If you’ve been fortunate enough to orbit anywhere around Chloe Caldwell, I’d bet she’s given you something. I’d define Caldwell as a compulsive giver, although I’m not sure she is aware of this tic-like behavior. Every few months, unprompted, I’ll open my inbox to an email from her with a subject line ranging from “essay for you” to “residency,” and once a blank subject line and within the body of the email, a link to Paula Carter’s consultation services because Paula, in Caldwell’s opinion, is “really amazing.” And if there is something amazing or useful to a writer in her life, she’s going to let them know. Twenty-seven minutes into this interview she says, “It’s so interesting! I’ll email you the full article.” All my favorite writer pals are Caldwell connections.
Before she was emailing me outlines and example essays, Caldwell was unknowingly pushing my writing forward. I’d entered the world of online publishing just as XO Jane was taking her last breath and the world was wondering if the 2010s would be the end of confessional writing. This cyclical backlash against memoir and essay historically ebbs and flows. No matter the year, this backlash is always most disparaging to female-driven narrative styles and writers.
As a woman who wanted to write about intimately girly things, I thought I might have missed my window of opportunity. But then I came across Caldwell’s essay, “My Year of Heroin and Acne,” then another essay where she explores the power of Tori Amos, and then I found entire books (Legs Get Led Astray, Women, and I’ll Tell You in Person) where she writes about everything from masturbation, substance use, and eating Yodels, all the while treating each subject with the same sense of importance.
If Caldwell is going to do one thing, she’s going to write about whatever the hell she wants, unconcerned about chasing trends. For me, this knowledge has been a persevering push forward.
Caldwell’s latest book, The Red Zone: A Love Story, explores her journey to a PMDD [premenstrual dysphoric disorder] diagnosis and how it affected her relationships to others and herself. Ultimately, the story is one of self-acceptance. I cannot think of anyone else who would have managed to get this book made. The Red Zone is a gift to us all and almost one of kind in terms of narratives with a primary focus on periods. It is my hope that The Red Zone is a genre opener. Personal narratives exploring periods should have an entire shelf in bookstores, ideally somewhere between politics and religion.
I was delighted to talk to Caldwell about her latest work, evolving identities, and the power of free bleeding.
The Rumpus: I love this book so much. It feels like such an important work. When did you know that you wanted to write a book that centered on your period?
Chloe Caldwell: When I am thinking about something a ton, I end up writing about it. As Ann Hood says, “Write what keeps you up at night.” My period had gone from something I ignored and was in denial about for decades, to a major player in my relationship. I was thirty-one and experiencing extreme PMS. When I learned what PMDD was, I became fascinated that I’d never heard of it before and neither had my friends. And I began reading about it and realizing there was so much I didn’t know about the menstrual cycle, which seemed absurd. On the phone with my friend, I referenced the PMDD symptoms leading up to my period as “The Red Zone” and she was really taken with the term, and said, “I want to hear more about The Red Zone.” She also said, “How great would it be if when people asked you what the book you are writing is about, you got to respond, ‘my period?’” I was up for the challenge of using period-as-plot. I knew it’d be really difficult, and it was.
Rumpus: I can’t imagine this was an easy book to get made. How did you get this published?
Caldwell: I thought about my book a lot. I thought about how I wanted to present it and after two years of not finding the right place I emailed Yuka Igarashi, then editor of Soft Skull, and I had an idea of how to present it to her. I said, “I think of this book as part of a lineage. The grandmother is the book Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life by Darcey Steinke, Motherhood by Sheila Heti is the mother, and then The Red Zone is the daughter.”
Basically, I told her who I thought it should be marketed with and where my book would fit. She really liked that. I think it’s great when authors can see where their book fits.
I didn’t have a proposal. I didn’t have anything like that. I just had the manuscript. I gave my little elevator pitch and she read it. She sent me some great feedback and she really connected with it. And we talked for about six months to a year before she brought it onto Soft Skull.
She thought the book could be more linear. I was looking at it in a more experimental way, but I wasn’t opposed to doing it linear. It’s funny, it’s one of those things where the most obvious choice you just don’t see.
That was July 2020. Conception was 2017, and now it’s come out in April 2022, so it’s been five years. I used to think waiting two years to get a book out was a long time, but now I can see how writers can work on something for ten.
Rumpus: A big theme I saw for this book was your ever-evolving identify. Specifically, we see you go from a single person to a partnered person, a childless person to a parent, and a queer person to a perceived traitor to many queer folks. Mostly kidding about the last part, but I know the gay community can be so mean to the bisexuals and other identifying folks who end up in hetero partnerships.
Part of our culture is to view women almost exclusively through their relationships to other people, which I find a huge point of frustration, especially when being viewed as married or being a mother. Maybe it’s something I rail too much against, but do you miss anything about any of your prior identities?
Caldwell: I do, not in simple terms like I wish I was single or childless, but as it relates to all my responsibilities. Recently I find myself fantasizing a lot about high school.
Rumpus: The time we were the least needed by others. What a freeing feeling, though!
Caldwell: Yes, I guess that’s what it is. But it’s never happened to me before to this extent. I’m sitting wishing I was in high school like driving around smoking weed and not having to do anything. I’m so happy with where I am in my relationships and in life, but part of me does miss part of those identities.
There is a quote from my teacher, Carole Maso, and she says this about writing a book, but it could be for anything in your life. She says, “With every major decision there is regret, for the very act involves choosing one thing over another.” Whenever you make one decision, there’s grief, because you mourn all of the other things that could have been. Once I decided this book was a memoir, I mourned all those other books. What if it had been braided with research or what if it had been an experimental book that was non-chronological? I think about that too, sometimes in terms of identity like, What would my life have been if I was within the queer community now, and if I was in a queer relationship? You have to make peace with that. We all do.
Rumpus: I frequently feel the frustration of not being able to live all the lives I’ve ever wanted.
Caldwell: It is really frustrating.
Rumpus: We’re so quick to define queerness as whom you sleep with or whom you are attracted to, which I find so boring. I think it’s more interesting and useful to additionally view queerness as living expansively outside of social norms. While you are married to a cishet man, I did think that you proposing to your husband, Tony, was such a queer move. It was for sure heavy bi-wife energy. Is the label, queer, still important to you and if so, how do you keep that close?
Caldwell: I never thought of that as a queer move, but you’re right.
I have the readers in my life that are obsessed with my book Women, but they’re great readers and I think they’ll evolve with me. I hope they do.
I think it is the way that I live and through the things that I consume. All the shows and movies that I watch with my stepdaughter, and all the music we listen to, are all fucking queer.
Rumpus: The chapter of The Red Zone “The Linen Closet” takes the reader through your friends and family’s history with getting their first periods and adds in impactful moments in the history of periods, such as infographics on various forms of sanitary pads. This chapter was informative, but I also loved that you created space for other women to tell their own stories about their periods, because as we know, there just aren’t enough, hardly any. This chapter is markedly different than the others in its formatting. How did it come about?
Caldwell: Every summer for the past fifteen years all my aunts and cousins take a trip together. We talk about this stuff, and they talk about their mom, who I opened the chapter with, my late grandmother Simone. They talked about how they didn’t know anything about their periods, and they thought you could get pregnant from French kissing. My aunts talked about how traumatizing it was for them and how they didn’t want to have the same thing happen to their daughters. It’s been a point of conversation with my aunts.
I started sending mass emails to people and getting their first period stories. It was important to me to have all generations. I was working on the chapter for so long that when I started it, my cousin Bella, who’s in the chapter, hadn’t even had her period yet. By the time I was finishing the book she had and she’s the youngest one. That was really cool to be able to include her and get someone who is in a recent world with their period. The chapter kept growing and Yuka and I had a bunch of conversations asking, Is it too long? Should we cut some? Ultimately, we did cut some of the stories if they fell around the same year as each other.
I’m really proud about how this chapter came out. There were other things I wanted to note on periods and some other anecdotes that spoke to me that I also included.
I was thinking about the idea of first periods because I had gone to the Break the Cycle PMDD conference where I taught a writing workshop. One of the writing assignments was to write about your first period and I couldn’t believe how emotional that was for people.
Rumpus: That’s so interesting that people’s first periods are so traumatic because then what happens is we become so disconnected from our periods. I just started free bleeding half a year ago, and I feel like I’m twelve years old. It’s as if I’ve never had my period in my life. I’m excited every month to see all the blood and I’m understanding my body so much better.
It’s weird to have something so traumatic so quickly become sanitized and then not even part of our consciousness.
Caldwell: I know. It’s mind blowing. We learned to turn it off. For me, it does correlate with [using period] underwear, which is a genius invention. I felt the same way. I get excited to wear my period underwear and just live like a normal person. I don’t have to be hiding it and plugging myself up and being embarrassed. It’s a completely different experience. I think a lot of us disconnect, not feeling, and just turn off our bodies.
Rumpus: Did you have any preconceived ideas going into this book about yourself and periods that changed by the time you were finished writing?
Caldwell: I don’t think I thought of the connection between step-parenting and queerness until I was deep in the book. It came later and I still don’t know if it makes sense to other people, but it makes a lot of sense to me. By bringing in other threads (relationships, parenting) I started to find connections in surprising places.
Rumpus: What do you hope for this book?
Caldwell: I hope people find it who are really struggling with anything related to their period. I hope that people’s partners read it, although I’m not sure that they will. Anyone that’s suffering with a chronic or an invisible illness can have their partner read it to understand what it’s like to be in their brain.
I also hope that people don’t just think of it as the period book. I hope it will find people when they’re suffering because that feeling with PMS and PMDD—it can be really real, and it can be really scary. I’m just hoping this book can be a companion for people when they’re going through it.
Rumpus: Well, I hope the original PMDD goddess herself, Padma Lakshmi, finds this book and invites you to her home in the East Village for a beautiful meal.
Caldwell: Oh my god, please! I also keep thinking there could be a younger crowd for this, teenagers, and people in their twenties because for a lot of people, for me it started late, but for many people PMDD starts when they’re a teenager and I cannot imagine what kind of hell that they go through. It would be cool to do something with this book with a younger crowd of people who are just getting their period because it is like all the stuff I wish I had known.
Author photo by JD Urban