What Trauma Leaves Behind
A Conversation with Carley Moore, Lynn Melnick, and
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
As a writer and teacher, it’s my job to put books and writers in conversation, but it’s rare that those writers I smashed together in my head get to speak to each other in real time in my classroom or in an interview.
I’ve known Lynn Melnick (author of If I Should Say I Have Hope and Landscape with Sex and Violence) since we were in a writer’s group where we valiantly and successfully workshopped each other’s poetry while our kids ran around our various apartments and played at top volume. It worked surprisingly well, and was a testament to the virtues of co-parenting.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and I started chatting on Facebook when she began to promote her latest novel Sketchtasy, and then in person at a reading for the book at Bluestockings in New York. It was one of the most generous, fun, and real readings I’ve been to in a long while, with an authentic and smart Q and A to match.
Both writers examine sex work, mental health, sexuality, trauma, joy, and physical landscapes in their most recent books, albeit in different genres. Lynn and Mattilda are also unfailingly honest in their critiques of the systems and institutions that work to keep oppression in place. In early January 2019, as new House members were sworn in and Twitter buzzed on about R. Kelly, Nancy Pelosi, and the government shutdown, we started our conversation.
Carley Moore: Both Landscape with Sex and Violence and Sketchtasy turn cities or landscapes (90s homophobic Boston and 80s sexist Los Angeles) into characters of sorts for an exploration of sexuality, gender, violence, sex work, and pleasure. Could you talk a bit about your desires for centering these landscapes in your books?“I think part of the reason I write so explicitly about trauma is that I want people to read it in a way that’s not glossed over, and not made palatable.”
Lynn Melnick: Because of the way trauma wrecks memory, or, I should say, has wrecked my memory, so much of what I was trying to write about is fractured in my recollection of it. And for reasons I don’t completely understand, while I spent probably no time contemplating my environment when I lived in LA, various impressions of that city bubble up when I’m writing about things that took place in that city—traumas or not. It was also important for me to write about how trauma changes the landscape, how landscapes themselves become traumatic and become trauma triggers, how trauma left me at odds with a place. So I guess I’m not using landscape to talk about difficult issues, it’s just that the difficult issues exist within a landscape. I want to write all of it.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Lynn, this is so interesting to me right now because I’m currently visiting LA for my West Coast book tour, and I don’t drive, so I find myself walking from one landscape to another, and really viscerally feeling your book in different ways. For me, in writing Sketchtasy, it was crucial to convey Boston in 1995 as a city rabidly afraid of difference. And so the characters have to exist at odds with their landscape—and, the violence of the outside world is mimicked in the gay club culture they inhabit. Sure, they can dress up and go out and turn it out, but the violence is always there, both internalized and externalized. For me, I really needed to get Boston right—after I wrote maybe 10 drafts of the book, I went back to Boston for about a month and a half to make sure I had all the sensory details—the screeching of the Green Line trains, the light on the Esplanade, the feeling of walking through the muddy and frozen reeds in the Fens late at night while cruising for sex, I wanted it all. Ironically, I think that in order to show how trapped the characters are, I really needed to make Boston breathe.
CM: Each of your narrators recount with great agency and openness the ways in which daily aggressions shape how they experience and encounter themselves and others. Mattilda, I’m thinking of the asshole punching the subway seat behind Alexa or the clatch of kids asking her “Are you gay?” Lynn, I’m thinking of the poem “Landscape with Fog and Fencepost” and the line, “like how you once lit my hair on fire…” Why was it important for you as writers to make these moments real and visible (to me so visceral that I sometimes felt queasy) to readers?
LM: Sometimes when I stop to recall events, especially of my youth, I’m just absolutely floored by the microaggressions and misogyny I was steeped in fucking everywhere I went. And that’s a lot of what I was trying to get at in the book. These were constant (and often still are). But when I’m writing some events I’m not always aware if it’s going to be particularly brutal to read. It all kind of blends to me. The example of the terror I lived with that you point to, Carley, is truly horrific but also just one incident among many, which I guess is also what I was going for when I wrote the book, that not all violence against women is glam SVU-style.
Weirdly, the poems that were hardest for me to write (“Landscape with Written Statement,” about being beaten up, and “Poem At the End of a News Cycle,” about sex work, among other things) are the poems I read most often at readings. So I guess I am aware of how intense I am, and I want people to have to confront these experiences, and also I want all that hard writing work to count for something. I think part of the reason I write so explicitly about trauma is that I want people to read it in a way that’s not glossed over, and not made palatable. These stories aren’t abstract bad things that happen. These are horrific, life-fucking events that happen to actual people. So it’s super important for me to keep writing about this stuff because my brain is changed and I can’t not write about it and because I’m really angry, and I want everyone to know that, and to know why.
MBS: I totally agree that it’s always hard to predict how people are going to react to a description of trauma, or even what people will perceive as traumatic, and so I generally don’t think about this while writing. Instead I want to make sure I get all the nuances right, all the layers and the impact. I want it all to come through, even when it isn’t spoken of directly. If the reader interprets it differently, that’s okay with me, as long as it’s all there. When I first started writing Sketchtasy, I had no idea what I was doing—but right away the trauma came through. There it was, in all of its devastating specificity and messiness. Maybe one thing that’s different, in writing fiction about trauma, as opposed to nonfiction, is that I can be more ambiguous about whether the characters make it through—what I’m saying is that I’m not sure whether any of these characters will make it. If I’m writing about myself, I have to make it, right?
For Alexa—who has grown up with AIDS suffusing her desires, and no way to imagine a way out, who is remembering that she was sexually abused by her father, and who is living in a world that wants her to die or disappear—trauma is literally everywhere. But for her the most important thing is not to let the bashers and the homophobes and the gay hypocrites know that they are impacting her. She needs to project invulnerability even when she is most vulnerable, and while this allows her to survive and develop a critical distance, it also takes its toll. In a way, this is what Sketchtasy is about.
LM: This projected toughness was important for me to write into Landscape with Sex and Violence as well. Because that’s how we survive things, I think? And because part of it is real, right? How could these speakers not be tough?—you don’t survive certain shit and not be tough. But a lot of it is facade, too. These are young speakers.
I want to add, Mattilda, your writing on AIDS during the pre-drug years just absolutely gutted me. One summer, 1993, I lost a half dozen friends and the pattern you write in Sketchtasy—of young people having to return home to their families who had shunned them so they’d have somewhere to die—felt very familiar, at least insofar as I witnessed it from my vantage point. As soon as I began to read the chapter “Eternity” I felt this pang of recognition, I knew where we were headed, but the way it’s written is so clever because that is fucking exactly what it felt like to be in those moments with friends. I’m veering off topic here and fangirling my ass off, but sometimes I feel so isolated from that part of my life, largely because everyone who was a witness to it is dead, and when I read Sketchtasy I just felt so very grateful for what you did and how you did it, which is expert, and exact.
MBS: Thank you, Lynn! One thing I’m thinking about now is that we are both the same age—45, right? And one of the things that happened when I was writing Sketchtasy is that it became sort of a generational story. This is not the generation of queers who lost all of their friends, but the generation who grew up knowing that being queer meant certain death. There was never anything else. And I think for this generation, the one who came of age between the beginning of the AIDS crisis and the moment when HIV became a manageable condition for many, which happens right after Sketchtasy takes place, but is unimaginable in the book, there is a very specific type of trauma.
In Sketchtasy there is so much shutting off just in order to survive, and in writing this reality I am also writing against it. And when I read Landscape with Sex and Violence I remember this push and pull, the way the poems leave you there, in between. Carley mentions that your setting is LA in the ’80s, but I don’t remember thinking that I knew exactly when the poems were set. Especially because there were different speakers. And I knew there was a past, but because the past was also the present, and maybe the future, trauma broke through the barrier between now and then. And I think this really resonated in terms of how trauma feels—how it breaks you open, how it closes you off, how it is so rarely just one feeling except when it’s too much. And I think the way you organized the poems formally as “landscapes” really furthers this tension, and I’m wondering if you want to talk about these structural choices toward and away from feeling.
LM: I’m definitely going back and forth in time within Landscape with Sex and Violence because trauma feels to defy linear time, I think, as you suggest. Honestly, as much as I do love to write into the various and thrilling language behind landscapes and also explore what trauma and memory to do to and with landscape, I think I chose the landscape structure because it felt less vulnerable, because I could hide behind this thought in my own head which was, “What? I’m just writing about California landscapes! So pretty!”