Episode 92: Spring Book Break
Published May 12, 2017.
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Aminatou: Its also made with all-natural premium ingredients, and youre right, it actually does taste good.
Ann: So basically what youre saying is I should eat the whole pint?
Aminatou: 100%. Also head to halotop.com and you can use their store locator to find a pint near you. You can also give them a follow on social media at @halotopcreamery. 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. Im super-excited about this episode. Theres one million things happening in the news we cant talk about because today were 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 its impossible for us to keep up with the news cycle at this point in time but that feels especially true this week and so lets 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 thats another big thing: a lot of these books are really about a female experience. What else? What else am I missing?
Aminatou: I mean thats it, you know? Women who read. All Im thinking about now is that Zebra Katz song about reading. Do you know what Im talking about?
Ann: Yes. [Laughs] Are you going to sing it?
Aminatou: No, Im 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: Im 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 well 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. Its actually like full-circle. Ive 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, its 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 were having here but also, you know, its like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, its not all -- like everythings not on the up-and-up over there. So its 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, its 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. Heres 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 wont really name names.
Helene: Your gift for understatement is remarkable.
Aminatou: I know, right? Im like I wont 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 its 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 shes going to tell you she can be president. Shes going to tell you that she -- you know, many of them will tell you that she will be president. And I cant 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 thats 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 youre 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. Theyre going to be the ones farming the fields. Theyre 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 theyve always had, because theyve 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 its like thats living ten lives. I was really struck by also just the candidness around the domestic violence that shes encountered and how open she was to talking about that.
Helene: Mm-hmm. That took time. She wasnt initially open about it, and I think she doesnt actually like talking about it. I kept coming back to it and coming back to it and her response -- this will sound familiar to you, and its kind of heartbreaking as well -- she kept saying "I dont want to talk too much about the domestic violence because I have sons and this is their father and I dont want to sound like Im criticizing their father. Hes dead now." And Im like "But your sons are 55 and 50 years old." And shes like "Yeah, but this is still their dad."
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 shes an example of how you can come out of it. And in many ways I think its far more important for her to stand as that example than to protect her 60-year-old sons.
Aminatou: Right. Its like seeing how her own personal story just fits into this larger narrative of whats going on with Liberian women and whats going on with West African women and really women everywhere.
Helene: Yes, it really very much is. I mean she was -- 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 thats 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 -- you know, shes 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 -- it was kind of heartbreaking. She came back to reminiscing about the fact that her youngest son, Atama (?) doesnt have any godparents because she was away at school when he was at the age he wouldve 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. Were sitting in the middle of an Ebola epidemic and she is agonizing over something that happened 60 years ago when she wasnt able to baptize her son.
Aminatou: Yeah, you know, and Im 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. Its like I remember that 2005 election so much. Its like shes 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. Whats 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 dont feel like I need to respond to it.
Aminatou: Well how do you think she would respond to them?
Helene: She would say that shes 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 its 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 didnt.
To her credit she responded -- 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 -- and thats 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 -- they were calling for her to resign; there were people saying she should step aside. And she responded really quickly. And thats like -- 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: Whats one thing you think that we dont know about her that we should?
Helene: Shes 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 shes really reserved. Shes a little . . . she doesnt want anybody to touch her. Shell give you her hand but shes 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 Ive lived in America -- the United States -- Im from Liberia originally but Ive lived in the United States, as had she, I started interviewing her in American English because thats coming across on this New York Times report. I wanted to show my journalistic credential. I dont know, I was being very formal and she was answering me formally in American English. And it wasnt until I switched one day by accident to Liberian English that all the walls came tumbling down. And then I was like "Oh my God, shes hilarious." And when you break down those walls shes very, very funny. She has a slick sense of humor and I dont think a lot of people realize that.
Aminatou: That makes me deeply, deeply, deeply happy, more than anything else around her, because theres 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 -- once we started talking in Liberian English there were so many things she would tell me that Im like "Oh my God, I cant believe shes telling me this," and I would be trying to take notes in a slick way but I dont 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: Hes 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 -- you know, I could see this. And shes like "He, he, he." And Im like "Okay, this is a Nobel Peace Prize winner president." 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 its 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 Im in New York at my job at the New York Times and to see my Liberian women do something that American women hadnt done yet I was incandescently proud.
Aminatou: That makes me really happy. Helene Cooper, thank you so much for joining me today. I cant wait to see whats next for you.
Helene: Thank you so much for having me.
Ann: That was so great. When is Madame President out, Amina?
Aminatou: Its currently out right now. It came out March 7th, so put that shit in your Amazon cart.
Aminatou: Or if youre a good person go to your independent bookstore and buy it.
Ann: The next author I spoke with is the presidents problematic daughter -- just kidding. It is definitely not.
Ann: That is not the . . .
Aminatou: I started gasping. I started gasping.
Ann: No, Im 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 whos 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 shes 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 -- 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 heres 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 havent 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 womens autonomy and womens choices was just not there. And shes like, you know, I had to keep reminding myself shes 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 Im looking at the word boyfriend wasnt 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 dont 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 -- 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 thats very accurate.
Ann: But your book is not a biography.
Ann: Its a work of fiction.
Amelia: Its 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 whos 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 -- 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 "Oh, Im going to write this differently than maybe I know it happened?"
Amelia: So I have -- 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 Ive talked to them all, and its 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 theres a scene in the autobiography where she encounters a stranger on the beach in Viareggio in Italy and he says "Is there anything I can do to help you?" And she says "Save more than my life. Save my reason. Give me a child."
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 -- 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. Its just these ludicrous stories that I was like "All right, if thats the story lets sketch it out. Lets see what it looks like."
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? Im not going to spend four years writing a book if I dont have a pretty big ego about my thoughts and feelings.
Ann: Oh, I love it. [Laughs] So what made you -- I dont know, I think of you as one of my favorite absurdists.
Amelia: Thank you.
Ann: So what made you want to write something thats rooted in historical fact?
Amelia: I was really nervous about losing the absurd element or saying like okay, this isnt -- you know, this isnt Gutshot. This isnt a short story where somebodys ripping off their skin. And then my editor said "You know, wow, you really brought so much of that absurd sense into this. This is so surprising."
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 dont feel like Im on a path.
Ann: In a rut.
Amelia: In a rut, right. Oh my god, actually, and its interesting that you say that, because I wrote a series of three stories about ruts and theres a character whos literally in a rut in the book. Yeah. I think thats not a mistake. [Laughs] I just -- yeah. Wow.
Ann: But it also, I mean, I dont 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 youre like "I wouldve read that book and in an instant identified it in a lineup as yours."
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 dont step outside because theyre like "Well then who would I be?"
Amelia: Right. Right. You work very hard to build this sense of yourself -- the cynical way to put it is brand, artistically cynical -- but its a real concern as well. Who am I if Im not writing about the body? What does it mean to write about this character and this time? About me? Theres 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 Im like "What would Isadora want? Or what would she think about all this?" 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 Im 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 its not . . . like Isadora, theres five seconds of her video on this planet and she didnt like it and didnt 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 -- like Marcus Aurelius says, "Soon youll die and the people who read you will die." Its just like okay.
Ann: And then its really over.
Amelia: And then its it. Thats it, you know? Then books will be meaningless, maybe sooner than you think.
Ann: But also part of her -- 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 cant plan really . . . you know, you can start something but you cant know exactly where it will end up if Im getting that correct.
Amelia: Right. Right, right.
Ann: So I dont know. The same thing sort of applies here, I think, where, you know, sure maybe the book dies when everyone whos read it dies too. But presumably some of those ideas seeded themselves and theyre moving in different ways.
Amelia: Oh, thats interesting. I never thought of that. [Laughs] That is quite optimistic. Very good, yeah. I did also take -- 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 teachers 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 Isadoras you study, you read, you consider sculpture. Isadora would do a lot of sketching. And then from there its 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 -- shes like "You cross the stage and you hold your arm out to invite the others along." Its just very, very playful. I dont know. What I learned is she worked extemporaneously I think and she didnt like to write down choreography. There was a ton of it and her students would write it down. It was a strange -- 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 its wild and I love it. Its like a different dimension of reading in some ways, but I couldnt figure it out.
Ann: Thanks, Amelia.
Amelia: High fives.
Ann: High fives.
Amelia: Thank you.
Aminatou: Oh, I cant wait to read it. When is it out?
Ann: Its out May 23rd, so this is one that youve 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: Im reading Grace and the Fever by Zan Romanoff. This is Zans 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 its primarily fiction.
Zan: Yeah. So its 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 bands 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 -- like shes sort of famous online, or shes 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 -- the protagonist, the title character -- 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. Im going to get in trouble, I dont 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 Ive heard is people who are also in fandom emailing me when they get to the first Tumblr post in the book and theyre like "Oh my god, youve got it. This could be on the Internet." Im 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 Ive been in that community, or Ive known about that community. Ive 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 celebritys life. You know, youve got the official narrative thats happening from their publicist and sort of the gossip magazines. And then below that you have their Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, Instagram. And then youve 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 -- largely girls -- 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 -- so Grace is our protagonist. Shes 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 didnt 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 Ive 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 "Oh, Varity," although shes the same age as I am. [Laughs] But it is also true that its very helpful when youre writing a book about teens and you are 30 to insert some sort of sense of heres what I wish I could tell you very much; heres some stuff that theres 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 havent mentioned is weve 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 Ive been talking to my whole life in the voice thats 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 theres a part where the record store owner, Rob, whos 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 Graces 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 dont listen to music when I write. I mean Ill write in coffee shops when music is playing but Im not a person who needs it in my ear while Im writing. But I will -- like Ill walk around a lot when Im 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 wasnt having Graces 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 thats just like boy, does it make you feel stuff.
Gina: This is a young adult novel. Youve 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 dont write down. Theres a lot thats 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 dont think it has to be literary fiction to be valuable, or it doesnt have to sound like literary fiction to be valuable.
You know, one of the things that I love about YA is theres often a sort of different voice to it. Its a really fun voice, and as a writer I happen to know -- or like for me anyway -- its very hard to do, that compelling, light, sort of voicey thing where youre not writing six-sentence descriptions of the sunset or whatever it is that Im 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 "Im an artist!" answer. But I can only write whats interested to me, and what Im interested in is teenagers and what Im 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 thats 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 dont know that I would say its overblown. Theres this sense that teenage girls are hungry for a particular kind of fantasy but Im 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 whats being made available. And one of my favorite -- oh my god, one of my favorite things about One Direction fandom is the transformative works that people make.
So theres this clip from a video. I dont know, I think its from a music video. Its like Louis Tomlinson walking down a hall and hes singing something, but someone has slowed it all the way down and set it to Beyoncés Baby Boy and turned this sort of cute pop clip into this very sexy, like slow-mo walk. [Laughs] And Im like yeah, because were being given cute, clean-cut pop stars, and its like no, I want to fuck him. And its just such a beautiful -- I mean this is my other thing about fandom, right? All this talk about "Oh, women arent that sexual. Women arent that interested in sex." Its like do you know what a lot of teenage girls have been doing as a hobby? Writing porn for each other for free. [Laughs] Thats like their favorite thing to do. Its so funny. People make so much fun of it. Theyre like "Oh my god, fandom, its so done." Im like "Its fucking radical."
Gina: Theres 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. Theres 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 thats a fic. What do you think your eleven-year-old Hanson fanfic writing self would think about Grace and this book?
Zan: Like Im 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 "Zan Romanoff, you have played the greatest trick in the entire world. Youre going to get paid to write fanfiction. You did it. You did the dream."
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 books 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 -- so its a book about startups, obviously, and technology, but its great. It was so much better than anything Ive 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 youre 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 its fiction so you dont have to worry about all the implications. You can just go into that world completely. Its so great.
Aminatou: I know. But if you work in tech youre going to be like "Is this a documentary? What is happening?"
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 "Okay, 2015 is starting. Im going to make a New Years resolution that Im going to write every day in January in the morning for an hour and just see what comes out." Kind of like Artists Way style. By the way, I love The Artists Way.
Aminatou: I also love The Artists Way. So yes, Im 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 Ill write a screenplay but I never thought Id 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 "I am going to write a novel that will sell," 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, Artists Way really working out here.
Doree: Totally. Totally. Now The Artists 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 thats a little extreme. But in terms of the overall themes of the book theres 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 dont 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 thats where Im familiar with but also because there hasnt really been anything set in the New York tech world.
Aminatou: Yeah. I mean I think that thats 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: Its like "Welcome to Manhattan." 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. Thats not to say New York startups dont 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 dont 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 -- 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 "Wow, did Doree make that up or is that really real?"
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 -- what are people saying about it?
Doree: So its gotten like a really great reception so far. Kirkus Reviews, which is like a trade publication for the publishing industry, wrote that it was "A feminist satire that is addictive as it is biting."
Doree: Which I just loved. And then I think it was Kirkus also that had this line that I was like oh, youve got it, which was something like "Shafrir renders even the most infuriating characters with unexpected humanity."
Aminatou: Its true! Thats so true. I cant wait for the technology people to read this. Theyre always behind on actual novels.
Aminatou: So its going to take like six months, but those are the reviews I really want to hear. Its like whats the Product Hunt review on this situation?
Doree: Totally. Totally. Yeah. I mean I really wanted people like you who youve 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. Thats been like a big theme for me because I am probably like ten years older than the average person who works at BuzzFeed. Ive 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 shes 36 and her boss is 26. So I dont 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 Ive 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 didnt 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: Thats such a great note to end on. Everybody should listen to Matt and Dorees Eggcelent Adventure on Art19. Its the best.
Doree: Thanks, Amina.
Aminatou: If you want to read something thats about tech, money, love, and ambition, pick up Startup: A Novel and you wont regret it. Thanks for joining us, Doree.
Doree: Thanks for having me. This was so great.
Aminatou: Dorees book is out now. It came out April 25th. Its 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. Lets read something on paper, but lets also pray that the next time we get together everybodys in jail. And by everybody I mean people who work at the White House.
Aminatou: I was like James Comey fired? Whats going on? Okay.
Aminatou: You go read a book. Im going to go watch MSNBC and scream.
Ann: Im going to put my head between my knees and breathe.
Aminatou: And shit is crazy. He found out he got fired by watching television. Hes 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 hes like keeping his speaking engagements. Hes like "Fuck it, were doing it live." Im so excited about this.
Ann: I cant wait for the memoir.
Aminatou: I know. I cant 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 email@example.com. 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. Thats 714-681-CYGF. Our theme song is by Robin. All other music you heard today was composed by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs. This podcast is produced by Gina Delvac.