Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me #3: Emily Gould

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A few months ago, Emily Gould posted something on one of her blogs that got me choked up. She wrote about the difficult time she and her mother have been having since the publication of Gould’s memoir in essays, And the Heart Says Whatever, and focused specifically on a tear-filled moment they shared at a yoga retreat at the height of that tension between them.

Her mother makes a few appearances in the book, most notably in “Off Leash,” an essay which I found to be pivotal to this coming of age memoir. While reeling from the recent end of a six-year relationship and preparing to move into a new apartment by herself, Gould is visited by her mother – who is simultaneously navigating some mid-life transitions of her own, and mentions that divorce is a vague possibility.

There is so much about this chapter that to me feels vital to the book: the contrast between the two women and their stages in life; the way the author labors, uncomfortably, not to clash with her mother, to try and be patient and tolerant at a time when she feels adrift and emotionally raw; the sense that her parents’ marriage is one more pillar of Gould’s then wobbly life that could topple. And yet it’s understandable that her mother didn’t see it that way, and would have preferred if her daughter had left all that out of the book.

When I read that chapter, and later the remorseful blog post, I felt I had to get Gould’s perspective on the emotional price of writing stories your parents might not like – whether or not they are appear in them. “I don’t know how much braver than you I’m feeling these days,” she wrote back when I first emailed her. Still, he indulged me, even making me lunch at her apartment in Brooklyn, aka the studio where she shoots “Cooking the Books,” a show on which she interviews and cooks with a growing list of current authors.

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The Rumpus: That blog post really touched me. You wrote that you and your mother had been having “difficult interactions” about your book.  You’re at this yoga retreat place with her, and you’re singing these corny Sanskrit-translated-to-English songs. You’re holding hands with her, and the lyric is something about “Children, turn to your mothers,” and as you turn to her, you start to cry. I got really choked up reading it. Had she read your book before it was out?

Emily Gould: Yeah, but I think the huge mistake I made was letting her know that someone else that I wrote about had final cut.

Rumpus: Ooh…

Gould: I think she feels like I should have extended that same privilege to her and maybe I should have, I don’t know. It would have been a really different book. There is one chapter where the person I was writing about, as I said, I gave it to her before it was typeset and I said, “Change anything you want. Our relationship is more important to me than anything like my artistic integrity.” And she changed a lot. It was still hard. It was hard for her to even know that I had written the thing that I had written about her. It took us a long time, and it will continue to take us a long time, to get over that.  But I’m so glad now that I did it. I’m glad that stuff isn’t in the book.  The story is worse. I know that it is. But that is okay, because it would have felt like a huge fuck you. In the larger context of our relationship it would have been like this weird salvo against her.

I didn’t at all feel like that was what I was doing in writing about my mother, but that is what it felt like to her. And to some extent there was some stuff that I could have controlled, and to some extent there is just not, you know? You never know how people are going to respond to the stuff that you write and often it is stuff that seems very innocuous to me that is the stuff that really, really upsets people. You know, mentioning in passing that my parents might get a divorce, it was almost a joke. My parents were not really going to get a divorce. They were just having a rough patch in what has been like a long and phenomenal relationship to me.  I mean, I look at them and their relationship is amazing to me. I feel so lucky also that my parents are still married. It is super anomalous. But I honed in on that one moment where I was writing from the perspective of this person that it feels like there is nothing stable in her life and her parents’ possibly failing marriage is just another of those things. That is the moment that I chose to write about as opposed to all of the like wonderful, great, happy times that my family had shared. Of course it feels like an attack, but it’s not.

Rumpus: But that part was also what was interesting. I was trying to think if there was a way for you not to write about that, or to leave your mother out, and I thought, this was such a pivotal essay in the book. Here you were at twenty-six, and your parents had gotten married when they were twenty-six. And you were going through a painful break-up, contemplating the nature of relationships and how long they last and whether they last, and what’s love and commitment all about, and here’s your mom tossing out the idea of a divorce. I just thought it was such an important thing that every detail was there. And even your annoyance at how much she keeps “externalizing her internal monologue,” talking and asking questions when you just need her to be quiet. Your grief, your being so consumed by it, is drawn against that, and I found it very effective.

Gould: But she just sees the caricature and it feels insulting.

Rumpus: That’s perfectly valid too. That’s what is so tricky about all of this.

Gould: My fear always is that I fucked up by not writing about something fully enough that people could understand it the way that I have intended. But you just don’t have that power.

Rumpus: So what was your mother’s response to what you wrote about her in the book?

Gould: I don’t remember all the specifics. And I don’t want to misrepresent what happened or what has been happening with her like since the book came out. But we come up against over and over again this problem of, I want to be able to apologize to her in a way that is meaningful. And it is really hard to accept the apology of someone who is essentially saying, “I apologize to you for this thing that I may well do again.” Yeah. That’s a really tall order for my mom.  Keith says that in Russian or one of the other Slavic languages there is an accepted proverb or idiom like, “It is a huge misfortune to have a writer born into your family.”

Rumpus: The way one of my parents, I can remember which, says it is, “A writer is born, and a family trembles.” My father and stepmother at one point threatened to draw up some kind of contract for me to sign that would forbid me to write about them ever again.

Sari Botton

Gould: That’s like – what do people get when they afraid their ex-husbands will hurt them?

Rumpus: You mean like a restraining order?

Gould: Yeah, like a writing restraining order.

Rumpus: They also asked me to promise I would never write about them again. But I told them I couldn’t make that promise. I said I’d be more careful in the future, but I am not sure what that means. So, other than your parents, were there people in your family who had problems with the book?

Gould: Yes, definitely. My grandmother especially – and my book is dedicated to my grandparents. My parents, when the book came out, had a book party for me, which was so nice of them. It was an open house at their apartment all day. My grandmother was the first to arrive. She came and she sat down on the couch and she was like, “I want you to know that these are the things that I was uncomfortable with and did not approve of.”

Rumpus: Was she nice about it?

Gould: Not really, no. I mean she did not call me a slut but she was like, “The drugs, the drinking. You meet someone, and then in bed.”  To me, in the grand scheme of people’s memoirs, and also just people I know, it’s like, come on. So what? I smoked pot. But it’s not how it seems to her.  To her it also feels like this is stuff that I held back from her and it is hard for me to explain that, of course I held this stuff back from you.  This is not stuff that you just –

Rumpus: Call your grandmother and tell her about?

Gould: Yeah! If she asks, “How was your weekend?” I’m going to say, “Oh, well, I saw my friends and went to the museum.” I’m not going to say, “I woke at 4 p.m., I was so hung over.” As a person in their early twenties, of course you are going to give your family a sanitized version of the truth so that they do not actively worry about you all the time. That is just being considerate! But then you write about it and then you get caught out for being a liar, when you feel like you have told the truth. So that was weird, and sort of colored the whole day. It was this gathering of people who are my close family members, my family’s friends, people that have known me since I was a little child. I looked around that room and I thought, Please, please, none of you read this book!

Rumpus: And so many of them probably already had.

Gould: I had never thought that people in my family would be so interested in reading the book, which was incredibly naïve and shortsighted of me. I thought maybe they would just sort of know that it was not a great idea for them to read it. It’s kind of funny because they will get offended by something that I post on my blog, and I am just like, why? Why are you doing this to yourself? You have a choice. It’s different if I am having conversation with you, or if I am writing an email to you. But I am not writing this to you. It is not a letter to you. It is not something that I am ever imagining you reading at all.

Photo by Lisa Corson

Rumpus: I relate to the idea of writing something and hoping that they don’t read it.  I had written an essay for Marie Claire back in like 1999 or 2000 about what it was like to become single again after marrying, at twenty-three, the second guy I had ever been with and then getting divorced at twenty-six or twenty-seven. It was a lot about sex, but in a funny way, like how weird it was for me. Like, I didn’t know when it was okay to start sleeping with someone. And did you go around the bases again like you did in high school? I had only a teenager’s understanding about how you progress sexually. It was a big deal for me to have the courage to write that and put myself out there in that way. I didn’t like the way it got edited, hated the finished product, but I still felt good that I had done it. But I knew it would be awful for my parents to read. I called my dad and I said, “You know, you probably do not want to read this. Actually, please do not read it.” Well, he told me he didn’t read it, but he definitely did. After it came out, he called me and said, “I did not read it, but I have heard from people that it is disgusting, and it is a waste of your talent, and you are a disappointment and I have written you a ten-page letter about what a disappointment you are, but my therapist will not let me send it to you because he knows what you are like – very defensive.” I of course remember every word of that conversation.

Gould: Oh yeah. All this sounds, by the way, super familiar to me. Super.

Rumpus: Yeah. There is no way to get them not to read your work, or to guarantee that they won’t.

Gould: It is weird because you simultaneously always have to assume, you have to be tricking yourself on the one hand that no one will ever read it, to just be able to do it. But then once it is done and edited, etcetera, you have to be totally prepared for the possibility that your absolute worst nightmare scenario is probably going to come true.

Rumpus: I have already had some of the nightmare scenarios happen, with essays I’ve had published that people in my family have reacted to, so I know that if I go through with writing and publishing a memoir or book of essays, I am sort of cruising for a bruising. I have already had some really bad experiences with them, which I think is what is making me so terrified.  When I published a Modern Love, in which I revealed some things about my parents’ marriage and divorce, my father was not happy about it.  At first he could not talk to me. That went on for a while, a week or so. It’s been three years now, but he still brings it up a lot when we talk. And there is always this looming threat of being disowned for writing more.

Gould: Geez, it must be really enticing to have a conversation with him. I think I know what that stuff that you’re dealing with is like. I know that my parents love me, and they feel like they actually are supportive, but my mother will also say things to me – like, she has told me that she thinks that when we talk to each other, that I am constantly sitting outside the conversation observing it and mining our interactions for material, and this is not the case. I understand why she would think that. It is totally a natural thing to think, but I feel so insulted by it because on the one hand she is telling me “I do not trust you.”  Which, okay. She is also telling me, “You are kind of a sociopath.” And the worst dimension of it – and this is the part which I would never expect her to understand – is that she is kind of saying that I am a hack, and I am just not. That is not how it works, for me. I think that is probably how it works for some people. Some people are observing things and are sitting there like, “How can I shape this into something that will be a fifteen-hundred word personal essay that I can sell to a women’s magazine for three dollars and fifty cents a word?”  Fortunately and unfortunately, that is not how I work.

But this is what I always find myself wanting to say to you when I read these interviews that you’re doing: Just write it, and then you can decide later like what is going to happen with it. You have to like a.s.a.p. just stop fucking around. You already made the choice. Now you’re worrying about the consequences.

Rumpus: I keep dancing around this.

Gould: Yeah. But it will be a relief to you no matter what happens, when you can stop anticipating the consequences and actually just start having them. No matter how bad they are, you will be just trading in this kind of pain for another kind. Just write it. (Pauses, then laughs.) Go into a self-induced trance where you think, no one will ever see this. Just be able to convince yourself of that! It is so super easy and fun!

Rumpus: Ha. Is there an app for that?

Gould: Totally. Yes.

Rumpus: The Oblivion app.

Gould: Yes, instead of turning on the Freedom app, you turn on Oblivion! I guess there are various reasons why that does not actually work for me so, I probably shouldn’t try to convince you.

Rumpus: Recently my father brought up the Marie Claire essay again, too, out of the blue, and that one ran like ten years ago – of course, still claiming not to have read it. He said something like, “Go and write something great – not like that horrible crap you wrote in that magazine that was totally beneath you.”

Gould: But this is nice, though. Maybe this is him saying that he thinks that you have this amazing talent and potential.

Rumpus: But I think that he is also saying that to write about yourself and write about sex is inherently bad. By the way, the piece was not explicit or erotic even. It was more about, like, Oh, Jesus, this guy is jerking off in front of me and I have never seen anybody do that before. Is this what people do now? And does that count as sex? I was more like an awkward observer within the piece. So yes, he thinks that I have better things ahead of me, but then there is the other part where he is like, “Can’t you write about something else?” I think about that a lot. It’s funny, I was mowing the lawn the other day, obsessing about, why can’t I just write about something else? And I had this epiphany. I thought, sometimes as a writer, you don’t choose your subject. It chooses you.

Gould: Uh-huh. Yeah.

Rumpus: Do you feel that way?

Gould: Oh yeah, of course. But I think there is probably a more sophisticated perspective that I haven’t quite reached yet. I don’t know, I always feel like I am coming right up against the walls of my innate limitations and just banging my head against those walls all the time because I do feel like I have sort painted myself into a corner with this stuff to some extent, and I think I thought for a long time that the answer was always to tell the truth and be myself and that was the ultimate goal. You know? It didn’t matter if some people hated it and were really repulsed by it or did not understand it at all and had violent negative reactions to it. You know that some people would see this, and I would be seen in this way that would be so fundamentally fulfilling, and I have been so lucky because I have had it.  People have seen it. People have gotten it. But what do you do then? Eventually I’m going to have to write something else. Eventually I’m going to have to tell a story.

Rumpus: Do you and Keith have a policy about writing about each other or anything like that?

Gould: We have not talked about it for a while but when last we visited this topic, it was, I cannot write on my blog about him, which is totally valid. An editor has to look at it. You can’t just think it and then hurriedly publish it. You have to make sure it has been edited, ideally several times. And then at that point, you have to look at it, and if it is the fucking truth, if your artist’s conscience is okay with it, then yeah, you put it out there.

Rumpus: Right. Would you show it to him first? Before publishing it?

Gould: Oh, yes. He helped me edit my book. We never specifically talked about this, so I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I can only assume – especially because at some points he would write, “eww,” or put a sad face in the margins – that it was like not pleasant for him to read about me having sex with people that were not him. His book is hard for me to read and things where he would write about his ex-wife in like a very sort of nostalgic and sweet way. That’s just gut-wrenching.  You cannot get around that. It’s awful, but I do not feel like he shouldn’t be doing it.

Rumpus: Right. And he is not writing it to you. He is just writing it.

Gould: I think it would be really different if there is some character in his writing and it was like one of these Woody Allen movie situation where you’re like, “But of course that’s me! And she’s so terrible!”  When you’re writing fiction, there is that plausible deniability. “Oh, that guy? No! Certainly he has elements of you, but I was just imagining him with my amazing imagination! I was just making all that stuff up!”

Rumpus: People often suggest I write fiction instead, as a way around all this inner conflict I wrestle with. But in a way I think fiction is almost worse in terms of revealing people. Chances are the fictional extrapolation of a person you’re afraid to write about in memoir is not any more flattering than it would be if it weren’t “made up.” And that person is going to recognize himself.

Gould: In Freedom there is a character who [Franzen] gives the most asshole-ish characteristics to. I feel like it must be fun to just have this one character who can say all that stuff that you would never remotely think of saying out loud.

Rumpus: There’s a Larry David character in Freedom?

Gould: Yeah basically, but sexier. A sexy Larry David character. Oh my god so devastating! Yeah, every Jewish girl’s dream. But, anyway, of course, Keith has not written a Phillip Roth novel about our relationship, and I have also not written a Phillip Roth novel about our relationship. Yet. (Laughs.)

Rumpus: What about the ex-boyfriend you write about in And the Heart Says Whatever. Have you ever heard from him about that?

Gould: No, but I feel that is a shoe that will drop eventually. Or maybe not. But I would be surprised.

Rumpus: In the book you wrestle with the feeling that you were betraying him in writing about him. At one point you write about showing him your cover essay for the New York Times Magazine before it runs, to make sure he’s okay with everything. And at first he is, but then a few days later he has a change of heart and gets kind of legalistic about it.

Gould: It was this weird situation where like he read it and he was so fine with it that I felt this surge of, “I have been totally wrong about you! And I still love you.” His being fine with it was like he had passed this test. And then we spent a night and a day together, really like physically living in the past, in that old apartment. And then a few days later he called just sounding like a totally different person. He had been spending time with his mother who was a newly minted lawyer. It sounded as if he had been brainwashed. He was saying, “I am going to call your editor at the Times.” I was like, whoa. I wound up feeling like I cannot be in the business of protecting this person anymore. I really just can’t be in a relationship with someone who I feel like I’m constantly having to protect from myself.  That is a terrible feeling.  When I was first seeing Keith, I was working on that article and he said something about, “What will my father think when he reads your article when it comes in his Sunday Times?” And at that moment I thought, I can’t be with anyone right now. I really can’t. I can’t worry about something like that. It is just enough for me to think about what my own father would think.

Rumpus: So that’s when you broke up for a short time?

Gould: Yeah, we broke up briefly. It was like the most bloodless breakup ever. But then we got back together. But I’ve been thinking a lot about having written about other people, what it means to write about other people. I said to my therapist recently, “I guess one option is to just not have any relationships with anyone, ever.” And she was like, “Well that is just not an option.” And I asked, “Do you mean in general, as a human? Or do you mean for me?” She said, “No, I mean for you.”

Rumpus: So, have you been scared out of doing this sort of writing again? I mean, I hope you do more of this at different points in your life, from different perspectives. I think you’re good at it, and that it would be good.

Gould: That’s almost inevitable. But I don’t think I’ll be as…open. If I had been older or more experienced when I wrote the book, I wouldn’t have been that open. I don’t think I’ll ever be that open again.


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →