Photo: Brian Jacks
Photo: Brian Jacks

LITERARY STORIES ABOUT ONLINE EXPERIENCES: AN INTERVIEW WITH LEIGH STEIN

I first learned about Leigh Stein after she published an essay in the New York Times about the importance of young memoirists. She writes: “Young writers are not only primed to evoke emotions with vivid immediacy, they are also experts on the digital interfaces where so many rites of passage (first love, first heartbreak, first grief) now occur. I am writing for other millennials, who have grown up flirting through texts and breaking up over email.” I was automatically drawn to Stein: She and I were both born in 1984, were both working on memoirs (hers with a release date, mine in a constant state of revision). We both kept LiveJournals and agonized over the Facebook activities of our love interests. But aside from the similarities in our personal lives, Stein’s article struck me because it seemed to me like she was the only person talking about an experience that was so acutely of our generation: thirty-somethings are the first generation to have been maintaining online relationships since adolescence, more than twenty years.

After discovering on Facebook that a friend had died in the war in Afghanistan, Stein began to write a book about the nuances of expressing grief over the Internet and social media. But, as most writers understand, sometimes the story takes you elsewhere. Stein started to realize the book wasn’t this larger exploration about the Internet—it was much more personal. It was a story about an addictive, sometimes abusive relationship she had with a man named Jason in New Mexico. The resulting memoir, Land of Enchantment, starts in 2011 with Stein receiving a phone call with news that her ex-boyfriend, Jason, has recently died in a motorcycle accident.

My conversation with Stein encompasses a range of ideas, from digging through your own digital archive to finding writers’ workshops that work for you. We also briefly touch on The Bachelor franchise—in addition to her previously published poetry and fiction, Stein was unofficially inaugurated as the Poet Laureate of The Bachelor by New York magazine’s The Cut for her poems comprised of dialogue from the show. Surprisingly, we even discovered thematic ties between Season 12 of the Bachelorette and Land of Enchantment. Stein’s essays have been published in Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, LitHub, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Gawker. Stein is also the executive director of Out of the Binders, a nonprofit literary organization devoted to the advancement of women and gender-nonconforming writers.

When you were first considering writing a memoir, what was the first kernel of the idea?

When Jason died, I was working on a second novel. And after he died, I kept sending my characters off to New Mexico. So I felt this pull to write about the place. And then I wrote an essay that became a chapter in the book about my college classmate who died in Afghanistan. He was the first person I knew whose death I learned of from Facebook. So I wrote an essay about that, and that got a really good response, so I started to think, I’ll write a book about death and grief on the Internet. For a year or two, I thought I was just writing a grief memoir about Jason and about the Internet. It took such a long time for me to see that the book was about our relationship and that it was an abusive relationship. I didn’t see that until very close to the end of writing it. I was just blind to it, myself. And that’s what it was like being in it [the relationship], too: I couldn’t see it for what it was. I really took me a long time of writing to finally see what it really was.

I was so excited about all of the pieces of your digital life that I could relate to in your book, like keeping a LiveJournal and agonizing over other people’s Facebook activity.

I’m really interested in how we remember experiences that happen online. How do we memorialize those experiences? Because some people would have us believe those aren’t real. But to me they are. I’ve had intense, emotional interpersonal experiences online that are just part of who I am, just like experiences at school or in a work environment. And I feel like the literature hasn’t really caught up to our experiences in digital landscapes. Because there’s still this idea that that’s not real life.

You recount a few specific Facebook interactions and emails in the book. What was that process like, researching your digital past? Did you know which moments and messages you were looking for or did you have to dig through the entire Leigh Stein archive?

That was part of the research process. I would go in my Gmail and put search filters on and read everything I sent when I was in Albuquerque, based on the dates I was there. First, I wrote the scenes and the chapters the way I remembered them. Then I would research and fact check, see what I was forgetting or leaving out, and sometimes it was really surprising. There’s a scene in the LiveJournal where I’m in the car with Jason, before we moved to Albuquerque, where he slapped me in the face. And I don’t remember this at all, but I know it happened because I wouldn’t have made it up. There’s no reason I would’ve made it up. [In] my LiveJournal, I wasn’t making up stories. So I ultimately did not put that in the book because I couldn’t remember it.

So, even though you wrote about it in the LiveJournal, because you didn’t actually remember it, it didn’t end up in the book?

Yeah, it was also the timing. I read [that part of] my LiveJournal way late in the editing. The book was finished. I was trying to look up some specific detail and that’s why I went to the LiveJournal. And then I read that scene, and it was so disturbing to me because I didn’t remember it. And then I thought, well, is it important, does it need to go in the book? And then I was like, that changes everything. If I put that in the book, it changes everything. The story I told myself was that he was violent when we moved to Albuquerque but I never saw the signs sooner. He was never violent before Albuquerque. So when I found that diary entry I was like, What? But I didn’t want to rewrite the whole book—it was too late!

How was it, emotionally, going through the LiveJournal? I’ve also recently gone through my own Internet archive and found sometimes it’s really hard to watch yourself experience these difficult times. Then, you’re also like, “Bless your heart, past self.”

Yeah! I definitely feel like that I’ve gotten old enough that that person seems like a different person. Especially my 13-year-old self seems like a completely different person, like it didn’t happen to me, it happened to somebody else. And writing about it—getting it all down on paper—I feel like I’m uploading my memories to the cloud. They don’t belong to me anymore; they belong to the story that I made.

I just got another review that said I’m not old enough to write this memoir. I get a lot of pushback about my age, and I just think it’s ridiculous that I’m not old enough to write about being a young person. So I really tried to write it through the lens of that younger self with some hindsight, because I do have some hindsight on being 22. Going back to that LiveJournal, the comments were the worst to read. Because it’s so clear that people I cared about and people who cared about me were so worried about me and angry that I was going to be with this guy. In hindsight, my reaction was, I’m going to delete my LiveJournal. I couldn’t leave him, but I thought at least I can protect them from hearing about it.

I’m glad you mentioned hindsight, because I love the way you handled time in this memoir. I didn’t feel like your narrator was so omniscient and confident about how this past fits in her life. How did you approach the structure of the book?

That’s the hardest thing when you’re writing memoir, chronology and structure. Because you know what happened. But the question is, how do you put that into an arc for the reader? What information do you give up front, what information do you withhold? How much backstory to put in? I started writing it in 2012, from the point of view of 2011. First, I wrote all of those 2011 chapters as present tense, and everything else in the past. That’s the way I was organizing it, but then my workshop teacher said, You don’t need to do that, it’s too tricky, just write the whole thing in past. So I wrote the whole thing in past, but then I kept alternating from the moment I find out Jason is dead, to backstory, to me going to the funeral, to more backstory. The chapters I really struggled with were the [early] ones where I meet him, because the people who were workshopping the book knew me as a person. So I didn’t really have to explain much about who I was. I [also] tried to leave my parents out of it, because I didn’t want my parents to be involved in this book. But the more I workshopped it with people who didn’t know me, the clearer it became that my parents had to be in there because it had to be explained to the reader exactly who I am at the moment when I meet Jason. Otherwise you don’t understand why I go away with him. So, those were the hardest chapters to write and the ones that I rewrote the most times.

What were the circumstances of the workshop?

I had a workshop in Brooklyn that was just friends, writers, and then I did attend the Tin House Writer’s Workshop and the Key West [Literary Seminar]. And that’s when I got more feedback from people who didn’t know me already. But that was really hard. The Tin House workshop was just like, Where was your mom? They just wanted to talk about my mom the whole time. And I just wanted to scream… But in the end, they were right. At the time I was feeling defensive, like, this is a book about Jason and me.

I thought it was hysterical that in the book your mom suggested you put a Georgia O’Keefe painting on your desktop background instead of on your body as a tattoo. Has your mother read it?

She read the book. She read it in one sitting and said there is nothing she would change. So she’s been very supportive… My dad read the book and was very upset and has been on this ongoing loop of “Coulda-shoulda-woulda.” He wishes he had kept me home when I left Jason, or this or that. He feels like there’s something else he could’ve done but I don’t think there was. So I’ve tried to absolve him of this guilt by saying, I was going to do what I was going to do no matter what.

You wrote about this really difficult time in your life and, as a result, you’re the one comforting people like, “No, Dad, it’s fine, I’m fine. You’re a great dad, Thank you.”

Ha! Yes, Well, that’s another thing about structure. Early on, somebody in my workshop in Brooklyn said she liked the first chapter because you could see that I make it out in the end. So the reader doesn’t have to worry about me; I’m sitting on the couch with my new boyfriend. Like, I’m going to be okay.

I read your LitHub essay about how to end a memoir, unfortunately before I finished Land of Enchantment, which *spoiler alert* doesn’t end in a marriage. I really admire how you chose to end the book—you talk about finding a new professional opportunity and moving on with your life. So I, unlike some readers, wasn’t thinking about whether your character would get married in the end, but I was wondering throughout, “Will this narrator ever stop blaming herself for the negative aspects of the relationship? Will she realize it wasn’t her fault, it was just a bad relationship?” Was that something you were also thinking about throughout the writing process?

When I set out to write this, I knew I didn’t want to be the good girl who was the victim and he was the bad, evil character. So I tried to show his charm and his allure and his good side, just like I tried to show myself at my worst. And I wanted to write something more complicated than just, I don’t know, victim and perpetrator. I don’t think that’s what my book is. I don’t think that’s what my experience was. The easiest way for me to talk about it now is through the lens of addiction. Because I think I was addicted to him, even if I knew it was bad or wrong and I saw the signs that I should get out. I was compulsively drawn to being with him. I could not quit him. And I hid it from people because I knew they didn’t agree with it. So addiction is the easiest way to talk about it. All that is to say, I wanted to write a book where I showed my part in things, and not just how I was someone’s victim. And I think victim is a word I avoid using even in the book. Maybe I use it, but not often.

I appreciate how you think about that relationship as kind of an addiction. I also think about the perpetual availability that people have now with their online presence and how that changes our ability to communicate. Do you think that was a factor in the addictive nature of your relationship?

Yeah, I haven’t thought a lot about that, but probably. There were so many times where I thought, I have to change my phone number so he can’t find me. But I never did, because there was still that cycle, that promise that there would be good again. What if he sent me a text message and it was good? What if we talked on the phone and it was good? So I couldn’t give up the bad because there might be that good. But yeah, sometimes I would just sleep with my phone next to my pillow just waiting for him to say something to me, like he was my lifeline.

In the history of humanity, cell phones are so new.

Right!

So when you talk about people being critical of writing a memoir at such a young age, that’s what I think about. Someone needs to write about sleeping with your cell phone! Because this is such a new experience.

I agree with you! There are studies, reporting, journalism, but it’s not really in the literature. We still haven’t figured out how to write about it.

When you were thinking about including excerpts from your LiveJournal or Facebook messages in the book, did you consider how it would appear on the page?

I did have someone who told me I should capitalize everything and use correct punctuation. Because some of those emails were lowercase. At first I disagreed and then I came to agree because it is distracting. Your brain goes, what? If it’s written in proper English, for lack of a better term, it’s more readable, you don’t have to stop and think about it. I did make that change. I guess, now that you mention it, I wish I’d have thought about it more, but I wanted the reader to become engrossed in the book. If they were set apart visually, it might be jarring.

That’s a great point. I think about this a lot when I’m reading, and I’m delighted when I see something that sticks out as representative of a screen. I read Night Film by Marisha Pessl. Her protagonist goes on this Internet deep dive, and all of the websites the main character sees are printed in full on the page of the book and it’s so cool. She created this fictional Internet universe and to do so included printouts of the screen in the book. I see something like that and I wonder, how do you decide to write a sentence as a sentence versus using the image of a text?

I wonder if Marisha Pessl was trying to recreate the experience of the Internet on the page, and maybe I was trying to write about these [online] experiences that I had, and I was trying to make them like anything else? So maybe I’m doing a better job of weaving so that it’s not like being on the Internet in my book, but more like experiencing my past with me.

I noticed in the book there are a lot of moments where you’re traveling alone. I was wondering if you could reflect a little bit on the experience of being intentionally by yourself. Do you feel conscious of it within the moment, as in, this is an experience I could write about?

Compared to, like, Cheryl Strayed or someone who’s backpacked across central Asia, I wouldn’t say that I’m an extraordinary solo traveler. But I am very introverted and I do like being alone a lot, which I think might be surprising because I’m also outgoing. I run conferences; I’m comfortable speaking in front of hundreds of people. But really, I recharge by being completely alone and I get very agitated and stressed out being around people, even making small talk. It invades my mental space. That’s what I love about going on vacation by myself: I can be alone with my thoughts for such an extended period of time. But I didn’t realize that it was such an unusual thing to do. I think I put this in the book, but at one point I was going to New Mexico by myself and a friend of mine was like, Gasp! I’ve never even eaten at a restaurant by myself!

(Laughs) Yeah! I have friends like that too!

I don’t feel weird eating at a restaurant by myself! Maggie Nelson—I can’t remember which book it’s in—she’s written about the privacy of being in public. Like being in New York City, in a big crowded place like at the museum, and you feel so perfectly alone, in the best way, even though you’re surrounded by crowds of people. That’s an experience that I love. I love experiencing things alone in a busy place but getting to have my take on it and no one making small talk or chatter with me.

As your fans know, you’ve been a religious watcher of The Bachelor/Bachlorette in the past. Are you still watching it?

I’m so sad because I’ve been so busy this summer, and I didn’t get to watch it. But people are constantly asking my opinion on things and I’m just like, Oh no! I’m sorry. I’ve let down, like, six of my fans.

You’ll be able to pick it up next season, no problem.

Last season? How was it? Boring?

It wasn’t boring. Actually, there was an issue of violence this season and it’s weird that I was asking you about it because of your previous writing about The Bachelor, but it’s also sort of subjectively tied into some of the scenes of your memoir.

Ohhh, now you’re making me feel worse that I didn’t see it!

There’s one man who threatens people and acts very aggressively. He grabs a few people, and he punches the wall. It’s clear that something isn’t quite right with him. It’s weird because on the show they play it up for the entertainment value, but at no point does the show choose to address that this is kind of serious. It was an opportunity for them to have a conscience and address this as a real-life issue. But they didn’t. I think Jojo, the contestant on The Bachelorette, at some point said, It is not okay to resort to violence and your behavior is unacceptable. Goodbye. Other than that, it wasn’t really addressed.

That’s interesting because I was invited to the White House Summit on Women. Michelle Obama was there with Oprah, and Joe Biden spoke for 45 minutes and the message seemed to be, Here are all these problems facing women and this is how we can solve them. But there wasn’t enough, like, Here’s how the men can step up. I went to an all-day session about violence against women put on by the DOJ, and I was sitting next to this man—there weren’t hardly any men there—and he said his teenaged daughter was raped, and he couldn’t believe there weren’t more men there. I realized unless it happens to your daughter, you don’t care. The people who share my stories, the people who promote my book, they’re all women! Men don’t want to talk about this. So the fact that it was Jojo who had to say anything, it continues to be abuse against women is a problem that women need to solve.

What are your thoughts on your women-centered audience?

When my first novel came out [the publishers] said, do you have any ideas for the cover? I said no, but I know that I don’t want a woman in profile or a woman looking over her shoulder or a headless woman’s body. I didn’t want a cover that signaled, “This is for women.” And I was very happy that they gave me a yellow and red, gender-neutral cover. I know a lot of men read my novel. But for my memoir, I didn’t think about it as much. I just assumed more women would read it than men. It’s more when I think about the issues that I raise that I start to get angry. Because it’s somehow on women to solve these issues when men are the perpetrators.

My Washington Post essay, “He Didn’t Hit Me. It Was Still Abuse.,” is about psychological abuse. Psychological abuse happens to men as frequently as women. 50% of men report being psychologically abused as well as about 50% of women. And I’ve gotten a lot of private messages from men telling me that they’ve been abused and I’m the only one they can talk to. Meanwhile, the comments section is all men talking about what a whiny baby I am, and I’m ruining this guy’s life and not letting him tell his side, blah blah. I think we’re missing a lot of stories. I think maybe if we heard more from male victims of psychological abuse, maybe this would be seen as a problem that is affecting lots more people.

Facebooktwitterreddit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *