Of Alice Bolin’s forthcoming essay collection Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, Carmen Maria Machado writes, “I love this book. I want to take it into the middle of a crowded room and hold it up and scream until someone tackles me to the ground; even then, I’d probably keep screaming.”
These essays follow the gaze of the viewer and the imagination of the reader upon the body of the dead girl, found on TV screens, in true crime novels, and in the conjuring of iconic places. Alice’s argument shifts as her lens does, directed sometimes at this corpse-consuming culture that prefers its women dead, sometimes at herself, a participant in the devouring.
I met Alice Bolin six years ago at the edge of a crowded barroom in Missoula, Montana. She remembers that I told her I was writing about gluten; I don’t remember much, that being the time when I was deader than ever, regularly steeped in drunken resignation that I would never not be in peril. By reading her good tweets and octopus-armed essays ever since I’ve been lucky to watch the workings of this cultural critic’s curious mind. We recently spoke via Skype from our homes, Alice’s in Memphis, mine in Columbus, Ohio.
Elissa Washuta: You begin the book by saying: “This is a book about books. To try that again, it is a book about my fatal flaw: that I insist on learning everything from books.” Is it such a flaw? Do you think the learning from books is a pale comparison to learning from experience or however else people learn? I think we both learned a lot about the world from teen magazines when we were growing up in places that the teen magazines didn’t seem to care about. I don’t have any basis for comparison for having an upbringing of learning about the world more experientially than from book learning. But what do you think?
Alice Bolin: I’m glad you asked me about this because it’s something I’ve obviously been thinking about and wrestling with. What is real “experience” versus experiencing the world mediated through art? Part of the point of the book is that the experience of art is just as valid or just as much a part of life as “IRL” conversations or going to work or whatever. Art and media take up a large amount of our time, especially in this era of human existence, and those things have been just as real as other parts of my life. That’s one thing I was trying to do by marrying a critical approach with a memoir approach in the book. But at the same time, I do want to question those myths of place or myths about gender or crime, all of which are themes in the book. If we just look around us, and we look at the people who we know and at our own communities, often we know better than those myths. There were lots of things I knew about Los Angeles when I lived there because I saw them when I stepped outside. I saw the truth about race in Los Angeles, or about its neighborhoods, or what it was like to drive around. I didn’t need to read Joan Didion to learn that – and actually what she taught me was wrong, in some cases. The experience of art is a valid experience. But I think learning solely from art can be a problem.
EW: I’ve been thinking about the way you construct place on the page. The first essay in the book established the Dead Girl Show concept. And you open with Twin Peaks, which is set not far from where you grew up. And then in the second essay, you move to Moscow, Idaho, your hometown, and you’re writing about the American West and what you say is the “embodiment of the twin ideals of beauty and terror.” And you move to another place in the West, Los Angeles. There’s such a sharp contrast between living in a place that’s iconic and living in a place that people can’t quite picture. I’m wondering if you felt differences in the crafting of those places on the page for a reader. A place that’s mythic, iconic, one that readers already feel like they know even if they haven’t been there. And then one that you have the opportunity to construct from scratch for most readers.
AB: Los Angeles is a place that is very iconic, but at the same time it’s difficult to conceive of or picture if you’ve never been there. When I went to Hollywood for the first time, I was like what the fuck? It’s kind of quirky and crime-ridden and full of weirdos, and I was like, what? This isn’t Hollywood. Because I was thinking Hollywood was like a red carpet stretched along the street and Cate Blanchett would be standing there or whatever. For me writing about Los Angeles was building it from the ground up, looking around me and being like, this is not what I pictured. In fact, I sort of pictured nothing—I had nothing to picture. All I could think about were these concepts, like show business and celebrity and even the ocean. It all felt very abstract to me.
Writing about Moscow and the Northwest was different because I was trying to describe this landscape that is quite strange – describing these steep rolling hills that exist in northern Idaho and eastern Washington in a way people would be able to picture, or at least might be tempted to Google.
EW: Right now, I’m working on a book chapter that’s largely about where I grew up. I’ve been learning all these new things about my home and the way that it was culturally constructed that I didn’t know. Like I didn’t know until very recently the first Friday the 13th film was filmed very close to where I grew up. It’s a process of researching and then rendering a place that was so familiar to me that I thought it was the center of the universe. In writing the book, did you have any moments when your home became strange to you?
AB: This is so depressing but the main time that happened was when I was researching the two mass shootings that happened in Moscow within five years of each other. The second one was committed by one of my high school classmates. But really what shook me was the one that happened first, in 2006. I read this series of articles done on it by a Boise paper. That’s far away from Moscow and so it had this outsider’s framing of the town. All the landmarks they were talking about, they were places that I knew really well, but they were populated with people who I didn’t quite understand. It gave me a lens on a place where I had never lived as an adult. It felt a little darker or a little weirder.
What you’re saying is really interesting because when I talk to my students, I point to you as a writer who researches herself and edits her own history, who really actively interrogates and pushes against that previous version of herself. I always try to get students to research the places where they’re from, the places they think they know so well.
EW: That’s why I think it’s so great to leave home and go somewhere else for a while, or forever. It’s kind of ridiculous for me when I look back at the things that I thought were just things that were true of everywhere. Like I thought there were fluorescent rocks everywhere. No, there are just fluorescent rocks in Warren and Sussex County, New Jersey. I’m sure they’re—I was going to say they’re everywhere, but there are not fluorescent rocks everywhere. Or iconic diners, that’s a very New Jersey thing. But I have a lot of culturally instilled doubt about how I know what I know, and whether I really know what I know, and whether I really am an authority on even my own experience. I’ve tried to use that. Because I can’t get rid of it. I’m always looking up words in the dictionary that I know very well and use all the time but I’m not sure that I really know them. Instead of just letting that destroy me, I’m trying to actually use it to strengthen my craft.
AB: I’m wondering if that’s something common to women writers. I mean, obviously, it is.
AB: That self-doubt. But I have always thought of it as a strength too because as a critic I always doubt myself. I have the strength of my convictions, I know my opinion, but at the same time, I am terrified of being wrong in material ways or not being convincing enough. So I’m always the person who has their ducks in a row. I will go back and re-watch my favorite movie that I’ve seen 800 times if I’m going to write about it. It’s something actually in the past couple of years I’ve tried to stop myself from doing as much because I feel like it makes it less fun to read when the whole piece is just, “Here’s why I know what I know.” But at the same time, it’s something I try to teach my students, to be rigorous and to follow up, to question even the things you think you know.
EW: It’s interesting that you bring up the fear of being wrong–I want to talk to you about my experience of first reading that essay “A Teen Witch’s Guide to Staying Alive.” You first published that in a different form at Broadly. The essay is about teen witchcraft and literature that informed it for you, and you bring in an examination of my second book Starvation Mode. I loved the way you brought the book into this witchcraft examination, and I was honestly a little freaked out in a good way. I don’t think we had talked outside of Twitter for a while so I don’t think you would have known this, but really around that time I had just started reading my own tarot cards, I was getting into astrology, I had just started casting spells weeks before. But I didn’t feel that I had the right to call myself a witch because that seemed like it was on the other side of this velvet rope, guarded by the personified form of a Geocities website telling me that I couldn’t be a witch without some kind of a coven initiation. So even though Starvation Mode isn’t explicitly about witchcraft at all, I felt like you saw it and you saw me and you saw something in me and in my work that I didn’t even see. So your essay was like this conjuring. It had a real impact on me.
AB: This is very sweet!
EW: It’s true!
AB: When I heard the description of Starvation Mode, which I bought and read immediately when it was published, I was like oh it sounds so witchy. I just had an intuition that it would fit in with some of this stuff that I was reading and writing about, especially thinking about Shirley Jackson and the ways that food is used in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Food, this site of feminine control, is very witchy. Even in the Christian Eucharist, there is this spell that is said over bread, transforming it into a person’s body. I think that My Body Is A Book of Rules is a witchy book too but at the edges. In my mind I cannot remember the exact thing that made me be like, oh yes Starvation Mode will fit in with the teen witch essay. I just knew it immediately, like we were traveling on the same stream.
EW: It’s witch intuition.
AB: This spring I reread My Body Is A Book of Rules and saw all the stuff you wrote about magazines, which is something I’ve been thinking about and writing about, and it’s like oh yes! It all goes together, these ideas about girlhood and all the strange childhood rituals that we just take for granted.
EW: It’s amazing the way that through cultural criticism you’re able to create something, see something the author put there and didn’t realize was there. And you’re able to create a new annex to the work by doing that. And that gets me thinking again about this idea of learning things from books. I wonder whether maybe there are some things that can only be learned from books because that’s where the creation of some knowledge happens.
AB: Right. There’s something there that’s ineffable. I always connect it to the idea of the overtone in choral music, where certain harmonies will create another note that no one is singing. That catalyst, that overtone, is the way that a good essay works. All of these threads are playing in concert and they create something that’s only there in the margins or in the low notes. That’s why as a nonfiction writer I like to write about nonfiction. I feel like Dead Girls is such a book about nonfiction–kind of an infinite regression–but it’s fun for me to draw out those overtones and create something explicit from things that were implicit.
EW: The other day you tweeted something that I was thinking about for days. You wrote about this being “a book about how the constant fear of being murdered by men constrains women’s freedom + about our giddy obsession with real life + fictional murder stories.” Then you tweeted about not being sure about whether the Dead Girl genre is redeemable. And so for days, I was thinking about how much I’m drawn to the Dead Girl genre, and also about how often in my life I’ve been afraid of being murdered by men. There have been times when I’m living my life, going to my job, doing my whatever, and all the while I’m privately terrified of some specific man who I’m afraid my kill me–various men, at various times in my life. No matter how much pain and fear I’m feeling, I can only really tell my closest friends and we talk it out together. It’s easy to feel like there’s nobody to care, nobody to help. For me, this is the appeal of the Dead Girl genre. In real life, there’s no Agent Cooper who’s going to figure this out for me. So in TV and movies, we’ve got either that hero guy figure or if not, at least all of us in the audience are looking at this Dead Girl together, we’re all caring together. That’s sort of reassuring. It’s like I’m being cared for by proxy. So for me, that’s what makes the genre redeemable: a way of finding comfort in a dangerous and generally uncaring world. But I’m wondering what’s behind the question for you? What makes you think it might be redeemable?
AB: Oh I have many thoughts. You’re totally right about that hero figure. That it is such cold consolation to think that the only thing we can really hope for is someone to care if we are killed.
AB: We can’t even wish to not be killed.
AB: That’s the thing that does make it feel like, should we even try to subvert the genre? I think that women want to be confronted with some kind of reality. We are always facing this fear of violence, so things in the media that show us that violence makes us feel like, OK I’m not crazy, this could happen to me, these threats are out there. But at the same time, those stories in the media are also warnings to us. They are ways to police women by saying, “Don’t be like her.” Because ultimately it isn’t like, “Let’s stop men from acting that way,” it’s like, “Let’s protect the women” or “Let’s solve their cases.” So I have to think about the impact that being able to identify with victims on screen has for women with this other effect that it maintains us in this state of absolute terror.
But I think about My Body is a Book of Rules a lot when it comes to this question because it’s a book that’s hard to read and it is intense and it does talk a lot about violence, but it also really forces the reader to reckon with a woman who is going to tell them her experience and who is not going to back away and is not going to die, who is going to be there through the whole thing. That to me is the opposite of the Dead Girl Show. You use stuff like Law & Order SVU or other Dead Girl icons, even saints in the Catholic church, to amplify your own voice. That’s when I think, if we can allow women’s imaginations to play with these stories, then maybe there is a redemptive effect. But it takes a leap that I see mostly in literature at this point and less in other kinds of media.
EW: I’m thinking again of that idea of the book as the site of experience. In the book that’s the only place where I’m able to have that experience, or that’s the place where I’m freest to have the experience of telling someone about my fear and my pain. That’s not a real-life experience I have that often. The book is a site of freedom where, at least in drafting and revising, I’m not constrained by anybody else.
AB: That was true for me too in writing my book. Even as I say we should be careful of learning everything from books, I think you’re right that that moment of confrontation that can happen with another person and that moment of freedom is unique to literature, for right now anyway. Maybe because of the time it takes to read a book, and because it’s silent and individual, and because at this point writing is not really that lucrative.
Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, a collection of essays forthcoming from Morrow/HarperCollins on June 26, 2018. Preorder here.
Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a writer of personal essays and memoir. She is the author of two books, Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Exquisite Vessel: Shapes of Native Nonfiction, forthcoming from University of Washington Press. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Elissa is an assistant professor of English at the Ohio State University.