Interview with Diana Joseph

Posted: July 1, 2009 in Interviews
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Live Nude Books: On the surface, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way profiles the men in your life.  The subtitle lets readers know that this is also a book about the various roles in which you identify yourself.  And while reading, it’s hard to ignore the contrasts between social classes.  When you began working on this book, were men, identity, and class your focuses?

Diana Joseph: The first essay I ever wrote is in this book. It’s the one about my son called “The Boy,” and I had such a good time writing it that I immediately wrote “What’s (Not) Simple,” the one about his father.

Around that same time I read Joan Didion’s essay “Why I Write.”  In it she says, “I write to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” I was making discoveries, too. Through writing these essays, I realized the person I adored could also be the person who drove me koo-koo bananas. I realized I dished out as much misery as I took, I gave as good as I got, and that my relationships with the people I loved weren’t easy just because I loved them. I got to thinking what would happen if I wrote about other people who matter to me? What would else would I figure out? So I wrote about my father. And then about an ex-boyfriend and my brother and my dog. I’d written five or six of the essays before I even noticed all my subjects were quirky males. I also noticed that something in my own character might be considered just as quirky. I didn’t intentionally sit down and say to myself I think I will write a book about the various men in my life and the influence they’ve had in the construction of my identity—a thought like that would have made me cringe—but recognizing the pattern, I decided to go with it.

And that’s the best part about having a huge pile of pages:  I can go through them and look for connections, recurring themes, images, obsessions.  So can I tell you how happy I am that you’ve identified class issues as a subtext in this book?  Because I think it is very much a book about class, about growing up blue collar, though I didn’t realize that until the manuscript was just about finished.  In retrospect, I should’ve known since so many of my reactions to the world are based in my reactions to class.

LNB: You identify several people in the book by nickname (The Boy, my old man, Bye Bye, The Satanist, the cat-talkers) or repeatedly by their full name (Vincent Petrone, Andrew Boyle, Gerry Hawthorne).  Is this a style choice, or a way to connect with/distance yourself from these characters?

DJ: It is about connecting with and distancing from people.  Referring to my son as “The Boy” serves a couple purposes.  One is, of course, my interest in protecting his privacy.  There’s also that his father and I have always called him “Boy” and “The Boy.”  But personal stuff aside, in the context of the essays, I think there’s something universal, something archetypal, about him, his boy-ness, that labeling him as “The Boy” emphasizes—a lot of readers have written to me about how much he reminds them of their sons or the boys they know or the boys they were.

LNB: The essays in your book contain a lot of humor; at times, they’re laugh out loud funny.  I don’t read or hear about very many female humorists.  Have you found this to be the case, as well?  If so, why do you think that is?  If not, can you recommend any writers/titles?

DJ: Of course there are funny women writers.   Sarah Vowell is funny; so is Amy Sedaris, so is Lorrie Moore.  Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You made me laugh.  Amanda Davis (Wonder When You’ll Miss Me); Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club); Susan Jane Gilman (Hypocrite in a Poufy White Dress)—all funny women writers.  I think Flannery O’Connor is hilarious, and Jane Austen, and Margaret Atwood, Alison Laurie, and Jane Smiley.  I’m working my way through Mary Roach’s book, and she’s funny.  Have you read Binnie Kirshenbaum’s novels?  Read her.  She’s funny.

(Also, check out this:  http://therumpus.net/2009/06/the-women-of-mcsweeneysnet/)

But there’s this wacky idea that women writers are not funny.  Have you ever read that Vanity Fair piece by Christopher Hitchens?  (On a side note, a similar notion that women can’t write about sex has been going around.)  There-are-no-funny-women-writers is a generalization I’ve even heard supposedly intelligent, well-read people spout.  It’s a sexist thing to say, and simplistic, and I wonder what would motivate someone to say it.  Ultimately, though, I think it’s so asinine that I have a hard time getting too worked up.

But if you’re interested in theories on what humor is and how humor works, there’s a lot that’s been written about it.  Thomas Hobbes says “that the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly” (or it’s fun to make fun of ourselves and others.)  Immanuel Kant says, “In everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd” (belief in that statement means I want you as a friend.)  Bernard Chazelle’s essay “The Humorology of Power” is also a must-read.

LNB: In a recent edition of the radio show, Here and Now, your book was grouped into the “Bad Parenting” genre of memoir; however, not all of your essays are directly about parenting.  What are your thoughts on the book’s classification?

DJ: Well, the “bad” parents of this genre are what I think of as honest parents, parents who acknowledge that sometimes children are not fascinating, are not always interesting, are not necessarily witty conversationalists.  Since that was often the case during my experience as a parent, I don’t have a problem with the label.

LNB: Some of the essays in your book take place quite a while ago, others occur more recently.  Do you find a certain amount of time needs to pass before writing about a specific event?  Is it a feeling you get before you begin writing, or do you come to this realization—I might need to think about this more—when drafting?

DJ: Yes!  When the house is on fire, I don’t stop and think about what it means that the house is on fire; in that moment, I’m just thinking about how to get out of the house.  But later, I can reflect on that fire, the burnt-down house, I can try to figure out what it means.  For me, a good essay has reflection—the writer showing a particular way of thinking, way of seeing, way of making meaning.  I like writing that leads me to recognition (I know exactly what you mean) or revelation (I never thought of it like that before.)  The best writing gives me both.  I’m not crazy about essays that are really just anecdotes that leave me wondering so what?  Why are you telling me this? But answering the “so what” sometimes means the writer needs some time and space and distance from the event.  At least I do.

LNB: How did you decide on the order in which the essays appear?

DJ: I knew I wanted “Tongue Twister, Tongue Tied,” the essay about my dad to come first.  It makes sense since he’s the original guy in my life, and I wanted the rest of the essays to be seen through the complications and dynamics of my relationship with him.  I wanted “Ten Million, At Least,” the essay about my most recent and most grown-up relationship with a man to come last.  Those two pieces, for me, serve as bookends.

But I struggled with how to order the rest of the essays.  When I turned the manuscript in, I’d arranged the pieces chronologically.  It was my editor, Amy Einhorn, who suggested chucking that and coming up with a more rhetorical ordering, putting a darker piece next to a lighter piece, a piece that highlights some of my bigger foibles and flaws next to a piece that shows less of them.  I think she was right.

LNB: Your first book, Happy or Otherwise, is a collection of short stories.  I’m Sorry You Feel that Way is a memoir in essays.  From a craft standpoint, what differences and similarities have you encountered when making the shift from fiction to nonfiction?

DJ: In her essay “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor talks about her story “Good Country People,” how when she was writing it she didn’t know the Bible salesman was going to steal the lady PhD’s wooden leg until a few lines before it happened. And that’s what I love about writing fiction: the what-happens that come as a surprise. I love the way characters can catch me off guard, behave in ways that are inevitable but unexpected.

But in nonfiction, people have already done what they’re going to do, they’ve already said what they’re going to say.  Several of the essays in the book were worked on in real time—as I was living them—so the details were right there in front of me.  All I had to do was pay attention.  I’ve got scraps of papers and old receipts, little notebooks and bar napkins, upon which I jotted things down.  Observations.  Descriptions. Bits of dialogue. I have a bar tab from September 6, 2006.  It’s from a night I hung out with Andrew Boyle, the guy I write about in “It’s Me.  It’s Him.  It’s Them.”  I’ve written all over that bar tab, scribbled down great stuff Andrew said.  Like this:  “I feel like Woody Guthrie in the land of shoes.”  And this:  “It’s the same trick I play on myself so many times.  I think I’m going to clear up her problems.  If I’m good to her, I’ll clear up her problems and she’ll stop being a freak.”  I have that dirty little drawing I mention in “Officer Frenchie,” the essay about my brother Travis.  I’d send a copy to show you but it’s even nastier than I remember, and I don’t want to offend.

In other essays, like the one about my father, I relied almost entirely on memory and its sometimes steady, sometimes slippery path between the hippocampus and cerebral cortex.  I set out to write all the stories I knew about him.  I made lists of everything I knew for sure and everything I didn’t know.  I wrote down advice he’s given me—repeatedly—through the years.  I wrote down conversations we had and conversations I only wished we had.  I had pages and pages of material.  Is it accurate?  I say it is.  Is it the same story my brothers would tell?  I guess you’d have to ask them.

LNB: Do you still write fiction?  What are you working on next?

DJ: My MFA thesis is a collection of short stories that ultimately became Happy or Otherwise.  During the time I was writing that book, I was absolutely obsessed with short stories; they were all I read.  I wanted to learn everything I could about all the ways to write a short story.

I still think of myself as an apprentice to that form, the story, and a good one still makes my heart thump-thump-thump a little louder, a little faster (Have you ever read Let’s Do by Rebecca Meacham or Ask for a Convertible by Danit Brown?  Amazing stories, smart, gorgeously written stories, and funny, too) but somewhere along the line I got distracted by nonfiction, and all of its possibilities.  I recently passed along my old copies of Story magazine—1994-1996, the years I was in graduate school—to one of my MFA students.  It was a nostalgic moment for me, sort of like passing a torch, this handing over of stories that represent my writerly education.  I want to return to stories again someday, but for now I’m studying up on all the forms an essay can take.

LNB: What books (new or not so new) have you recently read and recommend?

DJ: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.  This is my favorite book by anybody ever.  I’ve given away more copies of this book than any other, and I reread it every summer.

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