An Interview with Ariel Gore
Ariel Gore is a woman who took life by the balls, and yanked. Novelist Marc Acito called her “an adventurer, the Indiana Jones of literature.” She has raised a little hell and a lot of eyebrows with her gritty ability to look reality in the face without flinching. Gore, also known as Hip Mama, is something of a guru to her unexpected niche market -- young, new, single, or alternative moms -- ever since her daughter Maia happened while Ariel was a teenager. Forget the “you can’t” mentality and public gossip: Gore launched the Hip Mama zine and a collection of parenting diaries for the real world, where chaos and joy mingle like old friends. Gore talked to Bookslut in 2005 about the mother lode. Late last year, she had another child, but now that she’s respectably thirty-something, it was her writing manual that ruffled a few feathers. The button-down old guard may wonder who the hell this socially awkward, sexually ambiguous, tattooed stick of dynamite is, and why she’s telling us what to do.
Thing is, Ariel Gore is one hell of a writer. She is original, witty, fierce, and funny. She is prolific, reliable, poetic, and smart. How to be a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead: Your Words in Print and Your Name in Lights is not another boring tome on simultaneous submissions and SASEs.
So let ’em yap and worry while Ariel takes over the world, publishing book after book and sending her Hip Mama/fairy godsisterly warmth to her hungry audience. As usual, Ms. Gore is just telling it like it is. She talks about the real stuff: that writers are crazy, that our time is sacred, that self-exposure is difficult, that you might have to do it yourself, along with zillions of other perfectly respectable writers like Walt Whitman and Margaret Atwood. She tells us not to waste our whole life "reworking" the damn thing, despite what you’ve heard, because there are more stories to write. She assures us that we will make mistakes, and that we better get used to making them in public.
The book opens brazenly with the turbo-truth of Ariel Gore: “Everybody knows it because Virginia Woolf said it: you need money and a room of your own if you’re going to write. But I’ve written five books, edited three anthologies, published hundreds of articles and short stories, and put out thirty-five issues of my zine without either one. If I’d waited for money and a room, I’d still be an unpublished welfare mom…”
Now Ariel Gore talks to Bookslut about the writer’s life: poverty and abundance, dealing with criticism, living through fear, neuroticism, being socially awkward, honest writing, and why writing matters.
Having your first child helped inspire you to become the queen of an untapped information niche: hip young mothers. How did you see past the naysayers and the challenges of being a young mom with few resources, and translate that into an empire and a career?
You are funny. I wouldn't call it an empire, exactly. But the things that happened to me and the road that I chose -- well, there were a lot of things on that road that gave me a sense of being a victim of life, of being a victim of the people around me, and I didn't like that feeling, so I tried to turn it around. I had to resist psychic death. And a part of that resistance, for me, meant struggling against my natural inclination to feel sorry for myself.
My daughter just pulled out these old home videos when she was home from college for the holidays. We hadn't looked at them in years, but there she was in the videos -- about a year older than my baby is now. And she was like, "My God, we were so poor!" And we were. Not the kind of poor I am now where I think I'm poor because I can't pay off my credits cards. We had an apartment, but in the video we're just eating this cheap watered-down soup. Maia's father comes in at some point to say he might be able to start paying me some child support because he's found a job that'll pay him $60 a week. And this is big financial news. Sixty dollars a week! And, I mean, this isn't that long ago, really. But we were happy, you know? Little kids don't notice poverty unless it's truly abject. We had shelter. We had food. And beyond that I just refused to listen to all the people who told me I couldn't go anywhere from there. I went to college, and that was so important for me. I went to two different colleges and at each one I met one professor who believed in me. That's all it took. One person who didn't say with their words or with their eyes that I couldn't do it.
I was young and I was determined, but I truly needed that one person who believed in me. After that one person, every "you can't" just became something to rebel against. People said "you won't be able to graduate from college," or "you can't make a living as a writer -- no one makes a living as a writer," or "you can't publish a zine -- 95 percent of zines fail," or "you can't raise a kid at your age -- teen motherhood will ruin your life and your kid will suffer."
And I said, "just watch me."
Were there ever occasions or situations in which you feared you might not be successful? Did you have a Plan B?
Oh, well, I still might not be successful! But I don't really have a Plan B. I have been poor and that doesn't scare me. Life is unpredictable, but life doesn't scare me. Not anymore.
What were some of your most crushing disappointments? How did you get through them?
I am still working and learning not to take criticism so personally. I was born under the sign of Cancer, so that's a hard thing. When my memoir, Atlas of the Human Heart, came out, a lot of people loved it, but a few people who were close to me really hated it, and I guess they were hurt by it, and they hated me because of it. A few people wanted me dead. Then I got a few shitty reviews in big papers… That book was ultimately a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, among other things, and that book has opened roads for a lot of the people who read it. But it was very difficult in the beginning when I felt like I'd put my soul out there... I was so excited about that book coming out, and to have the first responses be anger and ridicule really messed with my head and broke my heart and made me feel like maybe I wasn't strong enough to be an artist, after all, or the world was too hostile. I thought I might not write again after that.
Do you ever long for the good old days of being a wild child?
Of course! But I like being my age. Happiness gets easier. You just have to make sure that you don't lose the sense of pure potentiality that's a little bit easier when you feel so very young.
Do you ever feel too naked after revealing so much about your early personal life?
No, not too naked, exactly. I honestly believe that telling the truth about our lives is a generous thing to do. It changes the world. Even if that change is subtle, it matters. As a writer, you communicate with people on such an intimate level. That can't be bad. At the end of the day, even if people give me shit for what I write, I know that I'm not being selfish. I know that I want the best for the world and for women and for mothers and for travelers and for everyone. I want to help build a world in which poetry matters and imagination matters and people who are neurotic or a little bit crazy like you and me can live and not feel like we have to be on psychopharms. I hope that in my small way I'm doing that.
Sometimes I'm afraid when I'm writing, so I sort of trick myself. I imagine that I'm writing just for myself, or for some small and intimate group. I imagine some unknown reader. Or I imagine my younger self. I pretend that I'm never going to put this out to a larger audience. That's the only way to be honest sometimes, because if I think about the fact that my mother or my sister or the guy who works at the post office might read this, well, I can really stump myself.
Most writers will live and die hoping for a small thread of crazy acclaim. You breeze through the world with your own rules and your own way and are now known as “The Indiana Jones of Literature.” Are you used to public acclaim and flack by now, or are you startled and amazed anew every time?
Isn't that Indiana Jones quote funny? Well, you just cannot get involved in public acclaim or flack. I mean, I am famous in some small circles and even with that minor notoriety I could let what people say drive me insane. I told you about some of what happened after Atlas of the Human Heart came out, and that hurt me and taught me a lot. I can't imagine what it's like to be a writer-celebrity or some big public person -- I totally understand why those people go crazy. We drive those people crazy. But, you see, that celebrity culture affects us all. You can be the star of some small poetry zine in some small town and pretty soon people will still try to mess with you. People will want to be your friend because you're this "star," right, and they'll compliment you winningly, they'll try to fatten up your ego, and then they'll sink their teeth in. They'll decide you're getting a little bit too full of yourself and that it's time to tear you down. They'll be, like, "Who does Lorette Luzajic think she is?" And here you just wrote a poem and put it in a zine. That's all you did. But if you allowed yourself to get swept up in your little celebrity tornado, you could really get squashed. You could end up some crazy drunk under the bridge long before you got a chance to write the great American novel. And how much would that suck?
You tell writers to steer clear of snootiness and arrogance and keep a level head. How do you do that? How do you stay down-to-earth?
You just refuse to be arrogant! The writing world is so hierarchical, there's so much arrogance… I actually think that the arrogance of the literary world has an understandable root: a lot of writers are naturally hermits, and have a lot of social anxiety, so they create these filters to cut down on the number of people they have to talk to. So it's understandable. I've certainly been accused of being less than friendly. But, honestly, it's just that I'm socially awkward. For me it's important to remember that and be honest about it so that no one ends up feeling hurt or ignored.
Who do you look up to or study in intent of sharpening your craft?
Everyone. I have a long way to go when it comes to craft, that's for sure, but I am mostly taking inspiration from writers who are able to stay true to their community and political responsibilities as well as their poetic responsibilities. It is so tempting to write for the market. Every few months my I-need-money-brain comes up with a book idea that would make me rich, but so far those haven't been the books I wanted to write. There's nothing wrong with making money, of course, but writing purely for the market feels to me like using my powers for evil, you know? Using my time or my talent to lie. And that's not what I'm here for.
What kind of discoveries did you make when you scratched off 'blend in' and 'follow the rules' from the rules?
I had to scratch those pretty early. My bio-dad was completely off his rocker and looked it. My mother dressed like a Gypsy. My stepdad was the local Catholic priest. I had really curly hair in the seventies. Too curly even to iron. And like I said I was always socially awkward. I'm getting a little bit better with that, but I was a really weird girl. So there was never any blending in. When I had my daughter I was considered a very young mom in the Bay Area. I think if I'd been elsewhere in the country it wouldn't have been quite as big of a deal, but at that time in the Bay Area people were delaying motherhood well into their thirties and forties and it wasn't like I rejected those older moms -- I wanted them to like me and I wanted our kids to play together, but many of the ones that I met rejected me. When they found out I wasn't the nanny, they thought I was trashy or weird and so, again, there was no blending in. My peers weren't having kids yet, so a lot of them rejected me, too. That took me by surprise, because I had always understood the whole reproductive rights movement as a movement toward freedom. I thought I could choose to have a baby and that would be considered a valid choice. Anyway. All those people who rejected me gave me a head-start on freedom, because the fear and obedience we are all taught, well, those things weren't getting me any love.
You write about making time for writing and feeling entitled to a creative life. I agree that it’s not a luxury and that my workday is sacred. But what about the millions of people worldwide who cannot yet or never will have the luxury of doing what they love for money? How can writers alleviate that guilt and stop thinking like a starving artist?
That kind of thinking is based on the idea that the creative life is somehow self-indulgent. Artists and writers have to understand and live the truth that what we are doing is nourishing the world. William Carlos Williams said, "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there." You can't eat a book, right, but books have saved my life more often than sandwiches. And they've saved your life. Ntosake Shange books saved my life. Maya Angelou books saved my life. Katherine Arnoldi. Tillie Olsen. A lot of books. But we don't say, oh, Maya Angelou should have silenced herself because other people have other destinies. It's interesting, because artists are always encouraged to feel guilty about their work. Why? Why don't we ask predatory bankers how they alleviate their guilt?
What have you got on the backburner?
Nothing is on the back burner. Everything all at once! I'm working on a book project right now, and I'm having to really discipline myself to finish it before I jump into another. I've got the baby at home and Maia off at college. I've got a few new classes starting this week. And I'm thinking about going back to grad school. And sleep. I don't want that on the back burner, either. I think I'm going to take a nap this afternoon.
Toronto’s Lorette C. Luzajic is The Girl behind The Girl Can Write. She has written for awesome venues like Adbusters, Geez, Dog Fancy, Women Can Do Anything, White Wall Review, and more. The Girl is the author of two popular blogs, The Literary Addict and Little Miss Chatterbox. She is also the author of The Astronaut’s Wife: Poems of Eros and Thanatos, a collection that Thomas Moore of Care of the Soul called witty, sassy, and profound. You can find links to her blogs, books, and articles at www.thegirlcanwrite.net.