An Interview with Joni Murphy

An Interview with Joni Murphy

Joni Murphy is my friend and fellow School of the Art Institute of Chicago alum, and we wrote our first books on the same block in Pilsen, taking respite at the same bar. But before that I knew Joni as an exemplary thinker and worker, in ways I didn’t even have the words for yet. I did not have language to talk about intersectionality before I met Joni. Her book, Double Teenage, is a pink and purple covered importance for anyone who identifies, even sometimes, as a teenage girl today, and everyone who loves or fears them too.

I am lucky to have read several versions of parts of this book — and the murdered elephant terrifies me, appropriately but differently, every time. Can you talk about how you put the different pieces into a whole?

For a long time the manuscript was developing as a longer and longer narrative essay and a series of poems. Both tried to get at some central questions, namely: Why does girlhood feel like a trap? and, How are individual, social, economic, gendered, national, boundaries defined and upheld?

What Double Teenage finally became is a naturalistic narrative followed by a fragmented critical reassessment of that narrative. So there was the slow build of material, which came in lots of little bits over years. Then there was the long process of smoothing and revising the story part. So the finished work mirrors two kinds of writing I had to do. I’m not sure that is a very interesting answer.

Strategically, I wanted to develop a trust and care with readers by telling a story cleanly (I’m defining that as chronological, and based on actions and images). After that trust was established, I wanted to delve into theory. Theory seems to alienate people in a way narrative doesn’t, so I wanted to ease into the more polemical, circular, abstract questions. I wanted to zoom out and overtly ask questions that were concealed within the first 3/4ths of the novel.

What I ended up doing was at first presenting some girls and their experiences by “showing” not “telling” (ha-ha/sigh — the lessons of North American “good” writing). Then in the final section of the novel I took some time to “tell” in a more theoretical way. The final section has footnotes and resembles notes for an essay, but also has sections that are little poems.   

This also has to do with trauma and memory in a psychoanalytic sense. There is the story you can tell about your life and then there are the traumatic parts that are too upsetting, that don’t fit in. The final section is, pretty overtly, about traumas that are individual and culture-wide — exual and emotional violence, the media’s obsession with and blindness to pain. I thought a lot about the need for proof in relation to hurt. As a girl you’re taught that if you’re hurt you have to prove it happened, and also prove you didn’t somehow “ask for it.” The pressure to prove you’re a worthy victim is intense. This tangle of ideas gets even worse if the violence seems to be happening all around you, but not directly to you. So I wanted to tackle both the direct and the indirect aspects of trauma, and I didn’t feel I could do that without breaking the text into smaller and smaller pieces.

And Double Teenage itself?

I decided that was the title because I made a joke to friends about how in my 30s I felt like two teenagers in one. I had the emotional rawness of then but also, the critical distance of adulthood. I think the final section of the novel is written from a very contemporary, grown up perspective, but still retains an empathy and connection to my younger self.

Yes. One thing I loved most about this book is how it fucks with a traditional sense of pathos — I feel for Julie and Celine, and sometimes I feel I am Julie and Celine, and then I question that too. As reader I am never allowed to rest very long in one place or another, and also, because this text is so full of pills and razors and sex and murder — all the borders — I am never allowed to leave my body either. Reading it feels high.

One passage that seems especially true to me, in this way — because I have been told something very similar, multiple times; because I have resisted telling this to my students but might have failed anyway; because I was mad and sad for Julie — is this: “At school she was sometimes criticized for her scattered methods. Teachers either loved or hated how her wavy parallel lines never clearly crossed but often kissed. She was working on her theory. Small parts came into focus then shimmered away. Ideas looped back like snakes eating their own tails. ‘Just the tip,’ Julie whispered to herself.” So good and so true. Can you talk about how you wrote this paragraph in particular?

I’m really glad to hear that. I wanted to create that kind of druggy state, both in the positive and negative senses. I wanted the text to be very sensual, but also worked through in an almost academic way. I’m happy if you picked up one that.

I also have complicated feelings about Universities, which I think I share with many of our generation. Universities are such traps but also refuges. When you’re young in university, thinking and learning can be intoxicating. You’re having your mind blown with ideas. But then, these are also places where hierarchies and violences are both justified and hardened. Your university can really set you on a path, and can also saddle you with debt and self-doubt. So I think of it as a kind of dangerous safe space.

Julie is in many ways a good student. She behaves herself, and she loves learning. She studies what she loves, and that’s what kind of dooms her. The paragraph you highlight has that critical, competitive vibe we’ve probably all experienced in school, when you feel on a deep level that your thinking is wrong. I also wanted to put in the ouroboros as this internal, cyclical, spiritual symbol in dialogue with the kind of urban dictionary sleazy slang “just the tip” as a way of performing that wrong way of intellectual thinking/writing.

I’m not really interested in “how was your sausage made?”-type questions, so I am not trying to ask that here, however I was near-always struck by the gorgeous metronome of your sentences. How does music work in your work?

I listened to a lot of music while and around writing. I obviously care about books, but throughout my life I’ve sort of thought (maybe accepted as fact) that musicians and filmmakers get closer, by nature of their forms, to the stuff of life. But I find writing to be so appealingly low tech, solitary, and no budget that it’s the form I’ve come to accept for myself.

The whole book is kind of spiraling and back and forth. Something in the way so many girls can end anything as an implied question and mix the vague with the precise, you know? So there is some of that music in there.

But to return to actual music, yes. It was a heavy music time in my life when I wrote this book. Needed the vibes of recent fifty or so years to kind of swirl into my own thinking. I actually made a playlist for Largehearted Boy where I laid out some of my sonic influences. That was a really satisfying supplement to the book. Women like the Raincoats, and the Au Pairs, PJ Harvey, Joni Mitchell, Kathleen Hanna, Liz Phair, Mary Margaret O’Hara, all kind of swirled around.

You and I talk about the work of reading—the work of writing what matters to you, and then, hopefully, to some other people too. Reading and writing aren’t easy. They’re not leisure activities. What kinds of stories do you love and need the most? How did you decide—or did you?—which to tell first?

I’m thinking too of how you braid in different narratives—the Jacques Rivette film, but also, say, David Lynch and Desmond Dekker and the Brooklyn sky. My personal style is not to do this overtly, but I loved every time you did. Do you think consciously about which cultural references to include?

I needed to write towards the world as it feels to me. This means a lot of specificity. In my universe the parents who listened to Paul Simon and Bob Dylan records seemed different than the parents who listened to the oldies station on the radio. I might try to write out what those deep human differences are, but I might as well also mention the particular music, because we all use taste to distinguish people. This might be a problematic aspect of capitalism and it might also mean that my book fails in some ways if the reader doesn’t relate to my particular references, but my book is pretty deeply regional and of a particular time.

I love a lot of work that is fairytale-esque in terms of being placeless and timeless. I think your book has some of that quality; Kafka’s work has that, as does Angela Carter’s. Those are just the writers that come to mind among so many others. I strongly gravitate to that kind of open telling.

However, for Double Teenage I wanted to balance a tale like telling — Once upon a time there were some girls in the desert — with a granular kind of telling of a world with very specific, real world moments like listening to Outkast or going to a yoga class the day Saddam Husain was put to death.

Specific words or names like Santa Fe, or Twin Peaks, or borscht all evoke whole universes in shorthand. The small universe of the book exists within so many big others that the reader may know without me. I needed those universes.

What surprised you, writing Double Teenage?

I was surprised by how much solace writing gave me. I was surprised the magic of the process actually worked for me. For the first time in my life I fully created something I could go into as a refuge from my real life.

I nixed some really bad/good poems. I made a whole lot of collages and concrete poems and collected a bunch of images that ended up just a shadow in the book.

I also really pulled back from writing directly about the femicide in Juarez. I decided that was a form of re-violation that would pull focus and make it seem like I was saying “Look how violent others are,” when what I really wanted to say is: “Let’s face violence in the US/ in us.”

Related to this, I didn’t spend much time cut describing much of how characters look. I felt it was important to speak of bodies and textures and feelings from a very close perspective. It felt important to avoid lingering on physical details, because in so many texts women become the sum of their details. I’m thinking specifically of the part about the crimes in Roberto Bolano’s 2666

Friends and home are so important to you too, yet because of the lives we live in the time we’re living them, friends and home are scattered all over the continent, if not the earth. Did your sense of friendship and home change at all, writing Double Teenage?

I feel that writing is my best way of communicating with people all the things we can’t touch on in person. Communicating with the dead, with strangers, these are both important goals I have in writing. However, people I love were probably my most important imagined audience. Writing was a way to tell them about all these ideas we couldn’t or wouldn’t touch in person. Or it was a way of talking to them after friendship had ended or frayed. In some ways I’ve known writing has this potential, but finishing the book made this aspect feel real. It has been quite cathartic actually.