Brenna Ehrlich spoke with Melissa Broder about the distance of fiction, the power of disregarding the reader, why she can leave any situation and why the end goal doesn’t have to be ultimate suffering.
There’s filth, and the filth did come from my mind, so that says something about my mind, but the distance of fiction is very luxurious.
Your last book, aside from the poetry book, was a memoir. It feels like this one was also pretty personal, if I could pull things together from the memoir. Does it feel more revealing now to put out a fiction book than it did with So Sad Today?
No, not at all, actually. My aunt’s going to read So Sad Today, and I know that the vomit fetish chapter is in there, so that’s pretty harrowing. With this, yes, there’s filth, and the filth did come from my mind, so that says something about my mind, but the distance of fiction is very luxurious when your aunt’s telling you she’s reading the book, at least.
Totally. You could just say that it’s this character’s depraved interests.
The way that you write about sex in this book is so honest; it’s not a “curtain blowing in the wind” thing. It seems that from a very early age, you had a different perception of sex. How has it changed by the time you wrote this book?
It really hasn’t. I guess I just contain multitudes. I don’t feel there’s been a major shift. For me, if I’m going to write sex, I’m going to write sex, you know what I’m saying? If I’m not turning myself on, what’s the point, really? And one thing I was just talking to my therapist about, actually, is that when I’m writing, I kind of give myself as much space and room and permission, especially on the first draft, to not even think about the reader and really just get in there.
I have all sorts of tricks for dismantling my inner editor and my shame. It’s kind of the opposite of how I live my life. I have a lot of tools that I’ve acquired over the years, because it’s really loud in here. But I still feel like I’m such an amateur in life. It’s a struggle, whereas in my writing, I do feel like I’ve found that ability to give myself and all of the freedom and space, or things I can’t seem to access in my life.
If I’m a shark, my fin is shame. I’m leading with the shame muscle in life.
You can let go and say things you wouldn’t be able to say out loud?
I can not think about the receiving end. In edits, certainly, I do consider the reader. I don’t know that anybody would want to read my diary, or something. But in the first draft, I’ve found ways to dismantle or suspend that committee in my head that’s like, “No!” Whereas in life, I have all these tools for that. I’ve done a lot of work in that area, but for some reason, it’s not just in terms of what I say; it’s everything. If I’m a shark, my fin is shame. I’m leading with the shame muscle in life.
One of the things I admired about your book is how you went all-in on making Lucy an “unlikeable character,” as Goodreads reviewers who get overly angry would call her. How do you view the way people react to “unlikeable characters,” and who are some of your favorite characters you’re not supposed to like?
When people refer to Lucy as an “unlikeable character,” I’m like, “Really? She’s actually really likeable to me!” So I’m like, “Uh oh, what’s wrong with me?” Claire, too. People say Claire’s a wreck. She is, but I’d be friends with her! I’ll go to Le Pain Quotidien and order a Danish with her.
I think what makes a likeable or unlikeable character is almost like a relationship. To some people, certain elements of another person would be like, I couldn’t handle a relationship with that person, how could you stay with that person? And then to other people, it’s like, no big deal! It also relates to that question that’s been asked a lot lately, which is if you don’t like the artist, can you still like their art? To which I really say, I don’t know — can you? I think it’s very much a personal thing. There are some artists of whom I’m able to look past their personal behavior and love their work, and there are some artists of whom I’m just not able to do that with.
People are like, “What’s it like writing about depression in fiction?” and I’m like, “I didn’t even realize she was depressed!” I forgot. Other than wondering what’s wrong with me, I think that there are certain things people are willing to deal with and things people aren’t willing to deal with, for good reason.
A lot of your work deals with depression, consciously or unconsciously. You handle it really well, but I also notice that the subject has become really trendy nowadays. What do you think of the cult of anxiety that seems to be arising in social media?
I don’t really have a lot of judgement on it. I’m not a doctor, so who am I to say whose is performative and whose is legitimate, and who needs to be saying what and doing what? I do know that water seeks its own level, and I have my own tastes. I may choose not to follow someone who is talking about anxiety, depression or anything that I find annoying.
But in terms of any kind of social thing that’s happening, I don’t know. People are like, “Is depression becoming trendy?” and I’m like, “That’d be really nice for all the depressed people.” That they could just come out with it and not feel ashamed to be like, “Yo, dude, I need to take a sick day, and it’s not a physical one.”
But I think what people are talking about more is the performative element, and I have no judgement on that, really. It’s more in my personal curation of who I’m going to follow. If someone gets on my nerves about anything or doesn’t about something that I connect with or feel is authentic — in the sense that it’s not just reality-based, but jives with me — then I’m not going to follow them. I’m too inward-facing to have any mass opinions on it.
It would be good to have it be a little more acceptable or recognized to be anxious or depressed, as opposed to it becoming something people think they’re lying about.
I don’t know what people think, but if depression became “popular” or “normalized,” I hope it would be! That would be cool.
Before I started @sosadtoday, I worked in an office. That’s when I started the Twitter account, in 2012. If I had to take some time off, I probably wouldn’t get fired, because I was a good worker. But I’m a perfectionist, and people with mental illness can be hard on themselves. All the things I’d done in the past, like increasing my medication or going to therapy, none of that was working. I didn’t know what else to do, so I started the account. Had I had the self-esteem to be the kind of person who can be honest about who she is in real life and maybe take that time off, I don’t think I would have had to start @sosadtoday.
I once told my therapist that I felt trapped, and that would catalyze a panic attack. She told me that I could leave any situation. I guess technically that’s true, but there are a lot of situations in which you’re an asshole if you leave. Technically, you can. It’s like, I’m not going to take off my mask of okayness and reveal to you that something is wrong with me. Although, who knows who else in this meeting is wearing the exact same mask and simultaneously having a panic attack?
All these Twitter accounts and blogs and everything are dreamed up in offices where everyone’s going insane. It’s not like someone’s at home where they’re relaxed.
I know you still have the Twitter account, but is it still your main source of venting?
Well, I’m still totally addicted to it. Now it’s just a question of dopamine and avoiding feelings. I’m like, “Okay, I could feel this feeling and sit with it, or I could just tweet it out and get a bunch of likes. I’m going to tweet it!” It’s a great way to avoid feelings, so I definitely still use it. It’s not with the same desperate clinging to life that I did when I started it, although it has been, at times. To me, depression and anxiety are cyclical, and I certainly think it’s self-medicating my depression in an unhealthy way by giving myself little hits of dopamine all the time. But it is what it is.
I feel like that’s just what writers do, though.
Writing’s so lonely. And social media is so nice, because you get to meet people but you don’t actually have to be with people. It’s just enough humanity. It’s just enough humanity for people who think way too much.
I don’t have to get as strung out on whatever it is before I remember the lesson. You don’t have to follow it all the way to ultimate suffering.
This is a spoiler alert, but I’m going to have to bring up the dog in The Pisces. I feel like I saw it coming, and I have pretty bad anxiety too. I got to that point on the train and I needed to text my fiancée to make sure the cats were okay. I’m not going to say I like the way you used the dog in the book, but I thought it was really smart in a way that people don’t usually use animals in narratives. You see animals pretty frequently in horror movies and they’re the first to die, but I really appreciated how you built that story around the dog from the first sentence. I’m interested to hear about how that level of humanity around an animal found its way into the book.
I’m obsessed with my dog. I was never a dog lover, and I got my dog a couple of years ago. That’s just one thing that I’ll say; it’s kind of tangential. But when I was going through writing the book, I had a lot of questions about why a love that has obstacles or distance can sometimes feel, in ways, so much more real than a love that’s unconditional and good for you and “right there.” For me, it’s an exploration of that love that is unconditional, and that feels really good, but it takes responsibility and showing up and real life. To me, Dominic the foxhound represents that love; he is that love. He’s real love. You can take it for granted, and you can really fuck it up looking for shinier things. But at the same time, Lucy’s heart is a human heart. For whatever reason, a love that is right there for you — why is it that it can feel less exciting or full of spark or real as a love that is totally an illusion? Dominic’s love, that’s real love.
When you read a lot of fiction, there’s ways that people describe love. To me, it never feels like the real way to describe it. Beyond the Dominic analogy, how would you describe love in the way you know that it is?
One way that my view of love has matured since before So Sad Today but also when I was writing The Pisces is that it really used to bother me when unconditional love requires more responsibility and is “right there.” It’s what the world’s giving you. You don’t have to push or fight for it; it’s right there. It used to really bother me that it didn’t look or feel like some of the loves I’ve seen in the art that I value, and I couldn’t get high off it. It seemed like there must have been something wrong. Intellectually, I’ve known for some time that there are scientific reasons why we get really high off of a love that is inaccessible or bad for us.
If you put rats in a cage and you give them sugar water at the same time every single day, and if they have to hit a lever for it, they’ll hit the lever at a pretty solid pace. If you scatter it, if you only give them the sugar water at random times, they’re going to go crazy on the lever and they’ll be pushing it all the time. It’s that scattered reward. And there are biological reasons having to do with bonding; in a relationship, early on, there is all that dopamine and it kind of shifts and evolves and changes all the time. Intellectually, I knew that, but my heart didn’t feel okay with it. I feel more at peace and accepting of that now.
There was a lot that was familiar in your book; the idea of people consulting crystals and psychics and just trying to fill some reaction loop was really familiar.
I have a meditation practice that I do every day, and I have for years and years. It’s still not an intuitive thing for me to be like, “I’m suffering, I’m empty inside. Let’s go within!” I want to turn to the shiny person or the shiny thing, because I’m a human being. That shit’s right there. We live in a body. But it’s a lesson that I continue to learn. Sometimes, I don’t have to get as strung out on whatever it is before I remember the lesson. That’s the goal. You don’t have to follow it all the way to ultimate suffering.
Curated by: Brenna Ehrlich
Conducted by: Phone
Transcribed by: Morgan Enos
Published: May 31, 2018
Total questions: 13
Word count: 2251
Reading time: Eight minutes
access, animal, anxiety, aunt, Brenna Ehrlich, cage, chapter, consulting, crystal, cult, curtain, cyclical, Danish, depression, dismantle, distance, doctor, dog, draft, editor, familiar, fiction, filth, foxhound, harrowing, heart, illness, inaccessibility, legitimate, Los Angeles, maturation, medication, Melissa Broder, mind, multitudes, muscle, narrative, New York City, panic, permission, physical, psychic, representation, responsibility, reveal, room, shame, shark, shiny, space, suffering, suspend, therapy, ultimate
About the guest curator
Brenna Ehrlich aspires to write a novel that’s a classic album. She enjoys taking solitary trips to distant locations and scoring the whole experience with the perfect book, record and restaurant. She often dreams (literally, while sleeping) of getting lost in unforgiving locales sans shoes or socks.
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