INTERVIEW: Melissa Febos

Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart, which came out in paperback on July 19th. I first became aware of Febos because we are both women writers in recovery for drug addiction. Her book intrigued me because it’s about her four-year stint as a dominatrix in a dungeon in Manhattan’s Midtown, as well as her drug use and recovery, and anything that combines sexuality — particularly the stranger aspects — with drugs sounds like a good read to me. And Whip Smart was — surprisingly so.

I expected it to be interesting, funny, and strange, and it was indeed all of these things. But I was pleased to discover that Febos’ book was more than an amusing chronicle of shocking events. Instead, she meticulously questioned and analyzed the motives and driving factors behind her own actions, as well as those of her clients and coworkers. And this unflinching eye was at once empathetic and unforgiving — which, of course, is a difficult line to walk — ultimately making Whip Smart a rewarding and touching first book that is, as Darin Strauss said, “a true story (in both senses of the word).” I recently interviewed Febos about the book, as well as the novel she’s currently working on.

Julia Jackson: What part of your book were you most frightened of having your mother reading?

Melissa Febos: The explicit drug-use passages, and the submissive sessions. My family knew I was in recovery, but I had spared them the gory details of how I got there, so I knew those would come as a shock, that it was impossible to spare them the inevitable “what could we have done?” questions. And who ever wants their parents to read anything about their sexual experiences? Not me.

JJ: You’re at work on a novel, correct? What is it about?

MF: I am working on a novel. In fact, I just left an artist’s colony where I very nearly completed the first draft of it. “What’s it about” is always a tough question. I never know quite whether to go with plot, or theme. Someone asked me recently “what part of your experience does it come from?” which sat a little easier, probably because I’m a memoirist. “The Flood” is about female friendship — how complex and magical and hilarious and romantic and scary it can be. It’s also about how different relationships influence your work as an artist. How god, mental illness and music can all save your life or kill you, depending on the day. We’ll see how it turns out. Right now it’s pretty unsightly.

JJ: How does the process of writing fiction and writing a memoir differ for you? Are there any similarities?

MF: Fiction is so hard! Well, writing is hard. But fiction and nonfiction differ a lot, ask different things of the writer. Nonfiction requires that you make an unflinching appraisal of your subject, and yourself. Fiction requires that you let go of yourself. In the middle of this fictional world of my invention, I long for the finite qualities of nonfiction — a set of materials that do not change, that I cannot reimagine completely. Fiction is a more delicate, magical process — more alchemy than chemistry. If you lose faith in the world you’ve created, it ceases to exist. So, a crisis of confidence can be a bigger disaster. And crises of confidence are pretty mandatory.

JJ: Do any of the things you learned in recovery translate to writing?

MF: All of them. In my experience, all the things worth sticking to in life require the same tools, and I learned how to use those because my life depended on it. So, in sense, getting clean taught me how to write, how to be in a relationship, and how to have a spiritual practice: show up, ask for help, let yourself make mistakes, keep going no matter what.

JJ: How do you feel about the response to your book?

MF: I’m really grateful for the overwhelmingly positive response to the book. Prior to publication, I braced myself for a much more mixed response, for more personal attacks, being that it’s such a provocative topic. Most people — both readers and critics — really understood what I was trying to do with it, and I’ve gotten thousands of letters from people thanking me, telling me how it helped them. I can’t ask for anything more. Of course, it’s tough not to look for the criticisms, which sting particularly when they come from people who didn’t read the book, just saw pictures of me in the paper or whatever, but I’ve gotten better at not reading everything written about me. I think once you become a public figure of any kind, you quickly learn that it only gets in the way of the work.

JJ: When the book was first coming out, did you have any trepidation about the personal experiences that it contained? If so, how do you feel now?

MF: Of course. I almost published it under a pseudonym, but couldn’t stomach the idea of creating a secret identity to publish a book all about eschewing the confines of having a secret identity. I knew that once it was out there in world, I couldn’t take it back, couldn’t stop anyone from reading it: colleagues, friends, family, my future children. That still scares me. But there’s also a lot of freedom in it. I admire nothing more than radical honesty — I think it has the power to free more than just the teller, by relieving other people from the burden of wondering if they are alone in their particular brand of loneliness, shame, desire, doubt, whatever. I want to feel less alone, and I want other people to feel less alone, and if telling the story of my least-proud moments has the power to do that (and I’ve seen that it does), it’s completely worth it.

JJ: Please describe the oddest penis you have ever seen, as a dominatrix or otherwise.

MF: They are all so, so odd.

— Melissa Febos is the author of Whip Smart, a memoir about her four-year tenure as a dominatrix at a dungeon in New York City, which came out in paperback on July 19th.
— Julia Jackson writes fiction and is the Editor of Electric Dish. She has an MFA from Brooklyn College.

Don’t miss Melissa Febos’s heatwave mixtape: Songs for Dog Days.

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