October 2013

Lyndee Yamshon


An Interview with Cris Mazza

Cris Mazza, renowned indie author and pioneer of "chick lit" with a postfeminist sneer, turns her gaze to the memoir in Something Wrong with Her. While struggling with anorgasma, Mazza draws on her strength -- her extensive collection of fictional work -- to sort out her past, piece together the puzzle of a stifled love with a boy from her youth, and come to terms with who she has become as a successful but isolated novelist.

The story flashes back to a young Mazza who is caught between longing for male approval and the self knowledge of her own creative intelligence and desire to come into her own. Caught in a power struggle between male supervisors at her college music department, utter shock when a master teacher unexpectedly brings her to an exotic sex shop, and the degrading experience of a first boyfriend playing aggressive sex games, one true friend (Mark) loves her steadfastly throughout her difficult coming of age. Unfortunately, an awkward physical exchange with eighteen-year-old Mark, her nebulous boyfriend, leaves him feeling rejected and young Mazza befuddled years later as she tries to piece together what went wrong, combing through past fiction and journal entries for clues.

As the memoirist reflects on a life of anorgasma, she wonders if her beginning trajectory with men -- experiences that made her question if something indeed was wrong with her -- could have negatively affected her early romantic moment with Mark. Refusing to write memories as transparently traumatizing or victimizing, through this mixed hybrid interrogation, she has the courage to return -- thirty years later -- to a man she thought was lost by softly weaving in his perspective to help understand her past and face the possibility of love. Mazza has sixteen other titles including Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, and a collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, most recently Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. Currently living fifty miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It was my great pleasure to delve into the nuances of forming the local, innovative, cutting edge feminist's first experimental memoir over several in-person and email exchanges.

A jazz theme runs throughout your book, with much of its content based on Mark, a jazz musician. Did the improvisational style of jazz add a creative flow to your writing? Did it open up a new formal approach to writing for you? In the intro you say, "I hope this book is more like jazz than like a novel." How does the free-flowing style connect to your claim that "The story is the book being written"? Is this sort of freedom something you aspire to in your writing and personal life?

Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins said in an interview, "I'm a guy who makes things up as I go along so nothing is ever finished -- there are so many layers. So when you solo, yeah, you might get into one thing, but then, hey, everything has implications! You can hear the next level. And that's how I feel about improvising -- there's always another level."

This is almost exactly the experience of writing this book. I hadn't heard this quotation beforehand, so I didn't take this and strive to make the writing imitate it. When I wrote the comparison of classical music to a novel and jazz to this particular book, I had already finished a draft of this book, so had realized how writing the book, and, I hope, reading it, felt like jazz. Rollins may think his solos are never finished because there will always be more layers, more he wants to say, more he is responding to, but the listener who hears it once, or has a recording and listens frequently, experiences what Rollins produced as a "finished" recording or performed solo. Likewise, I'll always hear more layers waiting to be explored in this book, but what's here now -- the published copy -- has to seem finished for a reader even while it is an always evolving, or "never finished" improvisation for me. I didn't "make stuff up as I went along," as Rollins claims he's doing, but discovered ideas, memories, and those implications as I went along. Everything has implications! Yes, that's perfect.

And this from jazz pianist Bill Evans, "...if you sit down and contemplate what you're going to do, and take five hours to write five minutes of music, then it's composed music... So there's composed music and there's jazz. And to me anybody that makes music using the process that we are using in jazz, is playing jazz."

In another aspect of jazz playing -- and simply put -- a jazz player has to listen to his rhythm section or fellow soloists while he is playing, and not only follow the chord changes but respond to the riffs or altered melody lines they play. So the other way writing this book was like jazz is that I was listening to Mark as I wrote. Listening to his versions of memories from the same period of years, and listening to how he responded to my "solos" (draft portions of the book), and altering my course as I responded in return.

Would you consider this post-feminist chick lit or feminism with a sneer as in your Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction (1995), as well as the follow-up, Chick-Lit 2: No Chick Vics (1996)? The tone of Something Wrong with Her feels more earnest and vulnerable, less tongue-in-cheek than the laughing-at-one's-foibles feel of your '90s anthologies. Has this book surpassed post-feminism?

I don't know if "post-feminism" is something one can surpass. Maybe I could say I've grown up while that concept has also matured? That is, it may be appropriate to be stridently ironic and sneer at oneself (or at the identity of oneself society encouraged one to have) at one point in life, but at another moment it might be necessary to look at oneself a little harder, a little more gravely, and with a different kind of honesty than an ironic sneer (not that an ironic sneer doesn't have its own layer of honesty; it's just that mine didn't). More specifically (and more personally, if I may) I was known as a balls-to-the-wall writer who didn't flinch from graphic sexual content, and did so in a way that wasn't always traditionally feminist-friendly. But here am I now exploring the origins (and even the treatment) of my own sexual dysfunction and admitting to a lifetime of unresponsive sexuality. This is a whole deeper layer of self-exploration than the "turn the harsh spotlight on yourself, girls," that characterized the chick-lit anthologies. But I don't believe it's a turn away from what I believe those anthologies represented, either. I do believe in owning one's kinks and inadequacies, so even though there are experiences I relate that may have contributed to or exacerbated my future sexual dysfunction, my quest, repeatedly stated, was to answer why I reacted to those all-too-common experiences differently than seemingly tens of thousands of other girls. Sadly, I'm not sure I found the answer, because there probably isn't one. Which is why (see above) the book will always beckon me to come back and continue improvising.

The men in your life are very prominent in this text -- from Mark to your so-called mentors. At one point, Mark actually becomes the memoirist's journal. Was this a freeing experience or somewhat troubling because in some sense, you still were seeking male permission to craft your story? The men in this book possess quite a bit of "face time" in terms of your development.

Yes, this is possibly the reason my last novel was titled Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls. (A companion, or forerunner, to this memoir, it has a fictionalized version of the "master teacher" story.) You're right in that, while not seeking permission, it does seem I was (am?) still seeking male validation for the story I was (am?) writing. I actually have no excuse or justification for this -- I am only just now digesting it. This is what I mean by the additional layers are still there, waiting for me to excavate them.

It would seem I was someone who grew up without a father, but I actually had a strong (not abusive) father -- he's still alive at ninety-three, and my parents are still married. Yes, I grew up needing to meet with his high standards and expectations, but he wasn't a drill sergeant, didn't punish physically, didn't have veto power for my class schedule in college, didn't necessarily inspect my clothes or books. I just somehow knew not to expect or ask for all the latest technology or fashions or music, that he wouldn't fund an apartment or dorm or buy me a car; things teenagers now think of as a birthright.

I don't know why when I went to college I was so easily influenced by those male mentors. Maybe they listened to me in a way that my father didn't. There were more than the two in this memoir, and they were all younger than my father but still older than me. I have to add had I had one female professor as an undergraduate, and that was for a general education anthropology course that I found stupefyingly boring. So no role model there. All of my literature and writing profs were men, but it never caused me to have any thoughts that one had to be a man to be a writer or journalist or professor. But certainly it would cause me to look to men for validation because they were the only ones who had the power to validate me at that important time.

A mother figure or a sense of strong female friends are absent from this text. Is there a reason? Does this absence contradict your post-feminist past?

Actually, I had a strong mother as well, and she is present, in fictional form, in my 2007 novel Waterbaby. But without female professors, it seemed I left public school, went to higher education, and left female role models behind. Except for my mother. What a splendid woman, majored in PE in the forties, raised five kids, went back to college midway through child-raising to get an academic major so she could teach elementary school, camped, hiked, fished, hunted, shot archery, swam, painted watercolors (they're framed all over my house), gardened, canned and preserved fruits and vegetables, played bridge... Why am I putting it in past tense? Well, at eighty-eight she doesn't do most of these things anymore. But what a lived life. A true role model.

So the mother figure absent in this book? How could I make her a part of my defects? Sure, maybe she didn't do as good a job in the sex-education part of my upbringing. I would say avoidance was the main technique. But what guidance did she have for doing so? I'm not going to blame her for those "silent signals" from mother to daughter that I read about (Nancy Friday, Women on Top), signaling to girls to dislike their intimate bodies. So I included that research in this book, sadly included her that way by inference and didn't include her in any other way. A memoir about her strength is another book altogether, and one I don't know if I'm up to, just like I can't live up to her example (thus, possibly, one reason I did not have children).

You claim "that it seems easier, at least more accepted, for women memoirists to discuss 'their sexual excesses and transgressions than it is for a woman to discuss her experience with sexual inadequacies and failures.'" Do you feel you're in uncharted territory? And is there a politically gendered significance for having this book come out in 2013? Why do you think it's still taboo to discuss sexual dysfunction in literature?

Not taboo, necessarily, except personally taboo for each person. Possibly because every other form of media screams about how openly sexual all successful and popular women are, and how their "successful" sexuality is part of their triumph and completeness of identity. Who is going to admit to not measuring up?

I realize that one consequence of childhood sexual abuse is to overly sexualize a child so she takes on her sexuality as a way of relating to the world or being accepted, thus leading to certain forms of sexual excess. I also realize girls who were not abused can fall into this same trap of gaining identity and ego through their sexuality. This is again because of being blasted from all sides by media, plus the attitudes in the general populace also gained from the constant blasting of media that if you are sexy or sexually attractive, if you are sexually provocative, if you are sexually adventurous, people will pay attention; you will make it! But then, when a woman writer laments her sexual excess, even the title and design of the book changes whatever tragedy is there and instead aggrandizes or flourishes it, seeming to be saying that it's the ultimate cool to admit to sexual excess, tacitly saying: look, so many people wanted me or were turned on by me; that's female success. At least that's how it comes off, especially to someone like me. I saw women who were sexually adventurous -- and not all of them claiming it was harmful to their lives -- being extolled and called brave, and wondered what the hell went wrong in my life that none of that even seemed to present itself as a possibility I could choose to follow.

In short, yes, society has made it easy to say "I fucked a hundred men in my twenties" but much more difficult to say "I've never orgasmed," or "I don't know what it means to feel horny." I even wonder if it makes people uncomfortable to be around someone who says the latter. The way old TV shows used to think it was funny to have characters be uncomfortable around nuns.

In Something Wrong with Her, your previously published fiction helps you come to terms with your past and who you've become. Can you elaborate on how the process of writing fiction is used as grounds for both comfort and experimentation over the years and how it assisted in expressing what memoir could not?

Fiction made my private anxieties matter, somehow, in a bigger or more general context. It allowed me to explore and investigate my private anxieties, confounding experiences and questions about life in a vicarious tableau where I could feel in control and where I, the person, was safe. Reviewers said my fiction "took no prisoners," yet for me it was entirely, completely safe, in a way life wasn't. And it's not as though I ever really experienced the epitome of danger in the real world! Safety, and lack of it, is relative. With fiction, I could take the "nothing was happening" that I felt my life was and turn it into something. That's why, early on, a memoir written by me would not have worked, either for me or for a reader. Somehow, I had to be ready to write personal nonfiction, and one way to become ready might have been to have exhausted what fiction could do for me personally, to be mature enough to realize the safety in fiction was removing myself from life, and that growth as an artist meant reaching into something less safe, more unknown. The "true stories" were the unknown for me.

Mary Karr once said in an interview that some memoirs "lack self-awareness... If the reader knows something about your psychology that you do not admit, you're in trouble. The reader will notice that you're an asshole because instead of going to your mother's deathbed you're out buying really nice designer boots. If you don't acknowledge the assholery of that choice, then there's a rift, a disjunction between narrator and reader. And in autobiography, that intimacy is part of what readers want. They have to trust your judgment." Following the Mary Karr rule, do you believe you've admitted your psychological weaknesses and mistakes without bias? One reading this memoir might possibly find that you are, in fact, too hard on yourself, and so protective of others, in an attempt to be fair, that you refuse to leave your own fingerprints about your past? When you say "He became another on my list of collateral damage" about Mark, for example, it sounds like you're blaming yourself for something. Can you elaborate about your fear of being biased and your consciousness about using the memoir as a form of retrospect?

It's probably impossible to relate anything without bias. That's what being human is all about, and it's what the first-person narrative -- whether in fiction or memoir -- is all about. I agree, in memoir, the narrator (author) should be more self-aware and make every attempt to own the personality that he or she should be aware he or she is depicting. But there's always (or frequently) going to be something in the narrator's character that someone else can see.

Yes, the type of bias I fear is exactly in the example Karr gives (a great example, and probably exaggerated to make its point more lucidly). Complicity is crucial. But sometimes there's no direct act the narrator can illuminate and therefore own.

But if I am too protective of others or too hard on myself, how is that also not leaving my own fingerprints on my past? It could possibly mean (as I realized already) that the book doesn't -- it can't -- find an "answer" to some of the biggest questions. My detriments and limitations could've developed simply through living a life in a physical body connected to a human brain that reacts to its experiences and environs, and not always being able to choose or create idyllic surroundings. Aside from true recluses, we live in some form of culture or society that we, sometimes too much like sea anemones, react to. In other words, I know I reacted and it started a snowball, but I don't know why. Why was I more of a sea anemone and less a twentieth-century girl than I needed to be? Are those the missing "fingerprints"?

With Mark, I was blaming myself. Again for things difficult to explain, difficult to find evidence that helps enlighten. In a book that searches through my isolation and tacit rage over various forms of rejection, it would me my "assholery" to not acknowledge that there was someone there all along who needed me.

What are your feelings about taking medicine for depression? You mention taking an anti-depressant. Does it change your writing? There's the old notion of the authentic, slightly raw and depressed artist versus the "stable" writer or artist reliant on drugs for evenness.

I never felt the medication did a lot for me. It might have actually done what it was supposed to do. I don't know. I remember two months into taking it, a crystalized moment: I feel myself smile while watching my dogs chase soap bubbles I was blowing, and I realized I hadn't smiled for a long time. I think I needed something to suggest some kind of hope, some tangible thing I could do every day that was a possible means toward changing the cycle. Taking the pill was like crossing days off a calendar of a limited-term exile, except I didn't know what the term of my sentence was, but just the knowledge that if I kept crossing off days (dropping the pill) someday I'd get to the last page of the calendar.

It wasn't "evenness" I sought. I've written most of my career out of some form of angst or other. I was used to rawness. I needed a way to care about anything. I even had thoughts of wishing I could be in some kind of accident so that I had to learn to walk again, because I would have to focus and be totally consumed with that one thing, walking, and everything else would slip down, far down into a distant second place.

Loneliness and regret are major themes of this book. Did the process of writing it reinforce these problems or create hope or a potential new destiny for you?

Writing always reinforces loneliness, I think. It is a solitary pursuit. I know too many writers now don't feel it that way... they're online dialoging with "friends" while they write about what they write, tracking how many pages or words they've put down, announcing their responses from editors or submissions, sharing photos of galleys, to a chorus (sometimes just a small combo) of congratulations and encouragement. Does anyone anymore know what it's like to be isolated with your production (or lack of it), to be isolated with your rejections, and even isolated with the small triumphs? I couldn't conceive of going on Facebook and announcing I'd finished a chapter or that my shoulders ached from the repetitive motion of clicking the mouse to clean up blotches and lines on the scanned journal images. Who would care?

Destiny? I just now clicked on my thesaurus tool because I thought the word too majestic to have anything to do with my life. But the first synonym was purpose. I like that. So, maybe, yes. Although writers who feel they have too much purpose (or destiny) can become pretentious, so I think I'll refrain from articulating what it may be, except your other word, hope. Hard to go on without that.

Lyndee Yamshon has been published in The Chicago Tribune; Pulse of the Planet, a subsidiary of National Geographic; and has a chapter forthcoming in Wreckage of Reason II: Anthology of XXperimental Prose from her hybrid memoir in progress, The Moment Before