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Converse-Station, writing

The Converse-Station: Laura Bogart Interviews Antonia Crane.

July 17, 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 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.

Antonia Crane

photo of Antonia Crane by Josh Cleanser
Antonia’s site: http://antoniacrane.com/ and a link to her book on Amazon.

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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. 

Guest Posts

Control. By Laura Bogart.

March 23, 2014

image courtesy of Simplereminders.com

image courtesy of Simplereminders.com

Control. By Laura Bogart.

Joy Division was my adolescent love. The wry despondency of Ian Curtis’ lyrics affirmed my teenage suspicions that simply putting one foot in front of the other (as my guidance counselor so helpfully suggested) was a Sisyphean endeavor: “Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders/Here are the young men, well, where have they been?/We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber/Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in.”

Then there was the music itself: blunt and muscular, but with a sinewy sharpness that drove me deep, drove me home. It inspired drawings of molten Hellscapes and angels in black leather jackets that I’m glad I’ve lost between moves; what lingered was the sound it gave to the inchoate rage I felt when I heard my father set his briefcase down in the living room, to the dread that hissed through my room when I heard him come up the stairs.

If it were going to be the kind of night he’d apologize for, he’d flip immediately to the weather channel, with its constant promise of Biblical winds and damning rains. I’d steel myself through mindless repetition, re-writing the same lines in my notebook: “I’m ashamed of things I’ve been put through/I’m ashamed of the person I am.”  My redemption, I decided, would be to make art like Curtis’: beautiful yet ugly, wrenching yet effortless. I charcoaled hulking men with haunted eyes. In our quieter moments, the moments I’d cling to when I needed to forgive him, my father would gently open my bedroom door to watch me draw.

“I always wanted to be good at something,” he’d say. His voice belonged to the college lineman who did what his coach said and ran until he puked, but still never got scouted. When I was little, I could forget that he was the man who slapped me for spilling the saltshaker; he was the man who brought me marbled notebooks and prints from the Italian masters. By the time I’d found Joy Division, he was just the middle-aged man who mockingly crooned, “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work I go (damn it)” as he knotted his tie.

“You never make me anything I can frame anymore,” he’d say. “All this dark shit.”

I read about Curtis’ epilepsy; how the twitching, flailing dances that mocked his condition sometimes conjured his fits. “For entertainment, they watch his body twist,” he sang, his voice sharp and sad and thick with regret. “Behind his eyes, he says ‘I still exist.’” Those three words became the essence of art: I lied about how I got those bruises and why the sleepover couldn’t be held at my house, but whatever I put on paper was true.

“You could go into advertising.” That’s what my father said when I told him I’d be getting a master’s in creative writing. He worked with statistics, numbers that had been caged and tamed; for him, work was only meaningful when its purpose was evident. Highway billboards and forty second spots between Monday Night Football and the eleven o’clock news: My livelihood dependent upon oversized ads for oversized sedans that would be forgotten one exit over and cat food jingles that high-schoolers would YouTube until they were just stoned enough to wonder if cat food just, like, tasted like tuna, only, like, spicier.

“There’s a reason,” I said to my father, “That they say ad nauseam.”

Still, those last six months of my grad program turned into a blitzkrieg of resumes. Not writing. When I wasn’t refreshing my email or cold calling under the pretense of “following up,” I was at my kitchen table, drafting columns of bills and the numbers needed to pay them. I’d become my father, scowling over a yellow legal pad and chewing a black ballpoint pen. He’d been the source of so many worries, but a roof over my head hadn’t been one of them.

“Welcome to the real world,” my father said back. “We’re all bored. But we’ve all got bills.”

When a friend asked me if I wanted to see Anton Corbjin’s Ian Curtis biopic, Control, I said I was too broke even for a matinee. That much was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. That movie poster—a black and white portrait of the spectrally handsome young actor playing Curtis—unsettled me. His eyes are rapacious with hunger; they reminded me of all I’d loved about making art. But his lips are caught between a pucker and a sigh.

I wouldn’t see the movie for a few years, after I’d ended up at a small career consulting company that published magazines to promote its overpriced (and under attended) conferences. Hours of my life ticked away as I inserted semi-colons into the stories of people who were actually doing what they wanted to with theirs.

Channel surfing demanded so much less of me than any kind of art; I lost my lines to the unique state of frazzle and fatigue that a bad workday induces. Though I kept a sketchbook on my lap, I’d only managed the iris of an eye in an hour. I was starting on the lashes when I saw the scene that made me feel as utterly, unequivocally understood as I had when I’d heard the real Ian Curtis wail, “In arenas he kills for a prize/wins a minute to add to his life/But the sickness is drowned out by cries for more/Pray to God, make it quick.”

Curtis is in his living room, lost in the notebook perched on his knees, his face in that soft yet furrowed look of inspiration. His flow is broken when his young wife—who, in those earlier scrappy-love courtship sequences, wore her leather and her faux-fur and her sly spirit of up-for-anything with pride—calls him to bed, but only because he has work in the morning. She’s wearing a housedress that even my thick-ankled Italian grandmother would’ve deemed too frumpy. His expression—resignation (she is right, technically) and frustration (but he was so close to the perfect word)—flickers across his face like a matchstick that won’t quite catch.

My father would call me during our mutual lunch hours. Now that I packed a sack lunch every morning and cursed my way through rush hour traffic, I was no longer a punk kid who needed disciplining. I was someone who could finally understand him: his gripes about assholes who didn’t clean the coffee pot and assholes who made the coffee “like muddy water;” secretaries who didn’t relay messages and bosses who expected you to read their goddamn minds. My father, who used long car rides to expose us to Simon and Garfunkel, Sinatra, and Springsteen because “you can’t get everything you need to out of just one song, you need to hear it all;” my father, who rhapsodized about riding the subway to see Dylan. Back when it was just him: No wife, no children. Just the slow sway of the train thrumming through his body.

“So how’s the job?” he’d ask, and I’d reply that it was, you know, a job. He’d laugh and say, “You’ll get used to it.”

“How’s the boss?” he’d ask. The CEO had the doughy, dumpy build of an overindulged toddler—and the temperament to match. He jokingly (but not really) insisted on being called “boss.” Minutes after he’d fire someone, he’d send out company-wide emails with inspirational quotes: “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there” was a favorite.

“Still a prick,” I’d say.

“He’s the prick who signs your checks.”

When I was a teenager, delusions of grandeur were as much a balm as the Bacitracin my mother rubbed between my shoulders. I was not who my teachers, my bullies, my parents said I was. My molten hellscapes would be in the Guggenheim, and I’d be the star of a cover spread in Poets & Writers analyzing my short fiction (which was filled with serial killers and teenage agorophobics) before my twenty-second birthday. I’ve never asked my father where he thought he’d be at twenty-two, twenty-five, thirty. I’m afraid he’ll say something that will make me see myself in that young man on the subway, humming Guthrie and looking forward to wherever he was going. I don’t want to know all that he gave up once my mother, the woman he’d only been dating for a few months told him, casually, between bites of her salad, that she was pregnant.

“There’s what you have to do,” I imagine he’d tell me, “and what you love to do.”

Whenever I’d leave that downtown office building where I lost eight hours of my day (nine, counting the drive there and back), I’d see the punk girls getting off the bus. They wear everything I used to wear: ratted black jackets and strategically slashed t-shirts. More than once, I’ve seen that classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart” shirt I bought from the Hot Topic: A marble angel swoons against a parched cemetery lawn. If I wore that shirt now, the heft of my breasts would twist that angel’s face into a Munchian scream.

They’d lift their eyes from the text they were reading or the cigarette they were lighting and stare back at me. They saw me shuffling from the office to the parking garage, brandishing a thermos and briefcase like all the other shirt-jacketed and be-pantyhosed masses and must’ve thought—as I had—that the lure of the “good job” wasn’t status or even security; it was just the dulling lull of sucking your thumb.

Now, the sound that lingers with me every time I’m tempted to turn the laptop off and veg out to Intervention or leave my watercolors in their box to let the talking heads on MSNBC tell me what I already believe doesn’t come from a song, it comes from Control.  It’s a small sound from the scene before Curtis hangs himself. After yet another epileptic fit hurls him to the floor, he slowly sits up, rubbing the top of his head; the word “ow” breaks from his lips. It is a child’s helpless cry, the cry that we’ve been told being strong, being competent, being grown-ups, means we have to suppress.

I would tell those punk girls, my sixteen-year old self among them, that this cry, the culmination of so many disappointments—from the day job that blots out your creative thoughts yet can’t quite pay all the bills, to the lover who leaves you, not with the passion of slammed doors but with a long sigh—this will be your undoing, but only if you let it.

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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. 

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Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. She’s the founder of The Manifest-Station.  She’s leading a weekend retreat in May to Ojai, Calif as well as 4 day retreat over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing for all levels. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up is Costa Rica followed by Dallas, Seattle and London.  

She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.

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