Stranger Than Fiction

LISTEN: Michelle Tea, Eileen Myles, and Jill Soloway discuss "writing their lives."

Award winning writers Michelle Tea (Valencia, Mermaid in Chelsea Creek), Eileen Myles (Chelsea Girls, Cool for You), and Emmy-nominated Jill Soloway (Six-Feet Under, Transparent) all pull from personal narrative in their work—albeit in different ways and to varying degrees. Listen in as they discuss "writing their lives"—and in particular, their female lives and voices—and creating work between memoir and fiction.

Artist Josh Greene's current exhibition at The CJM, Bound to Be Held: A Book Show, also includes Greene's project Read by Famous—which seeks donated books from famous or well-established individuals. Tea, Myles, and Soloway all donated to Read by Famous. In a talk on Thursday, May 7, the three writers came full circle to discuss literature, making it in Hollywood, and more.

Want more? Listen to the full podcast here

Installation view of Bound to Be Held: A Book Show with the Read by Famous submissions by Jill Soloway, Michelle Tea, and Eileen Myles. 

READ: Below is the transcript of the recording.

Matt Sussman (MS): Since all of you have pulled from your lives for your writing in various ways—whether through memoir or with Transparent—I wanted to hear more about what's it like writing your life, and how you go about doing that... and if you start feeling like "The Michelle" that's in the book is sort of another character, or what's that like to see that play out in another form.

Jill Soloway (JS): Well it's funny because, for me, I think the question is what's it like to not write your life. Because that's what's hard—I would never how to do that. Everybody I write is some version on me, even on Transparent, everybody, they're all sort of... I have to be enough inside the voice I'm writing to feel it, to feel something. But the funny part is in Hollywood, you know you turn in a script and then you get feedback or whatever, and I used to get the thing all the time like "Your protagonist is so unlikable!" (Audience laughs.) And the weird thing I got a lot, which is so weird for realizing and finding out my parent was trans all this time, was I used to constantly be told all the time that I had castrating protagonists... isn't that crazy? That all my women are castrating—that's just how gross Hollywood is... like a woman who actually speaks is told that she's castrating. But I guess all my protagonists were going around and making it hard for men to stay the subject their own lives perhaps, by maybe seeing them or something...

Michelle Tea (MT): Can you imagine, producers are like, "These characters are too misogynistic?"

JS: Well... we're slowly but surely turning the planet, but it hasn't happened yetwe're like a year into the revolution. It's just barely happening, it's only starting. That's, I think, the weird thing and it happens with Transparent all the time too—where the three kids on Transparent seem like people I would love and I'm constantly told that they are horrible people and who would like these people. 

MT: Wow. 

JS: Yeah, it's weird and I think, especially when you write women, if anybody other than a woman is reading it they arelike I had someone tell me about Afternoon Delight that it got some bad reviews from some guys. And this writer from The New York Times, Karina Chicano, told me that a lot of male critics review whether they would want to date the protagonist.

Eileen Myles (EM): Ew.

MT: Gross.

JS: They don't even realize it but they are trying to figure out if they are attracted to her and what she's doing. And they can't help but review her attractiveness to them. I know it's sickening. It's so sickening. I'm sorry to get so upset. I really do feel like it's changing.

EM: You just like sexually abused the room. 

JS: I'm sorry guys, it's so gross. That's why they really have to do something about the ratio of male reviewers in so many newspapers. Something you wrote about Chris Kraus' work and just this feeling ofI don't know if you wrote it or if it was in Kraus' book I Love Dickusing your own life, using your real name, it's feminist. There's something about that that's feminist. I don't know what, maybe you can explain. (Audience laughs.) But it's so despised by people. It's so like if you didn't create it, then you didn't actually work hard, and if you didn't fictionalize you didn't do the work.

EM: But it's still about a woman. I mean, it's like if a guy did it, it's really kind of slacker and cool. 

MT: They're like nominated for the Pulitzer Prize or something. Quite literally.

EM: Yeah! I mean like Mike Kelly and all those guys doing kind of weird emo work.

JS: What is it, like misogyny or something? 

MT: Or what about My Struggle? Like, "Hi I'm a dude and I'm going to write an eight volume memoir." Oh my God! I mean I think I actually like his writing very much, but just the entitlement! Can you imagine if I wrote eight memoirs and called it My Struggle?

ALL: Please do!

EM: It's an amazing thought that a human being can think about their existence in great detail and talk about it for hundreds of pagesI'm like we've been doing that for twenty or thirty years!

MT: Everyone around me has been doing that for like...

EM: Part of it is that we're not still not human.

MT: It really is that, yeah.

EM: I mean, when I published Chelsea Girls, I remember some dude reviewing it in a San Francisco paper, and he said "I don't know, I'm having a hard time just reading about her lesbian daily life." I was like how is that different than David Wojnarowicz' gay daily life? 

JS: Because there are dicks in it!

EM: Right! You know. And the thing that's so weird is that I'm lying too. It's like I've been writing about Eileen Myles for thirty or forty years. But it's not exactly Eileen. I just think why do I have to make up a character's name, like I have a character, I'll use her. (Audience laughs.) But it's always a little off, she's a little smarter than Eileen or a little stupider, or has a little worse sex or a little better sex. I feel like its been kind of blended, like all these years. I think it's true, and then you start to leave her a little bit. Like you've written fiction, you wrote A Rose of No Man's Land.

MT: Yeah.

JS: But that felt so much like it was real though. I remember reading that on the airplane and falling in love with you. I think I emailed you from the airplane. Sometimes when you read a book on the airplane, you fall in love with the writer even more.

MT: It's such a special place to read.

JS: I was crying and I was like "I'm in love with Michelle Tea! I need to tell her when the plane lands." (Laughs.)

EM: Yeah, that book twinkles. It just twinkles with life, because it's everything you do but it's like a little jeweled version of it. I love that book so much.

MT: Thank you guys. I was so terrified, it was the first time I wasn't writing memoir. And I was so scared that I was creating a world that wouldn't be believable, which is something that I never had to think about before. Because I was like well, it's what happened, and if you think it's not believable, I don't know what to say because that's what happened. But this, I was like "Oh, God." I was so aware of what would the light look like, what would the air smell like...I got really obsessive with it, you know, I probably didn't need to get that obsessive, but maybe it's good I did.

MS: That's an interesting problem to have it seems. If you've already been doing it, right, when you've been working on a memoir, or it comes more naturally when you're working on a memoir, but when you switch over into fiction and you start second guessing your decisions more, or there's maybe different stakes involved... I'm wondering if you could talk about that more. 
MT: I think that a big impetus for me writing a memoir was that I wanted to tell the truth, like I want it to be authentic, I want it to tell the truth. Because I felt like my particular experience, I hadn't been published a lot—it felt very political, it felt very meaningful. And so I had this sort of reality fetish and so then moving into fiction, I kind of brought that with me a little bit. And since then, I've realized—I mean, you still need to make things believable but I actually don't need to—I'm also creating this world because I'm saying its like it and I'm the writer. I don't have to
someone's not going to read it and be like "I don't know, the quality of light seems weird in that scene. I'm having a hard time believing that this would actually happen." (Audience laughs.) I mean, it's fiction! You can actually have ridiculous things happen. And, ideally, if it's compelling in some way, the reader will follow you. So, I've kind of loosened up a little bit with that.

EM: See, I just never—people always review my books and say it's memoir. And I have never written a memoir. I write fiction! It's absolutely not—maybe part of it is how I feel about life—like it's a dream. And so I feel like I don't remember, I mean I sort of remember that night when this happened or that happened, but I don't entirely remember; but also, I was drunk. (Audience laughs.) So at a certain point I stop making up what could have happened and maybe I'm remembering. But I just feel as a person I'm an unreliable narrator. (Audience laughs.) 

MT: That's so great!

EM: So as a writer, I'm absolutely that. And my new book is about my pit bull Rosie, who died in 2006. And so, it's really not that much of a stretch to go over here and be my dog, you know. Because I feel I was always a bit out of my own borders, my own boundaries. So suddenly, it's sort of like somebody that I looked at for a long time—instead of that being me that I looked at—it's my dog that I looked at, or my dog that looked at me. It's like the camera just moved to a whole other character, but it doesn't feel that different at all. And she remembers the world differently, so, it's great.

And for course, she is my dead alcoholic father. You know, you have an animal—(audience laughs)—and they're never just your cat, you know, it's Napolean or... And my pitbull, when I got Rosie, I just looked in her eyes—and my dad died when I was 11, and he's kind of a fetish in my whole dream story—and when I looked in the dog's eyes, I was like "It's dad!" And he would totally come back as my dog and hang out for twenty years or whatever. So it was just so easy to then write a chapter "My Father came again as a dog," and then start talking about how people come back as dogs, and who dogs are, and what creation is, and suddenly, you're just in this whole...

MT: Woah!

EM: I mean you've writtenI just finished your book that goes into fantasy. 

MT: Yeah.

EM: Because that's what we do! I mean, pajama parties were the beginning of writing! You'd stay up all night, the first drug was like sleeplessness. And all those kind of weird things you would do—you would hold each other's chests in and hyperventilate, and all those weird ways... and then you'd tell storiesweird stories, and make stuff up and everything. And I feel like, that's what writing is, and after doing it for a long time, you start to have permission to get really weird.

MT: Yeah, it's really true.

EM: I've earned it now.

MT: Yeah, totally.

EM: It was always there, it just never really opened the door. 

MT: That's so exciting. And you just finished that book? I'm so excited to read that.

EM: Yeah, I just finished that book so I feel very high on it. And I call it a memoir.


MT: Yes, finally! Eileen finally wrote a memoir! (Audience laughs.) Yeah!


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