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Truth and Lies: An Interview with Janice Erlbaum

When Villard Books, a Random House imprint, published Janice Erlbaum’s second memoir, Have You Found Her (2008), Vanity Fair threw her a party at a fancy handbag store. Though the celebration was a little incongruous for a book that recounted the author’s relationship with a homeless, drug-addicted young woman, it was a clear reflection of mainstream publishing’s enthusiasm for Erlbaum. Now, six years later, with the recent publication of her first novel I, Liar by the much smaller Thought Catalog Books, Erlbaum is experiencing a new sense of freedom—along with some fresh challenges.

But let’s back up. In her first book, Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir (Villard Books 2006), Erlbaum wrote about running away from home at age 15 and seeking refuge in a youth shelter and the streets, both liberated and limited by her life’s instability. Years later, in her thirties and thriving, she volunteered at the same shelter that took her in as a teenager. That’s where she met Samantha, a magnetic, deeply troubled young woman who reminded Erlbaum of her younger self. Have You Found Her is the account of what happened when the two grew close, Erlbaum convinced she could save Sam from drugs, from the streets, and from herself. It’s devastating.

As troubling and astute as her memoirs, I, Liar, is a riveting, uncomfortable read, one that builds on its author’s sharp-eyed interest in young women, survival, and deception. The protagonist, Elizabeth, is a compulsive liar—one only interested in getting close to (and manipulating) other women. As she serially reinvents herself and sinks lower into her lies, the story becomes a tense web of unreliable narration, failed intimacy, and deep sadness.

Erlbaum’s writing has appeared in a range of publications, including The Rumpus, Nerve, Tablet, and Bust, where she was a longtime columnist. She also has a storied past as a performance poet in New York City, where she grew up and lives today. When we met at the Hollywood Diner in Chelsea, not far from her home, Erlbaum was candid about her experience publishing with Thought Catalog instead of the major houses that brought out her earlier work, what she’s learned from the past decade, and why she’s committed to writing about difficult women.

Your last book came out in 2008. What have you been up to since then?

Between the last book and this one [I, Liar], I had written four others, none of which had been deemed acceptable for publication, either by myself or by some outside force. So I was really starting to despair. It was really frustrating to pour so many hours and hours of work in. It was demoralizing. I was getting to the point where I was like, why do I even do this? Maybe I should go back to school and become a shrink, since I’m always trying to get up in people’s business anyway.

With this book, it was a confluence of a bunch of things: I was working on a memoir about my mom, and it was very, very painful, and I was like, I’m just going do something to have fun. I saw a news story that reminded me of the topic that I wanted to write about, and I had that feeling of, if I don’t write about it someone else will. And there is nothing more motivating than that feeling.

Writing habits are so, so important. And if I was doing nothing else, I was working. I didn’t lose whatever muscles I had built up. It’s true for all kinds of writing: You’re better off for doing it than not doing it. I have four other thick drafts in my drawer and I don’t know, maybe something will come of one of them someday.

This novel is really intense—there’s something so scary about a compulsive liar. How was it to write about that, and to write fiction after focusing on memoir?

It was wonderful. I had license to do whatever I wanted to do. I didn’t have to worry about truth or other people and how they were going to feel about anything. Besides that freedom, there is a part of me that is avaricious, that has huge emotional need that I’m constantly trying to ameliorate and deal with. So to just let the snarling beast out of the cage and let her run around was fantastic.

This voice came out, ready to chat. I got to give voice to a really dark side of my personality. I didn’t want to do anything else. We had houseguests, and the whole time I was like, aaaaaaah, get out. I was in love with this project. I’ve never had that experience before. I don’t know if I’ll have it again.

In your memoirs, you show real empathy for yourself as well as other people who are a part of your story. The novel is also a deeply and complexly empathetic book. Is that something that you think about when you’re writing?

I am so interested in describing emotional states. I think people have very few ways to identify and express their emotions safely. There are so many things you’re not supposed to feel: jealous, depressed. Sometimes you need to be sad. Emotional states are so important to be able to recognize, understand where they come from, change for yourself when you need to, and I guess that does entail empathy. Because if I really want to know what you’re feeling, I have to be paying attention. That’s the first step to empathy.

It’s also, I think, the first step to good writing. “Good” meaning specific, unique. You have to really consider something before you can write about it—and if that something is a person, then you have to consider their feelings.

Your character, Elizabeth, has all sorts of deep psychological insights into herself. But she doesn’t really know what to do with them, other than to use them to manipulate people.

I know so many girls like that, who have a tremendous amount of power but they’re spending it all fighting themselves. They’re spending it all in, like, this isometric clench. They’re so dynamic, talented, smart, and funny, and they’re just arm-wrestling with themselves. Somehow, they need to confront the emotional states that they’ve been avoiding: fear, generally, and a tremendous amount of sadness.

This character, when you strip it all away, is a sad, lonely six-year-old. And that’s where the book wound up becoming very autobiographical. She wants her mommy, and her mommy is just not available. So she’s trying to make everyone else take care of her. And she’s after women; she doesn’t care about men.

It feels to me like Samantha from Have You Found Her is all over this book. Are the two connected for you?

The experience that I described in Have You Found Her was a huge factor in me wanting to write about somebody who fakes illness. I’ve always thought that Samantha’s side of the story must be so much more interesting than mine. I mean, she injected yeast into her eyeball. What’s that like? How do you do that? People fake cancer. People fake identities. And people fake pregnancies. People fake all this crazy shit. How are they feeling while they’re doing it? That’s so interesting. Half the time I’m on their side.

So it’s very connected. It’s also very connected to my first book, but I did not realize how autobiographical this book was when I was writing it. I thought I was writing about somebody else.

When did you start to see yourself reflected in it?

About two weeks after it was published. And so I feel a little bit like my ass is hanging out in the wind. But you know, whatever, my ass has been out there in the wind for a long time. A lot of people hate this character and want nothing to do with her. A lot of people have really disliked the book. This isn’t my first experience with an unlikable narrator, or character. I was writing a memoir about my mom, who was schizophrenic and a hoarder and in terrible health, and the feedback was, can you make it lighter? Can you make her more likable or relatable? So with this book, I was already really spoiling for an argument over whether my narrator was likable. But then I realized that not everyone has to like her. If you’re not going to give people something to like, you can’t get upset when they don’t like it.

I know that this is not a mainstream book. It’s not destined for any bestseller list except like, among emotionally challenged young women. The ones who get it, get it. They’re the ones I’m talking to. Everyone else is free to listen.

Was it challenging to find a home for the book?

Yes, but now the barriers to entry are so much lower. Thought Catalog was a really lucky match. A lot of their articles have to do with emotional states and triggers and young people struggling. They’re not above listicles, but they’re thoughtful listicles. There’s some tortured darkness behind some of them.

Publishing has changed so much. My first two books were sold simultaneously in 2004. The second one was supposed to be a novel; that didn’t pan out—it turned into another memoir. Now it’s a much different landscape. I don’t even know if they’d take a chance on Girlbomb if I presented it now. While I really, really, really appreciated the experience I had at Random House, I also really chafed at the thought of going through that corporatization machine. There are good things about it, but to have to make something appealing to the widest possible audience…that’s not what I want to do. I mean, yeah, I’d like to write the next Gone Girl, because Gone Girl was so entertaining to so many people and made them happy. But my goal is not to write the most popular novel. So I knew that this book would not make it through the traditional publication process—and I also knew that I wouldn’t make it. It takes a year and a half to publish a book. Now! Today! It’s crazy. So I started to look for smaller, younger publishers where I could do what I really wanted to do.

What did you learn from writing and publishing your first two books that affected your approach to this one?

There was an earlier draft [of I, Liar] that was good, but not as good. I should have waited two months, because it needed another draft. And it went out into the world too soon, and people turned it down. So many times, I have been the one to gently hold somebody back by their suspenders while they’re clawing at the air in front of them, to be like, “hang on, hang on.” This time I couldn’t do it; my anxiety was so great that I just had to go for it. I do try to practice what I preach, and in some cases it’s easier than others.

Whenever anybody I know publishes a memoir I like to take them out for the welcome wagon lunch. I tell them that shortly after their publication date, they are going to experience an incredible depression. And it will be so disorienting because they’ve been waiting for this thing for so long and here it finally is. There are wonderful things about it, but it comes with a really bad feeling. I know that now. It’s like knowing when your period is: You’re still going to have to have cramps, but at least you know about them. Another thing I’ve learned is that one-star reviews are fantastic. You need people who hated your book to tell you that they hated your book. That’s how you know that it’s not just your friends and family buying it.

Tell me more about the memoir you’re writing about your mother. What kind of story are you telling, and what does it revolve around?

My mom died in November of 2012. The memoir got turned down in 2010, while she was still alive—because she wasn’t likeable, because I was too angry, and because it was not a hopeful book. Now it has more of a natural ending. What I’ve discovered is that I can say completely without rancor, with so much love in my heart: Thank god she’s dead. When the parent you’ve been trying to take care of all your life dies, it’s a huge relief. And it was a relief for her: She was in very bad health, very bad straits all around. She was just getting more sick and unhappy. That’s something that I couldn’t have included in the 2010 version, but now I can.

That, too, is not something that everybody can hear. It’s really upsetting to people, especially people who lost their moms and are very unhappy about it, or people who fear losing their mom—how can I be so cavalier? But I’m not cavalier; I’m just free. I’m free.

After reflecting on your own teenage years in your memoirs, and writing about fictional young women, what’s your relationship to those parts of your past?

I have a very strange relationship now to my teenage years, because I did write about them and put them in a book. And because the conditions of my life have changed so much. The other night I was in my extremely comfortable house, lounging, with my husband nearby and my three cats, and it was hard to remember what it was like when I lived 10 blocks over and I was sucking my thumb and self-harming and I was so miserable.

I have a really skewed self-image where I’m a lot younger than my physical age. I’m still very much a teenager. There are still things about me that are very adolescent. I’m not bragging. Everybody else has quit being a pothead by now, pretty much everybody else my age—except me. And I’m living the life that I wanted to live when I was 15. I have a beautiful apartment, I have a mason jar full of pot, I have love, I have comfort, my mom is dead…it’s all good. That 15-year-old really is awake, because she’s being catered to so diligently. But she’s really irritated that I don’t go out more.

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