I was drawn to Wendy C. Ortiz’s memoir Excavation because it seemed like a lofty undertaking: In a story about an affair between a teenager and her 15-years-older teacher, was it possible to not to slip too far into overtly salacious or preachy, finger-wagging territory? But from the very first chapter, Ortiz doesn’t succumb to the Dateline-ready predator-victim stereotypes we’ve come to expect, nor does she shy away from the complexities of such a dynamic—the power, the manipulation, even the sexual chemistry. Instead, she honors the skeptical, desirous 13-year-old girl enraptured by a charming creep of a man who showered her with praise not just for her body, but for the writer and young woman she aspired to be.
I absorbed the sound of Mr. Ivers purring in my ear, because it was peppered with things I did understand. He told me of my beautiful mouth, intense eyes, the way he watched my body at school. I was suddenly privy to the details of an oft-imagined scene that involved him and me, where he was pressing his “hardness” against me….When he asked me to touch myself, I sighed and murmured in the right places, but refrained from laying a hand on myself. I didn’t really know if masturbation was a true sin or not. I was thirteen, and this had been a solitary, secret act, not something I wanted to be guided towards by a voice on the phone, though I was intrigued by the intimate details he described.
Ortiz goes on to explore these shades of gray with a trusting, collected voice, reminding us that our less-flattering appetites are human, natural. She goes there, and it’s the kind of honesty that’s needed in discussing subjects we have long discarded as unspeakable.
Aside from working on another memoir, Hollywood Notebook (due out this spring), and running the Rhapsodomancy reading series in LA, Ortiz is now also a marriage-and-family therapist intern. We chatted on a recent afternoon about how her first book took shape and why telling this story was so important to her.
The Rumpus: One of the things I think works best about Excavation is that you don’t outright blame your teacher for pursuing you and crossing serious boundaries time and time again, nor you dive into psychoanalysis or offer explanations for anyone’s behavior. You just tell the story, and the reader is allowed to draw her own conclusions—and it works, in the way the great literature does. How hard was it to show that much restraint?
Wendy C. Ortiz: It actually didn’t feel like an overwhelming task because my intention was to show both of us as full characters. And that meant I was just going to be truthful about what I observed. Particularly with his character in the book, I realized that people would immediately want to call this person a monster. I feel like just telling the story the way it happened naturally shows restraint. Never once did I feel when I was living it that he was doing something bad. But at the same time, with the more contemporary chapters, I did want to show that as an adult I wanted to understand what the situation actually was.
Rumpus: I also thought the structure worked really well—with the flash-forward “Notes on an Excavation” chapters weaved throughout, explaining things like “Why I didn’t tell,” etc. It allowed for the straightforward narrative to stand on its own. Why did you decide to structure it the way you did? Did you try a few other ways first?
Ortiz: That came about over the years. Several drafts of the book did not contain those more contemporary sections, and it always felt like something was missing. It somehow felt more flat. It was only in the last three years that I actually went, “Oh, it really makes much more sense if I included more about who I am now and break it up that way.” I thought it would add a dimension to it, and I think it ultimately did.
Rumpus: Going back to that restraint thing for a bit, does being a therapist intern make it harder or easier to leave all that psychoanalysis out?
Ortiz: I feel like I had processed it so much before that I didn’t need to process it any more on the page. It would of course be a different circumstance if, in my practice, I was seeing someone who was going through a similar situation, but for myself, I’ve had the opportunity for many, many years now to digest what had happened and to be able to write about it from a different place than when I was actually living it.
Rumpus: Because these memories must be so complicated to sift through, did having kept journals during the time of the affair (between ages thirteen to eighteen) make it easier to write the book? Do you think if you had to re-create these scenes from memory alone, it would have been possible?
Ortiz: For my very first drafts, I think was trying to write it without looking at the journals, but it was much more ambiguous. It was more sensual and less focused on time sequence and how things happened. It would have been possible, but it would have been a totally different book had I not had those journals to go back and reference the order of things. So it’s painful to reread those journals for sure, but they contained a wealth of information I had to go back to time and time again.
Rumpus: I recently reread some of my old journals for a piece I was writing, and like you, I was mostly stunned by how wrong my sequence of events were. It’s funny how memory will rearrange things to make them less painful, almost as a survival instinct.
Ortiz: I think as long as we understand that we know that’s how memory works, then we’re in a good place. I think it’s really dangerous to get into territory of, “This is fact. This is how I remember it,” because memory is totally fallible.
Rumpus: Yes. And once that story gets crafted into an essay or a book, it ends up being the only way to remember that story.
Ortiz: As soon as I tell a story about a memory, then I’m painting over what actually happened with what I recall. And that might be a little off in some in way, and it starts to become The Memory. Especially if you have siblings, and I didn’t grow up with siblings, but you’re going to have different memories for the same event.
Rumpus: I know; I’m kind of precious with my memories, like I almost don’t want to hear what others’ memories might be because they will taint mine. It’s my memoir. On a somewhat similar note, how long did it take you to get this story to where you wanted it? Did you set out to write it as a book?
Ortiz: I started an MFA program in 2000, and I knew immediately that this was going to be the manuscript I would write. The very first draft was written between 2000 and 2002, and so between 2002 and 2008, I kind of went back and forth with it. I would let it sit for a while. I would come back to it. I would get angry at it. I’d put it in a corner. I would just keep coming around to it. Actually around the past seven years, I’ve had different readers give me really good feedback, and again I would work on it and put it away. I was still editing and doing drafts early this year. I consider not looking at it and putting it away a gestation.
Rumpus: I agree with you, if only because I relate—I also wrote a memoir in grad school and kept taking it out and putting it away because I felt it wasn’t ready. I believe in that gestation, too.
Ortiz: I know I was in a rush when I was writing it, and I thought, “Oh, my god, I need to find an agent now.” And frankly, now that I can look back on all of it, I think, “Wow, it would have been so not ready. I’m so glad I didn’t try to do anything with this.”
Rumpus: Excavation often gets compared to Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (about the author’s four-year incestuous relationship with her father at age 20). I assume you’ve read it?
Ortiz: Yes, I’ve read it four or five times, and it’s funny because I started reading it in grad school because it was one of the books my mentor steered me towards, and I remember with my first reading of it, I felt outrage. Then, with more and more readings, I thought I understood it more. By the third or fourth reading, I was looking at it in terms of structure. But I was also getting older and could approach it from a different perspective.
Rumpus: Do you think the comparison to The Kiss is warranted? Or does it simply mean that there are so few authors who write boldly and beautifully about the complexities of relationships we consider taboo?
Ortiz: In all honesty, it’s gratifying to have Excavation compared to The Kiss. Especially when I think of my different readings of The Kiss and how my feelings about it shifted with each reading. It troubles the narrative we’re used to hearing, and if this is why my book can be compared to it, I feel I’ve achieved one of my intentions.
Rumpus: I love what your publisher Kevin Sampsell and his small press Future Tense put out. Were other editors or publishers nervous about the material?
Ortiz: Yes, yes. I did have an agent and she did send it out to a lot of the big publishers, which was super exciting. I requested to look at the feedback it was getting, and there were publishing houses that were like, “This is really dark; this is really intense.” They had really good adjectives. And I felt, “Yeah, these are the things I want this to be!” But they felt like there wasn’t an audience, or they didn’t know how they would sell the book for a variety of reasons. I was also an unknown person, and perhaps if it had come from someone more well-known, then it would have had done better in the market. Yeah, it was super disappointing. Because I was someone looking for this narrative, I was pretty certain there are a lot of people looking for this sort of narrative out there, who’ve had their own similar experiences, so it was disappointing on that level and of course because, you know, rejection sucks. But I also wasn’t sure how a big publisher would handle the material. Was it possible, in order to make it more sellable, they’d make it sound more salacious than it was? And that really freaked me out. So I ended up feeling pretty secure that a smaller press would put it out and the publisher would listen to me. All of those things have been a boon in this experience with a smaller publisher.
Rumpus: Have you gotten a lot of good feedback? Or responses from women reaching out with similar stories?
Ortiz: Lots of positive responses. I put a different email address on my website, and I think that because it doesn’t have my name in it, people feel freer to tell me how the book landed with them. I’ve heard some very personal experiences, nothing exactly like what I describe in the book, but there are similarities in tone. Basically, it’s overwhelmingly young women who have experienced some sort of power differential in their relationship with an older man, and there’s something they can relate to in the book. I’ve also heard from men, which is always totally welcome. I’m always really curious what men make of this book. And there are men who’ve been in, not exact, but similar experiences to mine. I’ve also heard from a lot of people I know personally, who’ve shared stuff they hadn’t before—how it touched them, how it was similar to an experience they might have had, or how it just struck a chord.
Rumpus: Are you surprised anymore how often these older-power-figure/underage-subordinate relationships occur? Does it still shock you?
Ortiz: It doesn’t shock me. I feel like the more I talk to people, the more I find that there are experiences like this that people have had, or that they know others who have had, even if it’s just anecdotal. Like, “Oh, there was this teacher who was sort of handsy, and we knew to stay away from him.” It’s prevalent. It’s absolutely prevalent. And because of where things are now in terms of technology, we’re finding out more and more how this happens every day. And I believe it was always happening every day. We just now have more access to see it happening, and people are getting caught, and we’re seeing that. And there are plenty who aren’t getting caught, so sadly, I’m not surprised.
Rumpus: Are you happy to finally have this story in print and move on with writing something new? Does this time in your life with Mr. Ivers/Jeff feel, in some way, more resolved by having Excavation out there?
Ortiz: I’m glad the story is out and that it appears to be having its own life. There are so many years between my experience with Jeff and now that the publication of Excavation doesn’t really impact any feeling of resolution for me. There are, in fact, things that will never be resolved, at least not in the neat, contained way in which some stories find resolution. I am, however, looking forward to the next book and how it will land with people. My memoir Hollywood Notebook is a very different animal than Excavation. I’m curious and excited about what kind of life that book will have when it arrives in the world.