The Internet, Female Narrative, and the Etch-a-Sketch of the Brain: An Interview with Emily Gould by Maria Paduano
You moved from writing memoir to fiction. What was that transition process for you, and what qualities of your memoir writing remains in your fiction writing?
EG: I stopped writing in the first person for a couple of years after And The Heart Says Whatever came out. Both the critical reaction [to first-person writing] and also the reaction from the people I love was really negative. Some of it was positive, but the negative stuff always stands out a lot more, especially with the way it affected my family. I felt sort of crippled. Even when I tried to write in the same mode, I didn’t have access to the same uninhibited way that I had been able to write before.
So I had to try something different, because otherwise I wasn’t going to be able to write anything. There was a solid year of me trying different things and kind of failing at all of them. It was kind of good in retrospect. It gave me perspective on the purpose of this kind of work. That’s when I started working on Emily Books—just because I had to do something and it had to be different. I also started writing in the third person as an exercise, and to trick myself. I was still writing about myself, but I was writing in third person and pretending like I wasn’t. That got very boring and kind of unsustainable, at which point I started to actually write fiction. It got to the point where I had a short draft and a really crappy draft. I decided to show it to Keith, my now husband, and I said, “I don’t want to know anything except if I should keep going with it.” He was like, “you should keep going.” He might have said that no matter what, but I did keep going, and it took me about four years.
You recently defended Lena Dunham, who has been criticized for some of the content in her memoir Not That Kind of Girl, and you spoke out against the people critiquing her experiences. Why did you feel the need to step in, and what do you think is the importance of memoir writing?
EG: Yeah, what is the point of memoir writing if not to present your life and your decisions in order to be judged for them? I’m just really attracted to first-person writing. Especially when women write it. It’s something that I feel really strongly about. Just the power of women’s narratives, when all kinds of women are being foregrounded—because a lot of what most of us have read has come from a man’s point of view, and that hasn’t gotten less true. I feel that women are telling their stories as straightforwardly as possible. There’s a huge sociopolitical justification for that but also, I’m very gossipy and voyeuristic. I really enjoy learning about the particular details of other people’s lives. That’s just my taste. It’s politically important, but it’s also just really fun to read.
When you started writing Friendship, what kinds of themes were you thinking about? Were there elements of your personal life influencing pieces of the story and the characters?
EG: I wanted to write a story where both men and romance weren’t important to the story. I wanted to try something different and make the most important relationship in the story be between two women and have it not be a romantic relationship. My friend, the author Barbara Browning, said to me, “Why don’t they just have sex together and figure out all of their problems that way?” But that would have ruined the point of the book. It’s actually a lot harder to be best friends with someone than to be in a relationship with someone, because you can’t just have sex with them to solve your problems. So I just really wanted to explore that dynamic and, obviously, I have a best friend…but the characters in the book aren’t us. They started out as being aspects of me, but as I’ve continued to revise the book, it’s turned into something different. I always thought it was bullshit when authors were like, “The characters just came and they spoke to me.” But that’s kind of what happened once I figured out who they were.
Describe Emily Books for me. What is it?
EG: Three years ago my best friend Ruth Curry and I were sort of underemployed, and we had both been reading a lot of e-books for the first time. We both wanted there to be a way of buying e-books without supporting these mega-corporations in the same way that you can obviously do with print books. New York has a ton of small bookstores where someone knows your taste and will tell you what book to read. There just wasn’t that kind of shopping experience for e-books and we said, “Well, how can we do that?”
The only way we could figure out how to make it special would be to start a subscription where people would get a book a month that was our pick. We’re trying to experiment this year with Copyhouse press, which is a publisher in Minneapolis. We want to publish a physical book with them that we’ll edit, market, and sell as part of our subscription. I think it’s weird that we started out thinking that e-books are the future because what we hear from a lot of our readers is, “I love all of your picks and I bought them all, but not from you, because I don’t want to read e-books.” And I can’t really argue with that. I still read a lot in both formats, but I totally see the place having a physical book in your drawer.
In the past, you’ve talked about how Emily Books creates a literary community for those who may not live in places like New York City, where independent bookstores and book clubs are commonplace. What is the importance of having that kind of community?
EG: I think it’s been interesting and useful for us to get people together whether it’s in a virtual space or in real life. It feels as though a real community has sprung up around these books, and that’s really exciting because you create the circumstances and things will happen that surprise you.
How do you intend to engage with feminism in the future through your project?
EG: We have gotten to a certain place with the books that we have picked and the audience we are reaching, and I think we have done a great job of working through all the books that we considered cult classics. We are now discovering these other writers, which then lead us to other books. I think now we’re challenged with the question of how we make the community that we are building truly inclusive of everyone. That’s really hard; we have to do the hard, uncomfortable work of examining our own tastes, because this is a project that’s about taste. When we look at the books we have picked, they are mostly by white women. Why is that? I would say the challenge of the next year is making sure we’re not just selectively listening to the voices we want to be listening to but that we are also listening to the voices that are challenging us.
How about in your own writing?
EG: I’m not really sure what I’m going to do next, in terms of whether I’m going to write fiction that’s close to my own experiences. Fiction that’s in the same world as my experiences—as in, you know, not Narnia—or whether I’ll be attracted to writing more straightforwardly.
What would you say are the major differences of writing online and writing for print?
EG: I think I’ve gained a lot from being edited. I used to think that my first thought was my best thought. I felt that it was possible to overwork things and make them worse, which I guess it is. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to overwork things. Whenever I’d had an opportunity to work on something for a longer time and go through several drafts with it, it’s gotten better. That’s what happens. But sometimes you think better of stuff. There is kind of a freedom and immediacy of blog writing. They’re both good, but they’re really different modes, and certainly I’m a lot prouder of my non-bloggy writing. Then again, there’s a lot of blog writing that was really good, and I feel it was important on the day that I did it.
Have you had the experience of writing something on a blog and then deciding that it is something you want to continue to work on?
EG: I guess I’ve worked through some ideas and then later they have become something that was more fully fleshed out. It can be a little bit dangerous to feel like you’ve gotten something out of your system by blogging about it. But you don’t want to revisit it. The thing about being edited is that it’s really great for your work, but it’s super un-fun. It can be really excruciating. I’ve gotten to the point with everything that I’ve ever written that’s been really long and heavily edited where I give up—do whatever you want, just let it be done.
Is there something about the medium of the Internet that makes people more vicious or has that always gone on?
EG: It seems like it must be something that has become more visible. The problem, though, is that it is very visible to people who are on the receiving end of it. It seems very obvious to me, but I don’t think it’s obvious to people who haven’t experienced it. Even men who write about really hot-button topics certainly experience attacks, but the way [these attacks] are experienced is different, and the volume of the criticism is different. It’s hard to say whether it’s better now or worse, considering that a certain level of hatred towards women is accepted in general culture. I was actually thinking about this earlier this week because I received this huge wave of people being really hideously inappropriate. When you write about Lena Dunham it’s like, brace yourself. I have no idea how she does it, I really don’t. I think something especially weird is going on right now with Twitter. Twitter seems to be at some weird infection point. I think we all need to step back from the idea that arguing in a medium where you can only express yourself in 140 characters was ever really a good idea. Yeah, I’ve blocked a lot of people. It felt kind of cleansing—like, great, now all the bad people are gone. But there’s actually an infinite supply of bad people.
Despite all of this you seem to really love the Internet as a forum for expression and conversation. Can you talk a little bit about what you think blogs and sites like Twitter and Tumblr have encouraged or made space for?
EG: I just meet really good people through it. Most of my close friends, except for people that I’ve known for forever, are people that I’ve met either through work or through the Internet. And that’s great. I love communicating in that way. I love seeing the sort of subtle connections between social worlds explicitly revealed on the Internet. That’s fascinating and cool. I mean, there’s a huge negative side of it outside of people being critical in really gross, sexist ways. It’s designed to be addictive. I definitely have to put it away in a box in a closet when I’m working in a sustained way on something. But it’s really hard to unplug. I don’t have any interest in doing it for a sustained amount of time. A month is good. And you just kind of shake the Etch-A-Sketch of your brain. But I’m obviously not one of those writers who has headphones on and is very protective from the outside world. I love the outside world. I like working and having jobs. I believe that all of that stuff enriches my work, and it also makes it possible for me to not feel like this is the only thing that matters. The stakes can seem really high when it’s you alone with your book, but it’s not, it’s just a book.