An Interview with Ryan Van Meter
Although San Francisco author Ryan Van Meter’s work has been widely anthologized (in The Best American Essays 2009, Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere), If You Knew Then What I Know Now is his first collection, released in April from Sarabande Books. The book is a collection of personal essays exploring, in Lia Purpura’s words, “the pain and astonishment of coming to know oneself deeply.” Van Meter focuses not on the most dramatic moments of his self-discovery, but instead gives us quietly honest glimpses of his life -- two young boys holding hands, church camping trips, a date at the circus. This exploration is crafted with beautiful language and innovative attention to form, surprising the reader as often with humor as with heartbreak. In the end, If You Knew Then What I Know Now makes the coming out story and the coming of age story new again. A film trailer for the collection is available here.
A lot of these essays are about living in the closet -- the process of having to learn who you are, especially when other people already know, seems central to the book.
When I was writing, I was conscious about working in very well-trod territory. Coming of age, or self-understanding, is one of the huge themes of all literature. And then the coming-out story has also already been very well written about. I knew if I was going to write about these themes, I needed to not just repeat. I wanted the examination of the experience of the closet to feel authentic to the people who have been in it. At the same time, I wanted that experience of accepting myself to feel universal to anyone else who might read. I was aware of that negotiation -- of it always ringing true but also being surprising and revelatory.
How did you rely on that previously trod territory and how did you depart from it? Are there other texts or authors you had in mind?
The first book I ever read about the experience of the closet was Paul Monette's Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, and I read it (secretly) right before I came out. Then again about a decade later. What I hadn't been sensitive to that first time was how vitriolic the book is -- and it's beautiful for it. It's so angry, and I loved how honest that anger felt. Then I read another coming-out memoir, Firebird by Mark Doty, which is beautiful because it's so generous, to the language and the people in the story. It seemed both writers had translated their way of being in the world to the page. So as I looked at the experiences I was writing about, many of them hinged on a tiny moment that felt huge, and intimately focusing on that one fraught moment for 10 pages felt as though it captured that way of being. Similarly, I realized a lot of the essays are about imposture, of pretending, either because peers demanded that of me, or because I didn't want to be my honest self. So the constant shifting of tenses, points of view and essay forms was meant to reinforce that idea -- of putting on different performances as a way of hiding.
One thread that runs through several of these essays is your ability to find empathy for people filling the antagonist roles (the bullies, the disapproving family, the ex-boyfriend). Was it difficult to find that empathy?
I care very much about most of the people in the essays. The technical challenge was writing about them in a way that the reader cares about them too. The strict ideas about gender, masculinity, and sexuality that operate under the moments in the essays aren't the fault of any of these people. Homophobia is a human problem, one that hurts everyone, not just the gay child trying to understand himself. I tried to provide the context the reader needs to understand why these people make these choices.
That empathy is pretty central to the title essay, which was also the first essay you published. In it, you discuss trying to the write the story of childhood bullying as short fiction and feeling that it failed. Why did the essay form allow you to understand that empathy in a way that fiction hadn’t?
I think the reason that particular experience was more suited to an essay is because of the complication that the high school reunion provides. Back when I was trying to just write it as a story, before that apology at the reunion, it wasn't a story. It was just an anecdote of suffering, and that's not interesting. After the reunion, I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that I wasn't the only one who'd been bothered all those years by that one day in sixth grade. What I thought was private wasn't just mine. So the anecdote started being an essay, because as I hint at in the finished piece, a short story with a bully apologizing at a high school reunion would be hokey and sentimental. But it happened in actual life.
I've never thought of that essay as hokey, but I wonder, why would it be less hokey in reality than in fiction? What changes?
I think of "hokey" as a contrivance, a symptom of constructing stories, where whether it's film or literature, we feel that too much has been orchestrated in the recreation of real life that it doesn't feel "real" anymore -- it feels too perfect or too easy or too tidy. But because it really happened, and I'm claiming it as true, then I can examine that effect. I can acknowledge that this bully's apology is, in fact, tidy and perfect, and life doesn't offer many moments like that, and when it does, it complicates how you understand experience.
You got your MFA in nonfiction writing -- did that process help you figure out what the essay could do?
I was actually surprised when I started my MFA that there wasn't a more agreed-upon "essay" circulating between us all in workshop. When I arrived, I had a very limited way of writing an essay, and I kept writing that way, of course, probably because it felt comfortable, but I also began to experiment with form and content and voice as a direct response to what some of my peers were doing. That sense of fellowship and inspiration is one of the essential goals of the MFA. I was glad to have been challenged, and to have been forced to step over my own boundaries.
So what did you figure an essay to be, through that process?
When I started writing essays, I thought I had to have a story -- some life experience with a beginning, middle, and end. And it had to have some world I thought would be exciting to make on the page -- a circus, for example, or a houseboat floating in a giant lake. I love those stories, and the essays they became, and actually lament having written about most of the experiences that can stand on their own as narratives. Maybe out of restlessness or lack of material, I began to think of the essay as being able to do other work. It didn't have to only tell a story. Or the story it told didn't have to be a compressed, intense moment -- it could span several years, or be more about a thematic arc than a narrative one. But it could also be a collage, an idea that just gets hammered and hammered at to see what shapes can be made. That's one reason, of a couple, why this book isn't a "memoir." I wanted all those forms to sit side-by-side.
One last issue -- throughout these essays, you're constantly uncertain about the ability of two men to fall in love and stay together. Has that changed for you?
You're trying to make me sound hetero-normative, aren't you?
[Laughs.] I’m about to attack you with queer theory.
Queer theory knockout! Part of the examination of that uncertainty in the book is there because as I was writing these essays, my partner of eight years ended our relationship. So I was in this strange place in my imagination where while I was recreating some hopeless crush in high school on a straight boy who could never return my affection, I was in my real life feeling very rejected and self-pitying, and then wanting to wallow in that self-pity and feel sorry for myself. There seemed to be a connection between having to hide my crushes as a teenager and being single again for the first time in almost a decade, and I was interested in that common ground because I had thought all of that uncertainty of being young and in the closet was gone. Suddenly it wasn't, and I was in my thirties.
The idea that gay men can't love each other seems to be very prevalent, not just something you’ve experienced, but honest discussions of it still feel uncommon.
Right. I became really interested -- once I was single again -- in the notion of how I had learned to be in love. And that was when I realized that during all of my childhood and until I was in college probably, I had never seen any images of two men being in love. The images of gay men I saw growing up were on the evening news during the beginning of AIDS. And I thought about that lack of images of gay affection. How did it inform the ways that I love? Part of the confusion and uncertainty about gay men in love came from being informed by images like soap opera that did not and could not translate. The book ends in hopefulness, or I meant it to anyway, but I acknowledge the essays have their moments of pessimism.
Do you feel optimistic about it all now?
I don't know that I feel pure optimism. Growing up the way I did, and many queer people did and still do, being made to feel ashamed of who you are and who you love has to affect the way that we're in relationships. That's not solved. But the difference for me was seeing that and acknowledging that coming out wasn't the end.