Episode 92: Spring Book Break
5/12/17 - We pause on a week of WTF political news, seeking refuge in the printed word. We discuss Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper; Isadora by Amelia Gray; Grace and the Fever by Zan Romanoff; and Startup: A Novel by Doree Shafrir.
Our theme song is Call Your Girlfriend by Robyn.
Original music composed and performed by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs.
Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper
Isadora by Amelia Gray
Grace and the Fever by Zan Romanoff
Startup: A Novel by Doree Shafrir
The Power of Onlyness by Nilofer Merchant
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.: Essays by Samantha Irby
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat
Tag your spring reads #cygbooks
Aminatou: Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend.
Ann: A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.
Aminatou: I am Aminatou Sow.
Ann: And I am Ann Friedman.
Ann: Hey! Oh my god, I am so excited about this episode.
Aminatou: I know. I'm super-excited about this episode. There's one million things happening in the news we can't talk about because today we're talking about something we love, a.k.a. reading books.
Ann: Oh, I know. And in a way, I mean I know we talk a lot about how it's impossible for us to keep up with the news cycle at this point in time but that feels especially true this week and so let's just take refuge in the pre-printed written word, shall we?
Aminatou: I know. I know.
Aminatou: This is exciting. All three of us actually got to talk to a couple authors that we were excited about, or like their books that we were reading right now that are pretty timely and that are out.
Ann: They all either just have come out in the last two weeks or will be out within the next two weeks so are all brand, brand new, all written by women we know and whose work I think most of us have admired for a long time. They have women at their core. I think that's another big thing: a lot of these books are really about a female experience. What else? What else am I missing?
Aminatou: I mean that's it, you know? Women who read. All I'm thinking about now is that Zebra Katz song about reading. Do you know what I'm talking about?
Ann: Yes. [Laughs] Are you going to sing it?
Aminatou: No, I'm not going to sing it because I have this awful cold/I cannot sing. I think it was She Reads? Man, what an early formative song moment for us.
Ann: I'm doing a Google right now.
Aminatou: Zebra Katz. Ima Read. Yes.
Ann: Ima Read. Oh, yeah.
Aminatou: This song has nothing to do with reading actual books but it has everything to do with reading souls.
Ima school that bitch
Ima take that bitch to college
Ima give that bitch some knowledge
Ann: But we'll use it for our purposes here.
Aminatou: Exactly. Ima Read. Ima Read.
Ann: Our literal and literary purposes.
Aminatou: Real talk. So the first author that I talked to is Helene Cooper who is a reporter at the New York Times. It's actually like full-circle. I've been reading her like forever and ever and ever because forever and ever and ever she was the only person that kind of wrote about Africa in the Times at all. It was her and Lydia Polgreen. And so, you know, it's like when you care about that part of the world the byline jumps out at you. Anyway, she wrote this great book called Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who is as you know the woman president in Liberia who has a really fascinating just life and journey. And so it was cool to talk to her about what the parallels were with kind of the political moment that we're having here but also, you know, it's like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, it's not all ñ like everything's not on the up-and-up over there. So it's also fascinating to see how you can build your own public mythology or whatever and not go challenged because she really is kind of the wet dream of a technocrat. You know, it's like if the IMF and all these other world organizations dreamed up who should be an African president it would actually be this woman.
Ann: A complicated figure.
Aminatou: Exactly, a really complicated figure. But also, you know, African countries have been having women presidents forever and ever and ever, like this is great. Read the book, learn something about a different part of the world, and do other stuff. Here's me talking to Helene.
Aminatou: Helene Cooper, thank you so much for chatting with me about your fantastic book out Madame President. I was so, so struck by reading this book because it hits really close to home to me. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first democratically-elected female president in African history. Some said it would never happen and to our delight it happened in Africa faster than it happened in some countries. [Laughs] We won't really name names.
Helene: Your gift for understatement is remarkable.
Aminatou: I know, right? I'm like I won't even get into the fantastic New York Times piece that you wrote about this. In your own words what do you think her legacy and really lasting contribution to feminism is? Because I think that in that context it's something that firsts are something that we think about a lot and here is a woman who has had an outsized impact on her country and continent and really in the way that we think about female leadership.
Helene: I think she is going to have an outsize legacy when it comes to feminism both in micro ways and in macro ways. Micro, it would be you walk into any elementary school now in Liberia and you go talk to an eight- or nine-year-old girl and she's going to tell you she can be president. She's going to tell you that she ñ you know, many of them will tell you that she will be president. And I can't tell you enough just how big a deal that is, just opening up the world to these young women and the opportunity that they have now to dream and to dream big. So I think that's huge.
On the macro level I think what she represents is the African women that you guys and I all know of. These are the market women that basically carry that continent on their backs. Any African country you go to you're going to see the women on the side of the roads with the baking markets selling their oranges, selling their nuts, selling Maggi bouillon cubes. They're going to be the ones farming the fields. They're going to be the ones making what commercial money there is to be made. And what Ellen Johnson Sirleaf represents is the realization by these women that they can turn that economic power that they've always had, because they've been the ones doing the work, into political power. And I think that is equally huge.
Aminatou: You know, one thing that I was so struck by is just how both inspiring and heartbreaking her story is.
Aminatou: At the same time just going from being an ordinary kind of Liberian mother of four boys to an international banker which in and of itself it's like that's living ten lives. I was really struck by also just the candidness around the domestic violence that she's encountered and how open she was to talking about that.
Helene: Mm-hmm. That took time. She wasn't initially open about it, and I think she doesn't actually like talking about it. I kept coming back to it and coming back to it and her response ñ this will sound familiar to you, and it's kind of heartbreaking as well ñ she kept saying ìI don't want to talk too much about the domestic violence because I have sons and this is their father and I don't want to sound like I'm criticizing their father. He's dead now.î And I'm like ìBut your sons are 55 and 50 years old.î And she's like ìYeah, but this is still their dad.î
But at the same time she recognizes the fact that so many women across the world go through domestic violence and she has to talk about it because she's an example of how you can come out of it. And in many ways I think it's far more important for her to stand as that example than to protect her 60-year-old sons.
Aminatou: Right. It's like seeing how her own personal story just fits into this larger narrative of what's going on with Liberian women and what's going on with West African women and really women everywhere.
Helene: Yes, it really very much is. I mean she was ñ she got married early. She had children. She had all four boys before she was 21 years old and she had to give them up so she could go to college and that's one of those choices that women for decades have had to make, children or career, and she went for career. But she still carries that guilt around to the point that she talks about it all ñ you know, she's still talking about a choice that she made when she was 21 and she still feels bad about it. Which in the middle of the Ebola epidemic, I was interviewing her about Ebola and she came ñ it was kind of heartbreaking. She came back to reminiscing about the fact that her youngest son, Atama (?) doesn't have any godparents because she was away at school when he was at the age he would've been christened.
And that kind of stuff, you just made me think women carry so much unseen baggage with the years of Nobel Peace Prize winner, president of Liberia, this woman has done so much. We're sitting in the middle of an Ebola epidemic and she is agonizing over something that happened 60 years ago when she wasn't able to baptize her son.
Aminatou: Yeah, you know, and I'm glad that you brought up the Ebola crisis because I think that in some way it is one of the kind of big pushbacks and criticisms that she gets is that on one hand Liberian women through their sheer force brought her to power. It's like I remember that 2005 election so much. It's like she's running against this very popular soccer player. All of the men want to vote for the soccer player. And in some ways . . .
Helene: You should be saying football now. What's this soccer business?
Aminatou: I know. Well, you know, American podcast. [Laughs] Do you love the idea of her running against an NFL player though? That would be kind of amazing.
Helene: That would be amazing.
Aminatou: You know, but seeing kind of the response, the really sluggish response to the Ebola crisis and the overhaul of neglected health systems and education, how do you respond to some of these criticisms that she is failing the same women who really uplifted her?
Helene: I helped make these criticisms so I don't feel like I need to respond to it.
Aminatou: Well how do you think she would respond to them?
Helene: She would say that she's had a lot on her plate and she would absolutely agree with you that the health system in Liberia is failing but this is also a country that came out of 14 years of civil war that was apocalyptic, you know? So it's got a long way to go. She definitely was in denial at the beginning of the Ebola crisis and I think she was so focused on trying to bring in more foreign investment and developments to Liberia that she was hoping that if she ignored it Ebola would go away and it didn't.
To her credit she responded ñ when she finally got her stuff together she responded to it far more aggressively than either Guinea or Sierra Leone which is why Liberia came out of the Ebola crisis far faster than either Guinea or Sierra Leone. And that is in large part to the fact that Liberians were going crazy. I mean she has allowed ñ and that's because of her. She allowed all this freedom of speech and freedom of press in Liberia so Liberians held their government to account in a way that a lot of other African and West African countries do not.
So you turn on the radio during the Ebola crisis in Liberia and people were going nuts and they were absolutely ñ they were calling for her to resign; there were people saying she should step aside. And she responded really quickly. And that's like ñ so in a lot of ways, because of the freedom of press and freedom of speech that she opened up in Liberia she was held more accountable and she reacted. She got around to reacting sooner than I think the presidents, her counterparts in Guinea and Sierra Leone, did.
Aminatou: What's one thing you think that we don't know about her that we should?
Helene: She's funny. She has a subversive sense of humor that is actually hilarious. Anybody that meets her at first is going to come away thinking that she's really reserved. She's a little . . . she doesn't want anybody to touch her. She'll give you her hand but she's not doing that hugging and kissing that we like to do in West Africa on meeting people.
Helene: You know, she comes across as sort of . . . but once you start talking to her, and this came from when I first started interviewing her for the book, because I've lived in America ñ the United States ñ I'm from Liberia originally but I've lived in the United States, as had she, I started interviewing her in American English because that's coming across on this New York Times report. I wanted to show my journalistic credential. I don't know, I was being very formal and she was answering me formally in American English. And it wasn't until I switched one day by accident to Liberian English that all the walls came tumbling down. And then I was like ìOh my God, she's hilarious.î And when you break down those walls she's very, very funny. She has a slick sense of humor and I don't think a lot of people realize that.
Aminatou: That makes me deeply, deeply, deeply happy, more than anything else around her, because there's such a mythology around her, you know?
Aminatou: And I think that also just this not giving especially powerful women who are in public just this . . . you know?
Helene: Let them be human.
Aminatou: Yeah, just let them be human.
Helene: I know. I mean there were so many ñ once we started talking in Liberian English there were so many things she would tell me that I'm like ìOh my God, I can't believe she's telling me this,î and I would be trying to take notes in a slick way but I don't want her to stop talking about stuff. I mean she told me about dating her husband, when she first met him, and they had sex before marriage, and at the honeymoon they had to pretend that she was a virgin.
Helene: He's like slitting his wrist to put blood on the sheets and all this stuff that is like totally everybody goes through this. Totally I could just ñ you know, I could see this. And she's like ìHe, he, he.î And I'm like ìOkay, this is a Nobel Peace Prize winner president.î And a lot of that stuff comes across once you start chatting to her.
Aminatou: That makes me really happy, you know? And I think too just this thing you touched on earlier about young women just seeing her and thinking about their own possibilities and their own abilities and really what we can achieve, I think it is remarkable that this happened in Africa but also African women are the backbone of the entire world. And so it's not surprising, you know, that she comes from that.
Helene: They really are. It made me so proud.
Aminatou: Deep, deep tradition.
Helene: It was like after years of watching the wars in Liberia and throughout West Africa and every time Liberia was on the news it was something horrific. And then all of a sudden I'm in New York at my job at the New York Times and to see my Liberian women do something that American women hadn't done yet I was incandescently proud.
Aminatou: That makes me really happy. Helene Cooper, thank you so much for joining me today. I can't wait to see what's next for you.
Helene: Thank you so much for having me.
Ann: That was so great. When is Madame President out, Amina?
Aminatou: It's currently out right now. It came out March 7th, so put that shit in your Amazon cart.
Aminatou: Or if you're a good person go to your independent bookstore and buy it.
Ann: The next author I spoke with is the president's problematic daughter — just kidding. It is definitely not.
Ann: That is not the . . .
Aminatou: I started gasping. I started gasping.
Ann: No, I'm sorry, I just gave you a heart attack. For real, though, the next writer I spoke with is Amelia Gray who is a Los Angeles based novelist. She had a collection of short stories come out last year or maybe the year before called Gutshot which I really liked and a novel before that called Threats which I think one thing that she does really well is write the kind of internal experience of a character who's going through something really difficult.
Ann: And really kind of like goes deep on the psyche. She told me recently she was sick of being described as an absurdist but she's also one of my favorite absurdists.
Aminatou: She really is.
Ann: The best. Her latest novel is I feel justified in calling it epic because it is sprawling and based on the life of Isadora Duncan who is credited by most people as the mother of the modern dance movement. So like a huge creative innovator, but also just this woman who was larger-than-life and very much ahead of her time and super modern and a lot of the things she goes through ñ she had kind of a tragic life, particularly the period that Amelia writes about. But I was just shocked reading it how modern she feels as a figure and how modern a lot of the things she struggles with also feel. So here's me chatting with Amelia Gray about her epic novel Isadora.
Ann: Hi, Amelia.
Amelia: Hi, Ann.
Ann: Thanks for coming on the podcast.
Amelia: Oh, thank you for having me here.
Ann: So for those of us who haven't perused the Wikipedia page can you give me your — the you Wikipedia version of who was Isadora Duncan?
Amelia: Isadora Duncan was they call her the mother of modern dance. She was born in Oakland, California and was teaching dance when she was eight years old. She came to Chicago and then New York then to London. She kind of had her family trailing behind her as sort of comet tail. She was kind of an ingenue. She gave lectures in Berlin on the future of dance, the future of movement. She was obsessed with Nietzsche. She was a very serious young lady and became a very serious woman and then she lived a really extraordinary, unusual, strange life. She had a series of lovers. She was connected with Gordon Craig. He was the son of Ellen Terry, the actress, and he was a set designer and they had a child together. She had a child with Paris Singer who was the son of Isaac Singer, the sewing machine magnate, who had 24 children.
Amelia: And the two of them had their own child. Yeah. She inserted herself in the center of this turn of the century drama and generated about 70% of it. And in 1912 when she was 37 years old her two children drowned in an accident in the Seine. And then from there she kind of spun out and continued on a series of paths that she had kind of laid for herself.
Ann: I mean aside from the globetrotting, meeting every famous person of her time child prodigy aspects of her one of the things that I had to keep reminding myself when I was reading it was just the date in terms of, you know, this is an era when the language around women's autonomy and women's choices was just not there. And she's like, you know, I had to keep reminding myself she's making these choices at a time when other people are not doing this, even among her kind of artsy socialite class.
Amelia: Right. Right. In the era that I'm looking at the word boyfriend wasn't around, you know? There was this really weird post-Victorian, pre-20s kind of austerity that was starting to break down and would be pretty broken by World War I. But she had no interest in conventional rules, and the reasons for that are many I assume.
Ann: Mostly they suck? [Laughs]
Amelia: Yeah. Right, right, right. Right. I don't know. I think a lot about what put her in a place to kind of feel brave to flaunt these rules. I think she always ñ she had a north star of her own for her whole life.
Ann: Yeah. Like if you can invent a style of dance you can invent your own way of living clearly, right?
Amelia: Yeah. I think that's very accurate.
Ann: But your book is not a biography.
Ann: It's a work of fiction.
Amelia: It's a work of fiction.
Ann: So I mean without going line-by-line what is the difference here and where did you leap off into your own realm?
Amelia: Yeah. Well, so Isadora is an interesting challenge. It was like I want to take a singular character who's larger-than-life, the kind of woman who will swap out a chair in a restaurant because she wants to properly pose, and I wanted to surround her with kind of the people that had to manage that and witness it and interact with it and love it, you know? That persona.
Ann: Who were regular life size, not larger-than-life size. Yeah.
Amelia: Indeed, and who had regular life size concerns.
Amelia: I realized really quickly I needed to have those kinds of foils or else she would just spin offstage and shoot into the stratosphere.
Ann: So how much did you care about ñ I mean I know that the biggest plot points of the book about the death of her children and geographically where she was spending time, all of those things match up with the reality of her life. Where were the gaps? Or where did you deliberately say ìOh, I'm going to write this differently than maybe I know it happened?î
Amelia: So I have ñ there are a bunch of great real biographies of Isadora and a lot of great writing and a few people who still teach her style and who are really super fans. And I've talked to them all, and it's great. But what I did to write the book is I drew from her autobiography which nobody thinks is real. It was clearly even when she was writing it fictionalized. She wanted it to be sensational, she wanted to control the narrative, and she wanted it to be larger-than-life and perfect and beautiful.
So there's a scene in the autobiography where she encounters a stranger on the beach in Viareggio in Italy and he says ìIs there anything I can do to help you?î And she says ìSave more than my life. Save my reason. Give me a child.î
Ann: [Laughs] So pretty low-key.
Amelia: Absolutely. Very casual and understanding. And nobody believes that is true and I love that. So what I did is I drew from the fiction of her life first instead of ñ I kind of took the broadest points of the real life to kind of just place her spatially, and then within that was she had this story of going to Constantinople, to I guess [0:24:05] to save a man who was in danger of dying by his own hand. It's just these ludicrous stories that I was like ìAll right, if that's the story let's sketch it out. Let's see what it looks like.î
Ann: When you read about totally self-directed artists who are women from the past hundred years, even fairly recently I think this holds true, they all come across as selfish assholes because in order to devote anything to your art beyond keeping home and house and whatever is just so outside the norm.
Amelia: Right. Right, right. Yeah. I think there is a lot of complicated feelings after the children died that Isadora kind of explores a little bit. And that I think comes from a place of being a really singular-minded, self-interested, narcissist kind of artist which artists are I think, you know? I'm not going to spend four years writing a book if I don't have a pretty big ego about my thoughts and feelings.
Ann: Oh, I love it. [Laughs] So what made you ñ I don't know, I think of you as one of my favorite absurdists.
Amelia: Thank you.
Ann: So what made you want to write something that's rooted in historical fact?
Amelia: I was really nervous about losing the absurd element or saying like okay, this isn't ñ you know, this isn't Gutshot. This isn't a short story where somebody's ripping off their skin. And then my editor said ìYou know, wow, you really brought so much of that absurd sense into this. This is so surprising.î
Ann: I totally agree with your editor, p.s.
Amelia: Good. Yeah. I thought it was a total divergence and I was trying for it, you know? Taking the left turn so that I don't feel like I'm on a path.
Ann: In a rut.
Amelia: In a rut, right. Oh my god, actually, and it's interesting that you say that, because I wrote a series of three stories about ruts and there's a character who's literally in a rut in the book. Yeah. I think that's not a mistake. [Laughs] I just ñ yeah. Wow.
Ann: But it also, I mean, I don't know, as sort of . . . I take a lot of hope from the notion that okay, even when you are challenging yourself or even when someone as a creator is trying to go way outside their zone that there are still threads. There are still things that connect them, and you're like ìI would've read that book and in an instant identified it in a lineup as yours.î
Amelia: Oh, yeah. [Laughs]
Ann: You know, next to many others. Which I think is actually something that a lot of creative people really worry about. Like they don't step outside because they're like ìWell then who would I be?î
Amelia: Right. Right. You work very hard to build this sense of yourself ñ the cynical way to put it is brand, artistically cynical ñ but it's a real concern as well. Who am I if I'm not writing about the body? What does it mean to write about this character and this time? About me? There's always this additional worry.
Ann: What does it say about me?
Amelia: But what does it say about me?
Ann: What does Isadora say about you?
Amelia: Oh my god. Sometimes in my most . . .
Ann: [Laughs] Sorry. You set that up.
Amelia: No, no, I am. In my most annoying thought experiments I'm like ìWhat would Isadora want? Or what would she think about all this?î I think she would love it but have a number of notes on my thoughts, you know?
Ann: Well I actually wanted to ask too about dance as a practice and whether you got more interested in that while you were working on this or whether it was just merely kind of a backdrop.
Amelia: Right, because you know me well enough to know that I'm not a dancer.
Ann: [Laughs] But I know you to be enthusiastic about the proposition.
Amelia: Absolutely. Yeah. I had no knowledge of dance beyond the wonderful [0:28:05]. It got me thinking about movement arts and the interesting ephemerality of it when it's not . . . like Isadora, there's five seconds of her video on this planet and she didn't like it and didn't want to have any recorded sense of her dancing because she was really into the ephemerality of it, that it would die with her, but that her students and her students' students would propagate the earth with her style.
I think it speaks to a larger ephemerality that I think the rest of us artists are kind of fooling ourselves about ñ like Marcus Aurelius says, ìSoon you'll die and the people who read you will die.î It's just like okay.
Ann: And then it's really over.
Amelia: And then it's it. That's it, you know? Then books will be meaningless, maybe sooner than you think.
Ann: But also part of her ñ not to be like let me inject a note of optimism but I kind of am that person. Her philosophy is all one movement leads to the next and that you can't plan really . . . you know, you can start something but you can't know exactly where it will end up if I'm getting that correct.
Amelia: Right. Right, right.
Ann: So I don't know. The same thing sort of applies here, I think, where, you know, sure maybe the book dies when everyone who's read it dies too. But presumably some of those ideas seeded themselves and they're moving in different ways.
Amelia: Oh, that's interesting. I never thought of that. [Laughs] That is quite optimistic. Very good, yeah. I did also take ñ I have to brag, I took two Isadora Duncan dance classes in San Francisco.
Ann: Oh my god. What was that like?
Amelia: At the Mary Sano Dance Studio. Well, Mary Sano who is an Isadora fourth-generation scholar, her teacher's teacher was Irma Duncan whose teacher was Isadora.
Ann: Oh, wow.
Amelia: I know.
Ann: So see? Look. It carries on.
Amelia: It carries on. It does. And she had unlimited levels of respect for Isadora and the class was three-and-a-half hours and a big amount of it was just reading Dionysian texts. She was really interested in Isadora's you study, you read, you consider sculpture. Isadora would do a lot of sketching. And then from there it's like you start with the body in mind and then you move the body. It was wild. It was very like a lot of small movements, a lot of me attempting to look graceful while running.
Amelia: [Laughs] There was a lot of like ñ she's like ìYou cross the stage and you hold your arm out to invite the others along.î It's just very, very playful. I don't know. What I learned is she worked extemporaneously I think and she didn't like to write down choreography. There was a ton of it and her students would write it down. It was a strange ñ there are maybe 80 dances of hers which exist in written choreography which dance choreography is its own thing. I feel like I spent a goodly amount of time wondering if I could get it into the book textually because it's wild and I love it. It's like a different dimension of reading in some ways, but I couldn't figure it out.
Ann: Thanks, Amelia.
Amelia: High fives.
Ann: High fives.
Amelia: Thank you.
Aminatou: Oh, I can't wait to read it. When is it out?
Ann: It's out May 23rd, so this is one that you've got to preorder, but coming out super soon. And yeah, get into it.
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Aminatou: Our favorite producer, Gina Delvac, also talked to somebody. Gina, tell us all about the book that you are reading right now.
Gina: I'm reading Grace and the Fever by Zan Romanoff. This is Zan's second young adult novel and in addition to being just a delightful trip through a bunch of teenage feelings of longing, desire, angst, love of pop music, I also had the pleasure of sitting down with Zan who is one of my teenage besties. Appropriately we sat in my bedroom on my bed and had a little chat.
Gina: Zan, thanks for coming on Call Your Girlfriend.
Zan: Thank you for having me.
Gina: Can you give us the elevator pitch on this book? It has some real-life dimensions but it's primarily fiction.
Zan: Yeah. So it's about a girl who is obsessed with this boy band and in particular is obsessed with a conspiracy theory that two members of this boy band are dating each other. And she runs into one of the members of the boy band on the street one night, gets photographed with him, and gets sort of drawn into the band's complicated lives and discovers that the band has a lot of secrets many of which she did not ever suspect.
Gina: And suspicion and creating theories around this band is sort of her life, her secret life online.
Zan: Yeah, yeah. She has been a fan of them for a number of years at this point and almost no one in her sort of offline ñ like she's sort of famous online, or she's wellish known online for being a fan and for being a conspiracy theorist and no one in her real life even knows she likes them.
Gina: So in Grace and the Fever one of Grace ñ the protagonist, the title character ñ her obsession is with this idea of Lolly which is a relationship between two of the band members, Land and Solly, which has kind of a real-life analogue in the Harry Styles/Louis Tomlinson Harry Stylinson, Larry . . .
Zan: Larry Stylinson. Yeah, yeah. These two members of One Direction who many people IRL believe have been dating one another since they were on X Factor. I'm going to get in trouble, I don't know how long. Anyway, a number of years now.
Gina: Talk to me a little bit about fandom because one of my favorite elements of this book is that you used the nuanced and specific language of the Internet. We have texts distinct from Snapchat distinct from Tumblr posts and these many voices from many characters. What made you decide to do this in such a specific, contemporary version of the Internet which could also kind of give some limited time to how relevant this is to teens today? Or teens of the future.
Zan: In this case I decided to go for it because I felt like I have spent a lot of time in Internet fandom, specifically Tumblr-specific fandom which I would say is the current iteration of it, and I felt like I knew it really well and I knew that I could pull it off pretty accurately. One of the best things that I've heard is people who are also in fandom emailing me when they get to the first Tumblr post in the book and they're like ìOh my god, you've got it. This could be on the Internet. I'm like "Yes!"
So I more or less grew up in fandom. My first fandom was Hanson, like circa 1997. I was reading and writing fan fiction and then that evolved into I read some Harry Potter fic and whatever on from there. So I've been in that community, or I've known about that community. I've been sort of a lurker in that community for a long time. But the thing that pushed me to want to write about it was the specific like you said modern iteration and the sort of meta storytelling narrative that happens when people are getting all these different pieces of information about a celebrity's life. You know, you've got the official narrative that's happening from their publicist and sort of the gossip magazines. And then below that you have their Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, Instagram. And then you've got all of these feelings that people are essentially making up but that then celebrities hear about and have to respond to.
And I was just obsessed with the way that I would read these Tumblr posts and girls were close reading ñ largely girls ñ were close reading Harry Styles' Twitter as if it was an academic text. So yeah, it was a response to something very specific in the culture right now and I felt like I was willing to sacrifice some long-term relevancy for being really clear on what I was responding to. And also having been in fandom for a long time I can say that the tech changes; the emotions remain, and I think will remain recognizable hopefully.
Gina: And to that end in these different voices one of the characters ñ so Grace is our protagonist. She's a high schooler about to leave for college and this is sort of her big coming-of-age summer as she gets drawn into the lives of these celebrities, these band members.
There is also this great best friend character, her Internet bestie Katie, who is this kind of intriguing voice of older feminism. Did you have a Katie in your life of early fandom or is that sort of like contemporary 30s Zan kind of talking to the youngsters of like "Here are things that are also okay to feel and understand?"
Zan: Sort of both. So I in my younger fandom days did not have any fandom friends at all, like did not really talk to anyone, was just like lurking quietly. I didn't talk to anyone online or IRL about what I was doing. But a couple of years ago now was when I first started getting interested really in fandom again in a more serious way and I met a girl named Varity who I've become very close with who has been a little bit my fandom fairy godmother and has been really good to talk through a lot of this stuff with.
So definitely, consciously while I was writing Katie, I was like ìOh, Varity,î although she's the same age as I am. [Laughs] But it is also true that it's very helpful when you're writing a book about teens and you are 30 to insert some sort of sense of here's what I wish I could tell you very much; here's some stuff that there's no way this teen character would realize, but she really needs to hear.
Gina: I probably as an adult should be embarrassed by how much you and I loved the movie High Fidelity when we were in our early- to mid-teens, and something we haven't mentioned is we've known each other since you were 13 and I was 14 and kind of grew up together. So the way that you write being a teen girl, the things that you think about, going to concerts, these kind of formative social experiences and how obsessions over a particular crush can bring friendships together, this is the Zan I've been talking to my whole life in the voice that's in Grace, not to conflate your fiction with your real life.
So we were obsessed with this movie High Fidelity which like I said I should probably be embarrassed about and there's a part where the record store owner, Rob, who's played by John Cusack, asks himself was he miserable because he listened to pop music? Or did he listen to pop music because he was miserable?
Gina: Which I always thought was kind of off because pop music can be so insanely and utterly joyful which is something you capture really well. How did you think about Grace's emotions and the way she was transported by this band and the part that was her fan self that kind of pre-staged this getting involved in the whole conspiratorial world of the band?
Zan: Yeah. So I don't listen to music when I write. I mean I'll write in coffee shops when music is playing but I'm not a person who needs it in my ear while I'm writing. But I will ñ like I'll walk around a lot when I'm writing the book, and I spent so much time while I was writing this book walking around listening to One Direction. Just like hours and hours and hours.
I was definitely kind of a One Direction fan when I started writing the book and writing it completely transformed my relationship to the band and their music. You know, I wasn't having Grace's experience of meeting Harry Styles or whatever, any boy band member, Taylor Hanson for that matter, but I was definitely having intensively that feeling of just like longing and the way it is both kind of miserable so thrilling to want something so badly. So yeah, that was the part of the book I related to far and away the most is listening to something that's just like boy, does it make you feel stuff.
Gina: This is a young adult novel. You've written a fair amount not in your fiction, in your kind of essay-writing life, about the ways that people think about or understand both teens and young adult writing in general. What got you interested? Because your style is you don't write down. There's a lot that's really nuanced and beautiful, and in your previous novel as well, that this is really literary fiction that is about teenagers. How did you come to that? And do you think that there is more of this in YA than perhaps some adult readers know is going on?
Zan: Yes, definitely. So much more beautiful writing going on in YA than anyone has any idea about. You know, I love people who are writing sort of like literary fiction for teens. I also will say that I don't think it has to be literary fiction to be valuable, or it doesn't have to sound like literary fiction to be valuable.
You know, one of the things that I love about YA is there's often a sort of different voice to it. It's a really fun voice, and as a writer I happen to know ñ or like for me anyway ñ it's very hard to do, that compelling, light, sort of voicey thing where you're not writing six-sentence descriptions of the sunset or whatever it is that I'm always sort of padding my stuff with, or I feel like.
But in terms of how I decided, like I would never say that I decided to write anything. This is such a shitty like ìI'm an artist!î answer. But I can only write what's interested to me, and what I'm interested in is teenagers and what I'm interested in is flowery descriptions of sunsets. [Laughs] And, you know, and of feelings. I mean I think that people act like sort of subtlety is the only interesting thing about art, that like the subtlety of literary fiction and the subtlety of adult emotion is sophisticated in some way. And I think I really enjoy writing about big, embarrassing feelings and giving them the same kind of care and attention that other kinds of feelings get.
Gina: Something that's interesting that you touch on in Grace and the Fever, that is when people who are not involved at all in fandom kind of take a peak or are very curious about, is the culture of shipping, of imagining relationships between characters but also specifically professedly heterosexual men in homosexual relationships. How overblown do you think some of that is? And then what made you interested in kind of riffing off of this in a fictional work?
Zan: I don't know that I would say it's overblown. There's this sense that teenage girls are hungry for a particular kind of fantasy but I'm always interested in saying yes, also someone is aggressively creating and marketing that fantasy for them. You know, this is not in a vacuum. [Laughs] This is what's being made available. And one of my favorite ñ oh my god, one of my favorite things about One Direction fandom is the transformative works that people make.
So there's this clip from a video. I don't know, I think it's from a music video. It's like Louis Tomlinson walking down a hall and he's singing something, but someone has slowed it all the way down and set it to Beyonce's Baby Boy and turned this sort of cute pop clip into this very sexy, like slow-mo walk. [Laughs] And I'm like yeah, because we're being given cute, clean-cut pop stars, and it's like no, I want to fuck him. And it's just such a beautiful ñ I mean this is my other thing about fandom, right? All this talk about ìOh, women aren't that sexual. Women aren't that interested in sex.î It's like do you know what a lot of teenage girls have been doing as a hobby? Writing porn for each other for free. [Laughs] That's like their favorite thing to do. It's so funny. People make so much fun of it. They're like ìOh my god, fandom, it's so done.î I'm like ìIt's fucking radical.î
Gina: There's an interesting quality of this book too on a meta level which is that we have a young woman, huge fan of the band, writes about these fantastical versions of their relationships to one another. There's also another very interesting fandom trope which is that the protagonist of your story meets and falls in love with the band themselves. So I would venture that in a way you wrote a fiction that's a fic. What do you think your eleven-year-old Hanson fanfic writing self would think about Grace and this book?
Zan: Like I'm not exaggerating. I am not exaggerating when I say every day I sat down to write this book I was cackling to myself. I was like ìZan Romanoff, you have played the greatest trick in the entire world. You're going to get paid to write fanfiction. You did it. You did the dream.î
Gina: Thanks for coming on CYG.
Zan: Thank you so much for having me!
Ann: Thanks, Gina. That was so good. Love Zan. Love people who respect the female fan experience and boy bands as a legitimate cultural phenomenon.
Aminatou: That book's out May 16th!
Ann: Yes. And finally who else did you talk to, Amina?
Aminatou: I talked to a friend of the podcast, Doree Shafrir, about her novel Startup: A Novel, which is honestly Ann ñ so it's a book about startups, obviously, and technology, but it's great. It was so much better than anything I've read in this realm ever at all. It was really funny. Like if you want a really good, fun read, like something that will take you a day or two but that is also surprising and LOLolio goes deep into an industry that you think is completely absurd this is the book for you.
Ann: What I loved about this book is that it feels like you're reading the juiciest, dishiest piece of journalism. I mean I think maybe I have that lens because I know Doree is such a great journalist but it's fiction so you don't have to worry about all the implications. You can just go into that world completely. It's so great.
Aminatou: I know. But if you work in tech you're going to be like ìIs this a documentary? What is happening?î
Aminatou: I definitely had those moments.
Aminatou: Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend, Doree Shafrir.
Doree: Thank you so much for having me Aminatou Sow.
Aminatou: [Laughs] First of all I want to tell you I read this book in 1.5 sittings.
Doree: Oh my god.
Aminatou: Honestly I was really surprised by it, Doree. Obviously I knew that you were a great writer but I just had this tech insight that tech is really easily parodied but I thought it was really sensitive and sensible and funny.
Doree: Thank you.
Aminatou: So tell me everything. How did you get the idea to write the book?
Doree: So it all started at the end of 2014. At the time I was executive editor at BuzzFeed and just managing and editing all the time and really missed writing, and so I was like ìOkay, 2015 is starting. I'm going to make a New Year's resolution that I'm going to write every day in January in the morning for an hour and just see what comes out.î Kind of like Artist's Way style. By the way, I love The Artist's Way.
Aminatou: I also love The Artist's Way. So yes, I'm here with you.
Doree: Yeah, so you get it. And so I did that and I really never thought I was going to write a novel. I had kind of vaguely thought like maybe one day I'll write a screenplay but I never thought I'd write a novel. But I just sort of started writing, and I think because I had given myself the freedom to just write with no expectation and no like ìI am going to write a novel that will sell,î like it was just for me, that I feel like better stuff came out. And then at the end of the month I had 60 pages. So that was kind of the logistics of how I started.
Aminatou: Wow, Artist's Way really working out here.
Doree: Totally. Totally. Now The Artist's Way does say you should write in longhand which I did not do. [Laughs] I used my computer. I was like Julia, I love you, but that's a little extreme. But in terms of the overall themes of the book there's a lot of issues of gender and sexual harassment in the book. And so if you remember at that time the Whitney Wolfe Tinder situation had just . . .
Aminatou: Oh, yeah, when she got her ass out of Tinder and into starting her own company.
Doree: Yes. Yes. Exactly. So she had just settled that suit in November of 2014 just like a couple of months before I started the book. I was really shook by that whole situation. Like if you read the text messages that she got from Sean Rad they were disgusting and horrible. And I was like wow, this is how men treat women in this brave new world of technology. And I don't know why I was so shocked by it, but I was like truly shocked.
So that had happened, and also in February of 2015 the Ellen Pao/Kleiner Perkins trial started. And that was another thing where I was like oh my god, this shit is still going on. And then she lost the trial.
Doree: And that freaked me out also. So I was like huh, I want to write about this in a way that feels accessible and I also want to set it in New York in part because that's where I'm familiar with but also because there hasn't really been anything set in the New York tech world.
Aminatou: Yeah. I mean I think that that's honestly one of the things that I enjoyed about it so much, right, is that you transposed Silicon Valley basically and Silicon Alley, all these terms I hate.
Aminatou: It's like ìWelcome to Manhattan.î Like the building is eminently recognizable from the cover so that made me laugh a lot.
Aminatou: But I thought that it was really interesting to put it in this kind of grittier, not as respected as Silicon Valley place but really trying to do it. That's not to say New York startups don't exit at ridiculous amounts before anybody gets to me about this. Whatever. This is a fight that we have a lot in technology. But I really appreciated that you did that and I think that the point that you made too about making it accessible, I don't know, I was so struck by the format of the book and seeing text messages and seeing the way we interact with each other that in parts it was really . . . not that it was hard to read but it was jarring.
Aminatou: Where it was like wow, this is very ñ like this is very of the moment.
Aminatou: And I think that for somebody like me who worked at a tech company for a long time, I was like wow, some of the made-up apps that you have, I was like ìWow, did Doree make that up or is that really real?î
Doree: Right. [Laughs]
Aminatou: At one point it was all blending into each other.
Doree: Yeah, totally.
Aminatou: I was like wow, like yes, this world is very easily parodied but also there is something about it that is so profoundly just like sad and hilarious at the same time.
Aminatou: That I think you captured really well.
Doree: Thank you.
Aminatou: What has the ñ what are people saying about it?
Doree: So it's gotten like a really great reception so far. Kirkus Reviews, which is like a trade publication for the publishing industry, wrote that it was ìA feminist satire that is addictive as it is biting.î
Doree: Which I just loved. And then I think it was Kirkus also that had this line that I was like oh, you've got it, which was something like ìShafrir renders even the most infuriating characters with unexpected humanity.î
Aminatou: It's true! That's so true. I can't wait for the technology people to read this. They're always behind on actual novels.
Aminatou: So it's going to take like six months, but those are the reviews I really want to hear. It's like what's the Product Hunt review on this situation?
Doree: Totally. Totally. Yeah. I mean I really wanted people like you who you've obviously been very steeped into this world, I wanted people like you to get something out of it. But I also wanted people who have never worked in this industry, who have never worked in New York, who have never been to Silicon Valley, I wanted them to be able to engage with this story also. And so I felt like I had to kind of walk this line between accessibility and inside baseball and kind of making the inside baseball seem exciting and accessible.
Aminatou: Yeah. I think too you touch on so much stuff about the millennial office culture that people can relate to whether they work in tech or not.
Doree: Yeah. So I mean I work at BuzzFeed. That's been like a big theme for me because I am probably like ten years older than the average person who works at BuzzFeed. I've been working in digital media for a long time. I am not like the character in my book who has been at home with her kids for five years and then she goes back to work and finds that basically everything has changed and she's 36 and her boss is 26. So I don't feel as alienated from it but there is a definite difference in the way that I think people in their 20s engage with their workplace than there was when I was in my 20s.
Aminatou: How do you think that your life on the Internet has changed in the last couple of years?
Doree: Ooh, good question. You know, I think I've gotten much more open actually. When I worked at Gawker which was like 2006/2007 Emily Gould was kind of baring her soul on the Internet and getting a lot of shit for it. People were always accusing her of over-sharing. And I think for a long time I was like oh, god, like I was nervous that I was going to be accused of over-sharing and I felt like I was a very private person and I didn't want to kind of be putting it all out there.
And then that kind of slowly dissipated to the point where now I do a podcast about IVF with my husband. I am pretty much putting a lot of things out there. So I think the Internet has made me a more open person, and frankly I feel happier now than I did before. Like I think there is something very isolating about keeping yourself so private.
Aminatou: That's such a great note to end on. Everybody should listen to Matt and Doree's Eggcelent Adventure on Art19. It's the best.
Doree: Thanks, Amina.
Aminatou: If you want to read something that's about tech, money, love, and ambition, pick up Startup: A Novel and you won't regret it. Thanks for joining us, Doree.
Doree: Thanks for having me. This was so great.
Aminatou: Doree's book is out now. It came out April 25th. It's doing really well on the book charts so pick it up.
Ann: Awesome. Well this felt like a great palate cleanser from the news and an incentive to turn off my phone and read something on paper.
Aminatou: I know. Let's read something on paper, but let's also pray that the next time we get together everybody's in jail. And by everybody I mean people who work at the White House.
Aminatou: I was like James Comey fired? What's going on? Okay.
Aminatou: You go read a book. I'm going to go watch MSNBC and scream.
Ann: I'm going to put my head between my knees and breathe.
Aminatou: And shit is crazy. He found out he got fired by watching television. He's in L.A. right now.
Ann: I know, before he gave a speech. Before he gave a speech.
Aminatou: Before he gave a speech, but now he's like keeping his speaking engagements. He's like ìFuck it, we're doing it live.î I'm so excited about this.
Ann: I can't wait for the memoir.
Aminatou: I know. I can't wait for the subpoenas to go out. Talk to you next week. Fingers crossed. Fingers and toes.
Ann: See you on the Internet and in court.
Aminatou: I know. Also read books, people. Read books. Support your book stores. [Laughs]
Ann: See you in your local bookstore.
Aminatou: See you on the Internet.
Aminatou: You can find us in many places on the Internet: on our website callyourgirlfriend.com, download it anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts or on Apple Podcasts where we would love it if you left us a review. You can tweet at us at @callyrgf or email us firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find us on Facebook or on Instagram at callyrgf. You can even leave us a short and sweet voicemail at 714-681-2943. That's 714-681-CYGF. Our theme song is by Robyn. All other music you heard today was composed by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs. This podcast is produced by Gina Delvac.