An Interview with Rachel Shukert
Rachel Shukertís first book, the 2008 autobiographical essay collection Have You No Shame?, was a hilarious chronicle of a very specific kind of adolescent anxiety. Shukert was the kind of teenage girl with enough faux expertise to (in sixth grade) attempt to teach English to some Russian transfer students, and not much later, to roll her eyes at her hook-up buddyís terror of contracting HIV by way of a small wound on his finger. Despite this confidence, she grew up certain that Nazis were coming to kill her family in their suburban Omaha home, and struggled with an eating disorder. When I read it, I was amazed by Shukertís indomitable energy, and by how nimbly she walked the tightrope between mania and clear-eyed introspection. I also couldnít stop laughing.
Her new book, Everything is Going to Be Great, is another memoir, this one a satisfyingly in-depth look at the time Shukert spent as an aimless twenty-something in Europe, pursuing every dubious opportunity in an effort to stay far away from home for as long as it took her to make something of herself. Like her first book, this one is keenly observed and outlandishly funny, with moments of clarity that make your breath catch in your throat. ďI had come to Europe to grow up, to fall in love, to become the kind of person that I wanted to be,Ē she writes. ďBut the person I was becoming was destroying the person that I already was.Ē Through miserable jobs, considerable heartbreak, and seemingly endless disappointments, her story is buoyed by the sense of optimism expressed in the title: Somehow, eventually, everything is going to be great. It just has to be.
In the years since her first book was published, Rachel and I have gotten to know each other a bit. On one of the hottest days of a very hot New York summer, we met for drinks at a neighborhood dive bar just after Holland won the World Cup semi-finals (Rachel was elated, and after you read about her time in Amsterdam, youíll understand why), where we talked about the perils of autobiographical writing, uncomfortable sexual situations, and a certain travel memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Where your first book was a collection of autobiographical essays, this new one is a more straightforward memoir. How did you see it in relation to that first one?
The essays in the first book are chronological, and thereís a big jump in time between the second to last essay and the very last one. What happened during that jump is really my time in Europe. I felt like it was a contained enough narrative to get its own treatment, instead of being smushed into two essays or something, and I wanted to give it a sort of novelistic treatment, because that was sort of how it felt when I was living it. It was a short period of time that was very eventful and full of tumult, and it had a real narrative arc. I felt like that was something I hadnít seen lately in a lot of memoir.
When the book starts youíre an aspiring actor, and your part in a traveling production is what lands you in Europe. At some point, you decided you wanted to be a writer instead of a performer. How did that happen? Was there a moment when you felt the shift happening?
Acting is counterintuitively passive; you act your part and you do the best you can, but there are so many things about it in which you are not a player. Especially in a commercial shoot or something like that, youíre kept away from every part of the actual creative genesis until they literally walk you onto the set, because you canít be trusted to find your own way there. Itís very weird, youíre really treated like a powerless, trained monkey. As much as I really liked the charge of performing, it was much less mentally engaging for me than I felt like it should be. It was this thing I had done my whole life -- I started acting as a child, in professional plays and commercials and stuff like that -- and it was just this thing that I knew I could do and had become a dominant force in my life to the exclusion of all other hobbies. It was never a question I really asked myself: What am I creatively most suited to do?
I always had a little bit more of an observerís perspective, and I think that a really good actor actually needs to not have that. A really good actor needs to be in the moment, and I always found that really difficult. Writing felt like my natural way of interacting with the world instead of something that needed to be filed down, or put away.
Did it come as a relief when you realized you wanted to shift your focus like that?
Well, it was nice to know that I wouldnít have to obsess over my skin care regimen anymore! In that very superficial sense it was a relief. But in another sense, writing is such harder work -- at least it felt that way to me -- itís so much more involved, and you just spend so much more time by yourself and have to be so much more disciplined. Those are things that I found incredibly difficult, especially at first. Being part of a cast is incredibly collaborative and incredibly social, and going from that to sitting alone in a room for hours and hours was something I dreaded for a long time. And I think that the amount of control you have as a writer makes it that much more frightening -- youíre really the one responsible for the end product. But itís nice to feel like you have more control over your ultimate artistic destiny than an actor who is constantly waiting for the phone to ring. As a writer, youíre what the writing starts with. Youíre the nucleus. It was exciting that that I could have an idea and immediately start on it instead of having to assemble a team. †
Your writing seems so much more exposed than any acting you could have been doing. I was thinking about that even just as I was reading the introduction, which is so self-deprecating, as if youíre trying to pre-empt any judgments people might have of your or your story even before they start reading.
Itís good to be self-critical, and I think you have to be if youíre going to write about yourself -- thatís the key to autobiographical writing thatís not incredibly obnoxious. Autobiographical writing is often faulted for being self-absorbed, but I think the people who write it are often not intrinsically self-aware. Thereís a difference between being self-involved and self-aware. And thatís an area where I feel like my acting background has actually really helped, being able to look at myself as a character.
Many of the female authors I know who write autobiographically were bullied or ganged up on in school. After having rumors spread about you, some people just fold in and become incredibly introverted and donít trust anybody. But for people who arenít natural introverts, the response is to at least try to control the rumors, like, ďYou can say this about me, but Iím going to say something about myself first.Ē Thereís a real kind of protection in being the one who exposes yourself. I would be mortified if someone else wrote the same things that I write about myself, but because itís me, itís okay, I can control the narrative. You sort of get this thick skin about your embarrassment threshold and what you reveal, because youíre the one thatís revealing it.
What are some of the considerations that go into writing about people other than yourself as characters? And are those considerations different when youíre portraying, say, your husband as opposed to your mother?
My husband has final cut. [Laughs.] Sometimes there are things that Iím able to argue him in favor of: The part where weíre at his apartment early in our relationship and he walks in wearing underpants with a giant hole in the front and his balls hanging out -- he didnít like that at first. But it was symbolic! I was seeing him as a really vulnerable human, who could be hurt just like me, who was reaching out to someone else and not knowing what he was going to get back. Once I helped him see that his ball was actually a symbol, he said it was okay. But he also asked if I could add that he had obviously just picked the ripped underwear up off the floor, so people wouldnít think all his underpants were like that. I told him I thought people would know.
My mother thinks I make her sounds much funnier than she actually is -- which is, honestly, true. My mom can be really funny, but sheís definitely a little bit sharpened here. I mean, in the book sheís my sparring partner, which is really what she does in my life, though maybe Iíve given her a few more one-liners. But when my first book came out, a lot of her friends told me I really nailed her.
My main goal is to not be cruel. I donít want to turn anyone into a caricature, which I think is really the trap of this kind of writing. I want the reader to know where all these people could have been coming from. Even the people who are sort of antagonists, theyíve all got to be three-dimensional. And thatís something I find really helpful with changing their names. Even beyond the legal thing, it helps me look at them from an outside point of view.
You say outright in here that you want to have experiences that make good stories. Do you find yourself crafting the anecdote in your head before the night is over?
Oh yeah. Writers are always kind of tourists, always cataloguing experiences for later, for when youíll tell someone about it. And in a sense thatís a curse, but in a sense itís a great thing, because itís an incredible layer of armor in sticky situations. Youíre always storing things for future use, as material. When you see yourself in a situation as a visitor instead of someone whoís consumed by it, I actually think it can stop you from falling over the precipice. As much trouble as Iíve gotten in and as much stupid shit as Iíve done in my life, I could never imagine myself becoming a junkie or something -- Iíve always known when to take a step back. I think it comes from the sense that Iím here as a tourist.
One of my favorite parts of the book is a scene where youíre subjected to what you describe as ďdate rape at its most romantic.Ē It was so funny, but it seemed like an instance where the experience itself might have felt pretty different than it looked in retrospect, when you were writing about it. I mean, you could write it as a comic scene, but at the time you were in a strangerís house, and had been sort of ambushed by two men who were taking your clothes off.
Yes, but I have to tell you, I probably wasnít as scared as I should have been. The whole thing was just so ridiculous I honestly didnít feel that threatened. I remember I could not stop laughing; it was so ridiculous to have someone forcibly ripping your underpants off, while another person is like, ďOh cara, I love you, I love you. Youíre so beautiful. Your eyes! Your hair!Ē I didnít feel powerless in that situation. I felt a little bit incapacitated and I was definitely being physically pinned, but I donít think they were actually going to rape me if I screamed or made a huge fuss.
But one thing I think is interesting about that chapter and that phenomenon is the way Americans have such an inferiority complex when it comes to Europeans, and are so polite, to a fault. If I hadnít felt like I needed to be polite to those guys, I never would have ended up in that situation. I mean, I wanted to be an international woman of mystery. But thereís also the way you talk to someone who doesnít speak English that well -- really slowly and really loud -- and when those two things come to a head, thatís when you get that kind of situation.
Aside from the main narrative, there are lots of little digressions and historical asides and travel advice. Were those part of the original draft? How did you decide to include them?
In the first draft, I felt like there was all this extra stuff that seemed out of place in the narrative, like I was trying to force these little stand-up comedy routines into the text. I liked the idea of playing with the kind of service-y travel guide writing you see in the Lonely Planet guides and the Rough Guides, and read in in-flight magazines. Some of the things they tell you to do are so ridiculous; itís so anathema to me to live that way, like, ďfrom 11 to 11:30 I will eat a scone.Ē How do I know thatís what Iím going to want?
And I was writing the book as the Eat, Pray, Love mania was hitting -- not so much the book as the aftermath of it, where there were all these trend pieces about women trying to retrace Elizabeth Gilbertís path. I thought it would be kind of funny to turn that inside out, and I really liked the idea of doing a balanced, well-written, affecting memoir with all these other things threaded throughout. It was also kind of a nice break when even I was kind of tired of myself and my feelings.
Have you read Eat, Pray, Love? Obviously aside from them both being memoirs about women traveling and doing some kind of searching at difficult times in their lives, your book and Gilbertís donít have much in common, but itís sort of interesting to think about them in relation to each other, as two very different approaches to personal travel writing.
I read about half of Eat, Pray, Love. I think Elizabeth Gilbert is a really talented, likeable writer. If I have any kind of issue with the book itís that it is so rarefied as a narrative. In a funny way, the experience was designed for the book as opposed to the book coming after the experience. I think what makes her work so incredibly appealing is that she takes the easy way out in a lot of ways. Not so much in her life, but in the way she examines it. At the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love she talks about the end of her marriage and why she decided to go on this trip, and she doesnít really acknowledge her part in it in a way that I felt was satisfying. Thatís not to say sheís a bad person, but I feel like she skimmed over the entire impetus for the book in a way that made it impossible for me to forgive her as I read. I just wanted to know what happened before the huge, romantic, exciting, glamorous pay-off. Without that, it just sort of fell into this category of escapism instead of something that was actually an epiphany.
My book was obviously written under very different circumstances, I wasnít flying all over the world on a six-figure book advance, I was a kid with no fucking clue what I was doing with my life, and Iíd mostly fucked up every opportunity Iíd ever had. And I kind of just wanted to be somewhere where there wouldnít be any permanent consequences, where I had no connections and I could fuck up as much as I wanted. In that sense itís the opposite of Eat, Pray, Love: Itís about the unglamorous part of being in a foreign country, and the sad, lonely things about being somewhere else. And the fact that you canít actually escape yourself. Travel can open different doors, but youíre still you, and you have to deal with that. I feel like Elizabeth Gilbert was begging us to love and embrace her flaws, and I donít feel like Iím asking you to love the things that are wrong with me. I donít love them. I donít actually think Iím adorable; I think Iím a nightmare. [Laughs.] Thereís a real self-loathing to my work that I feel like Elizabeth Gilbert lacks. Elizabeth Gilbertís not Jewish.
I was thinking about your book in relation to Emily Gouldís And the Heart Says Whatever, since you both write about feeling prematurely aged in a similar way. That seems pretty common to a certain kind of young woman in New York, to look at yourself at 23 and think, ďIím so old.Ē Itís like living the examined life ages you. Where do you think that comes from?†
Emily is a good friend of mine, and I actually feel like we approach our work in different ways. I approach my work a little more like a fiction writer: Iím a character and people around me are characters, even though the storyline is something that actually happened to me and Iím trying to tie it to some kind of larger zeitgeist or cultural moment. Emily is actually a journalist. As an actor, my question was always, ďWho is this person?Ē Hers is, ďWhat does this mean?Ē
In terms of the premature aging, I think if you move to New York young enough you miss out on that weird holding period that is American university. Even when youíre in college here, youíre sort of thrown into the adult world about four years earlier than other people are. Itís just circumstance; it doesnít mean that youíre actually any more mature or anything, youíre just exposed to certain things much earlier. But I feel a lot younger and more credulous of things now than I did when I was 23. You have this sort of reverse aging if you move to New York when youíre 18: When youíre 19 you feel like youíve seen everything, and when youíre 30 you feel like thereís a whole world you havenít experienced yet. There are so many rungs on the New York ladder, and the further up you get, the more of them you see. When youíre 18 you only see maybe one or two ahead of you; when youíre 30 and maybe have had a little bit of success or have a sense of what you want to accomplish, it looks infinite.
But I also feel like some of it has to do with this control thing that we were talking a little bit about earlier. When youíre young, deciding that you know everything helps you feel less lost. I kind of hope that if I have kids, they think that they know everything when theyíre 20, because then theyíll be able to function for those five years until they realize they donít know anything.
Now that youíve written about this chapter of your life, and itís neatly between covers and out in the world, how does it look to you?
There is this funny feeling as an expat, of being a little outside of yourself in a way that makes a lot of things possible that maybe would not have been if you had all of your friends around. Youíre desperate to make connections, so when one comes it doesnít matter what package it comes in. It was not my finest moment. But the person I hurt the worst was myself.
I feel like if I didnít already have some closure about it, I couldnít have written about it. I donít like the idea that writing is therapy, but I guess everybodyís work is a form of therapy, in a sense, and it doesnít even matter if you do something creative: My motherís a psychiatrist, and she freely admits that she does it because she had such a chaotic, traumatic childhood, and sheís compensating by helping other people. But I think that if it becomes all about working out your own feelings on the page, itís not really useful and it doesnít transcend your own head.
Does travel still seem romantic to you?
Yes, but not to Europe anymore. Next I want to go to South America and the Far East. Iíve always hated being a tourist, going on a weeklong trip where you have to sightsee the whole time. Iíve mostly tried to go to places where I had a purpose for being there, so itís just a question of finding what the purpose is. Thatís when you really learn and absorb things, not from looking at paintings or buildings or even climbing a mountain. I feel like you have to be there on the ground, youíve got to be embedded. But I want to go everywhere.