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The Rumpus Interview With Michelle Orange

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We sat on my bed, our backs against the wall, talking about her essay collection, This Is Running For Your Life.

1. Setting Up The Interview, The Part About Us

The Rumpus: So… um… like what I’ll do is I’ll try to type your answers, but then I’ll also have them recorded.

Michelle Orange: Interesting.

Rumpus: Is it going to be too disruptive if I’m sitting next to you and you can see the screen?

Orange: Kind of. No. I don’t know. 

Rumpus: Because I can get a chair and sit over there or something.

Orange: That would be more distracting.

Rumpus: Normally I sit across from the person and they can’t see the screen. 

Orange: But they can still hear you typing. Like a stenographer. 

Rumpus: It hasn’t been a problem before.

Orange: Why do you like to do that?

Rumpus: It saves time.

Orange: Oh, it’s a time saving mechanism. But if I’m saying something that’s not interesting will you not bother to type it and then I’ll see you not typing it? This is suddenly very stressful. I’ll see you judging me in real time. Not that I don’t, generally.

Rumpus: If anything I’m the one that’s always nervous about being judged.

Orange: I’ve accepted everything about you.

Rumpus: That’s the thing. You’ve accepted.

Orange: I’ve completely settled.

Rumpus: This was actually something I was going to bring up when talking about your book, This Is Running For Your Life. I’ve always felt like you’re so smart and it makes me nervous because I feel like you see all this bad stuff and decide whether or not to put up with it.

Orange: I don’t think that’s a result of being smart. I think probably a lot of people have that relationship to you. Is that something you feel about other people?

Rumpus: I mean women, as a genre. 

Orange: We’re a genre.

Rumpus: Particularly you. Because you notice these tiny details. I think most people don’t. 

Orange: And that makes you nervous. 

Rumpus: It’s always been a thing.

Orange: Would the alternative be better, if I just didn’t notice anything about you?

Rumpus: Then you wouldn’t be you and I don’t know if it would be better. We’re talking about a different person. I like you the way you are. 

Orange: Well that’s nice. I guess.

 

2. The Part About The Book That’s Still Really The Part About Us

Rumpus: Is this your first time being interviewed for your essay collection?

Orange: No, I was interviewed by Publisher’s Weekly a couple months ago. It was pretty quick. 

Rumpus: What’s the genesis of This Is Running For Your Life?

Orange: I wrote the book basically so I could bring about this exact moment.

Rumpus: What do you mean?

Orange: So I could force you into a captive format and you would have to ask me questions about myself. 

Rumpus: That makes sense.

Orange: Yeah. It’s been about ten years and this was my only option really. This is what I was left with; I better write a book. 

Rumpus: That’s not true. I ask you about yourself all the time. 

Orange: No, you don’t. 

Rumpus: I mean percentage-wise it might be less, maybe 40/60.

Orange: OK.

 

3. Finally Talking About The Book

Rumpus: I feel like this essay collection, This Is Running For Your Life, is about several things that are summed up in the blurbs on the back in very simple terms, i.e. social media, the modern world. But you’re actually writing about much bigger ideas than that. 

Orange: I’ve tried to think about ways to sum up the book when people ask what it’s about and I still have a hard time. Though it’s better now than while I was writing it. You don’t really know what you’re writing about until it’s done. But I knew I wanted to write about time, and limits. I wanted to try and identify a predicament, consider its ambivalences and contradictions, and find my own experience within it. But mostly it had to do with time.

Rumpus: You feel like you’re writing about time? 

Orange: Yeah. Death, time. 

Rumpus: Because I was thinking you were writing about loneliness a lot. 

Orange: I’m always writing about loneliness. 

Rumpus: In the last essay, “Ways Of Escape,” you mention that in college you only knew one or two people. You’re supposed to meet a guy at one point and you blow him off, though you like him a lot. This is a period of your life where you’re running twenty miles every day. And it reads as a kind of self-avoidance through ritual.

Orange: Writing that essay was trying to figure out what happened during those years and what that period of my life was about. What I came up with was that my relationship to time had gotten completely out of whack. It seemed like there was way too much of it. It was closing in on me and I needed to try to find a way to get around it until I could figure out a way to be.

Rumpus: I’d like to understand what you’re saying as to how it’s about time. 

Orange: You texted me yesterday asking what people do on Saturdays, like you didn’t know how to pass the day. That’s how I felt all the time. Running gave me something to do. I was twenty, twenty-one years old. And it turned out to be this thing where through running I could escape the sense that I should be doing something, that I should have a better idea of what my life was about. 

Rumpus: You didn’t want to misuse your time. 

Orange: I wanted to feel like I was accomplishing something. And for whatever reason what I came up with was running twenty miles. I was in school, but that took up a handful of hours a week and the rest of the time I didn’t seem to be able to sustain social or romantic relationships. It’s complicated. Don’t you look back on periods of your life and think, So what was that about? 

Rumpus: I feel like I’m still in that exact period of my life.

Orange: There are all these things that are so obvious in retrospect. I was driving my mother’s car back to my father’s house every weekend and literally running, circling my entire town, where all my friends had scattered. At the time I was completely baffled as to why I was doing anything I was doing.

 

4. The Part About The Rumpus

Rumpus: Is the book mostly pieces you had already written?

Orange: No. I wrote first drafts of six of the essays in six months and the other four were heavily reworked and expanded. 

Rumpus: Didn’t this come out of writing for The Rumpus? 

Orange: Yeah. In a way. Because when The Rumpus started you were looking for people to write and I had been on this grind of trying to survive as a freelancer. I had my head down for several years, trying to get myself stable and writing a lot of reviews and film and book stuff. I’d been striving to get published in the places I thought you were supposed to get published because I thought that would carry me to this wonderful place I was supposedly trying to go. Then the recession hit and my schedule opened up. And I found it was the things on The Rumpus that got the response I had been hoping for. I thought, I should keep going in this direction. These are the things people are more interested in reading about and I’m having more fun writing about them. 

Rumpus: These were the things that were important to you so they had energy.

Orange: Yeah. That must be it. But there’s both having to make a living and feeling like you need to hit these certain milestones. And I probably did lose a bit of that thing that I liked back when I was working in an office and I could spend my spare time writing about whatever I wanted and exploring who I could be as a writer.

 

5. The Part About Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace 

Rumpus: Let’s talk about the San Diego essay, “The San Diego Of My Mind.” What was that supposed to be about and what did it end up being about? 

Orange: It was supposed to be about this new trend in focus groups of using fMRI machines to look inside people’s brains in order to gauge their response to a product. In the case of the firm that I visited that product was often a movie. It was supposed to be about what it might mean if this kind of market research catches on. And it ended up being about those things but also about my exhaustion with certain kinds of movies and the possibility that this kind of research poses a profound threat to the way we think about art and subjectivity. 

Rumpus: This is a stupid thing to say but you’re clearly operating in the lineage of Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. Do you feel that element in the work or do you feel apart from that?

Orange: Um… 

Rumpus: Like the way Joan Didion is trying to make sense of her experience through story, and Sontag’s obsession with images.

Orange: That’s what I meant about the book being an expression of my influences and preoccupations up to this point. Though I came to Joan Didion relatively late. I have this sense that her presence is not as definitive in Canada as it is here, but maybe that’s just my excuse for not having her on my radar early on. I did know, once I had this opportunity and was sitting down to figure out what the book could be, that it was time to revisit her work. With the Hawaii essay, “War And Well Being,” in particular I felt that Didion was someone you have to reckon with. If you’re going to write on that subject, in this format and in that place, you have to write through her first. 

Rumpus: What’s that essay about? 

Orange: It details a trip that I took to Honolulu in 2011 to attend the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association and try to get some perspective on the writing of the new DSM-V manual.

Rumpus: I think about you and I think of The White Album. When Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” that could be you writing that.

Orange: That could be a lot of writers. I think about you. We’re all Joan Didion, especially in the eyes of copywriters.

Rumpus: You could easily have written that essay. 

Orange: Oh my god. 

Rumpus: It just feels like within your wheelhouse. 

Orange: You’re not necessarily aware of all the ways you’ve been influenced. Reading David Foster Wallace, I always have that sense of having been influenced indirectly. Somehow he seeped into the atmosphere and I didn’t necessarily have to read everything that he had written to completely absorb and be affected by it. 

Rumpus: But you were really into him. 

Orange: Yeah. 

Rumpus: Not just the writing but also the way of being a little bit. Like I remember we were talking about his interview with Charlie Rose. I don’t remember what you said. 

Orange: I don’t remember what I said, either. 

Rumpus: But you weren’t just thinking about his writing, you were thinking about how he was wrestling with himself and you related to that. 

Orange: He had some exchange with Charlie Rose where Wallace says, “I don’t want to look like a blah blah blah,” and Charlie Rose gets exasperated and says, “Just don’t worry about what you look like!” And Wallace says, “Well there’s nothing that stimulates your What Do I Look Like gland like being on television.” It was such a crazy thing for Charlie Rose to say: “Oh David, you child, don’t worry about what people are going to think of you while they’re watching you on television.” As though we’re all supposed to be born to be on television and have interviews with Charlie Rose. Which I guess we are. But for someone like Wallace, it must have been torture.

 

6. The Part About Closure

Rumpus: Do you worry at all with this book you’re going to be more out there than you’ve been before?

Orange: Yeah. Don’t you worry about that? With books? You like that, though. I have a conflicting thing of where I like it and I don’t like it. Speaking of David Foster Wallace, those are the things that I related to the most in his biography. This idea that there was a part of him, like a reading he did at a Harper’s event, where he absolutely dreads it up until the moment he does it, but then he loves the reception that he gets, and then he goes back to hating it. I feel like I’m very much like that. It’s like you want attention but you don’t want attention. You want it on your own terms but you sort of forge ahead anyway. It makes me nervous, but I can’t stop doing it. 

Rumpus: But the essays are so personal, and you write a lot of stuff that’s not that personal. So I just imagine that would be a different feeling. 

Orange: You mean I write reviews and stuff and those are less personal? The first thing I ever published was very personal in the way I think you mean. The last essay is kind of about that, this impulse. And the idea that I want to control it or make it useful somehow. It doesn’t feel like a bad impulse necessarily. 

Rumpus: In my experience I’m just using the tools I have to tell the story. But the whole desire to write and be a writer is such a strange thing. Really hard to explain. 

Orange: I know. I think my parents would like an answer. I don’t have one.

Rumpus: I wanted to talk more about the individual essays but now I feel like we have an interesting interview. What did I miss? 

Orange: I don’t know. I don’t feel like I said anything very good.

 

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art by Michelle Orange


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founding editor of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. His second movie, based on his novel Happy Baby, is forthcoming. More from this author →