Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me #9: Elisa Albert

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When I tell people my greatest fears around writing memoir – namely of upsetting family members by writing about them and/or revealing to them less “virtuous” aspects of myself – this suggestion almost always arises: “Why don’t you just fictionalize?”

While I realize this is not quite the simple solution to the problem that some people think it is, the thought has certainly occurred to me.  In fact, whether to write fiction or memoir is a debate I have been having with myself for a good twenty years, since the early 90s, when I dabbled in graduate school, first at Sarah Lawrence, and later at City College. I’ve done some of each, and while I enjoyed certain aspects of working on fiction, I’ve come back again and again to first-person non-fiction. It’s just always seemed more natural for me.

For reasons I can’t seem to name, after a period of feeling more emboldened, I’m now back to feeling fearful about writing memoir again, and am seriously considering shelving a lot of material until my parents pass on. There’s plenty of other stuff I want to write that has nothing to do with them, so I could still write memoir. But somehow, thinking about all that brings me back to my old debate.

I thought it would be helpful – and interesting – to take the conversation outside my head and have it with Elisa Albert, a friend whose writing I admire tremendously. Albert is the author of the darkly funny, irreverent novel, The Book of Dahlia – in which inoperable brain tumor patient Dahlia Finger essentially gives an annoying self-help author and the rest of the world the finger – and the hilarious, often politically incorrect short story collection, How This Night Is Different, which skewers an assortment of Jewish stereotypes while also shedding sympathetic light on a variety of human frailties and dynamics.

Albert, who is at work on her second novel, describes both books as “personal” as opposed to autobiographical, although they are rooted in her own experiences. I met with her to talk about this at her home in Albany, New York.

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The Rumpus: Part of me has come to feel as if there’s some stuff I just can’t write until my parents are gone. After all this back and forth with different authors, and different conversations that you and I have had, I don’t know if I can write about them until they’re gone. Although, don’t hold me to this – I’ll probably go back and forth a few more times.

Elisa Albert: So you’re assuming they’re going to die before you?

Rumpus: Hmm. Well, you have a good point. Yeah, if it’s the other way, it’s not going to work out so well.

Albert: You’re deciding you’re not going to write it at all, or you’re going to wait a long time?

Rumpus: I think I’m going to wait a long time for the stuff that’s about them. I’m thinking that I can write some of the other stuff first – the stuff that’s not about them. I’ve got so much that I’ve meant to write for so long, and haven’t, that there’s a very deep well. I think I’m making peace with writing things about myself that might upset my parents. But that’s just stuff about me. Who knows? Maybe, after I’ve gotten over that hump, then I’ll be able to write the things about them while they’re still alive. But maybe not.

Albert: Why can’t you write it and not publish it? Why can’t you write it all, and then afterward decide what you want out in the world, and what you don’t?

Rumpus: I don’t trust myself. As soon as I’ve written something, if I’m pleased with it, I get really itchy about getting it out there. That’s already happened a few times. I get it out of me and I start to like it and start obsessively tweaking it, and then I just want everybody to see it. I also feel guilty just writing some of it. I’m still very conflicted about writing about parents, family members and other people close to me. One of the suggestions people always have for me, is “Why don’t you just make it fiction?”

For various reasons, whether to write fiction or memoir is a conversation I’ve been having with myself for literally twenty years. I thought I’d have it with you, now. You and I have discussed this before – you describe your fiction very specifically as “personal.”

Albert: Yeah. Not autobiographical, but personal.

Rumpus: But in talking, you’ve said that a lot is drawn from your own life. You’ve talked about some of the characters in The Book of Dahlia being really close to people in your family. And so in a way, you’re taking almost the same risk as someone who’s writing a memoir.

Albert: Well, not really. That’s a misunderstanding of what fiction is. Fiction is not reality with the names changed. It’s a completely bizarre, singular stew in which things that are real get mixed up with things that are invented. It’s a weird hybrid – a donkey head on a zebra body in a fourth dimension kind of thing, even when it’s realistic and even when it’s pseudo-recognizable, or people assume that it’s about you, or ‘I recognize your father’, or ‘I recognize your brother’. It’s just this new beast that emerges when you put everything in the hopper. It’s not a solution to writer’s block, I don’t think. A lot of it feels involuntary. I don’t sit and make conscious decisions about what I’m going to “use” and what I’m not. Stuff that needs to be used is there and there’s no way around it. And the craft part comes in trying to appropriate it and use it well, use it in a way that’s interesting and opens new questions and pathways and can lead to bigger issues. It’s not as simple as plucking things that really happened from your life or your experience and just changing names or making it set on Mars. It’s a weird thing.

Rumpus: It’s not a conscious decision you make?

Albert: I can’t really articulate to you where it all comes from or how it happens. The Lorrie Moore story, “How To Become A Writer,” is the be-all and end-all, as far as I’m concerned. Everyone could dispense with a lot of talk about fiction and craft, and a lot of what goes on in MFA programs, if they just read that story, like, 15 times. Because it says everything. She has a teacher of writing describe it as recombinant DNA. You start it in a realistic context, and then you alter it, and then you alter it again, so those imaginings ripple out and it can no longer be traced back to reality, really.

Rumpus: And yet there is some connection to reality that you acknowledge.

Albert: A friend whose novel is about to come out – she’s freaked out about ‘what are people going to say?’, what projections are going to be put on her, what people are going to assume about her life – and she said, “Maybe one day we can go through The Book of Dahlia and you can tell me what’s real and what’s not? Did this happen? Did that happen? Like, line-by-line, let’s go through it.” And I’m like, “No!” And this is someone who’s a friend, who knows me.

Rumpus: I guess that’s a burden whether you write fiction or nonfiction. People are going to read it and think, “Oh, is this you? Is this what you think about things?”

Albert: And that’s okay. That’s fine. It was harder at the very beginning. It hasn’t taken that many years for it to just become something funny and odd that happens and I don’t care. It’s not me, it’s not my problem. It has nothing to do with me. It doesn’t affect me. I mean, people who know me, know me. People who don’t know me are going to think or project whatever they want. And it’s not my problem.

Rumpus: My friend Emily Mandel just sort of scoffs at the notion of “write what you know.” She just essentially makes everything up. There’s no clear Emily character in her writing. While I admire that ability and her talent, it doesn’t feel like something I particularly want to do. By the way I have notions that for me the simple solution is to just fictionalize what happened in my life – change names and circumstances. I mean, sometimes I imagine these stories – and I’ve written a few short ones – where there’s a character who is similar to me, but she is better and worse than me, more exaggerated, and she does the things I only think of doing. Sometimes I just think that would be fun. But, doing that, I still run into the same problem of, well, it is rooted in me, and so I am still revealing myself if I write it, and revealing the people around me whose actions made me think and feel things I wanted to write about in the first place.

Albert: Yeah, I think that’s unavoidable. Even if you’re a crime novelist or a science fiction writer or whatever. By definition anything that you can make up is confined by the limits of your perspective. Unless you drop acid before you write, you’re going to have a really hard time having a perspective that’s not yours. You can only imagine as much as you can imagine. You can only empathize as much as you can empathize. That’s the limit of who you are and who you’ve been and where you come from and what you know. That’s not to say that fiction is all autobiographical, because it’s not. I have to be able to relate to the people I’m inventing or writing about – even the ones who don’t get along. It’s what I imagine acting to be. When you see an actor do her thing, you don’t get to know her any better by watching her on stage or watching her in a movie. But you think you do because you’re seeing her interpretation of a hopefully very specific human being. And that does come from somewhere inside her. It’s based on something she knows or feels, and some empathy she’s able to have for the character. So everything comes from the self that way. I don’t really think about it so much when I’m writing, though. I get into a groove and the self dissolves. There is no more me. I am left behind, and I’m in the world of what I’m working on. Ideally, on a good day, I lose myself. That’s what’s fun about it. That’s where the joy and the fun of it is.

Rumpus: It seems like fun. I mean – I’ve sort of gone there at times. I’m tempted to go there again. But I am pretty sure that for me, it would involve mostly material that is really close to my life. I’ve toyed with making things up completely now and then, but it just never had the same appeal resonance for me as working with what really happened, because I think about that so much. But I suppose there are outcomes and attitudes that could be different.

Albert: If we sat down and went line-by-line through Dahlia, I could say, Oh, that did happen to me, oh that happened to a friend of mine, that’s something I heard about, or I always imagined this. I could trace out where it comes from, draw you a convoluted diagram or something. My dad is this really this incredibly nice, tall, Jewish lawyer, like Bruce Finger. But he’s not Bruce Finger. Their biographies are different, the way their roles are played out is different. It’s not the story of my family.

Rumpus: And you are not Dahlia Finger, seeing as you don’t have brain cancer, and you haven’t died.

Albert: But my brother did. He had a brain tumor and died at 29. And that’s totally where this book comes from. But, as I’ve said over and over again, my brother was Dahlia’s opposite. He was a proactive, positive, wonderful guy. He didn’t complain for a minute. He didn’t say fuck life and fuck this and fuck all y’all for a minute. But something sparked in my head when I was a teenager, watching him die. I imagined this alternate universe person in the same situation who was going to handle things really differently. So is it autobiographical? No. But it comes from this completely intense experience. And clearly I thought it was worth telling, because I told it. But the goal was never to illuminate my experience. The goal was not to make myself understood. The goal was to explore what all this shit means, and how people deal, and how they don’t, and what happens in families. My family has something in common with that family.

Rumpus: Did you ever worry as you were going through later drafts, oh, shit, my mother or father are going to see this and not be flattered – or, my brother. I mean, your living brother, you’ve told me that he’s really close to the brother character in the book. So were there any anxieties about that, the same way that someone writing a memoir might…

Albert: There honestly were none. I somehow escaped that particular thing. I think it has something to do with the fact that my parents, being the unique people they are, both feel incredibly guilty for a lot of the things that happened and the way our family played out. They are incredibly loving and supportive. And so the combination of that loving, supportive, “You want to be a writer? God speed,” and the, “Oh my god we fucked up so badly and we know it and we’re so sorry” – combination works out sort of perfectly in that I can say whatever I want. Nobody is going to try to silence me, even passively.

Rumpus: Really? No digs, even?

Albert: My mother will sometimes make a joke. A friend of hers said, after Dahlia came out, “I’m glad she’s not my daughter.”  And I think it hurt her. I think it made her realize other people were reading it with a perspective other than “Isn’t it great that my daughter is doing what she wants to be doing and is having some success at it?” She didn’t speak to that friend for a while, she told me. And I think it’s taken her a while to feel secure and okay. But she doesn’t put that shit on me. She just doesn’t. I’m really blessed that way – both of them are supportive. They’re like, “Congratulations on getting your books published, and how amazing that you’ve emerged as a writer, and way to go, and say whatever you want, however you want to.”

Rumpus: What about your brother?

Albert: Well, my brother is a different story. For a long time, I wasn’t concerned with what he would think or feel because I felt like that relationship had reached its end, and I had sort of given up on him.

Rumpus: Yeah, I noticed in Freud’s Blind Spot, the anthology of essays about siblings you edited, in the intro, you talk about how disappointed you have been with him, and how he’s not been the brother you wanted, and I thought, my sister would kick my ass if I wrote anything even approaching that.

Albert: The blessing and curse with my brother, though, is that it’s so far gone – our estrangement and the travesty of our relationship – that it doesn’t really matter anymore what I say or don’t say. Actually, when I was working on Freud’s Blind Spot, I was in a really different place than when I was writing Dahlia. When I was writing Dahlia, I was like, I don’t fucking care, I will portray this character as extremely as I want. I had reached a point where I was like, I give up, there is no relationship here, I can’t make it different, I have no responsibility to this person. It’s been pretty powerful and upsetting over the years. And I will be loyal to myself. I’m not going to protect someone who’s really hurt me. And now some years have gone by, and I’ve come to an understanding that as much as I still want to be on my own side and validate the little girl I was growing up in a really bad situation, I don’t need to be carrying around a lot of enmity toward him. I have increased empathy toward him as I get older, and I see how he suffers, and how his life has been hard for him. I don’t feel as strongly about him as I used to.

Rumpus: You’re able to have a relationship with him now?

Albert: I’m at the point where I hope I can some day soon be in a room with him and not take a Xanax.

Rumpus: Did your brother read Dahlia?

Albert: I have no idea.

Rumpus: What about your parents – did they see what you wrote about the brother character and feel protective of your brother?

Albert: Not that I know of.

Rumpus: Do you think your parents would consider adopting me? I run such a high risk with my parents. Not just of losing them, but of hurting them. I so envy that support you have.

Albert: You know, I don’t think it’s your job. I mean, I don’t want to sound like a sociopath, but if you’re not doing what you want to be doing, not saying what you want to be saying, at some point you’re harming yourself to avoid harming them. That looming threat of what they would do or how they would react is not right.

And in some alternate parallel universe where you write whatever the fuck you want to write and publish it and fulfill whatever goals for whatever it is you want to say, I bet they’d initially be upset, but then they’d get over it.

Rumpus: Well, I often think about creating this character who writes whatever the fuck she wants to write – an alternate parallel universe me. You know, I wrote and have been be performing this monologue about how I used to cut class in high school to go home and sing by myself, and then I got caught by my annoying step brother when I was belting at the top of my lungs. Some of the people who have seen it, have said, “I love the way you go and become your teenage self again in the piece,” and I’ve since realized that I’m actually not being my teenage self – I’m being who I wished I’d had the guts to be then. The me in the monologue is sassy and outspoken. The me in real life was so timid, I was whispering my feelings into a tape recorder hidden in my closet. I whispered my upset and angry feelings over the bat mitzvah tape my dad made for me to study with, and I had the humiliating experience of having to ask him to do it again for me. But anyway, this brings me back to the acting analogy you made. As a kid, I was really shy, but if I was acting on stage, in a role, I could not be shy, because I was expressing emotions I was familiar with, but through somebody else.

Albert: Right. It gives you a veil. You don’t have to stand naked in front of an audience. You can inhabit somebody else and channel yourself through that.

Rumpus: I’m sort of doing that in the monologue. Even though the events in the monologue are real, it’s a fictional version of me. It’s been a fun departure for me. I think that’s part of why I wanted to switch gears and interview someone who writes fiction that is personal, who has at the root a character based on who you are, but goes a million other places with it.

Albert: Well, that’s exactly it. I don’t think I ever write about who I am. I don’t think I’m capable of that. I think I write about someone I wish I was, or someone I fear being, or some other tweak. Somebody who can actually see who they are and communicate that in a clear-eyed way? That’s a very rare and special skill, and I don’t have it. When I try to write personal essays, they usually are, I think, total failures. And even if I don’t think they’re failures immediately, six months or a year later I look back and think, “That’s a total load of shit.”  That’s why I’m a fiction writer. I can’t write unless I’m inhabiting a role, and I am bringing myself to bear in how I interpret that role. I mean, if you have a magnifying glass, you can suss out things about me. If you’re a Jungian psychologist, you can probably make statements about who I might be, if you read everything I’ve ever written, tease me out. But that’s not my goal. I’m not trying to write about myself or illuminate myself. I’m trying to understand things that confuse me, I’m trying to answer questions for myself. A book is like a conversation I’m having with myself. And when that conversation is over, the book is done. The assumption is that if these are big questions for me, if they’re things that I’m trying to work out, then they are important because my perspective matters, and my humanity matters. I don’t, for some reason, often fall prey to the idea of “Oh, what I have to say doesn’t really matter. What do I know? Who cares about what I think?”

Rumpus: Well, yeah. The personal is universal. Like, if it matters to you, somebody else is going to relate to it.

Albert: People misunderstand that sometimes. They think it means that your experience is going to be meaningful to everybody, but that’s not what it means. It means that the things that vex you and challenge you and disappoint you about life itself are probably meaningful to others.

Rumpus: You know, I hate to say this, but I haven’t read a memoir I’ve loved in a little while. I’m feeling a little burnt on the genre. Maybe it’s because that’s what I mostly read. I want to be mistaken for getting on the anti-memoir bandwagon. I still generally love them. And maybe that is what I’m writing. Again, don’t hold me to any of this. I will continue to dither – trust me. I mean, I’m writing. I just am not sure what it is.

Albert: Well, that actually has its place. It’s part of the work.

Rumpus: Switching gears, does anybody ever come to you and say, “I see myself in your book, and I don’t like the way you’ve portrayed me”?

Albert: No, never. People assume they know me, though. That happens all the time.

Rumpus: That has to be very annoying.

Albert: It used to be scary and kind of sinister and threatening and creepy. It used to really creep me out, and confuse me. Because then I felt like, “Am I that person?” I’m 32 and I can’t tell you exactly who I am. I hope I’m still evolving and changing, and I don’t have very set ideas about who I am. As I get older they feel less set.

But when people assume I’m one of my characters, and react strongly against my fiction, it feels like they’re reacting against me.  People have really strong feelings about Dahlia, like, “I don’t want to read about some horrible, lazy, no-good, complainer who doesn’t deserve to live.” It’s like, whoa, who are you talking about? I’ve definitely had my moments of confronting that stuff and being like, maybe I am a lazy, no-good, fucked up complainer. It’s a weird mind fuck. And I’ve had it happen many times that someone comes up to me and says, “You’re much nicer than I thought you would be.” It’s interesting. At this point, I just say,  “Oh, cool, I’m glad.” I think I’m somewhat okay.

But, you know, I’m really not interested in reading or writing about noble people. I think that’s such a load of bullshit.

Rumpus: Yeah, me either. When I did some graduate school, I was in this short story workshop with Deborah Eisenberg, and there was this stupid guy in the class who responded to one of my stories by saying something like, “I don’t like these characters; I’d never be friends with people like this,” and I thought, how sad for you! That is so not the point of writing fiction or anything. I’m not at all interested in reading about noble characters. I want to read about people with flaws.

Albert: The things that are good in life, the things that work as they should, and the relationships that fulfill what they’re meant to, hallelujah. Thank god for that in life. That’s precious. But now let’s talk about the shit that needs talking about! I don’t see the point of looking at things that are great and noble and perfect and as they should be. Maybe in the acknowledgments. But I’m not going to spending three years of my life sort of masturbating to everything that’s as it should be.

Rumpus: I think that’s one of the things that’s so risky for me, whether I write fiction or non-fiction. It’s revealing my fascination with those sorts of flaws, which might indicate that I have some of those flaws.

Albert: No! Really?

Rumpus: I really do. Yes, I do in fact have flaws. But in my family, I’m the good daughter. I’m also a clergyman’s daughter, so people often assume impose upon me this beatific aura, and assume that I LOVE synagogue, too.

Albert: Because clergy are such exemplary people.

Rumpus: So it’s a coming out for me, no matter what I write. I’m admitting I cast a jaundiced eye on a thing or two. I need to find my balls about that, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction.

Albert: I don’t think it really matters. Right now I’m writing a first-person novel that I hope will read like a memoir. I want it to feel like you are inside this person’s head, and in this person’s life, experiencing everything that she is experiencing. I think a really high-quality first-person novel can read like an incredible memoir. Not because it’s autobiographical, or because anything in it really happened, but because of a completely un-self-conscious, raw disclosure.

But in any genre, if you’re true to your own vision there are going to be people you alienate. You can’t please everybody. Pleasing somebody can’t be the goal, either. The only person you can guarantee satisfying is yourself, in creating whatever it is you want to create. That’s why I really do see it as a conversation with myself – not in a navel gazing kind of way, I hope. If I’m entertaining myself, if I’m having fun, if I’m in it, I’ve lost myself in it, then I can feel good about that day’s work. If I’m trying to please god knows who, then I’m wasting my time and there’s no point to any of it. If I’m writing to please an editor or my mother, or some woman I met at a reading, it’s a waste.

Rumpus: So you divorce yourself from all commercial concerns?

Albert: I do. That was how I was educated. That’s how I came up through this stuff and started as a reader. My coming of age as a writer has nothing to do with, like, bestseller-dom. It’s about fidelity to some truth or vision that I want to give voice to. It all sounds very idealistic, but that’s it. I’d rather not write anymore than have to write something so that somebody can like it. There are so many things I want to do with my life before I turn writing into that kind of thing. It’s a freedom. It’s the fulfillment of a kind of personal freedom. It’s why I’m a happier person when I’m writing. When I’m not writing, I’m not as happy, and I’m not as pleasant to be around.


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 →