Setting Yourself Free: A Conversation with Alisson Wood

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Being Lolita, Alisson Wood’s riveting debut memoir, is a story about power.

At the opening of the book, Wood, a teenager weighed down by social isolation at her high school, finds herself powerless to resist the attention of a handsome, young teacher who takes an interest in her budding talent as a writer.

“He was trying to teach me about great literature, to prepare me for what I would face as a freshman in college just a few months in the future,” she writes of his lessons, which shift from the classroom to an out-of-town diner, where he introduces her to Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel of a grown man’s lust for a child.

“He told me it was a beautiful story about love,” she recalls of the so-called education that she received from the teacher, whom she calls Mr. North. In his hands, Nabokov’s novel becomes a warped, overt parallel for their “romance” as it quickly becomes sexual and abusive. “My Lolita,” he calls Wood, pinning her painfully to the bed as if she is one of the many butterflies Nabokov collected in his lifetime.

But as Wood comes of age over the course of her memoir, she begins to claim her agency, first as a reader, then as a storyteller, questioning what she thought she knew of lauded texts, love, power, and this formative relationship that she once held dear. A propulsive plot drives Wood’s transformation from student to teacher (she is now a professor of creative writing at New York University and an instructor for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop), and, finally, to author as she finds the power to pen her own story.

I spoke with Wood via Zoom about Being Lolita, how she confronted her past self and found the shape of her narrative, and why she’s suspicious of neat, happy endings.

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The Rumpus: You’ve said in past interviews that you always knew that you were going to write about this experience with your high school teacher. When did you know that you would tell this story as a memoir?

Alisson Wood: I’ve known since college that I was going to write this book, and I knew it was going to be called Being Lolita. I’m the only writer that I know who hasn’t had their title changed. I always knew that this would be the title, but I thought it was going to be a different book when I was very young.

By the time I was in college, I didn’t understand fully what had happened to me. That understanding and knowledge grew as I got older, came back to writing, and began to have a point of view on what happened in my own life and my own story.

Rumpus: How did you approach being in conversation with Lolita, the original Nabokov text?

Wood: The Lolita conversation began when I was first telling Darin Strauss, my professor at the time, about my book project. I told him about all the Lolita connections in my story, how this was an abusive relationship with my teacher, and he said, “That’s great.”

That’s something only one memoirist says to another— “Wow, your trauma is fantastic!”—whereas a regular person would just say, “I’m so sorry.” But the Lolita connection was so natural and so present: the teacher gave me the novel to read, he explicitly shaped it to me, and he continuously made connections between the book and our relationship. He even gave me gifts that were related to Lolita.

Once that connection happened, I understood what my book was going to be. But a big difference between the character Dolores and me is that I don’t die. I survive. I get set free.

Rumpus: Even more than not dying, you, as an adult, reverse the roles of Humbert and Dolores. You end up exceeding the Mr. North character in your teaching ability.

Wood: I try to. I try very hard. My experience with the teacher has made me so acutely aware of what not to do.

The first time I was in a classroom teaching as a creative writing professor was very striking—I wrote about that in the book. In years past, I’d been in front of groups of students many times in a teacher-like role. I’d taught sex education in public high schools through my years of nonprofit work, and I’d led teen leadership groups.

But that first day, when I walked into that classroom at NYU, there was a chalkboard, even though it was 2017 and there are so few actual chalkboards these days. It was surreal. I was so aware in that moment of how everything had changed, yet I was back in the same place where I started: in a classroom.

I teach the traditional hero’s journey, in which the primary character starts in their world, then they have a series of obstacles, everything changes, they change, then they go back to their world, but it’s completely different. In many ways, that was my story, too: I was back in a classroom, but this time, I was the professor, as opposed to me being the student.

My life just happened to sync up with these larger Western narrative structures, and the structure of Nabokov’s Lolita.

Rumpus: How did you arrive at the structure of Being Lolita?

Wood: As I was working on writing my book, I had a real moment of clarity when I realized that the structure of Lolita would become the structure of my book.

Writing a memoir is hard, structurally. I was rereading Lolita, and I realized it was right there: part one, in both books, is about the extended seduction, the extended grooming period. The break between part one and part two is when we slept together for the first time, when there was first sexual intercourse. Then part two for both books is very much a road trip, trying to not get caught, and trying to escape any sort of judgment or awareness about what’s happening between these two people.

I’m not an academic; I’m not a Nabokov scholar. I felt a lot of insecurity about that. I was cramming as if I were about to take some sort of Nabokov test. I have a whole shelf behind me that’s all Nabokov books, about his butterflies, about Lolita. I have a copy of all of his unpublished writing.

I was feeling like I didn’t have the right to tell this story. I didn’t know enough. I wasn’t smart enough to tell this story. It was imposter syndrome. Then I realized that I wanted to engage with the story of Lolita in the same way that Vladimir Nabokov was engaging with stories from the Western canon, how he is leaning on fairy tales, Edgar Allan Poe, Alice in Wonderland, Greek and Roman myths. If you read Lolita carefully—I really love the Alfred Appel Jr. annotated version—you see that in every page there is an allusion to literature or some broader Western narrative.

I then started opening up my story to engage not only with Lolita as a text. I wanted to look at my story the same way that the author looked at his story. I asked myself what else could I pull in to make my story stronger? I realized it was fairy tales, Greek and Roman myths—I was very into Latin when I was in high school. The teacher also gave me a copy of Alice in Wonderland.

Rumpus: He would call you Dinah, you wrote in your book. Alice in Wonderland was very much part of your relationship, too.

Wood: Now I look back and think, Ugh, he called me the name of the cat? Like I was a pussy cat?

It was all there. Once I realized that was how I was going to engage with Nabokov, with Lolita, the same way that Nabokov did with larger Western narratives, then I thought, Got it. I can do this.

Rumpus: You should give yourself credit for being able to see those connections to Nabokov and other stories. That’s so much of nonfiction writing, interrogating your experiences and seeing what emerges. It’s a constant sifting through a mass of memories and figuring out what remains.

Wood: I completely agree. Writing nonfiction is about finding patterns, because if not, your memoir is going to be three thousand pages long. If you’ve written everything that happened, then the reader can’t suture with the narrator. The reader can’t find a connection, or the point, or the urgency.

As a teacher, I see this a lot with writers who are first working on a memoir. They write it all down. Once we have everything, the editorial perspective becomes, Where is the story you want to be telling? That’s something young writers struggle with. Editing memoir requires you to have perspective on your own story, and that’s hard.

It’s like you have a tree of your life, but when you want to write a memoir, you’re looking at the branches of a tree and saying, “I don’t need you, I don’t need you, I do need you, and I need to branch you out.”

Rumpus: You mentioned earlier that you thought this would be a very different book when you were younger. Can you tell me about the process of recognizing that this was an abusive situation?

Wood: It was slow. I will never forget that moment in my sophomore year of college, which I write about, when we were talking about Lolita in my literature professor’s class. She called Humbert Humbert an unreliable narrator, and it just floored me. I was embarrassed—I’d never heard that term before, and it was so impactful. It made me think that maybe my understanding of this book and my relationship was all wrong.

Rumpus: Right. You realize you had been mispronouncing Nabokov since Mr. North had introduced Lolita to you, and this college class starts to upend everything you thought you knew about the book—and your own relationship with Mr. North.

Wood: I still wanted to hold onto this idea that he did love me, and that this was a love story. But by acknowledging the reality of the situation, I was acknowledging how terrible it was for me: I was being manipulated and groomed and taken advantage of and victimized. What I thought was passion was rape and sexual assault, and I didn’t know any better.

I came to change my point of view of myself. Years later, when I taught sex education to those seventeen-year-old girls, I was in my mid-to-late twenties, so I was ten years older than them. I could see that they were still children. That’s not to disavow their maturity, agency, or intelligence, but they were not adults. They had not lived on their own, they had not paid bills, they had not had to feed themselves or work full-time jobs. It was so clear that they hadn’t engaged in adult relationships yet.

The biggest point of reckoning was when I got through my anger at my seventeen- and eighteen-year-old self and realized, Oh, this is just really sad.

I had a long time when I was writing the book when I was so frustrated with myself. I was rereading my high school journals; I was reading these letters from him. I diligently used primary source documentation for this book, which was so painful and embarrassing. My primary reaction was, How could you be so stupid? I was so angry with myself.

Oftentimes anger is the external expression of a feeling that is actually internally sadness or pain or trauma. I am still really sad about how I was failed in so many ways, by so many people, so many adults who should have been paying attention. It was their job to, and they didn’t.

I wasn’t that good of a liar. What if there just had been a couple of tough questions? Yet there weren’t. I worked really hard in the book to be as fair as possible to adults, because I didn’t want to put the blame on anyone. It’s not an indictment. It’s far more complicated than that. I don’t know what other people were thinking.

This is a memoir. This is my story, and I think you’re treading on troublesome territory in nonfiction when you start making assumptions about what other people were thinking or doing. For so long, I blamed exclusively myself, but I was a kid. I was a teenager.

There were moments in the relationship with the teacher that I think, looking back, are clearly crossing the line between consensual and not consensual, whether or not I had explicitly said no. He was always getting me incredibly drunk, and I was underage. This was nonconsensual, and he knew it.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about Mr. North, your teacher, as a character. As a writer, how did you change your lens of him over the course of the book?

Wood: When I was writing the book, I wasn’t so much thinking about the teacher as I was thinking about me. I made a conscious decision that in part one and part two of the book, I wanted to have my point of view be as close to seventeen-, eighteen-, nineteen-year-old Alisson as I possibly could, even though, of course, my point of telling is now almost twenty years later, at thirty-six. That was a really specific decision. There are moments where I pop out and present-day Alisson will make some allusions or have my current point of view, but for the most part I wanted to keep it true to who I was at the time.

That was also a decision in how I told the story, looking at the language, thinking a lot about pacing. I wanted it to sound, as you read it, like I was still seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, so it wasn’t as complicated in sentence structure and word choice. I really wanted to capture who I was at the time.

As the book moved along, particularly in part three, there was a large shift in my voice because I wasn’t a teenager anymore. As I moved on in the book and became closer in time to who I am now, I made the decision consciously to have my voice as a narrator change. I wanted the reader to understand how this happened to me. I wanted the reader to feel it.

I believe the purpose of art is to share something, to communicate, to connect one experience—“the artist’s experience”—of a feeling or a memory or a person to someone else, to whoever the audience is. I knew that if I wrote this story from the point of view of me now, informed by all of my hindsight and awareness, it would be boring. I wanted someone to read this, recognize their own experiences, perhaps, or to have an awareness of how this happens. I wanted to take the reader on a journey as much as I could.

Rumpus: The way you told your story also pushed against the convention of the tidy happy ending. In many ways, Being Lolita was about you changing the object of your love. The book remains a love story, but it’s about your love affair with writing.

Wood: This is very much about my love of writing, my love of teaching, and my love of trying to make a difference in my world. I’m trying to impact others in positive ways, especially other women and other girls. That’s my true love, not some dude. I’m not expecting fairy tales from my life. I’m queer, so I don’t worry about a Prince Charming.

Rumpus: In your role as a teacher, it feels like you’re upending these tired tropes and you’re helping students and the writers that you work with to shape their stories in way more interesting ways.

Wood: And to embrace their actual experiences. Not every story fits into a tidy narrative. Not every story fits into the mold of an happy ending. That doesn’t mean that you cannot find your ending, that you cannot write a wonderful memoir that is fulfilling to the reader. I don’t believe there is a requirement for catharsis or healing in good nonfiction storytelling. I reject that idea wholeheartedly. I think it’s an unfair set of expectations that limits women writers and nonbinary writers and trans writers because that’s not how the world works for everyone. Just because you cannot cram yourself into that mold, it doesn’t mean that your story is not worth telling, or that it’s not powerful or impactful or meaningful.

I try very hard to push very hard against that and to give writers examples of other types of narratives and writers who are going against that: Carmen Maria Machado, Ocean Vuong, Melissa Febos, Maggie Nelson.

For a long time, I didn’t want to be defined by my trauma. I tried so hard in my twenties to get better, to prioritize my happiness, to get past the PTSD. I think in some ways trauma never goes away, yet people always have this expectation from trauma-related memoir that now you’ve written this, it’s all better.

It took time, it took therapy, a lot of hard work and really painful looks at myself. I had to rewrite my story not just literally, but also emotionally and intellectually. There are lots of ways to have a happy ending. Your story does not have to end in marriage and a castle. Your happy ending does not require a prince. You can still find happiness in your life, in your friends and family, and in choosing the work that you do. You can make your own happy ending.

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Read an exclusive excerpt from Being Lolita here.

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Photograph of Alisson Wood by Christie Spillane.