Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me #12: Emily Carter

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I don’t know why this is first dawning on me about my own taste in books. But as I review the list of authors I’ve talked with for this series, I realize I’m especially drawn to memoirs, novels and story collections in which the author or protagonist is at odds with one parent or both, and wrestles with feeling like a tremendous disappointment to them.

Note to self: Duh. Those are probably the biggest things I wrestle with. Plus I worry I’ll make things worse by writing about it all, whether as memoir or autobiographical fiction.

But I’m a mere featherweight in this category when compared with Emily Carter, author of Glory Goes and Gets Some, an incisive collection of autobiographical fiction originally published in 2000, which manages to be simultaneously bleak and sardonically funny. Carter ­– the HIV-positive, recovering-heroin-addict daughter of feminist author Anne Roiphe, and sister of often contrarian cultural critic and author Katie Roiphe – earned her black sheep bona fides going where few Jewish girls, let alone Jewish girls from Park Avenue, dare to go.

The collection features Gloria Bronsky, Carter’s alter ego, from her desperate days of using, and sometimes trading sex for drug money, on the Lower East Side, to her years struggling to stay clean one soul-suckingly mundane day at a time in Minnesota, land of the Twelve Step rehab facilities and half-way houses ad nauseam. Stops along the way, on Park Avenue and at a fancy prep school, provide stark perspective; this is not your run of the mill junkie with HIV. This is “a rather charming statistical anomaly,” as Glory says in one of the book’s earlier stories, a daughter of the moneyed New York Jewish intellectual elite, who derailed.

While Carter acknowledges that Glory is very much based on her, it’s an amped-up depiction, “a shocking and almost grotesque version of myself,” she told me when we met at a diner on the Upper West Side. There we talked about many things, including the perils of writing about your parents – even when your mother herself was disowned by the wealthy side of her family for writing about them, in fiction and memoir. “It gets very meta, very quickly,” Carter said.

By the way, I first learned about Glory Goes and Gets Some from a post on Emily Gould’s blog. It’s the December selection for the awesome indie e-book store/club, Emily Books, which Gould launched a few months ago with her friend and business partner, Ruth Curry. Carter will have a discussion with her cousin, n+1 editor Marco Roth, at the January 10th Emily Books event at Word, Brooklyn.

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The Rumpus: You dedicate your book to your mother and your step-father. There are some stories in there that seem very autobiographical and I wonder whether they hit a nerve with them. Like “Train Line.”

Emily Carter: Well, this part here, (pointing to a page in the story describing Glory’s mother sizing up Glory’s new boyfriend) that could describe a lot of parents – “Status: Judeo-negative… Do NOT interact.” That’s not entirely untypical in a certain segment of society. That was not the one that upset.

Rumpus: There was one that did?

Carter: Yes!

Rumpus: Tell me about that.

Carter: Well, it blew over.

Rumpus: How?

Carter: Well, first of all, my mother made her living writing memoirs and extremely autobiographical novels about her family, and there were major ramifications from that. But she always told me to write whatever I had to, and not to worry. Now, when she saw the piece that hurt and offended her, she was very hurt and offended. I didn’t write it to do that. My love for them and my gratitude, I felt, showed through in my work. I felt that I never attacked them in my work that way. I had to write about growing up with the family I grew up with or I would have been somehow dishonest. But it was not my agenda to expose and destroy, or to hurt or offend. But there was some hurt and some offense taken.

Rumpus: Which story was it?

Carter: “The Bride.” It was supposed to be published as fiction. But it was rejected as fiction and sold as memoir. At the time I was really, really, really strapped for money, and I had to say, I don’t care what you call it, just publish it and pay me for my piece so I can pay my rent. I really was in no position to argue about the niceties of autobiographical fiction at that point in my life.

Rumpus: Did that one run in the New Yorker?

Carter: No, it ran in a magazine online called Word Magazine. But somehow somebody at the New York Times dug it up and said this piece was originally written as memoir when they reviewed the book. They mentioned my relationship with my mother and my family and said it wasn’t “cozy” because I’d done some gimlet-eyed descriptions of her here and there. I wrote them a letter in response saying basically, thank you for the review, but I love my mother. And she was upset. Especially because it was the New York Times, which for her and my family is the big book or the bible or the Higher Power. And it wasn’t to me, so I was a little bit shocked by the depth of her hurt. But it blew over. It was a number of weeks, and then she was over it. I mean, believe me, I’ve done worse things, and it wasn’t meant to hurt her. And it blew over because she knows that I’m a writer, she’s a writer, and we have to write what we see. And she also knew I didn’t do it to attack her. My agenda wasn’t to hurt.

Rumpus: My biggest dilemma is that in writing about my life, I’ve hurt people in my family, most notably my father.

Carter: I read one piece you wrote. It didn’t seem terribly hurtful to me. I mean, it described an unpleasant situation, but he didn’t come off as a monster by any stretch of the imagination.

Rumpus: I can’t write a memoir or a book of stories that are autobiographical without that piece of who I am. And so I just wrestle with this.

Carter: I guess you’re in a sticky wicket. I don’t know what to say except that it’s been my experience that no matter what you say, or how you couch it, the truth from your perspective may be painful to someone else. At the same time, I’ve found that people who are writing about flawed but loved people in their lives, if they’re not writing to expose those people, or to alienate them, as long as that’s not their agenda, that’s not mixed into the story, those things blow over. It depends on why you’ve written it. Now, Augusten Burroughs wanted to destroy his mother, maybe for good reason. It was also such an important story, it couldn’t not be told. But he wanted to destroy her, and they will never talk again. That was part of his agenda. He also wanted to expose this man who had drawn so many people into his orbit and hurt them, and he wanted to strike a blow against charismatic, damaging people. He wanted to hurt them the way he felt he’d been hurt. It was a brilliant book and it was wonderful, and it was his agenda.

If your agenda is to tell a good story, and you think someone’s flaws would make a good dramatic twist, it is a forgivable sin, and I think you’ll be forgiven. That’s truly what I believe. You can’t expect not to hurt. It will hurt. However, if your agenda is not just to hurt, I do think those things blow themselves over. If you’re deliberately trying to hurt a relative and destroy them, well, then yes.

Rumpus: That’s not at all my agenda. It’s just that a lot of my observations and a lot of my stories come from being this daughter.

Carter: And you love him. That came through in the piece I read, anyway.

Rumpus: Did you let your mother read the book before it went to press?

Carter: Much adored, my mother is often my first reader. I lay my work at her feet like a cat would a bird. Also, I value her feedback. I do try to keep from her things that might upset her, but I’m afraid I’ve made her judge aesthetically content that might have affected her emotionally.

Rumpus: Did you leave your last name, Roiphe, off the book to protect her?

Carter: I used Carter to avoid any taint of nepotism should I get published, which I didn’t for years, and was silly anyway since the underground ‘zine type mags I was writing for had never heard of anything as mainstream as my Upper West Side, Times Book Review-reading mother. The first thing I was published in was a cute little pamphlet calling itself “Dumb Fucker Review.” It paid in copies.

Rumpus: It was so interesting reading one of your mom’s memoirs, 1185 Park Avenue, after you and I talked on the phone. Here she’s writing this memoir about some intense family stuff, and in it she talks about writing autobiographical fiction years before that made her father distance himself from her. And then here you are writing this, and it’s very meta.

Carter: Yes, it gets very meta very quickly – a big meta mess! What my mother did was she got us disowned from the wealthy side of the family, which she could have thought of when she was 27, writing her books! But she had to tell the truth.

Rumpus: Was the choice to write autobiographical fiction instead of memoir a creative impulse? Or was it an attempt to protect people?

Carter: It was a creative impulse. It was also easier for me. Instead of writing five stories about five different people, I could composite them and make a person up that I believed exemplified this, that or the other point that I was trying to get across. Did I steal from life? Like a ruthless little gonif I stole from life. But I put it together in my own way.

Rumpus: When we spoke on the phone, you said that the book is only partly autobiographical. Is it that there are some stories that are, and some that aren’t, or that each is a mix?

Carter: There are stories there that are about other people besides the main character, and they are 100 percent fictional. But the stories that are autobiographical, the character is a shocking and almost grotesque version of myself. It’s not really me. It certainly deals with feelings I’ve had myself, but ratcheted up to ten. If you could create a character made of all your worst insecurities and worst feelings and have someone say them out loud for you through a megaphone, that’s what Glory is. It’s not an accurate reflection of my character or how you’d find me in a conversation. And certainly, I always kept in mind that if something made me uncomfortable in myself or in a situation, that’s where I would go. I would make that more of my focus; I would make it bigger.

Rumpus: I’ve thought a lot about doing that kind of thing. Years ago, I did some MFA work, and my natural inclination then was to fictionalize real situations. And then somewhere along the line, I switched gears to nonfiction. I still consider writing fiction. I think it would be kind of fun to have a character who does all the shit I’m afraid to do. But I also have this feeling like I can’t get there until I get the true stuff out first.

Carter: I understand that feeling. The only thing I can say is, it’s a ruthless business. And there isn’t much you can do to make that easier for people, especially if it’s somebody who really has a resistance against it. But I’d say you can stick to your guns about your intention, and say it’s not to expose or hurt or offend, but to tell and to explain. Because, if you believe your story will connect with other people, that it’s a story worth telling, you have to tell it.

Rumpus: I’ve got all these stories I’m so afraid to tell. Like about how I grew up adjacent to affluence, but not from an affluent family myself. I had these step-sisters who had trust funds, and they had this grandmother who would give them thousands of dollars every year, and then she’d give me and my sister each a card at Chanukah with one crisp dollar bill in it.

Carter: That’s a great story. How can you not write that story? With the card and the crisp dollar bill. It’s a story that needs telling, not to attack, but because it’s the story of a young person having that kind of experience. There’s always that story in families of someone getting the short end of the stick, and what is that like?

Rumpus: If I ever get my shit together and complete my book, maybe I’ll open it with an explanation of where I’m coming from, and hope it will help people be less upset.

Of all the composite characters in your book, did any of the people they were based on ever come to you and say, “I can tell that’s me, and I’m pissed.”

Carter: No, and it’s a good thing, too. But one of the people I based one very small part of a character on, to our great sorrow, wound up shooting his girlfriend in the head – not killing her – and is in jail for the rest of his life. A very sweet person when sober. A very different person. He did this heinous thing. That’s someone I’d like to not have mad at me. But I had to steal his story. It was too good. I suppose if he confronted me I’d admit it and say, it was that particular thing, it was a good story, give him some money if he asked for it. You know, I didn’t make a lot of money from this book. But I don’t feel bad about what I did. I certainly don’t. I used more bits and pieces of incidents than whole stories. And I only did that with people I cared about. Because, you know, we only kill the ones we love.

Rumpus: Did you sit down and write most of this at once?

Carter: No. It was like five years until I had enough to have a collection. And then I had to add parts to make it more read-through, more cohesive. I was hearing that short stories didn’t sell, short stories didn’t sell, short stories didn’t sell. So I wrote some interstices and some pieces that would make it seem more novelistic, more like a book about a certain place and time. I wrote some more interstices and more characters to make it more overarching and give it a narrative.

Rumpus: Did you sell it when it was complete?

Carter: No, it was rejected by everybody – everyone my agent sent it to. And I sent it myself to a small local press and they accepted it.

Rumpus: How long did it take you to sell it?

Carter: About two years.

Rumpus: And then it got resold?

Carter: It got resold for paperback.

Rumpus: Have you considered doing another book?

Carter: You know, for the past 10 years, I’ve been really involved in other things. I am starting to come back to it, and we’ll see what happens. After you’ve not been writing for a while, you’re very rusty. My gears are grinding back up. The machine is coming back to creaky life.

Rumpus: What have you been doing?

Carter: I’ve been studying ethology. Which is animal cognition. And taking some dog training courses. And I was taking care of a lot of animals. And I was helping my husband study for nursing school. He went back at 45 to get his RN. So now I have a private nurse. And I’ve been basically following my bliss. I’ve been making money here and there doing book reviews. I still do book reviews for the Star Tribune, to try and make some money. Doing a long piece again is very scary. I can actually hear these rusty gears turning and creaking, clicking into place and screaming out for WD 40.


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 →