The Rumpus Book Club chats with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore about her new book, The Freezer Door (Semiotext(e), November 2020), letting the writing find its form rather than imposing one upon it, writing both against and from brokenness and trauma, embracing the messiness of truth, finding connection in the era of COVID-19, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Janice P. Nimura, Randa Jarrar, Morowa Yejidé, Melissa Febos, Lilly Dancyger, Mariana Oliver, Elizabeth Gonzalez James, and more.
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This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to our Book Club chat with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore about her newest book, The Freezer Door!
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Hi, everyone; I’m excited for this conversation!
Marisa: Mattilda, I’m so excited, too! To get us started, could you share when you started writing The Freezer Door, and what the road to its publication was like for this book?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I think I started writing some of the text that became this book around 2012, but mostly maybe between 2014 and 2017. The path to publication is always a long one, that’s for sure, at least for me.
Marisa: How do you find the right publisher for your work? I imagine you’re looking for a certain kind of press who will understand the material and not push it into a genre box?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Yes, I always want a publisher that will work with me on the text as I imagine it, and not impose artificial restrictions, so Semiotext(e) is the perfect fit in this case, because I see it as a press that publishes writers who want to destroy literature in order to create our own literature.
Marisa: I thought a lot about form while reading The Freezer Door, and specifically how its form resists imposing structure (and “traditional book structure” more generally). The lack of chapters, the interludes between the ice tray and the ice cube (which I LOVE, and want to talk more about!), the blurring of fiction and memoir, etc.
Do you consider form while you’re writing, or does that come later, in revisions? And, what was the genesis of the ice tray/ice cube exchanges?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: For me, when I start writing a book, I start without an intention except to write everything that emerges. I want the form to come through the writing process, and not the other way around. So, in this case I wrote for several years, without a specific intention.
I didn’t take a look at the manuscript as a whole until I felt like I had arrived somewhere; I wasn’t sure where exactly, but an exploration of desire and its impossibility, of searching for connection against a gentrified mentality where the suburban imagination has conquered urban life. So, gentrification is the landscape in which the book takes place. Probably I knew this is why I was writing it, but still I wanted the form to emerge against that, both within and without.
Marisa: Asking for a friend who is me: how do you give yourself the freedom to do that, to explore through the writing? Maybe it’s the editor who lives inside my brain inhibiting me, but as a writer, I resist giving myself that freedom so much, though I know should.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I think it’s the only way I can write. Or write without falling apart. Or write so that I can come back together. For me it’s also the best way to write when I feel overwhelmed, when my brain may or may not work as I want it to, when pulling out a sentence may be a task even when I want to write pages and pages. Also, I am an extremely neurotic editor, so I always know that I will edit ten or fifteen drafts in order to get the text where I want it to be.
So, I guess I write against loneliness, against failure, against the limited capacity of my body to inhabit this world, so that something else might become possible.
You asked about the conversations between the ice cube and the ice cube tray, and I think those parts emerge when the text can no longer hold. I write toward emotion, towards embodiment, toward feeling, and so when the feeling becomes too much, or the not feeling, then the text breaks and moves somewhere else. I think it has to. In a way, the conversation between the ice cube and the ice cube tray addresses many of the issues that are central to the book, but in a different space, maybe more trapped but also more innocent? I don’t know if I believe in innocence, but I think if I’m talking about a conversation between an ice cube and ice cube tray, maybe that’s a word that I can use.
Marisa: That makes perfect sense, because those sections do step away from immediate emotion and become more philosophical—and so funny! The whole book is infused with humor, of course, but the ice cube/ice tray scenes had me laughing out loud. And also pulling out my highlighter—although to be honest, I did a lot of highlighting in this book.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Yes to laughter and yes to highlighting; I love this, Marisa!
Marisa: Speaking of bodies, and of stuff I highlighted: near the end of the book, you write, “When someone says the body never lies, I wonder if they’ve ever had a body.” Whew. Can you talk about how you approach writing about bodies? I found the physicality within the book juxtaposed with the very philosophical moments to be so powerful.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Oh, thank you so much! Yes, I want to speak against all the false generalities that pass as wisdom. And, if this book is an exploration about desire and its impossibility, the impossibility of actualization in a world that imposes so many artificial restrictions, but still the hope for living in a world where we can all feel like that moment just before we’re about to make out, feel that way all the time… in this sense, I’m always writing about the body.
And all the philosophical meanderings, I want them to come from the body as a whole, and not just the mind, right? Sometimes from the failure of this integration, but also from its possibility. As a child who was sexually abused by my father, I grew up feeling broken. So, I’m writing against this brokenness, but also from it.
Marisa: I was also that child, and YES to all of that. Another few lines I loved/highlighted: “Do we write against trauma, or with it? Do we write in trauma, or out of it? I mean how do we write ourselves out of trauma?”
You ask a series of question about trauma, and trauma writing, throughout The Freezer Door. I’m wondering if you came away with any conclusions or answers?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I think these may be impossible questions, and in this sense I don’t know if I’m looking for answers. I think I’m looking more for embodiment within this impossibility. Because as survivors, right, we grow up thinking we will never escape—or at least that’s how I grew up—and when I did eventually escape that my life could begin. But the ending is always there in the beginning, right? The possibility that I will not survive. That feeling in my body at such a deep level, as a child. It’s still there. So that’s what I’m writing against. To explore all the complications, nuances, contradictions, all the sensations and implications, both in the text and in the world, and in the world of the text.
Marisa: Wow, I’m digesting that reply. Yes to all of it, though. It doesn’t leave the body, that feeling. For me, it’s been especially present during the pandemic (and maybe since the 2016 election, to some extent); I haven’t felt trapped and out of control of what’s causing harm to me in this way since i was a child.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Thank you, Marisa! I notice that even in this answer I’m circling around the text, which is another way The Freezer Door works, right? To circle around an embodied truth. So maybe truth is what I’m after, more than answers. The truth, in all its messiness and tangents and wavering and quivering and yearning.
Marisa: It’s a difficult truth to get at, too. When your child-self is harmed in this particular way, and then you do escape but have to exist in a world where you are sometimes still that child… I think I spend a lot of time thinking about what the messy truth of that is and how to get at it. I come from a poetry background, and prose has always been more difficult for me because in poetry, the truth is easier to circle around, if that makes any sense? But your prose reads like poetry, so, there’s that.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Of course, I couldn’t have imagined that The Freezer Door would come out in this particular pandemic reality, and I was wondering if it would even feel relevant anymore. But what’s been amazing is that people really connect to the loneliness and alienation and search for connection, maybe even more than they would have before this pandemic. They are willing to see it more, to articulate it, to feel it.
I think it was important for me in writing The Freezer Door to incorporate all different forms—memoir, criticism, poetry, fiction—and especially everything in between. I would call it a lyric essay because I think it circles around the gaps, it is always searching for itself even as it tries to articulate its place in the world. And also because a lyric essay can incorporate everything, I think, all the messiness and contradiction, the clarity in the moments when we can’t imagine it. The movement toward and away from connection.
One thing that’s very interesting, though, with the reception of the book, is that all the reviews call it a memoir. And this is fascinating to me, with all the battles over “truth” in memoir, and sometimes this book is a philosophical conversation between an ice cube and ice cube tray, and I’m pretty sure this exact conversation didn’t happen in my freezer, so is that memoir? But I think that people are really captivated by the search for an embodied truth, and in this sense I love that memoir can expand to include The Freezer Door, and actually gives me hope for literature beyond traditional categories. That we can include everything from our lives and our imagination in our texts.
Marisa: OMG I am laughing very loudly over here. You mean your ice cubes weren’t talking to you as you wrote? You lied to us? Cue fake gasp.
I do think the category of memoir has opened up—or more accurately, writers are forcing it open—in the last few years. I, too, love and gravitate toward the lyric essay, and the hybridness it calls for/allows.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I can neither confirm nor deny that the ice cube and the ice cube tray were having these conversations in my freezer.
But I encourage everyone to open their freezer door. Is it a metaphor, or is it truth? There’s only one way to find out.
Bret M. Weaver: Would it be fair to say you used the transient sexual experiences you had in order to fill the void of connection in a world you felt you couldn’t connect to as a “queer”? This book made me think a lot…
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Oh, thank you, Bret! For me, I think that desire always exists in public, in the unexpected moments, in the search for connection in the overwhelm of the everyday, and I do think that this is a queer way of looking at the world. That desire should not be bounded by traditional notions of love or privacy or acceptability. That desire is not just sex or sensuality, but a way of being present at all times, and open to deep sudden connection even when it may be impossible.
Bret M. Weaver: I see. Very philosophical. Was it easy to write such a vivid, personal account, or did you feel more open to it?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I think for me I always want to write what I most afraid of, if there’s something that I feel like I might die if I say it, then I know I need to say it. So that I don’t die. Sometimes this can be a challenge, of course, but so far, this is a strategy that has worked!
Bret M. Weaver: Very brave.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Thank you, Bret! And, Marisa, it’s interesting because so much of The Freezer Door is a search for touch, right? Touch as an everyday expression of connection, touch that might feel like safety, touch that might open up the space for a body that doesn’t only feel loss.
Marisa: What has the pandemic reality been like for you? Thinking about connection, about being present and finding community… these seem critical for you, at least in the writing. Early in the book, you write, “The difference between longing and belonging is why I write.” (See, I truly did highlight the heck out of this text.) This sentence is so simple, so straightforward, and knocked my socks off. Can you speak some on the importance of community for you as an artist, and as a human? Has that changed during the pandemic, or affected your writing practice/work as an artist?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Before this pandemic, I had figured out a way to maybe have about fifty percent of the touch that I need, mostly through ecstatic dance and contact improv, and I was brainstorming lots more ways to continue to expand these forms of touch, and then it went to zero overnight. Strangely, though, I have felt a lot of embodiment on my virtual book tour, a lot of connection with people even through these screens. And a lot of embodiment from seeing the text exist in the world and how people are relating to it on such a deep level. So this, I think, is a form of touch, and even if it mostly is not literal I feel it, too. [Catch Mattilda on her virtual book tour for the The Freezer Door! – Ed.]
Marisa: It’s remarkable how after nearly a year of being mostly inside my house (I’m moderately immunocompromised, and to mitigate the risk of having a young child out in the world—well, in school two or three days a week—I stay in) there really is a feeling of connection through the computer screen that I didn’t think was possible.
We’re somehow almost out of time. I always ask this question, but I’m especially eager to know your answer(s). Who are your literary influences, artistic influences, musical influences? What are you reading now? Any forthcoming books you want to shout out?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Some recent titles I loved include Entering Sappho by Sarah Dowling, Begin Again by Eddie Glaude, and The Shame by Makenna Goodman. Right now I’m reading Nancy by Bruno Lloret, which comes out in April. Speaking of April, I can’t wait for White Magic by Elissa Washuta.
Marisa: Yes! White Magic is fantastic. Elissa is another writer who pushes at genre and writes against traditional expectations. She’s so wonderful.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: And David Wojnarowicz was the first writer who showed me my rage in print, and also a sense of maybe a little bit of hope in a world of loss. I love house music that’s so layered it takes me to the sky. Dance where improvisation feels like revelation. And movies where nothing happens, so everything happens.
Marisa: Mattilda, thank you so much for your time this afternoon! It was really, really lovely to discuss this book that’s been in my headspace for weeks now. Your words will definitely stay with me, and I’m grateful this book is out there and hope it finds its way into many readers’ hands.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Thank you so much, Marisa, and thank you everyone for reading the book and coming today, I really enjoyed this conversation!!
Marisa: Wishing you a gentle end to this year, and wishing all of us a more hope-filled New Year, too.
Photograph of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore by Jesse Mann.