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Lyrical Impulse


August 1, 2014

The author on crafting new sounds, creating female characters, and portraying sex in literature.

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The task of every writer is to bend language until it somehow expresses the inexpressible. When music is involved, this work becomes even more daunting. How does one give life to music on the page?

In her fourth novel, Wonderland, Stacey D’Erasmo undertakes this challenge through the character of Anna Brundage, a 44-year-old indie musician embarking on a European comeback tour after seven years away from the spotlight. In prose that is rich, attentive to color, taste, and, of course, sound, Wonderland pulses with ambition and loss. D’Erasmo illuminates the life of a figure still largely unseen in literary fiction—the female rock star.

Wonderland knits together Anna’s memories of her childhood and her family, her past travels and past loves, and her successes and failures as a musician. Anna’s first studio album gained the attention of the music world, her second album faltered, and her latest record Wonderland sends her back on the road for one last chance at a music career. Wonderland will determine whether Anna regains the place that she lost in the indie scene, or returns to the posh private school in New York where people view her as a teacher, not an artist. While on tour in Europe, Anna rediscovers the regrets and longings that fuel—and threaten—her return to the stage.

When Wonderland was published this past May, Time named it one of the year’s best to date. Vogue called it D’Erasmo’s “breakout latest.” She is the author of three other novels: Tea (2000), A Seahorse Year (2004), and The Sky Below (2009). In 2009, she received a Guggenheim fellowship in fiction.

D’Erasmo says of the prose style in her previous works, “I was always sort of keeping it on a leash.” Wonderland is a departure for her, a shift to a less precise—and perhaps more evocative—writing style: “I really wasn’t interested in paring language down like that anymore…. I was interested in creating a very specific language and voice.”

D’Erasmo and I spoke in a café in uptown New York City on a sweltering afternoon. The mismatched tables, half-lit chandelier, and flamenco music playing over the speakers made it easy to imagine we were in some other place, one of the European towns that Anna finds herself while on tour, displaced, adrift, and killing time until sound check. We talked about writing women, writing sex, reclaiming the lyrical, and the desire, in writers and musicians, to make a new sound in the world.

Naima Coster for Guernica

Guernica: When did you decide you wanted to write a book about a musician in the midst of a comeback?

Stacey D’Erasmo: I don’t remember the exact moment I got the idea, but I know that what I had swirling around in my mind, women who had actually made comebacks. We tend to think of comebacks as inherently pathetic, but that’s not always the case. Patti Smith is the big example of someone who did come back after seventeen years out of the spotlight, but there were other people I kept noticing who, after these long absences, would reappear. I was really interested in that moment of the reappearance, that little cuspy moment between being gone and being present again, and all of the complicated feelings that one would have in that moment. And I always knew that she would be an indie musician, which I can’t explain. Even at the time it seemed like a bad idea. There are a lot of clichés, and I’m not a musician. I’ve never been in a band, so I really thought, “This is a bad idea, but it’s what I really want to do, so I’m just going to get going on it, and then see what happens.”

I cannot carry a tune in a bucket. Musically, I’m negatively talented.

Guernica: It seems like inhabiting the mind of a musician is a tall order because it’s so difficult to capture in words the effect that music can have on us.

Stacey D’Erasmo: That was certainly the hardest part and the part that I was the most anxious about, yet a lot of reviews have underlined that as a part that people like. Which is funny because I cannot carry a tune in a bucket. Musically, I’m negatively talented.

I read biographies, I talked to musicians, I went on tour with this band Scissor Sisters for a while. I really tried to focus on the experience of the making of sound and the wish to make a certain kind of sound, which I think is something that as writers we do understand. I don’t mean just the sonic qualities of language. When we make an image, or make a scene, or make a paragraph, there’s this kind of emotional note we’re trying to hit. So I concentrated on what it would be like to try to be making a sound, a new sound in the world. She’s an indie musician, so she’s not trying to write pop dance hits—although even then, that’s quite a challenge. You’re reaching for something you haven’t heard yet.

Guernica: Are there performers or musicians you’ve seen who have made an impact?

Stacey D’Erasmo: I’ve seen Patti Smith perform, and she’s amazing. I saw Prince at Madison Square Garden, and the man has charisma—like a supernova of charisma. Everyone watching him was transported outside of themselves for those few hours. I’ve seen St. Vincent perform. She has an astonishing, strange, powerful energy onstage. Once, a long time ago, I was taken to see Joan Jett. Seeing her live—she has the thing. There are those people whom the gods gave something to, and when you’re in their presence, you feel it.

Guernica: How do you see Anna in terms of those gifts? Is she one of those performers?

Stacey D’Erasmo: She’s not a huge star, she occupies a particular point, but she’s got something. Almost no one has what Prince has, but she definitely has something, and she’s able to channel it. That’s why people were drawn to her when she first blew up. But I wasn’t that interested in writing a book about a superstar. I just wanted someone who had a voice.

Guernica: I’ve read that in this book you found your way back to a kind of lyricism in your writing. What led to that return, and what originally sparked the shift away from lyricism in your prose?

Stacey D’Erasmo: I’d always loved lyrical writers. I loved Woolf, I loved Edmund White. I loved strange writers. I loved Jane Bowles. Updike was also a big influence on me, and he’s very lyrical—images for days. James Salter, Toni Morrison, there are a lot of people. I loved people with very pronounced and sometimes thick styles. It was just writing that I lit to.

But when I was coming of age as a writer in my late twenties to early thirties, it was during the time of the Big Minimalists, who were wonderful. I’m not dissing them—they were amazing. But it was a particular moment in American literature. It was the era of Carver and Mary Robison. We had moved into a very hyper-condensed and even austere moment in what was considered to be literary fiction, and I definitely began to feel very self-conscious about that lyrical impulse.

I sometimes feel that we’ve gone too far in the direction of reacting against lyricism, partly because an image, a simile, a metaphor can be the easiest thing to cut.

If you look at the books before Wonderland, it’s not like they don’t have lyricism in them, because they do, but I felt that I was always sort of keeping it on a leash. And with Wonderland, I just let it off the leash. I really wasn’t interested in paring language down like that anymore. I didn’t feel that I needed to, and also I was interested in creating a very specific language and voice of hers that could get at all these things at the same time. The internal experience of performing, the external experience of performing, the memories, the thoughts, the wishes, the dreams—I just wanted a lot more language to do that.

There can be a kind of cheap lyricism that isn’t good writing, but I sometimes feel that we’ve gone too far in the direction of reacting against lyricism, partly because an image, a simile, a metaphor can be the easiest thing to cut. Instead of describing the sea, you can just say, “They went to the sea,” and it has a sort of unimpeachable good taste. If you just say, “The boy went to the sea. He saw a dog. The dog was brown,” you can’t be shamed for that. But it might not necessarily tell you that much. What boy? What sea? What dog? Whose dog? What else? We’re not just subject, verb, object. We’re not just nouns.

Guernica: The sentences in Wonderland were such a pleasure to read. How do you know when a sentence is done?

Stacey D’Erasmo: Sentences do have a kind of music to me, but I don’t necessarily know. The copy-editor found a lot of mistakes—mistakes of sense, mistakes of grammar, which, honestly, he fixed. I do know there’s a kind of rhythmic quality that I don’t know I can articulate, but that I’m hearing in my head as I write, and it’s all tuned to that.

I’ve said this before, and I don’t mean this to sound disingenuous, but when I was writing this book, I truly thought, “I like it, and I don’t think anyone else will like it.” So, I was weirdly not that self-conscious, because I had already decided that no one would like it.

Guernica: Was that your approach to your previous novels as well?

Stacey D’Erasmo: I’ve never been a super mainstream writer. I don’t really write about conventional people, I don’t really write about conventional subjects, so most of the time, I think no one cares. I’m the only one who cares about these people. And partly that might be what I say to myself, like a trick, but it’s a good trick. And it also happens to be sort of true. A lot of the time, the people whom I write about aren’t the figures in our world that most people care that much about. Also, I knew that I would be writing the book in this kind of fragmentary way, and I thought, “No one is going to groove on this, except me and three of my friends, so, fine.”

If you’ve written three or four books, and they’re not some kind of massive hit, you just feel like, “Okay, I’ll just do what I want then because no one is really looking.” There can be a kind of freedom in that. More people have been paying attention to this book, and it’s great, but it’s also a little daunting.

Guernica: Do you have any thoughts about why more people are looking at this book?

Stacey D’Erasmo: One thing I’ve noticed very anecdotally: I feel like younger people and younger women have looked at the book more than older people. I’m not sure why that is because I’m an older person and it’s about an older person. But I’m interested. I want to ask them, “Why this?”

How do you figure out how to be fifty? Later, how do you figure out how to be seventy? The good news and the bad news is these transitional moments keep happening.

Guernica: In many ways, Wonderland feels like a coming-of-age novel. Anna’s coming to terms with her family history and trying to find her path as a musician and as an artist.

Stacey D’Erasmo: Well, it’s like a coming-of-middle-age novel. I think the idea of finding one’s voice is something that’s very much on your mind when you’re in your twenties and your early thirties, but that struggle lasts throughout your life. How do you figure out how to be forty? How do you figure out how to be fifty? Later, how do you figure out how to be seventy? The good news and the bad news is these transitional moments keep happening.

Guernica: One of the other pleasures of this book is all the travel—being able to visit the streets, restaurants, and cities that Anna visits. How were you able to write all of those different places, and is travel important in your own life?

Stacey D’Erasmo: When I went out on the tour with Scissor Sisters, they went to a lot of those places. They also went to places that aren’t in the book, and some of the places that are in the book are places that I went to at other times.

I wanted her to travel in Europe, and I wanted her to be in that zone that was just strange enough. She’s not in a place that’s so fundamentally different, but it’s different enough that there’s a weird quality that you both do and don’t understand the place.

Obviously, the great thing about travel is that you get to see places, but to my mind, if you’re doing it right, it also plays with your perception. It shifts your consciousness. And also you’re a little different in different places. You literally move differently. The way you walk down the street in New York is different from the way you walk down a dirt road in Wyoming.

Guernica: You’ve talked about the limits that are imposed on women in fiction in terms of the expectation that female characters be pure, self-sacrificing, and palatable. Anna’s so much more than that. She’s complex and messy and powerful. Are there other authors who are crafting women characters who are as vivid and alive as women are in reality?

Stacey D’Erasmo: One writer I’m totally in love with right now—whom a lot of people are in love with—is Elena Ferrante. The Neapolitan novels, I eat those up. There’s this big rumor that she’s a man because no one knows who she is. All I have to say is, if she’s a man, then, wow. Good on him. Those women are so complicated and thick and interesting and appetitive, they are so many things at the same time, and Ferrante just rocks my world.

I think that Colm Tóibín, especially in his novel The South, creates amazing female characters. There certainly are women writing thick female characters. One book that I’m interested in reading that I haven’t read yet is the Siri Hustvedt novel that came out this spring called The Blazing World, which is about a female artist. Rikki Ducornet writes amazing women.

There’s this idea that female appetite is only the stuff of serious literature if it’s connected to damage. And I object.

In some of the reaches of literary fiction, I feel like there is still a kind of prudishness around female appetite. That it’s somehow a problem, or it’s only interesting if it’s a problem—if it’s the source of suffering, betrayal, someone getting a bottle cracked over her head, someone self-mutilating. It must have harm attached to it to be considered serious.

It’s not necessarily true in other media. In television right now, there are some amazing female characters who are very robust. It’s not necessarily true in music, it’s not true in a lot of places. But in literary culture, there’s this idea that female appetite is only the stuff of serious literature if it’s connected to damage. And I object. I object as a writer. I object as a human being. It’s just simply not true. It’s a kind of censorship masquerading as taste.

Guernica: Did you have that sensibility in mind when you wrote some of the sex scenes in this book?

Stacey D’Erasmo: I just thought, “I’m going to write the scenes that I want to write for the reasons that I want to write them.” But certainly if it ever came to my mind—“Should I say that?”—I’d push back against that. Sex matters. What happens to characters in sex can be very interesting. And also, I just wasn’t going to stop. Why should I?

It’s been very interesting seeing some of the coverage as it comes out. People mention the sex a lot, and it’s like, “Really?” It’s fifty-five years after Philip Roth first got published, and this is surprising? Why?

It’s surprising, I think, because it’s a woman writing it and also because Anna isn’t apologetic or abashed about her appetites. She goes around, she does what she does, she has different feelings about it, but it’s not a problem. There haven’t been too many negative reviews, but some of the ones that were negative always cite the sex. So you can take that as you will.

Guernica: Do you notice any of these issues around gender and sex playing out in the classroom when you’re teaching?

Stacey D’Erasmo: When I started teaching a lot, there were two tropes I was seeing quite often that had to do with love and sex, particularly in straight sex scenes. The tropes were numb girls and hateful boys. There would be this particular kind of numb girl scene: “I saw him in the bar that night. We stayed up too late drinking. Later, he bent me over the barstool. I felt nothing.” I would see that scene over and over again.

And then there was a parallel scene I would see over and over again, which was the hateful boy scene. It would be a male narrator and he’d be having sex with this woman, and he’d say, “Her breasts were lopsided and one of them was puckered on the side, and she yelled in my ear too loudly.”

I got really tired of reading these scenes because they both felt to me like dodges. If he bent you over the barstool, you felt something. And the hateful boy scene also felt like a way of emotionally distancing what was going on. If the male character only ever felt hatred, disgust, and revulsion, well, why did this even start in the first place?

Both of those felt to me like literarily socially acceptable ways to write about sex without actually writing into the scene. To say, “I was numb,” or, “I thought she was disgusting,” are two ways of not actually having characters be vulnerable in the scene. And I don’t mean feeling more socially acceptable feelings. I don’t mean that they should have been feeling wonderful, warm, intimate, one-on-one love. I mean there are many more emotions than that. And somehow these young writers have gotten the idea that you can skate through a scene by essentially armoring yourself with these two very, very distancing attitudes.

I started pushing back on that because it’s boring. It’s not true, and it’s boring. A lot of things happen in those moments.

Female characters aren’t role models. Hopefully, they’re people.

I also noticed that there’s this creepy thing that happens sometimes in workshop where other women in the class will call out a female character by saying, “I didn’t like her for letting that thing happen to her.” And it’s like, well, I don’t think she’s there to be a paragon of virtue. We’re talking about characters. People—all people—do flawed and complicated things. And a lot of the times people felt that female characters should be somehow exemplary, and sometimes even have feminist virtues.

Female characters aren’t role models. Hopefully, they’re people. And we as readers are interested in their depth, their complexity, their flaws, their strange hungers, all of these things. Otherwise, why are you reading books? You could just read self-help if you wanted ideas of virtue.

It’s an interesting thing because I think we come to literature, serious literature, to be moved, to have our worlds expanded, to try to understand what it is to be human. And what it is to be human is never a simple or straight line. Should Madame Butterfly not have loved the sailor? Smart Geishas, Foolish Choices? No.

Literature isn’t a morality tale. It’s art, and hopefully it’s an exploration of the soul. And women have souls, last time I checked. Women, in fact, do have bodies and souls.

Guernica: That reminds me of your “Modern Love” New York Times piece this spring, “Is God Just Not That Into Me?” about your relationship with your boyfriend, a Zen Buddhist priest. What was it like for you to put that essay out into the world?

Stacey D’Erasmo: It was a little weird, honestly. I wasn’t really interested in writing about my first love or a crush I had. I was interested in this thing that happened between me and him. It wasn’t like, “Surprise, honey, you’re in ‘Modern Love.’” I went over the piece with him before I turned it in. It was a little weird.

In some ways I didn’t say anything that personal, but in another way, I said something very personal. It was a little exposing, and I got a lot of very, very nice letters from people telling me really profound experiences they’d had with religious people and spirituality and things like that, which felt like they were giving me these confidences that were quite lovely. It was a great experience, but I don’t know that I would do it again.

That line between private and public has gotten very murky, but it’s a little weird to think that all of the readers of the New York Times just saw something about me that is actually kind of private. If I had said something more conventionally exposing, like, “Here’s a sex thing,” that would feel less private in a way. I don’t usually go around talking about my relationship to spirituality.

Guernica: The spiritual aspects of writing were an important part of that piece.

Stacey D’Erasmo: That is one part I really don’t mind revealing, which is, I am a true believer. I do think writing is a good way to spend your life. I do believe in it, and I’m okay with letting people know that.

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