Books In Conversation
MELISSA FEBOS with Ryan Berg
I first encountered Melissa Febos while listening to Fresh Air on NPR in 2010. The episode was titled “Memoirs of a Dominatrix.” She was being interviewed about her first book, Whip Smart. The next day I purchased the book and became awestruck as I began reading. She was clearly a creative force. With Whip Smart and subsequent publications, Febos quickly grew into one of our most fearless and poignant writers. Whip Smart told the story of her addiction to heroin and her relationship to sex work. It’s a ferocious and tender book—a beautifully written, emotionally layered, and extremely honest work.
Her new book of interconnected essays, Abandon Me, is somehow even braver. She delves deeper into the clouded waters of herself, writing about her childhood living in a small coastal town, and plaiting two passages of her own: meeting her biological father and his family, and an obsessive love affair that becomes as combustive as any addiction. Here is a work that is both poetic and narrative, compassionate, raw and original. Abandon Me is a fiercely intelligent and remarkably intimate investigation of love and obsession, trauma and resiliency.
We recently discussed the solitary act of writing, relationships, trauma, outsized ambition, and Melissa’s serious bathroom face.
Ryan Berg (Rail): You’ve been on the Abandon Me book tour for over a month now. Has encountering your readers, and hearing their insights, taught you anything new about the book?
Melissa Febos: One of my favorite things about having published an essay collection is the incredible variation of response I’ve received from readers. The essays of this book cohere into one story, but their methods and content are often disparate, and I’ve been delighted to see how different essays speak to readers. The form of the essay collection actually feels more accurate to a depiction of self than memoir does to me, more suited to the kaleidoscopic nature of personhood, experience, and perception. I guess a book is always a kaleidoscope, right? The reader looks through it, and the contents rearrange according to the reader’s experience or needs. I guess the reader is always both viewer and object, and the book a tool for insight. That’s one way of looking at it.
You spend all this time alone with your work, peering through your own kaleidoscope, and then you’re done. And then, if you’re lucky, your book goes out into the world and has a whole other life. It’s helpful for me to think about the post-publication part of the process this way. I have my intentions and efforts and hopes and process with the work, but then it’s out of my hands. People read it (hopefully, miraculously) and they have their own experience with it, and ultimately that’s not really my business. I mean, I’m proud of the book, and I hope that people get something from it, and mostly it’s a great pleasure to interact with readers, but it’s a different job than that of writing a book.
Rail: The conventional essay is seen by some writers as nothing more than a delivery system for facts. The genre, as a result, has suffered lack of critical esteem, and popular acclaim. But what most intrigues me about creative nonfiction—or the essay—is not the exploring of what is known but what is unknown. My favorite essays examine uncertainty, imagination, reflection, receptiveness and doubt, just as successfully as literary fiction. Abandon Me accomplishes this beautifully.
Febos: Thank you! The thing is, I don’t think there really is a conventional essay. I do think the academic essay has sullied our reputation with its terrible obfuscation and verbosity and boringness. The essay, in a broader sense, is all over the map in terms of form and content, which is maybe another reason why it’s hard to talk about in terms of criticism (indeed, it includes criticism) or as a genre. But I think you are right—insofar as we can generalize about it, I think it’s a form dedicated to and driven by “uncertainty, imagination, reflection, receptiveness and doubt.” It is a form marked by inquiry. There is so much more to examine in what we don’t know! I know hardly anything at all, and writing is always a venture into those gray moors of unknowingness, sometimes tentatively, sometimes in great leaps. I do think that Abandon Me is more concerned with what I don’t know than with what I do. And perhaps its resolutions are less arrivals at knowledge or understanding than at acceptance in unknowing, that particular and liberating humility.
Rail: Anyone who knows you knows you can be lighthearted and goofy. What has your experience been as you meet your readers on this tour? Has there been an expectation that you—Melissa the person—when asking for directions to the restroom, should be as decidedly serious and lyrical as you are in your essays?
Febos: I am always very, very serious in my inquiries about the locations of restrooms, Ryan. But I do delight in surprising people with my humor, in person. I am a ridiculous person! I am constantly making terrible jokes, often about very serious things. I laugh a lot, and always have, and I am often met with surprise when I encounter readers IRL. I often begin writing with the intention of including humor, or whimsy, but somehow it always gets very serious very quickly. I’ve heard this from other writers, too. I guess I save it all up for the writing. Something about psychic defenses preventing me from being too vulnerable in person? Humor is a defense, often. I don’t know. I also just experience a lot of delight in things. But I do think (hope?) that I’ve run out of super intense and harrowing experiences to write about for a spell. I’m going to try and write about super intense and harrowing things outside of my own experience, and also bring some of my lighthearted disposition to the personal essays. Maybe.
Rail: Thanks for bringing up harrowing things, Melissa. That leads to my next question: “Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience,” Gabor Maté wrote in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. “A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors. It is present in the gambler, the internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic. The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden—but it’s there.” You’ve written about your own relationship to compulsive and addictive behaviors. You’ve written about the ache of abandonment. You’ve said that “pursuits that appear self-destructive or self-sabotaging are, at their core, often misguided quests to find comfort, or wholeness, or healing.” In Abandon Me we watch you build a relationship with a lover—a relationship that can be obsessive, irrational, all-consuming—as you mine your past for the stories that shape the person you have become. How do you see the relationship between addiction and trauma, and what role did it play in the birth of this book?
Febos: Good question. Do I have to answer it? Just kidding. I think you could substitute “artworks” in the Maté quote for “addictions.” I could, anyway. I write for the same reasons that I have pursued every compulsion (and there have been many): to attend to an ache, a hurt, an unresolved question, a question I fear is unresolvable. I don’t know that I find answers or solutions in either, but both have offered some relief, and writing has done so without causing as many new problems, or risking my life (so far, at least). And, more importantly, writing has created a space for me to live with the questions, my feelings, the things that have happened. The page is a place where I can talk to those things, whereas compulsive or addictive behaviors more often create silence; they snuff out the irritation caused by those things, if only temporarily. Writing brings me to a new place, it allows for a changed relationship to myself, the past, other people, the sometimes incomprehensible tragedy of humans. Addiction is just postponement, with terrible side-effects. I don’t think that all addiction comes out of trauma; there are other factors involved, including biology, but I do think it’s a part. Abandon Me definitely came out of the question, Why did I do this? And maybe every single thing I’ve ever written has. Maybe it’s a bigger question: Why do we do this? Sometimes, I do find answers.
Rail: Reading Abandon Me, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own relationships. Maybe it’s my own addictive personality, but when I was younger, I’d become completely fixated, enmeshed, blind with passion, irrational. I don’t know what changed, if it’s recovery, age, changing needs, or a combination, but my way of being in a relationship has completely shifted. Distance is O.K., sometimes preferred. Being two healthy, autonomous adults is more desirable to me now than trying to crawl inside the other person’s skin. I used to think that if I wasn’t convulsing in death throes, it wasn’t real. Now nothing feels quite as real as sitting on the porch together with the dogs and leaning into that stability. There is something to be said about simplicity.
Febos: I so agree. Thank God, right? I mean, let’s not speak too soon. I didn’t see the maelstrom relationship that I wrote about in Abandon Me coming for me before it did, either. But, my track record shows that I generally have to ride every notable impulse to the end of the line before I can shift tracks, and I’m pretty sure I did with the explosive romance rail. (Obviously, I also like to ride every analogy to the end of the line, also.) I can tell you that going on three years later, I’m in a new relationship, and it’s very different. Passion doesn’t depend on desperation. So much of that desperate, consuming, irrational “love” actually erases the person you take for its object. The autonomy and differentiation I’m capable of now allows me to see more of the person I’m loving, and therefore, allows me to actually love them more. That is, if love is a dynamic, a shared thing, a willingness to grow with another person, rather than a blinding feeling you project onto the screen of another person. And I think it is, for me. I don’t want the pain of “love” to be my life’s work. I have other work to do in this life, and I’d rather keep my beloved as company in that work (and offer company in hers) rather than take her for its object.
Rail: When speaking about the price of black ambition, Roxane Gay wrote, “Many people of color living in this country can likely relate to the onset of outsized ambition at too young an age, an ambition fueled by the sense, often confirmed by ignorance, of being a second-class citizen and needing to claw your way toward equal consideration and some semblance of respect. Many people of color, like me, remember the moment that first began to shape their ambition and what that moment felt like.” I think elements of this statement are relatable to many marginalized and oppressed groups. Women writers, and queer women writers of color in particular, may grapple with the notion of an outsized ambition in relation to the power and privilege experienced by white, straight, cis-gender men. Is the constant desire to be more and do better, something you wrestle with in writing and in life? Is it something you see in your writing community? And if so, how is it discussed?
Febos: Yes, of course. Ambition is something I’ve always experienced inside of myself—this drive to do better, to work harder, to get closer to the thing I’m trying to do. I mean this in a much bigger sense than professionally—I wanted to be an artist and an intellectual even as a little girl (which my family, fortunately, supported). I wanted to find words for things and give them to people, the way that other writers had done for me. I didn’t experience a conflict with that drive and desire until it began to interact with the culture. Those voices—that my story isn’t interesting or important enough, I’m not informed enough, I’m taking up too much space, I’m saying too much and talking too loud—those are not my voices, they came from outside of me, and I internalized them after so many years of hearing them. http://lithub.com/confessional-writing-is-a-tired-line-of-sexist-horseshit-and-other-insights/">In my own writing community I see people (women, mostly) talking about this quite a bit. I also see the habitual enforcement of those voices, and those messages. A lot of my work as a teacher is in modeling and encouraging my students (all my students) to work through those voices, despite those voices, even to write about those voices. We can only get to the craft of our work once we give ourselves permission to take that time and space, and to believe that we are entitled to it. Entitlement comes easier to those who have inherited it. Those who haven’t often have to “act as if” until it sinks in. Sometimes, it’s helpful to have someone who shares our experience give us permission first. That helped me, and so I try to offer it if I see a need, as I often do in my classrooms.