Rebecca van Laer
Interview by James Jacob Hatfield [GS-INT-003]
This post is too large to fit in your email, most likely. Either click “View Entire Message” at the bottom or read it on Substack by clicking the button below.
This conversation took place in Durham, NC and Kingston, NY simultaneously through the miracle of video chatting technology on 03/14/2022
Rebecca [00:00:00] I missed that, what'd you say?
James [00:00:02] I'm just making sure everything's picking up and stuff.
Where are you?
Rebecca [00:00:06] Oh, go ahead.
James [00:00:08] I'm recording.
Yeah. Is that okay?
Rebecca [00:00:09] Oh yeah, of course.
Yeah, I usually just record the Zoom meeting, but I know everyone has a different method.
James [00:00:15] Yeah, I use them.
So the way that the subtext going to look is I'm purposely transcribing the conversation in its entirety, which is kind of time-consuming.
But when I used to do work for the newspaper, especially when I was an intern, they would get you to do grunt tasks like transcribing.
Rebecca [00:00:36] Uh-huh.
James [00:00:36] And I loved reading transcriptions.
And you know, you pull their pull quotes for them.
Rebecca [00:00:41] Right.
James [00:00:41] But I loved watching their conversation because I kind of got to experience podcasts before they were audio.
Rebecca [00:00:46] Oh-oh. So fun.
James [00:00:46] It was very natural.
How the conversation flowed.
By the way.
Congratulations, you got married, right?
Rebecca [00:00:54] I did get married.
James [00:00:57] Oh my God.
In your house?
Rebecca [00:00:59] Yeah, it was like very low-key.
We basically didn't want to do anything.
But when I told my dad we didn't want to do anything, it was an issue for him.
James [00:01:08] [voice wheezes like a deflating bag of laughter]
Rebecca [00:01:09] So we ratcheted it up just a notch and like got a tiny cake and some flowers and stuff.
So it was a little bit legit.
But yeah, I just got it done.
James [00:01:21] Perfect.
Right on the eve of this book coming out.
Rebecca [00:01:25] Yeah, our cat died.
James [00:01:28] Oh-uh.
Rebecca [00:01:29] At the beginning of the year, and I just started to feel the pressure of time and the need to move forward so...
James [00:01:35] The death of your cat spawned in you?
You're such a lucky individual.
Rebecca [00:01:43] Wh— I missed what you said before you said.
James [00:01:46] That the death of your cats is what spawned that.
But that is—
Rebecca [00:01:49] Yeah.
James [00:01:50] —it does usually come from places like that.
Rebecca [00:01:53] Yeah, I mean, he was a big part of our lives, and I guess that's his final gift, just kind of like, putting things in perspective.
James [00:02:01] Yeah, Well I'm sorry about your cat.
Rebecca [00:02:03] R.I.P. Toby.
James [00:02:05] R.I.P. Toby.
So I have about an hour before I have to go do stuff.
And I [holds up ARC of How to Adjust to the Dark] have questions for you.
Rebecca [00:02:15] All right.
James [00:02:16] Okay.
So one, this was lovely.
Rebecca [00:02:20] Aw.
James [00:02:20] And I didn't know before I even ask you about the contents of it then.
Was there any specific pieces of work similar to this that you've been inspired by?
Because I haven't read a story where the narrator, Charlotte, the self analyzation of their own work within a work, a meta form of self analyzation.
It's multi-leveled, and it's in such a compressed form.
The size of this novella.
I think the fact that it's a novella is perfect because I feel like we extend our philosophical discussions about our own text—which also prompts the question of "Are we doing that too much?"— but, did you read anything that was similar to this—
James [00:03:10] [leans away and coughs]
James [00:03:10] —that was the kind of self-analyzing you were inspired by, but also, did you read any that maybe you were like, "This could have been shorter." ?
Rebecca [00:03:22] [laughs]
James [00:03:22] You know what I mean?
Rebecca [00:03:23] There's a couple things that I had in mind when I was starting this.
And one of them was Nabokov's Pale Fire, which is kind of like this really long poem.
James [00:03:34] I just read that.
Rebecca [00:03:36] You did?
James [00:03:37] Literally.
I just...I'm not going to spoil it for anybody who might read this later.
But the turn, I was just like, oh, it's a king.
Rebecca [00:03:47] Yeah, it's so bonkers that book.
And obviously, it's different because it's kind of like a poem and then a separate character.
James [00:03:57] Mhm.
Rebecca [00:03:57] And honestly, it's really funny.
I've had a lot of conversations with friends about whether the poem is supposed to be bad or not.
James [00:04:07] [laughs maniacly]
Rebecca [00:04:07] I read it as intentionally bad and other people are like, no, it's a beautiful poem.
Who knows? [laughs]
Oh, I don't know.
What do you think?
James [00:04:16] I mean.
So, when I was originally talking to Jeff.
I brought up that I was considering playing around with the poetic form of removing page numbers and using line numbers, as a different part of the story where your experience of time has shifted.
And it would change it a little bit.
And he suggests I should read this book by Nabokov.
And I was like, well explain Pale Fire to me.
And he was like, well, Nabokov, you know, has a character that writes a poem, and then there's an analysis of the poem.
I was like, I didn't know Nabokov was a poet, and [Jeff] was like, “Oh, well, I mean...”
[00:04:57] [both laugh maniacally]
James [00:04:57] And it's just. I thought the poem was...I mean, there are points where it just definitely rambled, and I was looking for coded messages, and then when I read the final section of Pale Fire, I was like, oh, the poem was just kind of like it's like a placeholder to facilitate the ending to me.
Rebecca [00:05:20] Yeah.
James [00:05:20] I feel like it was done last, in my opinion.
Rebecca [00:05:22] Yeah, it's so funny.
And it's also kind of like, Oh, should you read it back and forth?
Should you read the poem actually alongside the footnotes once you understand what the book is?
So I was interested in that.
But I also want to do something a little bit more straightforward—
James [00:05:39] Mhm.
Rebecca [00:05:39] —where the poems and the narrative fit together.
And then I'd also gone to this Sheila Heti talk where she actually just read these sections of Motherhood that were just the part where she's flipping coins.
And this was maybe three or four years before the book actually came out.
But it was just like this whole thing of coin tosses that she was like, and it's going to be in a novel.
And I was like...Oh.
You can really stick anything in a novel.
James [00:06:10] [chuckles] Um.
Rebecca [00:06:10] And then the other thing I had in mind was just this book A Lover's Discourse, which is this book that I mentioned a little bit in the novel that is kind of like reading of The Sorrows of Young Werther.
But it's also like an encyclopedia of love and the agony of love.
And that's a lot more fragmentary and less narrative, but it does have that same sort of, I guess, analytic piece to it.
So I had all those things in mind, and I’d like to say that I was also thinking about like Freud and psychoanalysis and stuff like that.
But I actually got into psychoanalysis and taught a Freud course maybe...three years after I wrote the first draft of the book, which maybe helped him for my revision.
James [00:07:00] [snapping at his dog (Bootsie) to stop chewing on some small hard object]
Rebecca [00:07:00] But yeah, I like to think that it's a unique structure.
But then one of my friends was like, oh, Dante has a book like that.
James [00:07:06] What?
Rebecca [00:07:06] Yeah.
Dante has a book like that, and it's really actually very similar.
It's called La Vita Nuova, or The New Life. And it's obviously like this 15th century text where it's an explanation and analysis of all of his poems about Beatrice.
James [00:07:23] Dude.
Try writing something different.
Sorry, I can't believe I'm insulting Dante, but I—
Rebecca [00:07:28] No! It's so funny.
That like everything new is old because medieval literature was just batshit crazy, and we can really lose sight of that and think that certain forms are super modern.
Or it could only be done, you know, after this traditional theory and philosophy when out there in the 18th century, people were just like, You can put anything in a book.
Here we go.
James [00:07:55] Oh, that's so interesting, Rebecca, because I was thinking about it.
I was reading some older stuff.
I was reading Greek plays recently because I wanted to kind of see where the first time the device of a psychotic woman was applied.
It was written by a guy.
The earliest one I can find is Euripides and I was reading Medea and like—
Rebecca [00:08:26] Yeah.
James [00:08:28] And that interested me so much because I mean, he put a dragon in the middle of that fucking story.
Rebecca [00:08:33] Well, my god, I didn't even…I like, I've seen it staged, but not with a dragon.
So I guess they just left that out.
James [00:08:41] I was reading the text and she's standing in the courtyard with her chariot, led by a dragon.
And I'm like, “Are they more experimental in the older days?”
Because if we're talking about the 15th century, if nothing like Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso came out.
If you've never seen anything like that, that must have been astounding.
It was probably bothersome.
But I was wondering if maybe all these types of literature that were crazy, like in the 15th century, if they were actually very experimental and much more open to trying new stuff [than us].
Rebecca [00:09:18] I think that just there's so much about what got codified as what literature is that happened a little bit later.
But it's also really interesting.
It's like you have Beowulf and Gilgamesh and all these epic poems that essentially don't have any rules or the way that they're spaced on the page just looks nothing like what poems look like now and then you have a bunch of that.
And then you kind of get to the 17th century, like in English literature, at least.
And now it's like everything rhymes.
James [00:09:53] Yeah.
Rebecca [00:09:53] And then someone like Milton writes Paradise Lost and it's in blank verse, and it doesn't rhyme. It's like ooh-ooh innovation.
Even though in prior ages that had been the norm. Rhyming wasn't really part of the epic tradition.
So I guess we go through these stages where the sense of what literature is is very open, and then there is some sort of consensus, whether it's the marketplace or the way that literature is kind of like disseminated from the political structure in societies that aren't super free, to like, a loosening up again.
And the moment that we're in now, I guess kind of both are simultaneously happening where you see, just like the big five and literature, like commercial literature, really condensing itself into certain types of narratives, and we also have a lot of experimental stuff going on.
James [00:10:50] Well, that's so interesting because this is a conversation I seem to keep having.
So it must have some kind of resonance throughout the writing community.
I don't think writers in previous centuries really had issues about decisions being made by a marketing department.
Rebecca [00:11:09] I sometimes, yeah, I feel like Virginia Woolf basically self-published her novels.
James [00:11:14] I forget this.
Rebecca [00:11:15] Like.
James [00:11:15] I forget completely.
Rebecca [00:11:17] Yeah. And then now definitely, like the idea that your book needs a marketer stamp of approval even if an editor wants it, it's...yeah. You know.
James [00:11:30] Well, it's really weird. So like you were, by the way, you were so helpful with my query letter. I greatly appreciate it.
The first response I got back was, I love this. I like your style a lot. I worry about the resistance I would meet though.
And to me, I'm like, well, makes sense. An agent's job is to make money.
Rebecca [00:11:57] Yeah.
James [00:11:57] And also, they have a decent amount of responsibility for taste-making. But where do you draw the line?
Because like your book, I could see anywhere publishing this. Just the way you piece together a narrative with the self-analysis without having to break it into separate parts. Like I would read your book over Pale Fire.
Rebecca [00:12:18] Oh.
James [00:12:18] That's just honest.
I don't see how when people might be moved by a piece that their word isn’t enough to have it published.
I feel like that's a very specific thing that's happening now with publishing, if we can't find a way to market this then we're going to choose that it shouldn't really exist?... Like...
Rebecca [00:12:45] When I kind of first looked for an agent for this book really early on in maybe 2017, I didn't really know what querying is or what to do.
The first person who requested it and read it was very much like, I think you should submit this to small presses.
Rebecca [00:13:00] And I was just like, okay, well, if one person said that then that's what I have to do. Like, that's the only route.
James [00:13:12] Right.
Rebecca [00:13:12] And yeah, it's so tricky. Like. For sure, an agent has to see the potential for something to sell in a way that they're going to get a commission.
It's never their goal to sell to a small press, even though, if they're really dedicated to their author, and want to make sure that the book finds a home, they might eventually submit to small presses.
James [00:13:35] Mhm.
Rebecca [00:13:35] So that idea of marketability is something that when I was writing this book How to Adjust to the Dark, it was not at the forefront of my mind at all. And now it's sometimes sad how much it is. [laughs]
James [00:13:52] No, I hate that we feel shameful about that —and I think this is a really American thing.
I remember when I moved to England as a kid, I remember there were little teases from other adults to my parents of like, well, you're worrying about how to make money off it because you're American.
That's part of our reputation. But it's also a little bit of alchemy because we're converting art into money. Not that that should be the goal. And that's really funny because—oh shit, I left it downstairs—I was reading something this morning and I wanted to ask you have you ever read Shunryu Suzuki?
Rebecca [00:14:36] I...no...I used to have a cat named Suzuki after the philosopher, but more I just knew about it from my dad, who's...I'm not going to—[resigns herself internally] he has a blog called Zen Yoga Gurdjieff. So...but no, I've never actually read Suzuki.
James [00:14:56] He has an entire section in one of his books where he talks about the idea of a practice without a goal of attaining something to keep the practice pure, which is also really hard. Because let's say writing is our practice and we practice and practice.
But when we have completed a project. Well, there is some kind of goal that you want it to live in another form.
And I think we apply some form of guilt because we're like, well, we shouldn't worry about that. We shouldn't feel that way. But if we consider ourselves like a small business, we do have to sell the thing after we're done. If we want to.
But you know, it's hard not to write without thinking about later what am I going to do with this?
Rebecca [00:15:44] Yeah.
James [00:15:45] It's an active job to push that out, and once you get into a nice little slide of loving your work, it goes away naturally, I find usually halfway through a project, I'm like, ooh, I'm happy. I'm just happy doing this. I'm grateful to be doing this.
But then the second you're done, you're like, oh, I gotta sell this thing.
Rebecca [00:16:04] Yeah. And then that also lasts because it's like, oh, great, I have a home for my book now. Like, what can I do to support it? Who can I hit up? What booksellers do I want to write a letter to.
You just end up kind of really being like a small business and having to— well, you don't have to—but it's very advantageous to put a lot of work into the marketing and publicity yourself.
James [00:16:34] So how do you keep your practice in your marketing separate? Do you just wait till the end of the project to focus on it?
Rebecca [00:16:39] [laughs maniacaly]
James [00:16:39] Or how do you? Is it a struggle?
Rebecca [00:16:42] I mean, right now it's like, I have this project that I'm pretty excited about that I'm working on. It's actually about cats.
James [00:16:50] Yes. Yes.
Rebecca [00:16:52] It's called Psychoanalysis for Cats. And it's like, I have kind of started writing the nonfiction proposal for it and I'd like to get together another chapter. But honestly, so much of my energy in the past, like two, three months especially, has just gone into How to Adjust to the Dark. A book that I originally wrote five years ago.
It's like, I don't have any time for the new manuscript. And then that's like not even to mention the other two manuscripts that I kind of have just like floating around—
James [00:17:26] Good lord.
Rebecca [00:17:26] —for all intents and purposes.
James [00:17:28] Well, do you think there will come a time where you're not going to think about How to Adjust to the Dark? Or do you think it'll just become a part of your writing life?
Rebecca [00:17:37] I think once it is out, I'm really looking forward to kind of that day in about a month because then it's kind of out of my hands.
Like, at that point, I have to just trust readers to find it, and I have to trust, you know, if people want to interview me, they will come to me. It's not really my job anymore to be looking for press.
James [00:17:59] Mhm.
Rebecca [00:17:59] So I think that that's going to be a big alleviation. But, you know, it will be a part of my life. In so far as it's [looks down at her hands and smiles] my first book and the press and pieces that come out around it are my first real opportunity to like, express my thoughts about writing in a public forum that people might look at. Unlike my Twitter. [laughs]
James [00:18:24] [laughs maniacally]
Rebecca [00:18:25] It's also a little bit encouraging to me because, you know, I wrote this book and then I felt like this wasn't marketable enough. And then I wrote two very commercial novels. Or, how commercial, I guess that's up for debate. But I think that seeing readers connect with this book and what I'm doing in it has actually been really encouraging for me, like thinking about my cat book and feeling like I can move a little bit away from something that is really tidy in terms of its form and the way that the narrative is resolved.
James [00:19:06] Yeah. Are you talking about it in terms of like, uh, not focusing on the commercial aspect of it?
Rebecca [00:19:13] Yeah. In terms of just feeling free to experiment, free to do what I'm drawn to do, I think that I'm feeling a little bit more encouraged about that again, now that some people have read How to Adjust to the Dark.
James [00:19:32] This might be just a gush fest about your book, but the cool part about when you hear about people doing experimental things or trying something that comes naturally is that I think if you spend enough time sculpting it, it flows naturally.
If you give it enough time and dedication, it doesn't matter how experimental it is. Because one thing I commend about this book is the fact that you can interject poetry in the midst of a narrative that reflects that part of the narrative and the rest of it as a whole, while also analyzing it.
If you told me you were going to do that before you started, I would say kindly, Rebecca, what are you doing?
Rebecca [00:20:15] [laughs maniacally]
James [00:20:15] And then I read this and I was like, she pulled it off. It's insane. Like, it's such a good book and you didn't drag anything on. Was that purposeful or did you want to get through it quick?
Because one thing I've noticed as a trend with people whose books I've really enjoyed lately is they're much more compressed.
And I talked to Tobias Carroll at Vol. 1 Brooklyn about this. We were talking over Zoom for a little while about how he went to England to a book show. And it was really popular for small presses to have this big of books [holds up How to Adjust to the Dark], and they were called novels.
It was the author's choice on calling the work what it was. And that's always been my argument. Like even painting. A painting this big or if it's a mural, it's still a painting. So the artist gets to decide if it's a novel, novella, or whatever.
Rebecca [00:21:04] Yeah.
James [00:21:04] And so like, I didn't know if, like the size of this was intentional because I ate this up very fast without feeling a sense of loss.
Rebecca [00:21:12] In the original draft of this, like the one that was supposed to come out with a different press in 2019, it was like ten to fifteen thousand words longer.
James [00:21:23] Mm.
Rebecca [00:21:23] And I think that I like the one gift of it not coming out and having perspective is that I definitely cut stuff, some stuff that I just didn't think that was working.
But I also cut a lot of analysis of the poems where I was like, this is too deep a dive. People do not care.
James [00:21:42] [laughs]
Rebecca [00:21:42] Like, I want to get to the parts that connect most with the themes of the narrative and not be like, ooh look at how this line breaks to pentameter like, you know, it just didn't need as much detail.
So I think that it needed to be shorter and it wanted to be shorter.
And getting it to the place where it kind of had the right balance of narrative and other things, took more time than I thought it would because it really wasn't ready in 2018. And I didn't. I think I even knew that then, but I was just like, but if someone wants to publish it, whatever like...
James [00:22:22] Right.
Rebecca [00:22:23] Let's go. And then I, you know, I love a short novel. I think that for me, kind of calling it a novella is a little bit of a marketing decision.
James [00:22:35] Sure.
Rebecca [00:22:36] Because I, you know, I'm really happy for this to be my first book, but it would also be exciting to like, have a “bigger debut and make money off of it” but like, who knows if that will ever happen, or if I will just later put out a novel with another small press that will be the same length? Like, hard to say.
James [00:22:55] Yeah, no, totally. I mean, I can't stop thinking about the cat book. I think a little bit of the compressed nature also has a little bit of the reflection of maybe our generation's attention span.
I think people are calling out for it a little bit.
I know people who love big books, like specifically love big books for the sense of accomplishment, but in terms of like getting to the core of it, I am very much so a big eye roller. This is dragging-on type of guy.
Like I need it to have what it needs right now. I think.
Rebecca [00:23:32] When I was an undergraduate, I actually wrote my honors thesis on flash fiction. Why we're drawn to flash fiction.
And I guess my basic argument know to recreate the ramblings of my 20-year-old self was that there used to be this idea that the novel could contain a whole world, that it could represent society, and that in this fractured moment, flash fiction serves as a kind of better representation of fragmented realities.
But beyond that, a repudiation of that idea of the novel as all containing or universal.
I think now later in my perspective, I'm also just like, it's a lot easier for people to read flash friction like when I publish it. It is a lot more likely that someone will read my seven 750-word story than my 3,000-word story.
James [00:24:26] [nods smiling and silently applauds] Mm-hm.
Rebecca [00:24:26] So I think that the same might be happening with books as well, that I think that the, you know, I don't know the last time that I read a really, really long novel that was a contemporary novel that I liked, although I read, well, no, I really liked Richard Powers The Overstory.
James [00:24:45] Mm-hm.
Rebecca [00:24:45] But I think that that kind of novel has kind of like—I'm not going to say it's exhausted itself—but it's exhausted readers. Definitely.
James [00:24:55] Mm-hm.
Rebecca [00:24:57] And there is something just like refreshing about a book that you can get the same thing from in a shorter period of time. And I actually really like that. A lot of people have told me that they read my book in one sitting. I think that's really nice.
James [00:25:11] I did in two, but it's because I had to go. Just want to clarify that.
Rebecca [00:25:15] Two is good, you know? Yeah, I was trying to read Magic Mountain, and I was reading it for like seven months and at a certain point, I was just like, I can't do this anymore.
[00:25:28] [both laugh]
Rebecca [00:25:28] Like, I need to move on from this. I agree.
James [00:25:32] We're also very big into listicles. I will say that with flash fiction, I've had the same idea. But. I feel like there is a special skill set, and I think it's just a different angle on the art form, which is a novel contains an entire world.
But with flash fiction, if it's done really good, it is a snapshot that contains the underlying, kind of connective tissue of the truth, in a small flash in this specific moment, like it was so moving, it's almost like documenting the source of inspiration as opposed to letting the seed grow.
And I think that holds its own value like—
Rebecca [00:26:23] Oh, definitely.
James [00:26:24] —yeah, I can't remember what it's called. I think it was called "Dragonfly" by Sam Pink. It takes up one page on your desktop. And he just describes going to the park with his brother. And his brother brought his baby. So it's his nephew. And then they're about to leave the park. And as they're walking by a gravestone, he notices the dates. Born, and then three months later died.
So he sees the grave of a small child, and then he sees his brother pretending to drop his little nephew as a joke. And that little danger with the death element, in that very small moment, was so effective on the narrator that he documented it—if it's documented correctly, it can be super effective.
But if flash fiction is not done well, it is very bad. I think the stakes get raised a little bit, too.
Rebecca [00:27:21] Yeah.
James [00:27:21] I think if you do it very well, that's craftsmanship.
Rebecca [00:27:26] For sure, and I do not have that skill so...
James [00:27:29] I'm long-winded as well.
[00:27:33] [long awkward pause]
James [00:27:33] Okay, so. I have like I have a couple of specific things I wanted to ask that kind of have to do with like maybe your experience of getting an MFA and stuff like that. But since like, I don't have an MFA, I think it'd be interesting to compare.
Rebecca [00:27:46] I don't have one either.
James [00:27:48] Oh but.
Rebecca [00:27:48] So...
James [00:27:48] But you have a Ph.D.?
Rebecca [00:27:51] I went to an MFA program, but I did not finish the degree.
James [00:27:54] Are you uncomfortable talking about that? Because—
Rebecca [00:27:57] Oh no, no, no, no. I'm happy to talk about that.
James [00:27:59] What happened with like the whole poetry professor thing, you were telling me about? That one made my mouth drop open.
Rebecca [00:28:06] Yeah, I mean, you know, I had a professor who I admired very much, and I was very young when I was in my MFA program. I was 21 when I started. And you know, I don't think it's a professor's responsibility to only praise, but I think that the type of instructor who crosses out an entire poem or is like there is only one good line here. I think that can be really destructive to young artists.
As an instructor, it's your job to have, first of all, try and understand what the person's goal is because it might be different than your goal and your feedback is just like, I only like this line, that's not super helpful.
And then it's to give feedback that helps them achieve their goal.
So when it comes more about the instructor's personal or esthetic preferences, there's a kind of selfishness to that that I just don't think is effective teaching.
But it is just kind of like was the norm for a long time. And for someone who is young and who really needs external validation to continue with their work, like they just can't after you tear them down like that, that's the end of it.
James [00:29:23] [mournfully] Mm.
Rebecca [00:29:23] So I wrote a little bit after that experience that was kind of like midway through one semester. So I wrote like five more poems that semester. I went to a workshop that summer and wrote a handful more, but I think it very much went from like, I write a poem a week to like....It's just a simple, gradual decline.
James [00:29:42] Mm.
Rebecca [00:29:42] As I kind of lost my sense of what I was doing, why I was doing it, and also lost my belief that it was good.
James [00:29:50] Man, that is...Well…
There's a huge difference between developing art and talent, and offering your opinion, which I think MFA programs might have not had a great idea about.
Just because you have a popular writer on staff doesn't mean they have the special skill of a teacher because teaching is a very, very specific skill set.
I don't have it. And like, people who do have it are angels. Because you have to be a very special person to be able to teach.
And if someone comes in and they're idea of teaching is, this is how I would do it. That's not teaching. [punches fist into palm gently]
Teaching is the like. How do you work? How do we facilitate you to be the artist you want to be?
And just because you have popular writers on staff makes me nervous, like I was talking to a younger guy, his name's Blake Levario. He's a really good poet and he's been a paramedic and he's like, "Yeah, I got a scholarship to NYU. It's crazy." It's so pure. And he's like, "And yeah, Zadie Smith's on staff." I'm like "But is Zadie Smith a good teacher?" Like, it's cool to have somebody’s email, but you don't know that. I just I worry about that. I don't know.
Rebecca [00:31:07] That's just like not a criteria for hiring in academia really like, no one cares.
People don't go to an MFA program because they've heard the teaching is great, they go so they have the opportunity to work with certain people. And then if those people don't like you, it's kind of like, Oh, I really wasted my time and potentially my money, depending on your funding package.
But even with a great funding package, you're not like [almost inaudible grumble] making money.
James [00:31:42] Sometimes that stuff's irrecoverable. I mean, you and I were in a workshop together where I got a critique that people emailed me afterward like, "Are you alright? Because that seemed really harsh."
And I don't think if I had the confidence of having already been published and kind of knowing who I was and doing this for 10 years, it could have really—it affected me then.
Then, like, if I hadn't of had that growth to that certain point of where I was, I don't know if I would have been able to deal with what was a very personal, opinionated critique as opposed to a facilitating one. And so it's not just MFA’s, it's just writers in general.
I think artists do that to each other sometimes.
Rebecca [00:32:25] Oh, I had a lot of fear going into that workshop, actually not having been in a workshop and never having been in a prose or fiction workshop.
And I just kept telling myself like, I don't care what people think, I'm just here to make friends. So it doesn't matter.
James [00:32:43] And you met me!
Rebecca [00:32:45] Yeah! Um. Yeah, it was like overall, I think I got what I wanted out of the experience. And I also like, honestly, everyone, for the most part, was nice to me. So that was an added bonus.
James [00:32:57] I have no complaints I really enjoyed it and I still am in contact with everyone from it. It was with—
Rebecca [00:33:04] Oh with everyone?
James [00:33:04] No. [laughs]
Rebecca [00:33:04] Okay. [laughs]
James [00:33:07] There's one or two, who, uh, we don't talk anymore. But no, it was. It was a good experience.
There's one thing, though, from that that I didn't know how you felt about it. So when I was getting my manuscript, I was getting a developmental edit from someone I really admire. And he said something that I feel like if I told you, you would be like, Oh yeah, totally, obviously.
But when I was reading your book, it was, um. Can I just read you the section from your book that it's in reference to?
Rebecca [00:33:37] Yeah, for sure.
James [00:33:38] So is the part on Page 12 of the galley and it says,
"I've been wondering for a long time what to do about my poetry. Like this fortune cookie? The poems I wrote in my early twenties contain a lot of rhyme and aren't very interesting to anyone but me. Sometimes I've thought there was perhaps nothing to be done with them. They will sit printed out in a box under my bed until, like old diaries. They become so embarrassing, I have to take them out with the garbage."
[deep breath] Why is that so common? I don't understand why there's not a beauty to looking at our old work because I was cleaning out my cabinet over here with earlier drafts and I cringed like, it's just, I don't see why there's not a beauty in the growth of our work.
Rebecca [00:34:25] It's so funny. Yeah, I mean, I think everyone thinks back on their young self like, you're in your thirties, you think back to 20 and you're like, oh my God, I wasn't a person yet like. And when the work comes from or out of that more naive self or a self with a different perspective, I think you just can't see that everywhere, you can see your own limitations and all the way if you hadn't grown yet.
And there's definitely a lot of embarrassment in that. But at the same time, like this book, I basically wrote most of this book in like 2016, and I still feel pretty good about it.
James [00:35:13] [giggles]
Rebecca [00:35:13] So I think that hopefully, that gets better over time, like as you develop more as an artist. Things that are kind of in that period of more maturity are less painful than your actual juvenilia from when you really didn't know what you're doing.
James [00:35:33] That's probably it, though, knowing what you're doing because I feel like you will look back on this book and there still be a sense of pride, but it will come with a little twinkle of like, "Aw."
You know what I mean?
Rebecca [00:35:44] Oh, I already feel that way. I'll be like, oh, that girl was so hopeful—
James [00:35:50] Oh God [laughing maniacally].
Rebecca [00:35:50] —just full of hope.
James [00:35:54] Oh, man. Okay, tell me this. So there's another part that I loved. The way this opened was so good.
I'm a big stickler for openings and the whole thing of like a fortune cookie. That's perfect. It's perfect, Rebecca. It's so good. But there's one line right here that—this blew my mind.
It said, "in creative writing workshops, professors often tell you to write what you know. Willa Cather said that writers have all the materials they need by 15, and an instructor of mine went even further. She told us we had gathered enough experience to say something interesting by seven."
So when I was working with my editor, I had an issue where I didn't notice till he pointed out where I was being overly-subtle. And where I was just like, Show don't tell.
And I was doing that so much that it muddied what I was trying to say.
And he just goes, "Most workshop rules are bullshit."
Do you agree with that at all?
Rebecca [00:37:00] You know, like, I'm a big fan of being direct and just saying things outright as opposed to show don't tell.
James [00:37:06] Right?
Rebecca [00:37:07] Sure. Like, it's great to show how a character would act. But I don't know, like, I'm a big advocate for also just telling. And I mean, yeah, I think that a lot of rules, a lot of workshop rules. Like, in practice, don't work. Or in practice, create something a little bit too predictable.
James [00:37:34] Mm.
Rebecca [00:37:35] And in poetry workshops in particular, I remember spending so much time just talking about like a word, or whether it was okay to say ‘flower’ rather than ‘peony’, and stuff like that.
And I think that these rules are vastly less important. And in some sense, unrelated to what it takes to get your story on the page.
James [00:37:50] Sure.
Rebecca [00:37:51] And that having them in your mind too much doesn't help. I'll say that much.
James [00:38:08] They get restrictive at a certain point because I mean, I've noticed this with just content in general.
And I think that's maybe why there would be resistance to my work is that I think because people know of the existence of certain rules—that, kind of, everyone knows are bullshit—but everyone seems to follow them.
That when people read certain work, they will see the words instead of reading the story. Which are two very different things.
Especially for people who get triggered.
It's like there's stuff that you will say and it's like, No, no, there's a context to it. You have to read the story.
But because you saw this word and you knew the rules, and the rules are telling you that certain words shouldn't be there. Therefore the story is invalidated.
And it's just there's no actual spending time with something that might be different.
I feel like the restrictiveness of rules, even ones we don't follow, still exist. It's so confusing to me. I can't even find a way to word it into question.
Rebecca [00:39:18] Yeah. I mean, I guess one thing that I sometimes think about is so I work in advertising and specifically copywriting and SEO, and it's very much like we talked a little bit, or you mentioned, a listicle.
James [00:39:35] Mhm.
Rebecca [00:39:35] And it's like when you get the sense that an article might be a listicle, by god, you better put those numbers in it.
James [00:39:43] Yeah.
Rebecca [00:39:43] And then it's like SEO further tells you that like seven is a really good number that people like. So and you know, it's skimmable, people seem attracted to the numbers. So it's like, okay, we're going to do a lot of listicles like BuzzFeed's literature coverage is mostly going to be listicles.
James [00:40:02] Yes.
Rebecca [00:40:03] And it's great to have a sense of what people like or what works for them or how people expect to receive content.
But then at the same time, you miss out on a whole world of possibility, including the possibility for people to discover what else they like or want when it's just like the listicle and that's just on the internet and the kind of form that advertising takes.
But I think that the same thing can happen with literary forms. And also there's more crossover in those worlds than we would expect, where marketing department decisions on books can also be driven by, you know, search trends and the profitability of books with certain themes or category tags, or the number of followers that an author has, how well their personal SEO is doing so on and so forth.
And yeah, I think that those externally generated roles, they can underestimate the reader as well as restrict the writer.
James [00:41:18] I've always been an advocate of not insulting the intelligence of the reader, which is actually why I focused more on show, don't tell because I didn't want anyone to feel like I was spoon-feeding them.
But there's also a point where it's like, you're trying too hard.
That's a part where I just seem to struggle, and it usually just takes one person to snap me out of it. After reading what I'm doing they go like, just say it, just say it out loud. And people respond to that kind of helpful feedback.
That was like a big thing about this when it talked about your description of like being hungover and what that felt like.
Just a very simple thing of like, this is how I feel right now.
This is the sense of the world I have right now, physically, mentally.
Why do people always want to know the details of abuse?
I was always told to never put rhetorical questions in a text.
If you had not put that in there, my brain wouldn't have been framed and oriented to read the rest of the passage.
So it's like being upfront is supremely important at times.
I think it's also a skill set if you overdo it, of course, but moderation, moderation.
...um...this is a weird interview because all of the ones I've done so far have been in person and the whole thing is, is that this will be transcribed.
And I was really wondering how different it might, it's going to look, it's going to be exciting for me, I don't know how you're going to feel, but it's going to be like compared to the interviews I had in person, this is the first one I've done on Zoom.
And when I read it and see it on the page, I wonder if it will look different in its flow because we don't get to have our interlocutions like, we can't really interrupt each other in the normal conversational way.
It's like, you go, I go, you go.
Do you think that the way that we are interacting, in the way that we communicate over the internet now from video calls, it's going to stifle the way that we communicate in literature at all?
This is a huge, wide-out question.
Rebecca [00:43:30] Yeah, that's a tough one.
[00:43:39] [airplanes flyover]
Rebecca [00:43:39] I think like one, we are going to see a lot more of setting and thematic content about communicating in this way.
James [00:43:50] Mm. Okay.
Rebecca [00:43:50] And it's something like this is so hard to do well, like novels with text messages in them, novels with social media posts.
But we need to figure out how to do it.
You've read my story about it like a funeral.
And that's actually now—
James [00:44:05] That was a fabulous story, by the way.
Rebecca [00:44:07] Thank you. Yes, I kind of just stuck it and shoved into a novel. But I think we'll see that thematic and topical shift. But, well, I think it will result in some formal experimentation and changes.
James [00:44:31] Mhm.
Rebecca [00:44:31] Who knows, maybe even like a multi-character point of view in Zoom rooms, blah blah blah.
But aside from that really like kind of like topical or direct change in the content of novels. I feel like, of course, it'll have some sort of effect, but I just don't know what that will be or what it will look like. But I think it'd be naive to think that it wouldn't be there.
James [00:44:57] I think I know in me personally, I've been very hesitant to accept that this is a new form of communication and that this is going to be it moving forward.
Maybe it's because I have an apocalyptic mindset of the internet could go away and we need to be able to maintain normal communication. But that's also a lack of accepting the world as it is, and that this is part of the new normal and that this is the way.
I try to think of like young kids coming up and doing Zoom for elementary school, that's going to cognitively frame you completely different in terms of—
Rebecca [00:45:34] I mean. Yeah, the way that they interact with just like friends is so different where it's I don't I mean, I don't know, I can't. But even Snapchat or TikTok, it's like, okay, you interact with your friend by like remixing their TikTok?
James [00:45:51] That's a sign of affection now.
Rebecca [00:45:54] And you know, obviously, [inaudible], but it's not how I interacted with my friends when I was a teenager, I just called them on a landline.
James [00:46:04] So that was connected to the wall, right?
Rebecca [00:46:07] Yeah.
James [00:46:07] Yeah. [laughs]
Rebecca [00:46:09] So, there's definitely going to be a huge shift.
It's so interesting. Even when I was first teaching that kind of interaction when you walked into a classroom, people would talk to each other a little bit. And I feel like that has decreased. But it's really interesting that I have friends who are like in film and media studies and they're like, Hey, anyone else experiencing that their students like, don't watch television or movies.
James [00:46:41] What?
Rebecca [00:46:41] It's more of just like YouTube videos or literally Tik Tok or whatever. But like, that's kind of like mind-blowing. And I think that is really—
James [00:46:55] Huh.
Rebecca [00:46:55] —if you don't interact a lot with people who are a couple of decades younger than you, then it's very easy to assume that their mental patterns and way of engaging in the world are more similar than they actually are.
James [00:47:08] But wouldn't that, I feel like that would make friendships and connections so much more niche because there's so much content on YouTube to go through.
So if I pick the things I want 1) an algorithm's helping me choose after I've made some initial decisions 2) my friend group is going to get very slim to a very specific group of people who like what I like. As opposed to a cinematic event where it's nationally released and there's a national conversation we can all hop in on, it'll be very small conversations between very small groups of people, and I don't know if that'll isolate us or make us more interesting.
That's so weird that kids get most of their visuals, like, kids don't binge Netflix, they binge YouTube?
Rebecca [00:47:53] I think so.
James [00:47:54] Wow.
Rebecca [00:47:54] That's my understanding. Well, I know that they like to watch Friends, for example. So there's like a few things that stick out. But yeah, sometimes I wonder in particular, about just the idea of a subculture like everything you're getting is kind of an algorithm on Spotify. Then do you have the sense of diving deep into a particular aesthetic and set of things?
Because when I was like, a young teenager, I got super into punk rock and that was like, okay, I know my like seventy-seven punk rock. I know my UK eighty-two punk rock. This is how I'm supposed to do my hair. These are the pants that I get. And there was like a whole identity in a world that came with that.
And I don't know if that exists with the algorithm anymore. Like it's kind of like, look, on the one hand, hyper-specific, you have these things you're really into. You joined the fandom on Reddit and you talk about it all the time online.
*****Where did the other time mor general? Just first, where I like when you're in high school, you don't have like, you know, four emo kids or whatever. That thing doesn't exist? I don't know, like, I honestly don't know, but I wonder that.
James [00:49:10] That's going to change the entire social dynamic because how would you get excited about something because all me and my friends were like, I mean, I grew up skateboarding and playing punk music. So if somebody we all liked went pro, we all knew about it. We would show up the next day and talk about it, and it would be a niche thing.
It's going to be so much more specific, like subcultures within subcultures.
Maybe it's good you're on an indie press because like all art forms follow. It just seems literature always is the last to follow trends, I guess, in art.
And I really think people are going to start defining their style, the way they did the old punk aesthetic. like if Discord [Records] came out with a record, I bought it. If the old Sumerian came out, I bought it, it didn't really matter bands.
It's like if people get a good feeling for Long Day, they're just going to buy the catalog because it's small and affordable.
I define myself by the books I read, if that's the type of person you are. I think people will start wanting to feel more special than being in the mainstream, because for a while it was like, I want to be Ottesa Moshfegh's friend. But now I like to buy Apocalypse Party's books. I like everything Long Day puts out. I used to really like everything Two Dollar Radio put out, and that's what you would see on my shelf.
And maybe you could get a feel of like, oh, that's the kind of person he is. Because we do define ourselves by the things we buy. Because again, we're American. These are the brands. This represents me.
Rebecca [00:50:52] That's very true. Yeah. And I think that like all those places, you named obviously places that I buy my books from to really like what Clash is doing, I love what Maudlin House does. And I think that there's something special about that, like having a press where you kind of know, okay, I'm going to like any book they put out.
But then sometimes there's that worry about like, okay, I know about these like 12 indie presses or whatever, but to people who don't. How will people who don't know about those from indie presses ever discover my book? I don't know.
James [00:51:28] You're also talking to a guy. If you remember how sad I was in that workshop was like, I don't have a lot of writing friends [laughs], and the ones that I do, if I go up to them and be like, Hey, have you read Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape? It just came off of Clash. If you say that out loud, they'll just look at you. Like, get that book away from me.
Because it's hard to get you into it. It's almost like you have to find it yourself and then we can talk.
But anybody I've tried to push into books has never worked. It has never. It is something that I think it has to come upon you naturally, unfortunately.
But the thing is, this is why I started this Substack, because it's not strictly an interview or a publication. I'm listing it as an archive.
Because, well, honestly, the background story is that the University of Virginia had William Faulkner's lectures, and they lost six of them because of a tech issue. And they said it very nonchalant to me because I called their library and I went, You just lost some Faulkner lectures, two hour lectures like just because the lady wasn't quote tech savvy, dude. [Rebecca gives look of devestation] So like, I know, I know.
So like, the thing is, with literature, there's a big, long game to it because it is a slower building art form. It takes a long time to even finish work in this form. Most of the time, so like when I think of like, I think Rebecca ****ventilators work is like. It has a sense of gorgeous.
Your book feels a little bit like magic with like a tinge of, I feel worry on the back end when I'm reading it because I'm where I'm waiting for you to break my heart because you're so vulnerable. But I'm still taken care of when I'm reading your stuff.
That's the kind of person I want to archive, because one day people will read this book and then want to know more about her and her opinions on things.
And so I want to archive that. It's hard to think about people getting this stuff now. It will only be for the hardcore enthusiasts. That's how it's always been.
It's the hardcore enthusiasts who will always know where to find it. But beginners?
I mean, I'm not going to recommend Rupi Kaur to anyone. But if that's how you get into poetry, then that needed to exist because you needed it, you needed an entry point. You need pop music, you need an entry point to this stuff. I think. [winded, sucks in deep]
Rebecca [00:54:00] Yeah, I think that that's very true for sure. Where, like, I definitely did not really know about indie literature or small press books when I was like in college or even in my first year of grad school, despite the fact that I was like writing on avant-garde poetry.
And then I talked to some people in the literary arts department like Forrest Gander, and I started to have my eyes open up a little bit. And then even like a better big press book like Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? After I read that, I was like, I want more stuff like this, but that's not coming out from big presses.
So I had to kind of like, work my way, not down. But I guess through.
James [00:54:49] And it does feel like a descent, but it's not a descent talent-wise, it's for sure.
Because it is so niche, you are going to have to wade through a bunch of books that are hyped by people that love it. And you just go. Not for me. And there's nothing wrong with that. And it's not a waste of money.
If you bought a book from an indie press that you're like not my favorite that’s fine. Because 1) year contributing to the community 2) you just exposed yourself to something very specific that not many people have gotten their hands on yet (unless it's one of those indie books that kind of gets a lot of press and people do check it out).
But you know, one thing I keep going back to that I don’t find a lot is the compressed nature of this story and the fact that your narrative is not affected by that in any negative way. If anything, it is enhanced. I am drawn to this because I can consume it and I get the sense of a whole world. And like, your book, is a novel to me. And again, it's the artist's decision and I go off that. But like it incorporated all the things I need to feel the accomplishment of reading. Really, Rebecca. It's a beautiful book. It's an absolutely beautiful book.
Rebecca [00:56:06] Yeah, I'm happy about it. Which it took a long time for me to get to the place where I was like, I actually think this is good now.
James [00:56:15] Yeah. [laughs]
Rebecca [00:56:16] As opposed to, I think this might be good enough for someone else to think it's good, hopefully, or to tell me that it's good. And that's a really good lesson to learn.
James [00:56:26] I didn't mean to cut you off. I'm so sorry.
Rebecca [00:56:28] Oh no. No worries.
James [00:56:29] I mean, what do you hope that like...I'm sure your hope isn't to discourage people from going either like maybe to an MFA route and doing this, but I think there's something very bold about you speaking about your experience. Like, what do you hope if you have a younger reader? Because Jeff was telling me, there are kids who are like high school level that have been reading Two Dollars Radio's stuff, which is good to hear.
Rebecca [00:56:54] Oh-oh.
James [00:56:54] Well, Two Dollar Radio was a great entry point into the indie scene because they—
Rebecca [00:56:59] Absolutely. Yeah.
James [00:57:00] They have great coverage and they've signed some really good debuts. Um, like. What do you hope if a younger person read your book and was thinking about wanting to write, or maybe not even knowing or writing is?
Because you're also giving a very good lecture in a positive sense. You're explaining things and you're pointing out the beauty in certain things and your reasoning for analyzing your own work. I mean, that's why this is a work of art because the story analyzes herself by analyzing her work, and that's the art in it. You did. You did something very challenging, and it flows beautifully.
So if someone was reading this and they're going to learn a little bit about poetry, like what are you hoping that like, if someone was young and new to indie stuff, like what do you think they'd get out of this or hope they get out of it?
Rebecca [00:57:56] I would hope that they get that writing can be something that you do for other people and for their approval, but that's not what it's for.
James [00:58:07] Mm-hm.
Rebecca [00:58:08] That's definitely not its purpose. And that other people's opinions about it don't diminish the potential or the value that it has.
James [00:58:23] Mm.
Rebecca [00:58:23] And that's in an ideal world. But it's a form of self-exploration that can be picked up and transmuted and used in any way that serves you, whether or not that falls into the kind of forms of what's acceptable or taught.
James [00:58:47] Mm-hm.
Rebecca [00:58:48] And that if your writing isn't serving you, or if it's become more about adhering to a set of rules or trying to prove something to someone else that it's okay to stop. To try something completely different, to find a way to connect to it that serves you, which might not always be writing. Sometimes it's reading and the book is an act of reading.
James [00:59:18] That's absolutely beautiful. That was really good. That's a really great answer. I think we could stop on that. It's like right on the dot.
Rebecca [00:59:25] All right.
James [00:59:25] I got to go take my car into the garage. So thank you for letting me interview you about this. I'm really glad. I'll try to get it up as soon as possible. I'm going to Portland next week for a little bit.
Rebecca [00:59:38] That's exciting. Portland, Oregon?
James [00:59:39] Yeah, just my old stomping grounds.
Rebecca [00:59:42] Nice.
James [00:59:43] Yeah. Yeah, it's a total pre-dad trip since I have the baby coming in July.
Rebecca [00:59:50] July. Okay, I was going to ask, Yeah, that's soon.
James [00:59:53] Yeah. [laughs] It's real soon.
Rebecca [00:59:54] I mean, it's soon and it's a few months. So I hope you have a great trip to Portland and obviously no pressure on any timelines.
James [01:00:03] Well, it comes out in April.
Rebecca [01:00:05] It's like it's good to have stuff to tweet about, like for a while.
James [01:00:09] So what would you prefer to come out after? Because I know the conversation was more so focused on writing as opposed the work itself. But that's just what I like talking about, and I know for sure.
Rebecca [01:00:19] Yeah. Either way, I don't necessarily have a preference. I'll actually have more information within the next couple of days about when I have a Creative Independent piece coming out. So I know that.
James [01:00:31] Oh, you gotta TCI coming?! Duuuuuuude!
Rebecca [01:00:33] I know? Can you believe that?
James [01:00:35] [applauds to the screen]
Rebecca [01:00:35] Can you believe that they let me say stuff?
James [01:00:40] [laughs maniacally] God forbid. Did you have to fill out an application? That's crazy.
Rebecca [01:00:45] My friend pitched it and I was just like, Really? They want me to talk? [voice flutters]
James [01:00:51] No, you should give yourself some credit. You've got some good stuff in here, really.
Rebecca [01:00:55] I think that the idea that I also have this criticism background maybe helped her sell it. So we ended up talking about like criticism and analysis a lot.
James [01:01:06] That's going to be so interesting.
Rebecca [01:01:08] We'll see.
James [01:01:11] Well, let me know when you would like it out.
Rebecca [01:01:12] For sure.
James [01:01:14] I'll start the transcribing. It takes a while and it's going to be so funny because I know people are going to come to my Substack and go, why is this so long?
And I'm like, because it's an archive.
It's in 10 years, you'll be able to pull a quote from it and you'll have a legitimate source.
And it's going to be for hardcore enthusiasts who are into this. If you have a journalistic background, you'll like my Substack, otherwise you're going to be like he could have cut this shorter.
Rebecca [01:01:42] [laughs] Yeah, it's funny.
James [01:01:44] But let me know.
Rebecca [01:01:47] Will do!
James [01:01:47] If you start feeling like, I'd like something a little bit after or before and we'll do whatever you want.
Rebecca [01:01:55] All right.
James [01:01:56] All right, then. Well, it's good talking to you, Rebecca.
Rebecca [01:01:58] You, too. I'll talk to you soon.
James [01:02:01] I'll email ya. Talk to you soon.
Rebecca [01:02:02] Bye-bye.
END OF INTERVIEW