Hilton Als on What It Means to Be Hopeful, Despite the World
In Conversation with Durga Chew-Bose
Hilton Als’s voicemail tells me that he’s away from his trampoline. I wait a few minutes and try again. Still no Hilton. Still away from his trampoline. Unaccustomed to leaving messages—a bad habit I’ve formed, a generational thing maybe, who knows—I stammer through one, promptly forgetting to leave my phone number. And so I call back. Thing is, none of this feels tedious because I am, of course, picturing Hilton’s trampoline. Or rather, the image that comes to mind is Als—the writer, Guggenheim Fellow, The New Yorker theater critic—sitting on the edge of his trampoline, right where the coiled springs meet the canvas’s taut edge. That’s where I imagine Als will be during our chat, which turned out much like his writing: weaving between art and the personal, a genre-less plaiting of everything from who is currently exciting us, like the playwright Annie Baker, to the discovery that Als once lived in Crown Heights in the Tudor-style building right next to mine—the one we both note has aqua blue timber framing. Listening to Als recount the building’s large courtyard and nearby Brooklyn Children’s Museum reminded me of how in both of his books, The Women and White Girls, memoir is a warm, often reluctant pursuit. In this way, Als is a master of consideration, rarely grasping for conclusions and instead commenting on the state of things with his deep knowledge of cultural theory, always rebounding with a very-Hilton, remarkably reflective mood.
Durga Chew-Bose: I’ve been really excited to speak to you for multiple reasons; one of them is from spending time with Tavi [Gevinson] and hearing everything she always tells me about you.
Hilton Als: Oh, Tavi’s one of the greatest people, isn’t she?
Chew-Bose: She really is, and all we really do is go for walks and talk, which are two of my favorite things.
Als: How did you connect with Tavi?
Chew-Bose: I think mutual admiration for each other’s writing was initially how it happened, and then we just started seeing each other more in person at friends’ stuff or through other friends. You know, the writing world is huge but it’s also so hermetic that you eventually—if you like someone, just by putting out that energy—end up in the same room as them. So yeah, we’ve been hanging out and whenever we do, we essentially just talk about writing and each other’s writing. It’s the first time in a long time that talking about writing hasn’t seemed totally self-indulgent, and I think that’s honestly just a huge reflection of her. So, when talking, she and I talked about you and someone else who seems to come up a lot who I’ve suddenly become super-obsessed with: Annie Baker.
Als: Oh wow, Annie Baker’s a great writer!
Chew-Bose: Yeah, she’s tremendous. As sometimes happens, I had one of those moments where everything seemed to converge: My editor at Riot of Perfume told me that she knew that I was a huge fan of yours and suggested I do this interview, and then later that day, when I opened my mailbox, I’d gotten my copy of The New Yorker and inside was your review of the play John, which I’d seen the night before. I just thought the whole thing was one of those massive moments of pure kismet.
Als: [Laughs.] That play is amazing, isn’t it?
Chew-Bose: It’s so good. I really appreciated how you talked in your review about how John was Baker’s way of declaring her ambition. I definitely felt that too.
Als: Oh, thank you so much.
Chew-Bose: I appreciated what you said about why The Flick (which I’ve also seen) didn’t really work for you. The last few years, I’ve been making a conscious effort to not only read white writers—which I tend to do mainly because so many of my literary heroes are white women—and sometimes I’ve had guilt about loving Annie Baker so much, wondering what the extent of my connection to her and her work is. Maybe that’s naïve.
Als: I know what you mean in that the world she’s writing about is a bit weird because it’s all these dudes, generally. In a weird way, I think it’s true what I said in my review: that John was her way of writing about competitiveness, and it would be harder for her to do if she had female characters because women don’t generally outwardly compete, and with female characters it would be less theatrical. I think it would be harder for Baker to write if she had started writing about women’s lives. I think she has this kind of very beautiful development that is complex though. She identifies femaleness with a kind of “not winning” aspect. I don’t think she’s aware of it, but I think it’s something she’s learned… as a younger woman she’s free to write about older women. I mean, I think she’s just competitive with girls her age.
Chew-Bose: Aren’t we all?
Als: I’ve never met her, have you?
Chew-Bose: No, I haven’t met Annie Baker. I’d like to. But it’s a great point that you’re making: she seems to understand older women, which is totally the case in John. Another reason why I was excited by your review is that I had just re-read The Women and White Girls, and I kept wondering, “What would Hilton Als say if he wrote a longer essay about Annie Baker… a longer exploration of her oeuvre so far?” She’s totally not the kind of woman, or artist, that your books explore.
Als: That’s a very interesting point. I think that in some weird way she was not on my emotional radar until this play. Like, The Flick was kind of weird for me. I don’t think I understood her before I saw John, but I think that you’re right that there is still something for me to try and do: to go back into her writing and see what I would feel now, in retrospect.
Chew-Bose: You used the word “soulful” in your review. What does that word mean to you?
Als: I think it means where the artist doesn’t necessarily have a full understanding of something, but they have deep empathy. They have some kind of amazing empathy with the characters in the world. I just think it means being openhearted and generous. I think that to be a conscious person is to sort through stuff in order to understand not just yourself but how you feel in the world.
Chew-Bose: I was watching an interview with you from around the time White Girls came out, in which you talked about being a hopeful person. How do you remain hopeful despite–
Als: –despite the world… I think it’s in my DNA. I used to call my mother The Happiness Nazi. Through all of her hardships she never made us feel like life was closed off to us. She never made us feel that because we were poor we lacked an imagination about becoming something. I love your question because it makes me want to thank her for giving me the quality of pushing beyond haters and negativity in order to see and feel, you know? Don’t let the small people—even if they’re in your own family—rob you of the experience of being open and free. There’s always going to be siblings or relations who don’t love you because bigness as a person makes them feel small. I think there is something really beautiful about trying, and small people don’t want you to keep trying. They want you to settle for life’s limitations. Don’t ever settle because life is hard enough and limiting enough without people telling you to stay in a cul-de-sac or wherever.
Chew-Bose: Yeah, you know, small people sometimes feel like paper cuts.
Als: That’s a great description, and they sometimes last a long time like paper cuts. But one of the great things about going to therapy, and all this stuff that’s really helped me, is the idea of “Oh, right—these people don’t actually want me to be my full self.” And it’s not even like, personal. One of the ways I’ve learned to handle it is to not really engage, even if they’re family.
Chew-Bose: I wish I knew when I was feeling my full self, but I sometimes feel so detached from understanding or feeling my own capacity. When have you felt your full self?
Als: I think when I meet new people who give positive reinforcement, like what you describe with you and Tavi. Also, when I’m creating something that really expresses what I mean to express. There’s a freedom there that is unmatched, other than when people love you.
Chew-Bose: Does writing provide you with freedom?
Als: I mean, obviously writing’s a difficult thing, but the thing that I really love about it is that it’s a freeing thing, too. It belongs to you. Toni Morrison did this really great thing: She listed all the things she had to do as a single mother and then she listed all the things she couldn’t live without, and there were only two things of things, mothering her children and writing, because with writing, she didn’t have to be a mother, a daughter, a wife, an editor… she was just herself, and I really agree with that. If I sat down and made a list of all the things that I have to do during the day (and there a lot of them), the two biggest things for me would be writing and loving my friends.
Chew-Bose: For me, I would add reading, but maybe reading is the same as writing. Surrounding yourself with people who lift you up is essential but, because it’s sort of corny, we tend to disregard it… but actively seeking it out is like–
Als: –no, no, it’s never corny. It’s never out of style. You’ll find, as you get older, it’s essential. You need the people that you need.
Chew-Bose: I feel like so much of my writing voice is that of a daughter. Like, how I perceive the world or interact with it is first as a daughter. Do you still feel like a son?
Als: No. I think that when my mother died I stopped feeling that, but with my sister (the sister that I’m closest to who has been ill for a couple of years) I do feel like a brother. I feel it when she says to the nurse, “Have you met my brother?” I feel that connection very deeply. I don’t feel like a son anymore but I definitely feel like a brother, and I especially feel like a brother to young people like you or Tavi, or my friend Thomas Beard.
Chew-Bose: How do you get a thought onto the page with the same impact that it strikes you? I struggle with that so much. I’ll get inspired on the train and then worry the whole ride home that the inspiration is fleeting.
Als: I think for sure that you have to be productive in those moments, and I think that it happens all the time. Always write down a sentence or two so that you remember, and you can build on it when you get home, but I think it’s very important to take that moment and say, “Oh shit, I have to write this now.” I can feel something in my body becoming different from an idea, and when your body becomes different because of an idea then you know it’s a real thing.
Chew-Bose: Yeah, it’s a totally somatic experience a lot of the time.
Chew-Bose: There’s a sense that you’ve seen a ghost, or an ex or something.
Als: Yes, exactly.
Chew-Bose: I’m a huge re-reader; in fact, I feel like I’m not able to keep up with what everyone’s reading because I would rather return to what are essentially bibles for me. I use a lot of books as notebooks because I’ve written so many notes in them. Do you have books like that?
Als: No. [Laughs.] I’m too much of a Puritan to write things in books. Everybody else’s books to me are sacred, but I’ll put down a little sticky note. I actually have a weird visual memory, and I can almost always remember a page, but if I can’t, then I put down a sticky.
Chew-Bose: I feel like that’s part of my compulsion for re-reading…
Als: …so that you might feel like you’re a different person every time you do it. I mean, I love Jane Bowles. I love Proust. You can go in and out of his work for the rest of your life. Oh my god, Jamaica Kincaid. Who do I re-read? You know…what I really go back to a lot are paintings and films. Visual things. I find them very helpful in terms of inspiring me. Shakespeare, Truman Capote, James Baldwin—those are the people I can go back to anytime.
Chew-Bose: Do you ever feel constrained by needing to address identity while you’re writing?
Als: No. The “issues” only really happen after the writing, but when I’m writing it all depends on what the piece demands, and if the piece demands the definition of race or gender or whatever, then that’s what it gets, but for the most part, no. I’m sitting down to tell my part of the story, just like any writer.
Chew-Bose: Maybe it’s just a different time or something, but I worry that I get grouped into the category of someone who can only write about identity.
Als: No, don’t do that to yourself. You’re listening to what people say. Don’t do that. Stop right now. As an artist, you gotta make this world your world. You gotta do it; that’s your job. That is your job.
Chew-Bose: Oh, I love that. Thank you.
Photography by Rachel Chandler, courtesy of Riot of Perfume, Issue 7.