In late November Marie Calloway, a twenty-one year old college student, published on her blog a long essay about sleeping with a writer twice her age.
She had admired his online writing and sent him a note saying she would be in New York and would he be willing to have sex with her. In the essay she named the man and many other identifying details. The essay was taken down after a few days and then republished as fiction on MuuMuu house. She changed the writer’s name to Adrien Brody and made that the title of the story. She made other changes as well so it’s hard to know how much of the story is true. Since it’s published as fiction it seems only fair to read it as such.
Because of the subject matter maybe, or because people thought the story was true, or because of the alluring pictures of the attractive young woman, the story has exploded. Lost in the firestorm and the debate over the story’s ethics is the quality of the story itself, which some people dislike intensely, but others, including this interviewer, think is riveting, fresh, and written with a distinctive new voice. The story is 15,000 words, an enormous length for the Internet, and yet somehow its immediacy fits this new platform in a way a more traditional story might not.
The Rumpus: Your story “Adrien Brody” is kind of an Internet sensation. Did you see that coming? What’s been the repercussions of that?
Marie Calloway: I had no idea what would happen. I wrote it and was really proud of and excited about it, but I didn’t know what to do with it. The only place that to me theoretically seemed like it would be interested in publishing it was Thought Catalog, but I knew that I couldn’t send it there since they told me a while back they weren’t accepting any more over “PG-13” rated stories.
I still received some attention to my story while it was only published on my blog, most notably in Emily Gould writing about it on her blog, though she didn’t write about it publicly until the day that it was published on Muumuu House.
I sent it to Tao Lin on a whim. I thought maybe he would be interested in it since the story mentions him a few times, but I didn’t actually think he would even read it. So when he offered to publish it on Muumuu House I was really shocked. I’ve admired Tao Lin and the other MH writers from afar, but I never really participated in/watched what I guess some people call the “alt lit” scene, and I never saw myself as fitting into it. I don’t see my writing as having a lot of the qualities I see MH writing/writers having (a certain sense of humor, the ability to create/interaction with Internet memes, the sense of doing something really modern…) I feel like noting here than Tao Lin has never edited my writing, nor even offered me any advice about content/style besides replacing real names with the names of a celebrity.
Anyway, I had no idea what to expect. I was immediately flattered by getting kind messages about my writing from other Muumuu House writers/fans of Muumuu House writing. Then I was asked to do an interview for The Observer. This was also surprising to me. I was really nervous about doing a phone interview, but I was surprised by how friendly and easy to talk to the interviewer was. I also got slightly drunk right before it on Tao Lin’s advice. Seeing the article with my picture and information about me in The Observer was surreal, and when I was written about in Gawker it was even more surreal. It still is kind of surreal. Sometimes I feel like all of the coverage must be about someone I’m observing on the Internet rather than me.
I feel like I’ve had mostly very positive repercussions. I’ve gotten a lot of exposure for my writing. My writing blog has gotten over 1000 unique hits since the Observer piece (quite a lot as before it was something like 20 people a day if I was lucky.) But more importantly the coverage exposed me to and so has allowed me to connect with a lot of new people I really enjoy interacting with. I seem to have made my friends proud of me/proud to know me. I also feel I’ve learned and grown a lot even in this short time, and this event has given me a lot of opportunity to continue doing so. Obviously there were a lot of negative reactions, but they seem to have overall little relevance to my life.
Rumpus: Let’s get into the backstory of “Adrien Brody,” for people who haven’t heard of this story. It’s basically a fictionalized version of a true story. You fell in love with an older man, a writer twice your age, that you met online, and suggested the two of you have sex when you came to New York. Have you fallen in love with other men that you’ve met online?
Calloway: I was a social recluse for most of my life, and so a lot of relationships I’ve been in have been formed online. I met my first boyfriend online at 15, which culminated in me running away to San Francisco to be with him. I think in general in my teens I had a lot of crushes on men on the Internet, most notably Momus since I was in my late teens. John Darnielle was also another big crush.
As an adult I’ve connected a lot with men over the Internet. Nothing seems really notable (pre-“Adrien Brody”) except I went to London in July of 2010 and before I went I had a few men lined up to meet, two who made a large impact on me. Both were mentioned in “Adrien Brody.”
The first was the Irish photographer, who lied about his age on the Internet to convince young women to meet him and have sex with him/let him take pornographic pictures of them. It sounds really revolting, but I was fascinated by how upfront he (mostly) was, without self-judgment or judgment of others, about being a pervert, among other things. I thought he was a funny guy. He was a really tall Irish guy who liked being slapped around and pegged by tiny, young Asian women, for instance. I was fascinated by how strange and mysterious he seemed to me. I wanted very much to understand what he was like past all of the sex and photography stuff, but I wasn’t successful. We had a one day fling and I was supposed to meet him again, but my train (from London to Portsmouth) arrived nearly an hour late, and I didn’t have a cell phone or any other way of contacting him.
The second guy I met on the Internet was Tom, who I dated for around 6 months, which is by far the longest relationship I’ve ever had as an adult. We long distance dated mostly, chatting everyday for a long time on FB chat and Skype. It’s hard to imagine a more genuinely caring and kind individual. I owe a lot to him.
I went to visit him again in London for 10 days near last New Year’s Eve. Probably taking ecstasy with Tom on New Year’s Eve was the happiest night of my life. But we split up due to me coming to terms with the fact that I didn’t romantically love him. We’re still best friends and he seems happier with his less complicated girlfriend now, though.
Rumpus: You were in New York, from the west coast, with your boyfriend. Your boyfriend knew you were going to meet “Adrien Brody.” How did that work. In the story, which you published as fiction, you were offended that “Adrien Brody” didn’t tell you he had a girlfriend until you were on your way back to his place to have sex. You had already told him you had a boyfriend?
Calloway: I feel like Patrick (I don’t mind using his name because he has given me permission and had even hoped that I would write about him/was satisfied with the way he was portrayed) and I from the beginning were very open and honest about what we wanted from each other and the nature of our relationship. I feel like he mostly just wanted to meet me (and have sex with me) because he had fallen in love with me based on some idea he had created of me from my writing. He didn’t care that I would be seeing another guy; he was even interested in Adrien Brody as well and went so far as to add him on Facebook out of the blue. He was interested in the idea of Marie Calloway as some manic pixie dream girl who slept with men like Adrien Brody that they talked to on the Internet. So he wasn’t concerned about monogamy at all. I told Adrien Brody that I was staying in NYC with another guy early on in our meeting (I didn’t really think of Patrick was my boyfriend though technically he was) and he seemed to understand what that meant. Before he told me about him having a girlfriend, he asked me how [Patrick] felt about us having sex.
Rumpus: People associate you with Tao Lin and you published “Adrien Brody” on MuuMuu house, Tao Lin’s publishing company. What can you tell us about your collaboration? How did you guys start talking?
Calloway: I first emailed Tao Lin a story I wrote about the experience of losing my virginity sometime in April 2011. He didn’t respond until it was later published on Thought Catalog, after which he sent me an email that said something very similar to, “I enjoyed reading this on Thought Catalog. Good job.”
Then another story of mine was published on TC and I noticed Tao Lin had “liked” it. Later I sent him an email asking if he would publish writing from me through Muumuu House and he replied (basically) that logistically that wouldn’t be feasible, but if I kept publishing things on TC and in other places he suspected I would get contacted by an agent eventually.
Then I didn’t have any contact with him until I sent him “Adrien Brody,” which I wrote about above. He also after saying he would publish “Adrien Brody” on MH sent me an email saying he would like me to cover his trip to Paris (with me staying in his hotel room.) But we gchatted about the idea and he said he wasn’t feeling social enough to actually do that, and I would have had logistical problems anyway (finals during the time he would be in Paris etc.)
Now we email and gchat and interact on Facebook sometimes. I feel like people will see this as me trying to “suck up” or something but I am really surprised at how kind and supportive Tao Lin has been towards me, especially considering what a “shitstorm” this whole thing has been. I feel very grateful. For some reason before I interacted with him I had the idea of Tao Lin as being very stuck up and cold, but he’s not.
Rumpus: In Adrien Brody you talk about sex work. “Adrien Brody” says sex work has been romanticized. Do you agree with that? You told me you were a sex worker for a month. Escort, I believe. Why did you decide to start doing that? I’m sorry if that’s a dumb question. I was a stripper when I was your age and the simple answer was for the money, but looking back on it now I know it wasn’t just for the money.
Calloway: I think in certain ways sex work has been romanticized. I can only speak from my experience, but what surprised me about escorting was how boring it mostly is. it seemed like an assembly line process of cleaning my apartment, dressing up, making awkward small talk, having mundane mechanical sex, making more awkward small talk, and then closing the door after them. There’s also a lot of frustration and annoyance with it that I feel isn’t discussed (a lot of flaky potential clients for instance.)
I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t very happy doing what I did nor was I very talented at it, so perhaps that’s what worked to make it boring for me. However it’s hard for me to imagine that a lot of young women who would enjoy and be good at being an escort. Towards the end of it I could feel myself drifting towards a liquor habit and I had a few minor mental breakdowns due to a what I felt like was a constant chipping away at my personhood (guys thinking I would have unprotected sex with them if they just paid me fifty more dollars, for instance) and a few abusive clients. What i’m trying to get at is that to me nothing felt glamorous or exciting or sexually liberating about it. I also think the amount of money you can make escorting is exaggerated (it wasn’t uncommon for me to see ads for escorts for 40-60$/hr where I live.)
I guess I’m also obligated to note that the experience of sex workers who are not upper/middle class/white probably have much worse conditions than anything that’s portrayed commonly in media/what I experienced.
Besides the money aspect, I guess I was curious about sex work. In the way that most people are, but also because ever since I was a teen I had read feminist writers like Dworkin and Mackinnon and the way they wrote about sex work had an enormous impact on me. Was it really as horrible as they said? Is sex work literally the buying and selling of women between men? Is sex work literally rape? There were also questions that I had about the more commonly talked about cautions against sex work, about it meaning you didn’t respect yourself or of it being incredibly emotionally damaging. I wanted to find out for myself what sex work was, and what it meant. I realize this all sounds very juvenile, but I guess I’m interested in exploring my youth and even reveling in it rather than trying to deny it and cover it up.
I plan on writing about my experiences with sex work soon.
Rumpus: What do you think about writing about real people in fiction and essay? Do you worry about not getting things right?
Calloway: I guess that my opinion of writing about real people is informed by defenses of Joyce Maynard’s memoir, that the experiences were a part of my life as well, and that I have the right to write about my life. I’ve never written about a situation involving real people that I haven’t directly taken part in. I’ve never made things up about other people. None of my stories were written with ill-intent towards the other people in them, even though I doubt people will believe that about “Adrien Brody.” I often feel like that with the way I portray myself I come off as looking much worse than any of the other characters. I guess it might also be worth noting that anyone I’ve had as a main character in a story I’ve written has had full knowledge that I am a writer who writes about the people in her life. A lot of people have given me permission. I should note that it’s common knowledge that I first ran “Adrien Brody” using pictures and real names on my blog, and I now see how that was a really horrible and irresponsible thing to do, and I will never do anything like that again without permission. I did things to help to protect the character Adrien Brody’s identity on Muumuu House, like ask Tao Lin to “x” out references to his blog etc. I’ve also refused to answer questions people have about/discuss the person Adrien Brody.
As for not getting things right: I constantly rerun social situations/conversations I experience/have throughout my head, and I’m always writing them down in notebooks or in word documents/the Internet. I feel like these habits and a generally good memory of people/the interactions I have with them (due to studying people having always been my main interest in life) have lead me to being very accurate in things I write in stories/essays. I recognize that memory is far from infallible though. If I feel like I can’t accurately describe something, I just leave it out. I also do things like write “he talked about …” instead of writing direct quotes. But generally I feel like since my stories are very obviously meant to be my perception of an event rather than the objective truth this gives me a lot of leeway.
Rumpus: What online communities were you involved in in high school?
Calloway: I used LiveJournal frequently, almost daily, since ~age 13 until ~18. I kept a personal diary there. I also participated in various “LiveJournal communities”. At the risk of sounding patronizing or something, I see LiveJournal and now Tumblr as wonderful because they give young girls ways to interact with eachother and learn and talk about new interests, ideas etc as well as support eachother emotionally. I think I would have been a lot more miserable and discovered a lot less of things I liked if I hadn’t had LiveJournal in high school. I think it’s interesting how blogging seems to be shaping a new generation of writers. I feel like growing up with the Internet/blogging/other structures seems to be a reason for the similarities people see in Tao Lin’s writing and other young writers, rather than direct imitation.
Rumpus: You’ve gotten a lot of attention for Adrien Brody, but at the same time you took down your blog leaving a note that said you didn’t want to be watched. But then you gave an interview to the Observer. And, like most writers, you hope to be published. What are your thoughts on writing, honesty, narcissism, the desire for attention?
Calloway: It’s probably impossible to be a young woman on the Internet and write stories with sex in them without being accused of being an “attention whore.” It seems an odd criticism to me in a way because every artist is seeking attention, like you said, to their work. I want to say that of course I want my writing to be read and discussed by as many people as possible, but this is different than wanting personal, “celebrity”-like attention. I’m very introverted and sensitive and dislike being talked about, positively or negatively. But obviously this all gets tricky/complicated when your writing reveals so much of your private/intimate life, and the nature of writing on the Internet comes with a lot of focus on your “personal brand.”
It seems unfortunate the “attention whore” slur is used as discouragement from women (especially young ones) writing honestly about their life, if that’s what they want to do. I and a few other of my female artist friends created an art “philosophy” (for lack of a better term) called “girlcore” which basically holds at its center an unapologetic expression of and admiration of young female subjectivity.
I don’t have much to say about honesty. All that I feel about it that people don’t discuss as far as I know is how much effort it is to create truly honest writing, in my opinion. It requires a lot of thinking and effort. There’s often times a big difference between what you actually thought/felt in a situation and what you think you thought/felt. You have to do a lot of work to make your thoughts/feelings possible to be understood by other people. It’s very draining, though also cathartic.
I admire narcissism in Momus and others who “own” it and use it as a way to explore ideas/themselves and also as a form of humor. I don’t think of myself as narcissistic, but I’m definitely incredibly self absorbed. I guess I wonder if seeing the world through the lens of yourself is necessarily less valid than other ways of thinking/seeing though. I admire self-awareness more than probably any other quality, and I think in terms of what qualities are “good” in a person, it’s a mostly subjective opinion, so I can’t see a reason to think that self-absorption is inherently a bad thing.
Rumpus: Bonus Question: Who are some of your literary influences? Who are the writers you admire?
Calloway: I admire Joyce Maynard a lot, specifically her memoir “At Home in the World.” Her writing is beautiful and fascinating and seemed to give me validation to the idea that I could write validly in earnest about my life with (my) very feminine point of view, and also that I could unapologetically explore the bad traits of my character (which I find to be more interesting to explore than the good traits), as well as explore other concepts that interest me like private vs public personas, age gap relationships, etc.
Other writers I like a lot are Raymond Carver, Simone de Beauvoir, Tolstoy, JD Salinger (“Franny and Zooey” has been my favorite book for a long time), and lately Graham Greene. To be honest, though, I mostly read political non-fiction, which I find inspiring in a way because it forces me to think more critically about things. Also my politics (though very subtly) influence my writing.
Not literary but I’ve also been influenced a lot by music/lyrics, specifically Rob Wratten (The Field Mice/Northern Picture Library/Trembling Blue Stars.) I feel like few things are more successful at portraying honest emotions/experiences. There also just seems to be a certain feeling/mood that I respond well to. I feel similarly about the artist Kahimi Karie and the films “An Education” and “Marie Antoinette.” Anything with a strongly and unapologetically feminine point of view I tend to be interested in.
I also feel influenced by Momus’s writing on his old blog, Click Opera. He seems to really strive to critically think about things and not just lazily spout off typical ways of thinking about things, and this is something that I strive to do. His advice to young artists was something like “don’t try to imitate anyone. Try to do something new and different.” Which I feel inspired by. I also like his celebration of things like Japanophilia, youth, “charismatic otherness”, aesthetic beauty, femininity, and “trendiness”. Basically, I feel inspired by any artist that seems to want to introduce the world to their likes and perspective rather than trying to shape their interests and point of view to fit better into the world around them.
Rumpus: Bonus Question 2: What can you tell us about your childhood home, how you were raised, your relationship with your parents?
Calloway: This is a difficult subject. I’m not very close to my parents. My stepfather (in my opinion) was very emotionally abusive when I was growing up and there were a lot of other issues I don’t feel comfortable talking about publicly. I spent a lot of time in therapy dealing with these issues though, and I feel i’m finally starting to move past them. One thing about having mostly absent parents that I think was perhaps “good” for the development of my intellect/writing is that I was given almost total freedom to read/write/look at whatever I wanted. I wonder a lot about how my past experiences, particularly my negative childhood (home life and being severely bullied/ostracized throughout school) as formed my/my thoughts/my writing, though I should also note those things were far from the only thing that had an impact on me/my writing. I wish there was more discourse about this sort of thing as something other than “fucked up girls seeking attention” or whatever.
Postscript: While the story “Adrien Brody” is supposed to be based on a real experience “Adrien Brody” was published as fiction. I think it’s only fair to read it as such and to withhold judgements from the participants as you would with any work of fiction.