An Interview with Daphne Gottlieb
It's hard to stop seeing the dead girls in your entertainment once you notice they are there. The girl dies as an allegory, the girl dies as motivation, the girl dies as sexual titillation, the girl dies so that the boy can move forward in his hero's journey. (How else are we the audience to know the boy has feelings unless he has a dead girlfriend to cry over? How are we to know our detective has a moral center unless a dead girl shocks it?)
For years my antidote to the dead girls written by men was the work of Daphne Gottlieb. Poems, comics, stories, essays that grab you by your throat, that force you to see the dead girl and the chased girl not as allegory but as a fucking goddamn person. And while she avoids the dead girl cliches, she also avoids the strong female protagonist cliches, the girls who kill the bad guys, snap a witty quip, but are definitely still interested in giving you head. From the poetry collection Final Girl, where Gottlieb reimagines the slasher film heroine and hands her back her soul, to Dear Dawn: Aileen Wournos in Her Own Words, which Gottlieb edited and restores Wournos's humanity and narrative after much trashy true crime speculation, to her chapbook Bess, where both social worker and distressed client are pulled apart until you can't remember who exactly here needs saving, Gottlieb's work shows empathy, understanding, and a brilliant mind.
Her latest collection is Pretty Much Dead. Most of the stories are set in contemporary San Francisco, and we see the lives of those left out of the glorious economic revolution happening there, all hopped up on microchips and digital downloads. Her characters are the people who take that Google Bus step over, glide past, sniff at as they move into spaces recently issued eviction notices. The stories have darkness, but also a fierce heart.
Daphne Gottlieb's career has been so expansive and experimental, it was hard to know where to start in the interview. So we started from the beginning.
My first introduction to your work was your book Final Girl, when the publisher Richard Nash said something like, "This, you'll love this." God, I miss Soft Skull.
I miss Soft Skull, too; the Soft Skull that was started with pirated supplies from Kinko's and needed rescue and got rescue and did unconventional things and was held together with duct tape and bailing wire and the damn thing flew. Soft Skull got bought and now it is an imprint. We all get older, I guess. Or get bored. We move on and pass the torch.
It feels like things have changed so much since then, in the independent publishing scene. Where there used to be urgency, now things are clogged up even in the small presses and small magazines with this MFA stuff. How has publishing changed for you, both as a writer and as what I would guess to be a reader who wants to find work that is simpatico?
Smaller publishers have gone to POD and ebooks. It allows them to forego warehouse space for books, limits overbuying and returns, all of which are good things. In theory, it could bring the DIY/outlaw back to the indie by making it more affordable, which is great. The problem comes around distribution and press. It's hard to promote a book when you can't get it anywhere, and hard to get press if you're POD/ebook. I have no doubt this will change, but it hasn't yet. And in the meantime, you can be amazing, but almost no one will know.
Still, I see some glimmers in the fog: the first book from the press that I'm now with, Ladybox, was a literal, physical box of chapbooks by women and is now doing POD and ebooks. They're an imprint of Broken River Books, who released 13 ebooks on the same day. There's guts in all this, and swagger, and smarts. That gives me hope. More than hope. Delight.
How do you manage the focus on image and packing, as someone who's published a graphic novel, poetry, prose, and so on, as someone who kind of refuses to play the branding game, how do you deal with the current expectations we have for writers?
I don't think I got made into a package. I kept gnawing through the wrapping.
There has always been image, and image has always been used to sell. I don't know. Here's where I get to: It's just different, that's all. In short, we had dial-up. No big images. No music downloads. The speed of images and finding the "indie" was much more through word of mouth -- it was really the tail end of having to go, say, to the indie bookstore and pick up a magazine. There wasn't the same type of content online 15+ years ago.
Let me answer a slightly different question: working in multiple genres has, I think, meant a fractured readership to some degree. People who read poetry aren't necessarily going to want to read letters by a serial killer. People who want to read an anthology on adultery aren't necessarily going to pick up a graphic novel about coming out and death. I am probably the only person in the world who all my books speak to. I mean, even my family, who are obliged to collect all my books, isn't allowed to read Fucking Daphne.
I want to talk a bit about your day job, social work, which has found its way into some of your stories, or at least the dynamic of the helper and the person in need of help. Like in "Bess" and "Clinically Observed Outcomes" and others. How does one type of work inform the other? Both seem to take truckloads of empathy, so are they complementary or do they occasionally mess with each other?
There was a stretch of months last spring when I was a visiting professor at a local college, teaching an intro to poetry class. It was profoundly perfect. I went from a morning of working on the streets with people to crossing the Bay Bridge to work with 12 college students who were paying thousands of dollars to sit and talk about poetry in a beautiful building on a perfectly manicured campus for a few hours.
I didn't expect the jobs to feel so similar. In both cases, though, I was support and resource, boundary-keeper and navigator. In both jobs, it's really the same mission to me: to help someone discover what they want, and to help them move towards it. It's the same skill set, whether it's shelter or sonnet. And you're right: one position informed the other, mostly for me around questions about how we spend our time and money.
I want to talk about this recurring idea in your work, which is the woman in peril. Which, you do a lot to fuck with this idea. From Final Girl to several stories in this new collection, there's this idea of the fragile woman, the vexed woman, the woman pursued. Why does this continue to interest you? And how do you fight back against a culture that uses the dead or hunted girl for sexual arousal or other unsavory things?
I am interested in "the woman in peril" because I am interested in the way our societ/y/ies manufactures this peril, how power imposes persecution, and ideology becomes violence. I write to posit a site of resistance, because it exists at the individual level, at least once in a while. I write because I need to create a world I want, even if it can only exist in words. I write because, even in my white cis overeducated body, there are still cultural vulnerabilities.
To wit: There was just the story about the serial killer who was killing prostitutes off Backpage ads. For however many he killed (and it was a good number), there was the one who shot him, finally. (Cue anthemic music, something like the Rocky theme.) The odds are stacked against the underdog, but survival in a society that wants you dead is a victory. With enough victories, maybe we don't have to fight anymore. Maybe we -- as in all of us -- can start to love instead. I know this in a queer disabled working class Jewish atheist outcast way, and I know I have it better than most. I am interested in search and rescue, in using my privilege to the extent that I can to allow voices to speak through me without exploiting, to the extent possible. For example, most obviously, in being able to bring Aileen Wuornos' words -- her own words, not someone else's about her -- to light.
Speaking of that amazing woman who killed her attacker: There was an interview with a journalist, Robert Kolker, who had written a book about the women who advertised sex work on Craigslist and were killed by a serial killer, whose bodies were found on Long Island, and this interview really got under my skin. Of course he titled the book Lost Girls. He said in an interview about the assignment, "It never once occurred to me the victims were worth writing about. As soon as the police said they were most likely prostitutes that advertised on Craigslist, I immediately thought they were outcasts with no families and no stories of their own. That they were dead long before they were dead." So the dominant story, that you are writing a counter-narrative to, is sick.
Absolutely. I think it's the difference between a patriarchal scare tactic/morality play: "This is what happens to girls who go there" and "Why are these girls there?", "Why is it 'wrong' to be there?", "What is being transgressed?", "What is being protected?", and "What is at stake?"
We are a puritanical society with a strong caste structure linked to a supposed virtue/moral system. An assault on this order, any attack on these parameters, can be a capital offense.
When we lift the corner of these dictums, we can see the people getting crushed beneath it.
I want to talk a bit about the responsibility of the writer, which is not a word that most people would agree is even appropriate. But it seems to me, reading your writing, that you feel a kind of responsibility to actually look at your world as it exists. As in, it doesn't become sentimental, you don't force happy endings. I read this new collection, and while it's dark, it doesn't feel bleak. Because there's actual life in the pages.
If that's true, then I think that means I did my job right. Because I think that in the cases of both mental illness and class, our society grafts a sort of cheap, reductive moralism onto them. "Look! Look at that miserable, squalid, dirty drug addict there! They are miserable and squalid because they are sick and bad!" It was important to me not to shortchange the real pain and devastation of poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, trauma and violence and turn this into a cautionary tale. At the same time, it was also vital to me not to paint a great big smiley face on it. I didn't want to fall into the easy trap of, "Oh, the simple people are simple! They have simple pleasures! They like the sunshine!" There are real reasons to stay alive, and sometimes it is the quality of the light. Even in the shadow of all the things that are wrong.
You'll have to excuse me, I'm prone to rambling, but I see a lot of male posturing about darkness, about their willingness to go to dark places and get gritty -- that idiot who writes True Detective etc -- but there's always a splayed out murdered woman, overly sexualized, who becomes a stand-in for the lost innocence of the world or whatever. And it doesn't seem to me like those (some of them are women! but it seems to be in a masculine mode) writers are looking at the darkness, they are fetishizing it.
Well, according to TV, you have to open the woman with a knife to let the "pathology" out. (We'll leave letting the "darkness" out to law enforcement, since they're doing such a good job.)
Do you feel any kind of responsibility when you write? Or when you teach?
I have to think about if I feel responsible when I write. I think I'm not that selfless. I write because I need something.
When I teach, I do feel responsible. I try to get people to leave my class and stop writing. I tell them if they are going to pay that kind of money, they should go learn something they can support themselves with. I tell them to go do something useful. And then we write. And then we dance fantastic helium dances for each other. Writing is good. Sharing what I know is better.
And speaking of darkness, I wanted to talk a bit about your Aileen Wuornos book, because it really upended a lot of serial killer tropes. Our culture seems to love male serial killers, so much! Do you have any idea why? But also, how much of your ability to get into that space for the Wuornos book was due to her being a woman? Would it have been even a possibility had the killer been a man?
I think it comes down to cultural vulnerability. Even though I'm sure that everyone from Manson to Gacy to all the others were abused and assaulted, we don't think of them in terms of their trauma. They are only visible as "sick" "predators." They are the thing that goes bump in the night. Monster theory tells us that the monster, part human, stands at the gateway to delineate for us the boundary between human and some terrible inchoate beyond. They guard the impermissible for us. Since the monster is the monster, we can displace our own monstrosities there and be (purportedly) human. (Male) serial killers mark this for us. In contrast, Wuornos was depicted in Monster (the movie) and elsewhere as a sort of "avenging angel" when really, she was just trying to stay alive. We don't see this construction with any male killers that I can think of. This is an incredible interesting gendered issue to me. There is either nature or nurture mixing with blood here, potentially a bit of both.
At the end of the day, I have no doubt that a prostitute working the highways could kill seven men in self-defense. I have no doubt that, severely traumatized, a prostitute working the highways doing survival sex could have PTSD, and could develop paranoia and psychosis and overreact when it looked like she was going to be attacked.
My ability to be in that space with Aileen? She made it easy. She left the letters. She let all of us in. Also, even as I point out that she was no "avenging angel," in my heart of hearts, I keep her as one because I need her to be one.
Could I have done this with a male serial killer? Potentially. It really depends on how the killer's depiction tares with the "facts," and the narratives that are created around it. None of this is neutral, right? So the question is, what is happening in the space between the individual's story and the cultural depiction? Who is being served? What is being protected? What are the bones in the story? Do they shine in the dark?
You still live in the Bay Area, correct? That's another sick gap between the kind of master narrative (technological innovation! economic revitalization) and reality (dudes who are so in their heads they want to replace their food with soylent goo, rapacious gentrification). How does being in that environment affect your writing?
Yes, I live in San Francisco. In a way, that's why I wrote this book -- to at least try and get a splinter under the giant's toenail, to witness, to resist, even if it's less than a whisper. To leave a note in the rain that we were here. In a nutshell, writing seems the only thing that I can do -- apart from protesting, signing petitions, doing all the things that feel completely useless. I spend every day waiting for an eviction notice, watching my friends have to leave because they can't afford to live here, who can't afford the new restaurants, grocery stores, hair salons, etc. I'm hoping for the bubble to pop, but still don't know what that will mean for the rest of us who don't make six digits. I hope that those of us who are writing from underneath the bubble's weight will succeed in being the message from the bottle: We were here, and this is what it was like. Maybe the winner writes history, but maybe the underdog can leave scrawls in the margins.