The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Chloe Caldwell


The first essay I read by Chloe Caldwell was “Behind the Scenes of a Regular Sugar Reader,” right here on The Rumpus. Wow! I thought. I loved the way she peeled back the layers, how clear she was about messy emotions. In writing personally about the way the Sugar columns connected to her life at a moment of heartbreak and resurrection, she also revealed what made Dear Sugar resonate for so many.

In 2012, Caldwell published her essay collection Legs Get Led Astray (Future Tense Books). Girls was just coming on the air at the time, and I remember watching it and thinking to myself that finally, at over forty, I had outgrown the kind of twenty-something’s coming of age tale that had fascinated me for decades. But Caldwell’s work, though covering some of that ground, transcended the genre for me, and I became one of Legs Get Led Astray‘s many fans.

Her new novella Women (SF/LD, 2014) features a young protagonist who has her identity shaken when she moves to a new city and she falls in love for the first time with a woman, Finn, who is much older and involved in a long-term relationship. Not long after the two discover their mad passion for each other, the tensions start to mount, and Women details the way the narrator rides out the pain. Caldwell and I discussed the book by swapping emails and a text document.


The Rumpus: As a fiction writer, a memoirist, and just, you know, an educated person, I should know better, but I’m warning you now that when I talk about Women, I find it hard to refer to “the narrator” rather than to you. I think it’s a testament to the clarity and directness of your writing. But do you cringe any time I or someone else says “you” when referring to the narrator of this book, or does it seem natural? What makes Women an autobiographical novella rather than an adjective-free novella or a memoir?

Chloe Caldwell: I don’t cringe. After I finished Women, my friend gave me a gift certificate to see her psychic. I spoke to the psychic, and she was like, “You have to remember that when you put a piece of art into the world, you become an enormous bright white projector screen.” That was really helpful. There is no city mentioned in Women, and no named narrator. I wanted a book that could help anyone while they were grieving a relationship, so I didn’t want to specify some things. The narrator is not me. It’s also not, not me. It makes me think of this part in that essay about Rachel Cusk in the New Yorker that you sent me, where Elaine Blair says:

She had trouble reading and writing, and found fiction “fake and embarrassing.” The creation of plot and character, “making up John and Jane and having them do things together,” had come to seem “utterly ridiculous.” That line sounds like something from Karl Ove Knausgaard. “Just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous.”

I wonder, does the book have more meaning to some people if it’s all true? And is it less compelling if I made it all up? When the book was still in galleys, a girl messaged me on Twitter and was like, “Is there a Finn? I want/need this all to be true.” Why? If the book didn’t have the word “autobiographical” attached to it, would the book be less absorbing?

I have a lot of compassion for this, because I’ve been like that since I was ten years old. I know the feeling of reading books and wanting to know the narrator, and the author, wanting to befriend them, wanting everything to be true. If it was all true, I was comforted by it; if it wasn’t, I felt sort of betrayed. I totally get it.

Still, that doesn’t mean that sometimes, I don’t want to be like, get off my dick, I wrote a book, I don’t have to tell you anything else. It’s art. Take it into your life as you will.

The thing about doing a book with an independent press is this: We don’t have a higher-up telling us to call something memoir or a novel, etc, to sway sales. It was just a lot of emails back and forth between my publisher Elizabeth Ellen and I, saying, “I dunno, what do you think?” Depending on our mood, the book may have gone into the world being called only Women. We kept changing it. It ended up as it is.

Honestly, most novels could have the word “autobiographical” in front of the word novel. And most memoirs (like this book called Louise, Amended, whose genre drove me nuts when I was reading it, as it was labeled “fictional memoir”) could have the word fictional in front of the word “memoir.” I don’t know. Maybe that’s an overstatement, but I think you catch my drift.

I feel quite paranoid that if I overanalyze all this genre stuff, it will make me stuck, unable to write. I find it rather counterproductive to be honest, how preoccupied people are with this lately, in general.

It’s not lost on me, though, that the book is about a loss of identity, and now the book itself irks people in its genre-less-ness. Isn’t that funny?

Rumpus: Yeah, good point. I thought a lot about genre when I was reading Women, but I didn’t think about that. There’s the narrator’s confusion about falling so hard for a woman long after she thought her sexual orientation was settled—like, is this who I am? And then there’s this cultural moment of genre confusion—or, well, the term “genre fusion” is probably more accurate— we seem to be having. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? was on my mind as I read Women. That book has “A novel from life” on the front cover, and it came out with a lot of talk about how Heti uses her real friends as characters and includes actual emails and transcripts from conversations. Yet as I read it, I had zero interest in trying to figure out what was nonfiction and what wasn’t. I admit I felt nosier reading Women, which I attribute to a false sense of knowing a “real” you from having read your personal essays. As you mention, you don’t name a city or narrator, but I read those details into it. Also, in Women there are sections written from a recent perspective, removed from the time and place of the main events, and in them the narrator occasionally address the reader. The form feels intimate, like a written correspondence, a direct communication, whereas Heti claims the MTV reality show The Hills as a model for How Should a Person Be?, which to me seems the opposite of intimate.

Caldwell: I wonder why people feel so nosy about it. Is it because I wrote Legs Get Led Astray, which was straight-up no chaser nonfiction? People think they know me from my writing, then they hang out with me and realize I go to bed at 9:30 p.m. and are disappointed. I didn’t feel super nosy about Heti’s book, though I was having thoughts like, “She dedicated the book to her best friend and wrote all this shit about her best friend?” and was wondering what their real friendship was like—it must be really strong. But I didn’t feel much intimacy with Shelia as a narrator.

I think it’s just the way I write. If my narrator were a nine-year-old boy, I would write with the same intimacy. Think: Adventures of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I like memoirs and novels that feel like memoirs for this same kind of voice.

Rumpus: Can you talk more about the process of writing the book? When did you find the structure, the alternation between “anecdotes about my grief,” as the narrator calls them, and the sections written from a later point, which sometimes talk about the writing itself?

Caldwell: I think the book still contains grief anecdotes, but I was forced to make it into a more coherent story. I was writing the book for fun, and because I became interested by the things people are motivated to do after bad break ups. I was fascinated with little neuroses and habits people took on, like binge-eating or getting tattoos or the like. So I began with the anecdotes. When Elizabeth wanted to publish it, we talked on the phone and were both excited about doing a novella. She’d been wanting to publish some sort of story like that, and particularly a novella. (Also something to note is that most SF/LD books don’t say if they are fiction or non. Like Fast Machine by EE and Even Though I Don’t Miss You by Chelsea Martin. So that was appealing.) From there, I began borrowing novellas and novels from the library. Particularly darker narratives. I noticed I enjoyed when authors delved into the complications of writing. I read Bonsai, The Kiss, Walks With Men, Intimacy, Loverboy, End of The Story, Kneller’s Happy Camper’s. I wrote the second half of the book first. Elizabeth helped me go back and fill out the beginning. I think writing the meta stuff about writing helped me disassociate from the story in a way that I needed to, to gain perspective.

Rumpus: In one early address to the reader, you write, “I am trying to decide what you need to know about Finn before we start. . . . I worry that if I cannot make you fall in love with her inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, the way I did, then you will not be experiencing this book in the way I hope you will.” I didn’t fall in love with Finn, exactly, but you convey her appeal so clearly, and she is so vivid, with her high-end men’s wear, her swagger, her tattooed knuckles, her fastidious hygiene. She describes herself as hitting “the sweet spot,” so that she’s “Butch, but soft. Right in between a male and a female,” and it sounds great. Hey, this might be another parallel to the fluidity of genre. Are the autobiographical fictions and fictional memoirs hitting a sweet spot?

Caldwell: I love that! Just thinking out loud here, it’s funny how this sweet-spot genre can almost work in the author’s favor. To some people you can be like, “Yep, all true” and to others, like your grandfather, you can be like, “Listen, I made it all up!” Ha. Also: I just learned from one of my students that she calls this sweet spot, gender nectar. Gender nectar is a lyric in a Tori Amos song, and this woman decided it should be used when describing a person who is an extra-special mix of feminine and masculine energy, such as Prince or KD Lang.

Rumpus: When she’s trying to get over Finn, the narrator tries to hit this spot herself. She believes this might help her attract women— which is interesting, because earlier in the book she recount’s Finn’s stated attraction to girly girls— but she also does it to feel more like Finn. To inhabit her, almost. This reminded me of the reaction many women have to the hot, super-sexualized women that appear so often in the media—the Laura Mulvey-ish “I want to be her/ I want to fuck her thing.” What ideas about dress, presentation, and identity were you exploring?

Caldwell: Right—the narrator is frustrated by fashion. Doesn’t know how to dress. Whereas Finn’s clothes are perfectly imperfect, the narrator buys jeans at a tag sale that are just too baggy. I was interested in how the way you dress can be an advertisement for your sexuality. This is something that has always eluded me, and also that I’ve always envied. How much easier it would be! It’s like having the word bisexual tattooed on your forehead. Of course, you never actually know anyone’s sexuality by their looks. But like Finn says in Women, “My clothes define me.”

There’s this girl I know, and each time I see her, she has a new look. She’s changed her name and is genderqueer. I saw her on the farm she lived on a few years ago and she looked like a hippie/dyke. I saw her a few weeks ago and her head was shaved and she was dressed glam/feminine. When I see this, I think, “How much work! How much energy! How exhausting!” I enjoy buying clothes and shopping, I guess, but I’m very lazy. It’s hard enough for me to wear black jeans and a black shirt every day! I just saw the movie Appropriate Behavior by Desiree Akhavan who wrote and stars in it as a Persian bisexual woman (which she is in real life). There’s a scene where her co-worker says to her, “I thought you were straight” and she retorts, “Fuck you!” It made me laugh, because I totally get that feeling. Of looking one way but being another.

Rumpus: Finn is 19 years older than the narrator. Dan Savage has what he calls a campsite rule when it comes to relationships in which there’s a significant age difference: “Older folks who mess around with younger folks have a special duty, and it is to leave ’em in better shape than they found ’em.” By page 33 of Women, the narrator is slamming tequila shots and telling the bartender, “Lesbians can suck my dick! They will ruin your life.” With the narrator looking back in hindsight, would she say Finn came closer to ruining her life or to leaving her better than she found her? Or is neither of these descriptions accurate

Caldwell: Great question. I think that Finn opened the narrator’s life up. It was both: beautiful and painful. Loss and gain. What I wanted to convey was the great loss of identity. The narrator is suddenly bisexual, is suddenly wondering, “Am I gay?” There’s a gain around that—it’s beautiful, but it’s still a loss around who you thought you were. That’s why I put that scene in when the narrator says to Finn, “I’m glad it was you.”

I think the narrator is better for having the relationship, but it’s not what I wanted the book to focus on. I wanted it to focus on tunnel-vision grief. If I wrote a personal essay about the same subject, it would be very different, with insight and epiphanies and lots of hindsight.

I wanted to honor that type of urgent grief, the kind you think might kill you, which is also why the majority of the book written in the present tense. No one died, but it can still feel important, and I wanted to make a space for it, and not feel ashamed for feeling a break-up so deeply. I think there is shame attached to mourning breakups. What would happen if we lingered in that pain a little longer, until we are ready to let go? What if it doesn’t look like what others want it to look like? What if it takes longer than we are comfortable with to get over something? What if that’s okay?

It’s a painful relationship, but the thing to remember is that they fell in love for a reason. They were both good and loving people, but they were also human.

Rumpus: Part of honoring the grief seems to be honoring the importance of relationships that weren’t meant to last. I was moved by the moments in the book when there is accord between the narrator and Finn even as the impermanence of their situation is acknowledged, like when the narrator describes the poem Finn is writing: “The poem says she knew the we or us of this would never make it out of that ocean-colored room, but she loved me anyway.”

There’s still so much expectation that the goal of a relationship should be to get to a till-death-do-us-part moment, or at least till-we-split-the-rent one, and if that’s not the case then we should rebound as quickly as possible toward something that might. But hmm. Now that I think about it, I guess part of the fixation on finding a permanent relationship stems not just from cultural expectation but also the desire to avoid the heart-rending grief of breakups, and to avoid lingering in that space, as you say. I love the ending scenes in this book, when the narrator is driving with her mother and their car hits a pair of deer. There’s huge impact, a shake-up, but ultimately everyone survives—if in a bit of a different form, imprinted upon.

Caldwell: Exactly. Sometimes we know things are bad ideas but we do them anyway. And then, like in Women, you go a little nuts because your morals aren’t aligning to your actions.

And yes, there’s stigma around not rebounding quickly. It’s more “cool” to be like, “Fuck that person, I’m over it.” You’re not supposed to be the loser that can’t get over someone. You’re not supposed to talk about it for years. But sometimes we have to!

We spend our days trying to get away from pain, right? But that’s the beauty of art—books, film, music—we can work through our pain by reading about someone else’s. And that’s what I wanted to put into the world.

Rumpus: I was taken with these lines from Women: “working on this book now, though, it feels as though everything happened to someone else. Not me. A version of me. A quote, I forgot who said it: As soon as you write something down, it’s fiction.” I’ve been working on a memoir for the last few years, and that quote rings true to my experience. Writing about my past has altered my sense of my memories: always so vivid to me, they now seem less real. It gets back to that whole slippage between fiction and memoir, and it’s interesting to think about it in terms of relationships, as well—how we narrate the story of falling into and out of love, what effect that has on our emotions. What role do you see writing as having in the grieving process?

Caldwell: Yeah, writing a book that’s based on your own relationship—it extends the relationship to last another few years! Isn’t that wild? It’s yet another way of not letting go. I can say that when I sat down to write every day, I was not the person sitting at the desk with a cup of tea. I got into character. It’s role play. I don’t know. I’m working on like, a 20- page essay about my friend Maggie Estep dying last February, and it’s not necessarily helping me grieve. I think it’s a complicated role and too ephemeral for me to really talk about here. I think it definitely forces you to forgive and accept things, in ways you wouldn’t, necessarily, if you weren’t writing it all down. Because if you’re even a little bit self-aware, you know your book will suck if it’s from a victim-y or greedy perspective. Writing it down forces you to really look at yourself, and looking at yourself forces you to grow.

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the award-winning memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in places such as Salon, The Guardian, the Manifest Station, and The Rumpus, where she served as the Sunday co-editor. More from this author →