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Grief, Guest Posts, The Converse-Station

The Converse-Station: Megan Devine Interviews Author Jessica Handler

September 24, 2015

Welcome to The Converse-Station: A dialogue between writers. With the site getting so much traffic (my Facebook page is reaching over 18 million people) 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. Enjoy. xo Jen Pastiloff

By Megan Devine

Jessica Handler and I have been following each other around. We belong to secret societies of writers together, and we quote each other to our respective students, me in my Writing Your Grief courses, and Jessica in her Writing the Tough Stuff workshops. Her book, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss, helps writers make the often-arduous shift from writing personal things to writing personal things that resonate with the larger world story. So it only made sense when the editors of The Manifest-Station asked whom I might interview for the Converse-Station: Jessica was my first and only choice. We share a fierce love not only for well-told stories of love and loss, but for the evolution of craft we see in our students. What follows is an excerpt of a much longer – and more heavily laden with expletives – video discussion we had earlier this year on what it takes to teach, and to write, with both skill and sensitivity.


Jessica Handler:  So you and I have been online friends now for a year probably.

Megan Devine:    I think so.

JH:                        Yeah. This is cool. Well, you are who I thought you would be. You look like who I thought you would be. You sound like the person I imagined.

MD:                     I think that’s good.

JH:                       Yeah, it is good. It’s nice when someone you’ve been reading turns out to be exactly who you think they are. So what are we doing together today?

MD:                     We’re talking about writing. Specifically, we’re talking about the practice and process of writing about grief and loss.

JH:                       Well cool, I’m a big fan of The Manifest-Station. I know about it because I’m a fan of Emily Rapp, and I think Emily has been involved a fair amount. That’s how I got introduced to TMS, and I follow it, so this is fabulous.

MD:                     Yeah, it’s pretty fantastic.

JH:                       And this interview is giving me a break from grading papers, so God bless you for calling.

MD:                     This is my break from reading, too. I just opened a new writing session, and it’s only day two, so this is my break from reading all of the new students. I take the first several days just to hear their voices, get to know their stories.

JH:                       You’re talking about your Writing Your Grief course, right? Man, I remember being part of that. It was amazing to watch, during the session I was in, to read all of their words. And you, you just hold this space for all of them. And that’s something that we should talk about in terms of teaching the material we teach. People have asked me about how we handle all that pain, when one teaches writing about grief or trauma, which we both do. I mean, we’re not doing counseling sessions here. How do you take care of yourself in the face of all that pain? We ask our students to write about places that hurt. How do we make that separation from drowning in other people’s very legitimate issues when we can’t live this way all the time – we can’t just keep our eyes on that pain constantly.

MD:                     Yeah. It’s a really tricky balance. I can’t spend 5 and 6 hours inside my students’ words the way I used to. I have to do it in smaller chunks.

JH:                       As teachers, and also as witness to other peoples’ pain through their writing, how do we parcel this out, break things into chunks? I work really hard to do that. I also make sure that students know that I’m not a therapist. It’s like – I understand how you feel, believe me, but I’m not here to be your therapist and to have you rant and rave about that time that you or so and so did that thing. We’re in an interesting quandary with this, I think. We want to allow students their own truth, and give them space for their voice, but I can’t let a writing course become group therapy. It can’t be a place where they just vent and process. I don’t know about you. I just make that distinction very, very clear in every class. How do you do this?

MD:                     It’s a little bit different for me, because I am a therapist. But when I’m teaching writing, I’m not primarily in there as a therapist, and the writing courses aren’t therapy. One of the things you and I do, in our respective courses and workshops, is make these really safe spaces. We make these containers to hold so much pain, so much grief, so much story. Even without it becoming group therapy, how do you care for yourself in that? How do you care for yourself, being the one who maintains the container for others?

I moved to a new state last year, and I’m meeting all these new people. These new people ask me what I do, and I tell them I write, teach, and counsel on out of order death – accidents and illnesses that shouldn’t happen. Their faces fall. They stammer for a moment, and then invariably say things like, “I couldn’t do that. How do you listen to that all day long?” That’s a legitimate question. What do you do as a holder of space?

JH:                       I’ve asked my therapist this too, about her job, and her life, when you listen to people all day long, some of whom make you crazy and some of whom really resonate with you – how do you go home and not take it out on your partner, your dog, your cat, yourself? Honestly, I forgot what she told me. I don’t know. How do I do it? I make very sure in workshop that people understand that we’re here to talk about the craft of writing: to work with the sentences, the metaphors. I have to repeat that a lot, depending on the people in the workshop. Sometimes I find that the thing that really hits the hardest is when we do a free write, or we do something where they dig really deep. They come up from that writing and they’re a little shaken. That’s fine. That’s what I want. If people cry or if they go oh my God I didn’t realize that this was about that, that’s good. I use time for people to step out, to take breaks once they’ve found something deep. I’ve found that everybody who’s in these writing workshops is very helpful and comforting to each other, but they respect the limits of the space.

In most cases people come to me wanting to write, but I have had some people who seem to come to me needing an ear. And you and I have some different roles, but that’s not what I’m really there for. It’s not a place for processing grief itself. I’ve been in one situation where I’ve asked someone to leave. In a polite way I had to say, “I don’t think you’re ready for this right now.” Just because we’re writing about grief doesn’t mean this is the place for all of your grief. We’re talking about writing. I teach writing.

I think if I keep pushing that, and making those parameters really clear, that helps me and it helps them. Particularly if I’ve got ten people and nine of them want to write, but one just needs to cry or process. They are very appreciative of my holding that space, keeping it well-boundaried and focused on the craft. It helps me too because… well, just recently I was reading again from Invisible Sisters. I’ve gotten used to reading from it, but because my mom just died a year and a half ago, the section where I talk about what would happen when my parents age suddenly became newly difficult. Here my mother is gone, she’s already aged, and died. That passage in Invisible Sisters became hard to read. My work still affects me. So to do it, to read it without falling into my own actual sadness, I create a hologram of myself in my head. Does that make sense?

MD:                     Absolutely.

JH:                       It’s the person, it’s a performative me as opposed to the me, me.

MD:                     Yeah, there’s a hybrid there where what you’re speaking is true and it’s your truth. You view it from a practiced distance so you can use your voice. In a sense, you have to step out of the story so you can tell the story. Continue Reading…

The Converse-Station, writing

The Converse-Station: Gayle Brandeis Interviews Alma Luz Villanueva.

June 2, 2014

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 of my friends, two women I look up to tremendously. Both have appeared on the site already. Gayle Brandeis (her two pieces on the site went viral) and Alma Luz Villanueva. Both of these women are fierce. THis is an honor. Smooches, Jen.

“A Continuous Dream”: An Interview with Alma Luz Villanueva by Gayle Brandeis.

Alma Luz Villanueva is a visionary. She dreams her own world into being, as both a writer and a woman, and empowers others to pay deep attention to their own dreams.

I’ve known Alma for 15 years–she was my mentor in the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, where we are now colleagues and, more importantly, friends. When I was her student, Alma would have me write questions for my characters and put them under my pillow, sure I’d have more clarity in the morning (she was right!); unlike many writing professors, she encourages her students to write our characters’ dreams, a practice which often breaks our stories wide open. I love how dreams have guided the most profound decisions in her life, including her move to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico several years ago. A few months ago, she dreamed of me in a white gown and said she knew it signaled a powerful transformation. I ended up needing major surgery not long afterwards; I told her later that I thought of her dream often while I was in the hospital–I was worried it meant I was going to die, and I kept telling myself to be open to whatever transformation might be waiting for me, even if it was the greatest one. Alma told me that she had sensed I would be close to that edge, but she didn’t want to interpret the dream for me–she just wanted to give it to me whole, to let it reveal its own truth. That is the great beauty of Alma as a teacher–she opens important doors within her students and gives them the courage and freedom to explore what’s on the other side. This woman is brimming with, glowing with, hard-won wisdom.

I have the great pleasure of seeing Alma every June and December at the Antioch MFA residencies, and always look forward to the shamanic rattle she brings to the faculty meetings, her eye-opening, heart-opening seminars, and our traditional Thursday night dinners together, full of the most nourishing conversation. This June, we’re planning on pina coladas, and maybe dancing, to celebrate dreams and transformation and friendship.

Alma has been a literary force for decades. She began publishing poetry in the late 1970s, when she won the University of California at Irvine’s Chicano Literary Prize. She has since released eight books of poetry, including Planet, which won the Latin American Writers Poetry Prize, and the forthcoming Gracias. Her four novels include The Ultraviolet Sky, which won an American Book Award and is listed in 500 Great Books by Women, and Naked Ladies, which received the PEN Oakland Fiction Award. Her latest novel, Song of the Golden Scorpion, was published by Wings Press October, 2013.

Song of the Golden Scorpion tells the story of Xochiquetzal, a 58 year old woman whose dreams lead her to San Miguel de Allende, and her passionate connection with Javier, a 34 year old doctor. Their 12 year affair is deeply erotic but also reaches beyond the body, and the book is ultimately a story of healing on both a personal and cultural level.

I asked Alma a few questions about the novel over email.


GB: You mentioned to me that male reviewers have issues with Xochiquetzal’s sexuality. Could you speak about this a bit? Was your decision to write about a 58 year old woman’s sexuality a political one in any way? Also, I know that sometimes you require your students to write about sex. Could you talk about why you feel exploring a character’s sexuality is important for a writer?

ALV: In a sense it was ‘political,’ as in it’s normal for a 58 year old man to be with a 34 year old woman- 24 year difference, as it was with Javier and Xochiquetzal. I recently read an interview with Joan Collins who’s 80 years old…her husband is 48, so a 32 year difference. She was asked the secret of her marriage and she responded, “Sex, sex, sex.” Then about the age difference, “Well, if he dies, he dies.” I laughed so hard, that spirit. And so, although there was a ‘political’ slant to these lovers, it ultimately was simply human. To be human is to be sexual/sensual/alive…I encourage my students to explore their character’s full humanity (as you know haha). And so, I think men, as in all cultures, still don’t want women to claim their full humanity/sexuality- yet they want us to continue to have babies, replenish the next generation. I say, GROW UP. And I say this as a mother of three grown sons, all feminist men. Male writers are expected and encouraged to express, write within their full humanity, their sexuality. Think of Junot Diaz, for example, and he’s a Latino who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel, ‘THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO.’  A woman, and a Latina woman, would not be celebrated for her full humanity, her sexuality with no censors, on the page. But this is true for all women, no matter their ethnic/cultural group- that ‘mother/whore’ curse we must continue to challenge as whole human beings. We became mothers from our own desires, hungers, ecstasy. And if we choose not to be mothers, our desires, hungers, ecstasy remain intact. Our own.

GB: Because I’ve known you for so long, I recognize parts of your own story, your own life, within this novel. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about autobiographical fiction. How does fiction and life flow together for you? Did you set out to braid your own story into this novel, or did it slip in unexpectedly?

ALV: Fiction as life is a continuous dream, with a lot of work involved (haha), as well as much pleasure/joy. This novel isn’t ‘autobiographical fiction,’ as my characters, as in ALL of them and there are many, took over. I didn’t consciously choose to include some of my experiences in Bali, for example, but at the moment of la fictive dream, my dream and Xochiquetzal’s dream merged, and I liked it. So did she, so it stayed. The characters have to agree or forget it. I know many novelists include their own experiences, so I’m certainly not the first, or the last. I think of two of my favorite novelists I loved before I ever wrote- Colette and Herman Hesse, who wove in their own life experiences with their characters. And so, I have never been an Israeli Commando, Ari…or a Mexican drug lord, Pompeii…or a Japanese woman roaming the world planting peace crystals to honor Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Ai… or a Hopi-Taos flute playing man, Hank, and more. All characters in this novel, whom I had to dream with to know who they truly are.

GB: You weave a lot of poetry into the novel–Neruda, Rumi, your own/Xociquetzal’s–and the prose itself is deeply informed by poetic conventions: repetition, rhythm, etc. I know you also have a new book of poetry, Gracias, which you’ve called the novel’s twin, about to be released. How does the process of writing poetry differ for you from writing fiction, and how do the two crafts feed one another?

ALV: I was brought up by my full blood Yaqui grandmother Jesus Villanueva, who came to the USA from Sonora, Mexico, in her early 30s. She never spoke English so I was her translator at clinics, welfare offices, banks etc- she taught me ‘dreaming’ from the time I could speak. And then she taught me poetry, told me wonderful/terrible stories. As a writer, I was a poet first (I’ve published eight books of poetry), although I always loved to tell stories…I think of the traveling Native story tellers, perhaps in a past life with beautiful tattoos. Their tattoos symbolizing dreams, stories. I have some but probably not as many as I should to keep up with my dreams, stories. And so, I always begin with the Dream…I’ve kept Dream Journals for over forty years and return to them often to re-member. The gift. The map. The Dream guides my life first, then I’m led to poetry, and poetry finally guides me to stories, the written version, fiction. The fictive dream. Poetry is my mother tongue, and although I write in English mostly, it’s always sung/echoed in Spanish, my grandmother’s chanting Yaqui language. Her morning prayer/poetry to the Child Sun, her rattle…the first sound I heard when I woke up. Then we shared our dreams over hot chocolate, pan dulce.

GB: Your book is full of scrumptious sounding food, which helps amplify the earthy sensuality of the novel (I love the mango “surgery”, and all of the other delicious feasts that Xochiquetzal and Javier share.) Could you talk a bit about writing about food? Also, I remember reading a review of The Ultraviolet Sky that said something like “What’s with all the omelets?”, and there are quite a few omelets in this novel, as well. As an omelet fan, myself, I have to ask–are omelets a specialty of yours, and what’s your favorite kind?

ALV: As with sex/sensuality, the pleasure, and necessity, of food are to me hand in hand, mouth to mouth. They naturally come together when I write those moments- sense-uality. One of my favorite omelets is the ‘chorizo omelet’: Saute some chorizo, to taste, in a pan a few minutes, add red bell pepper, onion, garlic, simmer a bit more, covered. Then I add two eggs for one human, 4 eggs for two… break the eggs in a bowl, add some milk/almond milk, sprinkle basil, beat, and pour on top of chorizo/vege mix. Then add slices of Oaxaca cheese, my fave, or any cheese you like…over that some spinach, chili flakes, a bit more basil, and simmer until omelet is done with lid on. Keep lifting the omelet to see if it’s browned/cooked, and cheese melted, spinach cooked, YUMMY. I top it with fresh mango salsa, or store bought is fine. A glass of chilled chardonay, or champagne- at the end cafe con Kahlua, cinnamon on top. Here in Mexico, before you eat, you’re blessed with ‘BUEN PROVECHO!’ When I first moved here, total strangers would pause, lean in and yell this, making me jump. Now I wait for the blessing.

GB: Your book is also deeply spiritual, exploring Buddhism, Hopi ritual, Mayan mythology, the creation of the Energy Child, etc. It’s rare for novelists to tackle matters of the spirit the way that you do–are there any novelists you’ve been inspired by who explore spirituality?

Any words of advice for writers who wish to bring matters of the spirit into their own work?

ALV: I love Herman Hesse for his spiritual quests within his novels- I think of ‘SIDDHARTHA,’ but all of his novels include the spirit quest. Again, I read him before I wrote any fiction and he gave me ‘permission’ to think/write with spirit in mind (I fully realize now). Alice Walker’s fiction has that hallmark of spiritual writing- her ‘THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR’ a spirit journey to the very beginning, stirrings of humankind on our planet. Louise Erdrich’s ‘THE PAINTED DRUM,’ a spirit journey of ancestors, dreams, within Ojibwe, Native reality. I always return to the truth of Spirit- that all true spiritual paths/journeys are one journey. Which is what ‘SONG OF THE GOLDEN SCORPION’ brought me to, this truth. “We wed ourselves to the Mystery, not to conquer it or be conquered by it, but to greet it.” Inuit wisdom  If we, as poets/writers, approach spirituality in this Spirit, we’re always welcomed home.

GB: In the novel, you write “The tendency of her spirit wasn’t strange here, it was daily life. It wasn’t ‘magical realism’ (she hated that literary gringo term, as though the reality of millions was simply a fairy tale, a ‘myth’); no, it was just the reality, the human spirit. Unedited.”  Do you feel that your work is often fighting against gringo literary convention? Could you talk about what it means to you to write as a woman of color?

ALV: The first time I heard the term pathetic fallacy in regards to one of my poems in my MFA workshop (years ago), I almost punched someone. ‘Pathetic fallacy’ to whom…if you’re raised within a culture, a way of being, that honors the Dream, the spirit alive in all living things, even stone, water, stars, the center of our Earth, and that they speak to us (even if we can’t hear, cease to hear); the so-called Western Canon does NOT speak for those who can still hear this on-going song, music, poetry, voice of wild wisdom that surrounds us daily, nightly. Blessing our lives and our dreams. As a woman of color, I can only write from my own truth, voice, vision, while listening to the voice of wild wisdom as deeply as I possibly can.

GB: I know dreams play a vital role in your life and in your fiction. Could you talk about how dreams inform your process as a writer, and how they influenced this novel in particular?

ALV: Since I’ve already answered this in previous questions…and I love your deep questions, Gayle. From the beginning dreams (literally) hauled me into the fictive dream of this novel, as I was trying NOT to start/write this novel. I was dreading the long journey of the novel, that long pregnancy to ‘the end.’ Javier and Xochiquetzal came together in a dream…a ‘wide screen’ dream, taking up all the space…and they just stared at me, into me, through me. No words, but their eyes fiercely, yet lovingly, said, “Surrender,” and I did. Surrender. Wrote the first scene, which I tried to place further on in the novel numerous times…a very erotic scene, their first time together sexually. Every time I did this, they refused to appear within the fictive dream, the novel, and I could hear them laughing, very loudly. The scene remained the opening scene, and we…all of my characters…continued on to the end, six years later. Scene by scene. Dream by dream. I got ‘lost’ a few times in the 454 pages- not ‘logically’ as I could refer to my notebooks, but emotionally/spiritually. I simply couldn’t find IT, how to continue. Then one of my characters would appear in a dream. This happened most crucially toward page 300, and Javier appeared on the ‘wide screen’ of my dream, those eyes, and said, “I don’t need a map, only blood.” I continued to the end. Something released. That surrender.

GB: Xochiquetzal tells a story about a Balinese healer she met who keeps an eagle chained. When Xochiquetzal asked the woman why she didn’t set the eagle free, the woman asked “What is freedom, Madam?” (an encounter that I know you experienced in Bali, yourself.) In one scene, many of the characters answer that question for themselves, so now I must ask you: what do *you* think is freedom, Madam?

ALV: That healer’s question lives in my DNA, my dreams, and sometimes my answer is, “To see a hummingbird in flight….To see an eagle spiraling toward the sun…To hold my great-grandchild for the first time, that sweet human weight…To dive into my sacred glacier lake in the Sierras…To sleep on the Mother Rock there, no fear…To wake up to the stars singing so loudly and the lake singing in harmony…To see endless branches dripping with dreaming monarchs…To hear the young boys sing monarch songs as they laugh with such joy, here in Mexico…To see the vulnerable wonder in their parents’ eyes as they offer me food, these caretakers of the miracle of monarchs, these trees…To witness Madre Mar, her great heaving dance… To hear the laughter of my grown children and grandchildren…To dream the ancestors…To dance just cause I feel like it and as weirdly as I wish to…To cook wonderful food and share it, and to be fed juicy mangos…” And I see all of this is rooted in love/loving…”What is freedom, madam?” To exist within the rainbow, the spectrum, always changing…storm, sun, rain, snow, tears, laughter, pain, joy…always love. Listen.





Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young people, My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award. Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and lives in Riverside, CA, where she is mom to two adult kids and a toddler, and is winding up her two year appointment as Inlandia Literary Laureate. Connect with Gayle here.


Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up:  Los Angeles, SeattleLondon, Atlanta, South Dakota, Dallas. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff. Join a retreat by emailing


Q & A Series, The Converse-Station

The Converse-Station: Alice Anderson interviews Maggie May Ethridge.

May 28, 2014

Hey there, Jen Pastiloff here. Welcome to the newest installment on The Manifest-Station. 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 of my buddies, Alice Anderson and Maggie May Ethridge, and I couldn’t be more excited. I am a hardcore fan of both of these women and I think you will be too, after you read this. Magggie’s book came out today. You can buy it here. I hope you do. Smooches, Jen.

Alice Anderson

Alice Anderson

Maggie May Ethridge

Maggie May Ethridge

One Wild and Precious Marriage. An interview conducted by Alice Anderson.

I’ve been a fan of Maggie May Etheridge since the late-90’s, when I first became aware of her as a blogger with a knack for elevating the ordinary moments of life to a higher realm. I’m dating myself, but I don’t mind telling you that “Flux Capacitor” held an unwavering spot in my Myspace top ten. And I’m not alone in my admiration: a frequent comment on Etheridge’s blog is, “If you ever publish a book, I will be first in line.” Well, queue up y’all, the day has arrived! Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes from a marriage, a memoir of true love and life’s unexpected bumps in the road, is released today (by Shebooks, a curated collection of quality e-books written by women, for women.)

Atmospheric Disturbances is essentially a love story, with all the requisite complications and disasters. When Maggie and Mr. Curry (as she calls her husband throughout the memoir) meet, it is one of those universal pivotal moments when we first meet the eyes of someone we might love. Not the clichéd movie moment of love at first sight, but rather the soul-deep recognition of someone who’ll become part of you, who somehow already knows you. It’s that precipice, that moment before the moment electricity that carries Etheridge and Mr. Curry through the years of marriage and blending children and having two more and making a life. And then an unwelcome guest arrives at the table: mental illness. When Mr. Curry is diagnosed with bipolar, Etheridge asks: Am I welcome at the marriage table when my husband is lost to bipolar and my wedding band is being twisted in anxiety underneath the cloth? Less about the diagnoses of bipolar than the way we survive the rough times, Atmospheric Disturbances is about scaling the precipice, and somehow falling not into darkness, but into light.

Alice Anderson: There are two layers of “history” that feel like myth in this story. There is the history of childhood, in which you paint yourself as a solitary, lonely soul. And there is the history of the beginning of your relationship with Mr. Curry. Both have a kind of mythology – the way our histories can come to be a metaphor for our lives – and the “moral of the story” of the history with Mr. Curry seems to be the answer to the mystery to the childhood struggles. The cure, as it were. When he was diagnosed, did his illness feel like a slap in the face to the healing his presence in your life had so clearly provided? 

Maggie May Etheridge: Absolutely it did. The slap in the face that I render Mr. Curry in the memoir was a direct reflection of the internal experience I was having a shocking pain, unexpected and heartbreaking. Our marriage before he became sick was so life affirming, so healthy, and so beautiful that I had felt I was over one part of my life – the part where I felt alone in the world, cut off from kindred spirits – and on to the other, and I expected that whatever challenges came our way (which they did! poverty, disease, yes we have done both) we would meet them together, with this relationship as our backbone. When Mr. Curry became ill I was left alone to deal with it, because the person I know retreats when he is sick. Sometimes when he is really ill, I imagine his brain, inflamed and irritable, swollen up around the real person he is, trapping him. Bipolar is an absolutely ugly, brutal disease and the way it can destroy a person’s life breaks my heart over and over. Witnessing other people with this disease who do not have family support is tragic; they become completely lost. Bipolar is like cancer in that there are many treatments but no one can tell you if they will work or if they do, how long they will keep the thing at bay.

Alice Anderson: You mention your gratitude that he allows you to talk about his diagnoses at all. Can you talk about how Mr. Curry came to agree to you writing this material? I love the line about him wanting to allow you to do what you do, which is to tell the truth. But you seem to have left out the specific details of those difficult waves in his bipolar – was this intentional? Did you have to draw a line in the sand in what you would not talk about regarding the waves of his bipolar phases? 

Maggie May Etheridge: I absolutely drew a line in the sand and left out most of what happens. When I was writing this, I was drawn toward expressing with the words, the sentences, the emotions of feeling estranged from your lover, of feeling abandoned, hurt, confused, guilty – drawing up those emotions around a few sketched details vs. a diary where I write out many specific experiences and then clearly state how I felt, how he felt.

Originally when I began writing about this, it was online on my blog Flux Capacitor. I had asked in 2009 if I could write about it and he said no. I respected that. Over time, he approached me and changed his mind. I think this was because we could not afford a therapist for myself, and he was very ill, and I needed something and he gave it to me. I wrote about this on my blog and the relief was immense. Not only was I able to express myself, I was able to connect with other people who were, for one reason or another, struggling in their marriages. And I found that even people with more solid and healthy marriages would come forward and say they loved the writing, because even the best of marriages have the darkest of nights.

Alice Anderson: One thing I felt most when reading this is that it is a love story. Do you agree? In what way did you (if you did) want the love to overshadow the trouble in the piece? 

Maggie May Etheridge: I had no intentions when I wrote this except for to stay true to my inner voice, my experience of the world, and to leave out or later erase things that felt wrong, cruel to my husband or my family. I deeply love my husband. We were best friends for years before we married – both of us had children in other relationships, children that have known each other since they were born. We met as teenagers and he was in love with me a long time before I realized I was in love with him. Falling romantically in love with someone you already have a deep trust and friendship with is thrilling in all ways – not only are you incredibly passionate and excited, like all new love, you also have the deeply satisfying knowledge of their personhood. This is why, when my husband became sick, it was such a shock. I knew him, and then it seemed overnight, I did not.

Alice Anderson: You talk about the way we view love and marriage in our culture as something that is supposed to be painless, over the rainbow lovely. You manage, in your writing, to infuse even the most difficult parts of the story with a visceral love that feels real and true and fierce. I’ve found that sometimes “trouble” can bond me to a lover. Do you feel the trouble (meaning the rough times, the bipolar phases, the struggle) in your marriage has increased the passion? The loyalty? 

Maggie May Etheridge: No, I really do not. I think the passion and loyalty that comes though in this memoir was built before he was very ill, and in the times when he has not been. The person that is truly beautiful. He is loyal, intelligent, funny, charming, gentle – so gentle – open minded, the hardest worker you will ever meet and aware of the brevity and beauty of life. The love I have for him is from this man, this person. This is so powerful that it carries me during the long stretches when he is ill – because I do not believe that love is just an emotion. I deeply believe that real love is a commitment to support and cherish a person regardless of your emotions. This does not mean I don’t believe in divorce, but I believe how you divorce – your side, nothing else – is also an extension of that original love and commitment.

What the trouble in our marriage has done, the pain, is to make me deeply question and investigate what it means to be a person. What does it mean to love someone? What is the line between loyalty and self-flagellation or martyrdom? If a person has a brain disease, and all markers of that person disappear and leave behind new markers, is this the same person? How do you take care of yourself while taking care of someone who is attacking you without knowing what they are really doing? What is the meaning of commitment, of honor? What do I want my children to see and learn?

The pain has also caused a great deal of guilt in my part. The guilt at times has been the worst part of the entire disease for me. Guilt that I cannot fix him, no matter how many vitamins or supportive words. Guilt that I feel so furious and hateful toward him when he is sick. Guilt that sometimes I have to choose between taking care of the kids and him, and I always choose the kids. Guilt that I want so much for myself.

Alice Anderson: How did you choose the title, Atmospheric Disturbances, Scenes from a marriage?

Maggie May Etheridge: I am devoted to titles. I love, love a great title and have my own ideas of what a great title is. When this phrasing rung in my head, I just fell in love with the words. It perfectly fits the memoir, which are literally scenes from our marriage.

Alice Anderson: The last line in the piece, “And wait for him” is incredibly sad, the reader feels your isolation and pain. In any way do you feel like you’re losing your sense of self when you’re in that prolonged time of waiting? Have you found a way to weather those phases with less pain over the years? What do you do to hold your sense of self steady? 

Maggie May Etheridge: I feel a loss of self, yes, primarily I think because we have four children and they are the focus of my life. When he is ill, and I am parenting, there is very, very little left for self-expression of any kind. This can be absolutely brutal. Holding my sense of self steady comes from two places- connecting through books, writing, poetry, friends and learning, and living up to my own moral obligations. When I am working hard, engaged emotionally with my kids, meeting my responsibilities, moving toward patience, kindness, humility, devotion – then I feel strong and connected to every human being who has come before me who has done something very difficult or painful and remained true to their ideals. What gets me through the worst of life is when I can look back and feel satisfied that I can be proud of myself, that I did my best, that I loved well. In the end, when you lie down in bed at night, this is the comfort. Because we cannot control anything else, and sometimes we cannot even control ourselves. So if most of the time, we are doing the best we can, loving well, then we can be satisfied we are making a good life and that the people we love know and feel loved.

Alice Anderson: Speaking of love, I love the various locations in the book – they’re all sort of quintessentially California. The parks and basement clubs and convenience stores and burrito joints and even Mr. Curry’s truck traversing the edge of the Pacific. I found myself “seeing” the story as I read it, with the sort of a burnished SoCal light cast on average places. You elevate the basement club and the average neighborhood park with your language, the way a sunset elevates an otherwise simple cloudy sky. If you were to have a book party, which of these locations would be closest to your heart, the perfect location to celebrate the messy, lovely, wild love that unfurls across the pages of this book?

Maggie May Etheridge: A Cali. bookstore on the beach, where we’d all drink coffee and then disperse outside for a walk. I love California, I love San Diego. I am originally from Jackson, Miss. and the two places have meshed together in my person. I am deeply aware of my Southern roots and spent a lot of time in Miss. growing up, visiting my grandparents back there, including my 4th grade year – we lived there and I went to school. I absolutely love Southern writers. They speak closest to my experience of the world, slightly surreal, odd, infused with magic, terror, love. When I write scenes of suburban life, I often feel echoes of the impression that John Irving’s The World According To Garp suburbia left on me, that heightened sense of place.

Alice Anderson: In the scene where you break the window, Mr. Curry seems like the stable one in the relationship, coming to the rescue. There is an old Southern saying that any marriage can last forever as long as only one person is crazy at a time. Agree? When Mr. Curry is in a bipolar episode do you feel required to “buck up” and be the strong one? It seems he picks up the slack of this when he’s doing well. You speak of “not keeping score” but do you feel that it all evens out? How is does the burden of mental illness affect the balance of a marriage?

Maggie May Etheridge: I absolutely have to buck up when he is ill. We have children that need stability and love and when he is ill, they need it more than ever. When he is well, he absolutely picks up the slack. In some ways, he’s more even-keeled that I am when he is well! His nature is gentle, kind, patient.  But no, the balance does not even out. This disease has ravaged more years of our marriage than it has left untouched. Not everyone experiences it this way – some people are more responsive to medication than Mr. Curry has been. We have tried many different medications, therapies – at one point I researched and found ‘the’ premiere bipolar expert here in San Diego, a professor and writer and lecturer who only sees a small amount of clients for $500 a pop, and we scraped the money out of our sad account and he saw this man. Nothing has ‘worked’. The longest reprieve has been a year and half. Right now, he is doing gluten free, and that has made him healthier, maybe more clear headed, but not ‘well’.

Alice Anderson: I noticed you quoted Mary Oliver’s “one wild and precious life” in one scene – your voice is very poetic throughout. The language is taught and plain, yet elevated and opaque, much the way Oliver’s language is in her poems. You seem to be taking Oliver’s poetic advice, which is to “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Why was it important to you to tell this story?

Maggie May Etheridge: I think Oliver’s poetic advice is the intention behind my writing. As I mentioned before, I originally started writing about our marriage with the intention of just letting some of the pressure out, which is what writing does for me (usually. sometimes my novel makes me insane with pressurized words that won’t inflate correctly.)

Alice Anderson: You talk in this book about the way Bipolar is an invisible illness, how people can’t see it, don’t rally to help the way they would something more visible and concrete. I think this is a universal feeling for those who have an invisible illness and it’s worse for one for which there is no cure, because people grow weary and feel that after a given time, the person should “be better” or “cured,” even if there is no cure. Did you feel compelled to bring this into the light? Do you have a sense of advocacy on behalf of families who suffer with the way bipolar can wreak havoc?

Maggie May Etheridge: I see myself as an advocate for mental illness awareness in general. I have anxiety and have suffered with various forms of this my whole life, and mental illness of all kinds runs rampant in my family history. With bipolar specifically, I think of an acquaintance who once told me that I should not separate Mr. Curry from bipolar the illness, that essentially I was fooling myself, and yes it is a disease, but it’s who he is, also. I sat on that for some time, rolling it around in the muck of my experience and reading. It’s not true. And really, it’s the essential devastation and greatest point of pain for people who have this disease: the true person they are is not recognized, they are seen as their illness. Can you imagine people saying, “Hi, I’m Amy and I am cancer.” the way they would say, “Hi this is Amy and she is bipolar’”? No. Bipolar is an actual disease of the brain that can be seen on MRI’s. I have lived with my husband for over a year where he was not ill, and he was a whole and complete person with no signs of the behaviors that arise when he is ill. He may get lost in the disease, but I will never see him as an illness, and I consider it my cherished duty to always retain awareness of him as the person he is when not ill, to honor that person who I have promised to love. I think of this when he is ill: if he was trapped in isolation in prison, faultily accused and deemed guilty, would I leave him alone? Or would I slip notes in the door, say prayers, smooth his hair when he slipped by me in the hallway? Love is not powerful unless you infuse it with a sense of purpose, even if that purpose is simply to hold on to the truth, no matter who else forgets.

Alice Anderson: Thank you for talking with me about Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes from a marriage. If you had to sell this book with only one word, what would that one word be?

Maggie May Etheridge: Marriage.

Alice Anderson: If I had to sell it with just one word, I’d choose: beauty.

Click book to purchase.

Click book to purchase.


Maggie May Ethridge is a writer, poet, and novelist close to completing her second novel, Agitate My Heart. Her work can be found in various online and print publications including Diagram, Role/Reboot, the Nervous Breakdown, and the Huffington Post. Originally from Mississippi, she resides in San Diego with her husband and four children. She blogs regularly at Flux Capacitor and can be found on Twitter @FluxCapacitor74 and Facebook. Her essay “What Do Wives Do?” was included in the Equals anthology 2013.

Alice Anderson is a poet and writer whose poetry collection, Human Nature, won both the Bobst Prize from NYU and the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s Best First Book Prize. She is featured in the anthologies On the Verge: Emerging Poets and Artists in America, and American Poetry: The Next Generation. An adjunct professor and single mama of three, she is at work on a memoir, The Season of Ordinary Time. In 2009, Anderson suffered a traumatic brain injury and has learned how to walk, write, speak, and read again. You can find her on Facebook, as well as on Twitter and Instagram @AlicePoet.

Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you (Dallas, London, Seattle, Sioux Falls, Atlanta  etc.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.

Interview, The Converse-Station

The Converse-Station on The Manifest-Station: Elissa Wald Interviews Gina Frangello.

May 21, 2014

Welcome to the newest installment on The Manifest-Station! The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. (Thanks Elissa Wald for coming up with that name.) I am so excited by the idea of this series. The readership on the site is so high that I figured it was time for something like this. Today’s interview is between authors Elissa Wald and Gina Frangello, two women I adore. Elissa can be found here and her latest book, The Secret Lives of Married Women, can be ordered here. This is a huge honor and I can think of no better way to launch this series. Now, go enjoy Seven Questions With Gina Frangello and buy her book! (It’s really, really good.)

Elissa Wald

Elissa Wald

Gina Frangello

Gina Frangello

By Elissa Wald:

I loved Gina Frangello’s first two books. I was deeply intrigued by the exploration of dominance and submission in her debut novel, My Sister’s Continent. I admired the smart, assured and fascinating stories in her collection of short fiction, Slut Lullabies.

And yet. Her most recent novel, A Life In Men, is something else again. Simply put, it is an astonishing feat: of story and structure and characterization and cultural commentary and worldly detail and setting and relentless tension. It takes place over more than a decade, in at least half a dozen countries, and it renders a tangled web of intimacies and liaisons and betrayals and loyalties without ever leaving a loose thread. It’s about the immediate and long-term repercussions of sexual violence. It’s also about marriage and female friendship and terminal illness and the many forms of familial intimacy and the fraught relationship of the American traveler to other cultures. It’s about self-destruction and entitlement and privilege. It’s about terrorism and death and redemption. You would think it could not possibly be about all of these things without meandering, becoming muddled, spreading itself too thin and/or succumbing to an identity crisis. But you would be mistaken. You would be underestimating Gina Frangello.

Gina’s schedule is especially hectic these days: besides being an acclaimed author and devoted mom, she is the Sunday Editor for The Rumpus and the Fiction Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. So I was very grateful that she made time to talk with me about her novel’s evolution as well as its formidable and fully realized ambitions.

order the book by clicking the book.

order the book by clicking the “BUY NOW” on the cover.

Elissa Wald: A Life In Men is such a structural, logistical and emotional feat. There are so many characters, jumps in time, and layers of revelation. How long did it take you to write, and can you say something about how that structure emerged?

Gina Frangello: Well, my official answer is that the novel took three and a half years to write. But the behind the scenes answer is that the earliest kernels of what made it into A Life in Men come from work I had started between 1989-1991, when I was living in London and then had just returned to the States, and I began trying to write short fiction about very autobiographical experiences I’d had there, such as living in Arthog House in London in 1990, the same house that appears in the novel’s second chapter, “The House of Reinvention,” and about traveling in Greece with my friend Amy in 1989 and being quasi-kidnapped (I talk about that on BuzzFeed, here) by a couple of psycho pilots. These were two separate stories and both were abandoned long before I ever “decided to be a writer” and began grad school in 1994, and they were forgotten for many years. But later, in 2007 or so, I was playing with the London short story hoping to turn it into something I could send out for publication, and I suddenly broke from the autobiographical mode the piece had been in and gave my protagonist cystic fibrosis, and the story cracked wide open for me—so wide that I fell so far into it I knew I wouldn’t be able to climb out without a novel. Then, in 2010, after the entire novel was written and my then-agent was beginning to shop it, I spent a month in Kenya and came home and rewrote the entire 400+ page monster in a couple of months, changing almost everything about the structure. I broke up what had been one long Greece chapter into an episodic parallel narrative. I added Kenya to the early parts of the novel and then changed everything that came after it. I think the only real answer to your question is that it took a damn long time to write and the structure emerged…slowly.
Elissa Wald: Something I thought the novel illuminated beautifully: I think for people who are very conscious of life’s brevity and their own mortality, there’s a tension between the drive to experience as much adventure and pleasure as possible, and the desire to make some kind of serious contribution, leave a mark. Often these impulses are in direct opposition to each other: to get great at something, execute a vision, usually requires a huge sacrifice of time, something in short supply for Mary and others in her situation. At one point in the book, she runs through a dazzling checklist of all she’s experienced, and at another point she says: “I should have done something… I haven’t made any impact. I drink mint tea and buy carpets. It’s all been meaningless and now it’s all going to be over.” I was trying to understand what drew her to Kenneth and thought part of it might be this shared pursuit of instant gratification at the expense of any long-term investments. Do you think there’s anything to that?

Gina Frangello: I do think there’s something to it, though I also think Mary has a lot more traditional long-term investments than she gives herself credit for. Not everyone can go launch a school for girls in Afghanistan, but Mary isn’t…well, she isn’t really the way she describes herself, either—she isn’t always a reliable reporter of her own identity, which I think is true for so many people. In truth, she is a character who manages to get a graduate degree in education despite having a time-consuming and very serious illness, and she has a teaching career from her mid-20s through her early 30s, at both the university and high school level. She writes and receives a grant to aid her Somali students; she teaches high school English for years; she also has a marriage that, while not 100% honest, lasts until her death. Her life is extremely different from Kenneth’s, and that’s as much a part of what draws her to him as anything else. She also longs, for much of the novel, to have a child, but is prevented by various obstacles, initially not to do with her CF but then later because of her worsening condition, and in this way she is also denied an opportunity to…well, perhaps to have the most common “long term investment” sought by human beings, which is the investment in that continuing cycle of life through family. So I think the answer is yes and no. Mary is very drawn to living as large a life as humanly possible within her constraints of both physical ability and time…and that desire, to cram an entire lifetime of experience in to essentially just over ten years of adulthood…is at odds, yes, with the idea of long term investment and the nurturing of time and energy and focus it takes to leave a mark outside oneself. She behaves in ways that can be selfish and dishonest in the pursuit of her own large canvas, and she uses her illness and limited time as an “excuse” at times for not having to heed the feelings of others or the standards others might set for their own integrity. And I think Kenneth understands this, and sees and recognizes it, and doesn’t judge it and isn’t repelled by it, and she is able to show him that face. She’s able to find honesty even when she’s unpalatable, and she is trusted to make her own decisions even when they aren’t according to conventional wisdom or safety. There is something deeply unconditional in their bond that can be truly hard for adults—even ones who lead much more “typical” lives than Mary and Kenneth—to find. But I think Mary is wrong that she doesn’t make a mark. She leaves a mark on many people, such as Leo and Sandor, and while that’s on a smaller scale I don’t hold that to be remotely without value. Most of us do not choose to “save the world.” Even if we aren’t dying young or we aren’t junkies. For most of us, our human relationships are what will ultimately define our mark, and in that way I think Mary ultimately realizes her life has been richer than she gave it credit for being.

EW: Mary’s final emails to Geoff seemed to me a kind of parallel to the ones Nix sent to Mary after Mykonos: insistently superficial, evasive, generic, maddening. There’s this love for the recipient but a secret so huge (in Mary’s case: Kenneth and her intention to die away from home) it completely removes the possibility of intimacy. Was this a deliberate reprise?
GF: Not exactly—I mean—wow, I love this. You’re right! It was intentional in the sense that yes, Mary’s emails were supposed to be…evasive and superficial and fundamentally dishonest, yes! But I had never realized until this moment that she was writing these letters leading up to her death, full of lies, just the same way Nix had been to her. I can’t believe I didn’t see that, but it’s true. The parallel was wholly unintentional. God—I love hearing something new about my own novel this way! Thank you.

EW: Another theme I thought A Life explored very poignantly is this notion that your relationship with another person doesn’t end with their death. In the above-mentioned missives, there’s something so bittersweet about the writers’ desire to protect their loved ones. This impulse forecloses the possibility of real intimacy in the moment, but the luxury of life’s continuous unfolding can (and does, for Mary at least) ultimately yield a sense of deferred and deepened intimacy, experienced by the survivor. Can this one-sided evolution rightly be called a relationship?

GF: Yes…I mean…one of the things I was most intent on exploring in the novel is the ways in which “protection” precludes real intimacy. I’m fascinated by that. I’m fascinated by the way that the most altruistic kinds of love often distance us from the beloved, and prohibit us from being truly known and understood. I think for example that this is the case in many parent/child relationships, where the parent’s desire to protect the child also makes the parent in some way a fundamentally unknowable shell, loving and protective but artificial and somehow distant. And many kids—and adult children—have a lifelong journey of “discovering” who their parents “really were,” including after their parents’ deaths, that isn’t in some ways different from what happens with Mary and Nix, even though they’re peers and their situation—the necessity of protection and dishonesty—is more dramatic and rare than a more typical parent/child dynamic. But I think this dynamic can carry over into many types of relationships, between siblings or friends or lovers. There is a ruthlessness implicit in really hardcore intimacy. There is almost an unwillingness to protect, or a sacrifice of protection for the sake of being fully seen and known. How do we walk that line, you know? How can we be fully known and yet still protective? Where is the balance? For some people, such as Mary, that has to involve two different men. For Nix, it has to involve lying to Mary about their largest shared experience. But yes, I think relationships quite often continue beyond the death of one party. I don’t have any sort of faith in life after death, so I suppose “relationship” may not be the exact word, as only one party can continue to grow and understand and change…yet maybe a relationship itself continues to evolve, as long as either party is there to perceive it and rework it.

EW: Part of what made Mary brilliant as a character is that she is both survivor and someone who is survived. To me, she’s a reflection of all of us: while we’re living, we’re dying, and even those among us who are the most visibly dying are also living. Mary survives Nix and she is survived by her loved ones. Was this pretty-much-universal duality a conscious theme for you as you were writing the book?

GF: Yes. It was extremely important to me that Mary not be somehow a cipher for Tragedy in the novel, if that makes sense. Tragedy is cheap, even as it is unspeakably potent in individual lives. Dying young women still outlive millions of other people on the planet, who die in acts of violence, natural disasters, starvation, you name it. A Life in Men isn’t an overtly political novel—Mary and Nix are not political characters—but I didn’t want a sense of insularity to Mary’s looming expiration date, or a sense of her somehow being singularly tragic and important or something. I wanted her to survive and be survived by, and for a sense of that cycle—interpersonally and globally—to exist. People are not either Tragic or Normal, and we don’t either Live or Die. We are all dying, of course. We all also are (or most of us are—most people who are buying and reading a novel, let’s say) lucky compared to someone else. It’s all a chaotic continuum. Partially that can be measured in time/years, but it’s also about various ways we quantify the impact of a life, which is partially quantified in terms of what we experience, and partially quantified in terms of how others experience us. I wanted Mary to be part of a system, absolutely, not some focal point…you know…like, get the tissues, here is the tragic damsel who has it so much worse than everyone else, or to buy into the concept that some bad dose of luck makes a character noble, either.

EW: Yet another aspect of the novel I deeply appreciated was this thread of American exploitation that seemed to run through the book: American entitlement, American appropriation of other cultures, the foreign experience as a trophy on the American mantle. And something I saw as incredibly brave of you as the author was the juxtaposition of this attitude on the part of Nix with the assault she suffers as a direct result. She enters the bar with the explicit intent to use these men for Mary’s benefit. If it weren’t these two men, it would have been another pair or yet another: there’s the implication that they’re interchangeable. She ponders whether she’ll “take” the hotter of the two men and decides to “give” him to Mary. She thinks nothing of stringing the sidekick along; she holds up her glass peremptorily in the expectation that he’ll pay for her ongoing drinks; she seems to have no doubt that she’s in control of the situation. When it backfires so terribly, there’s this feeling that it’s a kind of cautionary tale, and to me that felt risky. Did it feel risky to you?

GF: I think it’s always risky to depict violence against women in any situation wherein it has been acknowledged that the woman was not a “saint,” because our culture (by which I mean human culture) has a deeply ingrained desire to believe that somehow only certain “types” of women will be targets of violence and that, if we can suppose this is true, those women also somehow court or deserve it, as though violence is the natural outcome of being stupid or being adventurous or being careless or being promiscuous (whatever that means in a given slice of our human culture) or even being an asshole. We tell ourselves stories in which people earn violence. In which violence is the logical outcome, which I think is fundamentally a false paradigm that always favors the violent, and somehow casts them in the role of the oppressed. So that’s one thing. And yet I think most writers—certainly of books I want to read—are also not interested in portraying saints or hapless victims, even if that person is raped or abused or something. Agency is important to a character and to the complexity of a story and to the reader being able to contribute to a story and interpret it, rather than just being hammered over the head with a message or a point. So I think the answer to this exists in a couple of parts for me. The first is that yes, like many people who have traveled, I am in fact quite interested in American entitlement, exploitation and appropriation, of which I am very much—as an American and a traveler and someone who has spent money in cultures where most people have far less money—a part, while also being creeped out by that, which is of course not mutually exclusive and often feels…icky and hopeless, because—well, there is no clean answer or way to extricate oneself. American privilege is such a deep thing that even sometimes those people who selflessly try to “do good” can never fully understand the culture they seek to “help” and are presuming some level of superiority or some greater wisdom or preferable lifestyle to impart, and may do more harm than good, so even the most generous and selfless among us are on sticky, shifting ground—nobody knows what the fuck to think or do. If we scream about how wrong it is to cut off the clits of nine year old girls in some village on another continent, we will be accused of one thing, and if we excuse such things in the name of culture or religion, we will be accused of yet another thing, and if we simply ignore the whole damn thing and go on safari and take pictures of animals, we are of course guilty of some whole other thing entirely. And Nix is part of that. She wants pleasure and experience and thinks very much that it is all hers for the taking. Yet I do want to back up. Because while I don’t disagree with you on any of that, I think Nix’s entitlement is also about youth and the culture of female beauty and sexuality that has been shoved down her throat. Zorg and Titus aren’t exactly some underprivileged victims of American entitlement in any clean way either. They are older than Nix; they are educated and have access to cars and beautiful villas and are presumably employed as airline pilots and go all over the world. So while those topics all interest me, I absolutely did not in any way intend for Nix to represent American decadence and for Zorg and Titus to be the cautionary tale of what it reaps when you cross those you oppress or something. Western entitlement and the entitlement of affluence also play complex roles that aren’t mutually exclusive from American exploitation. Gender is also our first and primal binary. I intended Nix to have greatly misread her power, yes. To have mistaken a global obsession with female beauty, with youth, and perhaps even with Americanism, with the dubious fact that because one individual is in possession of those things, it makes that person powerful, and means she holds any cards. Almost every young woman on the planet who lives in a culture where young women are let out of the house without chaperones has, in some manner, played with the fire of the myth of female power at some point or other, and most—luckily and because most men are not in fact violent or sociopathic—escape this experimentation relatively unscathed. Some don’t. This is not just true for American women, clearly, nor is it only true for American women hoping to “use” foreign men. Men and women who live in and hail from the same cities, towns, nations, attempt to use one another everyday and try to jockey with one another for power. So while I think the issue of American entitlement is a deeply fascinating one and one I sought to explore in some ways in the novel, I did not intend Nix to in any way embody that entire system, especially as if she did, she would simultaneously also embody so many other systems of power and exploitation that are about more than the United States.

EW: Thank you so much for talking with me in such depth about A Life In Men. I hope any readers who haven’t yet read it will not deprive themselves any longer. In the meantime, is anything new in the works? What’s ahead for you?

GF: I’m currently most of the way through a draft of a new novel, called Every Kind of Wanting, which explores the dynamics, relationships and unexpected dramas surrounding longtime couple, Chad and Miguel’s, efforts to have a baby through a gestational surrogacy. Though the novel is framed by the nine months of the pregnancy, it also reaches back 30 years, to Miguel’s childhood in Venezuela and the unsolved murder of his father and mysteries surrounding the birth of his younger sister. I’m hoping to be completely ready to turn this thing over to my agent by September, but in the meanwhile I still have a lot of travel on my plate this summer, including Queretaro, Mexico, which as you know figures in A Life in Men, and which happens to be the location of an intimate, spectacular little writing program I run every year ( We kick off June 27, so if you want to come, hurry up!



Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane and the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. She’s currently finishing her first book Beauty Hunting. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor and another writing retreat to Vermont with bestselling author Emily Rapp. Check out her site for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Los AngelesSeattleLondon, Atlanta, South Dakota, Dallas. Find her on twitter at @jenpastiloff.