Hey there, Jen Pastiloff here. I’m the founder of The Manifest-Station! Welcome to the newest installment- The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. (Thanks to author Elissa Wald for coming up with that name.) I am so excited by the idea of this series, I can hardly stand it. The readership on the site is so high that I figured it was time for something like this. Today’s interview is between two incredible writers: Laura Bogart and Antonia Crane. Enjoy!
Laura Bogart: I first discovered Antonia Crane’s writing on The Rumpus, where she established a regular presence as an interviewer and essayist. Her work is unparalleled in its sensitivity to the power and nuance of language in conveying the richness of human experience—other people’s and her own. She’s unflinching on the page: Her love and her pain appear in equal measure, and often intertwined. Her passion, and, most importantly, her compassion, inspired me in my own writing; as I re-read her essays about survival and grace, I felt as if she was somehow right beside me, whispering encouragements with a sweet and knowing tone.
When I was finally fortunate enough to meet Antonia, and to connect with her as a writer and a friend, I found that she was as generous and as beautiful in person as she is on the page. That generosity and beauty is in full bloom in her new memoir, Spent. Cheryl Strayed, writing as Dear Sugar, once described her first novel as a second heart pulsing in her chest—and there is no doubt that Spent is Antonia’s second heart. It’s dynamic and raw, thrumming with blood and ticking with electricity. Spent follows Antonia from a girlhood defined by curiosity about the world beyond her small town, and into that world beyond: a world of sex and drugs and rock n’ roll—and also friendship, sisterhood, rebellion and, above all, love. No matter where Antonia’s life takes her, the love of her life is her mother, and that love transcends everything, even death. Spent is ultimately the story of that love.
Laura Bogart: One of the things I love the most about your book is the final chapter, which announces, without apology, that your book won’t be ending the way that the other stripper and hooker memoirs that disappoint you always end: “neat, tidy, heteronormative, and buttoned up. They end all Pretty Woman and diamond-ringed and Pottery Barned, with the damaged girl who finally found Mister Perfect.” Since your book deliberately bucks the Disney Princess “redemptive arc” that these books hew to, what would you say the main narrative – and emotional – arc of your book really is? Did you always know what it would be, or did it emerge through the writing process? Once you found it, what choices did you make in your writing to help give it life on the page?
Antonia Crane: When I wrote it, I didn’t consider narrative arc at all. After a lot of feedback, it became clear that I needed to inject one. I did not know what the book would be. It began as fiction but then I abandoned fiction and wrote about the fact that my mom had died after a battle with cancer and this brutalized my heart. I could not get rid of it, so I kept writing about it—especially what happened to her strong body. I also kept writing about sex work as a way to learn how to go on, survive and live and love again without my mom. That was the emotional arc of my book. Separating those two things: her cancer and my survival, was like trying to separate a river. She went septic. So did my narrative. I could not have written another type of ending because this was the ending that I had available to me: One that insisted that I bear the weight of survival without my mom and no one was going to save me from that specific pain. No one was going to carry the weight for me or rehabilitate me and that is no goddamn fairy tale.
LB: You’ve already written such a wealth of material in terms of personal essays, interviews, and your Rumpus column. It seems to me that essays, interviews, and pieces for columns have a sort of natural structure, whereas a great sprawling, tentacled beast like a book doesn’t have that natural structure in place. When approaching a larger work like a memoir, how did you determine the structure? Did you have a few core moments you knew you’d have to write toward? Or did you just let rip and see where the connective tissues were?
AG: “Great sprawling, tentacled beast” is a great, accurate description of what it’s like to sculpt work into any kind of cohesive book. I cut huge parts of my life out of the book in order to be of service to the arc. I didn’t want to derail and distract the reader. For instance, I lived in Bombay, India when I was fifteen as part of an international exchanged program and that’s possibly the singular event that shaped my identity, but it made no sense for the book. Also, many of my love relationships read as anecdotal encounters so I had to nix those. I needed to have a couple of real love stories with a beginning, middle and end, so I kept Ian, Adam and Beata, but the most intense love story was the love between my mom and I. Also, I toyed with time because I needed to let go of absolute accuracy in order to allow the reader to step to the rocks to the next place. Time and memory are murky places and in order to be of maximum service to the emotional truth, I moved some things around.
LB: To me, the real animating force of Spent is the relationships between women. There is romantic, sexual love between women, but also a sense of solidarity between the women who work together in the clubs. And the book is, above all else, a love story between a mother and daughter. The book delves so deeply into your struggles with body acceptance, and yet, in the flashbacks and dream sequences with your mother’s voice on the phone, she’s talking about the foods she’s finding at the farmer’s market, especially the squash. This strikes me as being powerful shorthand for her role as a nurturing, nourishing force in your life. Was this emphasis on the bonds between women deliberate? And if so, how did you work to delineate the different types of relationships between women in the book?
AC: Hearing my mom talk about being a little girl in her family always made me sad. She was much smarter and more accomplished than anyone expected and she seemed to never get the recognition or support she longed for. The men in her family were neglectful and abusive. She was a terrific cook and enjoyed having a girl to celebrate being a girl with. We shopped for makeup together and I made her laugh with my ridiculous dances. In some ways, I think the book celebrates being a woman and at the same time, echoes the same struggles my mom had finding peace in her body, family and life.
LB: The scene that resonates the most with me as I read and re-read Spent is the scene when you and your stepfather honor your terminally ill mother’s wishes for a death at home by performing euthanasia. How did you prepare to write that scene emotionally? Were you at all worried about any legal repercussions, and if so, what kind of research/investigating did you do before crafting scene?
AC: No, I didn’t prepare emotionally at all. I can’t imagine how that would be. I cried in public and wrote it out to the end. I was messy. I had to find a way to write about her death but it became also about mercy and tenderness and rage. Death is final and quiet but it’s also about what and whom we are left with and the impossible necessity of moving on. I handed in my final draft to my publisher, Barnacle Books, and asked about the legal issues. My publisher’s attorney was not concerned but it did not sit right with me so I met with an attorney who happens to be a personal friend. We discussed things like first-degree murder and the worst-case scenarios. He asked me some hard questions about who was in the room, who was in the building and were the drugs procured or administered? We discussed the legal risks and I rewrote my prologue with that in mind.
LB: The other thing that really strikes me about that scene is that it’s rendered very matter-of-factly; I think a lot of other memoirists might have been tempted to overly sensationalize that scene, and, indeed, to make it the “hook” of their memoir. Can you talk about the decision to position that scene where you did, and to treat it so directly?
AC: Death is universal so everyone can identify with it, but it’s also deeply profound and personal. It was absolutely necessary to write that scene where it fell and how it was. The only way I can describe how I wrote it is by knowing I did not write it alone. I had many teachers. Steve Almond frequently urged me to scrape the glittery metaphors from my sentences and to “tell it straight.” In one of her lectures, Cheryl Strayed said, “Be more than a little bit brave.” So I had to skin myself alive and show the death how it happened and how that was to be in the room and see her transition to death. Anna March has a post-it on her computer that reads: “Does it hurt yet?” I think of that post-it when I write a scene that seems impossible to write. If it doesn’t hurt yet, I dig until it hurts more.
LB: What advice would you have for someone who’d just decided to start writing about her life’s experiences? What counsel do you have for someone who wants to be honest and fair about their experiences, even when that may mean writing something less-than-flattering about someone close to them? How can people protect themselves emotionally while mining difficult territory?
AC: I don’t believe in protecting myself emotionally at all. The writing I love the most is not self-protective at all, but completely naked and full of heart. When writing memoir, someone is always going to get hurt or insulted and no one is going to be flattered, especially not the narrator. The funny thing is, it’s never the ones you think will be angry at all, but the ones you were not writing about in the first place. I would advise to not change any part of your story because of someone else’s comfort level or opinion. Just write.
LB: I’ve already read Spent twice and I want more! What is next on the horizon for you? Will you be releasing another memoir any time soon?
AC: I have started new work and I have no idea where it’s going. After 25 years, I’m writing about living in India as a teenager and how it was to be an outcast surrounded by lepers.
Laura Bogart is a Baltimore-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Prick of the Spindle and Spectre (among others). She’s currently at work on a novel tentatively titled Your Name is No.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, and more. Jen leads her signature writing/yoga Retreats & Workshops all over the world. The next retreat is to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Seattle, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Miami, Tucson & The Berkshires (guest speaker Canyon Ranch.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.