I first read Courtney Eldridge in an issue of McSweeney’s and was so floored by her work that I bought her collection, Unkempt, and her novel, The Generosity of Women. I implore you to go out today to an independent bookstore and buy these books. Eldridge is a writer of extreme talent who writes smart, funny, and well-crafted prose. She’s a strong voice in fiction today. I spoke with her via email about humor in her work, her unusual voice in fiction, and what she’s currently working on. Her website is courtneyeldridge.com.
BRANDON HOBSON: Many of your characters from your stories from your collection Unkempt seem helpless, yet you manage to maintain a nice balance of humor. Can you speak to this connection between struggle and humor in your work?
COURTNEY ELDRIDGE: Well, I think we’re all pretty helpless without a sense of humor. Then again, that first book was written during a time of intense personal struggle, both in terms of trying to figure out how to write, how I write, more exactly, and simply keeping a roof over my head while living in NYC. Now, of course, in hindsight, I wish I’d had far more humor about my personal circumstances and my work, both.
BH: Voice seems important in your work (I’m thinking particularly of the voices in The Generosity of Women). Is voice something that drives your fiction most? Does voice inspire you?
CE: The truth is I don’t know how to start a piece without a voice. I mean that literally: if I can’t hear a voice in my head, if I can’t hear the words as I type, I can’t write a word. Until I hear something, there’s just nothing doing, you know? Whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, a character’s voice or my own, same difference.
I think that has to do with how I came to fiction. Growing up, my parents, the three of us, we didn’t have much to our names, certainly not books. But what we did have, the one material possession that we sacrificed for, was vinyl, my parents’ record collection. There was always, always music playing in our house—if there wasn’t, the moment I walked through the front door after school, I knew either no one was home or one of my parents was sick in bed and I had to be quiet. And if my parents didn’t turn me on to many writers, growing up, they certainly shared their appreciation of a huge range of voices, musical styles, and lyrics. I got into writing through record stores first, the library second.
BH: You’ve described your work in the past as “putting on sock puppets and talking to yourself ‘right and left, right and left.’” Can you elaborate on this?
CE: Here, again, I have to plead only child. I did actually play with sock pockets—well, I would play alone all day with my stuffed animals and dolls, making up elaborate stories, Barbie and Babar on safari in Kenya, that sort of thing. I just didn’t consider writing it down for about twenty years, is all. I always think of myself as a late bloomer when it comes to writing, because I didn’t start writing seriously until my mid-twenties.
BH: Whose work influences you most? Why?
CE: Well, of course different writers influence you at different points in time. Overall, I’d say Rick Moody has most influenced me. Because he’s always striving to try something new with his work but as honestly as possible. And when it comes to others—writers, artists, and musicians, you name it—he’s as supportive and generous as anyone I’ve ever met.
Let’s see… there’s Robert Walser, Joan Didion, Stephen Dixon, Robert Coover, Grace Paley, Thomas Bernhard, Amy Hempel—I’ve lost count of how many literary crushes I’ve had over the years. And though I read Henry Green’s Loving; Living; Partygoing every few years, and he knocks me down again—I always feel so small, reading him, but in the best possible way. Like looking at the stars on a clear night.
More recently—I don’t know where the hell I’ve been, but still. I finally read Sam Lipsyte and I could not stop laughing and then I couldn’t stop quoting—just so many lines I’d quote to myself, laughing all over again. “I have eyes. They do business."
BH: What’s next? What are you currently working on, and can you tell us much about it?
CE: My next novel will be published by Amazon Publishing in spring 2013. It’s called Ghost Time; it’s my first attempt at YA, and it’s the first of a trilogy. The protagonist is a 15-year-old girl named Thea Denny who happens to be a brilliant young artist, and I thought the best way to learn about her would be to figure out a way to work with young artists. I started looking around, seeing all this incredible artwork by teenagers—work that was as good as anything I ever saw back at art school, and the thought, "What if God was a teenage girl?” came to mind. This was in 2009: I’d just moved to Argentina; publishing was in crises; and speaking no Spanish, I found myself dependent on my computer for communication.
With all that in mind, I wanted try to write something different—not just the subject matter, but in terms of how I’d written up to that point, which was hermetically sealed, to say the least. So I started Saccades Project, which includes a website, blog, YouTube channel, FB page and flickr pool. (Twitter is my downfall—the project has a Twitter feed, but I haven’t figured out what the hell to do with it yet.) And under that digital umbrella, I started approaching teen artists I admired, explaining the concept and asking them to contribute a series of their work, eight images, accompanied by a YouTube playlist of eight songs that I could use as inspiration—that I could basically sketch to with this story and this teenage character in mind. Every day, I’d post one image and the song the artist chose, like an AV postcard, and at the end of the day, I’d post the sketch, generally anywhere from 800 to 2,000 words per day.
Up to that point, I was struggling with social media, how to use the internet in a way that felt genuine to me and appropriate for the project. And it worked. A friend stopped me four months after starting the project and posting the first sketch online; he’d printed out all the sketches I’d done up to that point, and he said, “Do you know you have 1,000 pages of writing here?” At which point I stopped seeking contributions and started putting the book together.
Working with artists, that continues. The only difference, really, is that I now work with artists of all ages and from all over the world. In the next month, I’ll start the second book, the sequel, and I intend to work in the same way. A trilogy is such a huge undertaking, so this project keeps me honest.
What is it like to be Tao Lin’s intern? We have that answer, below. You can read more from Katrina at twitter.com/muumuuinterns.
NICOLLE ELIZABETH: Katrina, how is it going being the intern at Muumuu House? Are they being nice? You go girl.
KATRINA REEVES: Interning for Muumuu House is sweet. I feel like I’ve been nurtured on a semi-occasional basis. They have tweeted “you go girl” at me.
NE: Does Tao suggest you also eat delicious fruits and veggies which are also hopefully organic and locally sourced if whenever possible?
KR: I try to eat organic and locally sourced foods as much as possible, but I don’t think I’ve ever talked to Tao about my eating habits.
Today I have eaten: 1x bagel, stir fry I made containing organic locally grown spinach, mushrooms, rainbow chard, green onions, garlic, and bok choy, 3x cups of organic fair-trade light roast coffee, 2x 10 mg of Ritalin, a handful of chia seeds, and an apple from a neighborhood tree.
NE: Is being an intern everything you had hoped for and thought it would be?
KR: I didn’t really know what I’d be “getting into” by becoming an intern, but I always thought the title “intern” seemed mysterious and vaguely commendable. The word “interning” sounds like it could be one of the lesser-known winter Olympic events. People I know with internships mostly seem to be helping file paperwork or like administering rabies shots at Petco. I distribute books and tweet about bath salts. I have never been asked to poke a large mammal with a needle. This seems good.
NE: What are three things you have learned so far as an intern?
KR: 1.) If you say ‘Tao Lin’ too quickly in conversation people might think you are talking about towels
2.) Looking at the sun and thinking about how far away it is is a really good thing to do
3.) Interning is cheaper and more fun than bath salts
NE: What would you say to others who are considering becoming an intern in publishing?
KR: I would say “Yeah. Go for it. Live the dream, unicorn.” I would say the same thing if someone was considering becoming a professional lizard trainer. I think people should do what they want to do. I would try and be encouraging. I’m not sure if I’m qualified to give advice about being “in publishing.” I live on the edge of a redwood forest with a bunch of strangers and nitrous-huffing hippies and don’t have a stable internet connection.
NE: Where do you see yourself in five years, post-your Muumuu House experience?
KR: It seems probable that I will be abducted by aliens in the next five years.
NE: Why did you want to become an intern in the first place?
KR: I sent Tao an email saying “Can I be your intern?” while on psychedelic mushrooms my freshman year of college. Before writing the email, I remember thinking, Everything is the same… is the internet really real life? seems impossible…. how can people communicate across outer space like that?… carl sagan motherfucker… quantum net portal… where… must make contact to see if this is real…” Sending an email seemed like the best way to “make contact” with “the other side,” the “other side” being like anyone that hadn’t cried while licking a bong-water-stained dorm room carpet with me ~15 minutes prior. I opened my laptop and Tao Lin’s webpage was already displayed in a browser window. Earlier in the day, while not on mushrooms, I had been searching for a blog post about his “intern army” that I’d read while in high school. I clicked things on the website for a while then wrote the email. I wanted to “make contact” with Tao because his website made me feel like he was least/most insane person on Earth and because it seemed highly probable that I would be able to “time travel” and possibly open up a “worm hole” if I were to ask about being an intern.
Nicolle Elizabeth is a first-generation college graduate from the middle of nowhere and is a contributor at the Brooklyn Rail, Bomb, and a whole bunch of fine places. She is the poetry editor at Word Riot, also a bike mechanic, and you should follow her on Twitter because she is a cornball: twitter.com/thismighttank.
Brandon Hobson’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Believer, NOON, Puerto del Sol, Post Road, New YorkTyrant, Web Conjunctions, Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, and elsewhere.