Smashing Old Stories to Create Something New: An Interview with Melissa Febos
March 20, 2017 § 1 Comment
By Zoe Zolbrod
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip-Smart and a new essay collection Abandon Me, which is about, among other things, meeting her birth father, an all-consuming love affair, and the way we tell our own life stories to ourselves. In this interview, she talks about the process of writing her new book to Zoe Zolbrod, author of The Telling.
Zolbrod: I’ve been a fan of your work since Whip Smart, and after I read it I gobbled up any interviews I could find. I recall you talking in one—I believe it was the Otherppl podcast with Brad Listi—about working on a novel, discussing it with your agent. Now here you are with Abandon Me. When did you know that you were writing another book of nonfiction? Did you leap toward it, or did you have to convince yourself?
Febos: Neither, really. Nonfiction has never been something I leapt toward, nor something I had to convince myself of per se. It has always come for me, and with a force that precludes argument. Here is what I knew: the essays that were occupying me required that I reinvent my process. I also knew that I was going to write a book about meeting my birth father and this love affair that had consumed me for two years. I knew little else. But once I had written about four of these essays, it occurred to me that they were the book. That I was working my way into those subjects in an unprecedented way, through sound and image.
Zolbrod: Please talk about the structure of the book, which is unusual. The initial seven essays are followed by a section, “Abandon Me” that at 170-some pages long could be a book in itself. I’m interested in how you made this choice. What input did your agent or editor give, if any? What factors played into the decision?
Febos: While there were many choices later on, these essays knew their own forms before I did. It was much more a process of discovery than invention. Although later on, in revision, I had to devise some creative ways to figure out how to make those structures within each essay crack open to reveal the content, if that makes sense. I made maps and mobiles; I chopped them up with scissors; I taped them to the walls. I had to uncover a new way of building a piece of writing, which was both terrifying and wonderful, because my process before that had been so circumscribed and functional.
When I started the final, title essay, I didn’t know that it would become so long. I estimated that it would be about forty or fifty pages. When I crossed the hundred-page mark, I knew I was dealing with a very different kind of animal.
I made a decision to completely finish the book before I showed it to any editor or agent, and that was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made, in respect to these things. I didn’t know what it would look like, but I knew it would look better than it would sound if I tried to describe it beforehand. And I am very lucky to have found both an agent and an editor that recognized the strange form as its true one. They didn’t ask me to change it at all. I know many editors and agents would have wanted to reshape it into something more conventional.
Zolbrod: In many of the early essays, you cover the ground of early childhood and coming of age, but you also include “Leave Marks,” “Wunderkammer” and “All of Me,” which explore aspects of the central romantic relationship that is traced from start to finish in the long title piece. They’re written from a close perspective within the love affair. How did you think about chronology as you were organizing your material, and its relationship to your themes of exploring love and loss? How did you think about perspective?
Febos: I actually wrote those essays while I was in the love affair. I wrote the majority of the long one during its final phase, too. I went back and made some revisions, but I was writing and living my way through the book simultaneously for most of it. I would not have recommended this to anyone, but I think it’s the way I had to write it. The writing process was how I made sense of living the experience; it was a way that I processed it. And so, it is both a record and a reflection. I think that you can feel that in the essays, to some degree. There is an immediacy that reflects it, and a mythology to them that marked the ways I build stories inside of that love as it was happening.
Zolbrod: There’s a section in “Abandon Me” that I love. You describe your wide sexual experience, which can make you sound like an uninhibited wild child by standard measures. Then you write, in the context of becoming lovers with the woman who’s about to shake you to your core, “I discovered at nearly thirty years old that I was shy.” There’s much in the book about being seen—the desire we have for someone to see us, the shame we feel about it, the way lovers both can and can’t see us clearly, or can cloud as well as sharpen our view. There’s another line, in “Labyrinths,” that resonated with me: “I have replaced my instinct for secrecy with an instinct for confession.” How does writing personal nonfiction play into this dynamic, the tension between the desire to be and shame of being seen?
Febos: Writing is my solution to that tension. I know I’m not alone in this, and maybe your interest in those passages is proof of that. I think we all eventually come to understand what Winnicott meant when he said “It is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found.” In writing, I can reveal myself while still alone. I can try out different ways to name the things I am afraid to name, and then, when I get it right (or as right as I am capable of), I can show it to someone. It’s self-exposure one step removed, and with a privacy we don’t have when just relating or talking to other people.
In many ways, this book is one about the stories we create in love: about ourselves, our lovers, and our love. Writing is also the way I smash those, and the way I build new ones when I’m able to let the early ones go.
Zolbrod: The book covers your meetings with a sister, aunt, and biological father you’ve seldom or never met. The lonely intensity of encountering strangers with whom you share blood and lineage is so well drawn. As you mention, you were coming into these meetings with the fact of Whip Smart and your other writing out in the world. I love the part where your aunt apologizes for not having read the book, and you’re like: That’s okay! But your sister had read the book before she met you.
Is there any way that having such personal material out there made meeting new-to-you relatives easier, and not only more awkward? In general, what can be the silver linings for nonfiction writers who cover intimate ground and who then have to go to job interviews and family reunions and so forth knowing that the kind of juicy personal details most people keep under tight wraps are available on Amazon for $5 off the retail price or used for 99 cents?
Febos: When I talk about it being easier in some ways to write myself down and give that to others, I mostly mean the people who already know me. And the strangers who might identify with my experiences. In job interviews, or meeting my family for the first time, I generally tried not to think about it. It doesn’t feel like my business what they make of those stories, if they find them. When I actually want to get to know a new person, I try to act as if that information isn’t out there, because I can only get to know someone by participating in the interaction, if that makes sense. It also feels like modeling the kind of interaction I want to have, which is distinct from the interaction they might have had with the text. People often don’t know what to do with it. By people, I mean my colleagues, students, et al. They don’t know if reading my work counts as an intimacy between us. So I find ways to show them that it isn’t. As a memoirist, I’ve had to teach people in this (mostly) gentle way how to separate me from the text, and our relationship from the one they’ve had with my work.
Zolbrod: You express several times an explicitly non-judgmental view towards what could be labeled as failure or weakness in others. Your perspective has been broadened by what you’ve confronted in your own life: addiction, the mental illness of loved ones, imperatives of the body that defy common sense. I was struck by these beautiful lines you wrote on the subject: “We are all broken. And repair often hurts. And the ways we find to fix ourselves do not always look like fixing.” It’s something I recognize.
This kind of compassion and open-mindedness is so helpful in building relationships. Specifically, in “Abandon Me,” when you’re encountering relatives who live lives different from your urbane urban one.
But sometimes in my own life I’ve wondered about the downsides of a rigorously non-judgmental view. For example, there’s the moment in the book when you confess to your mother that you almost want your girlfriend to do something awful so you’re justified in leaving her, and your mom tenderly tells you that she already has, which is clear to the reader.
When does a value of open-mindedness conflict with the need for self-protection, or actually interfere with self perception? And how does this play out in nonfiction when we’re writing about people who have not just hurt us, but done something morally wrong?
Febos: This is such a good question. It is a complex thing, having empathy for the sometimes hurtful ways that humans pursue healing, or security, or relief. I mean, the empathy is not complicated; it is precious. But the ways that we express it, or respond to it can be. It feels easy for me to see the ways that cruelty comes out of woundedness. It always does. But that doesn’t erase an adult person’s accountability for their actions, their treatment of others. In the past I’ve excused treatment that I shouldn’t have, because I could see the wounded place it came from. And I’ve used my own woundedness, or the world’s flaws, to rationalize my own wreckage. I want to be able to hold empathy and accountability at the same time. Compassion does not require that we receive any kind of treatment or justify any behavior—our own or others’. Being an adult means accepting what we’ve been given, unfair though it may be. We often have to overcome a lot to be kind, to be generous in love and to ourselves. But that is our work. To linger in lament or blame just slows that process, slows our movement toward a more generous way of loving.
Zolbrod: Here’s another line that holds so much. “I had come here looking for something and found nothing but these broken people, who were my people.” Your paternal grandfather was from the Wampanoag tribe. You mention the study of epigenetics, that massive cultural trauma can be passed through the generations. You’d always known you had native blood, and describe being taken to a powwow at nine by your adoptive father, and feeling a distance. How do you view this aspect of your lineage now? Was there anything about writing this book that affected your relationship to it?
Febos: This book included a process of negotiating the difference between claiming a “native identity,” which I have never felt entitled to (and still don’t), and claiming the private thing that that ancestry has meant to me. From childhood, I understood my identity as comprised of many pieces of things: I was half-adopted, had a Puerto Rican father, was queer, had this other father who was a stranger and also part Native. I didn’t feel enough of anything to claim it, so I decided that I was nothing. But a decision does not erase what made you, or what you are made of. In order to write this book, I had to retrieve those exiled parts and draw them together in my self-conception. That was one purpose of this book. And it did bring me back together.
I had also felt estranged, and ashamed, of the compulsive parts of my personality, which had governed so much of my young adulthood. No one else in my immediate family, the family that raised me, was an addict. There were parts of me that weren’t mirrored in them. Physical aspects, tendencies—not all “dark” ones like addiction, but my aloneness in them felt like a kind of darkness. It is part of what drove me to find my birth father and his family. And did confirm that I was not alone, not defective. Those parts came from somewhere, and I don’t only mean the genetics, but the historical and familial legacy as well.
Zolbrod: You open the book by writing about your story-rich childhood, and you draw on your rich knowledge of story and poetry throughout, from Greek and Egyptian to Rilke to stories in popular culture. I’m curious about how you organized this material during the writing process, or just the role it played in the creation of the book. What was the chicken and what was the egg? Like, did you dip into touchstone texts as you were wrestling with your material and come out with metaphors, or did you go looking for metaphors, with a good sense of where to find them?
Febos: Definitely the former. The personal narrative and driving questions of the book were the chicken, and as I worked my way into them, I looked to the texts I knew and trusted to help me along. And the conversations I had with those texts made their way into the book. In many ways, I think of the essay as a thought process, or an artful transcription of a thought process, and so it seemed natural to let them in as I was articulating my own inquiry.
The book also takes for its subject the nature of narrative, how we build it, how it builds us, and so I went to the most fundamental examples of this in my own life: the books I loved as a child, the stories I’ve come back to again and again.
I spent less time looking for metaphors in this book than anything else I’ve ever written, which may sound strange because it’s so thick with metaphor. But it is also an excavation of the metaphors I’ve carried with me the longest, the ones I always have with me. The films, the books, the places of my upbringing—the images and stories that first defined me, and so carry parts of me.
Zolbrod: You’ve talked and written so articulately about how powerful personal writing can be, how far outward it can reach, even as we dive deeper inward into what some call belly-button gazing. The essays and talks I’m referring to (not that there aren’t others), as well as this book, were written in pre-Trump era. Have any of your views on personal writing changed in the face of this regime? Have any of your writing inclinations or habits?
Febos: Belly-button gazing! That sounds adorable. That sounds like something I’m interested in.
My views on personal writing have not changed post-election. There is an increased urgency in me, to be more explicit in the activism inherent to how I teach and write, and perhaps a different sense of economy in my subject choices. That is, I am more inclined to prioritize those subjects that speak to this particular moment, but that still includes the personal. It is through personal stories that we encourage empathy, and that we record the lived experiences that our institutions hope to erase or define or ignore or rewrite.
Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in places such as Salon, The Guardian, Lit Hub, the Manifest Station, and The Rumpus, where she served as the Sunday co-editor.