejorative Latin meanings behind vulva, I might have tried to turn my mind away from the shame which (experts say) was probably first delivered to me in early childhood through cryptic messages from my mother.” Do you believe that words—the right words, in some sense, or the words with the right connotations—can offer salvation? What can the right or wrong words do and to whom?

Mazza: Basically, yes.  Just take a silly example (not from my life): a mother who refers to her child’s sexual body parts as “your nasty places” versus a mother who says “your special places.”  Personally, I heard few words other than the usual infantile euphemisms. (Also my father called my male rabbit’s testicles his gonads. I was in charge of breeding the rabbits—for meat. Copulation was accomplished in a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds. The female hunkered down, the male mounted and did something very rapidly, then fell with his back feet jerking up toward his head. It was over. She was pregnant. She ate some grass or a carrot. Somehow this did not translate to any curiosity about sex between humans.) 
           

In high school, some boys began a sexual joke about sniffing girls’ bicycle seats for “snarf.” That’s not a particularly pretty word (hear all the sibilance in the whole sentence?). The whole “joke” made me uncomfortable about myself. I remember an incident hearing it as I prepared to mount my bike to ride home. (Today it would be called sexual harassment.) After that, I didn’t have, or didn’t allow any opportunity to hear anyone say anything less grungy about my (or any woman’s) body.  Yes, I do believe there could have been salvation, as you say, with more affirmative words.  But I also think the generalized analysis I got from one of Nancy Friday’s books is also true: that girls get non-verbal cues (or early verbal cues such that we can’t remember the exact words).  It’s worth repeating the passage I quoted in the book:

 We have been raised to believe that the area between our legs is untouchable, dirty. We have come to loathe the sight and smell of our genitals. It is an unnatural learned revulsion that has been deeply and dutifully taken as part of the early mother/child love exchange. … [I]t was not what she said, it was how she felt. She didn’t like the sight and smell of our genitals any more than she liked her own. —Nancy Friday, Women on Top (Simon &Schuster, 1991)

Another seemingly innocuous example: I remember an occasion when my father took each of my brothers (at different times) into the shower with him. I assume this was to show them how to wash. And no, there was nothing perverse or weird about it. I assume they were each around eight. Probably long after after the era when I was still taking baths with my brothers, which was likely when they were less than five (and no sustained “closer inspection” occurred during those baths).  No version of this was done by my mother with me, and indeed I would have thought it strange and embarrassing if she had. So the “unnatural learned revulsion” was already there simply in the absence of acknowledgement.

           

I used to think female body parts were more regularly used as nasty names to call someone. The most obvious:  a pussy is a weakling but one who has balls is strong. But men and women alike will call a man a cock or cockhead for various transgressions of behavior. Yet it still doesn’t rise to the reputation the word cunt has earned. This, I have heard, might be borne of where the word originates, as anything from Latin is considered clean and scientific, but anything from old Anglo-Saxon is frequently in the “nasty” category. And yet look at those various Latin definitions for those words!  I guess if words were not this complex, writers would have less exciting tools.     

Rail: One of your epigraphs comes from Grace Paley and says, in part, “And the reason [s]he writes is to explain it all to herself, and the less she understands to begin with, the more [s]he probably writes …” As a genre, memoir often gets knocked for navel-gazing, for narcissism, for talking to itself, so this epigraph seems savvy for confronting those potential accusations head on. Who do you think this book is talking to and why? What is the role of the reader in a book so deeply personal as this one? Also, what is the audience’s role in relation to the other reader/writer, Mark R, the erstwhile friend/true lover who also participates as both addressee and correspondent?


Mazza: Not only confronting the accusation of navel-gazing, but complaints about the length!  The fact that I did spend so much time writing instead of just obsessing while I lay on the floor (something I did do a fair amount of in 2009) is because, as the Paley quote suggests, writing is thinking for me (and for most writers). And thinking often confuses stuff before it begins to clarify, so that even when there is some clarity, it is clarity of something bigger and more confounding than originally assumed.  But writing is also a lucid invitation for a reader to share. I have dealt with various kinds of feelings of isolation—in the 21st century any anorgasmic woman is apt to feel pretty much alone—including a period of clinical depression during the writing of the book in which the isolation seemed abject.  The sense that there would, someday, be someone reading the “tome” I was producing (that’s how I referred to it sometimes, because it sounded swollen and unwanted) was some solace. Frankly, I was talking to anyone who would listen.  But afterwards, when people began to read drafts, I was told it was important, that there were a lot of women who might want to see something like this. And men too, in the scraps of Mark’s life he provided. For a man to express some of the depth of emotional shit Mark admitted pretty much dispels emotionless-man stereotypes, and maybe there are men who wonder why they feel so much when men apparently aren’t supposed to. Except in country songs. (The only thing Mark moaned a little about being included in the book were his 30-year-old attempts at writing country lyrics.) One of the benefits of Mark being included is so the reader can look from one of us to the other and not just be deluged with one perspective. 

Rail: It’s difficult to imagine this book without Mark’s willing participation, and without his agreement to let his own words and reactions be included. Was it hard for you to ask for and to receive his permission? And if he had said no, what would you have done? How do you deal with the ethics of creative nonfiction generally in terms of the inclusion of “private” material, not just about yourself, but about others?


Mazza: At first, and for at least a year, my work on the book manuscript and my email communication with Mark were separate activities. I’d been out of contact with him for eight years (and hadn’t seen him in 25) and it was a partially coincidental circumstance that we got back in touch via email just about the time I started writing this book (which at the time had a different hypothesis). It was months before I started working on this book that I slipped one of my business cards into Mark’s envelope in a mailing I was doing for my previous novel.  He held onto the card and didn’t muster up whatever it took to contact me for five or six months.

Both writing the book and the intense email exchange that developed with Mark did involve the investigation of memories from the same period of my life.  Plus Mark knew the other people whose dealings with me I was pondering.  So it was natural to tell him about certain discoveries and memories I was experiencing as I wrote.  How and why the two activities blended into one seems, now, as natural and necessary as breathing while swimming.  I tried to capture some of the development of Mark’s immersion into the book—which is the same as the development of Mark’s involvement in my life—and of course writing the book was such a major portion of my life, or was my life. The snarl of my emotional involvement with Mark, the investigation of those memories—a necessary journey for him—turned into a major highway running beneath the surface of the road I was clearing in my initial writing of the manuscript. At the point when I was able to write a foreword (obviously almost last), I offered that this was a book that needed to be read while it was being written. Partly because it affords a view of something happening while it happens. Mark becoming a part of the book is a big part of what the book is about.

I never really asked Mark if I could use his emails in the book.  It became almost an understanding that I would.  So there was never any question about what I would do if he didn’t allow it.  If he had never been made aware that I would be using the emails, then I would definitely have had an ethical quandary, since my decades-ago law-of-mass-communications course taught me that letters belong to the person who wrote them, not the person who received them.  But I didn’t have to face the dilemma about revealing his private material because of how his involvement progressed until he proofread the manuscript and his comments during that process were the last insertions, plus he is the sax solo performer in the jazz suite that was composed to be released with the special “art version” of the book. (My reasons for not revealing Mark’s last name involve a third party.)

It is not with Mark’s involvement that I had to consider the ethics of including material that is part of someone else’s private life.  I handled this in the usual way: changed names.  In one case I completely removed a person, as I’ve already explained. 

I asked Mark to answer part of this question: Why did you not have any problem having your personal thoughts and memories included in this book?

MR:  There were so many things I wanted to tell you. Some of it for 20, maybe 30 years.  But most were the kind of old personal self-indulgent thoughts that have no real place in a conversation between two people, even getting back in touch, even who have known each other for so long.  It can too easily start to look like a blame game, and it wasn't.  I started to tell you those things anyway and it never felt completely right to be telling you that stuff just to tell you — just to finally not be thinking it only by myself but telling you.  It was stuff that had happened, and feelings that I had about it (and how those feelings had affected the faulty decisions I made in my life), that you couldn’t do anything about now.  But I did have this incredible sense that those things I wanted to tell you would matter to you.  And then, when it began to be that you wanted to use them in the book … well, in the context of being in a book that might be trying to make sense of it … being in a book gave it a different basis, made it not as sniveling to be telling you stuff I’d held onto for thirty years. I hope it did at least.

Rail: Speaking of ethics, a major concern of the book in addition to those pertaining to embodiment, intellect, sex and love is power, especially power as structured through the mentor/apprentice relationship. You explore at length the impacts—both beneficial and detrimental—your mentors had on you. Now, as the Director of the Program for Writers at University of Illinois, Chicago, you, presumably, have a fair amount of power yourself as a mentor to students and writers. How do you define the position of mentor for yourself, and how have your own experiences as an apprentice shaped your treatment of your mentees? More broadly, how does teaching affect your writing, either for better or for worse?

Mazza: Teaching affects my writing in the same way sitting around a table with any group of writers, discussing works-in-progress, would affect my writing: it’s a hotbed for energy and ideas.  Yes, ideas are usually project-specific, but with the array of techniques being explored, it’s simply a stimulating atmosphere. Mainly this happens with my graduate students who stay in the [PhD] program an average of six years, but it can be true of undergraduate workshops too. But the workshop atmosphere is not always the same as the mentor-relationship that also exists with students who are working with me for so many years. Certainly these kinds of relationships in my professional life are far different than those I was so impacted by as a student myself.  I was an employee in that band office, so although those men were also “mentors,” I was working in the same room with them for many hours a week.  I don’t have that kind of close-quarters with any students.  Thus there’s virtually no time for learning a lot about their personal lives—their fears, anxieties, social failures, etc.—the way mine were played out in front of my mentors.  I hear my students’ ambitions and goals, as can be applied to questions and decisions for preparation for their careers (particularly the dreaded job search), but not much of the kind of personal contact I was sharing with my mentors. (When they get married or become pregnant, I am usually totally surprised.) Because it’s so different, I’m not sure I’ve consciously used any of my own experiences to shape how I handle being in the “power position.” (That position seems so incredibly powerless when I am trying to help a student secure a job or publication!) Of course, as was my original premise, my experiences were before sexual harassment law and guidelines had been invented. All teachers and professors are more careful, protecting themselves from their own slip-ups as well as from easy misuse of the law by disgruntled students. I saw examples of the latter happening as soon as the law broke into public awareness. It’s not actively at the forefront of my mind very often, but I think professor-student behavior has been altered, if only by the outrageous stories we’ve heard of pre-law infractions as well as post-law enforcement.

Rail: Music and being a musician are major components of your formative years, and creative writing is now—but neither one of them appears, at least in this book, to have given you or to currently give you much fun or joy, not unlike how sex has not given you much fun or joy either. Do fun and joy matter to you?  Are they motivating factors, and if not, why not, and what are?

Mazza: That’s an unfortunate impression I’ve created, because music gave so much to me, not just joy but an early place to belong when I needed one. Maybe it wasn’t “music” but an instrumental ensemble—it taught me to work within a group, to work for a longer term goal than a grade on a homework assignment, to rise to my best when performing, to listen and adjust, and to know what it feels like to work that hard and not succeed but start the next day planning for how to do better the next time. I know this doesn’t sound like “music,” as in some ethereal description like “it allows me to express what I’m feeling.” (That was writing, thus the obsessive journals during the same time I was involved in instrumental music.) But I was not a talented or natural instrumental musician, so I never had the kind of joy that playing gave, for example, Miles Davis (in his quote “feel that shit all up in your body.”) I had the pleasure of accomplishment. And yes, that’s exactly how I described my feelings when I finally lost my virginity. The comparison is apt, except I don’t think I got any of those other positive experiences from my sex life!  Fun and joy  do they matter?  That’s a good question because in my other pursuits, for example gardening, I never ever just sit and enjoy looking at my garden, I’m always working in it. But why, what am I working toward? A beautiful garden. The work itself, and getting there while working, must be the fun. I have dogs who give me a lot of fun and joy, but we also train and compete together at dog shows, so again, my joy in them is partially wrapped up in what we’re working toward (but that working-together relationship, so similar to the bands I was in, does create a different kind of relationship between my dogs and me, which I believe does lead to better moments of sheer joy, because there’s so much communication even in our games.)  But your question is apt.  I have a hard time wasting time (i.e. having fun without accomplishing anything).  And I do believe this trait was at least exaggerated, if not deepened by the nature of my sex life: there wasn’t much joy in that, and there was no point in “wasting” a lot of time engaged in it. I would always rather be “accomplishing” something else.

I have to add here (after sleeping on what I wrote above) that this answer, probably the whole interview, is becoming a microcosm of the three years of writing the book.  That is, I started writing believing I was going to explore a certain point, then realized as I plowed forward there was another “answer” lying under the surface of what I thought I could be so sure of.  And the discovery for me is happening in written communication with someone else who (by virtue of being someone else) has a different perspective on the same material. Has my life really not known much fun or joy substituted for “accomplishing something”? Is this the thing that’s “wrong with her?” Look at Mark’s cartoon (in Chapter 10, drawn during college,

He has me saying, “I’m going on the assumption that people waste too much time and I’m not going to waste any.”  Do “fun and joy” mostly happen during “wasted time”?  And look at your next question, observing that I have 17 books.  Not much wasted time, and yet I constantly still feel anxious about “accomplishing something.” After “accomplishing” losing my virginity, my sex life stopped “accomplishing.” There were physical issues, yes, but this attitude seems both born of and an irritant to my sexual dysfunction.

Rail: You have written 17 books—do you ever worry about writing too much, or that the most consistent descriptor applied to your work will be “prolific” as opposed to something more specific and insightful as to what you’ve really been doing with your oeuvre over the years? Where should people looking to “get into” Cris Mazza begin and why? And what other words—postfeminist? experimental?—do you like or dislike hearing applied to your writing?

Mazza:  I don’t need to worry about it happening because it’s already happening—“prolific” used as a thinly-masked pejorative; I worry about how to answer it gracefully. It’s only one of the unrelated-to-the-work-itself ways people—including those who are supposed to know better—evaluate writing. The other, of course, is money. How about an English Department or a university whose attitude affirms that those who make more money are better writers? As to labels, I generally dislike any tags, especially tradition-descriptors applied to my writing, because I’ve had the experience of those who are truly invested in the traditions or roots of a particular label not able to view me as one who fights in their trenches. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re just too exclusive, as some labels are meant to be. One of my publishers used to like to put together panels made up of their authors for writing conferences, with topics that spoke to elements of their mission, but I was told outright that they didn’t want me on any of the panel proposals because I didn’t speak (or, admittedly, even get) their theories. Which leads to your use of that same word (plus the preposition following it) how would I advise people to “get into” my body of work. 

Something Wrong With Her accidentally became a sort of retrospective, a cataloging of themes and how I examined the same ideas in different works of fiction. When looking at my past work for clues about my past selves, I realized things about my work I’d not considered before, so in this book a reader can see an author discovering some of the subconscious impulses in her author-self.  I like to think, among some of the other things I hope it can now accomplish, Something Wrong With Her can take a phrase like “this author writes the same book over and over” (which I have thankfully not heard that directly or derogatively) and turn that from a disparaging conclusion to a jumping off point for a literary detective to see that there’s a whole being made by the repeated attempts.    

Rail: Throughout the book, you use a song-like refrain: “Oh Mark what am I going to do when I finish this book? It’s the only life I’m living.” Reading it, I kept hearing the Morrissey lyric “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more” over and over in my head. Do you think there’s something distancing and substitutive about being a reader and a writer? That there’s something—to use your phrase—“wrong with” being someone who lives life on the page as much as, or more than, “real” life? Or do you think those two modes of experience can even be separated, really, or that they’re more intertwined? What’s the relationship among writing, reading, and living?

Mazza: Reading and writing are a way to gain additional life experience vicariously.  I believe some recent psychological studies have come to similar conclusions more scientifically. There are also theories that dreaming had a role in the evolution of homo sapiens in that it “taught” emotional responses—especially fear—in a sort of practice session, so the person was ready when a similar situation occurred while awake.  Other theories maintain that children dream more “dramatic” dreams for this same reason.  Reading (and writing) might work similarly. But it occurred to me during the writing of Something Wrong With Her that I may have carried this natural form of vicarious experience too far. For years I’d joked with student audiences, when I’m asked the dreaded question about how I am so prolific: “it’s because I don’t have a life.” The truth of that began to come over me while writing this book. I’d experienced (too) many things only through writing. The particular lament to Mark lives in that moment. Due to a series of situations too much for this answer, he was somewhat unavailable to me for a long period while I drafted the last third of the book. During that period was when the narrative style of the book make the complete turn-over to become a direct-address narrative directed to Mark, so the style carries the story of how I was dealing with the uncertainty between us. I could talk to him while I wrote, so it was like he was still there. I was honestly afraid of finishing, because he would be “gone.” Living vicariously in my writing had become manifest.  Writing became living. There might be “something wrong” in that.  

Rail: The dense citationality of this book—the way you intersperse the new, memoiristic material with your previous works of fiction, which also drew heavily on autobiography—gives the book an almost end-of-career, retrospective atmosphere. And yet the way the book refuses tidy closure—the way it insists on continuing to morph—suggests that this is far from an end. On that point, two concluding questions: first, your writing group suggests, at one point, that this book will help you get these various pathologies out of your system—did it, or do you even believe in that idea or consider that a desirable outcome? And second, what’s next?

Mazza: Right now I do believe that I won’t be writing (as much? at all?) about those mentor relationships which consumed me for so many years.  I had, however, made the same assumption once before in my career, in 1996-99 when I wrote Girl Beside Him and yet that book features a mentor relationship that tips into weird areas. Just because it was a male POV and a sharpshooting wildlife biologist, I thought I’d turned the page on using my personal demons.  Two books later, Waterbaby treated the mentor relationship again, and again differently, in a subplot; and then Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls—a companion book to Something Wrong With Her—does the master-teacher story against the backdrop of human trafficking in Southern California.

What I’ve begun to work on is a hybrid novel that will mix fiction and nonfiction in a different way than Something did. I’m working on a short novel or novella-length fictionalization of aspects of Mark’s life during the 30 years we were apart: a decades-long emotional crisis that lead to rash decisions with unfortunate consequences—some of it intimated in some of his emails in Something. It will be a sidelong look at men in abusive relationships, but still with that gray area of culpability that threads through all my work.  Then I’ll “complete” the hybrid part of the book with personal essays about the slow building of our life together, since 2011, but each essay has embedded in it one long highly-packed paragraph densely summarizing an aspect of the tentacles of “drama” Mark lived in, and was almost emotionally consumed by—using details which have already been expanded, exaggerated, and fictionalized in the novel part. Mark has expressed a lot with his saxophone over the past three decades; now I’m going to help translate to my medium: words.

Contributor

Kathleen Rooney

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