It’s Halloween week, and that means it’s time for us to look back at some scary moments in DoY history. Or, rather, in the history of our interviewees. Alright, there are (mostly) no knives or bloody gore in here. But there are other, scarier things. Like sexism, and loneliness, and self-doubt.
Here are some shuddering tales of days past to give you a thrilling chill…
Kate Christensen on sexism!
Iowa, there are different stories about it, different versions. Incredible community, but also a stiff hierarchy and lots of competition. Tell me about your experience.
I was there during the beginning of the reign of Frank Conroy. I don’t know if this is generally true, but my experience with him was that he despised female writers. Although his first book, let me point out, was a small coming of age memoir called Stop-Time, he sneered at all of us young women writers, he sneered at the small coming of age novels that we were all apparently writing. It never occurred me that his first book was a goddamn coming of age novel.
He palled around with the guys. There was a real sense of… it was a man’s world. This was 1987. They played pool together, they got drunk together, they lavishly praised one another’s writing. There was just a boy’s network.
Marina Abramovic on nearly being killed by her own mother!
Finally, the museum of modern art gave me the space to show all my written performances, which were photographic at that time. I went to the opening, and I knew that I had to be home at ten o’clock. Everybody was going for dinner, but I went home anyway. I didn’t know that somebody had called my mother and told her on the phone, “Your daughter is hanging naked in the museum. There is a photo.”
So, I arrived home at five to ten. I opened the door, and the house was dark. And I thought, she’s sleeping. I opened the dining room door and she is sitting in the dark, completely dressed in her double breasted-suit, really white in the face. And there is this huge crystal ashtray from the marriage that never worked, that someone had given my father and my mother, and she picked up this ashtray and she threw it at my head. Really, with the words from Taras Bulba, “I make you and I am taking your life from you.”
She threw this ashtray and it is flying at my head and I remember thinking, “Okay, I am not going to move my head. She is going to smash my brain, and then she’s going to be put in prison, and she is going to pay for it!” But then I moved, and the ashtray went through the glass door and just fell. Something broke in me in that moment.
Timothy Donnelly on ghosts!
Do you catch dreams? Do they resurface in your writing?
I almost always remember my dreams, yes. I don’t usually use them in my writing but I let the logic of them carry over. There’s one poem in The Cloud Corporation called “The Rumored Existence of Other People.” In that poem I referred to a dream that I had when I was a grad student living in New Jersey. Well, the aftermath of the dream. In the dream itself I saw someone standing outside the library and she had her face hidden in her hands and she was surrounded by a bunch of other people and she kept saying, “I saw a ghost, I saw a ghost, someone help me, I saw a ghost.” And I said, “Let me through! Let me through!” to the crowd, “I can help her, I’ve seen a ghost too, I know all about it.” Then I cut through the crowd and she takes her hands away from her face and she looks me right in the eye and says, horrified, “It was you! You’re the ghost!”
Yeah! I know! It was really frightening. When I woke from that dream, I was lying in bed in my little dorm-like apartment in New Jersey and beside me on the twin mattress I saw an indentation as though someone were sitting there on the bed beside me. But there was no one there.
Oh, stop it!
It’s true! I was perfectly awake at this point. I looked at the indentation, the room felt a little darker than it should, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then I saw the indentation gradually flatten up as though the weight of what sat there had been lifted from the bed, and I felt something leave the room. Felt this change in energy. I know that’s how they talk about it and it sounds like crap—but it was like that. It was like an inaudible hum had stopped and into my head popped this sentence: “They can’t hurt you, but they can change the way you feel.”
Olav Westphalen on exploitative scams!
There were moments when it got really tight. I remember once – and this was kind of the low point – I was really hard up for money and I saw one of those signs, “Guaranteed so and so much an hour! Consulting, no experience needed! Call here!” I thought, “Oh fuck, this is going to be bad.” But I called anyway and I biked pretty far away from downtown into this shabby little industrial neighborhood, this shabby little office, and this guy with a cheesy suit and a handshake that almost broke your hand and he said, “Fill this out!” And then they gave me this five page contract where you had to say what your parents did, education level, what they made, you had to talk about yourself, and all these nondisclosure things…They left me in a room with this and then came back and were like, “Let’s get started!” And I said, “I haven’t signed this because I don’t really know what the job is yet…” They were trying to badger me into signing this. I was a kid! And these two big business guys were over me, saying [in a scary voice], “You have a problem with authority!” I rode home on my bike thinking, “What the fuck was that?” It was some kind of exploitative scam.
Heidi Julavits on rats!
So I went to southern Thailand, I was on a beach in my own little hut. It cost nothing – like five dollars a night. And as with a lot of these communities, they cut the electricity at, like, eleven at night and then there is none until the morning. All these places have mosquito netting over the beds because the bugs are so bad. I had noticed when I checked in that there were all these holes in my mosquito netting. I didn’t really think much of it. I just thought it was old, what can you expect for five dollars a night? Literally, it was like a horror movie. The lights cut, boom! I’m in the dark and all of a sudden I just hear, scrabble, scrabble, scrabble, scrabble…! It’s a thatched hut, you know? So the little claws are clicking away. I hear rats, rustling on the mosquito netting.
This is on your bed…?!
Yes. I am beating it with my hands to make them go away. I was up all night, it was so horrible.
And you know they can get through because there are holes…that they have made…
Oh yeah, there are holes! There are holes!! I literally had to sit there all night and beat the sides of the mosquito netting to scare them off.
Lorin Stein on not knowing anyone at a party!
I remember that I would feel… it is hard to walk into a party full of people you don’t know. And anyone who first moves to New York, if you get invited to a party, you won’t know anyone. And the parties that I was getting invited to, often by my friend Jon Bing, were often – like many parties in New York – partly professional. And if you don’t have a title that means something to people, they may not know what to do with you. And they don’t know quite how to include you. I remember feeling very daunted, very shy, very lonely.
Lois Lowry on being a woman in the yore!
I got married. In those days, at Brown it was maybe 7,000 women and 3,000 men. I had come from an all-girls school, and suddenly I was dating and having a social life, and I had a steady boyfriend who gave me his fraternity pin. All stuff from a bad novel. But he was two years ahead of me so he assumed, and I guess I assumed, that we’d get married. And it never occurred to me to finish my education. That seems rather odd in retrospect, but not then.
He went on to Harvard Law School and I just had baby after baby after baby.
Adam Haslett on self-doubt!
After the first huge success, did you ever feel daunted to write something new, to, in a sense, top yourself?
Two nautical analogies. You’re shipwrecked in the middle of an ocean surrounded by flotsam and jetsam. The clouds part and a voice says: “With your bare hands, as you tread water, take these broken pieces and build a new ship. And by the way, make it a beautiful one while you’re at it. Delivery expected in, say, five years.” That was one experience of writing Union Atlantic. The other: “Imagine your mind as a Roman Galley, commanded by a brutal and impatient captain and powered by a deck of slaves chained to their oars. You are the captain and the slaves.” You might call it a master-slave dialectic. Which is to say that I believe writing is, as James Baldwin described it, a process of “delicate, arduous, disciplined self-exposure.” To write anything worthwhile you must confront shame, i.e., the judgments of others and your judgments of yourself (or silence the shame with substances and blow on through it). There’s blood on the floor.
Go forth and live your frightening yet enlightening lives. I wish you safe passage.
Editor, The Days of Yore