Melissa Faliveno’s debut essay collection, Tomboyland, explores the physical territory of the “Driftless” area of the Midwest—a wild and unique space where the borders of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois touch, which was passed over by the glaciers that swept over most of the Upper Midwest. Emotionally and spiritually, her essays dig into similarly liminal terrain: discussing the gaps between her working-class childhood and the queer communities she found as an adult, play parties that turn into hearty Midwest potlucks, and how shifts in air pressure can steer storms and change the path of a person’s life. The collection dispenses with flyover country condescension and Midwest Nice cliches to show us the culture that created her.
Faliveno lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she’s the co-founding nonfiction editor of the arts and literature zine Black Rabbit Review, a singer and guitarist in the indie rock band Self Help, and, in a remote capacity, the 2020-21 Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC–Chapel Hill. Her essays and interviews have appeared in Esquire, Paris Review, Bitch, Ms. Magazine, the Millions, Prairie Schooner, No Tokens, DIAGRAM, and Midwestern Gothic, among others, and received a notable selection in Best American Essays 2016.
Our lengthy Google Hangout led to a conversation about writing into points of connection, grief, and that classic film of the 1990s, Twister.
The Rumpus: Was there ever a book that when you read it, you realized, “Wait a minute, I could do this.”
Melissa Faliveno: I don’t think I had that experience of a book blowing my head open, the idea of like, “Literature can do this! Oh my god!” until Jane Eyre. Without question, Jane Eyre did that for me in high school—I named my roller derby persona “Harlot Bronte.” And Virginia Woolf continued that pattern. I remember reading To the Lighthouse, and was blown away, on so many levels, and I got really interested in reading, and writing about reading. I had always liked to read and write, but I think I just did it because I knew I was good at it, not because I was truly very passionate about it, and then I took a Modern British Literature class. Virginia Woolf, Ishiguro, and that whole canon, was when I was like, “I think that I could do this?” Or maybe not so much “I could do this” but “This is what books could do.” And then I started taking creative writing classes in college.
Rumpus: How did you shift from reading the British canon to writing nonfiction?
Faliveno: I took my first nonfiction class in college, and was reading essays—my understanding of essay [until then] was like, the five-paragraph: thesis statement, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. I studied with Rob Nixon, who’s an environmental writer, and he really turned me on to nonfiction, and did the proverbial sliding of books to me across the table and was like, “Check out what this essayist can do!” And books, like Nickel and Dimed, this sort of immersive nonfiction, narrative journalism, and writing about class—and I knew that I wanted to write about both of those things, I think. That was definitely when a light bulb went on.
That’s when I started writing short, kind of funny—or at least I thought they were funny—sort of personal essays about my life and my experiences. While I was still in college, I lucked my way into a gig writing features for an alt weekly in Madison, which gave me carte blanche to write about whatever I wanted. I would go and infiltrate a subculture, and then become part of it, and really loved those communities, and then would write about those communities. Roller derby, the BDSM scene, and my very first piece, which I have framed on my wall in my kitchen [angles laptop to display the article] that was my first cover story for Isthmus, about Madison, Wisconsin’s coffee culture. I worked full-time in college, and before the culture of cafes worked their way to the Midwest I was a barista by day and a bartender at night. We had just gotten a Starbucks, but I worked at a local chain, and I was like, “This is a really interesting culture—I’m going to write about this tribal experience of coffee in a very white Midwestern city!” [laughter] That’s where my essaying took flight.
Rumpus: Was there a specific class or technique, either in undergrad or at Sarah Lawrence College, that cracked essay writing open for you?
Faliveno: I had the unbelievable privilege of studying with Jo Ann Beard in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence; she was my thesis advisor, but my very first workshop with her really cracked something open in me, particularly in terms of writing personal nonfiction that expands its scope to larger, more universal ideas. The pan-out: taking some very specific experience or concern or obsession and using it as a lens to explore some greater question, incorporating research, really pulling back and expanding the frame of what you can see in a piece. She also helped me understand the importance of balancing the dark and the light—specifically, when you’re writing about something difficult, or traumatic, to inject some humor, maybe even some joy, to give your reader a little space to breathe and to represent life in all its complexities. Finding the absurd in the horrific, because that’s what life is.
Rumpus: Jumping off of that, is there a particular go-to lesson that you teach now?
Faliveno: I’m always trying to get my students to think about the objective and the subjective. The fact of a thing versus how they feel about it, the idea of “truth,” etc. One of my favorite units focuses on writing about some personal experience or cultural idea through the lens of pop-culture. I’ll ask them to write about their favorite movie, album, or TV series—first, to describe it only using objective facts, keeping themselves out of the picture: if it’s a movie, for instance, when it came out, who’s in it, who made it, the plot. Go down the rabbit hole, include as many relevant facts about it as you can find. Then, put yourself in the story: write about the first time you saw it, where you were and who you were with, how it made you feel, what resonated, what it made you think about and why. Do you watch it all the time? Why do you love it? How does your experience of it change as you reengage with it?
Rumpus: The earlier version of “Finger of God,” published in Prairie Schooner, is a more personal essay about your childhood obsession with tornadoes. For the version in the book, you researched and spoke with people affected by the Barneveld tornado. What led you toward restructuring the essay this way?
Faliveno: When I was figuring out which of my essays were going to be in this collection, I really wanted “Finger of God” to be in there, but I couldn’t include a story about this 1984 tornado that killed people, and through which people experienced some of the deepest loss and grief of their lives, without actually talking to those people. Spring of 2019 was the thirty-fifth anniversary of the storm, so I took six weeks, went to Wisconsin, and interviewed five or six people who had been through the tornado. We sat in diners in my hometown, and I went out to a feed mill to talk to a man who had been there working as an EMT the night of the storm.
I didn’t really know what I was going to use of their stories, and I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to wed their stories to my own personal story, but I knew I had to go and basically shut up and listen. I found a few people who were willing to talk, and a few of them were related and had these deeply intimate, familial connections with one another—everybody knows everybody in that town—and I went and talked to them and said, “What do you remember?” and, “What was that like?” and, in some of their cases, “Do you still reckon with it?” How do the narratives of this storm and this town, which I was sort of weaving into the earlier version [of the essay] about religion and faith and the ways the narrative of a small-town works, affect the stories we tell ourselves? When I was talking to Sue, who lost her four-year-old son, her story cracked something open in mine. I recognized myself in her: my mother, my grandmother, all the women in my family, she looked and talked like them, down to the cadence, the dropping of the “g”s, the way her hands moved as she told a story, the way she looked at me, or didn’t.
So much of this story is about the narratives that we hear and learn and internalize, and then those that we figure out later were not true. I started thinking about grief, and the ways that we grieve, what it means to grieve publicly versus privately, particularly when it comes to women and mothers, how we expect them to grieve, and how we have less tolerance for women in certain places who grieve aloud. The material started connecting to these other threads I was working through of gender and class, specifically womanhood and class, and where those two elements intersect—I couldn’t write the story without talking to other people, and I wanted it to work as a chorus of voices instead of just my own. For me, that’s where I get really excited, when I’m listening to other people’s stories and I’m like, “Yes! I’ve never heard anyone articulate that before!” and then I can write into that feeling of connection and look at whatever else it’s bringing up.
Rumpus: It seemed that in the earlier version of your essay, you were commenting on how people in Mount Horeb seemed to cast the tornado almost as divine judgement. Whereas in the version included in the collection, you create a conversation between the religious language, the power of the tornado, and the people who couldn’t move on from their grief.
Faliveno: When Sue was telling me about the way that after her son died, she fell apart, and drank heavily and problematically, and that the town talked this talk about how they came together to support one another, and had these ecumenical services, but that she felt so alone. Her mother-in-law—well, ex mother-in-law, but they’re still very close—that woman took care of her, when her own mother couldn’t. When she mentioned the thing about drinking… I think of drinking in this book as a kind of background character who just sort of exists in all the essays, because from my experience as a Midwesterner, it’s how we handle our grief—or not. This is how we deal with trauma. Everybody in my life does that, some to a very problematic degree. And I’ve struggled with that, too.
But then Sue, in this really amazing twist, told me, “I ended up going to therapy. You have to go to therapy and talk about this stuff, or it will kill you.” When she said that to me, I was sitting in the booth of this diner like “Holy shit! You go to therapy? That’s awesome!” And she said, “I don’t know where I’d be without it, because you have to talk about it, but we all learn not to talk about it.” Her saying that really cemented these connections I was trying to make between drinking and grief and anger, and where those elements intersect. She was instrumental in me figuring out how this book was going to look in its finished form.
Rumpus: You’re very careful in how you deploy quotes, and in showing how people speak.
Faliveno: That was really important to me, because that’s how my family talks. I wanted to show the way people talk where I come from, but in a way that is honest. The point is trying to capture their voice on the page, and tell the story as they told it, in their language. Not fixing it to make it more “proper.” When we were going through copyedits—my copyeditors were very good, but they always queried it, so in the stylesheet I put together I asked to make sure that we maintain all the colloquialisms. It’s not just regional dialect. It’s indicative of class and circumstance, and I want people to see that, and I want readers to hear the stories in the subjects’ voices. But I had a hard time when I was integrating the transcripts of those interviews into the narrative that I had. I wrote a lot of my personal narrative first, and then I took big chunks of my interviews and tried to puzzle them in. So instead of just having dialogue, I brought in what Sue was doing in the booth, what her hands were doing, what Al was doing in his feed mill, bringing in scene elements and trying to build up the scene, and then coming back to myself—asking myself, “What was I thinking when I heard him say that?” “When she said that, how did it hit me?”
Rumpus: The process of weaving in Twister as a pop-culture counterpoint to the personal narrative and the researched essay—how did you decide to add that in, and what was the process of working it around everything else?
Faliveno: In the earlier version of the essay that was published in Prairie Schooner, it was much more personal, my own fascination with tornadoes and weather. When I was writing I was trying to immerse myself in that obsessive space, and to think about why I was so obsessed. Twister came out at exactly the time I was experiencing these years of obsession… when I did the revision I built out some of the Twister stuff based on those notes and rewatches, and that’s when I tied in the gender element. On one of the rewatches I became aware that I had this sort of hero worship of Bill [Bill Paxton]—I was in love with him, and wanted to be him? My girl adolescent infatuation focused on him. But then rewatching as an adult I was like, “How did I miss the fact that Jo [Helen Hunt] is the hero?” How did I miss it? It’s so clear, so obvious!
Rewatching it through that lens, the way that Jo, as crazy woman, as harbinger, as obsessive, is a narrative throughout… like, look at the dangers of what a woman could be, if she gives in to the fascinations and obsessions in her life? That tied in so directly to my fascinations and obsessions as an adolescent girl, and I know that I read that message. Beware the obsessive woman. She is only redeemed when she allows herself to be saved by this man who loves her, and I certainly sublimated that when I was a kid. But rediscovering that as a feminist adult person? Was like holy shit! So perfect! I feel like there’s another Twister essay in me. Maybe I’ll just write about Twister for the rest of my life.
Rumpus: How did you create characters of yourself and your family?
Faliveno: There’s a thing that I always return to which is that you have to always cast your family members, or someone else you’re writing about, in as complex a light as you can; if you’re writing about their flaws, make sure that you’re writing about their great qualities, too—writing both the light and the dark, and making sure that you show a person in their full personhood.
It really always comes back to what story is mine to tell, and what isn’t. I think one of the interesting things about writing a persona is… I never really sit down and think, I am writing a Persona, but when I was done with the book, the thing that continues to stick out to me when people talk to me about it is when people are reading a work of personal nonfiction, probably especially by women, everything that they experience they are putting on the author. To a certain extent I understand that, but the responses I get sometimes, like [concerned voice] “Are you okay?” cause there’s some traumatic shit in this book! Or it’s like, “Are, are you doing better?” and it’s like, I’m writing about shit that happened twenty years ago; yes, I’m fine. I wouldn’t be able to write about it if I wasn’t fine, you know? There’s a lot of distance between these experiences and the art that I’m making out of them. I think that sometimes people don’t see the art; they see the person. It’s been interesting navigating those conversations with people who think that the person they read in this book is me now—even questions I was asking while I was writing it, my thoughts have evolved since then. Within a year of finishing the book, I think differently than I did then. We’re always changing, and we’re always evolving, if we’re doing life right.
Photograph of Melissa Faliveno by Maggie Walsh.