Finding Power in Pain: Jessie Chaffee and Danielle Lazarin in Conversation
"As a Culture, We’re Very Interested in Stories of Women Being Broken"
The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Danielle Lazarin, author of Back Talk: Stories, and Jessie Chaffee, author of Florence in Ecstasy, that occurred at Word Up Community Book Shop this spring.
Jesse Chaffee: I’d love to talk about desire, which is a through-line in our books: women who are pursuing their desires or trying to escape or in some way control or mitigate them. Your opening story, “Appetite,” is such a great exploration of desire in all its forms. There’s a line, “I let him go because I think it’s good practice for the rest of my life, because I think the longer you love someone, the more it hurts. I thought I understood a way around loss,” which gets at this idea of tamping down your desires to prevent loss or the vulnerability of loss. But there are also so many moments in the book where women don’t know what they want. And I feel like that’s quite revolutionary too—that you’re leaving space for women not knowing what it is they desire.
Danielle Lazarin: That was a space that took me a while to write into. As a culture, we’re very interested in witnessing stories of women being broken, which I think is something that both of our books work against. When I would write stories in grad school, people would always ask: “When’s she going to get murdered?” Or “When is something bad going to befall this person?” There was this idea of women being in peril. And then the other end of it is kind of a superhero version of a woman, which I also find overly simplistic and dangerous in its own way. Writing into the space where there’s a sense of not knowing is, especially for a woman, like writing into our own weaknesses. But so many of my stories were born out of conversations I had with other women, and when you have a conversation with a friend, it’s like what should I do? Do I want to do this, do I want to do that? I don’t know. It’s as simple as that, as trying to reflect what it was like to have those conversations.
Which I feel like segues nicely into one of the questions I have for you about vulnerability and writing it. Because I do think it’s a difficult thing to do and I don’t know if you came to it more quickly. But you compiled this great list of books on “Ecstatically Mad Women,” and you talked about the female writers who “write about women on the fringes grappling with the most foundational questions of meaning and identity. These writers deal in contradictions, in the seductive gray areas where the high lives, in the things that might destroy us but that we nevertheless pursue.” I want to know how you tap into this idea that there’s power in vulnerability and these things that I think are typically seen as weak in women. How do you write about that, about women’s pain and suffering, without making it that story that’s like, “Let’s watch a woman suffer, and then have her be easily redeemed in some way”? Because I think that’s a difficult thing that the book does so beautifully. It’s not your typical story about somebody who’s suffering. The suffering is not the story. The story is about Hannah.
JC: Thank you! It was something that I thought about consciously, in part because I was writing about a real addiction—an eating disorder—that affects many people. I purposefully didn’t set the book when my protagonist, Hannah, is in the deepest parts of the disorder. It’s after that. It’s her attempt to recover. I didn’t want to set the book in the moment of most intense suffering because I didn’t want the pain to be the only focus. I didn’t want to fetishize or romanticize it. At the same time—leaving room for those gray areas—our addictions are complex, our desires are complex, and so it was important to show that that pain was powerful. You have to understand the allure to understand how somebody could get trapped and why it would be so difficult to get out of it. To understand that it’s not just about control or beauty but, like anything we’re drawn to, it’s about something more than that.
Which, for me, is where the saints came into the story. I was really interested in looking at these women from the past—from the 13th, 14th, 15th centuries—who were on the one hand putting their bodies through intense ordeals: starving themselves, punishing themselves. On the other hand, they were incredibly powerful, rebellious figures. Many of them as young women were saying “no” to the path that had been set out for them. Their extreme behavior and even entering the church—which was, in some way, giving up control—also allowed them to take control of their bodies and their lives. And they described their ecstatic visions in a way that gets at the high that Hannah feels when she’s not eating, including the pain of that high. So I was interested in looking at both sides of the experience of addiction and in recognizing that both exist—that you’re vulnerable and it can be self-destructive, but there’s a kind of power and control in that pain, and that’s what makes it seductive.“I didn’t want to set the book in the moment of most intense suffering because I didn’t want the pain to be the only focus.”
DL: Yeah, I love your talking about them saying no, because there’s a sense of Hannah also having refusal of things. There’s a great line where she says, “I’m alone, and I’m fine.” And I thought about that so much: is she alone? Because she isn’t alone, but she’s making an effort to be with herself. Do you think that she is alone and fine? Or do you think that’s what the book is moving toward?
JC: Hannah is alone in that, like with any addiction, what she’s ultimately done is totally isolate herself. But there’s also power in solitude. One of the things that Hannah does is learn to scull, and that’s an activity that has to be done alone. So she’s doing something where it’s okay to be sitting with that solitude—it’s not going to seem strange to anybody. And that solitude becomes a place of power for her.
Your book is filled with women. It’s all about women, front and center, of different ages, different experiences, some of whom are also negotiating loneliness and solitude. One of the things that I love most is that you have women who aren’t always doing the sort of sympathetic—or to use a word I don’t like—“likable” thing. You wrote a great essay for The Cut about raising your daughters to be rude women. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about writing rude women, and also how that plays out in your experience in your professional life as a woman writer.
DL: Yeah, even though I know it’s a thing, I don’t understand why people read books to find people they like. People you like are in your life. People in your life are often unlikable at various times, and I think to only try to write women that are likable seems like the worst kind of trap of the patriarchy, right? There’s enough trying to please that we do that I don’t need to put it in fiction. I think that that’s a more realistic thing anyway.
And speaking of trying to please: the essay is about an interaction my daughters had with this older man in my neighborhood. He was trying to talk to them, and they just weren’t saying anything. He kept complimenting them, and then when he said “I’m a nice old man,” I realized all these years I’ve been prompting them to say “thank you” when somebody compliments them, that I am actually teaching them to let their guard down. To smile, to interact in ways that weaken their boundaries, even though intellectually I know that that’s wrong. And how do women, how do you figure out what that space is for you to assert yourself? How do I train my kids to follow their instincts?
In terms of professional stuff, one of the most empowering things that was ever said to me was by my thesis advisor Eileen Pollack when I told her I wanted to write, but I also wanted to have kids. And she was like, look, you’re already a woman who’s a writer. Nobody’s taking you seriously. So what’s the difference if you’re pushing a stroller? It was so motivating to me to realize that as a woman you really have to counter how we’ve been trained, really push to get yourself out there and not apologize. And write those bolder things, because nobody else is going to tell those stories for you, and nobody is inclined to take you seriously.
What’s your experience been like as a woman in publishing, or just writing? Even that idea—I get asked what’s it like to write women’s stories. Which is like, well, they’re stories, and they are women’s stories, but there’s stories and there’s women’s stories and like maybe they’re over here. And I’m a white straight woman, there’s a lot about me that’s already very normative in the culture“I think to only try to write women that are likable seems like the worst kind of trap of the patriarchy, right?”
JC: I’m thinking about the experience of having been interviewed about this book and getting questions that assume the book fits in a particular category—questions that contain levels of assumption that go pretty deep. And I think it’s hard in those moments to challenge the question, to challenge where a question is coming from. Particularly if somebody is giving you a platform—you’re grateful and you want to be “nice.” But I think in those moments where we have the chance to challenge the question and challenge how things are being defined, it’s good to try to do so.
DL: And difficult.
JC: Yeah, definitely.
DL: I was recently asked what books and stories I identify with, and my answer is that I’m actually not a reader who reads to see myself. I think that it’s quite privileged to think you should read to see yourself, that that’s what you’re looking for. I think that’s how we expand our empathy, by reading stories that are not necessarily something that reflects your life. What happens is then you read them and you’re like, I feel myself in that. Why wouldn’t you? I’ve spent my whole life reading stories by white men that I’m supposed to assume are universal, that I was trained to build our universe around. But my God, there’s all these stories that are also universal that are not by white men. I need more of them. But I also said in an interview that I’m done caring if men read my book, so maybe I’ve lost them. We will see.
JC: I don’t know if you were thinking about this, but I also thought a lot about the men in my novel. Hannah joins a rowing club and it’s almost all men. So she’s around these, some of them very macho, Italian guys. It was important to me that the men be complex and vulnerable in their own ways, and that I wasn’t falling into certain clichés or tropes or stereotypes in how I was depicting them. I had Italian friends who helped me with that, to make sure that the book wasn’t doing harm in its depiction and that I was also challenging some of the own assumptions that I might have brought to it myself.
DL: I went out of my way to write teenage boys, in particular, as lovely teenage boys, because I knew a lot of lovely teenage boys. That was my intention. I think that’s also an important conversation about feminism, what healthy masculinity looks like.
JC: Speaking of depictions of masculinity and femininity, can you speak a bit about where your book’s title, Back Talk, came from?
DL: I wanted to play with the idea that back talk is this super loud, sassy, unwelcome thing in society. This idea that—kind of related to that essay I wrote for The Cut—where it’s like, you should stay quiet, you shouldn’t say anything, that’s going to get you in trouble. So there’s that idea, but in that story in particular, the title story, the choice this young woman makes to be quiet. I think there can be power in silence, there can be power in disappearing and separating yourself, and I wanted to talk about that too, because I think, like I was saying, the kind of superhero version of a woman who is just doing everything and getting all that done, that just doesn’t seem right either. So much of what we struggle with in the ways that we work things out are by turning it inward and dealing with it internally rather than necessarily taking it out on people or society or whoever is being aggressive. I think that that’s an important thing to recognize as a realistic way that a woman moves through the world, is that she doesn’t necessarily talk back and make change and fight everything. Sometimes that’s not safe or realistic or useful. As both of us write stories that are deliberately realistic about women’s lives, what are your feelings on writing about hope? How does literature serve to talk about hope, especially with stories that often are not hopeful unto themselves?
JC: That’s a great question. There are a lot of books I love about women who are dealing with addictions or self-destructive behavior that don’t end hopefully. That’s realistic, but as somebody who has dealt with an eating disorder myself, in putting it on the page, I felt that there had to be some hope. At the same time, there couldn’t be an easy resolution because that’s not how people or life or addictions work. “Letting go” of the disorder is complicated for Hannah—it isn’t a clean break. But she has to begin to let go to imagine her future, and really to survive into that future. That’s what it means to have hope, I think. We project ourselves into the future, hoping that we will be in some way better in that future than we are today. But letting go of who we are in the present is a complicated matter, and I wanted to be honest about that complexity.
Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy (Unnamed Press, 2017), was a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2017 and is forthcoming in translation in five countries. She was awarded a Fulbright grant to Italy to complete the novel and was the writer-in-residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Slice, and Global City Review, among others. She lives in New York City, where she works at Words Without Borders, a magazine of international literature. Find her at www.JessieChaffee.com.
Danielle Lazarin is the author of Back Talk: Stories (Penguin Books, 2018). Her award-wining fiction can be found in The Southern Review, BuzzFeed, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Glimmer Train, Five Chapters, Boston Review, and elsewhere. Her essays have been published by The Cut and Lenny Letter. She lives in her native New York, where she is at work on a novel. www.daniellelazarin.com.