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The Rumpus Interview with Chloe Caldwell

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I first saw Chloe Caldwell do her thing a year ago. She read an essay about an orgy she’d participated in and how much she’d enjoyed the orgy, and the particular moments she’d enjoyed, such as when the men on hand admired her breasts, and how great the après-orgy cheeseburger she ate was, and how she recorded the orgy and listened to that recording on an airplane and got so turned on again that she masturbated under a blanket and all I could think was: Holy shit. Chloe Caldwell is my hero!

Not because she took part in an orgy or pigged out afterwards or pleasured herself on an airplane, but because she wrote about these intimate events in luminous prose and without a trace of self-consciousness. She wasn’t exploiting the material, or degrading herself. She was just telling the truth about this thing that happened to her.

We should all be so reckless with the truth.

I am pleased to report that her new book of essays, Legs Get Led Astray is every bit as enthralling as her reading was. And even more pleased that Ms. Caldwell was able to field a few questions.

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The Rumpus: So the first thing I have to confess is that reading LGLA made me feel a little like a Jewish mother. I was saying to myself, “Oh my. What will people think?” Are you as candid in real life as you are on the page?

Chloe Caldwell: Hah! My family actually is part Jewish and that is how my mom felt about my book for the suspenseful year before it came out. She knew what was in it. However, she completely came around. On a car ride recently, she said, “I’ve come to peace with it.” She totally supports my book.

I thought about this question and also talked to a close friend about it. We decided that yes, it is who I am in real life. Friends have definitely laughed at my matter-of-fact bluntness. I don’t think of LGLA as a release of my secret life or anything. I’ve never been much of a liar. Ever. It’s not that I sit at a bar and spit truths of my life at you, but wait, yeah, actually, maybe it is like that! I am, or was, like that. I’ve worked on it though. I’m a bit more composed now. I bite my tongue more, maybe.

Rumpus: Okay, so to be clear, I’m not just talking about the blue-lit stuff. You’ll also talk about being a lousy babysitter, or a flake. There’s a radical candor in all of it, an uncensored quality. How did you get this brave?

Caldwell: I feel safer telling the truth. There’s something very isolating to me about being emotionally closed off or keeping secrets to yourself. It’s just not in my nature. I truly feel that telling the truth and not holding stuff in is such an easier way to live. I think the candor is just part of my make-up–my personality. I was definitely raised to be my most authentic self, and I think I am confident enough in myself that it doesn’t hurt my ego to admit the crappy things I’ve done, or thought. I don’t think I was raised to be radically honest or anything, but there was a lot of open communication in my family, especially with my mom. Like, let’s say I stole a lip gloss as a kid. I’d burst out crying and tell my mom I stole a lip gloss. My parents were always pretty understanding about stuff–so maybe since I didn’t have any traumatic repercussions from telling the truth, especially at a young age–it’s where I feel comfortable.

I think that’s part of the reason I knew I could write the essays the way I did, in my natural voice. I think in the back of my mind, I knew that my family wouldn’t write me off or anything like that. I’m lucky to have a family that transcended for the sake of art.

Rumpus: As I read the book, I wondered whether there’s a generational thing in effect. When I was growing up, there were no social media, no blogs, or on-line personas. The culture didn’t affirm confession and disclosure.

Caldwell: I’ve always loved documenting things. I did so in my journals, and for a couple of years in my early twenties, I was intensely attached to one of those old school tape recorders. I recorded conversations with strangers at bars, friends and lovers, even during sex. I don’t know—everyone’s different. Some people (like myself) feel more comfortable confessing things through non-fiction writing. Others confess things on Twitter and Facebook. I like to think that the people that over-share on Facebook and the like, are just another version of non-fiction writers—they’re looking to connect. But maybe that’s too optimistic, maybe those people are just as annoying as they seem. Kidding!

I know I bring up G-chat a few times in LGLA, but there’s not much in it about blogs or Facebook, etc. I’m pretty lame when it comes to technology. I was so scared of Skype and used it for the first time a couple weeks ago. I’ve never blogged either. Isn’t it funny, our weird technological preferences? Like, I can write this intimate book, but every time I go to post something on my website, I clam up. I didn’t have a website or a blog until a year ago. Kevin Sampsell made me build one before he would announce that he was going to be publishing my book. Ha! It felt like such a commitment to have all of my writing in one place. It was terrifying. But it makes it easier for readers to find you. I know I love looking at author’s websites.

Rumpus: You clearly love everyone you write about, your pal Lauren, your folks, your brother, the kids you babysat and their parents, the old lovers. But I wondered if you worried about how they would feel about being written about? Did you check with folks, or change names?

Caldwell: I changed names of everyone except for my brother, my aunt Shay, and my cousin Henri. Shay gave me permission to use Henri’s name. She said, “It’s not like this is gonna stop him from running for President one day” or something like that. The one guy I mostly write about—we met in a non-fiction writing class, so he has always supported me and encouraged my honesty. “Luke” isn’t alive to have an opinion but I’m sure he’d be stoked about it. I do worry about the moms of the kids I wrote about that I babysat, a little.

Rumpus: In the essay, “The Legendary Luke” you write a love letter to him, but also to New York City. It read to me like a raunchy re-telling of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.” I loved this line, especially: “But you come to New York as nothing, having to create your own mythology…” Do you think of LGLA as your mythology?

Caldwell: Oh, thank you. When my brother moved to Berlin, he left me a CD on which he’d recorded himself talking and saying goodbye to me. He mentioned something about me creating my own mythology in New York. That’s where I got that line from. But isn’t that from a Leonard Cohen song? I would say yes, that I do think of LGLA like that, though, the word “mythology” implies a more fabricated truth, and my book isn’t a myth. It’s my truth. I have about twenty-five journals that I poured my heart into during my early twenties, and I think of all of them as forms of LGLA. They hold some of the same sentences and the same exact tone as LGLA. I love that because it makes me feel like I wrote LGLA twenty-five times until it was a book. I would say LGLA is more of my revised and crafted diary.

Rumpus: How have your people reacted to having the book in the world?

Caldwell: So far, so good—I’ve had mainly positive reactions. Many of my relationships have blossomed. Maybe the most interesting thing is that my 91-year-old grandmother mailed me a letter with her thoughts on it. She told me that since she lived through World War Two, she always felt she’d missed out on “the best years of her life” but after reading LGLA, she now thinks differently. I’ve been getting quite a few sweet emails from men and women, and some women have sent me poems. It’s all very touching. The best is when someone I thought of as super conservative approaches me and tells me they loved my “masturbation essay” or something like that. Because I’ve given personal details of my life, others are more prone to share their personal details with me. It’s pretty lovely, and it’s teaching me how much people can surprise you. I like to think it cracks people open.

Rumpus: How have you reacted?

Caldwell: Mixed emotions. My dad recently was like, “Careful what you wish for cause you just might get it.” I’m proud of myself and happy, but I’ve noticed that since the book release, I have more days where I want to sleep the day away. It’s been emotional. I guess I’ve always felt like my twenties were similar to most people’s so the most jarring thing is reading the reviews that talk about how “self-destructive” and “reckless” I was. Then I start to wonder, was I? And if so, why? I guess you could say it’s self-reflection overload.

Rumpus: Did you ever consider writing the book as a memoir, rather than essays?

Caldwell: Nah. I got lucky that the pieces even seem to have a time beginning and end to them. I don’t look at it as a memoir and never did. I think we thought about calling it “A memoir in essays” but it didn’t stick.

Rumpus: What question should I have asked but didn’t?

Caldwell: Maybe what some of my absolute favorite pieces of writing are. Here they are—in the order that they came to my mind. I love the below works to death and often go back to study them. They all make me bawl like a baby.

“Baton Rogue” by Louis E. Bourgeois (The Sun Magazine)

“The Love Of My Life” by Cheryl Strayed (The Sun Magazine)

“Mono No Aware” by Miki Howald (Like Water Burning, Issue One)

“The Isabel Fish” by Julie Orringer (How To Breathe Underwater)

“Under The Apple Tree” by Laura Pritchett (The Sun Magazine)


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