Chloe Caldwell Has Gained Control
The author on personal essays, flaws and an existential attitude
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In 2012, Chloe Caldwell published her first book, the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray. She was only 26, and the book was warmly received by both readers and critics. Women, a restrained and beautiful novella followed in 2014. Her third book, an essay collection entitled I’ll Tell You in Person (Coffee House), was published Tuesday. The book covers a lot of ground, chronicling the life of a young woman who is in turns reckless, fastidious, self-aware, solipsistic, depressed, and joyful, and the combination of these contradictions makes the book both surprising and familiar. It’s a fun, funny, heartbreaking book, one that also happens to be compulsively readable.
I’ll Tell You in Person is the second release from the new Emily Books imprint under Coffee House. Emily Books isn’t new — they’ve been an eBook store run by Emily Gould and Ruth Curry since 2011, selecting “underappreciated novels and memoirs, mostly by women.” They published the eBook of Women, and other writers like Eileen Myles, Renata Adler, Nell Zink, Chelsea Hodson, and Melissa Broder (and also myself).
I interviewed Caldwell about the book, her publishing process, a substance called Kratom, writing about Lena Dunham, and other things, via email. Full disclosure: Caldwell and I are friends.
Juliet Escoria: I have had a hard time with figuring out the difference between fiction and nonfiction in my writing. Has it been easier for you? When did you know that Women was fiction and not an essay? Do you worry about bending the truth with your essays? Did any of the essays in I’ll Tell You in Person begin as something else?
Chloe Caldwell: I differentiate by structure. I’d never written in the structure of Women, like a novella, so that helped me fictionalize. For essays I go into them with some internal conflict, which you can see in most the ITYIP essays. ITYIP would never be a short story collection, for example. If I wanted to write a short story collection, I’d broach it completely differently.
I feel like your first book could read more like short stories, and you use plot more, whereas my essays don’t usually have plots other than emotional plot. When I’m using emotional plot, it’s just super nonfiction essay-ish to me.
I’d been working on Women for about two months before I began fictionalizing, bending truth, and adding characters. What freedom! I’d like to write in that style again. I’m pretty drained on the personal essay form.
No, I don’t worry about bending the truth in my essays too much because I’m usually not reporting on plot-like stories or quoting tons of people. Most my essays are my internal thoughts. I don’t bend the truth as far as I know. I dramatize it, sure, with emotions, but I don’t bend it.
JE: I love Emily Books, and think it is very cool that you are one of the first authors to be published under their Coffee House imprint. Can you talk about your publication & editing process with them?
CC: We are so lucky to live in a world where Emily Books exists. When they bought the collection it looked quite different. With their direction, I added “Failing Singing” and “In Real Life,” and developed most of the other essays. We kept changing the order and talking about section titles (which ultimately felt unnecessary).
After they bought it, Emily sent me a long “big picture” letter pointing out my strengths and weaknesses and discussing thematic ideas, essay by essay. I took that letter and went back to the MS for about four months, and then began the line editing process with Ruth. So they did all the editing stuff and then the Coffee House team came in with marketing questionnaires and cover ideas. It’s been a unique experience, especially since I was friends with Emily and Ruth ahead of time. That makes it even more special, because I can text them about TV shows and shit as well as professional stuff. Like I was just asking Emily which dress I should wear to my book party. It’s a lucky place to be in.
JE: One thing I like about writers who write nonfiction and/or autobiographical fiction is that the actual life of the author becomes art, and part of a larger story that gets more complicated and nuanced with each book. Do you think of your three books in that way? How do you see them in relationship to Chloe Caldwell, the person?
CC: I’m so close to it that it’s challenging for me to answer questions like this. The biggest thing for me is how they’ve organized my life. I look back at my books to remember where I was living, who I was dating, where I was working. Legs Get Led Astray was my move-to-Portland-start therapy-stop-doing-drugs book. After selling Women I moved into my apartment and got my shit together in many ways. With ITYIP I began teaching, bought a car, bought a couch. (Not off my advance, with teaching money.) That’s how I look at my books. Ha.
JE: The essay “Hungry Ghost” is about your experiences with a celebrity who you describe as “somewhere on the spectrum between Eileen Myles and Beyonce” and as “someone [you, the reader] admire too — or you might hate her and think she’s fat.” Did you feel weird or uncomfortable or hopeful when thinking about her reading it? Were you worried you were portraying her in an unflattering way? Was there any particular weight to it, considering you were writing about someone who is so famous? What were you considering when you decided not to name her, but to make it fairly easy to figure out which celebrity you were talking about?
CC: I suppose my superpower is not thinking about stuff like that when I write. I really let myself write the essay how I want to, because I’m writing for fun, and I can decide later to publish it or not. Mary Karr, I think, has what she calls a “compassion read.” I guess I do something similar and during line edits, by triple-checking if there’s any lines that are unnecessary or exposing or hurtful, and if so, then I delete them. I try to strike a balance of fairness. I don’t know if I achieve it but I attempt to.
I was extremely worried Lena Dunham would feel disrespected, and fretted a lot about it, which now seems funny now. When galleys were sent out, I sent her a copy and an email warning her. That’s my rule, not letting people be surprised. She was totally understanding and said something like, “When you do what I do, you can’t get mad at anyone else for what they do!” Later when she read it, she sent me a kind email and we processed a bit and that was the end. This has been my experience for the most part with nonfiction and writing about people: it’s never as horrible as you imagine it will be. She understood I wasn’t trying to call her a flake, it was just good ground for an essay and I tried to make myself look like the retard in the essay. Which was easy! I did consider sending her the essay pre-galleys but ultimately didn’t want to change anything I’d written and not using her name was a way for us both to feel better about it, I think. I’m talking openly now that it’s her because she said that’s fine.
Remember that reading we did in Chicago last winter? One chick came up to me afterwards and asked if it was Mindy Kaling!
This has been my experience for the most part with nonfiction and writing about people: it’s never as horrible as you imagine it will be.
JE: I’ve had this weird experience after publishing stuff I wrote that was based on the not-so-great parts of myself and my past. It always feels embarrassing at first but then eventually things shift, in a way that feels sort of like a healthy kind of compartmentalization. Is it like that for you? You certainly don’t seem to be concerned about making yourself out to be this person who has it all together, which is one of the things I most admire about your work.
CC: I’ve noticed when my books first release there’s total adrenaline and it’s absolutely mortifying and then over a year or so, it starts to feel more like “work.” You read so much from your shit and answer all these questions that there’s a distance, more like a chore. You get tiny chunks of money for different things. I read from Women the other night and honestly have a feeling now of like, who wrote this? It’s bizarre. I guess I’m good at disassociating. I do that when I give readings as well, thinking about baseball in my head as I read so I can disconnect from the material.
I just read an article in Psychology Today, which my therapist lets me take from her waiting room because it’s my guilty pleasure, about rewriting our life stories into a way you can live with. It says:
We can’t change the past, but we can change how it affects us and who it makes us. When we tweak what we tell ourselves about the past, we can redirect our future. In our relationships, through our life choices, or at our jobs, we can recognize our mistakes, move on, and start to embody a different story. Rewriting helps you gain perspective, sort out your emotions and increase narrative coherence — your understanding of who you are, how you became that person and where you are going.
That really resonated with me.
JE: ITYIP covers a lot of ground, both in subject matter and tone. You have funny, gossipy essays like “Hungry Ghost,” and then heavier, more devastating essays like “Maggie and Me: A Love Story” and “Berlin.” Were you conscious of making sure you covered a wide variety of emotional experiences? How did you decide on the arrangement of the essays, and the decision to break the collection into three parts?
CC: I’m glad it reads that way. I collected all of the essays I had into the MS, then cut some shitty ones and added others. I wrote a few specifically for the collection, such as “Sisterless” and “The Music & The Boys.” There was no reason for it to be chronological so we played around with order. The segments aren’t labeled which I like because the reader can take away whatever themes emerge for them on their own.
Most collections are split into parts so I was just mimicking other books. I do sort of like how it starts off more druggie-like and self-destructive but then gives way to essays about women writers who have touched my life in some way. I don’t know how conscious I was. I just worked with what I had and prayed for the best!
JE: I thought it was neat that you open your collection with a short essay about your relationship to personal essays — your experience with reading and publishing them, and also reactions you’ve gotten from other people. And then there is the conversation you once told me about, with another writer who was acting as though there was something unsavory or unliterary about the personal essay as form. Do you feel self-conscious about publishing personal essays? Why do people hate on them, or act as though there’s something tawdry about writing about oneself? I mean, isn’t all writing, in some way, about ourselves? At least personal essays are up-front about it.
CC: I feel self-conscious about it in some ways, but not enough not to do it. I’d likely feel self-conscious about any career choice I’ve chosen.
I don’t know why people hate on them. I think when people write openly about flaws, it reminds readers of parts of themselves they hate or aren’t always in touch with. Some people are so embarrassed by the personal essay that they won’t publish them, where I’m not that embarrassed, and that makes the difference between what they do and what I do — I put mine out there. It takes all kinds. Sorry for being corny. I just like, don’t care anymore. About genre snobbiness and people’s thoughts on personal essays. It seems beat. I don’t care if people find me “literary” or not. I enjoy writing and that’s more than I can say for a lot of writers. Excuse the rant.
I don’t care if people find me “literary” or not. I enjoy writing and that’s more than I can say for a lot of writers. Excuse the rant.
People keep asking me why they’re hated on, but that’s not my experience. Sure, people think fiction is a higher art. But in my world I publish them, read them, and teach them, so I’m biased and in a bubble of people who love and support them.
My existential attitude of “We’re all gonna die who cares” has been helpful for me when it comes to this stuff. Because we’re all gonna die. Who cares? Let people write/read what they want. And yeah exactly — if I’m upfront about my flaws and stupid shit I’ve done, I guess I feel I’ve gained some control on that part of my life and since I’m calling it out first, it makes me in some way feel protected from what reviewers and people say.
JE: One time you gave me Kratom before a reading and all it did was make me feel shaky and nervous. What the hell is Kratom? What does it do for you? Why do you like it so much? Also just now while Googling to make sure I was spelling Kratom correctly, I came across this article, which says as of 9/30, the FDA will designate it as a Schedule I drug. How does this make you feel? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?!
CC: Juliet, I’m fucked. I can’t even get into it here. It’s too devastating and private. I don’t understand how Kratom did that to you, probably cause you mixed it with Red Bull or something. But I’m also relieved, I knew this day would come eventually.
JE: Have you seen the Pitchfork series “Over/Under”? (If not, I highly recommend the Kathleen Hannah, RiFF RAFF, and Earl Sweatshirt episodes.) Can we play over/under with the following?
CC: Never seen it, but I do love Erik Andre.
JE: Ben Lerner.
CC: Would anyone call Ben Lerner underrated? People cream their pants for his books.
JE: Elizabeth Ellen.
CC: HARD UNDER. EE is behind-the-scenes supportive of so many women writers and has helped me emotionally and financially. And romantically. Just kidding. Maybe.
CC: HARD UNDER. Why the fuck does no one eat bread anymore? Trust no one who doesn’t. In an ideal world, I eat bread every day.
CC: OVER. Don’t get me wrong, I eat it, but you can just put chickpeas in a blender and make it instead of paying 6.99.