An Interview with Jessa Crispin
The cover of Jessa Crispin’s first book (see me grinning as I type this), The Dead Ladies Project, is black and white and red letters and one half a woman’s face: her eyes and brain, not her mouth. Her hair a perfect mix of waves and backbone-straight part. As you walk around your apartment, the lady Looks -- not at you directly, but over your shoulder. Maybe she sees your ghost or guardian angel, maybe your lover or your enemy, your home. She is not exactly horrified yet. In this way the woman sees both out and in, forwards and back. Janus. It’s a pleasure to be able to judge Dead Ladies by its cover. I loved it.
The memoir begins in a Chicago kitchen with cops in it, Jessa teary-eyed and tired and clear on one thing: “I needed a reason to live, a plan, and it had to come from within.” This is honesty, not drama, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the book. Jessa sees her body in a city and that city’s place in time, and this is her compass. It’s beyond rejection of the adult aching for heteronormative life, the eating-praying-loving your way across cities where you weren’t born, or even the purity of teen angst. It’s deep witch, deep respect for the triplicate clarity of girl, woman, and crone.
“No matter how securely I built my sound little structure,” Jessa writes -- we Midwestern girls know how to do this, hell or high water -- “slowly accumulating income and a respectable writing CV, dating important men with an eye toward marriage, acquiring a varied and stimulating social life -- the thought I want to go home would start termiting through the whole thing.” And if, Jessa reasons, the homes she feels most belong to Nora Barnacle, Rebecca West, and Claude Cahun, in Berlin, Trieste, and Sarajevo (for example), then she must go there, and talk to them. Talk to the dead. It’s such a smart plan that at first it seems childlike, a fairy story: but how will you make money? Will you be warm? Won’t you be lonely?
Jessa is lonely, and that’s my other favorite part: she doesn’t ignore this or fear it, she just goes on. Ultimately continuing is what we all need to figure out how to do, again and again, until death, and that spirit blooms The Dead Ladies Project from what could have been a narcissistic text into a sisterly one. It gets elegant. It was a pleasure to talk with my friend about her work (and yes, I pitched this interview).
Your first book is out in the world. What do you want?
I want to be on a plane! Which is what I am going to do as I have a plane ticket for just about two days after the book is released, but the feeling is strong every time I think about my book being out. I want to be on a plane. On the plane I want grilled cheese sandwiches to come from somewhere, and extra leg room, and every movie that Channing Tatum has ever made on my personal entertainment system. Also booze.
Even before I read The Dead Ladies Project, I loved it lionheartedly because publishing it meant you had to take time away from Bookslut. It’s huge, actually making one of the things -- the books -- you love most and talk about all the time. Was it hard (or a relief?) to sit down with a manuscript of your own?
The writing of it was more like the channeling of it, because it came very fast and pretty much in just one draft. This is how I write. I don't write for a very long time, until it becomes like a wave pushing at the back of my skull and if I don't get to a pen or a computer really fast my brains will come out of my head and make a mess. So for a year and a half I traveled, and I took notes, and I tried to write but it didn't necessarily work out, and I worried that this was ever actually going to be a book. And I stomped my feet and hit my head and thought I was such a failure, and then I stopped traveling, holed up in Chicago, and in about three months or so the whole thing was done. Add one more month in at the beginning there for hitting my head and another at the end for taking out certain sentences when I realized, "Oh that sentence is me just trying to be mean to someone," or, "That is me trying to look really pretty and pure and good right there," and that was it.
The editing came always when I was traveling. I had fled back to Berlin after I finished writing, and that's where I did the revisions for my editor, that took about a week. I made myself do them really fast because I was on my way to Romania and I had this feeling, I have to get to Romania. And then the copyedits came again when I was in Berlin a whole other time. I remember both rooms very distinctly, and the giant stack of the manuscript, me and a red pen, in two different Berlin rooms. And never my Berlin room, that had already been abandoned.
For me, the writing is just writing, it's not interesting or even that intentional, it is a wave I am trying not to splatter my brains on. It's almost witchcraft, in that I do the ritual of the living and thinking and talking and traveling, and that has an end result that is a bit like poof. Out of my hands.
Who are your dream shelf-neighbors for this book? Hardwick?
I have a bookshelf in my room that is just all of the lonely girls: Hardwick, yes. Some Elizabeth Bowen, some Rachel Wetzsteon, Rebecca Brown, Daphne Gottlieb and Helen Garner, Lore Segal, Irmgard Keun. I want my book to be there.
I am not tired of gossip, but I am weary of questions like, “Did X get mad when you wrote about him?” and so to expand that: how did you find a narrative structure, especially as you write about crumbling politically chaotic cities, and intimate time spent with real people?
The only man in the book that I gave a heads up to was the lover, and that was because we were living together when I was writing it. He was the second person I sent it to, after my editor. He holed up with me in Chicago and was in the other room, writing his own book. And it wasn't in a, hey is this okay kind of way. It was more like, an advanced warning, this is the bomb that is going to go off in your life so sorry about that. He was very good about it.
For the other part of your question, I have relationships with cities in the way I have relationships with people. Some cities I hate (Paris!) and some cities I love (Budapest!) and some cities are like stern but loving fathers (Berlin!) and some cities are like lovers that I may never see again but will always remember (Sarajevo!). So I can't write about a city, the story of a city, but I can write about the space between a city and me. And I can't write a story of a person, I can't write the biography of the Lover or the Gentleman, but I can write about the space between that man and me.
When I travel, I get nervous like for a date. Will the city like me? Am I wearing the right dress? It's a little sick in the belly but that can turn into a fire if things go well. Cities supply a lot of my emotional needs. I don't know why that is.
Did you tuck in any Easter eggs or holy cards?
I had this thing about tasting my first black olive, it didn't make it in. It was rather a momentous event. I had run away to Ireland at 19, and was in a Spanish restaurant with a new friend. This was 1998. I had had black olives before, but they came out of a can. I grew up in Kansas, and everything came out of a can. There was this long list of foods I hated, or I thought I hated, because I hated them in canned or frozen form. And then I had run away from Kansas and everything it represented after never being anywhere ever, but I found myself on the West coast of Ireland, and there was this black olive on my plate and I thought oh gross, this is going to taste like dust and tin can and dead mouse but I put it in my mouth anyway, and it tasted only like salt and earth and hot sun and oh my god and here I was having a conversation with a much more sophisticated girl who definitely already knew black olives are magic and I had to sit there and pretend like my world was not rocked, like everything was definitely normal happening on my side of the table, but in reality I had this flash of, the world is so amazing and I just have no idea.
It didn't make it in, but I can feel that moment ghosting the chapter it was supposed to be in.
You have this book coming out, and also your tarot book and your manifesto, all at once and despite how different projects brew in different ways over time. Selfishly, because I love talking about novels so much with you: do you want to write a novel?
I do want to write a novel, I have an idea for a novel, and I am not writing the novel because that is my process: I write by not writing. The thing is, though, that I didn't want to write a novel until I had the idea. And then I wanted to write a novel but only this novel. And I responded as if this were completely inconvenient, by the way. Just, ugh, really? Do I have to?
I do a lot of different jobs. I write, I edit this magazine, I read tarot cards, I do freelance, I read books for both research and criticism. And if the energy isn't in one place it's going to be in another, so if I'm stuck on one thing I just do one of the other things for a while until the energy shifts again. So it's not up to me, I guess. Or, it's not conscious. And sometimes the energy isn't there at all and you have to go watch Mad Max: Fury Road eight times until it comes back, but that's okay, too.
Ugh yes yes, in particular the part where he cleans off the blood with breast milk!
You and I are both avid supporters of the long walk and the long bath. What’s your ideal version of each?
Long walk: I have moved somewhere I can take this magnificent five mile walk every morning, and so that is what I do, and it's pretty ideal. It's by water, so I can listen to the water. I leave right at dawn, before the sun comes out over the mountain, because there's something about the air that is moon cooled and not sun warmed, it is different air, it has different properties, and I love the feel of it. And there are animals, sometimes there are stags with their velvety antlers. Egrets and bald eagles. One time there was a whole groundhog family. It is by the trees and on the best of days I never see anyone.
In a city, though, that is a different long walk, and there it is kind of about the destination for me. As in, I want it to end at an opera house or maybe at a cocktail hour or milkshake. And there's good music available but I don't necessarily listen to it. Not too many people. And slow enough that I can crane my head around and notice oh that building has gargoyles I have never seen, or, that magpie is up to no good. I think my ideal city walk is actually in Berlin, that is a great city for walking, and the birds there are the best birds.
For the bath, the water has to come up to my neck. Good reading material, but not great reading material because great reading material makes me want to get out of the water and write or tell someone about it. It has to be too hot and the air around the bath too cold. I like windows and doors open, so no one else in the apartment.
When do you not feel lonely?
There are moments.
I wish other people would write about loneliness more. It's hard to remember that it's not personal. That we live in a world that is built to make people lonely. That our society is structured around competition, so that we cannot connect we must always conquer. We are set up to think there is a finite amount of goodness in the world, and so if we are lacking in it it is because that bitch over there with the really good shoes is hoarding it. So it's difficult to remember that your loneliness is not really about you and everyone has it.
So I try to remember that. It's been a really long time, though, since I've been in a relationship that anybody else would recognize as a relationship, and that is hard. I've never felt like I've had a family where I could go back to if I were in trouble. But there are compensations. I have "family" scattered all over the world now, and no matter where I've lived I've always managed to have a dining room table crowded with others with full wine glasses and some divine hunk of meat steaming in the center. I am currently in a city where I don't live, but I managed to cobble together a rowdy dinner party and I made pot roast with sour cherry couscous and we all drank too much wine and it went on until the next day, and it was wonderful. I was not lonely then.
In the Dead Ladies coda you write how you don’t want to think about Penelope, how “Everyone in love is in some way Penelope, how we are all waiting at one time or another for our lover to come back to us. We sit at our desks, working and then undoing that work, marking time and waiting for the return of the one we love.”
I am thinking about these two sentences a lot -- dovetailing too with how Masha Tupitsyn writes about Argos and how I resist being Odysseus -- but, back to your writing: when you wrote this, how did you define “work”? Is it writing or is it something else?
I like to be Odysseus. Who would resist being Odysseus? Actually, maybe I just want to be Circe.
I think the work is something else. For me, it was travel, actually. This guy, the lover, was never ready. And so I would take to the sea. "If you need me, I'll be at sea." And I'd come back every once and a while to see if he was ready yet, and he never was, and so that romance is over for me, now. He thought he was Penelope, waiting for his Odysseus, he didn't realize it was the other way around. And the writing was the work that stayed, but there was a lot of travel that was working I was doing and undoing, in the process of waiting for there to be a home for me to go back to. It just happened that there never was.
And with work, money -- how did you finance this trip? I ask particularly as another Midwestern person who moved to Chicago, once upon a time. I always wanted to travel more but never had the money. I know you worry about this too.
Yeah, the travel was almost all self-financed. Or, there was a book advance, a small one, that came in when I was about halfway done with the travel, and it covered some gaps for me. But the rest of it was paid for just with my work, which is very mobile. I review books for much of my writing career, and books can be mailed to wherever you are. I read tarot cards, and I do that over Skype from whatever time zone I'm in. I gave up my apartment to do the travel in the book, so there was suddenly all of this rent and utilities money I had access to. So it's not too hard to manage.
And there are ways to work it. Renting for long periods of time to get discounts, renting places with kitchens so you're not eating out all of the time, going to tucked away places where cost of living is low.
I think it's, I don't really buy things, I buy plane tickets. I have a shitty phone, I don't have cable or subscriptions to anything, because I am always getting ready for the next trip.
Here too I think about this part of your book: “When I hear my flight is cancelled because of a weather event and cannot be rescheduled for three days, I am elated. France will be just as picturesque and beautiful and the sea will crash against the shore and what is the point of any of it. Give me an unmovable obstacle and I am content with it. It is what I was trained for.”
Right. I don't know why I hate France and Paris. I'm just supposed to sit here and drink wine and contemplate beauty, is that really all you have for me to do here? No hard labor, no harsh conditions to survive? How boring. I like difficult places, places that I don't understand. The act of trying to understand is what I find interesting about travel.
Right, though being a white lady there in 2015 helps too. And my friend Alexia who works in a yogurt factory outside the city might argue with you about the hard labor part. But, right.
Were there any new colors you learned? Or faces or handwriting, either in your research or on the road?
Each city has a different palette in my memory. Serbia is bright yellow, from the sun and fields. Trieste is the changing of blue to green to grey and back again.
And Sir Richard Francis Burton has a remarkable face, as does Claude Cahun. As do the cows of Switzerland. I don't know, I have a lot of little moments, like the guy who played the theme song to "Brazil" on the clarinet under my window and it just grabs you from wherever you are and puts you in the world, and makes you realize just how beautiful everything is. Or can be. But you have to participate. For much of my life, I wanted not to be in the world, in a lot of different ways. The act of writing the book was really just participating in the world. And realizing how good it is. To be William Jamesian about it, the ugliness of the world does not blot out its beauty, they simply co-exist. That's what I figured out.
Would this trip have been different if you hadn’t taken it as a writer?
I would have gotten less out of it. I don't know if I would have finished the trip. I wrote the book, in some ways, to understand what the fuck happened over that year and a half. If I don't write something down, then it remains diffuse in my head, it doesn't make impact. It doesn't become real. I have to write down my thoughts to understand what I'm thinking. I would definitely have had the same questions, but without writing it down, I would not have felt like I found some answers.
When can we/how do we travel not thinking about ourselves as girlfriends or dead ladies? More eloquently: how do you understand your body when you’re traveling? How do we resist being something we’re not, or something we’re typecast as, while still holding space?
I get this one question a lot, how do I travel differently as a woman? Which I don't know how to answer.
Oh, I didn’t necessarily mean as a woman. I just meant not-dead, not-yoked, not-a-man.
I guess when I travel I don't think about myself or my identity at all. It's just me. When I'm at home, then I'm thinking about other people, I'm thinking about who I am as a friend, as a writer, as a lover. I'm thinking about business, I'm thinking about "branding," I'm thinking about my Twitter persona and what I want to wear to reflect my most inner true self to the opera tonight.
And when I'm traveling, none of that comes up, because I am just the person I am. I travel alone, I find it impossible to travel with another person in the way that I find it impossible to pray in front of an atheist. I have traveled with someone else, but then you're in each other, you're not just out in the world. You're facing another person a lot of the time, instead of just looking outward. There's a self-consciousness, I'm traveling to lose consciousness of my self. Maybe that's why I start to feel crazy if I don't travel for a while, I feel burdened by being looked at, by having things expected of me, I start to feel like I've taken on all these layers that I want to peel off. And the best way I know to do that is to go somewhere no one knows me.
I don't even really feel like a body when I travel. I don't have sex when I travel. I don't think it's ever happened, where I meet someone when I am out in a new country and I think oh yeah that guy and make something happen. Oh! It happened once and it was bad. I want to dissolve into the world when I travel, not into another person.
So then what is the one ideal carry-on?
Ideal carry-on: computer, books (I prefer nonfiction for planes and trains), notebook, pens, red lipstick, snacks, little furry object, and the five franc Swiss coin I had anointed in holy oil so that if I have to make a yes/no decision, I can let the gods intervene and decide for me. Also perfume, or something that smells good that if I need to withdraw into a cloak of scent and get otherworldly for a bit, I can. Just a tiny bit of course, so I can smell it and let it be a shield but no one else is invited in.
To write, just either a computer or a notebook. I've written all over the world, I don't need anything specific to do it. It's wherever the pressure builds. And anyway, to me home is wherever I've been more than 24 hours. For now, it is just the area around my feet.
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a working writer and editor (and PhD student) in Colorado. She teaches creative writing at the University of Denver and poetry at the women’s jail. Her book See You in the Morning is out from featherproof September 15.