The Rumpus Interview with Leigh Stein
I first found Leigh Stein’s work in the poetry section of my local Barnes & Noble. After picking up collections by big-namers Nabokov and Cummings, I kept looking because I felt I should also be holding work written by women. (I didn’t know yet that this would bring everything full circle.) The tasteful colors and minimalist design on the cover of Stein’s book, Dispatch from the Future, caught my eye. Her first poem, “Warning,” won my heart. (“If you read this book / sequentially, bad things may happen to you, but only as bad / as the things that would have happened to you anyway.”)
In addition to surreal, conversational poems entwining contemporary pop culture with classical mythology, Stein writes fiction. And nonfiction. She also co-founded Out of the Binders, a nonprofit devoted to supporting women and gender-nonconforming writers in our efforts to be published, paid, and given the credit we’re due. As a young woman whose memoir chronicles abusive love and the bizarre role Facebook now plays in remembering the dead, Stein knows firsthand what it’s like to deal with hecklers—people who think that she needs permission or approval to tell her own story.
In Land of Enchantment, Stein cultivates sympathy and tenderness for her younger self and the surprising choices she made—while critiquing those choices and the pieces of American culture that informed them. Stein’s memoir grapples with the importance of having a voice—and trusting your voice—particularly while young and female. It’s a message that the hecklers of the world might dismiss… but they’ve never been the ones for whom telling their story was the same as their survival.
The Rumpus: Your forthcoming memoir, Land of Enchantment, chronicles the decision you made in your early twenties to move with your boyfriend to New Mexico. There, you planned to write your first novel—what would become The Fallback Plan. “It’s supposed to be a very creative place,” Jason says in the memoir. Beyond this casual comment, what made the idea of moving to New Mexico compelling?
Leigh Stein: I spent most of my twenties thinking if I could just move to the right place, I would be a different/better/more productive person. But wherever you go, there you are (as they say). I couldn’t escape myself. Who am I kidding? I’m still doing this… I moved to Connecticut last year and while I do have a home office now which is LIFE-CHANGING AND MAGICAL, I am still me. The other honest answer to your question is that I needed to get away with Jason because my family and friends were starting to get alarmed by our relationship. I thought if we could just get away, by ourselves, everything would be magically fixed, without interference from the people who cared about me the most. I didn’t see the danger in the isolation. I found out years later (I don’t write this in the book) that moving to New Mexico was actually the idea of Veronika, a young woman he dated around the same time we met. So it was almost this cruel game, to hurt her by going away with me, and then hurt me by telling me whose idea it really was.
Rumpus: Even though you succeeded in writing and publishing your first novel, those of us familiar with your essays know that your lived experience in New Mexico didn’t match up with the fantasy of the adventure. How has your relationship to the Land of Enchantment changed over time?
Stein: It’s still the place where my heart lives. My relationship to that place never changed. It was love at first sight. I would live there again if I could.
Rumpus: “I think fitting an experience inside the frame of a story is how some of us survive,” you write in the memoir. On Georgia O’Keeffe, you say, “The more I learned about her, the more I wanted to resurrect her from the dead so she could teach me how to live.” The second statement feels very related to the first one—fitting your experiences inside of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life as a kind of survival. Can you talk more about learning how to live?
Stein: In Georgia’s life and work, I found a model for answering so many of the questions that plague me: How can I be a creative person and also have a career? How can I be in a relationship and also create boundaries around my independence and need for solitude? Why does it matter where I come from and who I am? Shouldn’t it matter more what I do? Her adaptability and resourcefulness is also remarkable; when she became too blind to paint, she learned to sculpt.
Rumpus: At a panel on memoir at BinderCon LA 2015, you mentioned that people sometimes misconstrue memoir with autobiography—that “you’re so young!” and they imagine that your book will start with the year and town of your birth. In an episode of the BinderCast, you said that another frustrating misconception about memoirists is that everyone’s just writing “for therapeutic purposes.” What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about memoir? Did knowing about these misconceptions influence the way that you approached writing your book?
Stein: This year I wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review on the pushback I get as a young memoirist and a man wrote in to give me some advice on my grief: “Get over it.” They published his letter. I could not have invented a more perfect example of what I’m up against. A majority of memoirs are written by women, and women are also more likely to be told in general to be quiet, get over it, stop lying. Is it a coincidence that my ex-boyfriend had to die before I could write our story? I used to think his death was the ending that completed our story’s tragic arc, but now I see how it gave me permission. The claims of navel-gazing, or that the author is only writing their story for therapeutic reasons, ignore the underlying drive for all writers: We want readers. We want our story to light up something in another person, the way we ourselves have been lit up by books. I would never invite someone in to watch my therapy sessions. They’d be like, “It’s week forty-three and you’re still crying; this is so boring! Where’s the arc; where’s this going?” A book is crafted; it’s a thousand tiny little choices. I didn’t write it for myself. I wrote it for other young women who might think they’re alone, but they’re not.
Rumpus: One of your writing mantras is DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS. It’s a good one, especially because many are so vehement with their assumptions about what, say, a personal essay should do for them. One thing I’ve noticed is that some commenters have a real problem with personal essays about the dead, that writers are making it all about themselves. At another BinderCon LA panel, I believe it was Anna March who said something like, “It’s a pity, but the dead can’t write for themselves. All of the stories we share about them are ultimately about us.” In writing your memoir, how have you reconciled the need to tell your story with some strong opinions on what one is “allowed” to write about the dead?
Stein: I started writing this book in 2012 after I read an essay at a reading series (it’s now on Gawker, though READ THE COMMENTS AT YOUR OWN PERIL) and so many women came up to talk to me and share their grief stories with me. Huh, I thought, is this the book I’m supposed to write next? So for about a year or two, I told everyone I was working on “a book about grief on the Internet.” In the end, that’s approximately one chapter of the book. My book is actually about a psychologically abusive relationship with a charming and troubled person who died tragically, and likely at the peak of a manic episode. There were many things about our relationship (for example, that I lost my virginity to Jason) that weren’t in the early drafts because I didn’t see that this memoir was about our relationship, what it did to me, and what it meant to me. All memoirs are about the journey of the narrator through whatever fire he/she has to pass through; it just took me a couple years to figure that out. I also don’t feel any guilt for writing about Jason because I believe he would have loved this attention. It was much more difficult to write about my current partner, who is very private. I got his approval on some of the more sensitive details I included. He has so far chosen not to read the book at all.
Rumpus: Tell us how BinderCon was born. You’ve written about not wanting headless women on the covers of your books and being told by industry professionals that you’re cute. Was there a “final straw” moment you had that made you think women and gender non-conforming writers need a way to help each other in this industry?
Stein: Every year I looked at the VIDA counts of bylines by gender in major magazines and lit journals and felt irate and helpless. That was a big motivation for me to start BinderCon: What could we do, if we worked together, to change those numbers? So I co-founded the non-profit organization Out of the Binders, named after something Mitt Romney said one time, and we organize two conferences a year for women and gender-nonconforming writers, to give them the tools, strategies, and connections they need to get ahead. If we can change the stats about who’s writing our cultural narrative (80% of films are written by men, 71% of TV staff writers are men, and books by or about men are more likely to win major literary awards), we can fundamentally change what that narrative is. I truly believe we would live in a more equitable society if we had more women making and shaping media.
Rumpus: Congratulations on being named a Woman of Influence by New York Business Journal, by the way. Can you tell us normals what that entails?
Stein: I was nominated by a colleague for my work giving back to the community, and I guess being a business person? Though being a business person is hard and I am learning a lot every day! This year has been really challenging, trying to juggle my career as a writer with running the organization, and somehow paying the bills (Out of the Binders doesn’t currently have enough funding to pay me a salary for my work). I’ve been working almost seven days a week for two years, living more than I should off credit cards, and my partner’s generosity (he pays the mortgage).
Rumpus: Somewhere I read that your poems taken from the dialogue of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette were a way to return to poetry after an absence. (I love them, and I’m tickled that you were named the “The Bachelor‘s de facto poet laureate” by New York Magazine.) Fellow multi-genre writer Wendy Ortiz talks about treating every new project as an experiment to get herself to do it. To what extent do your writing-life projects begin as experiments?
Stein: Thank you! Most of my projects begin as an idea that someone else pushes back on. If there’s even a hint of “I don’t know if you should do that…” I immediately want to rebel and do it. That’s how I started Out of the Binders; it’s how I started a memoir. Just weeks and months and years of people telling me something isn’t a good idea is the fire I need to see it through.
Rumpus: With the release of Land of Enchantment, you will have published three books in three genres: a novel, a poetry collection, and now a memoir. Do you work in all of these genres more or less simultaneously, or do you find that your attention shifts deeply to one for a length of time?
Stein: I like the challenge of learning a new genre. I also like seeing how each informs the other—I think my skills as a novelist helped the pacing of my memoir, and my skills as a poet helped me to see connections between fragments. I don’t work in all three simultaneously; I just get obsessed with whatever I’m working on and see it through. And whatever genre I’m writing in is the genre I’m reading in. I’m always surprised when writers want publishing advice but haven’t read anything in the niche or genre they’re writing in, to see what’s already out there. I’m definitely a marathon writer more than a sprinter. So of course I’m envious all the time of the sprinters who dash off three think pieces a week. I am a tortoise of a thinker.
Rumpus: What can we expect from you next?
Stein: I haven’t started another book, though I would like to write another novel someday. I’m really focusing on strategic planning for Out of the Binders, and how to take our work to the next level as we enter our third year of existence.
Author photograph © Brian Jacks.