What would you like readers to know about your new book, The Girls of Usually?
It’s a collection of interconnected memoir-essays, a coming of age of sorts, although a friend joked about how I never quite came of age. The essays were written over a span of ten years, maybe more. I didn’t set out to write a book, but I kept writing about subjects that obsessed me—identity, connection, and love. I grew up ashamed of being Jewish and idolizing the “shiksa in my living room,” a blonde all-American girl whose photo came in a double frame and was displayed for a decade next to a family photo from a bar mitzvah. This was my world. One reviewer said my writing is “wickedly funny,” yet some stories are wickedly sad. Perhaps funny and sad simultaneously. Among other subjects, I deal with death (my mother’s sudden death in my early twenties, and friends who’ve died of AIDS), getting stuck in a love triangle in the middle of a Communist package tour in dictator-run Romania, dating a German who didn’t think Hitler was so bad, and all while trying to figure out who I am—sexually, ethnically, culturally.
Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?
Perhaps readers may get frustrated with my narrator (me), who they could see as repeating similar destructive patterns. Then again, haven’t we all been guilty of making stupid choices? Bad choices make good stories.
How do your friends and family respond to your writing?
My local community in Asheville (colleagues, friends, the queer community, writers, students) has been amazingly supportive. I did a book launch a few weeks ago at a local café, and two weeks later, I read at Malaprop’s, a great indie bookstore in town. Both readings were standing room only. A number of people came out for both readings. I was humbled and heartened. I sent my father the first few chapters of the book and he read them aloud over the phone. He said, “This is very nice.” My brother who lives on the West Coast ordered a bunch of copies and was the first to post a picture of the book on Facebook.
What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?
I felt good about my first published piece in a literary journal—a poem about my poodle getting mauled to death at a parade by a Great Dane when I was seven. I was in my twenties when the poem was published. Every time I read it aloud at a reading, my audience cracked up.
How have you developed creatively since then?
Since the publication of that story, I went back to school for an MFA in creative writing (in poetry) at Brooklyn College, where I worked with Allen Ginsberg and Joan Larkin. Both encouraged me to open up, to not hide behind metaphors and abstractions. I then went on to a PhD program at SUNY Albany, where I studied with language poets and began playing with language, taking more risks with form. For my dissertation, I wrote a novel. I got hired to teach fiction but soon after started writing nonfiction. I sound like Madonna. Always reinventing myself. Or at least my writing.
What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?
I love live theatre and fantasize about being a playwright. I’ve always been interested in dialogue and getting voices down. Maybe one day I’ll write a musical.
Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?
Everyone could relate to being an outsider, to not fitting in. Much of the book is about my character trying to figure out where she belongs in the world, always feeling like she’s just on the edge, not quite part of the mainstream. Most of us stumble along in similar ways. Maybe a reader hasn’t dated a pathological liar, or felt ashamed of her ethnicity/religion, or maybe she’s never ventured out of the U.S., but aren’t we all living as outsiders in some ways? By the end of the book, my character embraces that edge. Celebrates it. Life is about trial and error. And maybe I’ve experienced more error than trial. I’m hoping the reader can come along for the ride and connect as a vulnerable being in the world. Perhaps even recognize the beauty in bad choices, as painful as they are. And to have the courage to laugh, keep moving, and tell all.