10 Questions with LitReactor Instructor Chloe Caldwell
[Women] is a novella about falling in love with a woman, about loving women, about being a woman. It is a novella about a mother and a daughter. A novella about female friendships that blur the line of romance. A novella about a woman who, after having her first sexual relationship with a woman, goes on a series of (comical) OK Cupid dates with other women. A novella about a woman in her twenties who doesn’t know if she’s gay or straight or bi. A novella about falling in love and having your heart broken and figuring out what to do next. The book is an urgent recall of heartbreak, of a stark identity in crisis.
Women, the new novella from LitReactor instructor Chloe Caldwell, is a deeply personal and intimate reflection on sexuality and friendship. It's also very, very funny. And also, beautifully written. It digs deep into truths about love and heartbreak that are so universal, it struck a chord of familiarity with me. I loved it.
It'll be available Oct. 1, from Hobart's SF/LD Books, and you can pre-order it here. She's also teaching another installment of her hit class, Polish & Publish Your Personal Essay, starting September 4th. The students who've worked with her have published their work in places like Hobart, The Manifest-Station, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and xoJane. Though, if you want in, get moving—there are only a few seats left.
To mark the release of Women, we brought in Chloe for our patent-pending 10 Question interview. Dig it.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
Though I must have written stories as a child, I don’t remember any.
The first story I remember clearly was when I was twenty and enrolled in Gotham Writer’s Workshop in NYC. I wrote a story called “The Window.” I emailed it to my parents and my brother.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
The first piece of writing I got money for was an essay called “Masturbating with Moxie” which you can find in my book, Legs Get Led Astray. The website The Frisky published it and sent me a check for $75.00. I was twenty-five. To celebrate I sent a photo of the check to my mom. Ha. I don’t remember doing anything else. Maybe had a beer with my dad.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
In the morning only. When I am working on a book or a particular piece I am excited about, I will start at 8 or 9 a.m. and finish at 3 or 4 p.m. I don’t like writing at night. At night I read or watch a movie. My creative energy dwindles out. I start to second guess everything, whereas in the morning, I get really stoked.
So I’ll get up, (if I’m on a good roll I’ll meditate for twenty minutes) then make tea or coffee, and go into my office, which is a small closet with a built in desk, shelves, and an antique looking window. It also coincidentally does not get the Wi-Fi that the rest of the apartment does. Shut the door. Light a candle. Put on my headphones. I listen to Sharon Van Etten, Fleet Foxes, Lana Del Ray, Coco Rosie, Grimes, Sigur Ros, Lykke Li, Fever Ray, Frida Hyvonen, Jenny Wilson, while writing. The last four I listed are Swedish females, they are my favorites. And then I just go for it. It’s *literally* my favorite thing to do, besides like, sleeping, or visiting a winery or dancing with good friends.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Maybe being overly generous. Thinking I’ve owed people more than the words on the page. You don’t. You can just say a simple “thank you.”
What else? Drinking too much at literary events before reading.
Turning pieces in too soon and then wanting to change them.
Forgetting that once something is online you can’t exactly get it off.
Not asking for enough money. (Though it’s important to do things for free. Of course. I wrote for years unpaid and still do. But sometimes it’s okay to ask for money and if the sum doesn’t feel fair, it’s okay to say so.)
But, no regrets here. I’ve had a good trajectory. Writing has been the best and most rewarding thing in my life, including all of the mistakes. They only make my experience richer.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
I don’t remember achieving any catharsis from it. I don’t think that’s necessarily how writing works. But it's cool to see yourself working things out. If you’re genuinely writing from a place of love and compassion, then you are forced to do all of the important things in life on the page: forgive and accept. So maybe that’s what I achieved.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Zoe from Maggie Estep’s novel Diary of an Emotional Idiot or Alice from her novel Alice Fantastic. Because Maggie Estep created those characters and they are reminiscent of her spirit and brain. Though I think both those characters end up getting sober, so we wouldn’t have a drink, we’d have tea or lemonade. Or maybe Finn from Women. (Half kidding.) Or Nothing/Patrick from Perks of Being A Wallflower, cause he’s hilarious. And I’d definitely drink a bottle of wine or two with Caitlin and Vix from Judy Blume’s book Summer Sisters. I know you asked me for only one and most people probably pick the classics but, I am trying to answer this truthfully.
Where do you buy your books?
That’s a cool question. I buy books in whatever bookstore in whatever city I am in. So usually: The Spotty Dog Books and Ale in Hudson where I live. The Strand when I’m in the city. WORD when I’m in Brooklyn. Literati Bookstore when I’m in Ann Arbor. Powell’s online. On the street if someone’s selling em’. Goodwill. I bought a bunch of books yesterday at a new (used) bookstore called Magpie Bookshop in Catskill, and from an eccentric woman’s art gallery, also in Catskill. I scored hard yesterday. And ordering books from places like Emily Books or Publication Studio is fun, too.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
I talk about it with people I trust, then get offline for a few and get over myself. Bad reviews are good for us. The first review I got for Legs Get Led Astray’s first sentence was how the reviewer wanted to throw the book against the wall. It made my stomach hurt, but then I sort of admired the reviewer more. And I was glad she had such a strong reaction. Bad reviews of your own work are a thousand times more interesting than good reviews. They can give you a good laugh, and/or you can learn something. Plus, if I read that review of LGLA and I were someone else, it would probably make me go buy the book.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
I’m starting to feel like any advice is bad advice. This past July I attended a writing workshop in Big Sur, California. The teachers there were Steve Almond, Cheryl Strayed, Pam Houston, Samantha Dunn, and Alan Heathcock. By the end of the week, we students had had lectures with each of the authors. And it was super comical—they all contradicted one another like crazy. During one lecture the teacher would say, “You MUST write every day” and the next day the teacher would say, “Don’t write every day. I‘ve never believed in that.” Pam Houston told stories about putting fictional anecdotes into her nonfiction and then Cheryl Strayed would say you can’t do that. We were all cracking up by the end. What works for me will not necessarily work for you and vice versa. Anyway, I’m not really into advice. The lists that go viral on the internet giving advice for writers annoy the crap out of me and I don’t look at them. That stuff only makes one more muddled up. You have to trust your gut and have a handful of good friends to talk to about writing conflicts.
WILDCARD: Women is a semi-autobiographical novella, so I imagine there's a Finn out there somewhere. How did it affect your process, writing so intimately about someone you know will probably read it? And are you worried about running into that person afterward?
Finn was an amalgamation of a dozen women, so it would be impossible to run into her, because I invented her. All writers write about people, living and dead. It’s difficult to avoid. You just do the best you can, and if you are writing narrative, be it fiction or non, then you always throw yourself under the bus more than any of your characters. Like, nobody (okay, maybe not nobody) wants to read a narrative from the perspective of a victim OR a hero. It’s boring. Old. It’s for your journal. If you are writing from your perspective, or a version of your perspective, you have to take responsibilities for your actions. I am interested in profoundly flawed characters in books (and who are we kidding, in real life too) and have no problem shining light on my flaws, but it is tricky territory and not entirely fair to shine that light on others. I think it was author Stephen Elliott that says, “Being written about is like being given a score on a test you never knew you took” or something to that effect. I don’t envy anyone that gets written about, but at least in my case, if I am profoundly altered by a person, they are going to show up in my writing. They just are, and as my mom told me when I was conflicted about this, “It’s not like you’re out there killing people.” I am writing books. We will all be dead soonish, and writing is what I do with my time living.
As for writing intimately, a group of really wonderful friends helps with this. I had five girl friends I talked to consistently through the writing of Women, and without their perspectives and ideas I would have been much more lost and lonely than I am. You have to have a group of people you trust and you know will give it to you straight. Once you find those friends, hold on to them tightly.
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