Emily Gould on Eileen Myles, Book Advances, and Lighting Your Life on Fire
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story from Macmillan Podcasts. This is another episode partly recorded from my home in New York City as we all shelter in place. Today I’m going to start with a quote from the novel Chelsea Girls, by Eileen Myles. She wrote:
“If there is something I will always carry in my heart it is this earnest unwillingness to be part of the bunch.”
And recently I talked about alienation, sexism, fighting bullies, and book publishing with today’s guest.
Emily Gould: I’m Emily Gould and I’m a writer.
WS: Emily Gould was also one half of the duo behind Emily Books, a widely admired indie publisher, alongside her best friend Ruth Curry. Emily has written three books: Her latest is a novel called Perfect Tunes, which is out on April 14th. Before becoming an author, Emily worked with me for three years, so I’m incredibly excited to sit down to chat with her today.
EG: I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, which is right outside DC. It’s a pretty, you know, ‘you could be anywhere in America’ kind of suburb.
WS: What was your character like as a kid?
EG: I was a pretty tough kid for my parents to handle, sort of a know it all with a tendency to be mean, and a little bit of a pushy, bossy older sister for my younger brother. I was always dressing him up in girls’ clothes, and making him play whatever game I wanted to play. That’s just the liability of having an older sister who’s four years older than you though.
WS: What sort of grief did you cause your parents?
EG: I was sort of a troublemaker. I would do things like I would put up posters in the hallway of my elementary school because I didn’t like a particular teacher and I thought that that teacher was doing a bad job, and I got really upset about what I perceived to be sexism at one point in fourth grade and launched some sort of campaign with pamphlets that I made about I don’t even remember what horrible events I was protesting.
WS: What about your reading life? Were you a big reader as a kid?
EG: Oh yeah. My mom tells stories about me ignoring kids who she would set up playdates with, and I would just be in the corner reading a book, which is a very classic like proto writer story. It’s funny, I don’t see that tendency in either of my kids. I mean, they don’t, they’re too young to actually know how to read, but they’re like more naturally extroverted, I think, than I am.
WS: What were the books that you first remember as being books you loved?
EG: I’m actually reading them to my older son now. The Tintin graphic novels. My grandparents had a big stack of those and I have always loved graphic novels and I started reading those books when I was like three or four. I pretended that I knew how to read them and then I eventually learned how to read and started reading them.
WS: Can you tell me what books you read as a kid and which were important to you?
EG: I had an English teacher in sixth grade who was really, really nice and sweet and would just like, let me read as much as I wanted to because she could tell that I was kind of bored, but the books that were around in her classroom were like all series books. I read every single Babysitter’s Club, every single RL Stein book, like the Goosebumps series…books like that. I think eventually I moved on from there to weightier books. I mean I wasn’t an intellectual. I was just a voracious reader who’d read pretty much anything.
WS: And what about mentors? Who were your mentors growing up?
EG: Well, when I was 14, I was friends with this boy named Rory Cowl. For my 14th birthday, I had a record player and he gave me the split-7 inch of Bikini Kill’s LP and then I got really into Bikini Kill. And like I would say Kathleen Hannah really, really did change my life as a young teenager. Just as an example of someone who is just completely, completely forthright about saying what was on her mind and calling out things that I had never heard anyone talk about openly before, like sexual violence and just sort of like condition of being a woman in the world. You probably know Bikini Kill as like…
WS: I don’t actually know. Can you explain? I don’t know them at all.
EG: [laughs] Bikini Kill is probably the best known riot girl band. Riot girl was the movement that started in the Pacific Northwest and there are also offshoots of it in the DC scene that sort of came out of hardcore, the DC hardcore scene, not to drill down too deeply into the Wikipedia entry for Bikini Kill. It was like a lot of screaming and like maybe not playing your instruments particularly well, but just having like funny, true, not a premium placed on a musical virtuosity kind of music. And zines. There was a lot of zine culture around this. And I also had a zine as a teenager. These were sort of like proto blogs that people had in the 90s.
WS: What was your zine called?
EG: I was a comic book zine called Super Emily that was like a superhero version of my own life and exploits. I’m not actually really that good at drawing, but I continued doing it for a pretty long time and I would just Xerox it and hand it out in the halls of my high school.
WS: What’s something that Super Emily did?
EG: I’m trying to remember. Oh man. She was not like the best feminist ever. She would often have like vendettas against like other girls that she would then enact. But, also just I think thinly veiled versions of people who I had some sort of beef with would get their comeuppance, but in a very stylized, cartoony way.
Things were going very well in my publishing assistant career and I was 25 and I thought, might as well just light this all on fire.
WS: Emily went on to study writing at Kenyon College before leaving to attend the New School in New York. After she was finished with school, she stayed in New York…and soon found a book that would resonate deeply with her as she was figuring out what to do next.
EG: I was about 23 and I had graduated from college and was just kind of spending a lot of time and in Williamsburg, you know I was waiting tables…
WS: Williamsburg, Brooklyn?
EG: Yes, not colonial Williamsburg. And I didn’t know what I was going to do next. And I went to Spoonbill & Sugartown, which is a used bookstore that also has new books, like new books in the front and used books in the back. And I was sifting through the shelves, looking for a bargain. And I found this copy of Chelsea Girls that I think it stood out to me because it had a really interesting cover. It was sort of a nubbley material that it was made out of. And then I opened it to start paging through it and a letter fell out of it. And the letter was from Eileen Myles…
WS: Eileen Myles is the author of the autobiographical novel Chelsea Girls, and also a prolific poet, playwright, and performance artist.
EG: …and it was addressed to the director of the creative writing program at the school that I had just graduated from.
WS: Which was the New School?
EG: Yeah. So sort of asking in a roundabout way for a job or like, maybe there are jobs available?, type of thing. And I was so scandalized by the existence of this letter and that it had come and it had come into my possession.
WS: Emily found that Chelsea Girls was just the book she needed at that time in her life.
EG: I don’t think I’d ever read anything that was written in such a frank and straightforward style before. Some of the sections are very, very short, maybe even only a page or two long because Eileen Myles primarily is a poet. So this is like a poet’s conception of what an essay could be. And, they would just sort of be notes on a particular experience, an experience that could be as specific as like waking up and making eggs in the morning or like one particular drunken night in Provincetown with a bunch of like queer friends who are all like having sex with each other in some combination or all like, you know, drunk and fighting all the time. Sort of ordinary experiences I guess in Eileen Myles’s life, but they seemed really extraordinary to me. You know, at 23 you think every book is a letter that the author has written directly to you with you in mind only. So I guess that’s probably how I was thinking of it.
At 23 you think every book is a letter that the author has written directly to you with you in mind only.
WS: Here’s where Emily and my paths crossed. She came into my office one day for an interview that I’ll never forget, and that would result in us working together for three years. She quickly moved up the ranks at the publishing house.
EG: I was an associate editor. I was acquiring new books. I had my own office. I had a corporate card. Things were going very well in my publishing assistant career and I was 25 and I thought, might as well just light this all on fire in order to work at a website called Gawker, which in later years would go on to become a real news organization with robust protections for its employees and then it would get…all kinds of other stuff would happen. It no longer exists. Which is actually really sad and horrible. But at the time that I worked there, it was just a blog run by basically this British former journalist with an exceedingly large head named Nick Denton. And a few of his evil henchmen, and me.
WS: So you go to work for Gawker. And you’re there for how long?
EG: Exactly one calendar year.
WS: And why did you leave and what did you leave to do?
EG: I quit in a huff because I had sort of discovered that working at Gawker was like corroding my soul and like maybe doing something bad to the world in general, hadn’t quite figured out what it was that was bad about it yet but Gawker, when it began, I think felt itself to be like this David versus the media Goliath. So at the time, and really during the year that I was working there, it was sort of like a frog in a pot of water that’s slowly boiling situation was happening around me, like really incrementally. And I almost didn’t notice it until it, you know, too late: that that balance was shifting and that I had started out feeling like, Oh, I’m speaking truth to power. And as things progressed and then after I stopped working there and found myself sort of on the opposite side of it, it became more apparent to me that sometimes when you think that you are fighting bullies, you are actually being a bully.
WS: Suddenly, Emily was a free agent. When we come back from the break, she takes the leap to become a memoirist, and starts her own business.
WS: We’re back from the break. We left off with Emily leaving Gawker. But she didn’t depart without a plan. She had been thinking about writing a proposal for a book of autobiographical essays, which would be titled And the Heart Says Whatever.
EG: I sold a book for like $200,000.
WS: She used the advance to keep herself afloat.
EG: …and then the book was published into the financial crash and so the publication of the book was not a huge success.
WS: It is fair to say, isn’t it, that of a $200,000 advance, 30 goes to your agent and you’re down to 170. Half goes to the tax man, so you’re down to 85. And that needs to support you for the two or three years that you work on it when it’s published. So actually for listeners to hear the $200,000, but in fact, you know — I’m not asking for anyone to feel sorry for you — but the reality was that it was about your entry level salary in a book publishing company.
EG: Yeah, so my first book that was a memoir kind of tanking financially and also like really alienating me — temporarily, thank goodness — but like really alienating me from my parents, my family.
WS: What didn’t they like about the book?
EG: I was mean to my mom in it. I was mean to my mom in it. Yeah. Full stop. I was mean. To my mom.
EG: I lost the ability that I had always had to just write about myself without overthinking it, to write in the first person without belaboring it. So I started to write in third person just as an exercise to sort of try to trick myself into writing again because for a while I wasn’t writing at all and I was just temping and taking whatever jobs I could to make ends meet. Once I got to about like 50 or 60,000 words, I showed it to my then boyfriend, now husband, and he said, you should keep coming with this. This absolutely could be a book someday, but you have to keep going.
WS: Emily’s first novel was called Friendship, and featured two women navigating their way into adulthood. Her new book is a multi-generational novel with a songwriter at its center. It’s called Perfect Tunes.
EG: Perfect Tunes is my attempt to write about a mother and daughter relationship without directly writing about my own relationship with my own mother, which historically has not gone well for me and which I’m actually not brave enough to attempt yet.
WS: Perfect Tunes is the outgrowth of years of introspection. But to understand how Emily found her way here, we have to go back to 2007, after her essays were published, when she first began writing fiction.
EG: I knew it was going to take a long time because I had never done it before and I had no, I had no sense of how long it might take, but I knew that it could take, I knew that it could potentially take years and also that no big payday was probably on the other side of that. So I needed something else to do. That was when I asked my best friend to start a business with me. I was like, I have this great idea. eBooks are on the rise, but there’s no independent bookseller who is selling eBooks. And I just want to put together a list of books that we know that are sort of our cult classic favorites that we want to make sure that they’re available in that format. Because a lot of them weren’t available as eBooks. So we started doing a book of the month club that we distributed to our subscribers; every month we would send them electronically a new book and we would surround it with sort of essays and little new introductions and things. And so it really busied us with this exciting project of constantly reading and trying to find new books to send to our subscribers. And we kept doing that for a pretty long time, like four or five years I think. And then, and then eventually we decided that we needed to start actually publishing books. And so we went into business with Coffee House Press and we started publishing. We published two books a year with them for another handful of years.
WS: Was Chelsea Girls in your mind at all when you were trying to decide what kinds of books to seek out and publish?
EG: Oh yeah. Well, the second book that we did when we were doing book of the month was Inferno by Eileen Myles, which actually has a lot of shared DNA with Chelsea Girls because Inferno is a novel but it’s almost a more fully realized, a more mature writer’s take on some of the same material.
WS: Emily has come a long way from that fateful day she found Eileen Myles’s letter in Chelsea Girls. She carries with her its lessons on being radically true to yourself and fighting the status quo.
EG: I wish that at every point I had been less concerned with pleasing people and had been just like truer to myself and truer to my gut, my intuition, in every situation I think. It’s almost inevitable to get trapped in situations that aren’t like serving you or really anyone else because you want that like pat on the head of approval.
WS: Where did that come from? That desire for the approval.
EG: I’m a Libra. I don’t know. Is this therapy? Do I owe you $125? No, I…doesn’t everyone have that a little bit? Well, people who don’t have it at all might be full-on sociopaths, so…
WS: Are you getting better about that as you get older?
EG: Yeah, and actually the great gift of having kids is that you just don’t have time to be as much of a people pleaser just because you’re like, well, I only have like five hours and I’m going to use them for me and I’m going to say ‘no’ to the stuff that I don’t really want to do because I don’t really want to do it.
I wish that at every point I had been less concerned with pleasing people and had been just like truer to myself and truer to my gut, my intuition, in every situation I think.
WS: Now we’re going to go into the lightning round. What’s your favorite library in the world?
EG: Oh, the Pratt library. That’s so easy. It has those beautiful Tiffany stacks with the glass floors. I’ve also just spent so much time there over the years that like has, it’s one of the places that I know that if I really, really need to get work done and I’m on deadline, I can like cloister myself there. I can just like get a giant coffee, go to the Pratt library and like stay there until I’m finished.
WS: What would you be if you weren’t a writer?
EG: Like an aesthetician. I love popping zits. [laughs]
WS: I mean, isn’t that really what a writer is?
EG: I mean, if only. The satisfaction, it’s just not there most days.
WS: What is something that you can’t write without? Any rituals?
EG: Okay. Yeah, like adequate childcare.
WS:If you could be any character in a book, who would you be?
EG: I don’t really want to be a character in a book. Can I? Can I be myself?
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Emily Gould. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.