BTC Caren Beilin Revenge Scapegoat
David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Ben Shattuck’s Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, which charts six journeys taken by Shattuck across The New England Landscapes, each inspired by a walk of Thoreau taken years ago. Says Hernan Diaz, “By walking in Thoreau’s footsteps, Ben Shattuck ends up following the long trail left by wandering thinkers and writers like Rousseau, Muir, Walser, Benjamin, and Solnit. Along the way, Six Walks offers a moving meditation on nature and history—and what our precarious place between these two realms may be?” Adds Nina MacLaughlin, “In painterly prose, he brings us along on his walks and proves the best sort of guide: curious, open to the chance encounter, deeply attuned to rhythms natural and personal and to the strange joys to be found even in periods of pain. Most of all, he reminds us, every step of the way, of what’s on offer every time we walk out the door.” Six Walks is out now from Tin House. I’m really excited to share this conversation with Caren Beilin. Her four books, each in and of themselves but also I think particularly in how they improbably relate to each other, raise so many questions about writing and representation that are super interesting, and I think also really generative. The books as reading experiences are wild on the sentence level, on the level of structure, the imagery, and language and how they’re able to unleash humor in the least likely of places. When I realized that Caren’s latest book was coming out with Dorothy and that I was also doing an interview with the writer of Dorothy’s other release this spring, I reached out to them to see if we should do them consecutively and celebrate it in some way. There are a lot of presses I love and trust: Wave Books, New Directions, Coffee House, Graywolf, too many to name really, Ugly Duckling Press, Action Books, Nightboat, and of course, Tin House, but this is just naming a few. But when I think of Dorothy, I think of a conversation I had with my partner Lucy. I think we had just finished watching the movie Mirror by Tarkovsky, which was maybe the sixth of his seven films that we had seen, each one feeling like an important experience to have. Afterwards, we were asking ourselves, “What directors had perfect track records?” Likely any director who had had a limited number of films to even entertain this question but where every one of those films was formidable? At the time, I think we could only come up with Tarkovsky and Lee Chang-dong, the Korean director of such amazing films as Poetry, Secret Sunshine, and Peppermint Candy, and one of the few directors where we’ve seen everything by him, everything being five or six films but all great films. I’m sure there are others but I bring this up because it is in this slide of Dorothy Project, a project that puts out only two books each year, both books by women writers. It’s so incredibly well curated that each release feels like an event and one that is met with both excitement and confidence, confidence around the judgment of Danielle and Martin, which is impeccable. As a testament to that, what Dorothy sent me to offer to new supporters as part of this Dorothy episode double header was a box of all 22 of their books published to date, which I opened with a sense of awe for how gorgeous they all looked separately and together. I had the pleasure of having the task to figure out how to create bundles from these 22 books to offer to you, the listener who has not quite yet made the step to listener-supporter, everything from Renee Gladman’s four books of speculative fiction to Nathalie Léger’s award-winning triptych of books, each the story of a female artist against the backdrop of her own life and research to a triptych I created of surrealistic works, The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, Wild Milk by Sabrina Orah Mark, and The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza and really a lot more from Rosmarie Waldrop’s only novel to writings by Marguerite Duras that have never before appeared in English. You can find five different bundles of various sizes and themes that I created from these 22 books up at the show’s Patreon site at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. But as a testament to this probably being the best time ever to become a new supporter, Caren’s book, before her latest, the hybrid, medical narrative memoir Blackfishing the IUD, which we actually talked quite a bit about today as well, that book’s publisher has since gone under, so there are a limited number of these books in the world and Caren sent me five signed copies, which are available as well. As if that were not enough, as you are about to learn, today’s book’s main protagonist named Iris has rheumatoid arthritis, and with it, she has two very painful feet, feet she has named after the grumpy men in Flaubert’s final unfinished book Bouvard and Pécuchet and these feet talk to each other throughout Caren’s book about history, and philosophy. For the bonus audio, Caren talks about Flaubert’s book, then reads to us from Bouvard and Pécuchet but I suspect, even if we didn’t have this largesse from Dorothy to offer, even if we didn’t have these signed copies of Blackfishing the IUD, even if we didn’t have Caren’s bonus reading, that just hearing this conversation, this extended conversation that ranges widely and goes deep, that it might cross your mind during it or afterwards that you want to see more of this in the future. To become part of the Between The Covers community and to check out all the goodies, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, none other than Caren Beilin.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning. Welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest writer, Caren Beilin, could be described most simply as a writer of prose. You could say she is the writer of memoir, novels, auto fiction, collaborative fiction, medical narratives, though where each of these categories begins and ends becomes harder to ascertain the more you read her, her work by her own description often touches upon and is threaded through with feminist themes, and increasingly, both her teaching and writing is informed by a disability poetics. Beilin has an MFA from the University of Montana and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Utah, and is currently a professor of writing at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and editor at large for Full Stop Magazine. She’s also the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship. Her chapbook Americans, Guests, Or Us was published by Diagram in 2012 and her debut novel The University of Pennsylvania was a finalist for Fence’s Modern Prose prize judged by Rivka Galchen, and Winner of the 2013 Noemi Press Book Award for Fiction, a book that prompted Ander Monson to say, “THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA is unhinged, just the thing to remove your skin. Everything will feel intense because it is. How many books can reroute your dreams like this?” She’s also the author of the literary non-fiction or perhaps auto fiction, anti-travelogue Spain from Rescue Press, a book Vi Khi Nao describes as, “A genre-bending document of the narrator’s female, migratory writing life through the wounded, binoculative, molested soul of her nipples. SPAIN is stuffed with poetic axing, bicycling, pussying, traveloguing, Rilke-ing, Claire Denis-ing, reading, anti-Spain-ing. This highly inventive, highly imaginative book relentlessly disrupts the contemporary order of memoir writing. Beilin goes to the moon and back, and is not afraid to be scandalous or poetic or whimsical or ethical at a moment’s notice.” Next came Beilin’s collaborative medical narrative and memoir Blackfishing the IUD about gendered illness, medical gaslighting, the dismissal of women’s self-reporting of their symptoms, and the copper IUDs potential to trigger chronic autoimmunity. Hilary Plum says of Blackfishing the IUD, “Love does leave you open,’ Caren Beilin proves in this heart-breaking, book-breaking work. Beilin opens her memoir of illness to the voices of others harmed by the IUD, a medical device that makes the writer’s daily living and thinking into a story of autoimmune disease. Beilin and others who know the risks of being heard and treated as women include us in their generous acts of rage, empathy, gratitude, and information. Reading and writing are witchwork, transforming the isolation of suffering into a tender and common ground. This book reminds us that our bodies are sites of language we can trust and love and offer in forms more radical than we know.” Along with the book, Caren created and hosted the podcast of the same name Blackfishing the IUD with guests from Tyrese Coleman to Amy Berkowitz. Caren Beilin is here today on Between The Covers to talk about her latest book from Dorothy called Revenge of the Scapegoat, a book of fiction, a novel that somehow also feels deeply connected to each of the books that come before, regardless of genre. Catherine Lacey says of Revenge of the Scapegoat, “Animated with the moxie and wit of Acker and Tillman, Caren Beilin is one of the most bizarre and fearless writers of her generation. Revenge of the Scapegoat is a surreal take on the tendency people have to damage those we claim to love and the way parental cruelty renders the world unrecognizable.” Kirkus adds, “Though the narrative involves childhood trauma, domestic abuse, addiction, medical exploitation, and the Holocaust, Iris’ wholly unique voice makes for a very funny work. This wide-ranging, idea-driven novel leaves the reader with much to think about, deftly provoking questions about the nature and ethics of trauma and contemporary art.” Publishers Weekly in its starred review says, “Beilin lands on an infectious and perfect blend of cultural criticism, wry writing advice and magnificently weird storytelling.” Finally, Steven Dunn says, “Revenge of the Scapegoat made me bounce-laugh so hard my cheeks and belly kept jiggling while reading the pains.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Caren Beilin.
Caren Beilin: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
DN: Before we talk about Revenge of the Scapegoat, I wanted to ask you if you see your four books as related to each other. I know they’re discreet projects that stand alone to nonfiction and to fiction but so many things travel through all of them, not just the themes. For instance, the way different systems gaslight people, whether they’re medical systems or family systems, and the way women and girls are often the victims of this in particular, inherited generational trauma, feminism, Judaism, these connect your books. But the “characters” also walk through your books too. By that I mean we encounter your father in your fiction and your nonfiction, your mother in both recognizably the same in identifiable ways but in different genres. I know for sure that I’m going to make the mistake probably multiple times of referring to your main character in the new book as you, so I guess because of these porous boundaries, I wondered how do you see these books, if at all, related to each other, as they spill from one to the next?
CB: I think I’m beginning to think about these books as a quartet. I think it’s been helpful for me to think of them as a quartet for a couple of reasons. One of which is that because I actually would like to move on in some sense, just spiritually for myself. Life is long hopefully and so much of my spirit is fueled by coming out of the wreckage of my family life, coming out of the pain of particularly my adolescent years. There are different ways to categorize writers. I love to think that some writers are writers of chapters, some writers are writers of sentences, some are paragraph writers and also writers have different ages to them and I’m always attracted to the writer who’s an adolescent. I am a teenage writer. I write from the place of my teenage self and that kind of fundamental feeling that I had as a teenager, which was of feeling very oppressed, gaslit, threatened, scared, so triumphant, and so full of ecstasy. I was a really ecstatic teenager and that was my response. All of these books were written in that state and that is the state of my writing. It’s an interesting, hopeful problem that life is long and I wonder if it will always work for me to plumb into that, and just keep wringing that out, like what will become of me, what will become of my life. It’s been really helpful for me lately to think of these four books as being this quartet of coming out of this, which of course was not all bad, and I don’t mean to say it was, but coming out of something that completely made me feel amazed that I came out of it. I think all four of them talk really directly about having a sick mom. My mother became sick with multiple sclerosis when I was around 10 years old and that was such a major aspect of my experience, let alone hers, but certainly mine. I came from a family where the father displayed viciousness or expressed viciousness and other things too. These are multi-dimensional situations. But those were just the big figures in my life and not just figures of trauma, like processing figures, but figures of ecstasy, energy, anger, and all the things that make me feel alive. I do think that one of the things that I’m thinking about now is how to feel alive as a writer without these figures or if these figures are not the main pointer, were actually right in front of the text.
DN: What makes me think of your question that you posed to Sheila, in the conversation with Sheila about the rejected figure, and when you keep mentioning the word ecstasy, it makes me think of how you were asking Sheila Heti if the person that was rejecting that keeps reappearing in her work created things like clarity or energy in some other way. I don’t know if that was informing your question to her I guess.
CB: Sure, yeah. I was curious with her if she just had this paradoxical feeling of the pain of rejection but also knowing that she needed or something in some way. I asked her if it was her jouissance. I tried to identify my own jouissance and I’ve been told that one cannot identify their own jouissance. That’s the thing about it. But if I had to guess, mine is really built around lowering myself so that I feel that I could be or am being kicked in the face, then slowly, steadily, and perfectly, across time, being so full of ecstasy, power, and capacity that nothing else matters but I have to lower myself first. I wonder if people who know me who are listening to this think, “Oh yeah, she does that all the time. It’s really annoying. I wish she wouldn’t force me to debase her so she could feel good.” [laughter] But that’s my teenage position, that I felt imperiled in my home as a child but particularly as a teenager and survived that situation through conjuring amazing feats of ecstasy. That’s what I’m still like I guess.
DN: Thinking still about these four books, now we can call them a quartet, and about the question of a genre, and I don’t know how much you think about these questions, but at the end of Revenge of the Scapegoat, the latest book, which is a fiction, or perhaps a fiction, it has endnotes. It says for one, “For a nonfiction account of how my mom left her marriage and the suburbs, after living with MS for decades, how she moved to the city and began life anew, see my previous book, Spain,” and also you have this endnote, “For a non-fiction account of how the copper IUD triggered my first rheumatoid arthritis flare, and how many IUD-users experience depression, anxiety, joint pain, the early onset of autoimmunity, hair loss, heart palpitations, and other life-altering problems, see my previous book Blackfishing the IUD.” Both of these notes suggest to people, who haven’t read your most recent book yet, that your mother and a character like you with IUD triggered autoimmune disease appear in the latest book in, at least, a somewhat fictionalized form. I’m interested in hearing about how you decide when to write one versus the other. For instance, one of the main origin points of the new book, the new fictional book is receiving in real life from your father during the pandemic these letters that he wrote to you as a teenager that were super wounding to you at the time, and for some reason, he sent to you again as an adult and which reopened that wound. This ultimately was one of the impulses to write Revenge of the Scapegoat. What were the considerations for you that would suggest fiction was the way to go, that it gave you the right tools to create art out of this very real, very tangible real life thing?
CB: Yeah. I feel even emotional now when you read particularly the note about my mom. It’s really painful to me, and I guess this is a spoiler alert, but it’s painful to me that she dies in Revenge of the Scapegoat. The figure of the sick mother dies. It was really important for me to tell anybody reading the book that my mom is still alive and that there’s a whole inverse to that story. But I wanted in this book to tell the story, the shadow story, something that she said is that she would have died if she stayed in that house. She saved herself and really miraculously, I mean she was very disabled and incredibly fatigued from the MS by the time she left this house. I’m in awe of the self heroism of that act. She saved her butt so good. It was so wild. It was just really wild. This woman who’s mostly consigned to her bed all day has found an apartment in the city and is somehow going to move her body to it. It was just a really amazing thing that happened when I was 19 years old. In the book, Iris’ mother dies when Iris is 19 years old. I say in the book, she died of staying, and that is my messed up way I guess to honor that my mom actually saved her life by not doing that but this is the fictional what if moment. Then I will say about the other section that you read where I point readers to Blackfishing the IUD, that’s important to me because I like to spend any opportunity I can to publicly say that if you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, joint pain, heart palpitations, hair loss, eczema, or all kinds of system-wide issues that you have just attributed to something else and you have an IUD, the IUD can cause local to systemic effects and it’s doing that to a lot of people. I like to spend any opportunity to say that. Danielle suggested we put that in the back of the book, Danielle Dutton, the editor of Dorothy, and I was just thrilled because I want every opportunity to say that but also it’s surreal to have written Blackfishing the IUD, which is about my interaction with the copper IUD, which instigated for me my first rheumatoid arthritis flare. Now I live with rheumatoid arthritis because it’s an autoimmune disease and that’s how that works. But something about writing and publishing a book makes you feel like it’s over, like you wrote it. I did some readings, it’s like it’s done, like I don’t have RA anymore. I sealed it up in that book and it’s not true, but it almost made me feel that way. I wanted to continue writing about my life with RA because that illusion couldn’t hold that, so it needed to continue. But I think specifically to your question about why this is fiction or why I have a fictional impulse, I think that with all of my writing, I’m really interested in the sentence. With this writing in particular, there were a lot of different things that instigated it, there’s a lot of different origin stories for the book, but one of them had to do with this sentence that I kept on trying to use in a different short story and that short story wasn’t going very well because it wasn’t very interesting, but I was in love with the sentence. It was just a really dense, very creative sentence. This book just felt like it was springing for my interest in those sorts of things. Another real origin for the book, I was really journaling a lot about cows stepping on my heart, which I did after I received these letters. I felt like my heart was so wounded but so hard from being hurt. I was like, “A cow could step on my heart and I would be fine.” I kept on just feeling f*ck*d up strength of my heart and I kept on writing about cows stepping on it, not knowing what to do with it but that felt fictional. [laughter] It’s like I was in a pretty fantastical space. I don’t feel devoted to genre. I often tell my students because they often have genre anxiety like, “Wait, what genre is this supposed to be in?” I think prose is 100% fiction and 100% nonfiction at all times. I just don’t have a lot of allegiance to it or I won’t care if you think that Iris is me and certainly, by the end of the book, I gesture really strongly that she is. I don’t really care.
DN: Let me ask you about this through the lens of your father. For instance, in your nonfiction book, which here is another way you trouble genre, so your non-fiction book Spain, which you wanted to be referred to as an auto fictional book but then through the publishing process was called the nonfiction book, there are many mini chapters titled Nipple where our narrator returns over and over again to the time her father, posing for a photo with her, reaches around her back and around her torso, and touches her nipple. That book engages with the Claire Denis film White Material where Isabelle Huppert character puts an axe in her father’s back and the character in Spain says, “What a good ending.” Similarly, in Blackfishing the IUD, we have your father again as himself but also we have a fictional father, the Borges story Emma Zunz appears where a woman avenges her father’s possible suicide. The reasons for him killing himself are unclear but she kills the Jewish mill owner that employed him as an act of vengeance. Then in your first novel, your first fiction, we have a father who is a murdered factory owner but here in the latest book, you said that the letters your father sent you—not in the book, you don’t say this—but outside of the book, you say that the letters he actually sent you, they gave you the form for this book, for this fiction that contains the real reproduction of those letters perhaps in them. [laughs] It seems as if the real reproduction of the letters are within this fiction but talk to us about the letters, both with regards to the book and the book’s form, but also perhaps I guess around the form of a family because it feels like the one of the main things the book is doing is looking at the family form, and that perhaps or at least, I’m reading into this that the letters giving you a form have something to do with that. Speak to us a little bit about the letters themselves.
CB: One thing I will say, I feel like this is an important detail to correct you about Spain, what occurs in Spain and I will say in my own life is that I met up with my father for brunch, and as he was greeting me, he reached out and touched my nipple. He didn’t do a full reach around. [laughs] I don’t know why I wouldn’t even correct you, does that make it better?
DN: I don’t know why I’m imagining that’s the case.
CB: But there was another part where there was another little inappropriate part of the photograph.
DN: So I’m not inventing it entirely. I’m just mixing the two up.
CB: Yeah, I don’t know. I just felt like correcting you.
DN: Speaking nonfiction–
CB: But even with that in Spain, I mean the narrator, presumably me, is very plagued by wondering if that happened like, “Did it happen? I think it happened.” It’s like, “Could this have happened?” With the letters, the letters are really the beginning of the Revenge of the Scapegoat. They’re like the instigating thing. Iris is sitting at the cafe in Philadelphia. Shout out to Good Karma. I love that place. She’s sitting at Good Karma in Philly and she’s clutch it, like she’s holding this package, her horrid little poodle that she has with her with these letters and they’re deeply disturbing her, and not only have they disturbed her but they’ve reordered family relations because she’s now in a fight with her brother about like, “How did these letters get to me? Did you give our father my address?” Does he even know I’m living in Philadelphia still? I don’t want him to know anything.” There’s just this whole argument that begins because of the letters. That’s all very nonfiction, “I received these letters, then proceeded to get into a fight with my family about them. I was disappointed that my address had been shared,” because I just didn’t want something like that to appear. I keep on thinking about these letters. There’s actually a film that I talk about in Spain but I try to Google the plot of this film, I try to find out what this film was all of the time and I can’t find it but I saw this art film in 2005. It was like this Argentinian art film. In it, there was a scene that I just never forgot where a daughter has a father who is a famous poet who dies and she is the custodian of his papers, his private journals, and everything but he’s very famous, so different people are very interested in getting the journals from her. She wants to read them first. She reads a very damning page where he says that he wishes he’d never had her and that she has only disappointed him, and he’s disgusted by her and she rips out the page before anybody sees it. She has to hide it because they’re coming to talk to her, so she hides it in her outfit, on her thigh. Then there’s a scene when they leave and she takes the ripped out page off of her thigh and her stomach, and her whole stomach, thigh area there is like burning red. The letters have seared her or that writing of her father has injured her, that even just the contact of the paper. I’ve just never forgotten that amazing scene in this film that I can’t find anything about. But that was what it was like for me when I received these letters. They really got me in this trauma-esque cyclical way. I couldn’t believe them. They were just like such proof to me. They aren’t presented as themselves in the book. There is a fictional element to them, which in part has to do with how copyright works. Letters, somebody sends you, you don’t own them even though they’ve been brazen enough to send them to you.
CB: I felt some anxiety around that and wrote fictional impressions of the letters but I tried to be very faithful to them, which was actually difficult because I wanted to make them worse because I somehow wanted to make them sound as bad as they made me feel but I tried not to do that because the letters are strangely polite. They’re strangely orderly. They sound very wounded themselves. There are many ways in which these letters are incredibly non-eventful to the general reader.
DN: They were eventful for me.
CB: They were?
DN: I’m going to fold in the extended conversation you had with Sheila, which is going to appear in the edited form of The Paris Review. I know she found them less remarkable in terms of how horrible they are in comparison to Iris’ response to them. But I found them really horrible myself and just the fact of the equalizing of the wounded parent as if you weren’t a child, and that somehow, they could be put on the same level and that the responsibility being placed on you, that the family was falling apart and to justify all of his choices, that if somehow you had been different, he wouldn’t be leaving his wife, disabled wife and family. I found them quite eventful. [laughter]
CB: Oh, I think yeah, Sheila did say, raising a teenager’s heart, they seem almost reasonable. She didn’t only say that.
DN: No, of course not.
DN: She’s much more nuanced than that.
CB: Yeah. But when I first got the letters, and I did, I had so much rage, I had a lot of anger, I mean that’s one of my ways that I have energy in this life and I did have that like, “I will never burn these letters. I will burn them into a novel. This is my revenge.” I felt full of anger and an incredible tenderness, and all these things, but then my horror was nobody can ever see these letters because if anybody says anything besides that they are horrible, then I will die. It’s such an attachment to what they did to me psychically at that age, that it was very hard for me to imagine sharing them. But I guess, as an artist, that’s one of the things I try to practice, like doing things that are very terrifying. I want there to be stakes in the things that I do and I care about that, so I just knew that was one of the things like, “I had to do this terrifying thing,” and I do. As I said to Sheila, it was like exposure therapy. It really was. I went from these letters searing into my body, like feeling so tender, I went from that to, I don’t know, just going back and forth over however many emails with Danielle being like, “Let’s change this word here.” [laughter] Whatever you do when you’re editing a book, and considering it not in a nonfiction way. I have no interest in a memoirist version of this story. This idea of carefully revealing the importance of these letters, I know I’m speaking about how important this is to me, but I have no expectation actually that a reader of mine would invest in the importance of my bad, suburban dad. I want my reader to read me the way it feels to listen to such a good album or something and just feel the way you want to feel in your veins because you’re reading a sentence that feels like the right little skit of anger, and coolness, or whatever it is that is your song too. That’s all I really want. There’s no lesson to learn. There’s nothing I want to unpack with my reader. I’m horrified by being humiliated by these letters. There’s all kinds of horror for me but I don’t like that about memoir, this idea of like I’m delivering this thing that must be unpacked and held by you too. It’s not actually something that I want the reader to hold, which is I think going back to your question, which you did a wonderful job of saying, it’s a formal question, the letters are so charged and they allow a plot to occur. They allow something to happen. It happens around such a charge. Whether that’s for the reader, maybe it is but it’s certainly for me, it’s like a charge of a risk. Something’s at stake, something’s really horrible for me so the letters have the charge and I need something to ride on so that I can just describe what the world feels like, what grass is like, and what it feels like to be alive.
DN: Yeah. I had a hard time figuring out where to begin as an entry point to the book in this conversation, whether to start with a story or whether to start with language, and you’ve already intimated about your love of the sentence and your love of language. I think part of why it’s hard for me is because they feel really inseparable in your work, the language that you use, also your investigation of language, then the story itself. But what I’d love to do is have you recount one story within the book as an entryway ultimately in the language, then I’ll try to bring it back out again in the story. In this family system, Iris is scapegoated and the brother Kenneth aligns himself with the family narrative, so ultimately against his sister, and ultimately reinscribes the scapegoating, mainly coming from the father. He quite literally says in the novel, the father, that Iris is ruining things within this family ecosystem and instructs Kenneth to hit his sister with his mother’s cane, the cane she has because of her multiple sclerosis. But I’m interested in another moment when Kenneth asks if he can use his sister’s box for a school project and she says no. Could you maybe do a little recap of that mini story for us as an entryway into something I want to ask you? Tell us about the box, what it means to Iris and what happens next.
CB: Iris as a young child, then I should say she’s recounting this story to somebody named Caroline and she’s talking about a moment in her life, in her family where she first wanted to murder her family members. I do want to say I actually don’t have a lot of, as I said, propriety around fiction, nonfiction, but because I’m publishing this into a world in which my family members do exist and are living here on this Earth with me, and I’ve said this to them, that is pure fiction. I did not fantasize about killing my family members but I love the figure of the murderous child so much in lots of different media, horror films, and things like that. [laughter] I just wanted Iris to be a murderous child but I actually felt very sensitive and made sure, especially with my mother and sister, that they knew, I don’t know if it would be wrong to fantasize in that way but I did want to tell them that was me loving the horror genre and the figure of the murderous child for all the reasons somebody like me might. But anyway, this is Iris’s reason for first wanting to murder her family. She has a box and it is a special box, the way that maybe you have had a special box when you were a child where you put a prism, a leaf, some of your most favorite stickers, and these sorts of things. It’s like her little philosopher’s hut, this box. But then her brother needs it for a school project and she’s forced by the family to offer it up like, “Empty your box of its special contents and this box goes to school with your brother.” Then the brother is told by somebody at school that for the special project, the brother must write, in pen, his name on the top of the box and the box is made of this very soft wood, so he writes in pen in a way that carves his name into the top of the box, then it is returned to Iris marked with her brother’s name on it. This is a lasting memory for Iris. As the scapegoat who holds all memories and the scapegoats, like the giver, you gotta remember all of the things nobody else will.
DN: I promise I’m going to come back to the story but it’s going to seem like I’m departing from it for a minute. Many people mention your sentences. Sheila Heti talks about how there’s a sense of adventure in your sentences, so much poetry in them, and a playfulness around making up amazing words. I think one of your favorites was [moon butterus], which is also one of mine too. You and Sheila sent me the 16,000 word unedited version of your conversation about this book, which is slated to appear in The Paris Review in a much more edited form, so I’m quoting from behind the curtain when she says, “I usually prefer plain writing because I hate to see the writers labor or work and simple sentences hide it well, but your work seems effortless with all its untraveled, complicated, poetic, hilarious twists and turns.” I think that is what immediately excited me about it. So much writing that is intricate feels labored over, whereas yours is like skipping down the street. But she’s just one of many people. For instance, Ander Monson, when he says, Caren Beilin’s prose isn’t like other people’s prose–or other people’s anything. Her engine is the sentence, but it runs on fuel from other worlds,” or Joanna Ruocco who says, “No one writes like Caren Beilin. If Angela Carter got commingled with Gary Lutz in Lara Glenum’s Miraculating Machine, they might have produced the kinds of sentences found in The University of Pennsylvania, clausal bell-ringers that rewire your brain.” On the first page of your first novel The University of Pennsylvania, you encounter the sentence, “He lowered the sopping girl over a basin where then stomach lubricant was applied and this doctor, unforgivably a man, would not even look at her but watched a screen with the black and white abomination of her binarious uterus wincing and bouncing in reaction to being seen the two of them at last.” But if we flash forward to now, four books later, even more so on the first page of Revenge of the Scapegoat, we encounter a remarkable sentence, “I had on very very dark-green shoes, a black-green vegan leather more like a liquid you would press from a hot tampon you are pulling now, by the lamplight, out of a toad’s omnibus of Anaïs Nin,” which is just amazing. But I wanted you to talk about the poetics of the sentence for you, which feel like they have an impossible alchemy of almost like too much is happening in them and almost as if provocatively, something is even missing in them. [laughs] Tell us about your love of the sentence and syntax in this way.
CB: I was working on this short story and that was the sentence. It just took me a while to understand, “Oh, just leave the short story, just the only sentence you like, then make a book that’s with sentences like that one.” I’m glad you liked that one. I like a sentence for all the reasons all the great sentence lovers like a sentence. So much possibility, it’s a closed form but you can make it however long you want. I like clauses because I love discordance. Discordance for me is the reason to write. It’s like a reason I fear writing in a popular way or for a more general readership or something like that. Because sometimes, when fiction in particular goes into a more popular space, this smoothness or intelligibility starts to take over when for me, discordance, that’s everything to me, the idea that a sentence can possess its opposites inside of it, like things that are askew or wrong with it or that make it completely different or that start to duplicate itself inside of itself in a way that’s really dumb and great. I think the clause are a perfect tool for discordance. That’s such an important experience of being alive, that there are things that are just paradoxical and discordant, and don’t make sense and aren’t part of something. You’re like, “Why is that there too?” I think oh my goodness, I mean Flaubert is really great at this, the discordant clause, whatever, repetition and difference, all this stuff but I love that. There’s always room in a sentence for another surprise, for something just like even more weird. A lot of my writing comes from boredom, like a feeling of like I’m going to, I mean I don’t say this lightly but like a feeling of like I really do actually think of writing as an anti-suicide act. It’s like, “I’m going to kill myself, I’m so bored,” unless something really happens in this sentence and it really comes from that really deep sense of something better, and I don’t mean a plot thing. I also think I like compression. The sentence from Revenge is really compressed. There’s just a lot going on. I think that is something that comes from my experience of being female. There are just so many instances in my life where I’m interrupted or disbelieved or all the things. Whenever you are interrupting somebody or disbelieving them, you’re just creating another clause for the sentence that they’re writing. You’re just compressing them and they’re becoming so good at it.
CB: If you decide to write then or whatever your art is, that is an expression of that compression from when you’ve been disbelieved or interrupted or oppressed or whatever it is. It’s important that it all happens in one sentence because that’s you saying, “This is one sentence, motherf*ck*r.”
DN: I love that. The thing that came to mind for me around having a sentence like this on the opening page in both of those books, even when you might not encounter another one for a while in the same books, it made me think of when Sheila says that this is one of the strangest but also most certain books she’s read recently or when she says your books have a natural authority, the authority of those artworks, which are strictly themselves because to me, I think whether by design or not, that by doing this so early in the book, that you set the scope of what the book might do at any point in the following pages, even if it doesn’t happen frequently. But the reason I had you talk about Iris’s box, then about sentences is because–
CB: I forgot about the box. [laughter]
DN: Good, because you said something else to Sheila that I really was intrigued by. You said, “Writing, for me, was born out of the need to create a language unreadable to my family of origin—unreadable because it was so beautiful! It is difficult for me to write plainly, even when I absolutely want to and see that that would be best, because my original impulse has to do with writing code for a wormhole outside of sadness and abuse.” When I think of your family and Iris’s family where you, and Iris are the confected figure, the scapegoat that holds all of the blame for the family, and that Iris’s sibling is complicit in this, and as a way of survival, Iris has this box, a box only for her, a box where Iris collects ephemera and ephemera that reflects her own subjective life experience over and against a weaponized narrative against her, that the box gets emptied and used by her brother who really is in the end an agent of the state as he doesn’t simply take Iris’s no. Iris says, “No, you can’t use my box.” He then goes to the parents, essentially employing their narrative against her, returns the box after his project with his name etched into the wood, that even here is not safe. There’s no safe box. But the way you describe language in this conversation with Sheila, it feels like this is a sort of box. You mentioned the sentence as a closed system that writing this way, this cryptology feels like this box impulse to me, a box stuffed with the things you love and assembled in a way that seems beautiful to you on your own terms. I don’t know if this is resonating with you in any way but it really struck me, this idea of the box in that story, then the box regarding sentences.
CB: I love it. I love it. I just wonder about how many people would be listening to this, how many writers had boxes when they were little. I just bet 98%. [laughs]
DN: But how many writers write sentences to protect something? I think that’s so interesting that you’re aware of that, this idea that you’re collecting things that aren’t supposed to be readable by your family of origin or parts of your family of origin. You’re arranging them in a certain way in this closed space.
CB: Yeah. I don’t think I can say it better. I think that just really resonates with me and feels lovely to think about all of these boxes. The one thing I would say from all of this, which I hope is part of this narrative or comes through in the book, when parents scapegoat one of the children, they really abuse the other child too. They can script that child to be an agent of the state and they tear those siblings apart. Just in my own life, I really hold that, that sibling was a child too. I think that’s what’s so painful.
DN: And if they’re witnessing their sibling having hellfire rain down upon them, I’m sure their behavior in contrast to that is also partially to avoid that happening to them too, I would imagine.
CB: Yeah, it’s a really scary family system, but the boxes. [laughs]
DN: I want to take this question of syntax and telescope back out in the story. One of the ways you yourself do this is with the notion of the scapegoat, a phenomenon that is very much on Iris’s mind. The book has lines like, “There was hatred I was meant to hold in the place of a loved self,” and “The village lives because the scapegoat is outside of its walls,” and “When you are the scapegoat in your family, your body becomes your family. When you get sick, your body begins talking to you, too.” But there’s an interesting part early in the book engaging with the writing of Maurice Blanchot from his book The Writing of the Disaster. I’m going to read a very heady paragraph that’s partly Iris and partly Blanchot quoted in the middle of Iris, “A scapegoat escapes. You can learn a lot by looking at words. Not using etymology, something the theorist Maurice Blanchot warns us about in grave and clear terms, thank god.” In this following parts, Blanchot, “Likewise, the radicalization whereby etymology’s linkages appear to promise us the security of a native habitat is the hiding place of the homelessness which the ultimates demand (the eschatological imperative: without finality and without logos) insights in us as uprooted creatures, deprived by language itself– of language understood as ground where the germinal root would plunge, and as the promise of a developing life,” and back to Iris, “Uprooted creatures, we cannot all be traced back to a source or be understood from the viewpoint of our origin.” But there’s an irony here about this warning against the seduction of etymology, that we cannot all be traced back to a source or understood from the viewpoint of origin. Because I think of the etymology of the word scapegoat itself, I’m thinking of how the word scapegoat comes from the scapegoat of the Yom Kippur ritual in ancient Israel when the high priest would sacrifice one goat to God and the other, the scapegoat would have the sins of the community placed upon its head, then be driven out into the desert to its ultimate demise. The etymology of this word, the origin of it seems particularly relevant to me that even though scapegoating is a phenomenon predates this ritual, the name comes from a Jewish ritual and it was the scapegoating of Jews throughout time, culminating in the ways the Holocaust rips through your family and Iris’s. That’s the atmosphere in which she is scapegoated by her family, a family that’s living in the trauma of itself having been scapegoated. I guess I’m curious if this seems right to you but I’m also curious to have you talk about etymology and Blanchot, if any of his warning against seeking out original meaning by looking behind the casual meaning of this word seems to me to be revelatory around this family.
CB: Yeah. Iris makes all kinds of statements. She just demonstrates the opposite constantly in this book. That’s always happening with Iris. She’s a fool in that way, a confident fool. [laughs] This is why this is not nonfiction in a way. I have no allegiance to the thoughts of Blanchot at this moment. I read theory, I did a PhD, I read and sometimes I teach theory but I’m such a creative with it. I really read that thing as a way to just inseam. I just inseam it into my own personal world of imagination. I’m not a theorist. Maybe this starts to become very technological but I don’t have any faith in the truth or pinning down a meaning, which of course, theory has helped me secure that meaning of non-meaning. I don’t have any allegiance to Blanchot’s thoughts. I really played it for the joke, that it’s just funny that she calls it clear. It’s not clear. She’s just torturing herself sitting in good karma, reading this stuff. [laughter]
DN: I read it so many times that I don’t know that I can really place, I mean talk about strange sentences too, how to place yourself in that sentence is difficult.
CB: What to me feels like the bigger question about scapegoating and Iris’s position as a third generation survivor of the Holocaust is coming from this lineage of Holocaust survivors, which is my own. I don’t not make that connection in the book. There’s a lot about the Holocaust in this book. I think for me, that’s an ultimate irony, that scapegoated people have been deeply wounded by scapegoating. Something about that mechanism repeats itself and finds its way into different situations, which isn’t to say that those are all equal situations or something like that but the mechanism is just a really strong mechanism. It’s a really resilient mechanism in humanity and that is overwhelming to me. That was a really important aspect of the book. I think one of the more healing aspects of the book for me personally, as far as the idea of this as exposure therapy for me, being able to explore whatever these letters and my history with my people, and by that I mean my family through the lens of the Holocaust, was a way for me to deeply think about and mourn, and repeat to myself that my family is very affected by the Holocaust. That’s on my dad’s side. My dad grew up a child of two survivors. There was a lot of trauma in that situation. I don’t know if it’s a straight line like, “Oh well, then everything’s fine with how things panned out between us.” But oh my god, just the feeling of just compassion and sadness I feel around what that continues to do, just in my one little family, is amazing and is part of what the book’s about.
DN: You mentioned the scapegoat mechanism, which is I’m sure it’s not only René Girard’s phrase but Iris’s feet both are named characters from a Flaubert novel and her painful rheumatoid arthritic feet have these conversations about things like the Jews being accused of causing the black plague for instance but in the end notes, we learn that some of their dialogue is lifted from Girard’s book The Scapegoat, which I didn’t know, but I looked into that theory a little bit. This isn’t him speaking but I just wanted to read this because this little description comes back to this question of the father in an interesting way to me. This is a description of Girard’s theory of the scapegoat mechanism, “Whereas the philosophers of the 18th century would have agreed that communal violence comes to an end due to a social contract, Girard believes that, paradoxically, the problem of violence is frequently solved with a lesser dose of violence. When mimetic rivalries accumulate, tensions grow ever greater. But, that tension eventually reaches a paroxysm. When violence is at the point of threatening the existence of the community, very frequently a bizarre psychosocial mechanism arises: communal violence is all of the sudden projected upon a single individual. Thus, people that were formerly struggling, now unite efforts against someone chosen as a scapegoat. Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy. Girard believes that the scapegoat mechanism is the very foundation of cultural life. Natural man became civilized, not through some sort of rational deliberation embodied in a social contract, but rather, through the repetition of the scapegoat mechanism. And, very much as many philosophers of the 18th Century believed that their descriptions of the natural state were in fact historical, Girard believes that, indeed, Paleolithic men continually used the scapegoat mechanism, and it was precisely this feature what allowed them to lay the foundations of culture and civilization.” What’s interesting is it goes on to contrast him to Freud. The former whose founding murder is due to the scapegoat mechanism, and the latter, Freud, that the origins of culture are founded upon the original murder of a father figure by his sons, but they’re both agreeing that civilization is founded on a murder, which I thought was really interesting. I don’t want to put you in the same place I do with Blanchot but maybe you could speak a little bit to your interest in Girard and importing him into the mouths of your feet, [laughter] then also maybe you could talk a little bit about Flaubert who appears in multiple books of yours. You must have enough of an engagement with him or interest in him that these feet characters become Flaubert named characters.
CB: Yeah, that was really illuminating, what you read about Girard. I’m by no means like a scholar in this or with Girard, I mean I’m interested in his thinking on this massive scale. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of any of this but how do we evolve the human? Do we have anything at our disposal to evolve humans? Can we evolve ourselves in any way or not? Because look at all this repetition, I mean I don’t know. If I were to do like an Elizabeth Holmes style startup, maybe my startup idea in Silicon Valley would be like a way to reach the scapegoat mechanism. Like if you just wanted to think about ways to retool humanity to potentially survive for, at least, another 50 years or whatever, that would be a worthwhile thing to try to retool. I think in my book, I’m interested in retooling it by shattering traditional family structures, which I think a lot of people are. That’s one of my proposals about how to try to reach the mechanism, I mean I am attracted to his universal big view of it. I’ve just been wandering in the desert thinking about scapegoats for a while. Way before I received these letters or started in earnest putting down the prose of this book, I always had this title Revenge of the Scapegoat in my head for the past maybe five years. That actually was in my head and I was thinking about this goat. I’m a pretty bored person. I went to the library and took out this book because it’s called The Scapegoat. [laughter] I would just sit at the library and copy it out by hand in my journal. I don’t know why. I like to do things like that. I like ritualistic things like that. I’m not super committed to Girard’s version of everything. In fact, I read things in that book or wrote them, transcribed some things in that book. There were some interesting parts, but I liked to write it down in my journal. I love to do stuff like that. I love to take other people’s sentences, then start using them and start making my own or things like that. I love to write with other books in that way. Sometimes, it’s with a book that I admire or write or admire and sometimes, it doesn’t even matter. It’s just like I just want to use text in some way.
DN: I don’t think it’s entirely a similar impulse probably from your end but from a reading perspective, like in Blackfishing the IUD, we get the testimonies of other women, so we’re getting the syntax and the way they speak, and that difference of tone and texture, and similar here, when we encounter Blanchot all of a sudden or encounter unattributed Girard coming from Iris’s feet conversation too.
CB: Yeah, the feet are already plagiarized. They’re already Bouvard and Pécuchet. Bouvard and Pécuchet might as well somehow plagiarize Girard, I don’t know. But I guess I love Flaubert so much. He’s like a total hero of mine. He’s such a grump and just detested normal society, and was really completely leery of expertise and knowledge. I love Bouvard and Pécuchet. They’re the dearest, most wonderful idiots in the whole world. That book is just pure delight. One of the origin stories of this book is that I was just dealing with some of the lower moments of when I was in a lot of pain from the rheumatoid arthritis and doing all kinds of things but then I had just taken this hot chocolate, and I ate too much, which everybody knows what that’s like or some people do. [laughs] I was too stoned. It was like lasting forever. This is a Stoner novel is what I’m trying to say, like this is a total Stoner novel. I was like, “Take me to the hospital, my heart’s going to explode.” Not like I think that’s the only reason for me to smoke or to take marijuana or whatever, but I had gotten this really specifically because I was in a ton of pain. I was wrecked. It was very scary. It was very scary. Unfortunately, I’m not in that space anymore, or I shouldn’t say anymore but right now, but at the time, it was horrifying. I was chugging this hot chocolate being like, “Come on, anything, my feet.” I was coming down from this moment and just felt so silly, just felt so silly, so stoned. My partner was there of course. He was babysitting me at this point for five hours crunning and I just started putting on a puppet show where my feet were Bouvard and Pécuchet. [laughs] I was just cracking us up. They were just talking to each other about all their little ideas, schemes, and plans. They were in pain. This was a wonderfully funny thing to do with feet that had been terrifying me for the past two years or whatever it was at that time and that just became a trope in my house that they were Bouvard and Pécuchet. I just put that dearness, that dearness that happened, that sweet silliness, just into the book.
DN: Do you have the book Spain nearby?
CB: Yeah, I put a big stack of my stuff here so that I would be prepared.
DN: I was hoping maybe you would read, just as maybe an early example of your interest in scapegoating, page 127.
CB: Oh, sure. Okay. This chapter is called Nipple. [laughs]
[Caren Beilin reads from an earlier book, Spain]
DN: We’ve been listening to Caren Beilin read from an earlier book, Spain. I felt like I was reading a Jewish writer even before the explicit ways you engaged with the Holocaust, which you do engage with across your books, just the familiar ways you consolate certain figures that I recognize, like Felix Mendelssohn and Paul Celan, the mikvah in your first novel, Baraka’s anti-Semitic 9/11 poem in Spain, visiting Dachau, but even a book you might least expect to be Jewish, Blackfishing the IUD, which was the first book of yours I read and which opens with a medical testimony of another woman, but then as soon as it’s in your own voice, with you rearranging your library by gender, we immediately get Walter Benjamin unpacking his library as the Nazis are taking over. Later, we get the painter, Anita Rée, while Jewish by ancestry was baptized, lived as an assimilated Christian held anti-Semitic beliefs, yet was hunted by the Nazis as a Jew. Your latest book has an amazing painting on the cover that isn’t by a Jewish painter but it’s by an artist labeled degenerate by the Nazis who had hundreds of works destroyed and who, like Anita Rée, and Walter Benjamin, killed himself. You write not only about the way autoimmunity is passed down through families but also the legacy of paranoia and traumatized inheritance from the Holocaust in Blackfishing. As you’ve already mentioned, your father’s parents each had no family left when they met and your father was fearful enough that he wouldn’t allow you to have your names on the answering machine. To top it off, you also mentioned to Sheila how, as a kid growing up, everyone thought you looked like Anne Frank. One thing I really like about how you handle the family legacy of trauma in your four books is that what gets centered, emotionally speaking, is your rage and your outrage at how you’re being treated, how your father treats you, the way your family system is constructed. You always provide us, but without focusing on it I think, some of the basic facts of your father’s history. But you don’t try to connect the dots. You don’t excuse him or narrativize the why. At least that’s not how it feels to me. It feels like you just maybe juxtapose with this is also true, is this related, and you don’t try to tell us how. But I guess I would love to hear about what feels like a difficult balancing act, or maybe not, but I appreciated you staying it within the ways you were wronged. Obviously, providing this other material as, I would argue, almost atmosphere. You said earlier, you can’t maybe draw a straight line and I think that feels right to me, not everybody who’s survived the Holocaust or is raised by Holocaust survivors constructs families the same way, and not everyone experiences trauma one to the next, some become the opposite of each other with the same circumstance, but do you see these as Jewish books and do you have any thoughts as a writer about writing your own narrative while also looking, at least somewhat, at the pain of those who are causing pain?
CB: It’s a really natural stance for a scapegoat to be interested in voicing how they were wronged. It’s almost like that’s just my nature. I’m perfectly built to do that. When nobody in your family system is saying that anything is happening to you, you will just be built to say that something happened to you. At least, that’s what happened to me. I think it’s a common family scapegoat thing, I mean go to the Reddit boards, that’s like a thing. It makes so much sense to me to do that because that’s what I got spit out of. But then the second part, the atmosphere part, that comes with time and age and all the time it takes to process the Holocaust and your place in it. I feel like I was so impacted by learning about the Holocaust when I was young, not only because it’s an amazing thing to have to tell children about what happened, and even what happened in your family, but it was a thing that, based on just being I guess raised as a middle-class Jewish person in the 80s and 90s, I was probably assigned The Diary of Anne Frank over 10 times. Holocaust stories were everywhere. That was all of my schooling, my time at synagogue, there was so much education about it, which was all bound up in never forget. There’s a disconnect as an adult, I feel, with the idea of never forgetting, where’s the sober maturity and the acknowledgement of what humans do and keep doing and how we repeat. I’d be remiss not to bring up the Palestinian cause and the betrayal I felt learning about the Holocaust through this lens of never forget and if we don’t forget, then we won’t repeat. While I was simultaneously being told that there was an evil group of people called the Palestinians who were harming and threatening all of Israel, they needed to be quashed, that was the lesson I learned as a child. I would make that clear that was not my family’s lesson. There was a larger lesson than my family. My family didn’t really have that stance.
DN: But even saying the 6 million as the not forgetting when there were 11 million or 12 million, what solidarity could be had collectively if we’re trying not to have it? If it’s not about never again for us but just never again, you would think maybe a place to start could be to talk about the 11 million, not to diminish the 6 million Jews and the integral part anti-Semitism played in the desired eradication of Jews from Europe but the Roma people, queer people, disabled people who were all being eradicated alongside.
CB: Yeah. Certainly, that was not part of the Holocaust education that I was given.
DN: Me neither.
CB: Yeah. There was a lot of pressure as a child to feel the Holocaust. Even just in school assignments, we’re always asked to feel it. Then it was like I was asked to feel it at home in a way but also my dad never spoke about his family, which was a real lineage, probably his parents never spoke about it. He had a lack of access to that information based on his own parents, like a very extreme aporia, so there was just a lack of actual passing down of a family story but mixed with “Please, feel this. Now that we’ve told you, child, about this, your job is to feel this.” Then the disillusionment and getting older and being like, “Whoa, whoa, wait. How does this all work?” Thinking about things like started reading like Norman Finkelstein, on Holocaust Kitsch, and when did Holocaust education even begin. There’s just a lot to think about why we remember things and what we do with those things. But I find it to be a very important part about my family’s story but in a way, it’s not an excuse or something like I needed care from my parents. Also, I just don’t believe in narrative like that. [laughter] I don’t think there are lines like that so I would never do that, but I do want to acknowledge it. I hardly have a relationship with my dad, but one of the times that I’ve really connected with him in recent times was after the January 6th riots. I felt such pain about that T-shirt, that Camp Auschwitz T-shirt. I just thought, “This thing has ruined my whole family.” I shouldn’t say that, my family isn’t ruined. This is not an absolute thing, but it has ruined our relations in many ways. There has been so much just aporia, rage, grief, and inability to express love that comes from this trauma that’s part of it, that’s intertwined with it. I wrote to my dad and said, “I’m so sorry, you had to see that shirt.”
DN: Did he write back?
CB: Yeah, I have a gentle slow email relationship with him, I guess. [laughs]
DN: This might be a little bit of an awkward pivot from here, but one of the things that was most recognizably Jewish for me was less the references in cultural markers than the body humor and the focus on scatological humor or orifice humor. The father touched nipple that turns red and stays that way as a sign of love to you urination scene, the debacle of continuous menstruation for the character in the University of Pennsylvania who has not one uterus but two, Iris teaching a class on menstruation and literature in the latest book. But it isn’t just that you write about these things but that these ways, the body is unruly or normally hidden in a cloak of shame or decorum, the violating of that decorum and bringing the shameful to the surface. There’s some of the funniest parts of your writing. To me, I associate that with Jewish humor and especially so when it’s also juxtaposed with these passages by Blanchot or like Walter Benjamin meditations. The extended enema scene for instance in Blackfishing the IUD is just so disastrously amazing. It’s maybe my favorite scene of yours in any of your books. But I wanted to take this into a discussion of disability poetics. I don’t know what the timeline of your diagnosis with RA is with regards to the writing of Spain or University of Pennsylvania, which are the two books before Blackfishing the IUD, but the continual bleeding in Pennsylvania and even more the way you’re passing out with frequency in Spain and then self-justifying it as everybody else is concerned about the loss of consciousness, I couldn’t help but connect the through line of the rebellion of the body through all of your work, culminating in the discourse between the two Flaubert character named painful feet in the latest book. I imagine those two feet like those two old men in The Muppet Show on the Balcony, because I haven’t read the Flaubert book. In my mind, that’s what I see. I see those two old men critics. [laughter] You’ve said things like, as I quoted earlier, “When you are the scapegoat in your family, your body becomes your family. When you get sick, your body begins talking to you, too.” You’ve also said, “Reading [inaudible] gave me ideas about the limits of the sentence being inextricable from the limits of the body.” Similarly, “Before I had RA, I never made a connection when I saw someone limping, dragging, or bent, that pain is attached to shape, to form. I did not know that form is pain.” When I think of form as pain, I also think of you looking at Renoir’s late paintings, what was called his late sensual style that is really the product of his nurse having to strap a brush to what you called his beaked hand, his hand that was deformed from rheumatoid arthritis into something other than what we normally would consider a hand. I guess I was hoping you could just extend this question of form and pain into some thoughts on a poetics of disability for you.
CB: Yeah. Oh, so many things to think about here. Just starting with the University of Pennsylvania where the protagonist has a condition, she has something called womb duplicatum which makes her bleed almost all month. She’s just always menstruating to a great degree. She’s too much. She doesn’t fit inside of her institution, the University of Pennsylvania. She doesn’t fit into all kinds of things because she’s too much. She’s spilling outside of herself. Disability is like too much, it’s unruly. Before I experienced my own reckoning with chronic illness and pain myself, which really began in 2015, I was just a child of a sick parent, somebody who has MS. Things like the bathroom and how to handle bodily functions and what’s acceptable in public and how you can be in public or not, that all becomes really different. Sometimes that’s really uncomfortable and you want to be able to just hold yourself in and not display all of these things. But I guess the culture in my family has been one where things are going to happen. There’s going to be too much and too much has to do with the public because you can’t be too much alone. It has to do with touching the public space. I guess I really personally feel like I’m too much all of the time. I have too many emotions. Sometimes, I’m in too much pain, I’m too angry, I’m too paranoid. There’s a lot of things. That was an interesting thing about the Renoir exhibit that I think I mentioned in Blackfishing the IUD where I saw an exhibit on Renoir where he is being celebrated for his late sensuous style, which I guess I won’t say that’s not true that he had a late sensuous style, but there was something that was very, in his way, like a huge Renoir [inaudible], but it was really erased from the narrative of all the paratext around that show, there was no mention of him having rheumatoid arthritis, which really is a really integral part of how he painted. That’s just interesting to me that that would somehow mar the importance of the way he made art, like it has to be attributed to something else, it can’t be because he was working with something, that he was too in pain and so had to do something else. I guess in my own artistic life, I like to reject those sorts of things. I think one of the main things that I’ve been told is that I’m too angry, but anger is one of the ways that I make art so I don’t really want to not be angry. I feel so happy when I’m angry, I don’t know if that’s wrong, but it feels like what is happening, it’s the condition that I have, it comes from something. I’m very interested in just being in that space. I think that people who are interested in disability poetics or disability studies have all kinds of cool ways to theorize that. I love the concept of crip time, the idea that when you are disabled, things will happen at a different pace, there will be a different space, time around those things that the body will start to dictate. I love the idea that the body makes form. It’s just so true. If you have to go to the bathroom, then you have to go to the bathroom, you can’t continue your story. I guess the story gets cut short because of your body, that’s how it all works. [laughter] I do feel like that is very Jewishy of me. I did. When I was in high school, I read Portnoy’s Complaint. I loved it. I loved the bathroom. [laughter]
DN: The bathroom in that book is very important. I want to take this a little bit further into you as a teacher because there’s really funny writing advice in this book. For instance, “Of course your characters have gone to the bathroom at some point, but your reader doesn’t need to know everything that happens or in order. But whoever you’re writing about, they probably excused themselves at some point to collect themselves to pee or empty their bowel and marvel at soaps, but in fiction you don’t say everything unless you’re a man,” which is ironic because we’re in bathroom moments quite a lot with you I think. [laughter] Or the assertion that you don’t need to write characters because they change, which makes me think of you in an interview saying, “I think of characters more as functions—propulsions, concentrations, knots of language,” which I think is so wonderful. But it definitely makes me intrigued about being a student of yours. I was a student forever at Portland State six years part-time in their MFA program. I was there for so long not because I was slow, as I wasn’t really pursuing the degree because I had no plan on teaching, but they had these certain classes that are these generative immersive seminars so you could take a class on sentimentality or the apocalypse. You would immerse yourself in reading and then be given generative assignments so that you weren’t being workshopped. But I also got to sit in on the observed workshops of the finalists for multiple faculty searches. There would be 200 or 300 applicants, they’d be narrowed down to 4, and those 4 would be invited to campus. They would each conduct a workshop with volunteer students, so I would often volunteer. You were one of those finalists at one point.
CB: Were you there?
DN: Yeah. [laughter] I was so excited about your presentation I just have to say. You talked about something that really excited me, which I probably won’t remember correctly, but I want to bring it up. You were talking about what classes you might teach in the future. One of them was on how to write when your life makes it impossible, especially because of illness. If you’re always in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, how can those times be transformed into art making or become the site of art? I don’t know if this rings a bell or if this is actually something that you’ve manifested in Massachusetts, but I would love, if it does, if you could talk more about it; the way you can turn a liability into a writing asset essentially.
CB: Cool. Thank you for telling me that you were there. It’s like finding out that there was this sweetness in the room that you just didn’t even know was there and that’s so great during this, of course, stressful moment where you’re trying to do this thing. [laughs] But yeah, I’ve taught classes like that. I just had a class at my current institution the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts that I titled Crip Technique, which is a real callback to this disability studies word crip where they are reappropriating the word crip, which now I’m like, “That’s not good for a course title because people don’t have the context yet,” but yeah, I taught one semester of this Crip Technique course and then that’s really evolved into what I teach narrative medicine courses now. I went to art school as an undergrad. I’ve had a lot of time to write in my life. Actually, the first time that I felt everything was going to be taken away from me was in the diagnosis process of getting RA. Because first of all, I couldn’t bend my fingers. It felt very difficult to type or to write. And the administrative hell of being diagnosed with something is not to be trifled with; the amount of time I spent on the phone or whatever, the administrative hell of any system. It was like constantly people being like, “Don’t worry, this will take five minutes.” Then five hours later, I’m like, “No.” It just swallowed me. Plus you might be in so much pain. For me, pain is really equivalent to panic. How do you write if you’re panicking? I don’t feel like I have an answer, like don’t worry. [laughter]
DN: Come on.
CB: If you just write in the waiting room, everything will be fine. [laughter] Journal there. I don’t have an answer. But it’s so part of an artistic imperative to me to be out of step with the world. That’s such an important part of being an artist. I tend to practice that in my life by doing things in the wrong place. One of my favorite pastimes as a student is to write creatively during a lecture, or to write in the lobby of a business office, whatever it is, just to be in the wrong place doing something. Redirecting the flow of energy inside of that space has been an interesting practice for me. I’m just interested in ways that you could potentially experiment with leaning into the strictures of your life. I’ve had students just do all kinds of things, as simple as I had a student who had a night shift and then started writing during the night shift because he realized he had nothing else to do, which maybe would just be like, “Well, of course, you have all this time actually,” but something about being told and telling yourself that you’re at work, perhaps, prevents you from thinking that that’s a space to do those things. How do you do that?
DN: It made me wonder, I don’t know if this is a false memory, but it’s triggering this memory when you were at PSU of mentioning some project of somebody around going to the doctor all the time and taking Polaroids or taking photographs and then making some art project that they were making. They were in a documentary mode through all the steps of these endless visits, which then become the material ultimately of what they end up making.
CB: Yeah. I was talking about Carolyn Lazard, this super special awesome artist who does a lot of art making and writing around disability. I forget what this series is called but it’s a series of photographs. It’s photographs of art in waiting rooms, which is really interesting what art do people put up in these spaces. It’s almost like a gallery of this art. But that can be a way to feel like you’re holding something for yourself. Something about being sick is like getting in line or being in step with things, being in step with a medical system, just getting all of your papers in order, or just being a good patient, especially if you’re gendered in that space or whatever, all these different things, or racializing that space, and so you’re always thinking about “How can I prove that I’m a good woman who knows what she’s talking about or can be believed?” There’s all that energy. It’s really a lot of you just trying to do that. It could be very interesting to become a documentarian of some kind in that space. When I got my IUD out—which was six days after it was put in after I become severely ill, and I went and had a very traumatizing experience with them taking it out, which I talk about in the book—and I guess I was in the waiting room waiting for the appointment so it was still in me, and I just knew it was killing me. I was waiting for this thing to be removed that was harming me so greatly and I felt pretty insane. That’s where I wrote the first draft of the essay that I published in Full Stop that would become Blackfishing the IUD. That’s why I don’t want anybody to take away my anger. It’s like I’m angry, you think I’m going to sit in this waiting room and not do something with this? You’re wrong, I have real anger.
DN: Let’s spend a little more time with it. [laughs] At one point in Blackfishing you say, “I must make an effort to escape my father speaking on my mother’s disease, ‘Most fathers would leave.’ My dad, head shaking and disgusted at the sight of how mom needed to eat, how she moved or couldn’t, his neglect, affairs, extreme disappointment. I shall have to find my way out of this. But it is belief ingrained that disability is the end of romance and punishable by rage.” It’s interesting to me to think about disability punishable by rage, how your body, as you say, has become family punishing you, like your family did, which makes you punishable, so it’s this never-ending feedback loop. I don’t mean a causative one. I’m not suggesting that these things are the cause. But the other aspect of your writing beyond the way you alchemize your rebellious body through humor is I think, as you mentioned, rage, and sometimes both at the same time. You’ve talked about your attraction to certain male writers who are grumpy, like Thomas Bernhard, a mode of being peeved at the world that women are generally not allowed to be. But I also wonder about the way it affects your language. For instance, what you call your syntax of refusal in Spain where you said you had a lot of feminist rage in your PhD program and you were tired of making good writing because good writing felt like it was related to the expectation to be a good woman, and you instead refused to do the labor of meaning making, instead filling the book with lazy metaphors that were more like tautologies, which are so great. The sentence “A fire is like a bunch of daffodils on fire.” You’ve also called anger your vitality, and paranoia your happiness. But you’ve definitely braided I think three rages, or at least three rages: the rage of your body, a feminist rage, and the rage of the scapegoat in really interesting ways. In a way, it feels like it comes from the body rather than the mind. By that, I mean your mind wants—which is interesting in some of your books—your mind wants it as a more linear gender solidarity for life to be simple; that if all of your doctors had been women, for instance, you would have been heard, affirmed, and believed. Yet, of course, life doesn’t map out that way; that this traumatizing experience you’re mentioning when you get your IUD out, that is a woman who’s a doctor who says some terrible things and you’ve had incredible male doctors. You do this great thing, which I love, where there are certain writers who are men that you love: Rimbaud, O’Hara, Keats, Flaubert, Adorno, Baldwin that you’d give honorary vaginas to. But I guess I wanted you to, you don’t have to speak to the, you can, but more than about this question of gender specifically, but rage more broadly, if you could just speak to, I mean it doesn’t even sound like we’re talking about disability poetics, it doesn’t sound like you’re turning a liability into an asset, but maybe you are, but it makes me think of what you said really early in our conversation about lowering yourself to then find something to come back up, I don’t know if that’s the right way. But you talking about the fear that disability is the end of romance and punishable by rage, but rage is also, it seems almost like magical material for you.
CB: One thing that I feel is important to say here is that I don’t experience my body as being enraged or enraged. That’s a common narrative about autoimmunity, the body attacks you, your immune system is attacking you. I don’t think about my immune system that way. I think my immune system just sees something wrong and it just wants to help so badly. It’s like a Bouvard and Pécuchet situation. It’s a little too eager, it’s doing it wrong, that idiot. But I never feel against my body. I love my body and I’m so impressed with it. It’s doing great with this autoimmune disease and anything else. I’m just like I’m with it.
DN: I’m glad I misspoke so that you could say that too, because I do think in medical circles, especially in alternative medical circles, I would even argue, where they, way more than they should, talk about the way you’re at fault for your own, or where they can narrativize the ways you’re at fault for your symptoms that it’d be easy to look at inflammation and redness and swelling as a somatization of anger.
CB: Yeah, I love anger in all these different forms, but I don’t feel that way. For me, it’s important not to feel that way about my body. I’m just like, “Oh, it saw something was wrong, it tried really hard. It got this copper in it, it freaked out. It wanted to help.” But that’s how I have to narrativize that and it’s how I feel, my body is on my side, which I say, when you’re the scapegoat of your family, your body becomes your family. This is what I’ve got. We’ve got to do a group hug here.
DN: Oh, so I read that differently. That’s interesting, your body becomes your family. See, I took it as—and that’s how I just read it, I think just now—I took it as your body becomes your family, your family punishes you, and then when you’re the scapegoat, your body becomes your family. That’s how I was reading it this whole time.
CB: Oh, that’s amazing. Well, that makes a lot of sense.
DN: Right, yeah, no, and I’m not saying it’s true. I wouldn’t want to make a facile reductive connection but that’s the way I was reading this microcosm macrocosm.
CB: Oh, god. That makes so much sense to read it that way. I just so feel the opposite that I didn’t even think about that, which is the cool thing about reading and writing. But I know for me, that line is like my body has become my crew, my loves, my family, and I’ve always felt that way. I’ve really had that kind of ethos in me for a long time. I didn’t even feel betrayed by it when I got sick. I was just like, “Oh, sh*t. That copper.” But as far as the other aspects of this rage, absolutely. I’m trying to think about, because you brought syntax into all of this and I am trying to think about how does anger work syntactically.
DN: For sure you’ve connected it with Spain, with these weird tautologies as being your refusal, which seems connected to a rage. I don’t know if that’s true in your latest book.
CB: Yeah. I’m trying to think about how it works in Revenge, on a syntactical level. The quote you read from Blackfishing about putting it together, this is a quote describing that in my house growing up, the sick woman, my mother was punchable for being sick and that was a pretty bad model. When I got sick, I had to really break that model. That specific quote you brought up was so specifically changed, and not just the editing process, but the blurb process for that book because I was requesting a blurb from Johanna Hedva and they read the manuscript and they said—and this part was different then—“I don’t like this.” They gave me a lot of reasons and they were very cool. What that part originally did was simply say something to the extent of like my mom was sick and it was her fault or something like that. But what I was doing at that moment was performing my sickness around that concept. Johanna was like, “That’s a shame.” Their point was your reader doesn’t understand that you’re saying that you’ve been deranged. Your reader isn’t getting that that’s your derangement, your reader is just hearing that as that’s how you feel about sick people or something. That was an interesting feedback because I didn’t feel that way. I felt like “Can’t everybody tell that I’m deranged? Doesn’t everybody know that I’ve just been so f*cked up by stuff and I have a deranged point of view? Isn’t that obvious?” Johanna was like, “No.” That was a really interesting moment because it afforded me a moment to think about myself as somebody who could actually change in some way, move through this, say that something is past. It really wouldn’t have occurred to me to write it that way but that was why I rewrote that passage that you just read to really explicate “this is how it was presented to me in my family of origin. That’s why I’m now struggling.” My initial impulse was to just be a deranged person. I think about my writing as like I’m a documentary photographer, photographing my anger, photographing my deranged soul, and that the reader can just take it. Johanna was like, “There are sick people who might not want to hear that without understanding the context that that’s how you’ve been made to feel.” It was like Johanna had this caring epic around the reader that I had not cultivated that. I rewrote it for Johanna, that’s my rewrite for Johanna, and I’m happy I did. I think that in Revenge of the Scapegoat though, part of how my anger manifests is that insane things happen in this book, totally insane unexcusable things happen in this book, and I don’t think the narration is really flinching around it. It’s just normal that somebody would be saying this stuff. That’s how I feel in life. It comes from being a child learning about the Holocaust, learning about these horrible things, knowing what you’re part of, and being disappointed by an abusive toxic situation in your family, all the stuff. I’m a pretty hard cookie as I guess what I’m saying. I think that if I’m doing a refusal in Revenge of the Scapegoat, it’s a refusal to a lot of batsh*t psycho stuff happens and people act really poorly. It’s not really about remediating that or making it better or saying that people can be better. I could think of a million examples. Obviously, the behavior of Carolyn at the art museum is a good place to start and what they do. But even just the way that Iris, even though her dear friend, Ray, is about to undergo a major surgery, carries quite a lot of meaning for Ray and Ray probably needs Iris’s support, and Iris just leaves. I don’t really explain that much. I’m like, “Yeah, these are the kinds of scapegoat-y scoundrels you’re dealing with here.”
DN: Thinking of a line from the University of Pennsylvania,“A good book is a pamphlet on how to leave your parents. A great book is longer and tells you how to leave your town. A very long book helps you with the waiting you are enduring.” You’re waiting for your father to die. Let’s use that as a lead-in to more questions about form and genre, but more specifically around Revenge of the Scapegoat because in part two we get new characters: Vivitrix, and yet the new characters seem to be new in an uneasy way as you alluded to in the beginning, that the differences between you and Iris crack. We can peer through your characters or you blur Vivitrix and Iris and yourself I think, but I guess I just wanted you to talk about the change in cast and setting in part two, and how you see it in relationship to the world of part one. Why do we put on new costumes in a way in part two, if that’s even how you view it?
CB: I think a lot of that is about the messiness of what it’s like to write a novel and that by the time you’re working out the prose of your novel and actually writing it, you have all these built up figures, modes, and moments that might become part of it. Part of it is I don’t want to call it practical because it’s so whimsical and weird actually and mercurial what happens, but part of it just has to do with the odd difference of all the things you’ve been conjuring and then you get a little bit like you don’t know where else to go and then you’re like, “Well, I’ve been doing that conjuring work in that other journal so that’s where I’m going to go.” You make for yourself these little stones that you could use if you wanted to because they are rich, because they’re born out of taking a lot of walks and doing a lot of journaling in the sun—if you’re a lizard like me, you need to write in the sun—then you could just use them and they can come in and help you and you bend them into the book. I think I don’t start a book with a design or plan. I don’t outline at all or anything like that. It’s more like what were some of the richer wells of journaling that I had at my disposal and these figures or spaces that kept coming back to me or something that I was ready to finally use. Again, the letters became the thing that struck purpose through all of those things. I have all these aimless writings in the desert, my René Girard transcription is sitting somewhere. It’s all everything and nothing. Then the letters and a genuine thank you to my dad for sending them. They just struck a reason through everything. All of a sudden, oh, that museum that I’ve been dreaming about and journaling about, and I don’t know why that gets to live here because anything can live here now that I know this, so I don’t think I have this design or plan around a real feeling about this novel, it’s more like that’s just what novel writing can feel like to me. Also, novel writing, you’re so bored when you’re writing a novel, oh my god, it’s so boring. You get so bored and then you just have to do something else. You have to move them somewhere else. [laughter]
DN: Your books are so not boring, that’s what’s so great about them. They’re so surprising all the time.
CB: It’s because I’m bored. I want to just go bonkers. There are four ways to put it, but I start the book in Philadelphia—which I love, I just love repping Philadelphia in any way. That’s where I’m from and that’s where I was living before I moved up to Massachusetts and now I’m living in Vermont, but to work at the Massachusetts College Of Liberal Arts—so my own trajectory has been from Philly up into this like New England countryside, so it was just like a nap. That’s a movement that was in my mind. Then on top of that, compounded with that was that I hate plot. I have no thoughts about a plot. I don’t have any ideas. If I were just making up the same plot, I would just write—and I have, this is the quartet, I’ve read the same thing over and over again—and I really love to work with other texts because I want them to determine things for me, which actually reminds me a little bit of Sheila in a different way, but she loves outside determinants, and Bouvard and Pécuchet were all I needed and Flaubert is all I need in this life. If I just rewrite every Flaubert novel, I’ll be fine. [laughter] He gave me everything I needed. He didn’t even need to finish it, he died before he finished that book. He gave us everything we needed. Bouvard and Pécuchet retire in Paris and then they go to the country and then they come back. Iris is in Philadelphia, she goes to the country, and as dictated by Flaubert, her feet must return and so she’d better follow them there.
DN: I love that. Going back to the beginning of how your four books feel porous to each other, I love the slippages that happen between these characters who may or may not be the same character. Is Vivitrix Iris and is Iris you? But there’s also this other slippage, I don’t know if it’s a slippage, but maybe this is also a connection to Sheila Heti too. We only discover this in the end notes, you transcribe real conversations you had in the world but insert them in this fictional world. For instance, Ray, who is a real person, and Ray, the character in the process of getting top surgery in the book. Ray’s dialogue is often copied from something you recorded with them in real life. Caroline occasionally is speaking the transcribed words of your real life partner. I just wanted you to talk about that aspect of the book. Maybe it’s a similar impulse, it’s very different than importing Blanchot’s words, but you are taking something somewhat verbatim and plopping it into the book. We don’t have any idea that you’ve done it in this case, that you’re not completely inventing these words.
CB: Yeah, and there were a lot of debates. Dorothy and Ray were very involved in the editing process. We had lots of conversations about how to do this. Would it be more right or helpful in some way for the reader to know that up front? There is a part in the narrative that we decided to add where Iris is saying, I was recording the conversations I was having with Ray, so you see it. There’s a little bit of a meta moment, but then in the back of the book is where it’s fully explicated. I think the overarching thing, which I think is a theme for me, is that I don’t like to write alone and I love giving it up. I totally wish I were a different kind of artist sometimes. I would love to be like a filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker or something, but I’m never going to do it, I’ll just write. But this is a way to pretend to be something like that. With Ray, Ray is just my dear friend, the writer Ray Levy, who’s great. We’ve been friends for a while and we just have really similar stories of being the family scapegoat. We’ve been talking about it with each other forever. We always go back and forth about this and confer with each other that it’s something that’s hard to come out of. This was during the pandemic. It was the first summer of the pandemic. In the book, Ray and Iris live in the same city. They live in Philadelphia. Ray is preparing to get a surgery that’s related to their transition. In reality, Ray lives in Virginia, I was living in Massachusetts. I felt very unequipped to go help them with the surgery, although a friend of ours heroically drove through five states in the first summer of the pandemic to be with Ray during the surgery. It was like this feeling of sadness, I can’t help my friend through this and they’re doing this during the pandemic. It’s hard. Then another aspect for Ray is that Ray was in a place where they’re such an amazing writer but they weren’t writing. I think they were going through so much at that moment and they weren’t producing writing in that summer. Talking to Ray is so entertaining. They’re so smart. You know they’re a writer, so you want them to be writing, and humans aren’t like that, they can’t always do it. I just thought when I talk to them, just the texture and the thoughts they have, everything, I just want them. If they’re not writing for themself right now, is there a way that I could film them by recording them, film them by putting them in the book? That would be their voice in this moment when they’re not putting their voice out themselves right now. That was an idea and then it’s just so fun to talk to them. I’m like an indie author, I have no idea if my next book is ever going to get published. It all feels really miraculous and strange that something would get taken. Then Dorothy picked up, I sent it in quickly, and then they just wrote me back and all of a sudden it was happening. I was like, “Ray, remember that fun thing we did over Zoom?” [laughter] Then it became a huge deal because they were talking about their transition and there’s politics and things you have to think about, like trans representation. Then in the book, that’s more settled but then in reality, that summer, I don’t know, Ray wasn’t even using the name Ray at that point. It was more of a between state but then it’s like, “Well, do you want to capture that between state or what do you want to do with it?” It just became a lot of conversation about how to do this, but I think our governing principle was that Ray ultimately thought that I want this story, my story, to be in your book. I wanted to live here. This is the right place for this story to live. But there was a lot of collaboration and a lot of like “Is it right for me to hold you in this space? How can I hold you in this space? How do we do it?” There was a lot of conversation, which was a real gift.
DN: Yeah. While we’re here, since we have so many listeners who are also writers and art makers, and you’re mentioning real life consequences of real story appearing transcribed within your fiction, you’ve also mentioned, as I’ve alluded to, that originally, you were thinking of Spain as auto fiction and then Rescue Press asked if anything was untrue within it and you said no, so they marketed it as non-fiction. But I know that sometimes has consequences. I’ve had several guests on, whose non-fiction have had to do with abuse. I think of one where the person involved was well-known and very disguised in the book. Another who was under a non-disclosure agreement around what they could and couldn’t say. These were the conversations that were happening with the person off air essentially. But then I also think of, I don’t know if you know Sophia Shalmiyev, but her book Mother Winter, which also has a father and abuse, and she wanted, like you, for instance, to have her book be called auto fiction and it was pushed towards the memoir category as a marketing impulse I think, I’m not 100% sure, but it created all sorts of nightmarish real world consequences for her; the legal department having her approach her dad to read parts for approval for instance. I just wondered, maybe there would be less simply because this book is fiction, were there any other unforeseen consequences to the way so much people in your real life manifest in these alternate forms in your book?
CB: Yeah. That’s such a big question. I didn’t know that there was a lot of consequence for Sophia. Oh my god, students are constantly thinking about that too. They’re newly out of their homes and they’re like, “What should I do about all of this?” It’s such a big question for a writer. This is in all of my books I talk about people, I have different thoughts for different people. Some people get a certain treatment in my books that other people don’t. In Spain, for example, no part of Spain wasn’t completely vetted by my friend Kristen who appears in a large part of it. Nothing she didn’t want in it touched the book. My friendship with her is very holy to me. I didn’t care about her reasoning or I didn’t want to have a conversation about it, I just wanted to bow down to the holiness of our friendship. There are people like that but there’s something so ultimate and I don’t mess with it, or I do I guess, but then I do and I don’t. Then there are people who I would never consult in a million years and they have no say whatsoever. There’s a sliding scale because I have to believe that I can have my story. For me, all this stuff happened and it was hard, give me my story. That’s something I can get out of this. It sounds crass to say it that way, but I mean it like, “Give me the flame of this story because it’s mine.” With this book, more than any of my other books, I have been tender and concerned about what will happen because even though I think I did write it as an act of revenge, I do actually have a lot of compassion for all actors in the book, all people in the book. Even that was an interesting part of my conversation with Sheila where she was talking about the museum peoples being evil. I was like, “Oh, I liked them.” I have anger and disappointment but I don’t know if I have disdain, weirdly. As a writer, you can’t expect people to read anything the way that you wrote it. That would just be ridiculous. That’s not the arrangement. I guess that for me, personally, I had to decide who was important for me to honor with contact about this and who wasn’t for whatever reason. Ultimately, I had phone conversations back to back on one very tender day with both my mom and my sister in which I told them the book was coming out and I tried to be very transparent with them about what it was about. I didn’t use language like “It’s my fictionalization and I go into a fantastical scape where I tried to say this was me grappling with this and it’s not pretty.” I tried to be honest with them. Something amazing happened because they didn’t confer with each other between this, I called them back to back, and they both said the exact same thing when I told them. I said I wrote about these letters. I wrote about what happened after the letters. I wrote about myself as a scapegoat in our family, whatever I said. They both said the exact same thing. Those motherf*ck*rs, they both said, “Did it help you?” I said, “Yeah, it did.” I’m sorry, I’m going to cry, but they said, “We’re so glad.” They said, “I’m so glad.” Sorry. I don’t have a perfect relationship with my mom and my sister. We’ve had some hard times in the past couple of years and they both said the exact same thing. It really meant a lot to me and I didn’t expect it, not because I didn’t know what to expect, I really didn’t, like what does anybody say? This is not a very common situation. What are they going to say? I have no idea. I didn’t know what to expect at all and then they both came back with the same thing. Then I talked to them more about it and told them, “I didn’t really want to murder you. That part was a horror [inaudible],” but I tried to be honest. I said, “This one will be hard to read.” I tried to be honest about it. It was hard I had to tell my mom, “In this book, you’re dead.”
DN: Wow. But it’s a testament to however complicated your relationship is with your mom and your sister that you could have those conversations with them.
CB: To me that’s the mark of love in a family when people want the best for you. It’s really scary in a family when you start to feel that somebody doesn’t want the best for you. That’s a really terrifying moment. But with these two family members, they wanted the best for me. Even though I didn’t know how they’d react, that is something that’s not surprising actually considering that I know that they want the best for me. Now, when the book comes out and they read it, I don’t know if that will alter their feelings or if they will react in some different way. I have no idea. But I was incredibly touched by those conversations. I have to say that it’s like a [inaudible] thing. My ability to fling this sh*t at them, and for them to say okay, has made me adore them. It’s really been reparative for me, that specific figure of this happening. I don’t know if it will hold as they read it, I have no idea, but I was very touched by those conversations. I’m glad that I had them. But I don’t think I have to go report it to everybody. It depends.
DN: Yeah. I was hoping maybe we could hear a little bit from the new book. I don’t know if this scene is one of the transcribed scenes or not, so you can tell me, but I was wondering if you’d be willing to read from the line break on 72 to the line break on 75.
CB: Okay. Caroline’s language is my partner Jean-Paul’s language in this section. We had a ziggy morning where he told me all kinds of things he thinks about the family and I recorded them and made them the thoughts of this mad woman. [laughter] When Caroline is speaking, you should think about Jean-Paul.
[Caren Beilin reads from Revenge of the Scapegoat]
DN: We’ve been listening to Caren Beilin read from Revenge of the Scapegoat. Your dad also sent you something else other than your letters. He sent you a play that you wrote called Billy the Id. I’m curious of your theories about why he returns this play to you, but it becomes a chapter in the book, a chapter called Billy the Id, which adds another level of scaffolding or artifice to the book in this way which is very weird and uncanny because it’s becoming a scaffolding or an artifice by introducing, in a way, another real document that you did receive in your real life. But I’d love to hear anything you’d wanted to share about Billy the Id and what it’s doing in Revenge of the Scapegoat in your mind.
CB: Yeah. Billy the Id is half of a play that I wrote when I was 17 on a legal pad that showed up in this package that my dad sent me. I think he just sent me a package because he was genuinely clearing out some drawers in the house and he didn’t look through any of it, so this play was just part of this stack of things he sent me. Billy the Id is pretty entertaining. [laughs] I love my teenage self so much [inaudible] but I wanted to write a play that was the embodiment of the Id and Billy the Id is very Id like. I feel like with this novel, and probably everybody feels this way about their novel, but there are so many different origin stories to one novel. But one direct one is that during the pandemic, I had a group of friends that I was getting everybody together on Zoom to do play readings, which we did initially to mark the passing of Terrence McNally who passed from COVID really early in the pandemic and we read his play Love! Valour! Compassion! Everybody had a lot of fun and so we’d get together again and we’d read The Cherry Tree and stuff. It was a good thing to do in the early days of the pandemic. Then I got this thing and I said, “Do people want to put it on?” They were so gay. It was one of the funniest times I’ve ever had. My friend, Kristen, who appears in Spain was assigned the role of Billy the Id and tears were just rolling down her face. [laughter] Everybody was just so amused and Ray who was also, I forget what role Ray played, but anyway, Ray is like my booster, Ray is always so wonderfully boosting of me. It’s an amazing service that a friend and a writing friend can do for you. It’s an amazing thing in life. Ray was like, “Caren, you’re a genius. You were a genius then and you need to finish this play. It’s perfect.” [laughter] That’s friendship. But I thought I want to finish the play for Ray and then I was like, “But I don’t write plays anymore so I’ll just write a novel that’s the completion of Billy the Id.” That’s why the character is named Iris because when I was 17, I named this character Iris. Iris is married to somebody named Joe because Billy the Id has a structure where Joe is Iris’s husband. I’m saying as much as I may. I let Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert’s novel, rule the plot of the novel. Billy the Id kind of rules the plot of the novel too. When I was 17, I wrote this play Billy the Id and it’s about a married couple Iris and Joe. They are trying to sell their house, which I think I must have been writing because when I was a kid, my parents were trying to sell our house for multiple years, so I was just writing a play about it. The plot in the beginning of Revenge is that Iris and Joe are trying to sell this unsellable house. I don’t want to think of plot because who cares? So that dictated it. I humiliate myself by putting these letters in the book in some sense, in the sense that it was such a steak for me, like an emotional horrific steak as we said. But then this was a different steak of just self-deprecation; 17-year-old Caren Beilin who went at the time as [Corinne Belin].
CB: Oh, I was so 17.
DN: I love that. [laughs]
CB: Yeah. I love self-deprecation, which is perhaps very Jewish of me or whatever. But this was a different form of laughing at myself, making fun.
DN: This is going to be a maybe a weirdly oblique question but part of the later sections take place at a residency on a farm where one of the buildings was the past home of an officer who used to manage the work at a concentration camp. Your work often has these institutional settings—hospitals, residencies, schools—almost as if there are other iterations of systems like families that need to be interrogated, maybe family trauma, body trauma, inherited trauma, institutional trauma are all enmeshed. But there’s another thing that’s interesting that goes across your work. I’m just going to, again, Sheila who’s haunting this interview, I’m going to borrow her words where she says, “You do something in your writing that I find very interesting, something that makes me constantly aware that I am reading the work of someone’s imagination, and also aware of how the world itself is a work of imagination. You take certain images—milk, bees, honey, cows, feet—and kind of smear them across the text, so that they appear all the way through it, but bearing different meanings depending on which scenes they are smeared over. It’s like smearing a streak of red over a painting, but instead you’re smearing cows—here they are in a field, here they are sitting on the narrator’s feet, here they are in a concentration camp. It really makes it clear, the way the imagination imprints itself on everything.” Thinking of that, and then I’m also going to do a weird juxtaposition, you have this book review you did at Full Stop of a romance novel called Fires of Siberia. [laughter] In it you say, “Teaching creative writing, my largest fear is fantasy. Besides regular pre-teaching nightmares about rape and coercion, about being bound and stapled to the whiteboard, I dream the night before class about fantasy, not of worlds or dimensions or the kinds of characters who have corresponding powers, of maps, but of students, my students, telling me (do they know me?) that they’ll be writing it. That they’ll be turning it in.” I guess I want to hear about, as you mentioned earlier, the heart-stomping cows or the talking feet, and the way you smear them in Revenge of the Scapegoat. But I want to hear about the cows and the feet which seem fantastical to me in relationship to this, perhaps past fear, perhaps present fear of fantasy. Talk to us about the smearing and also what I would call a fantastical effect from the smearing.
CB: Yeah. I will say you dug really deep with that Full Stop review because I wrote that probably in 2010 or something.
DN: It’s so funny.
CB: Oh my god. That was for this review of this romance novel by my friend Trey. I felt like he was Rilkean. I was like, “Oh, you can do anything in any form,” which is cool, but I think my impulse toward fantasy or speculation, which I think especially in the University of Pennsylvania, there’s quite a lot of that there too, has to do with that this is actually how I feel it, how I feel too much as we’ve been talking about. So in order to describe the feeling of it, I would need to go beyond what is in a normal limit. In the University of Pennsylvania, I feel like my period is really heavy. [laughs] Let’s just fully get Sheila really on the table here in all instances, but I love your conversation with her that you had around Motherhood where really, that book is like the big topic is about “Will I become a mother?” But then in your interview with her, you really bring out how much that book is about the menstrual cycle. Anyway, by the end of University of Pennsylvania, menstrual blood has flooded the University of Pennsylvania, which I suppose I want to flood institutions of higher learning with menstrual blood, but that’s also how it feels sometimes to be in a lecture if you’re having a heavy period. [laughs] It just felt like the right thing to say. Then just with the cows, the heart-stomping cows, that comes from a real feeling of tenderness and intensity that I felt step on my heart. My heart is ready to be stepped on in order to explain myself to myself, I had to say, get a cow up here because I can take it. That’s how I felt. It’s just a matter of not dealing in metaphor and something that—I feel like I cite this a lot in different interviews—but it really is like the lasting kernel of my doctoral education is the Bataille’s sentence “The sun is an anus.” That sentence means everything to me. [laughter] If you can say that, then you can say anything. Power to the copula and power to the verb “to be” and power to just saying things and making them so. I like that it’s so confident to say is, to force the connection. I like that a lot. My teenage feelings are so big that there needs to be cows stompping on you and stuff. I probably do still have a lot of fear about my students’ interests in fantasy writing, which I think that for me, I don’t relate as a writer to the idea of world building and I don’t relate to the idea of assigning traits to characters, as I say in Revenge of the Scapegoat, “Don’t bother writing a character since people change.” Sometimes in these fantasy creations, somebody is stubborn and then that rules how things happen, but if you take a stubborn person and you torture them, they might change. This is the sickness of my mind, this is the mind of somebody who’s in a lineage of genocide, which is most people on this earth, things change. This idea of like, “Would she have to work with her stubbornness?” I just don’t get it. I’m more interested in writing about institutions. That’s the thing that is the character to me. I’ve been watching the films of Carl Dreyer. I was reading some work about him and characters were described in his work as being an epiphenomena, epiphenomenal to the style. Maybe my characters feel epiphenomenal to the institution or to a larger historical order or something.
DN: Do you have a favorite Dreyer film?
CB: I just watched Vampyr which I adored. Oh, do you?
DN: I like that movie a lot. I don’t think I’ve seen one that I haven’t really liked, or that’s probably my favorite though.
CB: Okay, yeah, I haven’t seen it yet. I’m dipping in right now. I will watch that.
DN: Sorry to derail you about the epiphenomenal.
CB: Yeah. Then I just feel like fantasy worlds often lean toward monarchy. I just don’t like that. I don’t want to have faith in kings and queens and these sorts of rulers and systems. It’s potentially like a fascist form. I’m really skeptical about it.
DN: But there’s subversive fantasy. Fairy tale, I think, is a very subversive form of fantasy often.
CB: That is so true. I’m really talking about mass-market fantasy fiction. I think that’s what I’m really referring to as far as something that students will sometimes come in the classroom wanting to emulate. But I will also say, and I think this comes through in Revenge of the Scapegoat, this was a big top point, dare I say plot point for me in Revenge of the Scapegoat, which is that Iris is a teacher. Anything she thinks about her students is completely wrong and they completely change her, surprise, derail, humiliate, and humble her and are bigger than her and weirder than her in every way. I have my stodginesses like my practice and my teaching life is to just become completely humiliated by my students and they are wonderful at doing so because you can’t put what they’re doing in that kind of box actually.
DN: At the beginning you said, when you were considering these four books a quartet, part of it was a desire to move on to something else or to grow towards something else. Do you have a sense of that something else having finished this book? Is there an urge, a vision, a gesture, or a kernel for something new that feels like you’re departing?
CB: Yeah. I have a new manuscript. [laughs] I wrote another novel that was a total departure for me. I shouldn’t say that it’s not, but it is not part of this quartet. It does not feature myself or my family in any way. It has a completely different thing but I think that the through line is that it’s a novel that’s about medical injustice, which I’m obviously interested in.
DN: I can’t wait.
CB: Yeah. I’m trying to think of something else to say about it, but I’ve been really following all of the completely alarming news about the crimes of gynecologists and particularly people who steal people’s uteruses for profit or for racialized reasons. I was teaching this narrative medicine class with my students and I was talking with them about how we can write about this. Many of my students—and my students are amazing at derailing me, it’s so good—but they said it’s not fiction’s job to talk about this. The journalists need to go in right now. There’s an ordering to who talks about this and when. We don’t need to aestheticize this moment. I was really compelled by them. Then I just wrote a novel about it, but I was very compelled by them and it completely made me think about how I can do it. It just made me want to think about what would a novel be to this situation that apparently there are gynecologists all across this country who are being exposed to be doing all kinds of things that are incredibly deleterious. I wrote a novel that is a crisis point about this profession. I don’t know if I did it right but I want to think about what the role of the novel could be in this.
DN: That’s exciting. Thank you for spending the time with me today, Caren.
CB: Thank you so much. What a talk. It’s been a pleasure.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Caren Beilin about her latest book from Dorothy, Revenge of the Scapegoat. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. More of Caren’s work can be found at carenbeilin.com. For the bonus audio, Caren talks about and gives an extended and very charming and funny reading from Flaubert’s final unfinished novel Bouvard and Pécuchet. We also have five copies of Blackfishing the IUD signed by Caren, and unbelievably, the entire back catalog of Dorothy books available. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, help ensure the future of conversations just like this by joining the community of Between The Covers listener-supporters at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.