Books In Conversation
ALEXANDRA NAUGHTON with Catch Business
In the same style as her previous work, Alexandra Naughton’s immediate, breathy voice “laps up the mundane” as though it were alive, as though products had hearts and processed food had lungs. Like if shops were castles and the mirror a portal. Often American Mary feels more fantasy than memoir although I think it has a bit of both. I think the book is incredibly accurate in its synesthesia, instead of the senses, of life and product—almost the opposite of personification? We relate more to the products around than they do to us, let’s be honest.
The first time I met Alexandra I showed up to her house with a case of beer big enough for anyone to like me. I don’t think Alexandra drank any of the beer. She offered me pasta salad and it was the best pasta salad I’ve ever had; it had black beans and chunks of green apples. From that point on I knew to trust her. In American Mary she writes, “I hear a lot of confessions I don’t have to understand them all.”
That kind of empathy is so rare. Naughton’s ability to assess the impact of such interactions makes her a great friend and a great someone-to-talk-to. American Mary is a great-book-to-read too, exploring a range of relationships with others as well as the types of interaction that are more like a mirror in the middle of the night, one you lean into to pick at yourself.
(Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016)
Catch Business (Rail): One of the ways I reflect on myself is by listening to my favorite albums over and over again. American Mary has a lot to do with music and that kind of repetition, the way certain lyrics replay themselves in your head and you have to sing them out cause you have to let something out, or that feeling when a song reminds you too much of another person, and you don’t want to listen but it’s actually one of your favorites so you couldn’t really stop yourself if you tried.
You write “We can complain and we do, it’s like a song.” Do you think listening to music is cathartic or masochistic? Do we hurt ourselves in the relationships we make, even to words?
Alexandra Naughton: Music is totally cathartic to me, but I also believe there is an element of masochism in that catharsis. Sometimes it’s hard for me to read my own emotions and so I have to find a catalyst so that I can realize and then feel that emotion. Listening to sad music that triggers emotional responses from me is something I do frequently. I have to feel it all before I can understand it.
Rail: I can relate to that. Maybe it is overall a healthy relationship then, like the songs are showing us ourselves whether or not we like that version at that particular moment. And maybe that’s a kind of self-love. But also it feels like we really can fall in love with a song or a poem or the way the light hits the trees right at 5pm. You depict this feeling perfectly with the line “It’s pretty romantic watching vibration off asphalt and honestly sometimes it feels good to sing and not talk about anxiety.” Is this kind of romance not the romance we think of when we think of romance?
Naughton: It is my favorite romance. That longing for something you can’t exactly put a name on. Like a memory or a dream that you can’t fully remember, but that you can still feel. The romance of a moment.
Rail: I love the way you play with memory in American Mary. My favorite part of the book is when it seems the same memory is being revisited: each time I felt a deeper sense of your emotions regarding it—a situation involving a donut and a person doing skateboard tricks in the middle of a party—because of the different interpretations provided. Is this how you think memory works? Are we able to manipulate or mutate our own?
Naughton: Memory is constantly mutating. Consistency is the fallacy of storytelling. The story changes every time you tell it, especially if it really happened, especially if you’ve changed as a person. You add things, think about things, and analyze things better. Memory is a moment like a finger dipped in water, and we try to chase the ripple as far as we can. When memory is immutable, it’s dead. You wind up sounding like Jude Law’s character in I Heart Huckabees where he repeats that story about Shania Twain and the chicken salad sandwiches verbatim.
Rail: That’s true. I think another way you indicate this type of relation to our pasts is through the device of jumping between, maybe even swapping places and periods in Mary’s life. It reflects the ability to almost time-travel through the act of writing, rewriting narratives, reliving experiences, rehashing those old issues that appear again and again in our lives. I appreciate the allusion to Mary being a monster when you write “hiding underneath his bed and jumping out and yelling at him for being a fuckhead.” I think this image depicts what I’m trying to say. In our heads we become the monsters we tend to think we are. Do you agree?
Naughton: I am very interested in the concept of multiple timelines that intersect and overlap, like strings of yarn that crisscross and roll into each other. I feel like most of our memories are like monsters hiding. They lay lurking. Sometimes we go to check them out and uncover them, other times we try to push them out by telling ourselves they aren’t really there. We are probably worse in our own memories than we actually were.
Rail: Writing feels safer than memory. Or maybe memory feels more real. Do you think it’s possible to change the way you think of, or see yourself, by changing your external environment? Mary says “I decide to audition to be a telephone actress.” She then fills roles for others for money—is this similar to writing? As writers, are we filling a role for others or ourselves?
Naughton: I don’t know why people write. I write because it’s one of the only ways I can make something make sense to myself. It’s how I process things. I once wrote about this—calling my inclination to write a compulsion—and some dude on the Internet called me out saying I wasn’t a writer but an addict. If you’re writing for other people, then your writing is probably trash and I don’t want to read it. I can read a celebrity gossip rag if I want to feel like I’m being catered to.
Rail: Right! It’s funny you’d mention this, because it seems like that type of media only enforces competition between females. Mary seems to have been influenced in this kind of matter, at least at one point. “I don’t feel beautiful compared to this girl who I am comparing myself to because I frequently seem to need to compare myself to someone” Is this need to compare inherent or manufactured?
Naughton: It’s definitely manufactured. I’m not sure why consumer culture wants to keep women in competition, but I’m sure it’s great for sales. We aren’t made this way, we are conditioned. Being a person means breaking all the conditioning we’ve endured.
Rail: A part of me thinks that female competition mostly has to do with the male gaze, and the idea of the MPDG (“manic pixie dream girl”) could potentially play into that—is this a dead horse? A line that reminded me of the trope was “music I loved because I didn’t understand how the other side actually feels.” I think the yearning part is what really interests me. Is Mary welcoming some kind of newness when you write, “I like letting him corrupt me a little bit at a time.”
Naughton: I feel like the MPDG trope will follow and haunt me for the rest of my life. I got into a bit of an online tiff with someone who wrote a Facebook post saying “my damaged druggy girl beat the living shit out of your manic pixie dream girl” and I thought that it was missing the whole point; to think that both of those tropes are products of patriarchy and the male gaze, to not understand that actual people get treated like tropes, and that your “druggy damaged girl” is probably someone’s “manic pixie dream girl.” So yes, I totally agree that female competition is propagated by white patriarchy. Mary is a person wandering, looking for answers. She welcomes newness, she welcomes experience, and she welcomes learning. Everything is a lesson.
Rail: The unknown is a backyard: “A chance to see stars at night. A chance to start something new. A chance to start something else. Anything else.” Can you tell me what is so romantic about the suburbs?
Naughton: I grew up living in a busy city and spent most of my life living in a busy city, and it was always so refreshing to visit my family who lived in the suburbs—my Aunt Joanne has this big house with a huge backyard and that open space—that quiet has always been so appealing to me. I live in a smaller city now, it’s like a suburb. I have a garden. It’s peaceful.
Rail: Suburbs evoke nostalgia for me, which is a common theme throughout American Mary. A few examples: “I used to ride the bus as a child and think, I can’t die.” and “Counting letters in words, every word you see or hear. We did these things as kids. How do you think our childhoods affect our adulthoods? Can we connect through the similarities of our pasts?
Naughton: Suburbs have this false nostalgia for me, like I’m living someone else’s childhood experience. I think similar childhood experiences can create bonds between people. I still feel like I’m living in late childhood, so those memories I have of being a kid and being bullied and running around the city with my friends and my little sister still all feel very real, very recent.
Rail: Those kinds of memories evoke a sense of comfort, the kind that is only achievable within family and within friendship. Or is the comfort in words, in the way we communicate with each other through an understanding of ourselves? Is a mirror comfortable? Are your friends mirrors?
Naughton: Everything is a mirror. Words are just threads. They tie and bind but they also unravel and fall apart. I prefer looking over speaking, for the most part. Checking in is nice, though.
Rail: American Mary has a lot to do with that sense of exchange, between your body and the space around it, from the spiritual to the material, and then of course the exchange of emotions. “I felt like I wanted capitalist relationships.” Give and take: which one is more important? Are we able to attain parts of ourselves from others? Are we able to give parts of ourselves away?
Naughton: Mary gives everything away, and then wonders why she feels empty. I can relate to this. Capitalist relationships seem appealing, because at least you know you’re getting something in return, that you’re not just getting used. “Freedom is the opposite of love,” says Conor Oberst. Love means being selfless. Love should be an exchange, even though you’re not supposed to expect anything back. One person can’t be in love. One person can be infatuated, but being in love should be mutual. In an ideal world, right?
Rail: Some of these themes remind me of You Could Never Objectify Me More Than I’ve Already Objectified Myself. Can you discuss how or if these two books relate to each other?
Naughton: There is definitely a common theme: the exchange you mentioned, and the consequence of that exchange.
Rail: Film and TV are also presented as influential throughout American Mary. How do our relations to media, or our decisions pertaining to media affect our understanding of our self? Can we calculate personality within a masochistic and capitalist society, or is it always calculated for us?
Naughton: I think media is a mirror, but it’s distorted; especially because of corporate fascism. It reflects our culture, while also trying to show us what our culture should be. The thing to be aware of is who is dictating. We can calculate whatever we want, but we need to be aware of everything we absorb.
Rail:I feel like that’s important to consider within most relationships. The thought reminds me of a scene in the book where Mary is seemingly being dictated, but there is also this sense of the dictator being dictated as well. You detail “a pastel of a female nude with a no face.” This image hovered above my head as some sad events followed. Do possessions like this painting begin to take on an essence; do they begin to influence us?
Naughton: There’s that scene in the movie The Sixth Sense that takes place in an antique shop and Bruce Willis’s wife is talking to a couple buying an engagement ring, and she says something along the lines of, “I like old things, like the person who wore this left an imprint on it, there’s a piece of them in this object.” I like that. There are also so many stories about people acquiring objects that begin to affect the person who took the object. I like that too. I think both are true. Everything we see and feel, own, and belong to changes us.
Rail: Does the self have as much influence over the self as others and other things do? Does influence distract from attainment of authentic self?
Naughton: No one is an island. God, I keep typing clichés. I love clichés, though. I love Bright Eyes. I think we need people. You can’t avoid outside influence, no matter how much of a recluse you are. Culture bleeds into everything. You can choose what you want to interact with, but we are always interacting.
Rail: We are in constant communication with the universe. Does this make all people and places and things the same in some ways?
Naughton: “Desire for [another] and desire for Desire [. . . ] body lifeless, soul on fire”—Cass McCombs
Rail: So it’s possible to pursue an authentic self instead of another?
Naughton: “Desire for [another] and desire for Desire [. . . ] body lifeless, soul on fire”—Cass McCombs
Rail: This line has been stuck in my head for days now: “She still manages to break her heart again and again in a low jinx fashion.” Do we break our own hearts?
Naughton: “You do it to yourself, you do, and that’s why it really hurts.”—Radiohead “Nobody broke your heart, you broke your own because you can’t finish what you start.”—Elliot Smith
Rail: But is that kind of mentality self-blame? Why is it a natural reaction to blame ourselves?
Naughton: We blame ourselves for allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. It’s not a great mentality, but ultimately we decide what affects us. Actually, I’m not sure.
Rail: I am uncertain. Most of American Mary details relationships with men, but I have particular interest in friendships between females, which can also often feel uncertain. The book describes lows and separation within relationships, but I’m wondering if you think that this is different between women?
Naughton: I think the relationships between women in American Mary are more important than the fleeting relationships with men. The relationships between women are more constant, more consistent. They don’t just drift off, and the women all have names. There is more at stake, so their gravity is felt more intensely.
Rail: An image that really stuck out to me and makes me hungry, but also understood is, “I threw the rest of the donuts away.” If you’re not going to share with someone why would you indulge? What is it about sharing something with someone that feels so special? And why is it so much harder to share with ourselves?
Naughton: I used to think, “How can this have happened if someone else didn’t see it? It’s a private memory, one that only I can account for. What’s so special about that?” Don’t get me wrong, I reminisce with myself all the time, but let’s take cooking as an example. I don’t want to cook if I’m just going to eat on my own. I can just have a peanut butter sandwich if I’m hungry. If I’m going to work on something, I want to be able to share it with others.
Rail: At another point you write, “Food feels uncomfortable. Like, what is the point.” And also, “Feeling comfortable seems impossible.” Is comfort real?
Naughton: Comfort is elusive and temporary.
Rail: That definitely resonates throughout the book, and one of my favorite things about it is the way you balance that discomfort with humor—those little dips into the heavy lightness of life seems a style no one else can replicate, a completely unique perspective on making mistakes. “I hold the burger up to my face, like it can hide me, and cry.” This type of tone surrounds some of the darkest moments of American Mary. So I’m curious: why do we use humor to face fear?
Naughton: If we’re not laughing, we’re crying. At least I am. I think it’s important to see the humor in trauma. Maybe not immediately, but after coming to terms with it. It takes the weight out and helps us digest it, so it’s not so internalized.