The Rumpus Book Club Interviews Laurie Weeks

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The Rumpus Book Club talks with Laurie Weeks about Zipper Mouth, her road to The Feminist Press, and words that do backflips.

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.

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Laurie Weeks: Just letting you know I’m here. Never done this before, and THRILLED to be asked.

Isaac Fitzgerald: Hi Laurie! Welcome to the very formal Rumpus Book Club! :)

Laurie Weeks: Maybe no one will come! Apologizing in advance . . .

Isaac Fitzgerald: Nah, I don’t think you need to worry about that Laurie. Your book was beloved by the club, not just Betsy and David G.

David G: Laurie, if no one comes you should cut out early and meet me in Brooklyn.

Laurie Weeks: Ok, ha ha, except I’m upstate, plus have a flat tire . . .

Betsy: Laurie – Reading your book was a breath of fresh air. The protagonist is written in an unselfconscious manner. I found myself wanting to hang with a junkie who lives in a total mess and pukes in publicI particularly love the scene where the narrator and Jane are “sprawled on the sidewalk, leaning against the chain-link fence of a playground…” It is loathsome and endearing at once.

Laurie Weeks: Ha ha! Hmm, where to start. Well, thank you for that. Sometimes the book feels so dark to me that I find myself slumping over in shame.

Betsy: You write her without judgment. I actually found it more delightful than dark, though I recognized elements of skeez.

David G: A thing I struggled with was seeing the main character of ZM as non-autobiographical.

Laurie Weeks: I understand the autobiography struggle, because I have it myself. I always have alter-egos though.

Bobby: Is that weird, that we struggled to not think of it as autobiography?… I mean that as a compliment, since it has such a lived in feel.

David G: YES she’s so so so real, that she’s actually ruined the “average” character for me in some ways. I have been much more critical of the characters in fiction since I finished the book.

Laurie Weeks: Well, she both is and is-not me, which is a total cop-out, so let me just say that many of the situations are analogous to things I’ve experienced, but at the same time I’ll often take a sentence from one of my journals or something, like, say, “We were walking down 13th Street,” and that ignites something which makes the story completely take off by itself. I’m glad you like that chain-link scene… I really struggled with that one.

Frances: I didn’t find it dark. The writing is so engaging that it carries the reader forward willy-nilly.

Laurie Weeks: Frances, I’m so glad you said that, because my mom read the book and I was afraid it was going to kill her. The sex stuff—who in the name of god wants your mother to be reading that?

Isaac Fitzgerald: You can never think about writing like that though, or nothing would ever get written.

Laurie Weeks: Isaac: I know. You can’t think about your mother when you’re writing. Or rather, think about her reading your work.

Isaac Fitzgerald: Ha! Yea, you can think about parents plenty while writing.

Laurie Weeks: But she was a love machine about the whole thing, don’t ask me why. I thought no one in my tiny town would read it but word seems to have gotten around and now I’m getting all these letters. It’s really weird.

Betsy: She is the antithesis of me, in a way. Where I would pay the rent before I’d eat, she ignores the landlord and states “my life is a piece of shit.” I just love her. The book is loaded with humor.

Laurie Weeks: Betsy, BTW, I’m like you. I would totally pay the rent before I’d eat. That isn’t autobiographical.

David G: Where are you from?

Laurie Weeks: I’m from Idaho.

Frances: One aspect I really liked is her repugnance at certain words: squat, pumps. I have the same repugnance for certain words and people generally don’t get it.

Laurie Weeks: Really? The repulsion for certain words issue is an example of the writing giving rise to something that totally surprised me. I didn’t sit down to say that—I’d never even given it any thought. Then, there it was.

David G: From what I understand “panties” is a pretty unpopular word, especially with the ladies of my generation.

Laurie Weeks: I’ve started saying “knickers,” because my girlfriend is from London. That calmed me down a bit. That part is totally autobiographical, though like I said, I had no idea until I wrote it.

Betsy: How did the idea come to you to create a character who writes to dead celebrities? The letters are fantastic.

Laurie Weeks: The letters to celebrities thing just happened. I didn’t know it was going to happen when I sat down to write. Judy Davis sat in a drawer for 4 years, Sylvia for much longer, though I’d pull it out and work on it from time to time. I started out writing poetry, so when I finally started writing stories I felt nervous unless things were extremely compressed.

Betsy: And I love her secret treatment of her employers: “I am a Total Cunt: Sue’s Story.” Again, I cry when my boss puts me in my place. This chick just lets it rip. God, I love her.

Bobby: Could you talk a little about the book’s journey and how it ended up at feminist press?

Laurie Weeks: Ok, the book’s journey. I wish I could answer all these questions at once. Where are one’s multiple personalities when you need them the most? Ok, sorry.

The book’s been sitting around in boxes for like, 10-12 years, for starters. I moved back to NYC from San Diego, where I was teaching at the university, in 2006. A former student from SD brought a publisher to one of my readings at the fabulous Dixon Place, where I’ve read for years. It’s where I did my first reading in 1991 or something.

So this guy called me a few months later (we’d been introduced at the reading but I of course had forgotten about it) and said that he was starting a new press after his job of many years was axed due to funding problems. He had funding to start a new press and wanted to publish the book. I was like, “Great!” because I’m not very good at self-promotion (that sounds wrong—like secretly self-congratulatory, as in “My worst trait is that I love too much”)–I’ve lost track of the punctuation… But then the guy’s funding fell through. For the new press. Then he took a major job as editor and publisher of a big gay/lesbian press and wanted to put it out as his first novel, but last year, right as it was going to typesetting, the press crashed.

Isaac Fitzgerald: Uggggghhhhh. Heard a lot of stories like that these last few years. So terrible. Must be unbelievably crappy to go through.

Laurie Weeks: I was pretty demoralized, but was in the midst of moving and life, so couldn’t deal with it, and into that lacuna came Amy Scholder, my hero. She sent me an email saying, “Weeks, what’s up with your book?” Really, I think that’s all it said.

Betsy: Come on, you’re making up this story. Tell the real one.

Laurie Weeks: I was completely thrilled because—Betsy, no, for reals, G! I’ve wanted to work with Amy forEVER and I just could not believe it, but we’d kind of lost track of each other. I’m pretty shy about showing my work. So I wrote her back, she said send me the manuscript, I did, she wrote back saying she loved it. I couldn’t believe it. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief, because I completely respect her work—seriously, not to be corny, but it was totally a dream come true.

Isaac Fitzgerald: And how long ago from that moment had you written the manuscript?

Laurie Weeks: Well, I had truly finished the document like 10 seconds before.

I would have published it with her no matter where she was working, but the fact that she was at The Feminist Press utterly thrilled me. Am I saying “thrilled” every two seconds?

But then Amy went over it and had some great suggestions, so we changed a few things—I LOVE working with her, because we were going over “ands” and commas and semi-colons etc. It’s every writer’s dream to have that kind of editor, right? I mean, like in Ye Olden Days.

Frances: I think it’s wonderful you had an editor who paid attention to punctuation and such. Seems to me most editors these days can’t punctuate.

Laurie Weeks: Yeah, re: punctuation. I don’t want to trivialize what Amy did; my point is that she got the rhythms and how crucial they were, she got everything, from the biggest issues down to the tiniest, is I guess what I’m trying to say.

Isaac Fitzgerald: I heart good editors.

Laurie Weeks: OMG, I HEART good editors! HEART HEART HEART.

Frances: I felt very sad for the narrator as a child. Fear of tumors, fear of death, no grounding from her parents, adrift in a frightening world. Bullied at school, oddly introspective, longing for nurturing. Very sad.

Laurie Weeks: Oh, Frances, that’s nice to hear. I mean, not that I was trying to make anyone sad. I was trying to step away from any cheap pathos or anything.

Frances: It was realistic and not cheap pathos at all.

Betsy: The narrator is just so damn accessible. Her cats are Cherry and Steve. Her rent is overdue, her temp jobs suck, she has a habit to support, she’s in love, she eats shitty food. She has guts. I didn’t find her childhood sad. Worthy of pity, perhaps, but to me it was normal.

Laurie Weeks: Ok, what’s the question about Jane?

Betsy: I mostly want to know what she knows. Narrator claims to know Jane is flirting but is that accurate or does she just feel jerked around?

Laurie Weeks: I’m very interested to hear that you found Jane interesting, because I was worried that she’d just be one-dimensional… Do you guys find that you never really know how things are going to affect readers?

Anyway, Jane I think DOES know that the narrator is crushed-out on her… I wanted it to start out as a mutual thing, but I didn’t—right? She was totally FLIRTING. Ha ha.

Betsy: Jane is more naive than narrator but not one-dimensional… But is Jane conflicted about her own sexuality or is she just enjoying yanking the chain of narrator?

Laurie Weeks: I don’t think she’s yanking the narrator’s chain, at least not consciously. I didn’t want to assume too much about her, because we’re in the narrator’s head and so much that’s going on, she’s unconscious of herself, which was really fun to write. I mean, her delusions etc.

David G: Maybe Jane even sometimes daydreams about what it’d be like to give in and kiss … the narrator. Us.

Laurie Weeks: Hmmm. I have to think about Jane, because other people have made similar comments and it made me really happy. Because I didn’t want to do that thing where Jane is pure evil and manipulative as opposed to the narrator’s total goodness.

Betsy: God no. She’s not manipulative or evil. She’s just got her own thing going on. I mean, Jane’s not privy to the narrator’s thoughts as are we, and even if she’s a tease I think she’s a friend, too.

Bobby: Jane is… It’s hard to let go of the feeling of being loved, even if you don’t reciprocate, yes? That’s how I read it anyway.

David G: Oh, Laurie: how old is the narrator? And when is the book set? It felt mostly timeless to me but I have been describing her as a “late 20s early 30s lesbian in late 80s early 90s Manhattan.”

Laurie Weeks: Yeah, early to mid-90s. Late 20s to early 30s. Nailed it.

David G: I explained to the group earlier this month that I was in love with Jane and with the Narrator. Also in love with living in squalor and the romance of addiction.

Laurie Weeks: Really? The romance of addiction? Have you been down that dark path, my brother? I mean that to be funny…

I kind of thought of the narrator as more of a binge-type. She doesn’t seem to have much of a grip on getting drugs. Though I’m sure people would gasp at that. One reviewer was really bored by the drugs and said it read like a laundry list of substances. I remembered the line where the narrator’s trying to think of what’s in her cupboard to help with her hangover, and goes through the list, and I thought she had a good point.

David G: But Laurie that’s pretty much S[tandard] O[perating] P[rocedure]. I’m not a junkie or anything but some nights are like laundry lists.

Janeen: See, David G, I had the opposite reaction, I was quite terrified of it… All the chaos of it was sometimes too much for me. I loved it as a reader, but I saw no romance in it.

Betsy: Janeen – I completely disagree. I found the book incredibly romantic and anything but chaotic.

Laurie Weeks: I’m happy you found it romantic, Betsy, because I really wanted to make something beautiful, and I think of that as romantic.

Janeen: Betsy – I don’t think the book was chaotic, but her lifestyle was chaotic to me.

Laurie Weeks: Yes, her lifestyle’s really chaotic. I thought about that in kind of a political way… It’s very hard to be orderly when you’re being bombarded by so many sensations and the demands of—wait, this will take more time to type.

Frances: In the beginning the chaos bothered me but the writing and language were so powerful that I was drawn in.

Laurie Weeks: Oh, Frances, that’s interesting. Did it make you nervous? I’m just curious. I get anxious when I go back and read it. Which I can’t bear to do at this point.

Frances: It didn’t make me nervous. It made me indifferent. But the language was SO good, I could not stay outside it.

Laura R: Now that I’m older I wish I had lived a bit more chaotically. I think I played it too safe – I think I was afraid I’d get myself in too deep if I really went in that direction.

Laurie Weeks: But I think that’s the sad thing… I don’t think one should have to go through that kind of terror in order to find transcendence. I truly believe there are other paths, and that things like heroin et al are actually set up as avenues of rebellion and resistance, when all they really do is take you out of the running, in terms of subversion.

Laura R: Yes, completely agree – searching for freedom and finding another trap… But it’s the willingness to give yourself completely to something that is brave and romantic, even if it’s a mistake.

Betsy: It’s finding beauty in vomiting in a gutter that I find romantic

Laurie Weeks: Yes, the vomiting thing . . . that’s where the ecstasy of writing comes in, I think. Just trying to describe something like that without being totally gross and upsetting the reader or yourself, not to be lying but to turn something disgusting into something else, so something kind of rapturous bursts through.

Betsy: I’ve puked in the back seat of a mercedes. I’ve puked at an outdoor cafe. It was disgusting and embarrassing. But if Laurie wrote about it, it would be other than.

Laurie Weeks: I used to hate the word “puke” but I got over it, actually. Now it doesn’t feel gross to me at all. Have you guys had THAT experience? Where words turn around on you and do backflips?

Betsy: “Fart” was that word for me.

David G: Let’s just say the whole “genre” of dirty talk used to really gross me out and no longer ruins the mood.

Laurie Weeks: Whoa, really? Re: the “genre” of dirty talk. LOL.

Janeen: So, next to Lidia Y., Laurie, you have been my favorite TRBC author so far. I think I have a thing for really passionate, original female voices.

Laura R: Yes! Love discovering a female writer that’s strong and gritty… I know women like the narrator, but don’t see characters like her in fiction that often and even rarer to see one so well written.

Bobby: The Rumpus, by the way, knocks it out of the park re: feminism. Obvious, right? Should be said, though.

Laurie Weeks: Yeah, the Rumpus has been rocking my world, re: feminism.

Frances: I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read the book. I would never have come across it if it weren’t for Rumpus.

Laurie Weeks: Frances, thank you. I’m glad to know that you went from indifference to enjoying it. Really. I didn’t want to depress anyone—I was definitely trying to get way past that. The goal is to achieve something ecstatic. It’s kind of out of reach, but that’s the goal.

Janeen: Laurie, what are you working on now? Anything new?

Laurie Weeks: I’m working on a book called, “How I Became A Mystic.” Sometimes I just start with the title and see what wants to happen, what wants to be said. It’s really frightening, I think. But the most fantastic thing to do.

Janeen: Laurie, yes, what wants to happen! It is scary, but a great way to start, I think.

Laurie Weeks: Yeah, Janeen, it’s the only way I can write. Other people write absolutely GREAT straight autobiography or straight fiction (as if there were such a thing) and I love it, but I can’t do it. It’s like genetics or something. Plus I think of myself as kind of a journalist–I mean, I want to make something beautiful, or that at least hits your solar plexus in a certain way, so I have to feel my way along. I’m not channeling or anything stupid like that, but really, the words are kind of mystical, in that they announce so many things that you hadn’t known wanted to see the light of day….

Janeen: Hope you’ll swing by Seattle for a reading.

Laurie Weeks: I love Seattle. I lived there for a year, then a year in Olympia. I’m trying to set up a tour, but I have to fix my flat tire first.

Isaac Fitzgerald: Rock and roll everyone. Thanks so much for coming out, and thank you Laurie for taking the time and writing such an amazing book. Folks, don’t forget to tell your friends about the club!

Laurie Weeks: You guys, thank you forever. So fun. Unbelievable. Who knew.

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