The Rumpus Interview with Sari Botton

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Sari Botton is the sort of woman I’ve only ever found in New York: chic, driven, funny, black-clad, capable of juggling the work of ten people, simultaneously earnest and irreverent, confident and self-deprecating, vulnerable and ironic, pragmatic and passionate—you know the type.

But Sari doesn’t live in New York anymore, a fact that has taken some getting used to. That’s one of the reasons that compelled her to edit an anthology on the subject. Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York is busting with true stories in the image of Joan Didion’s famous ode by the same name. The book boasts such writers as Cheryl Strayed (whose contribution appeared in Salon), Roxane Gay (hers appeared in The Nation), Emma Straub, Emily Gould, Chloe Caldwell, Dani Shapiro, Ann Hood, and many more. It’s already getting press from places like New York Magazine and Jezebel, and is basically poised to take over the world.

Botton is a force, known on The Rumpus for her killer interview column, “Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me,” and personal essays concerning decidedly brave topics like abortion and her experience in Al-Anon. She’s also written for the likes of Glamour, The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, and New York Magazine; ghostwritten multiple books; been widely anthologized (she has an essay in the new collection); and runs a storytelling project that serves communities from high schools to prisons. The woman knows how to stay busy, and to make her efforts count.

I wanted to squeeze in a little one-on-one with Sari before the book dropped, so I sent her some questions and then we met up in Cobble Hill in Brooklyn for some mediocre sushi and good conversation. We covered everything from storytelling, to relationships, to compulsive liars, to the word “crotch.” Some of it made it into this interview.

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The Rumpus: When I write something, I’m usually trying to answer some question in me, though it’s not always clear what that question is until I get to the end/answer. I imagine that endeavoring to edit an anthology is a similar thing. What do you think you were looking for with this one? In other words, tell me about the Goodbye to All That anthology. What was the impetus for it?

Sari Botton: One of many questions I’ve been banging my head against for the past few years is, Wait—did I really leave NYC?! Sometimes I wake up in my bed in Rosendale, New York, where I’ve lived for the past eight years, and wonder whether it’s all been a dream. The fifteen years I spent living in New York City—before I lost my under-market-value apartment in a housing court battle—had sort of defined me, or so I thought. The city, the East Village in particular, was where I felt I truly became me. New York is where so many people go to redefine themselves, to become “cool” if you’re a perennial dork, as I saw myself. With my identity so tied to where I lived, I came to consider myself a lifer.

GoodbyeToAllThat_printBut I’d also become somewhat disenchanted with the city over time, as many long-time residents do. As time goes by and ever increasing numbers of people compete for the same apartments, the same jobs, the same potential mates on Nerve.com (or whatever dating site people use these days), and rents go up, and the amount of space you can afford goes down…law of diminishing returns inevitably kicks in.

When I moved upstate, I met many people like me—NYC expats who’d left for a variety of reasons, but pretty much all of whom had also become disenchanted. We compared stories, and in almost every one, I heard an arc similar to that in Joan Didion’s iconic essay, “Goodbye to All That,” published in her 1967 collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. There’s such universality in the essay. It came up in many of those conversations, and after a while I thought, Huh, wouldn’t it be interesting if I got a few people to write their versions of it…

Rumpus: Yeah, the Didion essay has always been important for me, too. In my twenties, I identified most with the loving part, though as I’ve aged, it’s the leaving part that moves me most. I suppose as we age, we become both more familiar, and perhaps more capable of leaving the places we found ourselves in. I know that I have found more of myself in myself, and so need to see it less in other things, or places.

The anthology is about loving and leaving New York, but it’s also very much about loving and leaving, in general. What’s your relationship to that experience?

Botton: Once, I was being considered for a job ghostwriting a book for a palm reader. Naturally, she wanted to read my palm before she hired me. After I sat beside her in her agent’s office for about an hour, as she thoroughly examined my hand, she looked up and announced, “Nope—you hold onto things for too long.” At the time, I was insulted. But years later I can admit she was right. I get very attached to people, places, and things (obviously I have spent more than my share of time in Al-Anon and CoDA meetings). When I was single, I’d devote years to guys who were barely one-night stand material.

New York was one of the hardest things for me to give up. Even at its worst, like when it’s hot and smelly in August, or under other generally shitty conditions, New York still has an almost unshakable gravitational pull. Toward the end of my time there, it sometimes felt like an addiction. I wasn’t having much fun, but I was afraid to leave, to let go. If I hadn’t been kicked out—if the mold and soot from our landlord’s unsound landmark-ing renovations hadn’t left me with asthmatic bronchitis; if the expensive year in housing court hadn’t soured me on a too-rapidly-gentrifying city—I might never have left.

Rumpus: Oh, I know. So much of what I let go has claw marks on it. Or, the things of that nature. By which I define myself. I think the fear is that if we let go, we will lose ourselves, too. I think this fear of self-erasure is part of why we write. Naming things, turning our lives into tangible objects, is a way of concretizing them, of assuring ourselves that they are real.

Is Joan Didion an important writer for you? Who else is? I love to hear about the formative books for writers. I think it says a lot about the work we end up creating.

Botton: Yes, I’ve always admired Didion. Her observations are so spot-on, and her writing is simultaneously so crystal clear, so evocative and so economical. It’s a balance one can only aspire to.

Hmm. Who else… I have never idolized or identified with one writer in particular. I’ve always hewn more toward memoirists and writers of autobiographical fiction. When I was younger, The Bell Jar had a big impact on me. Between high school and college, I must have written four or five different papers on it. (It’s also entirely possible I did that because I was lazy.) Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, about her difficult relationship with her mother, also had a huge impact on me. I’ve read it at three different stages in my life. (She was my first interview for my column.) Maybe I am stuck in a groove, but my go-to subgenre is books that contain writers’ struggles with writing about themselves and their families.

Rumpus: Fierce Attachments is a masterpiece. Gornick has something in common with Didion, I think. That clarity and economy, but without compromising the emotions of an experience. Plath was huge for me, as a younger person, too. Any woman writing about madness, finding the poetry in terror, and unknowing, and being unknown. I guess the trajectory of our tastes tends to mirror that of our psyches, huh? Or, the wish for our psyches.

Speaking of psyches, I’m fascinated by your work with the storytelling nonprofit, TMI Project. Maybe you can talk a little about that? I know you just launched an Indiegogo campaign to bring your latest show on the road to Texas.

Botton: Of all the many jobs I juggle to stay afloat in the world, my work with TMI Project is the most rewarding. We do these memoir/monologue workshops where we help people write and hone their true stories and share them not only with other workshop participants, but with an audience. It’s especially rewarding when we bring workshops to places like a jail for teen boys; The Care Center, an alternative school for pregnant and parenting teen moms; the Mental Health Association of Ulster County; a group of women military veterans in recovery; and many other places where people don’t often get to tell their stories or be heard.

But there’s also something incredibly satisfying about working with the people who pay for our regular workshops. Wherever we go, we get to witness people relating to each other’s stories—usually stories they’d never shared before because they were too painful or embarrassing. It’s those stories that people connect over.

Rumpus: I can imagine! In some ways, I don’t have to. That sounds very much like my best moments of teaching. And of writing, even. There’s a bigger delay, of course, between reading someone’s story, and then feeling braver about telling my own, but there is a causal relationship. And then of hearing from our own readers, how they’ve been inspired to a new level of honesty in their work. It can be so liberating to see another writer model courage and honesty. I think that’s a big part of our job: to demonstrate what seems impossible or terrifying, on the page, for other people to see that it’s possible.

Botton: At one women’s retreat in the summer of 2012, we had several older women. In one session, one of them came clean about her illegal abortion pre-Roe v. Wade for the first time, and that got the rest of them, one by one, admitting to their own. None of them had ever felt they could talk about that before. They’d had all this shame. It was the most amazing thing being present as they all started finishing each other’s sentences. Their experiences had been so similar—down to the $500 in cash they had to bring—yet they’d all been living with them alone.

There were also some younger women, including one who’d been raised in a conservative household. Her mind was just blown listening to the older women. Now this “horrible” thing she’d heard about at home had a face to it—five of them, actually. She said it opened her mind.

That sort of button-holed a plan my partner, Eva Tenuto, and I had for putting together a “choice”-themed show for 2013, the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. And then, that fall, during the run-up to the presidential election, Todd Akin and Mitt Romney put the nail in the coffin.

So we put together “What to Expect When You’re NOT Expecting: True Stories of Slips, Surprises and Happy Accidents,” which, by the way, is not just about abortion. It’s about every aspect of “choice.” Considering that about half of all pregnancies are unplanned, it’s probably not surprising that in every workshop, we hear stories about the ways in which people have dealt with and been affected by unplanned pregnancy. They’ve been adopted and reunited with a parent later, or they put a child up for adoption, or they fell madly in love with the kid they didn’t think they’d keep, or they had abortions they’d never talked about.

So the show is well-rounded, but it has a pro-choice message—and every performance raises money for Planned Parenthood. At the end of our debut at the Bearsville Theater, near Woodstock, this summer, someone shouted out, “Take this to Texas!” and everyone cheered. So, we’re doing the Indiegogo campaign to raise money to bring the show to Texas and other states where conservative legislators are working to obstruct reproductive rights.

Rumpus: It’s interesting how much of your work is about inviting other writers to share their stories, through your fantastic interview column here on The Rumpus, to the anthology, to your storytelling workshops, to ghostwriting. It’s such important work, and you do it so well, but do you think there’s an element of hiding in it? The person who asks the questions doesn’t always have to answer them. Do you think there’s a desire to find a way to tell more of your own story behind it all?

Botton: Good eye! You wouldn’t be the first person to call me out on hiding. I had a sort of mentor who, for years, would check in on me randomly and say, “Are you done hiding yet?” The “Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me” column was intended to be a stepping stone for me, from out behind the shadows. It has been, to a great degree. I’m about to start shopping a proposal for Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me, the book. It will be a mix of interviews (some old, some new) and my own personal essays about writing truths that are uncomfortable for me and for others in my life. Then, I’ll only be half-hiding. The book after that, I promise I will be one hundred percent not hiding.

Rumpus: When you interviewed me, we talked about the perils of writing about other people, and I said that for whatever reason, the writer in me always won over the daughter or sister or lover or teacher. If the writer in you wins, Sari, what story is she going to tell?

Botton: That line from our conversation comes to mind often. It’s very helpful for me. Sometimes, when I’m stopping myself from writing, I think, Who’s going to win here, Sari? The writer or the daughter? Hasn’t the daughter won enough times? It’s simultaneously been a very liberating and very challenging year for me, because I took a big step back from my relationship with my father. It’s the only way I’m ever going to give the writer some breathing room.

Sari Botton photo

I think the first story I am going to tell, in Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me, the book (as opposed to the musical), is the story of me liberating the daughter, and letting her finally grow into a writer—at the late age of forty-eight. Pretty meta, I know. The next one will be the story of my relationship to religion and “goodness” and feminism, as the daughter of a clergyman. (Working title: A Nice, Agnostic Girl.) I’ve had a novel in the works since I dabbled in MFA programs (circa 1992/3), about a Baal Teshuvah, a born-again Jewess with a checkered past who…well, I’m not going to tell what she does.

Rumpus: I can’t wait to read these books. And I love seeing the progression of your work, how it seems to mirror the progression of your relationship to it. Very meta, indeed. It was my experience that I had to get my own story out of the way, before I could tackle fiction with any freedom. Before that, all roads just kept leading back to the same thing. Maybe that novel needs you to clear some space for it.

What are you reading now/lately?

Botton: I just finished Alison Bechdel’s two graphic memoirs about her relationships with her parents, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, both of which I loved, and which fit perfectly into my favorite little subgenre. Also along those lines, I’m now reading Rebecca Walker’s Black, White and Jewish, and plan to interview her for my column. I’ve also been a bit fascinated with what I think is being called “autofiction,” novels that are very much based on —and difficult to distinguish from—the author’s true story. I’m thinking of books like I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti, Making Scenes by Adrienne Eisen.

Rumpus: I love all of those, too. And they all make sense, in terms of your work, where it’s coming from and going to. Who is going to interview you for the “Conversations with Writers Braver Than Me” column, when your books come out?

Botton: I don’t know. I should probably pass the baton to another fraidy cat, who is where I was when I started the column.

Rumpus: I’ve always been simultaneously drawn to the idea of editing an anthology. On one hand, it seems like such fun, to collect and solicit the work of writers whom I admire, on a topic that interests me—what a dream! But the sheer organizational task of it, oh man. And I have no idea how receptive publishers are to such things. How hard was it to bring this thing into being?

Botton: Oh my god. On the one hand, it was this great labor of love. I got to work with so many writers I admire, on a subject that has been on my mind for a long time, and that has been a dream come true. It’s something I’d wanted to do for ages, and I got to, so I count my blessings.

But agents always cautioned me against editing anthologies because it’s so much work for so little financial reward, and that is true, at least with the tiny advance I got for this book. When I was going through the sheer administrative tedium of fielding contracts and addresses for twenty-eight writers, I remembered what they’d said. I’m hoping that if this book does well, I will command bigger advances for anthologies in the future. I was looking at my bank account the other day and realizing that after writing checks to twenty-eight writers, paying for certain aspects of book events, etc., not to mention hours and hours of work, my earnings from this project have progressively plummeted from bupkiss to zilch to I’m-losing-money-on-it. Who knows, maybe we’ll sell a zillion copies and I’ll make some money on the back end. But even if that doesn’t happen, I’m just so happy I got to do this.

Rumpus: I’m really happy you did it, too.

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Featured image of Sari Botton © by Brad DeCecco.

Second image courtesy of Sari Botton.


Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press). Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Post Road, Salon, New York Times, Hunger Mountain, Portland Review, Dissent, The Brooklyn Rail, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Bitch Magazine, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, and elsewhere. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers, and she is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and The MacDowell Colony. The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). She serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and has co-curated the Manhattan reading and music series, Mixer, for eight years. The daughter of a sea captain and a psychotherapist, she was raised on Cape Cod and lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →