Jillian Lauren’s first book, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, tells her true story of living in a harem in Brunei. She is most recently the author of Pretty, a novel about a young lady named Bebe who goes from drugged-out stripper to cosmetology school then finds Christianity.
Lauren read at the November Monthly Rumpus, and her storytelling and delivery had the audience horrified and amused at the same time. We caught up the last time she was in San Francisco.
The Rumpus: How do you like coming to San Francisco and reading here?
Jillian Lauren: I love coming to San Francisco because the literary scene is very strong here. I am from L.A. and we have a sort of niche community there. I feel like it’s growing. I don’t know. It’s sort of picking up steam right now. But coming up to San Francisco the events are so packed fun and I feel supported here.
Rumpus: So it’s harder to get a crowd in Los Angeles.
Lauren: It’s hard to get a crowd for anything in Los Angeles. It’s strange I don’t know why maybe because it is less of a walking city. And here people seem to be stumbling around the Mission and maybe they will be stumbling into your event.
Rumpus: Did you write the novel before the memoir?
Lauren: It’s so funny that you say that because yes I did, although no one else has guessed. That’s a big secret. But they put the memoir out first. Although I did extensive revisions on the novel so the writing is more recent than just many years ago. The bulk of it was written when I was in my MFA program. So I did write the novel first and really I like writing both fiction and non-fiction. They inform each other. In my work I try to bring my non-fiction journalist eye to the details of my fiction and I try to bring my sense of lyricism that I have developed through writing fiction to writing memoirs so I am not giving up either one.
Rumpus: I will ask you about your next project in a minute because now you have me curious. As I was reading Pretty I was so engaged in the story, then every once in a while you would slap me with this amazing sentence and I was so mad I didn’t think of that.
Lauren: Well, thank you.
Rumpus: Yeah I hate you. That means I am jealous.
Lauren: I love that feeling. I love it when I feel that way about another writer. I hate you; I wish I had written that.
Rumpus: Why couldn’t the universe have thrown that in my head? Bebe Baker was such a strong character in Pretty. How loosely is she based on you?
Lauren: It’s not actually based on me. Her thought processes, her voice and the way she speaks isn’t me, and the narrative has nothing to do with anything that has happened in my life. But I use Bebe—and all the characters in the book—to explore themes, issues and questions that are at the forefront of my mind and my life questions of faith and recovery, healing and second chances. A lot of the details were culled from my life. I just sort of threw them up, and they came down in a different order. In the book the character Bebe is from Toledo, Ohio. Well actually that is my husband’s story, he’s from Toledo Ohio. I was always fascinated by his leaving there and pursuing his dreams—what kind of courage that took and the romance of that and also how bittersweet that is when you reach the site where your dreams will be and they are not there. How do you keep on living and how do you process that and move on?
Rumpus: Jerry Stahl blurbed Pretty, can we talk about him?
Lauren: Yes we can.
Rumpus: Jerry Stahl has this way, every time you meet him he looks like he just wants to grab your throat and twist your neck and kill you. But there is like a weird sense of humor behind that.
Lauren: I think you would be disappointed if Jerry Stahl was any other way. I actually almost used one of his lines and then I checked myself. I remember going to a reading of his and he said, “And now for the obligatory and awkward Q & A.”
Rumpus: He is so dry, I love dry.
Lauren: And super generous. Before I even sold the book, he blurbed it and he has been very supportive of my career. I ran into him in Paris once before I even sold the book and that’s when he agreed to read the manuscript and he was very supportive. It was one of those moments where I was ready to throw myself in the Seine because I was sure no one was ever going to buy my work and I would never be recognized as a writer and I would never be published and then the gods sent to me Jerry Stahl into the middle of Paris. He does have a grouchy kind of shtick, but I’d hate to blow it and say that he’s a nice guy.
Rumpus: Did you sell Pretty and Some Girls together?
Lauren: Yes, I sold both books at once.
Rumpus: Great job. Before that, it’s just the torture.
Lauren: The wasteland. Years and years and years. My husband likes to say that I’m the over night sensation that took ten years. I’m not saying I’m a sensation, just as a figure of speech.
Rumpus: To get published is a sensation.
Lauren: Yes, it is, sensational to me.
Rumpus: You’ve been on The View, what’s it like, you’ve been on so many television shows.
Lauren: I was on The View, I was on Good Morning America, I was on Howard Stern.
Rumpus: Oh, really, you were live in studio on Howard Stern?
Lauren: Uh, huh.
Rumpus: That must have been a blast.
Lauren: It was really fun. Scott and I both were, my husband and I and it was fun.
Rumpus: He’s in Weezer.
Lauren: Yes. Scott, my husband who is the current bass player for Weezer. We were both on Howard Stern together last year. And, Howard was really lovely, he was a gentlemen.
Rumpus: Really, he didn’t rip on either of you?
Lauren: It was mostly me, I talked for most of the time. I felt he started to push a little bit and he started to ask questions with a lot of sexual content. He was talking about the memoir, which for anyone who doesn’t know, was about the 18 months I spent in a harem with Prince Jefri of Brunei as a quasi-prostitute, so that’s how I wound up on Howard Stern. I think that he recognized fairly quickly that I’m an author and I’m not a bimbo and I’m not there promoting my vagina toy. Not that there’s anything wrong with vagina toys, but that’s not what I’m promoting.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about some of the themes of your book.
Lauren: There are themes of faith, of broken faith of piecing together a more personal faith.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Lauren: I’m working on another memoir now, based on a one-woman show that I did this summer called Mother Tongue.
Rumpus: Which I can’t wait to see, please bring it to San Francisco.
Lauren: Yes, please do. It’s based on my experiences, both with my own adoption and my infertility and my husband’s, and my whole journey with the fertility process, eventually leading us to adopt our son from Ethiopia.
Rumpus: I forgot to ask how you were brought up.
Lauren: Jewish and we’re observant Jews, I was bat mitvahed and all of that and I just really felt compelled to explore Christianity in Pretty, and I did a lot of research, I spent a lot of time with some Pentecostal Christians.
Rumpus: Did you go to any of their churches?
Lauren: I went to their Foursquare church in L.A. and I witnessed their baptisms and I was truly moved with my experience hanging out with them. I didn’t jump in that water or anything, but there were times I wanted to.
Rumpus: Okay, let’s talk about addiction. There’s addiction in the book and also your personal experience.
Lauren: I culled many of the details of the book from the themes of my own life. Addiction and recovery is certainly one of the big themes of my life, and something that I’ve dealt with from a very early age and I’ve been in recovery from drugs and alcohol for about eleven years and I wrote that into the book, into the character’s experience. Not long-term sobriety, but that early sobriety, that moment of transformation and is it possible or is it not possible. I hear people say that all the time: Oh, people don’t change. But that’s not true, people do change and it takes a tremendous amount of work and luck and all of the stars being in line for you. So I wanted to explore that alchemical moment. And I also think that addiction and compulsive behavior are so much the rhythm of how we go about getting our information these days and how we go about consuming, and how we go about relationships. So I think it’s relevant on a larger scale too, in a broader sense, than just chemical dependency, although chemical dependency is my story.
Rumpus: So that’s your central theme and everything else around recovery. Which is a continued process.
Lauren: It is and it’s not a linear process either, it comes in waves, but hoping to achieve deeper levels of comfort and serenity with who we are. Happiness is happiness. Whether we believe in the foundation of that happiness or not. It’s not like I’ve never been happy, I’ve had moments of happiness, but I’ve never had a happy existence.
Rumpus: And that’s why we’re writers.
Lauren: That’s right. People say, oh were you going to name your son after a writer? I don’t want to saddle him with that legacy. I want him to be joyful. I want him to be a rock star. Writer? God, no.