You know what I hate? I hate when writers (such as myself) feel so insecure about whether the reader will find our work interesting that we insist on exploiting our material by flogging the language mercilessly. This pattern is especially noisome when it involves high-voltage material such as: death, sex work, drug use, incarceration, and enemas.
And this is precisely why I was so entirely blown away by Antonia Crane’s new memoir, Spent, which chronicles her dark and twisted path through the above horrors with remarkable elegance and restraint. To be honest: it’s pretty fucking annoying how elegant and restrained the book is.
And it makes me wonder whether Ms. Crane—who has attended a number of my readings and lectures—can be described fairly as an ex-student. Perhaps the term “refugee” makes more sense.
Anyway, I was curious as fuck how she did it, so I let her tie me up and answer a few questions.
Rumpus: As a professional stoner, I don’t remember the details of our first meeting, only that it was in Los Angeles. Can you fill me in on the details? Like: did I throw up?
Antonia Crane: If you barfed, you didn’t let on. We met at Antioch, where you were a visiting lecturer for the MFA program where I was a student. In order to avoid doing any actual work, I opted to do a field study, which meant I chose a professor to introduce to our school. You were on the list so I chose you. I had to read all of your books, like Candy Freak, The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories, Which Brings Me To You, and (Not That You Asked), which had just come out. We actually met right before I had to read my introduction to welcome you on stage and you were totally baked. You doodled on my school schedule and wrote “I Suck Cock” in a speech balloon above your own face. I was super girl fanny and a total spaz, which you were probably bored by; that moment of cock is seared in my heart—I felt an instant kinship with you because we want the same exact things at the end of the day: a bong hit, a sandwich, and a cock in our mouths.
Rumpus: I see. One follow-up. Is it possible that by “baked” you really mean “high on the endless beauty of language”?
Crane: No, I mean baked.
Rumpus: Right. Okay. I love how tender Spent is and, at the same time, how totally graphic (I’m thinking of the passages that deal, in an unembarrassed fashion, with peep shows, happy endings, enemas, fisting, and the like). Did you always feel comfortable writing graphic material?
Crane: If comfortable is crying in public coffee shops while my friends roll their eyeballs nearby, then yes, I am super comfortable writing the tender bits. The graphic stuff I write is your fault. One thing you suggested in a lecture was to get deeply involved with stuff I don’t want anyone to know about myself. You accused me of leaving scenes too quickly, so I tried to stay put in the place where I was naked across from a man who gave himself a ritualistic enema and I was fighting with my girlfriend and angry and fascinated by enema guy. I tried to relive the feelings of being in love then discovering my girlfriend was busy fucking in a fisting party behind a curtain. You taught me to show the reader the gun and pull the trigger. I am just trying to make you proud.
Rumpus: We all leave scenes too quickly. It’s an occupational hazard. Of which speaking: please tell the gentle reader about Urine Therapy.
Crane: Auto-urine therapy or urotherapy is the practice of drinking one’s own urine to cure cancer and other ailments. Urine garglers believe that the highly sterile quality of urine makes it a magical elixir that supposedly dates back to the Aztecs and Biblical times. I read about a hiker who dislocated his hip and was stranded for six days and he drank his urine five times a day when he ran out of powdered chocolate and oats and survived. So, keep that in mind the next time your Wheaties box is empty, and gargle urine instead of that morning coffee. Goes great with Pop Tarts.
Rumpus: I love the idea that “urine garglers” are now a recognized voting bloc. Perhaps democracy is not yet quite dead.
Now then. The emotional anchor of the book is your relationship with your mother, which is so touchingly rendered, and unusually close. At one point, she tells you, “Honey. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Remember that.” Do you feel you followed this advice?
Crane: Mom was wrong. We always have to do things we don’t want to do for money. That’s why it’s called work.
Rumpus: Touché. I love the prose in the book, like how you describe the ambiance in jail: “The light was a dead yellow.” It amazes me that you write about such charged material without filigree. Has that always been your style, or has it evolved?
Crane: Thank you. You’ve beaten the terrible metaphors out of me and taught me to pry myself open more and tell the story straight. You’ve pounded the idea into me that “excessive emotional involvement is the whole point,” so I am just trying to do that. I’m a writer who needs to add more, not a writer who produces 100 pages quickly then cuts 75 of them out later.
Jim Krusoe, one of my mentors and a phenomenal editor, wrote big pencil “X’s” on my shitty prose for years and said to me: “Write like a Quaker.” So I try to go the way of the Quaker and pursue the truth. It’s going to take me my entire life.
Rumpus: Is “Write like a Quaker” trademarked yet? Krusoe needs to get on that. Like, now. Okay. Let’s stick the landing here: What’s next, pussycat?
Crane: I’m attempting to adapt my book Spent into a screenplay right now. I’m writing another memoir about living in India as a teenager. I’m dicking around with a bunch of essays about love, loneliness, and what direct service looks like in the era of monstrous self-promotion. And I am looking forward to bugging you at Esalen this summer where you will be teaching. I’ll bring you some edibles from Los Angeles. I heard they have Cheez-Its now.
Rumpus: A few Cheez-Its, a little urine gargling, then we hit the hot tub with all three of my kids in tow. Deal.