I read Chloe Caldwell’s novella, WOMEN, for the first time last spring. I was still getting used to living alone after my boyfriend suddenly broke up with me and moved out. I was counting down the days until I’d leave Virginia for Massachusetts. I was trying to work and read and write constantly.
Last year I promised myself I’d read more books by women, and I found out about Chloe Caldwell through a Shabby Doll House list where Lucy K. Shaw picked WOMEN as one of her favorite books of 2014. I remember flipping to the epigraph the day WOMEN showed up in my mailbox. “‘Girls are cruelest to themselves.’ Anne Carson, The Glass Essay.” I remember texting my friend something like, “I am already devastated.”
I wrote in my journal after finishing WOMEN that it made me feel torn up and that I wanted to read it a hundred more times. The narrator moves to a new city and falls in love with a woman for the first time, a much older woman named Finn, and everyone, including the reader, knows that it cannot work. But you still ride it out. I recognized bits of myself constantly, like when the narrator says, “It’s just that I love a good train wreck, possibly to distract me from my own.” Like when she freaks out and smashes her phone. Like when she can’t quite let Finn go. I felt raw, and for weeks afterward I thought about how dangerous it can be to let yourself disappear inside the world of someone you love. I was trying to create my own world, but I wasn’t quite sure who I wanted to be.
I admire the unapologetic quality of Chloe’s writing. Prior to WOMEN, Chloe published a collection of essays out called Legs Get Led Astray. She has a new book coming out this fall. And I can’t wait.
Caroline Rayner: When I sat down to reread WOMEN I knew I wanted to pay attention to clothing. The narrator always takes such care to describe what Finn is wearing––men’s jeans, sweatshirts, sneakers. And she pays similar attention to other women she meets, noticing Sabine’s Doc Martens, Angel’s American Apparel sweatshirt, the lesbians in her neighborhood who wear dark jeans and denim jackets and boots, etc. And she spends so little time discussing her own appearance. And I’m interested in the narrator saying “I like to wear as many different pieces of clothing of other people’s as I can.” I wonder if there’s an element of escapism, of wanting to become other women through the clothes they wear. Or if it has more to do with the narrator not wanting to spend time in her own head. I’m interested in clothing as a language and how perhaps the narrator is trying to learn it.
Chloe Caldwell: What a great question! I recently found myself wearing exactly the outfit you describe above, and started laughing. In everything I write I’m constantly mentioning the shirts people wear, including my own. “What’s with the shirts,” my friend Erika asked me during an early read of WOMEN. “Do you think they show the passage of time?” But until she said that, I had no idea I was doing it.
I think the narrator does mention her appearance, or at least her clothing quite bit, actually. On page 21 she talks about wearing a tank top, buying a blue bra the color of The Aquarium, and how she dresses up to see Finn. The first time they hang out, she mentions wearing a baseball shirt. On her birthday she mentions wearing a striped birthday shirt. When she goes to a queer dance party I think she mentions not knowing what to wear. The point was to convey, how does one dress when they suddenly don’t know their sexuality? Finn was set in her costume of dressing in a butch-style, she was set in her relationship, in her life, her job. The narrator didn’t have any of these things settled down. Even getting dressed posed the question of: Who am I? What do I represent?
My high school girl friends and I still steal shirts and dresses from one another and go to each other’s houses to try each other’s stuff on. I’ve written a bit about this in Legs Get Led Astray and it’s covered in my forthcoming book as well: clothing of my friends was always part of my identity. “Give me a shirt” was something we used to say to one another constantly. I always liked my friends’ clothes better than mine. And when I moved around, I felt protected wearing something that belonged to them originally. It was a way to keep the connection going when I was separated from my friends and other loved ones.
CR: Yeah, I’m realizing that might be why I felt more aware of other characters’ outfits, because I was thinking about the narrator’s in terms of connection and the way those connections contribute to her sense of self, how she dresses to relate or impress or seek intimacy with other women, especially Finn.
The narrator mentions reading Finn’s horoscope after they’ve stopped seeing each other, and I couldn’t help but notice that their birthdays occur in the spring, so I guessed that the narrator might be a Taurus and that Finn might be a Gemini. Did you have their signs in mind? What role does astrology play in your writing?
CC: In my mind they were Taurus and Aries. Gemini would have been good for Finn! I wish I thought of that.
Not sure if astrology plays a role, but I wanted to speak to the obsessiveness our culture has, the way we Google stalk people.
The new show Love has a funny example of this, where Gillian Jacobs’ character becomes obsessed with a guy she sleeps with and finds a video of him giving a wedding speech on Youtube. She repeatedly watches the video. So there’s that, and then there’s reading one another’s horoscopes, which is a more heady, possibly more female and cerebral way of stalking each other. At least for me, the men I’ve dated probably wouldn’t do that.
CR: Totally! When I’m hanging out with other women, we’re constantly discussing our horoscopes, looking up birth charts of celebrities, analyzing the signs of past and present significant others, etc. It feels crucial.
I love the universe of amazing female writers that crops up throughout the book. Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Mary Ruefle, Rebecca Solnit, just to name a few. And I love the narrator mentioning how girls will come up to her at the library counter because they recognize her from her author photo. I just feel so excited about women finding each other through art. Can you talk a bit about your experience with that? As a writer and as a reader?
CC: I make the majority of my friends through my books, which has its pros and cons. Since I published my first book at 25, it’s become a habit for me. My life is overflowing with women from the classes I teach, readings I attend, and who I reach out to/who reaches out to me via email. It’s the richest part of my life, currently.
CR: I feel similarly, so grateful to know so many women who are writing such amazing things. It took me a while to get to that point though, because in school I was always reading men, and I was taught to read in a very detached, analytical way. What has your experience been like, as far as what you read in school and what you sought out on your own?
CC: Oh I didn’t read anything in school; I didn’t go to college, and I failed my high school classes epically. So I was never taught how to read analytically, something I still struggle with. I was a huge reader as a teenager though, and my house was filled with cool books. Throughout my life my parents were always giving me books and journals. I devoured books and read them over and over again, especially Summer Sisters by Judy Blume. I was mostly reading men when I moved to NYC at 20: Poe Ballantine, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Bukowski, John Fante. But my brother would always give me cool books by women like Valley of The Dolls, The Artificial Silk Girl, The Dud Avocado, Sylvia Plath poetry, Mary Mccarthy. Then a friend gave me A.M/P.M. by Amelia Gray, and I found Chelsea Martin books, and was like, “I want to write a small press book!” My mom and I were always reading The Sun magazine, which is how we found Cheryl Strayed, as well as Krista Bremer, and Alison Luterman.
CR: What have you been reading recently? Anything particularly exciting or inspiring?
CC: One of my new favorites is the Swedish writer Therese Bohman. Both her novel Drowned and The Other Woman (just recently translated to English and released in the US a few days ago) are compelling psychological dramas. I recommend them highly! I’m also reading Catherine Texier’s new novel, Russian Lessons. Catherine wrote a book called Break Up (a book I kept on my desk while writing WOMEN) that I read 6 years ago and loved. Her new book is about an affair between a 52 year old woman and a 20 year old Russian man, based in Manhattan. Dodie Bellamy’s essay collection When the Sick Rule the World is challenging and moving. Oh, and PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma which releases in July. It has the most hysterical narrator ever.
CR: In her grieving the narrator compares books to doctors. What books have helped you or healed you?
CC: I also love dialectical and cognitive behavioral therapy books. I’ve never been ashamed of reading legit self-help books too, and think the stigma around them is pretty lame. Sure, some are cheesy. But not all of them! My roommate and I are always reading different books, like right now she’s reading Getting The Love You Want and we crack up over it. I’m really into self-work. I think it’s because when my parents divorced my mom was reading tons of Pema Chodron and Thich Nacht Hanh. When Things Fall Apart is a true classic!
On a creative level, I’d rather just list authors: Maggie Estep, Jeanette Winterson, Leslie Feinberg, Anne Lamott, Sparrow, Cheryl Strayed, Poe Ballantine, Lidia Yuknavitch, Dodie Bellamy, Maggie Nelson, David Shields, Jay Ponteri, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Catherine Texier, Kate Millett, the list goes on.
CR: Finn and the narrator talk to each other through so many different channels––texting, email, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads. I feel like the implications of a message can change depending on how it’s sent, and all those layers of connection can make letting go of someone extremely difficult. What were you thinking about as you were constructing the web of communication?
CC: The pain that social media can cause, I suppose. You can be publically seduced by someone, then blocked by that same person. It’s ridiculous, and yes, it definitely prolongs the pain of breakups. Many of my girlfriends see their exes on Tinder. Or an ex will post a photo of their new partner and then you’re able to see their partners’ photos and it does a huge number on your self-esteem. It’s TMI!
CR: Yeah! My friends and I sometimes talk about how weird it can feel to see exes doing things on social media. I think it’s self-destructive, in a way, to maintain those threads of connection. But we do it anyway. Or, at least I do. I’m thinking about when the narrator and Finn become email pen pals, and the narrator says, “This might sound crazy, or you might know exactly what I’m talking about.” I totally know what she’s talking about.
I read WOMEN for the first time while I was going through a breakup, and I’ve read that a breakup inspired you to write WOMEN, and I’m interested in what happens to the memory of a relationship as you write about it. For me it’s a clarifying process. I can sort out what went wrong and what I learned. How do you feel about it?
CC: About what, exactly? I don’t remember if it was clarifying. Recently I went back and looked at some emails between the person WOMEN was based on and myself, and was so pissed I didn’t look at them while writing the book. I didn’t want anything to mess with the story I was crafting based on faulty memory, but now I’m sad I forgot some good lines. But I knew what sort of story I wanted to tell: a gray area sexuality story propelled by doom, confusion, obsession. Something you know will end in eventual collapse, but you make a conscious choice to do it anyway.
CR: I can’t get over the moment the narrator talks about buying pizza at 7-Eleven and says, “I hide the pizza in my purse while I walk home because no one wants to be friends with someone who eats 7-Eleven pizza.” It’s heartbreaking. But food is mostly absent. There is so much drinking, but not as much eating. The narrator even describes food as an afterthought, which got me thinking about destruction and the danger of falling so intensely for someone that you depend on them for sustenance. What do you think?
CC: To be fair, I stole that line from a friend. She had binge-eaten donuts and thrown up and told me, “No one wants to be friends with someone with donut-puke breath,” or something to that extent. I thought it was really funny so I stole it. Funny you think of it as heartbreaking, I see it as humor. Have you ever had 7-Eleven pizza? It’s actually super good!
I think the narrator and Finn both had bouts of mania and depression. That’s why food is sometimes absent and sometimes binged on. There’s a scene where Finn buys the narrator a grilled cheese she barely touches. Toward the end though, the narrator is binge-eating mac and cheese (and earlier in the book too, this is why she calls a therapist) and that’s while Finn isn’t speaking to her anymore, so food comes back into play.
Also, the narrator was broke, and had no choice but to grocery shop at 7-Eleven and eat cheap pizza and I think she mentions eating toast every day. “Food is an afterthought,” I wrote at one point.
CR: Can you talk a bit about how time works throughout the book? The story is told mostly in present tense, yet the narrator frequently refers to how her relationship with Finn will fall apart in the future, as though reminding the reader to grieve. Though I wonder what it is that we grieve, maybe more of a loss of self than loss of another.
CC: The first 30 pages of the book are in past tense. I switch to present. Most people don’t notice this. The book was one of those messes where I just couldn’t decide on tense. “I’m gonna kill you” was something my editor Elizabeth Ellen said to me, often, re: tenses. So I decided the beginning would be past, like, explaining some background and then when their relationship picked up, I switched to present for the remainder of the book.
A translator is currently translating WOMEN to Spanish and she even emailed me like, what’s with your tenses.
In my mind the book is structured through seasons that are invisible headers. The story begins in fall, Finn and the narrator are friends through winter, sleep together early spring, in the summer the narrator is flipping out, and moves back home in the fall. The last scene is in winter.
The reason the narrator is able to talk about the future but live in the present tense, is because the minute after she and Finn sleep together they have the conversation about how the relationship won’t end well. But they keep doing it any way, with a clarity that it’s unsustainable.
CR: So, what’s next? Are you working on any new projects?
CC: My essay collection I’ll Tell You in Person releases October 4th from Coffee House and Emily Books. We just finished copy-editing and proof-reading and I’m going to share the cover any day now. There will be galleys available in late April. I’m scared. / :
Chloe Caldwell is the author of the novella WOMEN and essay collection LEGS GET LED ASTRAY. Her work has appeared in VICE, Salon, The Sun, Nylon, Men’s Health, Hobart, The Rumpus and is forthcoming in LENNY. Her next book, I’LL TELL YOU IN PERSON will release from Coffee House and Emily Books in October 2016. She lives in Hudson, NY. www.chloecaldwell.com