March 2005

Adrienne Martini


An Interview with Ayun Halliday

You may best know Ayun Halliday as Bust’s Mother Superior. Or as the author of No Touch Monkey!, a book of traveling tales, or The Big Rumpus, a book of mothering tales. Halliday’s kids, Inky and Milo, know her as mom. Her husband, Greg Kotis, who wrote Urinetown: The Musical, which tore up Broadway a couple of years ago, probably knows her in all sorts of ways. The more prurient among you can delve into that independently.

New Yorkers may have picked up her zine East Village Inky. Chicagoans may know her from her theatre days, when she was a member of The Neo-Futurists, who are best known for Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, a blitzkrieg of 30 short plays in 60 minutes. You may have heard her voice on NPR or read her essays in Bitch and the Utne Reader. You may also know her as a massage therapist, a nude model, a temp, a waitress and as a department store Bert, the pointy headed Sesame Street character.

You may also not know her at all. But you should. Halliday’s writing is spunky and honest and hysterical. Her recent collection, Job Hopper: The Checkered Career as a Down-market Dilettante, chronicles Halliday’s continual employment challenges without ever descending into trite whining about the boss man. The pieces add up to a whole story about a woman figuring out what she wants to be when she grows up and, surprisingly, finding it.

Halliday took some time to answer some questions about Job Hopper, rugrats, luck and root vegetables.

You had a lot of crappy day jobs, which helped make Job Hopper possible. If you had to find a new day job, what would it be? It can be anything. I have that power.

Oh, neonatal nurse, please! Midwife. Hospice worker. Funeral director. Something where I would get to participate in an extremely personal moment (beginnings and endings) in strangers' lives. I'd like to give back to the community, as they say. We need not discuss my ill-fated one-day stint as a substitute teacher in the Chicago Public School system. But actually, those aren't so much day jobs as career changes. If I was going to get a new day job purely for day job purposes (I still do massage on the side), I'd like to clerk in an independent bookstore. Now THERE's a get-rich-quick scheme.

How did you move from underground massage therapy to writing? Was it an abrupt transition or did you dabble in both for quite some time?

I had a baby and little money (or inclination) to separate myself from her, especially knowing that massage clients have a habit of canceling at the last minute or not showing up at all. So, abruptly, I stopped practicing massage and then, like many first time mothers, slowly began losing my marbles. I'd spent the ten years before my daughter came along with my star hitched to the wagon of a small theater company, which provided me a convenient, bohemian identity. Integrating a baby into ongoing low-budget theater projects turned out to be untenable, to my great dismay. So, I turned to writing as a creative outlet -- I had actually done quite a bit of first-person writing for the theater company, so it wasn't too big of a stretch. And my swan song on the stage was a full-length puppet play about my experience in the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit of St. Vincent’s Hospital, following my daughter's birth. (Highly unsuitable for children! Root vegetables substituted for puppets when I found out that six-month-olds and papier-mache are an ill-advised combination.)

I demonstrated remarkable horse sense on my first venture into publishing -- when HipMama asked if I had anything that might work on their website, I offered a reprint of "NeoNatalSweetPotato," minimally reworked from performance script to prose. This horse sense immediately evaporated into thin air. I'm a sucky freelancer.

But, that piece wound up being published in Breeder, HipMama's first anthology and showing another uncharacteristic burst of chutzpah, I emailed HipMama's founder/editor/publisher, Ariel Gore, to ask, "Say would you mind passing along the name of the editor who worked on the anthology with you at Seal Press." And she pulled the pertinent info out of her online address book and hit "'reply to." I owe my status as a bonafide author to lucky stars, Ariel Gore's willingness to share her toys with a younger kid (even though I'm older than she is) and the Age of the Internet. I think if I'd had to place a long distance call to a shy person I've never met face-to-face, telling her answering machine to have her call me back (long-distance) at her convenience, that lucky connection would never have made it across home plate.

How do you balance the whole mom gig with the writing gig? Or does that question reek of patriarchy, as if I'm implying that Greg doesn't do his fair share and you are solely responsible for the wee ones?

Imply away, baby. Greg does some hard time with the kids but since his writing is collaborative and involves producers who are used to having the poodles jump through whatever hoop suits their pampered whims, I am my children's default escort. (Greg's writing has also borne the most financial fruit so that factors into the equation as well -- the producers with kids have occasionally shown themselves to be capable of flexibility regarding family concerns. The producers without kids -- oh man! I better watch my mouth here, but let's just say that the next time one of them gives me the sub-Toklas treatment with an insincere, "So… how are the KIDS?" I'm going to reach me for some whoop ass. Ask me about my new book, bucky! Don't ask me about my kids unless you really want to hear the answer!)

Where was I? Balancing motherhood with writing? It helps that from both inclination and inability, I'm not a perfectionist in anything. Basically, I like to create but I don't like to measure or clean up. I write quick and sloppy and by draft two, I usually feel I've managed to capture something worthwhile if not exactly the thing I aspired to capture. That was a necessity before the children started school, when naptime was literally the only time available to me to write. In ways, those one to two hour naps provided the perfect shit-or-get-off-the-pot situation for a procrastinator like me. Now that both Inky and Milo are gone for six hours a day, I'm prone to checking e-mail for hours, thinking I should go to a matinee, taking a yoga class and then caving in to the sensation that the 45 minutes left before school dismissal isn't really long enough to write -- really, it's only time enough to browse through the Salvation Army, eat a taco, and check e-mail some more.

I also am terminally late paying bills, rarely clean my small apartment, and shirk normal adult activities like searching for more suitable living quarters or… well, what the hell is it that other adults do anyway? I don't know. Maybe I save time by living in a place where everything's walking distance. No drive time to the grocery. Plus I get good arms from having to haul massive loads two blocks and up three flights of stairs.

Ultimately, for me, writing is one of the most thrilling forms of relaxation and play. It ties with reading and seeing movies. Sometimes I have to yank my bridle extra hard to set the wheels in motion, but I'm always glad that I did, and amazed that the time slipped away so fast!

Where do you draw the line between what you can write about and what you can't? And are there any amusing anecdotes of times you crossed the line?

I try to mock myself harder than I mock others. I've never enjoyed snide humor, the kind of humor the cool kids use to smack down the weirdo. (Like many fellow self-mocking autobiographers, I spent my teen years on the receiving end of it.)

More than a few characters in Job Hopper are superiors who treated me with contempt or rudeness and now that I'm the great and powerful authorini, I'm in a position to expose their crimes to a wider audience. But it's not funny if all I do is accuse people who had more power than I of treating innocent little me poorly. I have to out myself as a crappy waitress, a purloiner of office supplies, a loafer, a personal phone call maker. I was actually a pretty good artist's model, but I poked a few holes in that balloon by reporting on the ridiculous back stories I invented up there on the platform to motivate my poses -- and most of them involved feeding a goat.

Oh I've crossed the line plenty of times! It would have been more, but thankfully, my editor, Leslie Miller, has an unerring instinct for when I seem mean or "complain-y" to borrow a phrase from Spiritual Midwifery. Well, wait, actually, there are a couple of times in the Job Hopper process where she seemed to be egging me on. I was raised to be nice and polite, so it pains me to think of hurting people's feelings by what I write. And then I go ahead and write it anyway and hope for the best.

A lot of old boyfriends make appearances in No Touch Monkey! I was talking with an old pal shortly after that book came out and he asked if I had gotten in contact with "Nate" to get his blessing or at least inform him of what I had written about him. And I said, "Oh, no, no, no… but since I depict us both as bumbling idiots, I reckon he'd probably think it was funny, don't you?" My friend looked at me skeptically and drawled, "Nooo." Ah, the truth. It's always a blood chiller. Well, anyway, nearly eight months later, I get an email from "Nate" -- it turns out we have a mutual friend, who knew? -- and somehow my name came up in conversation and Nate mentioned to this fellow musician, "Oh, you know, Ayun and I used to live together in Chicago. We traveled around Europe together…" And the other musician gets this funny sideways look on his face and says, "Wait, you're not the guy in that book, are you?" And thus, Nate found out about No Touch Monkey!, bought a copy, and then wrote me an e-mail in which he was far more gracious than he needed to be. He said it pained him to think that all I had to say about our time together concerned our largely-disastrous attempt to spend six weeks in Europe on a combined budget of 800 dollars. He also offered a corrective to the middle part of the story, in which I have us getting on board a crowded train and searching for seats -- he wonders how I could remember, since as he recalls, I was so drunk he had to prop me up in the station, commanding me not to move while he checked on the timetables. And when he came back I was asleep on my feet and some plastered German dude was attempting to pick me up. So there you have it. Rashomon, baby. And sometimes, it's what you leave out, that hurts people's feelings.

On the other hand, sometimes it's what you put in, as I fear I am soon to find out with the publication of Job Hopper. Just remember: Rashomon. Rashomon and pseudonyms. I've come to make such copious use of them that I had to thank the guys who wrote What To Name Your Baby, which I didn't end up using while naming my babies, but refer to near constantly now.

How have your perceptions of the writing/publishing business changed since you've been involved? What has surprised you about it? What has been the most rewarding aspect of it?

I really tumbled in through the back door with my first book contract and I've been using that entrance ever since. (Uh, not sexually, though) So I came into publishing with no preconceived notions other than that I'd never have my shit together enough to figure out how to get a book contract. And guess what I still don't, but I'm currently under contract for my forth book, Dirty Sugar Cookies. I'm the first to say that I've been lucky, lucky, lucky. Thanks, again, Ariel Gore for being so willing to share that email address all those years ago.

I was surprised about the amount of publicity an author has to do if they want their book to attract any attention whatsoever. Fortunately, I had also spent a decade scrounging up press for our low-budget theater company, so it was no big deal to continue shaking those trees, hoping a nice juicy review or two would fall into my lap. Truth be told, I enjoy the hunt -- it's almost like thrift shopping.

I guess I'm surprised when authors claim they don't like doing publicity. What? Don't you want people to know about your book? Don't you want to be the big cheese for a few minutes before you sink back into obscurity to write the next one? Don't you believe that someone will buy your book if you just waste several more hours haunting some relevant websites with a link to your book cleverly implanted in your signature line?

The most rewarding aspect is being able to answer “yes” when people say, "Oh, you're a writer? So, have you published anything?" I also love getting mail from readers and when folks report things like, "I found your book in the crummy little library at my youth hostel in Havana." As a former theater performer, I enjoy giving readings… usually. The 'Nate' chapter that is my default No Touch Monkey! read aloud features the line, “I put a foot on the sink, the better to wash my malodorous vagina.” It comes about two thirds of the way through, by which point I've had plenty of time to get a bead on whether or not it's a malodorous vagina crowd or not. And when it's not, it's like bracing myself to jump into the East River in say, April. Like, I know I'll live, but it won't be pleasant.

What is the one question you wish I'd asked?

Would it be okay if I mentioned you and your books to my best friend, who's the chief critic at the New York Times?