I felt intensely jealous when I first encountered the premise of Jessa Crispin’s essay collection The Dead Ladies Project: when she was thirty, Crispin sold all of her belongings that wouldn’t fit in a couple of suitcases and moved to Berlin. From there, she traveled to a series of cities that some of her favorite writers—themselves outsiders as either expats or exiles—had once called home. I was jealous because Crispin had written the book I didn’t yet know I had wanted to write. I’m glad, however, that she got there first. These smart and sharply funny essays expand quickly beyond their proposed subject to cover feminism, capitalism, history, philosophy, sex, and packing a carry-on.
Crispin is the founder and editor of Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. University of Chicago Press published The Dead Ladies Project in September 2015, and her second book, The Creative Tarot, was published by Touchstone this past February. We Skyped one morning, and ended up having the kind of conversation one would expect over cocktails, rather than morning coffee. She spoke quickly, cursed generously, and responded to questions without the pause interviewees often take to collect their thoughts. When I asked whether she’d like to review the interview before I sent it onto my editors, she said, “Just don’t make anything up.”
[Ed. Note: This interview was conducted prior to Jessa’s announcement that Bookslut will be shutting down, and therefore the news is not discussed below.]
The Rumpus: In the essay on Stravinsky, you make a distinction between artists who “seem to be able to create only under the most ideal conditions.” As I read I found myself wondering under what conditions this book emerged and whether you’d set out thinking a book might come from this journey, or if it was solely for your own mental health.
Jessa Crispin: This journey was solely for the book. The travel that I did for all the other years of my life—that was very much just for me. I feel like that was—not training, exactly—but if I hadn’t been a crazy, restless person then the travel for the book would not have been productive. It would have felt like chaos.
As far as making the journey meaningful, I did plan it out in advance. I knew my motivations for going to each place and what I was looking for. If I don’t do that then I generally don’t write about my travels. I’ve done a whole lot of traveling and thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll write about it later,” but then it just looks like a bunch of shit that happened—and it feels weird to construct a narrative after. So for this, I constructed an idea of a narrative, including what to look for and everything like that—although certainly some places had their own stories that overtook what I wanted to tell about the place—then I would read up a bunch of history on each place to make sure that I wasn’t being fucking stupid and to get an idea of which angle I want to take and the places I need to visit. With the the former Yugoslavia, I thought, “Oh, I know what I’m doing,” then I got there and it was like, “I have fucking no idea what I’m doing.” Sometimes you just have to figure out where to go from there.
Rumpus: How did you choose the people and the places?
Crispin: A lot of them were people that I had been either studying or reading for a long time. Particularly Henry James, Momme, Rebecca West, and Margaret Anderson. The others were people who I knew about, but not well, so I wanted an excuse to spend a year or two in their company.
Rumpus: Were you working on the essays during the trip?
Crispin: No, no. I was in almost total despair, thinking, “This is never going to work.” I also don’t think you can write an experience as you’re having it without being an idiot. I don’t think that if I had spent the time that I was in, say, Belgrade, writing about my time in Trieste, which is where I had just been, that would have been productive either. A couple months in, I just realized, “I can’t do it like this” and decided to wait [to write] till the end. I told myself: take extensive notes while you’re there, do the research part of it, and then pray, pray, the muses will be available when the actual ‘ready’ happens.
Rumpus: Had Chicago picked up the book before the trip? That is, were you beholden to a publisher during the trip?
Crispin: Not really. We sold it a little more than halfway into the trip, so I had been on the road for six or eight months when we sold it, and then I was just like, “Hallelujah,” cause I was running out of money and the advance—I mean I fucking love Chicago—but no one publishes with a university press because of the big bucks. The advance did fill in some gaps, though, and that was really helpful.
Rumpus: In the chapter on France and Margaret Anderson, when talking about Ulysses and the obscenity trial, you write: “The publishing world was made up of cowards and faint-hearted prigs.” That comment made me wonder whether you consciously wanted to publish with a small press.
Crispin: I had an agent and she sent it everywhere and I was just like, “I don’t know anything. I don’t want to deal with this. Just do the fucking thing that agents are supposed to do and leave me out of it.” But, yeah, a university press picked it up. For the fourteen years I’ve been running Bookslut, I’ve had a very antagonistic relationship to the publishing industry, so my anger and resentment toward conglomerate publishing is hard-won and deep-seated. It was certainly reinforced by my experience of trying to publish a book, but that’s not where it started. My belief that the publishing industry is run by prigs and cowards dates back to many years before I even had the idea for the book.
Rumpus: Where does that antagonistic relationship start?
Crispin: Well, I’m running a book review section, so we get all the books and all the catalogs, and season after season of major publishers, there’s eighty percent men and twenty percent women and the women are writing “women books” with soft pastel colors and blah blah blah. That begins the resentment. Then the way that the Jonathans are celebrated in this unquestioned way, the way that there’s this apolitical stance, the way that the publishing industry doesn’t take care of its culture, and has, in fact, become very capitalistic—moved way beyond any ideas of art—in addition to seeing my friends get just absolutely fucked over in new and exciting ways with publishing deals—all of that has built up to total disillusionment.
Rumpus: I was surprised that there were some dead men in this book.
Crispin: [Laughing] People were really upset about this! I had some reviews where they said, “I can’t believe she included men.” I mean, men exist on the planet. We have to deal with them at some point.
Rumpus: It’s just the title, really, that sets you up to expect women.
Crispin: I fought hard for that title. That was the, “Oh, but you’re including men, so we can’t call it The Dead Ladies Project.” I was like, “Do you know how many times women have had to be called men in that kind of general way—oh, you guys and mailmen and whatever? Men can handle being called ‘ladies’ once in a while.” Plus I’m pretty sure William James would’ve been into it. Stravinsky, maybe not—though he had a weird sense of humor, so maybe he would’ve been into it, too. But I don’t consider it to be a problem.
Rumpus: Wikipedia tells me you were working for Planned Parenthood when you started Bookslut and I was interested in that detail. Can you talk about that experience? How has it informed your career or thinking now?
Crispin: I was twenty-one when I was hired by Planned Parenthood. It was my first work experience outside of either temping or working for my father at his store. I came from a very conservative, patriarchal background. Small-town Kansas, kind of a dick for a dad. To then sort of accidentally fall into this job at Planned Parenthood—well, for the first year, it was maybe the most amazing experience of my life. I ran the library of the Sexuality Education Center, so which meant my job was to sit and read feminist literature all day, every day, and then to sometimes teach fifteen-year-old girls how to put condoms on. I was working with some of the most amazing women. It was fucking incredible.
Then Planned Parenthood—which is a totally benevolent organization—moved me to fundraising, which I fucking hated. I cannot be nice to people on command. All they ever had me do was take peoples’ coats at events. They didn’t want me to talk to anybody. I hated it, but it also gave me a lot of free time, filled with rage, to figure out what to do. That’s how Bookslut happened. I was very bored and angry and I had a computer with Internet on it.
Even the name, Bookslut, comes from that [Planned Parenthood] space. And people took it weird. People still take it weird.
Rumpus: There’s that moment in the book, where you tell Tim Pat Coogan your magazine’s called Bookslut, and he responds, “Ah! I’m a man with a lifelong interest in sluts.”
Crispin: I loved that. I howled or chirped or something. I made some amazing sound. But, yeah, at the time I didn’t even think it was weird thing because I was in such a lady space. There was one dude working in the entire office, the CFO, and he was like everybody’s dad. He was in his fifties and wore short-sleeve button-down shirts. We just used words differently there, and it didn’t occur to me that it was going to cause a problem, but of course it did. Women still get angry at me. I mean, men go after me sometimes, but most of the bad responses come from women.
Rumpus: What do they say?
Crispin: Oh, that “slut” is derogatory, it’s a hate word, it’s a slur, and so we shouldn’t use it at all. It’s not funny and “how am I supposed to take you seriously when you obviously don’t take this thing seriously?” I never asked anybody to take me seriously.
Rumpus: I thought, as a character in your essays, you came across as an anti-hero, and I was trying to formulate a question based on the discussions of likeability and women in literature, but I failed because I had the feeling you didn’t really care whether your readers liked you—whatever that means—or not.
Crispin: Yeah, I don’t think I care and I think that is part of the weird position that Bookslut has been in for so long and the position I, as a writer, have been in for so long. I tried for a while to be taken seriously and to do that thing.
Rumpus: What exactly does it mean to be taken seriously?
Crispin: To get the jobs, to have your opinion tweeted a lot, to be referred back to, to get paid for what you do, to get sponsorship, to get advertising, to get institutional support. But somewhere along the road—and thank god I learned this lesson—in order to get that shit, you have to flatten yourself a tremendous amount. Your opinions have to line up either exactly with what the institution wants you to say or it has to be some sort of insincere, clickbait kind of bullshit and you have to professionalize: you have to cover the books they want you to cover, you have to have the opinions they want you to have, you have to have clean, flashy design, you have to pretend that you give a shit about American literature when you don’t. It just wasn’t worth it. Maybe if it were more money, I would’ve done it. Now I just don’t give a fuck. And so, fine, whatever, I have a really good life and I really like it. I don’t behave the way people necessarily want me to, but I tried behaving that other way for a short period of time and it didn’t take. At this point, I’m in my late thirties, it’s too late for me. I’ve hardened into this particular character and people can either take it or leave it.
Rumpus: Do you dislike American literature?
Crispin: Oh my god, so much, right now? Are you fucking kidding me? I haven’t read a novel that’s come out of America that I thought had any value whatsoever since Kathryn Davis’s Duplex, which was two years ago, and there had been a drought before that as well. I think American literature is in a tedious place, horrible place. I can’t even engage with it.
Rumpus: So what do you read instead?
Crispin: I like European and South American literature, but mostly I read nonfiction these days. Right now I’m reading Be Creative by Angela McRobbie and it’s saving my life.
Rumpus: Do you consider yourself American?
Crispin: No, but I don’t feel like anything. That’s the thing: once you leave, you’re no longer of that country, but you are never actually of the country that you go to, and if you go back, you’re not anywhere. You never belong to anything. You can’t get back to that space where your culture makes sense to you. American culture never necessarily made sense to me, but they should warn you: leaving comes with a huge sense of alienation that never goes away.
Rumpus: You talk indirectly a lot about yourself—for instance, your childhood and your mostly negative relationship to your home and to your parents comes across when you’re writing about Margaret Anderson. Were you worried about your parents and their feelings?
Crispin: No. I just don’t find that style of directly explaining the story of yourself interesting. I don’t think that we even know and so constructing a story about yourself—as in this is who I am, this is how I got to here, blah blah blah—it’s all lies. I don’t think it’s a valid form of literature. I didn’t want to do it for that reason.
Rumpus: What advice do you have for young girls, who crave beauty and feel themselves to be changelings, growing up in the Midwest?
Crispin: Oh man, get the fuck out of there! Get out of there. You don’t have to go to New York and you don’t have to go to LA or London. Go somewhere cheap. Go somewhere with free art museums and then just go to art museums. Talk to people who know more than you. I feel like we’re in this stupid sea of opinion, like “My opinion is valid because it’s mine and I have it.” There’s this resistance to actually talking to people who are smarter than you about things and I don’t know why that is. Go to a place and just send out emails. That’s my entire life. I go to countries and I ask, “Who would I know who lives here?” Not even do I know, but who exists and is on the planet. That’s how I fucking talked to Claudio Magris—I sent an email, which is nuts because he is a giant of literature—and he said, “Oh, I’ll buy you dinner.” Just send the emails and talk to people. Spend all your money on nail polish and opera tickets.
Crispin: I think I’m more proud of The Dead Ladies Project, but they are absolutely companions to each other. The tarot book is very much a weird, sidewise autobiography as well. It is way more than commercial and it’s published by a big press. I’m resistant to the kind of New Age idea my publisher’s pretending the book is geared to. It’s for the weirdos and the fuck-ups, not the girls who choose their wardrobe based on what sign they are.
Rumpus: How do you see the books as companions?
Crispin: They’re both about trying to figure out how to contribute to the world. Dead Ladies Project is much more personal and direct, but The Creative Tarot is doing very much the same thing by asking: how does one create a life of art? How do you create a life that is devoted towards the making and the appreciation of it? In a way they’re both autobiographical versions of that part of my life.
Rumpus: Do you get a lot of business as a tarot card reader?
Crispin: I do. I get about one reading a day now. It’s really, really satisfying. When I was at Planned Parenthood, I also volunteered as an abortion counselor and it’s that same dynamic. At the time I was doing that, I was twenty-three and had no boundaries so I burned out quickly. The tarot thing, though, I like.
Rumpus: Does it scare you knowing that you could influence someone’s life decisions?
Crispin: My dad asked me that, like, “What if someone gets a divorce because of advice you give them?” I was like, a) I would never tell anybody to get a divorce and b) I think you can’t implant that idea in someone’s head. I believe in free will. I don’t tell clients what to do. I don’t even really tell them what the future is. I have a new conversation about what’s going in the present tense. I don’t do prognostication. It’s up to them what they do with the information. I understand maybe some people are more impressionable than my hard, cynical self, but maybe they need to figure out how to be less of that.
I have yet to get sued. My father thinks I should get liability insurance. But I’ve never gotten an angry customer because I don’t do the mystical weirdo shit like, “Oh, you’re going to meet a man in three months if you give me all your money and move to Bolivia.” I have a moral center.
Most of what I do is for creative people—writers and painters and photographers—trying to work through creative problems. I mean, many times your creative problem is accidentally your personal problem, but it’s not quite the same.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Crispin: I’m working on a feminist manifesto for Melville House, called Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. I had a drunken rant at the publishers—I was going to say with the publishers, but it was pretty much at them—and they asked me to write it in the form of a book. It’s basically about how the popular feminist movement has gotten so off track with such terrible things done in its name that I don’t want to associate myself with it. Feminism now seems to be defined as success is defined: as being as good at capitalism as men are. I feel very estranged from it.
Rumpus: Are you still traveling with that one suitcase from the book?
Crispin: That suitcase met a bad end. On my way to the airport to fly back to the US from Berlin, the zipper split irredeemably, so I had to duct-tape that motherfucker shut. Now there’s a new suitcase, which I haven’t really gotten used to.
Rumpus: But you’re still living the nomadic lifestyle that you were in the book?
Crispin: Yeah, I don’t think that I can be settled and I don’t think that I would ever want to be.