Zibby Owens: I'm here today with Claire Dederer, the author of two critically acclaimed memoirs, Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning and Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses, which was a New York Times best seller and has been optioned for TV and adapted for the stage. I also reviewed this book a long time ago in The Observer Playground Magazine, which I used to write for. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, The Nation, Marie Claire, Elle, Real Simple, and many other publications. She's a fourth generation Seattle native and currently lives on an island in Puget Sound with her husband and children.
Welcome, Claire. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I'm so excited to be interviewing you. I know I've told you this before, but I read your memoir, Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses, when it first came out. I absolutely loved it and haven't forgotten it all this time. I always think about it. I'm really delighted to be interviewing you about it.
Claire Dederer: Thank you for reading. That’s funny. That book is ten years old now. I'm reaching back in the recesses of my memory to recall what happens in it.
Zibby: I know you've written another book since, Love and Trouble. We can talk about that. I want to hear about the one you're working on now as well. We can jump around a little bit. What was it that made you write your first memoir? What inspired you to write it?
Claire: I didn't have any idea that I wanted to write a memoir at all. I had been a book critic and a film critic and a journalist for ten or fifteen years. It would never have occurred to me to write a memoir. At the time, I was doing a lot of yoga. I was reviewing a lot of yoga books. I happened to be writing a lot at that time for Yoga Journal. I would review yoga books for them. Honestly, they were terrible. They were intolerable, actually. Every single book I picked up was about paths and tension, destiny, these big, boring, nonliterary words. This was maybe in 2008. There were no books that dealt with yoga that were smart and funny and literary, which many of the people I knew who did yoga were. I thought, geez, we’re missing this book.
I had participated, at that time, in a few anthologies. I thought, why don't I do an anthology of different smart, funny, literary people talking about different yoga poses? I knew of certain people who weren’t yoga experts but were good writers who could write well. Each could select a different pose. I proposed this idea to my husband and also to my now agent. They both said, “That sounds like a great idea, but why don't you write the whole thing yourself?” I thought, how could I do that? How could that be possible because nothing has ever happened to me? How can I write a memoir if nothing’s ever happened to me? Not only, of course, did it turn out I was wrong -- plenty of things had happened to me. I just didn't recognize them as event. I also learned that my favorite kind of memoir is memoir of ordinary life, which is what I came to write.
Zibby: The way you had it structured, how each chapter was a different pose, I've been hearing all of this anti-essay book sentiment, that essay books aren't as popular. I don't know why. I love reading essays myself. Yours, although it was a strong narrative obviously, you still broke it up into little discreet sections like that. What do you think about this whole, “People don't want to read essays”? Do you agree with that?
Claire: That was interesting. When I sold the book, there was definitely some concern about it being too essayistic. I was lucky enough to get to talk to a lot of different editors when I sold it. Especially having been a magazine and newspaper writer myself, they were concerned that it would be too broken up and that it would have this essayistic quality. That was a big, big concern. The idea of building a narrative arch out of small chunks was very much at the forefront of my mind when I wrote that book. I do think there's a tension in it between these nuggets and this larger structural shape, which is the case of my second book as well. However, all that said, I feel like this idea of a problem with essay books is starting to fade away a little bit. I feel like there have been more popular essay books and that people are more open to that form now. Of course, we’re in this moment that's problematic all the way around for personal writing. It’s getting much harder to sell literary memoir. It’s getting much harder to sell any kind of book of personal essays. We do see these breakout ones that do really well. The market’s really constricting, which is interesting because I don't think that the readership is constricting in my experience. Of course, that's anecdotal.
Zibby: I agree with you. I totally agree. Plus, the fact that now in magazines there's less and less space for people to even read the essay. People are reading essays like crazy online. Yet there are so few places to read them in your hands. It doesn't make sense to me.
Claire: I totally agree. I wonder if that has created a perceived devaluing of personal writing. I don't know. Of course, it’s not, probably, coincidental that there's a devaluing of this form when it’s dominated by women and read women. Alas.
Zibby: Interesting. I’ll tuck that in my back pocket. [laughter] Sorry, I had fifty other things I wanted to talk to you about, but now we’re talking about that. First of all, I am not a big yoga person. I don't think that matters at all. I feel like this is the most universal book. It’s really about motherhood and coming into your own and finding your way. It’s just a tool that you used. It was so funny how in the beginning of your book, you were making so much fun of what you thought the yoga people were like. What did you say? You said something so funny. You said, “Now that I've been doing yoga for ten years, I'm tempted to say something wise, such as: I was ready to wean and my body made the decision for me. But back then I didn't believe in that kind of crap,” which is so funny. I appreciate that. Did it take you a while to get over the -- I don't want to say prejudice because that's the wrong word -- the stigma attached to an avid yoga goer or doer or practicer?
Claire: The book is a little bit about that. It’s about that getting over the stigma. There's cultural elements of that. I came from more of a punk rock background. I was a book critic. I perceived myself as maybe a little more intellectual. I also was an inveterate maker-funner of things. Yoga is ripe to be loathed on every front by everything I just said. There was something in it that I sensed I needed. The book really deals with this idea that I started doing yoga because it fit in with this overwhelming project that dominated me in that time in my life, which was to be a good mother. That was what I was extremely preoccupied -- preoccupied isn't even the right word. It controlled every aspect of my being, being a good mother. That force of wanting to be a good mother was more powerful than anything I'd ever encountered in my life including all those qualities I just enumerated earlier. It dominated everything. It knocked everything out of the park.
I think that yoga did dovetail with that idea of goodness really closely. In this effort to be this good, North Seattle, organic, all these kinds of motherhood that we all participate in, not all of us, but I participated in at that time, yoga fit right in there and fit an image I had, but also an emotional project I was on to be good. What I find in the book is that that's not actually what I, in the end, learned from yoga. I learned the opposite. Maybe being good was not the correct project for me. That gives you a little background in how I came to yoga and how I came to this idea of writing the book. It wasn’t just that I had something to say that was funny and smart about yoga. It was also, the way I had changed my relationship to it was really interesting to me. That was the perspective I wrote from. Does that answer your question?
Zibby: That answered my question. It wasn’t that good a question. You did a great job. [laughs] Maybe we should fast-forward. This idea of being a good mother, I feel like, is something you're still working on. In your more recent article that is now becoming the book Monster, if I'm not mistaken, you talked a lot about how you can be a good mother and a good artist, which I found really fascinating. People don't really talk about that. You said that every mom quietly asks herself if her work is making her a less-good mom or if motherhood is making her a less-good writer. You say, “Maybe, as a female writer, you don’t kill yourself, or abandon your children. But you abandon something, some nurturing part of yourself. When you finish a book, what lies littered on the ground are small broken things: broken dates, broken promises, broken engagements. Also other, more important forgettings and failures: children’s homework left unchecked, parents left untelephoned, spousal sex unhad. Those things have to get broken for the book to get written.” Wow. Tell me more about this whole feeling.
Claire: This will be my third book, which is an amazing thing to get to say. I feel so lucky. This idea of goodness has really preoccupied me as a writer. It’s something that is, for some women, a really powerfully shaping force, this idea that we ought to be good and in particular, ought to be a good mother. I think a lot about this idea of who we ask to be good, this idea of a good mother. The only other person we really think of as good in the same way are children. We talk about good kids or a good daughter. In general, there's not this prescribed set of behaviors for the rest of the world. Yet as a mother, I do feel like there's this ideal of what I ought to be. That ideal of good motherhood is what I keep coming back to over and over.
In terms of this essay that was in The Paris Review about monsters, what I was getting at was the feeling that the selfishness required to make a piece of art is in conflict with that idea of motherhood. The word selfishness is problematic and true for me. You don't have to put that value charge on it. You don't have to say it’s selfish to break a date or to shut the door and to get your work done. I think for women, it can feel selfish. It has to do with this internal feeling that when I don't call my mom back so I can go to work, that somehow I'm not being a good person and that artist and my motherhood, my personhood, my daughterhood are in conflict. Living with that feeling is a part of what a lot of women, and honestly a lot of artists, live with.
Zibby: It’s funny because it’s the opposite of selfishness, really. What you're doing is taking your own life and trying to help other people by sharing your experience of it. It’s only selfish in that maybe you're not benefitting the few people around you. It’s like people who go off to war, not to -- [laughter] They have to leave their own family to go off and fight for the country. It’s a personal sacrifice versus a -- do you see what I'm saying a little bit?
Claire: Yeah. I actually have thought about that analogy before, as embarrassing as that is.
Zibby: Okay, so I'm not crazy?
Claire: No, I hear it. The problem is that most writers hate themselves. [laughter] It’s sort of a universal. You're sitting along in your room doing your work. You're trying to believe in this moral compact you have with the reader, or this moral contract, where you're saying something true and the reader feels less alone. I really believe in the morality of that. I believe that's the function of personal writing, of memoir. I've seen with my own eyes and felt as a reader how important that relationship between writer and reader is. When you're sitting alone in the room with just your computer and your self-loathing for company, it can be really hard to remember that and not feel bad about doing the other things that involve tending to your family or your friends or whatever.
Zibby: I'm going to send you some of those little plastic figurines of GI Joes. You can put them next to your laptop or something. [laughter] It’s a little reminder, going into battle for everyone’s sake. Tell me what this new book is going to be about. I know I haven't talked a lot about Poser or Love and Trouble, but I'm so eager to hear more about it. Monster, what's it going to be about?
Claire: In my book Love and Trouble, I wrote a lot about the filmmaker Roman Polanski. I was writing about my own experience growing up in this hyper-sexualized environment of the 1970s and being not just a kid, but a girl navigating that world. One of the things I do in the book is play with this idea of Roman Polanski as the totemic figure of that time or this story through which I'm able to think about my own experience of having been sexually predated during that period, which is very common for a lot of women my age, the seventies and early eighties. I take Polanski’s rape of Samantha Geimer and put the two stories next to each other, not to co-opt that story, but just as a way of reflecting and looking at my own personal history. I did a lot of research on Polanski for that book, which has two long sections about him. I was fascinated by him. I became fascinated with his biography. His parents were persecuted in the Holocaust. He hid out. He came to America. He's one of the greatest filmmakers ever. His wife was killed in the -- which is newly in the news because of the Tarantino film. His wife is killed in the Manson killings. Then he enacts this terrible crime. All of twentieth century flows -- you can see I'm getting excited -- flows into this one character. Then he takes all that badness and does this terrible act. I became really preoccupied by his story.
At the same time, I still loved his films. I would still watch Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion or even his later work that he's made in the last ten years. I would buy it. I would pay for it. I became really interested -- this was probably in 2015 -- in what exactly I was doing. What am I doing? I, of all people, know more -- I'd read all the depositions of the girl he raped. I knew everything he had done. Yet somehow, I was still able to consume the art. That problem of me as an audience member became really interesting to me. I started to think about terrible people who’d made great art and what to do about them. I was less interested in them, as in us as the audience. I became interested in this idea of trying to write an autobiography of the audience. What are we doing? What's our story? How does the film change when we know what we know?
I floated this idea for a book to my editor and my agent. They were excited about it. I had probably been working on it for a year and a half when the Weinstein allegations came out and Me Too hit. All of a sudden, the whole country was preoccupied with this question. I took this first chapter of the book and published it in The Paris Review. It had this explosive response. Where I jump off from there is I keep exploring different aspects of how we as the audience respond to this work. It’s been a really strange experience because it was kind of a lonely project that I was thinking about by myself that suddenly became this globally interesting project. That’s one part of the book. Then the other part is, does it take some kind of selfishness or monstrousness to be an artist? What do we do as writers or artists in the face of that? You can tell I'm really working on this because I'm brimming with it.
Zibby: It’s awesome. I love it.
Claire: There's the half the book that has to do with us as audiences and half, how do we work this out as artists? What do we do about the problem of love? None of this would matter if we didn't love the work. We get really focused on these moral elements of what he did wrong, and what he did was wrong. That moment of saying “What he did was wrong” is so important. We’re at this incredibly valuable cultural moment. There's also the love for the work. That part is harder to talk about. It doesn't come attached with such strident, powerful, online-ready language. To say how much a book means to you or how maybe a movie saved your life, those are things to talk about too.
Zibby: So interesting. Do you have a due date or anything? When is that coming out? Do you have any idea? Not to stress you out or anything.
Claire: I have a draft. I'm just cleaning it up.
Zibby: Nice. I have another question for you. I was looking at your Instagram account. I noticed you're in conversation often with other authors at your bookstore. It must be by where you live or something. When you are in conversation -- because I've been starting to do that more myself. I'm looking for any tips. What have you found that's been really helpful when you're talking to other authors and interviewing them yourself? Secret sauce, please. [laughs]
Claire: That is a great, great question. I want to say first that I love this movement we've had away from the author standing alone at the lectern reading and not meeting the eyes of the audience to a dynamic between two authors, which mysteriously opens up the dialogue more to the audience. You find that when two authors are in conversation, that the Q&A is often more lively. It creates this feeling of openness. It’s interesting. I just did an event with Lisa Taddeo who wrote Three Women. She didn't read at all. She refused to read.
Zibby: I saw that. She was just on my podcast.
Claire: Great. She's so great. She's wonderful and so smart. The process of that book is fascinating, how she came to write it. That's a lot of what you want to hear. It’s interesting that the conversation is now replacing the reading. I really appreciate it both as an audience member and an author myself. All of that said, the number one thing -- this goes for all interviewing. I've learned this the hard way. The big, dumb question is the better question. The job of the interviewer is to not make the interviewer shine, but to make the author shine. What I see in bad Q&As over and over is when the interviewer has a long, complicated question that is designed to show how smart the interviewer is, and how much research the interviewer has done, and doesn't open up a space for the author or the person being interviewed to say what they need to say, which is really the objective of everyone present, to hear what the author has to say. The audience usually has questions that are pretty simple. How did you come to write this book? Why were you interested in this thing? Those can feel “dumb” when you're an interviewer, but they almost always create this room for the author to say what she has to say. That, for me, is by far the most important thing.
I was interviewed by a director for a documentary just last week. She was a master interviewer. I was being interviewed by her and observing her at the same time and thinking afterwards about what made her so special and strong as an interviewer. I think it was that she had an ability to ask follow-up questions that might be perceived as challenging if they were stated in a different tone, but she was careful to always ask them in this very open-ended way. She might pick up on something I said and have a different perspective on it, but she avoided any language that was in the department of starting with the word “But...” or “Don't you think...” or “Isn't it true...” Anytime you open with a negative like that, you come, even subconsciously, into an adversarial relationship with your interlocuter. That is no fun for anyone. It puts the author back. Again, it’s more in the interest of making the interviewer look smart. Always remembering that the author is there to shine and the interviewer is there to make that happen and maybe at best, look friendly while they do it.
Zibby: Thank you. I hope I let you shine with that question. [laughter]
Claire: What are your thoughts about interviewing? You've done it a lot now.
Zibby: I just feel like you have to actually be interested in the person you're interviewing. I don't interview people if I don't really care or I don't enjoy what they read. I legitimately am interested in what they're saying, so I listen really carefully. Then I usually ask follow-up questions because I want to know more. If you're thinking of yourself as “I'm an interviewer” -- I don't think of myself as an interviewer. I just want to get to know people.
Claire: Yes, I agree. Being interested is really important. As someone who has been a terrible interviewer in the past, I will say that when I started out as a film critic, I used to have to interview filmmakers. I would be so excited to talk to, say, Errol Morris who was a hero of mine. I would do all the research. I'd be so excited and so interested. Then I would have to do this thing where I would spritz my knowledge and excitement all over the place. Then I would have to go back and transcribe the interview. It would be so much me and so little Errol Morris. Learning to hold back was really important, embarrassing but true.
Zibby: Not embarrassing. My answer was too simplistic. You're right. I'm not just excited. I don't know.
Claire: What I'm saying is that you seem to be really good at translating that interest into opening up questions for the person you're interviewing.
Zibby: Thank you. Let's talk about me some more. [laughter] I know we’re almost out of time. This has been such a meandering conversation, so you're probably thinking I'm terrible at what I'm doing. Tell me about your teaching right now. I saw that you have a new lab or something you're doing where you have an intensive workshop. You work for an MFA program. Tell me more about your day-to-day teaching life.
Claire: I teach with the literary center in Seattle, which is Hugo House. I'm restarting teaching with them. We’re going to do a year-long book lab. We’ll work with people on completed or almost-completed manuscripts. Then I teach in the Pacific University MFA program in Oregon, which is a low-residency program. We all meet up twice a year, which is very fun. I don't have an MFA. I don't come from an MFA background. When I first published Poser and started being asked to teach, I was baffled by why anyone would want me to teach. It turned out I did have something I was really interested in as a teacher. It goes back to what we were talking about at the beginning of this conversation, which is my strong belief in the power of the memoir of ordinary life. I really, really believe in it as something that is this important form. It’s an important female form. It’s an important literature from the point of view of female readers. There is this quality of seeing their own life experience in nonfictional form that makes women feel less alone.
There's a lot of pushback against memoir as being too narcissistic or too self-involved. If it’s done with this relationship in mind, there is this moral quality to it. Your job as the memoirist is to say what is true, and what is really difficult, and make the reader feel less alone. When I published Poser, I saw that the parts of the book that were the most difficult for me to write, the most embarrassing, were the things that readers loved the most. They would actually come up and be crying and hugging me saying, “Thank you for saying this. It’s exactly my experience.” Having that experience of publishing a book and having that response and then doing it again and again, that's something that is the core of my teaching. You have this writer who's the self-loathing person alone in the room trying to figure out why they're doing this. As a teacher I can say, this matters. This ordinary story you're telling is important. You're going to reach someone. You need to do your best to go into the most difficult part of it. As a teacher, I am on mission around that. It’s been really satisfying in a way I could never have predicted when I started out.
Zibby: Wow, that's awesome. I love that.
Claire: The student’s stories are incredible.
Zibby: I bet. I love reading people’s everyday stories. That's what life is all about. How few of us are actually running countries, the everyday, that's what we have to go on, really.
Claire: To find something that's a document of ordinary life that's well-written, it’s the most satisfying thing to me.
Zibby: I agree. I'm obsessed with reading memoirs.
Claire: Oh, you are?
Zibby: Yeah, my favorite category.
Claire: What are other memoirs that you love that fall into that category? That's putting someone on the spot.
Zibby: Dani Shapiro has been one of my favorite memoirists for a long time. I read Slow Motion when I was in my early twenties or so. It stayed with me forever. Now I've actually reconnected with her. I'm interviewing her Friday night, actually. Inheritance was also amazing. Just hearing it, it’s like you're sitting and talking to someone. Those are just two offhand.
Claire: Slow Motion was really an influence for me. She's been incredibly helpful. She's such an amazing supporter and helper of other writers. Slow Motion really does do that.
Zibby: She passed away, but there was a memoir I loved called Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. Did you ever read that? That was so good. Now I'm going way back on my all-time favorites. That was one of my earliest. It was so good. I reread it again recently. I'm at a different place in my life than I was then. It stays with me.
Claire: That's amazing. I read it when it came out. I loved it. I just reread it this year. I actually listened to the audio. It was even better. When I revisited it, I was more impressed by it. It’s a great book.
Zibby: Then I felt like when she died, I knew her, which of course I didn't really. You develop these relationships.
Claire: That was heartbreaking.
Zibby: Memoir, yes. The mission, I'm all about it. Thank you for sharing yours. Thanks for sharing your story. Like all your other readers, it stayed with me for all this time.
Claire: I'm so glad. I love hearing about love for that book. That's great. Thank you for reading.
Zibby: Of course. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Claire: Thank you so much for having me.
Zibby: We’ll meet in real life at some point.
Claire: I would love that.
Zibby: Me too. Take care. Buh-bye.