The Rumpus Book Club talks with Lidia Yuknavitch about her new memoir, The Chronology of Water, her sexual life, the ability to accept kindness, and why she thinks human bodies are the coolest things in the universe.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club, click here.
Lidia Yuknavitch: I’m “here.”
Sharon: You’re here!
Lidia Yuknavitch: Blush!!!
Betsy: This is so awesome I haven’t been this excited to meet an author online in my whole Rumpus life.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Cool to be here. So cool.
Stephen Elliott: So now we can start. Though I never know what that really means. So Lydia, there was a lot of discussion about your book.
Ray: How do you deal with writing things about real people that they might not want to read?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Some people I had to invent names. I had to call everyone who’s real in the book and get their O.K. Didn’t want to coronary anyone.
Ray: My stomach goes in knots if I publish something from my life like that.
Lidia Yuknavitch: My stomach knotted several thousand times.
Caitlin: As an aspiring memoirist I have to say the prospect of that makes me seriously consider quitting. I’m impressed that you did it.
Lidia Yuknavitch: DO IT.
Stephen Elliott: So you contacted everyone who you named in the book? And the people whose name you changed…
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yup. Except the dead ones.
Stephen Elliott: But were there people who weren’t named, per say, but knew who they were?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Probably, because people are emailing me telling me they have “figured it out.”
Caitlin: How did people react? You were pretty kind to most of the people in your book, but did they see it that way?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Everyone so far has been truly wonderful, except, husband number 2, which is understandable.
Caitlin: Well ex-husbands not liking what you write about them is almost a given, but even so, I was struck by the humanity that you gave to each person, even your parents. It would have been easy to turn your dad especially into a mustache-twirling caricature, but you didn’t.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes. To demonize my dad would have been dishonest. He showed me everything I know about art.
Sarah: Were you surprised by anyone’s reactions?
Lidia Yuknavitch: So far I have not been surprised by anyone’s reactions, except, the good, warm, real things people are sending me privately are blowing my mind. One person sent me her hair!
Betsy: At the end of your book, you talk about the addiction narrative, how religion plays a role and how, “now a whole industrial complex exists to serve the addiction narrative, along with a handy pharmaceutical empire.” This book is certainly not typical and doesn’t really deal at all with recovery. I mean, fuck, there are tons of those books and they are mostly a snooze. So thanks.
Lidia Yuknavitch: The monolithic addiction narrative makes me pukey. It’s a market driven limit. We all know there are thousands of addiction narratives. They all need to be told.
Heather D: I was so impressed by the use of the body in your book. How you seemed to reclaim the body through itself. You talk a little about Joan of Arc too, but mostly in terms of the burning body and the paternal voice. I was wondering if there’s space for a spiritual component in the COW worldview?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I say yes. There is a huge space for the spiritual—just not religious. I received a wonderful response from an anthropologist who loved the animas about rocks. To me, that’s hugely spiritual. And water, of course.
Betsy: My favorite chapter is the one that includes your time spent with the dominatrix. It scared me to go there with the idea of mother. But wow, I totally dug it. It was so no holds barred. And the idea of light coming in through the windows. Heavy.
Lidia Yuknavitch: It was scary and intense for me too—but large catharsis and cleansing and sexual path to enlightenment. We have so much to learn about forms of pleasure and pain in this culture that are not tied to the stupid sanctioned versions.
Georges: As alluded to earlier, this book inspired an intense discussion in TRBC. Notably, a discussion of feminist literature and the decision to open the book with, “The day my daughter was stillborn…”. Some felt it was manipulative to start that way, others viscerally responded in the positive. What was your thought process on where to begin?
Lidia Yuknavitch: It’s a great question. I open with the birth/death partly to interrupt the “birth is the beginning and death is the end” narrative thematically and formally. To hold birth and death in one’s body all at once changed my philosophy of life and narrative forever. Lastly, to put the reader in a destabilized position on purpose. To get two things up front: the body and emotion.
DL: Yet it seemed as if birth/death were just part of a circle and kept happening in no particular order.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes, birth/death cycle. Cyclical. [The] whole book does that. So do our bodies. Women know this very up front. [I] tried to structure the book around a corporeal truth.
Sean: Your work is so lyrical. What does your editing process look like?
Lidia Yuknavitch: My editing process is on the floor with pens and alcohol and colors. It’s a fucking mess. Then I go back to the Cyclops (computer).
Neal: It seems your book has produced a very visceral, almost physical reaction from everyone who has read it—whether good or bad. Have you been surprised at the depth and passion of the response?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes and no about responses. I have always suspected we need more body stories out there and that people know what it means to have a body story and to voice it, so this book is like green light.
Betsy: Dennis Cooper sure knows his way around a body story.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Dennis Cooper is the man. And a big influence.
Ray: I like how you sometimes broke the fourth wall by coming out and saying, “This is getting too literary. Let me start over.” Was it a conscious decision to leave that kind of notes-to-self comment in there? It seemed very natural and delightful to me.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Breaking the fourth wall was very important to me, because I hate the memoir convention of this story being just mine. I wanted to create spaces where the reader could literally come inside.
Heather D: I loved when you met Andy too, although—whoa! White Knight! Which makes me kind of see COW as a double Ariel whammy—the ferocity of Plath’s “Ariel,” mixed with the The Little Mermaid’s Ariel. Does that make sense?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes. I bring Andy in as a “white knight” figure, then undercut it a little. I wanted to stress just how deeply women long for the movie version even if they are smarty or enlightened or feminist or gay. We loves us some white knight. I spend my life undoing the myths I have inherited. But I participate in them too. We all do. We just don’t like to admit it.
Claudine: I never thought that at all. To me it was this other person who was passionate and beautiful and intelligent, all in one. And they experienced all of each other. Can you comment on that?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes that’s true too. Andy in reality is not a white knight, and he’s not in the book either. What he was, and is, is an equal—a male equal to my feminine. And he has feminine in him to my masculine. The cello/fighter meets the artist/swimmer.
Claudine: I guess it was that I saw him as sparring with her, both physically and intellectually. So if he’s a white knight, he has to contend with LY already being on her own horse ready to joust.
Lidia Yuknavitch: About the ideal male and sparring—we literally spar. Artistically, emotionally, sexually, and hitting the heavy bag. It matters.
Betsy: Nice. I finally found a sparring partner, too. It’s a beautiful thing.
Lidia Yuknavitch: I really think it’s sacred when you find people in your life who are your equal. In any form. Any gender. It’s what should happen.
Neal: Did you struggle as much with what to leave out of the book as with what to put in? It seemed that some things, such as the details of the sexual abuse you allude to, were purposefully omitted. Were these omissions done for artistic, or personal reasons?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes, I struggled. [It] nearly killed me. Tough two years writing this bad boy. But yes, I left things out quite consciously. Perhaps you noticed the abuse scenes have no explicit detail. That’s purposeful. The story is left open rather than closed. I want people to be able to enter and exit.
Georges: The mind/body connection—do you tend to value one piece over the other? I think vs. I do? I numb vs. I float?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I don’t buy the Cartesian dualism split of mind/body. Never have.
Harley: Would you consider this book broken up into stories or would you consider them more like chapters?
Lidia Yuknavitch: A little they are “chapters,” but mostly they work like a kaleidoscope—moving in angles and fragments around things.
Harley: I notice that you end each chapter with a very different kind of tone, the words become more universal and bold, like the last line of some poems. Is this conscious and how was it received by your editor?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Every formal choice I made is as precise I could make it. The opening to each piece and the closings are highly made.
Georges: You don’t discuss it in your narrative and you give your reasons during the interview at the end, but I felt so angry at you—honest anger—when you didn’t revisit the aftermath of the pregnant woman you hit while driving drunk. Did you ever seek out what happened to her?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes, I know. I did that consciously. And I understand your anger. She was fine. Her baby was fine. I found out. But I wanted to leave the reader in a space where there was no repenting, transcendence, and forgiveness. I don’t believe in the Christian narrative. So I left you there where I was. I left you, the reader, in the “space” of the grand fuck up. Because we all fuck up, and then we go forward, and maybe we get better and maybe we fuck up some more. You know? Please forgive me, but I was trying to show that.
Roxane: Is it difficult to expose yourself the way you do in your memoir and then still have to move through your life and engage with the people in your day to day life knowing all these intimate details about you are out there?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I think all writing is exposure. Don’t you? It’s such a tremendous risk. Gamble. Faith. Anyone who writes or chooses a writing life is walking off the edge of the universe into the big dark naked and crying.
Jack W: You mention, “the greatest writing group in the history of ever” in the “Acknowledgements.” Cain, Drake, C.P. Wow. Not sure how to frame a question, but that’s a fucking remarkable group. Any words on the group?
Lidia Yuknavitch: They rock and they are all completely different kinds of writers. They are all crazy in the best way. Especially Cheryl Strayed.
DL: It seemed as if there was something that caused a turning point, a time from where there wasn’t this ability to accept kindness, until you met Andy. Was the difference because he was an equal? Or is that too personal to ask?
Lidia Yuknavitch: The ability to accept kindness is one of the hardest lessons of my life. I’m terrific at masochism. Accepting kindness is brutally difficult. So, um, yes.
Janeen: One thing that I noticed in the book, as a contrast to the women that I know in real life, is that there was no shame around the female body. There seemed to be such freedom and boldness around it. I was envious of that.
Lidia Yuknavitch: It’s hard won, but so worth it. Crash culture. Fuck it. We have these astonishingly amazing bodies that do shit nothing can match and we spend huge chunks of our lives feeling crappy about them! That stinks! I’m a person who thinks and feels bodies are about the coolest thing in the universe. All of them. Such beauty. Such truth.
Caitlin: That appreciation of bodies is something we don’t really see, especially considering how many people just flat-out hate their bodies for a variety of reasons. Do you think your early years as an athlete—which teaches a person to see their body as an object rather than a subject—played a role in your perspective on bodies?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I don’t think I knew it at the time, at least not in my frontal lobes, but yes. Partly I could write this book through the central metaphor of swimming because it yielded the great metaphor of my life. We all have them. We just have to find them and grow them.
Sean: You write about formal choices. Do you sculpt first, or do you just write and then return and reshape?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Both. I write first mostly by sound and image (more influenced by painting and music than writing), and then I go back to find the patterns and rhythms and spaces and shapes.
Ray: You said that Andy was a match for you as musician/fighter to your artist/swimmer. My GF and I are also a match like that but we also feel like we’re equal fuck ups. Do you share that with Andy as well? He came across as very perfect, to me at least.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Trust me when I say Andy has his fuck ups. He’s from Reno for Christ’s sake! He’s writing his own book about his fuck ups though. But yeah, we are equal as fuck ups too!
Sharon: Can you talk about Andy? Did he read the book while you were writing it, or afterwards? And what reaction(s) did he have?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Andy also is a filmmaker so I’m his first critic. It’s actually hugely unique that we can do this without killing each other. I’m pretty fucking lucky. Though sometimes, we have to smack each other around.
Neal: What music specifically influences you, or even what music do you just love?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Jazz, hard rock, punk. Alternative. Classical and weird people no one’s heard of.
Sarah: Who’s your favorite cultural theorist?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Noam Chomsky, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Arundhati Roy, Michel Foucault, and Tom Waits.
Jeneva: I liked a lot about the book, but as a narrative that dealt in part with the reaction of the body & mind to abuse, I found the seemingly casual use of “retard/tard” and later “special ed/needs” very painful—and I wondered if there was a reason for that diction.
Lidia Yuknavitch: I know what you mean. It was a hard choice to use that diction. But I wanted to reflect the zeitgeist and emotion of how it felt to be us at that time. And I’m not very convinced by the cultural correcting of language in general. I think language use tells us so much about ourselves. Let it ride. Even the icky parts.
Georges: It was discussed that the central metaphor was that your sexuality was a battering ram. This came through much more strongly than the water metaphor for some.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yeah, I can see how it did. There is more than one central metaphor. I like to rob narrative coherence and hegemony with a myriad of metaphors.
DL: Did you consciously think “metaphor” when writing this? Or is this smoking jacket after talk?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes, I consciously thought “metaphor.” I’m a word junkie and a language and art junkie and I wanted to see what would happen if I took it to the edge.
Harley: I think referring to anything as ‘the __ metaphor’ in this book might be shortchanging it, swimming seems to be the subject of multiple metaphors and not a single extended one
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yep.
DL: I loved the art of taking images, experiences and building them with words, word houses. Sometimes writing feels like painting with words and you so concretely nailed that for me.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes. Like painting. Particularly for me. I paint too.
Sarah: What was your turning point when you decided that you liked certain aspects of patriarchy? i.e. academia, lit crit, etc.
Lidia Yuknavitch: It’s more that I wanted to chase it and fight it and pin it down. I’ve since let go of so much of it. When I turned fourty I announced at a prize ceremony that I would never write critically or theoretically again. And I remain suspicious of all language attached to the colonizer, oppressor. But trying to publish books, that’s part of it too. I figure you get into the system and eat away at it from the outside because I tried separatism and it bites.
Heather D: But if you name colonizer, doesn’t that require an “oppressed”? Can we find different language, or are those words/tropes socioeconomically required?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes, we can invent the different languages. But we are then responsible for creating the readers and speaking precisely the codes that break up and through things. It’s a hard road. But it’s worth it.
Harley: I would say that while my current academic experience at Columbia pays a lot of dues to dead white men, there’s a large chunk given to less authoritative things and a clear retaliation against that part of the canon.
Lidia Yuknavitch: It’s important to cozy up to dead white men on the path.
DL: I loved the last chapter but, it surprised me as well. It was wise (that wasn’t the surprise) and then it felt like c’mon in, the waters warm. It’s human. I felt a little different than the rest of the book—a reconciliation or something ?
Lidia Yuknavitch: It’s an attempt and uber compassion. No one is perfect. We’re all fuck ups. But we can help each other through the waves.
Georges: What is next for you?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I just finished a novel based on the Freud/Dora relationship, and I’m now writing a novel based on Joan of Arc. Shockingly.
Ray: Is anything autobiographical going to creep into the Joan of Arc book?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Um, yes.
Sharon: You mention Jeanette Winterson in COW… did you ever meet her in person? I think her book, The Passion, is beautiful.
Lidia Yuknavitch: If I met Jeanette Winterson I’d pee my pants. Then faint. I adore her terribly.
Janeen: Are you getting any flack for writing so frankly about female sexuality?
Lidia Yuknavitch: If you had to guess? I mean, I’m getting reinforcement, but it’s still not O.K. in the mainstream to go there. [I] just don’t care anymore. Pretty soon I’ll be fifty, and my sexual life is mythic, so I don’t feel like keeping it all secret any longer. If culture wants me to shut up, they can put a boot on my mouth.
Roxane: When women writers write about sex frankly it seems to be a topic demanding discussion in ways you don’t see when men write about sex frankly. Does this frustrate you? What will it take to change how women writers who write sex are perceived, etc?
Lidia Yuknavitch: It frustrates the fuck out of me. I mean what year is this? 2011? And we still can’t write frankly and precisely about our bodies? Again, market driven poopies. I have a body. You do. Let’s just write it. Deal? It’s about men writing frankly too, leaving the “script” of male sexuality that is sanctioned behind. Stephen is already on that path.
Stephen Elliott: I’m off the path. I’m laying in the weeds.
Lidia Yuknavitch: I’m a pretty big fan of weeds. I’ll meet you at the compost pile.
Harley: The line that lingered most brightly after reading, and not just for being a simile, was “like a mouth screaming motherfucker,” because I was so angry at the father myself and that angry energy felt redirected towards sexual aggression or something.
Lidia Yuknavitch: We need more narratives that allow rage. It’s not MFA sanctioned or market sanctioned but fuck that noise. We are in a new age. I for one can read rage and not flinch.
Neal: I found the frankness and the power in the writing about sex to be refreshing and eye-opening. It was like I was hearing a vital voice I hadn’t realized I had been missing.
Lidia Yuknavitch: We have to make it up. Then inhabit it. Then not apologize.
Heather D: Erotica tends to be off to the side. I love when great sex, like in this book, is integral to a bigger picture story.
Lidia Yuknavitch: But I still don’t have and probably won’t seduce any agents!!!
Sharon: Lidia, do you write every day? Can you talk about your writing routine?
Lidia Yuknavitch: No, I don’t write every day. It seems constipated to me to do that. I don’t mean that as poopy as it sounds, but I write in large 4-8 hour chunks when I’m moved and altered.
Ray: How much of the book was written as standalone essays and then tied together? Sometimes it has that Jesus’ Son feel, which I love.
Lidia Yuknavitch: None of it was written as stand alone essays. I wrote them in a series of fragments to mimic how memory works. Long, long answer there…
Harley: As a male reader I was disturbed by the males in the story, constantly wondering if I was/am capable of doing what they do. I’m pretty confident that I’m not like them but again, I still share their gender and primary hormone.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Well, we all share in what males do. Look at the things I did. I hope I left enough openings for us all to enter the story. It’s not just my story. I just wish we could speak like this more often—through art—it’s what’s real.
Georges: You could join the book club—we speak like this every day.
Lidia Yuknavitch: I’m in the book club! Support Rumpus!!!
Roxane: In general, a woman’s rage seems to have to be muted, ala Desperate Housewives, Betty draper, the rage there but swallowed. I think many people, myself included, have such strong reactions to the palpable rage in this book because there’s nothing muted about it.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yup, part of the drive of it. To speak the rage precisely and not flatly and not according to cultural sanctions.
Ray: I don’t know how much it’s always acceptable for a man to have rage either. Too much or a little in the wrong direction and he’s suddenly being portrayed as a (potential) batterer or abuser.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Male rage has been historically funneled into the agon model. It’s fucked up. It leads to perpetual war. Female rage is verboten but there is a lot in there we need to discover and emerge.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Sorry. “Agon” = Greek/Latin for contest or war.
Georges: Female rage can be just as fucked up, I think.
Lidia Yuknavitch: I could write a book about this.
Ray: See, that’s the thing. I also had that rage and used sex as a battering ram, but for a male protagonist to do those things, it would be perceived very differently.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Listen. I think we can agree that the underrepresented thing is female rage and I think what I wrote about crosses gender. Though I might be full of shit.
Harley: I agree that it is a bit asymmetrical, but in a way that just makes it even more of a challenge to address it in a sympathetic way. There are also plenty of ragey male narratives: American Psycho, wrestling, Eminem, etc.
Lidia Yuknavitch: If you keep talking about male rage I’m going to go drink scotch. Kidding. Sort of.
DL: How do you see this book affecting your son in the future?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I hope my son sees that I told one of many truths. I hope he sees women aren’t what his culture tells him. I hope he feels how his imagination is the most important thing about him.
Georges: What is the one thing you want in the world, more than any other thing, in a single word?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Love.
Betsy: I imagine this book was therapeutic. Do you ever feel anymore like you’re drowning? Does your childhood still bite you in the ass?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes. When dragged under, kick. Life is hard. But it’s also beautiful. Sometimes in the most base ways.
Caitlin: The majority of the discussion about your book was conducted by the ladies. Your book hit us in a different way, like it resonated on a gut level where it might have been different for the guys.
Lidia Yuknavitch: I get why women respond to this narrative. But I’m hearing from a lot of men too, privately, who know they have body stories that have been repressed. Also my father wanted a son. So I tried hard to be one. I think some of what I wrote and did reflects the son’s path. Like Whitman, I think all of us are at odds with the stories we are allowed to tell. So I hope that my story gets some of what we all hold inside that gives us back pain and headaches and substance abuse and loneliness. Some space.
Georges: COW evoked Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World, for me. You also paint. Did you draw inspiration for your written work through the visual?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Yes, completely. I’m more inspired by painting than writing.
DL: I appreciated the thoughts/info/discourse on memory and the shaping of the retelling.
Lidia Yuknavitch: I have been studying memory from the neuroscience and biochemistry level now for about 10 years.
DL: I’ve studied a lot on neuroscience/biochemistry as well. Is there a book or novel around that?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I loved In Search of Memory by Erik Kendal. It’s both fantastically smart because he’s a neuroscientist and beautifully lyrical because the dude can write! He narrates his Jewish family history. So you can guess where that goes. And it’s also a movie. Highly recommend.
Josh: O.K. Here goes. Are you Sugar? Some of us have been wondering. We’ve even read your older works, combed through the archives. So. Are you?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I am intimately involved with Sugar, is my answer.
Caitlin: We are never going to find out who Sugar is, are we?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I love you guys!!!! Thank you for the coolest thing in ever.
Roxane: Thanks for this book, Lidia and the conversation.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Goodbye sweet princes and princesses, I won’t ever forget this discussion.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Sam Riley.