Interview with Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is the author of Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, 2007) and The Red Parts: A Memoir (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2007), an autobiographical book about her family, criminal justice, and media spectacle. She is also the author of several books of poetry, including Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press, 2007), Jane: A Murder, (Soft Skull, 2005; finalist, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir), The Latest Winter (Hanging Loose Press, 2003), and Shiner (Hanging Loose, 2001; finalist, the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award). Her next book, a work of creative nonfiction about the color blue, titled Bluets, will be out in October 2009 from Wave Books. We met in Pasadena, CA to discuss The Red Parts and Jane for Chaparral’s summer noir issue.

KY: I read something you had said about how difficult it is to navigate narrative information and still keep the lyricism alive. Can you talk about how you managed to do this so successfully in Jane: A Murder?

MN: The best I could do was getting very small, having one detail, having the whole poem be about one moment. It’s so hard when you get the: ”and this happened and then this and this and this”—but it’s also hard because you have to resist the heavy symbolism that comes with isolating particular narrative moments.

KY: One of the reasons I love Jane so much is that everything slows down and there’s a kind of montage quality to the book, the placement of details work together to make something bigger.

MN: It took a lot of re-arranging on my floor. I wrote a lot of poems for a long time circulating around the murder of my aunt and not knowing what they were. A lot of those got glommed into the section of the book called “Two Eclipses”—which is about my childhood. I wanted to take that section out entirely at one point, just hating it and wanting the book to about Jane—it’s called Jane and it’s going to be just her story. But then everyone who read it felt like it was more voyeuristic to not have me in it. I really resisted because I didn’t want to write about its effect on me.

Up until giving Jane to the press, the book could have gone a lot of different ways. Now it feels very much like it’s supposed to be. It’s like with any book, up until the moment it’s finished, it could always be otherwise. Any book that is made up of movable pieces, which all poetry collections are, is hard because you feel like you’re moving toward some Platonic ideal, toward the logic the book is supposed to have. But, in a way, it’s kind of like when you were talking about your project, the book began to echo—of course trauma makes this more apparent, but it’s true of any life—that at any moment things could have been otherwise. You come up against these very existential questions: is there a book that should be written, was this fate, or is it just this thing that happened and there are millions of things that could have edged it off course.

I was recently writing this book about the color blue that’s coming out this fall. It’s kind of paragraph chunks, prose, but they are all numbered. The editor thought it would be a good experiment to print out each paragraph on a separate page and re-arrange them, but there were too many of them. The book is over one hundred pages and by doing that there were over 250 pages. I just thought, I’m at the edge of my montage era. It was infinite. It was a good exercise. I did eventually see the parts that could become more enlivened through some re-arranging. When people want to write something experimental they sometimes think the main feature is that it shouldn’t be chronological. But Jane and The Red Parts are both, in some sense, chronological—they’re just not linear, per se. Chronology, to me, has come to mean the art of charting the mysterious and perhaps illusory movement of events through space-time, which is always a necessary and unruly task.

KY: In The Red Parts, you talk about Ellroy’s project and this idea of what happens when the road, the motivation or drive for these projects, sort of falls out beneath you. You write: “Conventional wisdom is that we dredge up family stories to find out more about ourselves, to pursue that all-important goal of ‘self-knowledge,’ to catapult ourselves, like Oedipus, down the track that leads to the revelation of some original crime. Some original truth. Then we gouge our eyes out in shame, run screaming into the wilderness, and plagues cease to rain down on our people. Fewer people talk about what happens when this track begins to dissolve, when the path starts to become indistinguishable from the forest.” Like you say, Ellroy did a lot of hard work in writing My Dark Places. I loved that he took these cross-sections of his story, how he dug into the history of the sheriff’s department in order to tell the story and how he situated the story in the terrain of Southern California. But I thought one of the most interesting things about his book was his relationship with the idea of his mother, the mother that he’s re-created on the page. But it didn’t seem, in the book, that he was clear that this is merely a representation and that he may not have gotten any closer to anything other than a more detailed and complex version of this mother. I don’t know if that’s what you were getting at…

MN: It’s funny because people who have read The Red Parts and want to talk about Ellroy’s My Dark Places often say, “I think I liked his book more than you did.” I didn’t say I didn’t like the book. What I recall from Ellroy’s book is his fantasy of fucking his mutilated mother. I think people who haven’t read his book think I’m making a critique when I say that, but I’m restating what Ellroy said. It’s always a relief when someone just says it. Now we’re dealing with that. The real problem I had with My Dark Places was that, by the end, it feels deliriously out of control—all this good work came smashing up against the idea that if he found out what happened to his mother it would be resolved. What’s memorable about that book is the double shadow, which I think any time you’re writing about someone who is not you, you get. It’s the person the writer has made up, that figure, and then the shadow, the total void. You just can’t help but think, “who was this person?”

KY: If you place the two books side by side: Ellroy ends it with his position of power and he hasn’t solved the case. You actually get a resolution, and you’re still skeptical of that resolution.

MN: My aunt’s murder took place a long time in the past (1969)—so long ago that it’s almost as if the people who participated in the events are entirely different people now. I would probably have felt differently if I had been 110% convinced of three things: one, of the accused’s guilt; two, that he were likely to harm someone again; and three, that the American prison system offers an appropriate means of addressing or redressing crimes. While I was writing The Red Parts, I followed with intense interest local and global forums for addressing grievous acts, especially forums that do not resemble our current system. I was, still am, very interested in systems of redress and accountability that have been theorized or implemented in, say, South Africa, in Rwanda, in Australia. And now, of course, the United States has its own need for a truth commission of sorts, and/or a prosecutorial system, to deal with its own use of torture.

On a personal level, back to my aunt’s case, it’s difficult to relive these tragedies. And there’s always the question of do you want to redo this. I know my grandfather was not up for it. I think it would have been all the same to him to simply leave it. The main kind of resolution you’d want is admission—an eye to eye. In a way, you could let somebody walk if there was this eye to eye. There’s not a lot of satisfaction the other way. Even if the person is guilty and in prison, you know they are not doing a lot of reckoning. And then they can, OJ style, convince themselves that it didn’t occur, and that’s not satisfying. I don’t spend much time thinking about Gary. A friend of mine told me that he saw him on Good Morning America before his last appeal. There are moments where I think maybe I should be working on his behalf to get him out of jail, should evidence contrary to his conviction surface. But, at a certain point, an individual person doesn’t charge somebody with a crime; the state charges them with a crime. At times you have to lovingly detach because there’s nothing you can do.

KY: You talk in the interview you gave with Jane Carr about the female gaze, and I’m wondering what the female gaze has meant to you in these projects?

MN: I don’t have a TV, and when I was recently away on a trip and staying alone in a hotel, I found myself watching back-to-back episodes of Law and Order. They all focus around this mutilated, raped girl as the trope. I thought a lot about that when I was writing Jane. What’s interesting about this image of the mutilated or hurt girl is that when I moved to LA I heard of these shows using this image as a way of getting around censors: Like if a female body is dead you can show more of it. I was thinking about the movie Boys Don’t Cry where there’s a scene when Chloe Sevigny is having an orgasm and they were going to give the movie an NC-17 because of the extended nature of the orgasm. I was thinking about that—the live female in prolonged pleasure—compared to all the crazy stuff we see on TV. I mean this is super basic, feminism 101, and we all know it, but what was interesting to me is that there are these strictures that exist on paper that are determining what’s permissible for us to see. Somebody just made it up. And someone enforces it.

When growing up, you have to find, depending on your sexuality, what turns you on. But you’re also always being titillated by sexual content anywhere it’s found, and it interests me how none of us can know what fantasies or what kind of sexualities would grow in and around a different culture. Feminists have thought for a long time about what that might look like. I don’t know what it would look like, so I could never guess. When I was growing up the big movies I remember were River’s Edge and Smooth Talk with Laura Dern. The movies that really spoke to me, in a sense, were these movies in which girls were going out and being part of things, but having to live with this enormous and pressing sense of danger, where, at any moment, they are about to be the injured girl. I’ve thought a lot about what kind of sexuality that engenders.

KY: Would you talk a little about how you’ve worked, in Jane in particular, to create complex portraits and how this complexity or open-endedness operates in such projects?

MN: Like Emerson says, “relation and connection are not somewhere and sometimes, but everywhere and always.” Still, you have to make sure that the rays of relation you’re drawing are the ones you want to draw. There’s a way of drawing rays of relation whereby things close each other down and there’s a way of creating that sense that things could always have been otherwise. The rays of relation can keep moving. Kind of like open-ended and closed-ended toys for children: One kind of toy can only be a GI Joe and the other can be a stick or a bunny or whatever. That’s the thing about poetry that can be so great–it’s typically focused on the employment of language in this more open-ended way.

When you’re working on something autobiographical, the book is often a portrait of things as you understand them at the moment of writing. If we only ever understood our stories the same way once then it would be boring. In Jane I didn’t want to write about my dad and him dying, but in The Red Parts it became a part of it. And yet, the way I understood the relationship while writing it then is not how I understand it now—and I didn’t even write the book that long ago. Or, at least now, it just seems like a dull paradigm—dull because I experienced it already, while writing. It’s not like you’re making meaning, but you’re bringing things to the fore as best you can and as clearly as you can for the timeframe of that particular writing project. If you fool yourself into thinking that you’ve found a meaning that will live outside of the book’s moment, then, to me, you’re getting away from the aesthetic conundrum presented by that particular book.

But it’s also hard to work on a book as a snapshot because you work on it over time and you’re changing while it’s changing. Things that were true suddenly seem flimsy. That’s why I like publishing books—because they go to print and then it can become a snapshot. Up until then it’s this great beautiful molten process.

I think you can get attuned to recognizing when you’re groping around for symbols and when you’re attending to things “as they were.” It may also depend on the kind of person you are. Some people want more meaning-making in life, in general. To me, too much meaning-making can resemble those OCD-moments when you’re leaving the house and thinking, “if I leave that napkin on the table I might get into a car accident.” When I was a kid I was really into those head trips. (A lot of kids are.) Now, when it comes to writing, I am really wary of them. But you also have to be intuitive. It’s a productive conundrum.

KY: Though the voice in The Red Parts is weaving together events in the world, it isn’t doing it in a way that is stifling.

MN: Take the blue book I just wrote: It moves along; it has a beginning and an end. But it’s kind of about juxtaposition, and juxtaposition is a whole of way of teaching how to see rays of relation.

I just wanted to say one more thing about the female gaze because what I said before was all so negative. In this blue book coming out, called Bluets, there’s a lot about looking at beautiful things—looking at color, but also about trying to find a more happily horny sense of looking. There’s a part in Bluets about Catherine Millet’s book, The Sexual Life of Catherine M.–which is about what she likes to look at during sex, what kind of cocks she likes to look at, etc. I think it’s one of the only books I know by a woman about her visual experience in that realm. Her book makes apparent how a lot of the perceived problems between the personal and political are kind of American problems. Catherine Millet’s gaze is philosophical as well personal. People think it’s not sexy because it has this abstract analysis of genitals. We still think sex isn’t intellectual. And yet sex is great and can be very primal, but it can also be a hell of a mind game.

KY: The summer issue of Chaparral centers around a noir theme—a very loose definition of noir, focused on the color black and the tone of some of the post-war noir texts and films. Did Jane or The Red Parts ever feel like they were crossing into the noir genre or redefining it in some way?

MN: Jane felt, to me, in conversation with noir and that’s why part of me wanted it to look like a small pocket dime-store sized book more specific to the era and the genre. But although it has that size, I picked a picture of my aunt for the cover that wasn’t this cute young girl. I mean, she was a cute young girl, but that particular photo sort of strips her of normative attributes, which I liked as well.

The Red Parts was more literally noir, as it had me hanging out with these detectives—it even had, at one point, a chapter called The Female Dick. I let The Red Parts be published in a certain way, but my hope is that, over time, it will fall out of having anything to do with murder and mystery. I imagine a dusty jacketless thing that somebody might pick up in a used bookstore somewhere and have a totally unexpected encounter with.