The Rumpus Book Club chats with Melissa Febos about her new essay collection, Girlhood (Bloomsbury, March 2021), letting the book have its own life out in the world, learning to trust and be patient with the writing process, releasing a book during a pandemic, 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 Lilly Dancyger, Mariana Oliver, Elizabeth Gonzalez James, Cai Emmons, Maggie Nelson, Wendy J. Fox, Gene Kwak, Christopher Gonzalez, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Welcome to The Rumpus Book Club’s chat with Melissa Febos about her new essay collection, Girlhood! I couldn’t be more excited to discuss this book.
Melissa Febos: Hi, all! Glad to be here.
Marisa: I think I saw you post yesterday that the book has already gone into its fourth printing—congratulations! Truly, I am so thrilled to know so many people are reading this work. How are you feeling with the book out in readers’ hands?
Melissa Febos: Thank you so much! I’m so happy that folks are interested in the book, and that it seems to be striking a chord.
It’s definitely gratifying to know that people are reading it, but this part also seems like kind of none of my business, if that makes any sense. I spent the years writing it, and now it will just have its life in the world. I’m looking toward the next thing, and trying not to monitor it too closely.
Marisa: That sounds… very healthy!
Melissa Febos: Well, I’ve talked a lot with my therapist about what a healthy relationship to publishing books might look like, so it’s a very conscientious framing that I’ve been practicing for a while.
Marisa: I know it’s been a while to get this book out into the world—can you talk about how the essay collection came together? I think there is always a curiosity for me, as a reader, about how the author chooses to order an essay collection and give it its shape or arc.
Melissa Febos: If you had told me five years ago that I’d be publishing a book called Girlhood today, I would have been incredulous, honestly. I thought that I had already said enough about it. Also, that folks wouldn’t be interested. Now, it’s obvious that that was just the shitty little voice of internalized patriarchy whispering to me, not my own original thought.
So, I was just writing essays sort of following my own instincts and questions, and they kept leading back to adolescence. Eventually, I had to admit that I clearly had some things to say on the subject.
Marisa: Lol. Yes, you certainly did have some things to say. Was there an aha moment when that through-line became clear to you? I also wonder if you see this book as connected to/a natural evolution from your first two books? For me, this is exactly the next book I hoped you’d write.
Melissa Febos: It’s not a linear book, but I think it does have a coherent arc, and I think that became clear to me when I was writing what became the final essay in the book, “Les Calanques.” I could see how that essay directly juxtaposed my younger self with my adult self, looked closely at the ways I had changed and been able to undo the harmful conditioning of my girlhood. Not only that, but also how I’d come to be able to love that younger, hurting self. I knew I wanted the book to arrive there, so that helped me see the order of the other essays.
Marisa: I also wonder if you see this book as connected to/a natural evolution from your first two books? For me, this is exactly the next book I hoped you’d write.
Melissa Febos: I absolutely see it as a natural evolution from my previous two books—my first book [Whip Smart] was a traditional memoir, very straightforward, and I was kind of teaching myself how to tell a story while I was writing it. Abandon Me turned more toward my own lyrical instincts, brought in more outside sources. This book continues that kind of formal assertiveness, and also the gaze that has been moving outward, toward other voices and concepts. It was really fun and challenging to figure out how to use some investigative journalism techniques in this book.
I have kind of reinvented my style and my process with each book and I can see how each led me to the next, also how the style of each book was determined by the content, and reflects it.
roo (they/them): I am a(n unpublished) writer, and I completely get overwhelmed by the thought of my work being out of my hands through publishing, after it spending its entire life beforehand in my soul, haha. I really admire your attitude towards that aspect of writing; thank you for sharing it! Any advice you wish you’d gotten when you were first starting out writing? Thanks for taking the time and energy being here with us today. 🙂
Melissa Febos: For better or worse, no one comes to grab your book out of your hands the moment you finish writing it. One typically has a lot of time to get ready for that experience. I can also say that, in my experience, the writing process is one of processing and integrating the material, my life experiences, such that at the end of the process, my relationship to them is utterly changed. It doesn’t feel so vulnerable. I feel ready to be seen. So, I’d say you can just trust the process and focus on your writing.
The advice I got, but wish I’d listened to was to slow down. In terms of hurrying the publication process, hurrying to show people drafts, hurrying to submit things. Experience has taught me to be patient.
Marisa: I always hear your voice in my head, reminding me that no one has to see what I write, that writing should happen before I worry about people seeing it. Any writing that happens right now for me, happens because you gave me that specific advice/permission.
Melissa Febos: I can’t say it enough! It’s so important.
roo (they/them): Thank you for your feedback; I really appreciate it!
Marisa: How did the book come to be illustrated by Forsyth Harmon? What was the collaboration process like?
Melissa Febos: Forsyth introduced herself to me at a reading and we became pals. I loved her work and she suggested we collaborate, so we worked together on “Intrusions” when it was first published in Tin House. It was so cool to see my essay and my experiences emerge from someone else’s imagination.
I immediately asked if she’d be interested in working with me on the book, and to my happy surprise my editor agreed. Then, I sent her the essays as I wrote them and she drafted some illustrations, we discussed them, and over time came up with the concept for it as a kind of illuminated manuscript. She was inspired some by William Morris’s illustrations for The Canterbury Tales and other classics.
I’m absolutely in love with the final images. I loved collaborating and hope I can do it again sometime. You can also buy the drawings on her website [with proceeds benefiting Girls Write Now]!
Marisa: The images are gorgeous, and also offered a kind of pause between each essay that felt necessary (at least for this reader, who barely put the book down once I began it). I’ve ordered the print from “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” which is probably my favorite—if I were forced to choose—essay in the collection, and certainly the one I personally needed to read most. I highlighted more of that essay than not, I’d wager.
Melissa Febos: That essay was probably the most transformative for me to write, and the hardest, so that’s wonderful to hear!
Laura: I’m loving Girlhood, Melissa. Such a gorgeous book! On the note of publishing, do you have any advice on how to articulate “the value to the reader” in an essay collection proposal? Writing the essays feels much more intuitive than wrapping them into proposal language.
Melissa Febos: I think it’s best to finish the book first, because I don’t know what my books are really “about” until I finish.
I think it’s also important to let go of trying to encapsulate everything that the book is in a single paragraph. I would go look at some essay collections you love and then read the back covers and then practice doing it for your book. It feels gross, but it’s a good exercise.
Laura: Thank you—so helpful!
Rebecca Sanders: I’m sure everyone has noticed this, but with these important books of woman awakening to the patriarchy, each one hews one more axe notch in the tree of the patriarchy. This story is different from mine and yet the same. The letting stuff be done to you without any sense of agency… We seem to be in the next wave of feminism here. How possible is it that some lasting changes be made? I’m thinking of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Do you feel you are part of this next wave of feminism? Or, have you always been cresting along, and now are catching the #MeToo Movement? Can you speak to this context of your work? Thank you.
Melissa Febos: Well, I think it’s useful in some ways to think about feminism in waves, when we are drawing the broad stroke of feminist history, but I also think women have been doing important feminist work all the time, and it’s only going to be possible to see the overall arc of it in hindsight. I try not to consider where I sit in relationship to this, because I think it’s not really my place to say or speculate. I just try to keep doing the work that feels important to me.
I think lasting changes can and have been made, and are happening right now. Social change is slow and incremental, and it requires that we keep talking about our experiences with each other and in our work. Every social protection we have as women is the result of feminist labor and organization, and most importantly of women telling their stories. It is the most powerful agent of social change.
I am saying many of the same things in my work that my role models were. I think we have to keep saying it, and I don’t believe that there’s any problem with things already being said (a great fear of my students’). If it isn’t fixed, let’s keep saying it. Each generation needs their own versions of these similar stories.
Marisa: I know you are working on a craft book right now; will you be bringing ideas about social change and power differentials into that? (I mean, I know you will be. I’m just fishing for some details, if you’re able to share them, lol.)
Melissa Febos: Ha! Yes, of course. Body Work comes out a year from now and is really kind of a manifesto for personal writing as a tool for social justice and personal liberation/transformation, especially for folks from marginalized identities and those who have experienced trauma.
Marisa: It would not be possible to overstate how excited I am for this!
Melissa Febos: I sort of wrote it by accident but as it turns out I am quite passionate about the subject!
roo (they/them): You talk about your self-care practice in Girlhood a bit, which affirmed that I need to develop some self care for the sake of myself and my writing! A part of my self-care is taking in other pieces of art, especially fiction writing. Do you have any works of fiction you’d recommend?
Melissa Febos: Honestly, I wouldn’t know where to start because I love so much fiction! Some of my favorite novelists are Toni Morrison, Siri Hustvedt, and Jeannette Winterson. I also loved well-written mysteries that feature women and queer folks.
What else are all of you reading/excited about?!
Marisa: I was just about to ask you the same! At the top of my TBR pile: Elissa Washuta’s White Magic (the finished hardcover is stunning), Catherine Lacey’s Pew, K-Ming Chang’s Bestiary, Elizabeth McCracken’s The Souvenir Museum, and too many collections of poetry to name… poetry has really sustained me over the last year, and there is a ton of great work forthcoming in the second half of 2021.
Melissa Febos: Ahhhh, I LOVE White Magic! Am excited about all the rest of these books, too.
roo (they/them): I recently finished Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley and it’s in my all-time favorites pile. Deeply moving debut novel that uplifts the voices of Native American youths! Beautiful!
Rebecca Sanders: I just finished reading a book from 2010, I believe, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. And that is science fantasy but is packed with social themes—feminism, racism, genocide, set in a futuristic Africa where climate change has wreaked havoc. I admire very much how Okorafor creates a hero and hope among all the despair and agony of a fantasy world that closely mirrors the experience if people today. I want very much to write to inspire, keep it real, but avoid despair if at all possible. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing.
Can you talk about balancing despair, hope, and reality while telling us a story that engages us?
Alana Reynolds: Very into Alex Dimitrov’s new collection Love and Other Poems.
Melissa Febos: So many good books coming out this year; it’s an unbelievable bounty. I also recommend Suleika Jaouad’s Between Two Kingdoms, Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America, and my future wife’s second book, The Renunciations, which is a fucking masterpiece, and I swear I would say so even if I didn’t love her more than anyone in the world.
Melissa Febos: Nice! I also loved Outlawed by Anna North, Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, and Love Is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar. And I can’t wait to read Let the Record Show by Sarah Schulman. I want to go on a residency where all I do is read.
Melissa Febos: YES, love that book, and Lilly!
Marisa: How are you finding the book-release-in-a-pandemic experience?
Melissa Febos: I was sad to not go on a book tour, but having already been on two before now, I am actually kind of into never leaving my house and still getting to connect with lots of readers, lol. I love how much more accessible online readings are. I’m also grateful that my book has come out after we sort figured out what to do, how to so online readings and promote books in a pandemic. I mean, kind of.
Marisa: Yes, I’m desperately missing the energy and connection of live events and conferences, but I also have really come around to the benefits of virtual events, too (namely accessibility and wearing pajama pants always).
Melissa Febos: I can flop onto the couch with second of an event ending and I literally never am not wearing sweatpants at my readings, lol. It’s going to be intense when we have to wear actual pants to give readings. I put on a pair of jeans and it feels like a corset.
Marisa: That’s what leggings are for, friend. But I suppose I’ll have to wear a bra again eventually. That’s unfortunate. Although wait: I do put a bra on for events when I’m on camera! (But I’m always wearing the pajama pants.)
Melissa Febos: Seriously. I’ll have to start brushing the back of my hair again.
Marisa: Melissa, thank you so much for your time this afternoon, and for the gift of this book. As with Abandon Me, I feel changed for having read it, and will be revisiting again and again. And thanks to everyone who joined us today, too!
Melissa Febos: Thank you so much for reading my book! You are a gift to the literary community, Marisa.
Rebecca Sanders: Many thanks, Marisa and Melissa, for this conversation.
Laura: Thank you, Melissa and Marisa!
Clara: Thank you!
roo (they/them): Thank you!!
Melissa Febos: Bye folks! Happy reading!
Photograph of Melissa Febos by Chris Luttrell.