The Rumpus Interview with Ashley Cardiff

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Ashley Cardiff, my friend and neighbor, recently published her first book Night Terrors: Sex, Dating, Puberty, and Other Alarming Things, a collection of essays and ruminations on sex and sexuality. Ashley’s voice is something like the hyper-literate cat who just ate the auto-asphyxiating canary: she’s biting and incisive, drawing personal anecdotes into sharp perspective. Ashley samples from an expansive trove of cretins, interlopers, weirdos, racists, lovers, friends, and one guy who made a dildo from his own member, as they all misunderstand their way towards a sexual identity.

We talked about the challenges of the sexy memoir, privacy, and style, and Ashley poses the question of whether or not Axl Rose counts as a recluse.

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The Rumpus: On a scale of one to James Frey, how truthful is this memoir?

Ashley Cardiff: This is an impossible question. Part of me wants to come out swinging and say there’s no such thing as nonfiction, and anyone who believes utterly in nonfiction is probably quite vulnerable to advertising. The other part of me wants to say that the stories are true but… I’m writing comedy so they’re packaged in an irreverent way with lots of jokes, some of which hinge on seeming true and the reader’s expectations of me. But I’m hesitant to go there because that can just spiral into people demanding to know what’s real and what’s a joke and if that actually happened or if not, and then nothing is fucking funny anymore.

Rumpus: On a scale of one to Marie Calloway, how illicitly revealing is this memoir?

Cardiff: Oh, very, very low. There’s no sex in my sex memoir. At least, it’s a deeply unsexy entry in the genre.

Night Terrors CoverRumpus: At some point in the process of writing this book you were flirting with calling it an “anti-sex memoir.” What is the anti-sex platform?

Cardiff: That’s what came out of my mouth during the initial pitch meeting with Penguin. This was pre-Lena Dunham’s ascension and the “young women writing about sex” thing already felt very stale to the publishing houses we were courting. At one point, one editor prompted me to explain how my book was different and I kind of just blurted out that it was an “anti-sex memoir.” Maybe that was unrealized angst at what I perceive to be frequently mindless sex positivism on the Internet, maybe that was my attempt at a neatly packaged log line—I don’t know. It sounded catchy. The anti-sex platform is urgent lies and self-mythology, basically.

Rumpus: The anti-sex idea, even if satirical, feels vaguely bad for capitalism. It seems important that sexual congress is only discussed as a highly-desirable, cootie-free, not-gross activity that everyone needs and pursues constantly. In this book you explore many bleak, anxiety-ridden, frightening, and truly revolting aspects of sexuality. Do you feel like you are speaking truth to boners?

Cardiff: Who are these people who have no anxieties about sex? Where do they come from? I heard somewhere that you qualify for having a sleep disorder if you don’t fall asleep within fifteen minutes of hitting the pillow. This blew my goddamn mind. There are people out there who fall asleep in less than two or three hours? They don’t stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, worrying about marginally stupid things they said in high school or that time they embarrassed themselves in front of a stranger? They must be the ones having all this awesome, neurosis-free sex. God. I wonder what they do all day.

Rumpus: Your chapter on masturbation seems to have struck a cord. Are you surprised that this chapter—compared to others—has sparked such impassioned debate?

Cardiff: It shocks me that anyone would take a piece of writing seriously that asserts in the first few paragraphs that the speaker has only masturbated a couple of times. Wouldn’t you read that and automatically think to yourself, What other bullshit am I about to encounter?

Rumpus: On average, how many times a week does the ideal reader of this book masturbate?

Cardiff: Probably in spurts. Probably once every couple weeks, but like five or six times in a sitting, and then the second it’s over, that person just suffocates under self-loathing for the next few days. Ideally, I mean.

Rumpus: Do you have an ideal reader you thought of while writing? Is there a person in mind, or a kind of person, an age, a disposition, a relationship to literature that you envision reading and engaging with this book?

Cardiff: Well, I’m going to out you as being a very nice person and saying that the ideal reader of this book has a certain “mental elasticity,” which I think was your lovely friend way of saying, “This book is very smart and very stupid.” Which I kind of hope is true.

To answer your actual question, I think it’s important for me to have absolutely no regard for how people should or shouldn’t respond to what I’m writing. Thinking about your readers seems like a morass that will only end in a flabby, pandering piece of literature. At the same time, you can’t have zero regard for the reader’s experience; they’re participating in this nightmare, too. I mean, at the end of the day, the answer is probably: “irreverent assholes.”

Rumpus: Please rank the following terms that might be used to describe a person, in order of most desirable to the most offensive. Feel free to explain any of these choices: Humorist, Satirist, Feminist, Essayist, Author, Writer, Social Critic, Comedienne, Blogger, Lady Blogger, Creator, Organ Donor, Brooklynite, Memoirist.

Cardiff: Jesus Christ. Um. I don’t think I can say any of these are desirable or offensive in and of themselves. They are concepts, after all. I suppose I wouldn’t go around calling myself a Creator—that seems like the most intolerable of the list. And I don’t think I’m an Organ Donor. (I should probably change that, right? That’s a really easy virtue to have, like always showing up to things ten minutes early.) The others, they are all terms I’m fine with, but don’t particularly identify with. Maybe Writer. Author seems stuffy to me.

Rumpus: Why Writer, specifically? I think of that as having a sort of workman quality.

Cardiff: For a long time I really resisted calling myself that, or letting that be the answer when someone asked me what I did. I think at a certain point, you just have to be practical and accept the shorthand for what you do, but I still don’t like calling myself that.

On the one hand, when I think of “writer,” I think of Faulkner or Melville, you know, people who could fucking write. So I’m kind of embarrassed to call myself that because I feel undeserving. It wasn’t always this way; I used to be really eager to self-mythologize and I tried to own that all the time. But I guess as I’ve matured a little I’ve become increasingly resistant to identifying with things like that, with any of them. On the other hand, it is the name of the function I perform. Maybe its “workman-like quality” is the thing that makes me able to swallow it. I’m probably just being neurotic.

Rumpus: Throughout this book, you allude to works from the “The Great Canon” as masterfully as you toss off references to ’90s pop ephemera. Can you diagnose this aspect of your voice as a writer? Are there stylistic precedents you looked to when thinking about the voice for a memoir?

Cardiff: I’m an idiot. However, I went to a strange school and I studied classics and I felt like a very pedestrian intellect the entire time. It was extremely healthy for me, because I was an arrogant prick before spending four years feeling inadequate. So, while there are jokes about Plato and Aquinas and Dostoevsky in there, there’s nothing too “insider baseball” that would alienate people who haven’t read them. They’re largely alluded to because it seemed absurd to do so.

As for the ephemera, I was raised by television. I think they’re just naturally concurrent.

Rumpus: Was that previous question a bullshit question? Is style a pleasant thing to talk about in an interview?

Cardiff: Yes and no.

Rumpus: In one of the early essays, we find young Ashley creating a portfolio of dirty cartoons that get her kicked out of her evil grandmother’s Catholic classes. One way to read this book is as an advanced portfolio of dirty cartoons designed to provoke a specific reaction. Who is your current evil grandmother and what are you trying to do to her?

Cardiff: Oh, man. I feel like I have to be serious now and it’s making me uncomfortable. My “evil grandmother,” as in, the specter that haunts me and the dragon I’m always trying to slay, is almost certainly “everyone who was mean to me from the age of zero to about now.” So, my actual evil grandmother fits that bill, but so do a shitload of people. I was bullied pretty horribly as a kid, and by “horribly,” I mean in a way that is probably pretty normal for kids to experience. And I feel like it did instill me with a lot of ambition to succeed and prove them wrong. So, I guess, really when you think about it, my evil grandmother is actually my own bottomless well of sorrow. And pettiness!

Rumpus: Having known you for a while I am consistently stunned at the accuracy and specificity of your memory in casual conversation. You recall details from minor conversations and events to a degree that’s fairly of alarming. Lots of people notice this about you. You’re sort of a freak. Was there a time in your life when you recognized this as a peculiar ability? How does it affect your approach to memoir?

Cardiff: Certainly, my neurosis is informed largely by my inability to forget fucking anything. Yes, people have been noticing this about me since I was a child. I have a very muscular recall and it’s always been off-putting to people. Maybe that’s because I grew up in Northern California, though, and everyone was stoned all the time.

I usually remember situations from years ago, right down to what people were wearing at the time. As for what this is, I think it’s a perfect storm of things—I’m quite sensitive, I’m extremely impressionable, highly visual and detail-oriented, very over-analytical, even obsessive. But yes, I do do that. Just last night a friend introduced me to another friend as having “a brain like Wikipedia.” Which I guess means crowd-sourced and dubious, but the sentiment was nice.

As for writing memoir, the fact of the matter is that everyone has a right to their own experiences and people are going to perceive things differently. However, I am not writing the stories of the people scattered throughout the book, I am writing my own. I do try very hard to present them in a way that’s truthful, or truthful to my experience.

I fucked up that answer. All of that was pointless. I’m sorry, buddy.

Rumpus: Do you suffer fools gladly?

Cardiff: Depends on the kind. I’m very foolish in a lot of ways, so I’m quite sympathetic to most of them. But the willingly foolish, people who refuse to think, I don’t suffer them. They’re the worst.

Rumpus: Do you pity fools?

Cardiff: I think this reference is a little old, Nic. I have never seen anything with Mr. T in it. Not one thing.

Rumpus: We’ve talked previously about your desire to cultivate a reclusive public persona. This is because you consider yourself a private person, who through a series of remarkable events, is publishing a sort of sex memoir. It makes sense to me: you are an inspired contradiction. Can you talk about the idea of privacy as a human living in 2013 and how that affects you personally and creatively?

Cardiff: My desire to cultivate a reclusive public persona is as much an extension of shameless vanity as it is actual neurosis and desire for privacy. It’s weird, though, I think I’m realizing that my understanding of privacy is occasionally very different from a lot of peoples’. For example, I know you want to talk about William Gaddis, and my feelings about Gaddis strike me as more personal than just about any story in the book. I guess what I’m saying is that privacy exists in what I feel and think and actually believe. Those are the things that I harbor and want to protect; while stories about sex tapes and dirty pictures and masturbation are exactly that: stories. There’s nothing that can really be challenged in those. They happened. They’re either funny in the telling or they aren’t.

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I’m being terribly inarticulate. I think I’m trying to say that I don’t feel the same protectiveness over things that happened to me, especially things outside my control, or things that happened years earlier, as I do about the writers I love really deeply, or the bands I love, or how I feel about virtue and beauty and all that shit. However, it is very unsettling for me to see people read the book and conclude things about my personal beliefs, especially when the evidence they think they have is just flatly, obviously irreverent and absurd. There are threads of real sincerity in the book, but parsing them out is probably a little more challenging than it would appear, what with those threads being flanked by so many puerile jokes about genitalia.

Rumpus: Who are some of your favorite recluses and why?

Cardiff: I have just been completely polluted by pop culture in finding that so romantic and desirable, but there are a shitload of good recluses. It’s impossible not to think of Salinger first, though Terrence Mallick is probably my favorite. Dave Chappelle is a great one, Syd Barrett, Kubrick. Michael Jackson, absolutely. Brian Wilson and Tesla. Does Axl Rose count? I hope he does.

Rumpus: At one point you go on a riff about William Gaddis, and about your quest to write sprawling works of towering literary achievement. You are then resigned to write this work because of contractual obligations. I have an unreliable narrator alarm installed in my brain by a very earnest high school English teacher. Is Night Terrors your Notes from the Underground?

Cardiff: See? I knew you wanted to talk about Gaddis. The book is a kind of exegesis, sure, ostensibly about sex but really about anxiety. As for this question about an unreliable narrator—I really don’t think you should put your very earnest faith in anyone trying to make you laugh. Or sell you a book.

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Featured image of Ashley Cardiff © by Jeremy Schoenherr.

Second image courtesy of Ashley Cardiff.


Nic Rad is an artist living in Brooklyn. He paints, writes, sculpts, and performs. Rad is a member of the sketch comedy team Slapfight at the Peoples Improv Theater. He's rolling deep in the Tumblr game. More from this author →