Jen Pastiloff here. I’m the founder of The Manifest-Station. Welcome to The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. With the site getting so much traffic, I can think of no better way to utilize that traffic than to introduce the readers to writers I love. The dialogues created within this series have stayed with me long after I’ve read them on the page. Today’s is no different. It’s between Angela Giles Patel (who happens to be one of my best friends and one of the 2 editors of this site) and the incomparable Chloe Caldwell, who is just an astounding writer, teacher, truth-teller.
By Angela Patel.
My first introduction to Chloe Caldwell was via her Letter in the Mail from The Rumpus. In the letter she admitted “I’ve never known how to write a letter, or a postcard, (or an email…?) without just going into the dumb shit in my brain.” And it continued on for nine glorious pages filled with all sorts of wonderful. By the end, I was smitten by her and immediately read everything I could get my hands, or cursor, on. Then I learned she was teaching an online course at LitReactor. I signed up, paid attention, and the rest is history.
It’s easy to say that Chloe is an amazing writer, any one of her essays will attest to that. But to understand just how unflinching she is, how utterly unafraid she is to be honest, how comfortable she is letting you into her mind, read her essay collection Legs Get Led Astray. And when you get done with that, order her novella Women. Read it. Then read it again.
I feel like I’ve listened to a well written essay wherein I was given the creative freedom to fill in my own gaps.
Q: What essays do you go back to, again and again to inspire yourself?
A: Baton Rouge by Louis Bourgeois.
On Keeping A Notebook by Joan Didion.
Mono No Aware by Miki Howard
Under The Apple Tree by Laura Prichett
A Guide To Communicating With Your Dead Brother by Erika Kleinman
And all of Michelle Mirsky’s essays.
Q: What books do you most often give or recommend to people?
Bluets by Maggie Nelson.
Letters To Emma Bowlcut by Bill Callahan.
I guess I feel these books maybe push people out of their comfort zone. I’m a pusher.
Q: Where or when are you most vulnerable in your writing?
A: In the morning. Sober. I guess I am vulnerable because I am honest about sadness and can write about being weak emotionally. But I actually feel strong emotionally. I believe that it takes strength to write about weaknesses.
Q: Is there anything you have to have with you when you write?
A: No. But I prefer to have headphones and music. I write in different spaces of my apartment. The kitchen, the “front room”, the living room, and my writing office. The office is a little closet with a built in desk with shelves and a little antique window. Coincidentally, there is no internet in that closet, so when I’m in there, I actually get work done. Or just try to connect to the internet unsuccessfully for hours.
I ended up giving him that wooden necklace of my mother’s even though I’d had to beg her to let me borrow it, even though it wasn’t mine to give away, even though it had a lot of history and even though I loved it, because I am the type of person who will give anything to anyone I feel I could love.
Chloe Caldwell, Legs Get Led Astray
Q: Clothes are everywhere in your writing. You wear other people’s clothes, you give clothes away, people try to dress like each other…why are you drawn to that as a device? What is your current favorite article of clothing?
A: Ha, it’s totally not a literary device. I don’t even know that I do it, it just creeps in. My editor even cut a bunch of shirt references out. A friend pointed this out to me too when she was reading drafts of Women. She was like, “You talk about shirts a lot. What do they represent? The passage of time?” And that’s when I noticed it. I think she was right, they do possibly represent the passage of time but I also think I put a lot of meaning into things others don’t, or I remember unnecessary details. Like I can tell you what pair of underwear and shirt I was wearing when I was doing something five years ago. It’s mental.
I guess I do think of times in my life through clothes. And rooms/beds/objects. The summer I only wore the peacock dress. The year I wore the same leather jacket for 8 months. Etc. It helps me remember things. Years. Age. Cities. Apartments.
I like to wear other people’s clothes as an escape from myself. And as protection.
Also, I just buy shirts all the time. It’s a hobby. Walk around aimlessly; buy a shirt.
Fave pair of clothing right now: My mom bought me a pair of overalls a couple weeks ago for my book tour. They are from the Gap Outlet. The same Gap outlet I used to work at. They are my favorite in theory, because I haven’t worn them yet. But I like what they represent. Fall, book tour, support from my mom.
Q: At one point in Women, the narrator tells us that these are “anecdotes about grief,” something that was decidedly absent in Legs Get Led Astray, how challenging was it to get into that darker space and write?
A: Wasn’t super challenging, actually. I love reading and writing about grief. I am fascinated by it. Joy, too. What mysteries they are–it’s impossible to figure them out but I love trying to. And I think you know this by now–after taking two essay classes with me–I have a big capacity for darkness. I am pretty good at getting in and out of that emotional space. I can read lots of sad shit and write dark shit, but I can bounce out of it pretty easily. I guess I don’t take it on. I can compartmentalize it. And I really wanted to write something about the death and grief of a relationship. How difficult it is to feel something intangible grow, live, and die.
And though I would be lying if I didn’t say sometimes writing my book was upsetting, it was more fun than anything else. If you’re writing about grief, you’re usually at least a little disconnected from it. Cheryl and I were just talking about this—how it’s more difficult to write about joy. Not sure why that is. And this is not to say writing my book or writing about grief is a walk in the park. But maybe it would be more challenging to write a book about a constantly wonderful relationship. Though I do think I’ve written about joy in the past too—especially in Legs Get Led Astray.
Q: What 5 songs have you been listening to while you write?
A: Feel like I have all these opportunities lately to like, look “cool” in my interviews but I just can’t bring myself to lie.
On that note, While I wrote Women I continually listened to these top 5:
“Devon” by Grimes
“Skin” by Grimes
“I Follow Rivers” Lykke Li
“Untitled 3” by Sigur Ros (One of my favorite songs of all time. All time.)
“Pink Rabbits” The National
And some Beach House shit.
Q: You are wonderfully close with your mother, in fact you dedicate the book to her. How involved is she in your writing process?
A: She’s not really involved in it, unless you count her saying, “Don’t write that I said that!”
She never reads what I am working on until it’s published. In the past I sent her things more. When I took Gotham classes in NYC before I was publishing, I’d give her my essays to read.
We’re pretty much in a constant conversation about books we are reading and we pass them back and forth. We are often emailing each other articles about writing and fiction VS. nonfiction, etc. She follows authors pretty closely and frequently emails them after reading their books. Last night we had wine and pizza and talked about essays and memoirs. Sometimes when I do interviews I ask her opinion on my answers. We are both fascinated by writers/the writing lifestyle.
Q: The other woman you dedicate the book to is Maggie Estep, I know the sudden loss of her was hard for you. Tell me about her.
A: I am still working out the fact that Maggie has died. Has Maggie died? I have not come to terms with this yet. I saw her body at the hospital, practically dead, and I saw her being lowered into the ground while it snowed, but I still don’t really comprehend that she died. She has not even been dead for nine months. She does not even have a tombstone here in Hudson yet. She was the first person I have seen lowered into the ground. It was snowing.
The Friday before she died, Maggie and I did a reading together at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck. It was the last reading she ever did. We had a photo taken of us smiling and hugging. It was the the last photo taken of her. That night she dropped me off at my friend’s apartment. In the morning I went to her Saturday community yoga class. Sunday we texted. She asked me if she was a “stupid yoga jerk.” I said no. She said, “God I love you.” I said, “I love you too.” She had a heart attack two days later.
I can’t express how grateful I am to have known her. She was my friend. It has been difficult to go back to the yoga studio where she taught and took classes. I haven’t gone for 6 months. I gained ten pounds. This morning, I went back. It sucked to walk up the stairs and not see her there. But it will always suck, and the least I can do is still go to yoga, and still write, like she would want me to. During her yoga classes, she played “Dancing Barefoot” by Patti Smith. I mean come on! Who wouldn’t fall in love with her?
Maggie did whatever she wanted. She said what she wanted and made the art she wanted. That’s what I want to be like. I am so lucky to have been able to tell her that I loved her. To have her sign my books. To have her read LGLA. To listen to Patti Smith while she aligned my torso in Warrior 1. To read with her and eat Rolos on the way to the bookstore. I almost can’t believe I’ve been that lucky.
This might sound crazy, or you might know exactly what I am talking about.
Chloe Caldwell, Women
Q: What is the bravest thing you have ever done?
A: Published shit I guess, even though it comes with some uncomfortable life living. Forgiven myself for being human. Worked on changing negative behaviors instead of drowning in them. Change is brave, I think.
Q: What is the biggest lie you ever told?
A: In high school my best friend and I ditched school often. We’d either leave early or not go at all. During senior year, we were in pretty deep shit for this, and told if we got caught doing it again, we would get suspended. We did it again. We couldn’t get suspended, we just couldn’t, so let’s just say we told the principle that the reason we weren’t in school was because we had to go get a health procedure (which I won’t name here) for my friend. But it was a lie. It was not one of my finest moments, and it is the biggest lie I’ve ever told.
Q: What is your favorite planet?
A: This is way too meta for me.
Q: If you could have an accent what would it be?
A: Let’s go with French.
Q: What is your favorite phrase?
A: Right now?
Joie de vivre.
It’s in my head a lot lately. I like French phrases. I’d want to have it on my headstone, I’m so hung up on that phrase right now. Maybe I’m pretentious like that? And I just like to remember joy. It also cracks me up because in our early twenties, my friend Skye wanted to get the words “Joyful Girl” tattooed on herself. From the Ani DiFranco song. When asked why, she would say, “To remind me to be a joyful girl.” It also makes me think of the quote from Maggie’s poem “Happy” when she says, “I’m ripped apart by sunshine.”
Q: What is your favorite dessert?
A: Chocolate. (Peanut m&ms, Dove, Almond Hershey bars, Symphony bars)
Cheesecake. Sponge Cake. Strawberry short cake.
Coffee and black raspberry ice cream cones with rainbow sprinkles.
Q: What is the quality most valued in your friends?
Au revoir, mon ami. Peace the hell out.
Chloe Caldwell, Women
More on Maggie:
The night I moved back to the east coast from the west, my best friend Eliza was saying what a huge fan she was of Maggie Estep. She said, “You guys probably have a lot in common.”
Turns out she was right.
Chloe Caldwell’s essay collection, Legs Get Led Astray, can be ordered here
Chloe Caldwell’s novella, Women, can be preordered here.
Chloe Caldwell is the author of the essay collection “Legs Get Led Astray” (Future Tense Books 2012). Her second book, a novella called “Women” (SF/LD Books) will be released October 1st 2014. Chloe’s work has appeared online on Salon.com, The Rumpus, Thought Catalog, The Nervous Breakdown, xoJane and The Fix. Her nonfiction has appeared in print in Men’s Health, Nylon, The Sun, and is anthologized in the books “Goodbye To All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NYC” and “True Tales of Lust and Love” and more. She lives in upstate New York. www.chloecaldwell.com
Angela Giles Patel has had her work appear in The Healing Muse as well as on The Nervous Breakdown and The Manifest-Station. She tweets as @domesticmuse, and when inspired updates her blog, Air Hunger. Angela conquers the world, one day at a time and is unapologetically working hard to make kindness and grace sexy again. She lives in Massachusetts.