TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!
Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?
Blow Your House Down centers on a time in my life when I was sandwiched in between parenting my three children and caretaking my elderly parents, all while my marriage was deteriorating, and I began having a passionate extramarital affair. After years of leading a double life, I finally left my marriage only to get diagnosed with breast cancer half a year into the new start I had imagined for myself—one that did not play out, in myriad ways, as I’d expected. Ultimately, the book explores, not only through my own experiences but through outside material about the medical, legal, psychological and economic treatment of women, the extent to which we still expect contemporary women to sacrifice our own needs and desires in order to be all things to others in our lives, and it’s about the consequences, both devastating and rapturous, that we face when we no longer go along with those expectations.
Which essay gave you the most trouble, and why? What boundaries did you break in the writing of this memoir? Where does that sort of courage come from?
My book is a bit of a hybrid between an essay collection and a memoir in that it’s told in distinct parts that are sometimes radically stylistically different from one another, but it has one cohesive story arc that drives all the pieces and unifies them into a whole ensemble piece larger than the disparate parts. To that end, the piece that gave me the most trouble was definitely the one in which my daughters discover my affair several months in by reading my texts, and my making the horrible decision—one that haunts me to this day—to allow them to hold that secret for years. It’s interesting…the boundaries I struggled with were all emotional, even though this is also my most formally innovative book. The story very much dictated to me the ways it wanted to be told, whether in the form of an invented dictionary or, in the opening piece “The Story of A,” a chronicle of how women’s infidelity has been treated historically. But emotionally, memoir is harrowing. I don’t know about where people find courage to write what they write, but for me, this was the book I had to write if I ever wanted to write anything else again, and it was also what I most urgently wanted to communicate to other women who might need a book like this, as I myself did when I was going through the experiences Blow Your House Down depicts. I think we all write the books we ourselves most wish we could have read, with the knowledge that if we desperately needed something, there are others out there who need that thing too.
Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.
I’m working with Dan Smetanka at Counterpoint, who was also the editor on my last book, and the general Counterpoint team--such as the amazing Megan Fishmann who is the director of publicity--is comprised mostly of people I’ve worked with in the past, so in that sense this was probably my least harrowing road to publication. My first four books each came out on a different publisher, so it’s been wonderful, with my fifth, to be in a place that has become like a home and family to me. That’s especially awesome since in every other way, publishing a memoir is full of highs and lows. I’ve had some amazing responses months before the book’s publication from women who have written me letters that are so intense and urgent that they have literally changed my life already. But there’s also the part of me who is a person just living my life, who is separate from my character-self in the book, and it can be hard knowing that no matter how hard you try, there is simply no way to fully capture the complexity of either yourself or anyone else in your life through language, and that to readers we all begin and end with what is on the page—whereas in reality any memoir is just the visible part of an iceberg with most buried under the sea. So I would say the whole thing has been an exercise in remembering the boundaries of art and in letting go.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
My least favorite piece of writing advice is that writers have to write every single day. It’s a thing I still see cited as an imperative in a surprising number of places. I think it’s great if someone can write every day, but I personally have always been a binge writer. Sometimes I don’t write for nine months or more. As someone with five books out, I wish I could shout from the rooftops that newer writers should give themselves permission to write in the rhythms that are right for them. On the other hand, the piece of writing advice that I give absolutely every student I have is to get involved in the literary community—to serve and support other writers and presses and indie bookstores and magazines in whatever capacity you can swing, rather than only looking to advance your own career, because the literary community has things to offer beyond just your personal publication credits. Almost every important relationship I’ve formed since my late twenties has come about through my work editing books and magazines and sites like The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown and now LARB. I tell my students to ask not what the literary community can do for them but what they can do for the literary community, because if we care about books that’s a thing that should matter to us. Economics and how busy we are definitely influence what kinds of contributions we may choose to make, but I think young writers who approach their careers as if their work and goals exist in a vacuum, rather than literature being an ongoing and intergenerational dialogue, are missing some of the most vital joys and fulfilments that the literary world offers.
My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
A lot of things surprised me, but probably nothing more so than how brutally honest I needed to be about the difficulties my former lover—who is now my husband—and I faced for almost two years after we “came out” as a couple. We are ecstatically happy now, and have been for a long time, but the people who told us, at first, that we had been in an “affair bubble” and that there was a big difference between the intoxication of a new and clandestine love versus being able to build an on the ground life together…well, those people were not wrong entirely. I mean, think that the happy ending of our still being together didn’t at first reveal to me how deep I would need to delve into the harder times that led here, which ultimately felt acutely necessary for writing an honest book. Because Blow Your House Down is not a primer on why you should have an affair and blow up your marriage …it’s no more advocating for that than it is advocating that women should stay in marriages that no longer fit them or that are actively painful to them. Rather, it’s an exploration of the enormous complexity in these choices, and the utter lack of guarantees in terms of what your life will look like when the dust of such a decision settles—what you will have lost and gained and learned along the way, and the fact that Life won’t stop and wait for you (nor, for that matter, will Death) while you figure it all out.
Who is your ideal reader?
My ideal reader is a woman of any age—and I’ll add here that I never before considered my ideal readers to be a specific gender, but while I hope men will also read and get something from Blow Your House Down, it was written first and foremost for women—who feels trapped inside the lines of who she thinks she is supposed to be versus who she actually is. Sometimes women get those messages very explicitly, from parents or husbands or from living in a particular kind of neighborhood or town or being a certain religion, but sometimes we just get these messages without even knowing we’ve internalized them, in which women are judged for virtually everything…certainly as a white heterosexual woman I’ve actually gotten off far easier than many women, who also have to deal with racism, ableism, homophobia or transphobia, with poverty far exceeding that I grew up in. The writer Kristi Coulter has written that there is “no right way to be a woman,” and that can become exponentially more true the more overlapping identities a woman may inhabit. I led a life for many years that often could not have been described as “unhappy” and that had many privileges and comforts, but in which I—increasingly over the years—felt like I was playing a part, and that I had to continue playing that part relentlessly in order to keep my whole family system functioning through a particular kind of nonstop emotional labor and walking on eggshells that I think is all too common in many women’s lives. Blow Your House Down is for every woman who has wondered what would happen if she stopped playing the part she believes herself consigned to. My hope is that it’s a complex exploration of what it means to begin living more authentically—acknowledging that I hurt people I truly cared about and owed better to along the way—and that it can help some women begin to reclaim themselves more mindfully than I did, but reclaim themselves nonetheless, for their own sake and their children’s and for a world that desperately needs us to stop towing old lines and to disrupt.
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
My parents are major characters in the book and my father was an amazing cook. He was the youngest of seven brothers in an Italian family, and he did most of the cooking when I was growing up, and he made the best eggplant parmesan I’ve ever had—my mother learned to make it from him, and now I make it too. It’s all about pressing and salting the eggplant first, and slicing it thin, and what we fry it in before the baking…everyone who ever tastes it is converted even if they think they don’t like eggplant. But I’ve never actually followed a recipe, per se. I never saw my father even look at one. My daughters are much better at following recipes than I am, so their cooking repertoires are seemingly endless.
ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: I actually am partnering with Women & Children First in Chicago to donate my royalties for the book and a portion of sales through that store to the organization Deborah’s Place, which works with women facing homelessness: