Either Way, I Lived: An Interview with Chelsea Hodson
When I heard Chelsea Hodson mention her mother in casual conversation, I thought to myself, Well that doesn’t sound right. Chelsea Hodson doesn’t come across as someone who has parents. Instead it seems like she was hatched from an egg somewhere in the middle of Death Valley during the early 90’s.
I learned about Chelsea’s chapbook Pity the Animal on Marc Maron’s podcast. He said the writing was “high-minded intellectual criticism about women as objects,” and I ordered it before he was done describing it. When I got the little green book in the mail I assumed I’d breezed through the 30 tiny pages in under a half hour. Instead, I read “Pity the Animal” in the same slow, deliberate manner that the sentences flourish across the petite pages.
Over the next two years I attend some workshops taught by Chelsea and I hired her twice for one on one manuscript consultations. Last fall, I was accepted into the writing workshop she co-teaches with Giancarlo DiTrapano (Tyrant Books) that was held in Sezze, Italy. This was where I learned she had an actual family, loved to watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and that she had a LiveJournal when she was in high school— things I didn’t expect for us to have in common.
I don’t know why I find it so hard to believe that Chelsea Hodson is like many other women I know. It’s probably because her exquisite, evocative writing has transformed her into some kind of deity to me. Other writers, even great writers I admire, don’t get the words down on the page like she does.
Her debut essay collection Tonight I’m Someone Else is magnificent. Chelsea’s lyrical, self-possessing exploration of sex, power, and longing smolder across the page. She bears it all in these essays, but sometimes I think about her and still wonder who is this chick?
I emailed her some questions as an attempt to try to figure her out.
LG: I asked you recently why the excitement of getting work accepted for publication felt more exciting than actually being published. You told me that feeling was completely normal and I’ve tried to remember that when I’m alone and writing, to appreciate the sacred space of creating the art. In “Near Miss,” you wrote, “I’d been taught that all those days before I got what I wanted were hours to be hurried not valued” which touches on this awareness. Can you tell me what your experience was like after your chapbook Pity The Animal (which is included in Tonight I’m Someone Else) came out? Did you feel let down in any way because you’d hoped the experience would somehow be different?
CH: Publishing “Pity the Animal” was the opposite of a letdown. This was because I genuinely had no expectations whatsoever—I honestly thought maybe fifty people would read it, and that was a satisfying thought to me. I’ve always liked the idea of putting work into the world, but anything outside of that comes as an added bonus. For a while, it seemed like something surreal was happening each day—I signed with an agent, the chapbook was reviewed in Greece, and Marc Maron told Brett Easton Ellis about the chapbook on his podcast. It was just reaching people I never dreamed it would reach, much less resonate with. The fact that the chapbook became this sold-out small press object was the kind of thing you can’t plan or even hope for—I always say I think of it as having a life of its own without me, and I still think that. That’s why I didn’t edit it at all before it was reprinted in Tonight I’m Someone Else—I thought, it’s untouchable to me now.
But yes, that quote you mention applies to many instances in the book—there’s a magic to keeping something to yourself… a magic I think I was actively trying to disrupt by writing so much of my life down. I can’t help it. It’s inevitably disappointing to complete something, no matter what the outcome is. I felt deeply depressed for a few weeks after I finished the manuscript for Tonight I’m Someone Else. Here it was—the very thing I’d wanted for several years, in the hands of a great editor at a great publisher. And yet, finishing the book was like saying goodbye to a dear friend. We’d been through so much together; I didn’t want that time of being “almost done” with the book to end. But I also never intended to be Fernando Pessoa, leaving scraps of paper in a trunk for someone to publish after I was dead. So, it’s just the push and pull of making something. I simultaneously want it to reach other people and also keep it for myself.
LG: Triangle House put out a poem anthology called Through Clenched Teeth and there is a poem you wrote in the collection called “Purplish Heart.” In the poem, you wrote, “Why is it / we always think we’re on the verge of something— an illness / that looks like money, a window shaped like government, / a speeding ticket we’d pay a hundred times just to go / that fast again.” I read this poem in between the publications of Pity The Animal and Tonight I’m Someone Else and I sense a strong theme of longing and the concept of “waiting for something to happen” in a lot of your work. In the essay, “The End of Longing” in Tonight I’m Someone Else, you wrote “What’s the point of longing? To continue.” Do you think longing for something, or someone, can be addicting?
CH: I absolutely think longing is addictive, and I also think it can be a reason to keep living. If we don’t want anything, what’s the point? Longing is a sweet kind of pain that I can imagine resembles a drug, but I’ve never done drugs, so I wouldn’t know. Again, it’s that “in between” time I wrote about in “Near Miss”—anything can potentially happen, since longing relies on something being out of reach. Writing about longing felt natural to me, because it was what occupied my mind, and writing about my fantasies or imagination helped me to make sense of them. Why do we want the things we want? This seems like it should be easy to answer, but it’s taken me a long time to answer that, and I’m definitely still learning.
LG: I heard you read one of the essays in Tonight I’m Someone Else, “The Id Speaks, Mid-Decision,” before I read the essay on my own. When I got a copy of your book and read this essay, I was stunned to learn that it’s just one sentence. During the workshop where I’d heard you read, you spoke so slowly that I couldn’t tell. It was like when I saw Birdman and, a half hour into it, I blurted out loud to nobody in particular, “Is this a single shot?” What I adore about this essay is that it reads as one thought that twists and weaves during an extended moment of unavoidable distraction. What made you write an entire essay that’s only one sentence? Did you intend to do so from the start, or did the essay become one sentence during editing?
CH: I wrote the essay in the two days after I was stuck on the freeway behind the crash I wrote about. It came out as one sentence in the first draft, and I noticed the voice was not only hungry for pleasure, but desperate for it. The voice felt like a part of me, but not precisely “me”—more like the id I went dressed as at the party I write about in “Pity the Animal.” So, I began to like this idea of this hungry, desperate, selfish part of my self speaking without any interruption. I shortened it quite a bit from its original iteration, but I could never bring myself to break it apart with anything except for commas.
LG: Details about your childhood life emerge through the essays that I found to be a little surprising, and not because they’re provocative, but because they’re dorky. Ordinary. For example, you loved the Backstreet Boys as a little girl. You even called a radio station to speak to Nick Carter. You played on the badminton team in high school. You rode a bike around town as a girl. You ate chicken nuggets at camp. Camp. On one hand there’s nothing unusual about an adolescent riding a bike and eating chicken nuggets. But I remember when I first met you at a reading in Manhattan I thought you were the doppelgänger of Eva Green’s character in Penny Dreadful. There is an undertone of deliberateness to your style of dress, your hair, the manicured nails and this deliberateness about you seems to stretch into other areas of your life as well. How do you decide what choices you want to make for projects, professional opportunities, and your next book?
CH: I’ve always liked that cliche of “how you do one thing is how you do everything.” It’s important to me that my writing is neat and precise, and I try to act in this way in other areas of my life as well. I would argue that black clothes and manicured nails are just as ordinary as the things from my childhood that you mention.
In regards to how I decide what to do next, I’m always trying to hone my instincts. In terms of professional situations, I’ve always tried to take on jobs with bosses that were supportive of my creative endeavors, as opposed to being resentful of it. If there’s a woman in charge, there’s a better chance I’ll enjoy whatever I’m doing. And in terms of creative projects, I just follow one idea to the next. I always have a multitude of things I could be working on. The hardest part is usually just giving myself the permission to do something new. At my core, I’m a rule follower, so it’s not natural for me to write a novel if I’ve never written fiction before, for instance, but I got over that as soon as I had a good enough idea for one.
LG: Once I got to your essay, “Artist Statement” in Tonight I’m Someone Else, I began to read that essay and each one that followed twice in a row. One of the things I identified with so heavily in “Artist Statement” was my constant need to assign myself a role in everything that I love, whether it’s a song, or a movie, or some other piece of art. Your last lines in the essay are, “If I don’t get what I want, I’ll die. If I get what I want, I’ll die. Either way, I lived.” That is the greatest closing passage of anything I’ve ever read and I want those lines tattooed across my torso, Tupac “Thug Life” style. When did you begin to write “Artist Statement” and how did the essay evolve over time? I’m imaging you edited it a lot as your feelings and attempts to document yourself developed.
CH: It was one of the last essays I wrote for the book, so I wrote it over the span of a couple months in 2017. It came from reading my manuscript from beginning to end and feeling there was a missing link. When I told my friend that I felt exhausted and out of ideas, he told me, “Write about not having any ideas” (this moment occurs in the essay itself). This gave me a heightened sense of freedom to experiment, so I tried to do what he told me to do. Without thinking, I wrote the first paragraph with the phrase “I’m trying” and then I kept doing it, which gave me enough momentum to continue. “I’m trying” is an accidental reference to Montaigne’s original definition of the essay, which is “to try.” Once I remembered that, I felt free of the notion that I had to write an Important Essay—my essays are attempts at understanding something, so what else is there to do but try?
LG: I was floored in the essay, “Leaving Me,” that you referred to your vagina as your “opening.” What made you decide on this description? I literally have never used this phrase to describe a vagina before. I love it but I actually gasped when I read it.
CH: I don’t remember even thinking about it—to me it seems like a superior word for vagina. I write in that essay about how I never learned to love my body the way some other women seem to, and I think this maybe applies to the word “vagina” as well, which I dislike.
LG: You are a co-founding faculty member with Giancarlo DiTrapano (publisher and editor of Tyrant Books) at Mors Tua Vita Mea, a writer’s workshop located in Sezze Romano, Italy, which I had the pleasure of attending last October. How did you meet Giancarlo and what made you two decide to start a workshop?
CH: I met Giancarlo through a job I was working when he lived in New York, but we didn’t know each other very well here. But we kept in touch, and when he decided to start a writing workshop in Italy, he asked me to teach with him. We talked it over a couple of times, I set up the website and handled applications, and he handled all the Italian logistics. It seemed like a big risk to do everything for the very first time, and it was, but once we’d completed our second day of the first workshop last fall, we knew we had something really special. There’s something about the intimacy of the workshop (we only accept six students) that bonds everyone together in a way I haven’t seen in other workshop environments. We just completed a great second session in April, and we’re accepting applications for our third session in October 2018.
LG: In the essay, “When I Turn,” you wrote something that I immediately underlined, documented on an Instagram story, took a picture of the words on the page and sent it to friends. It hit me so hard. You wrote about mourning yet another loss: “I started to think the pain would last forever. Even then, I accepted my life. It will just be sad from now on, I thought. This was the new way. I was so lonely I began regarding my broken heart as the most beautiful thing in my life. Soon after that, it was gone, too.” That passage is a deeply relatable description to the Buddhist doctrine of Impermanence— your description I can get with, the impermanence of love, the impermanence of heartache, but the Buddhism baffles me. What are your thoughts about the whole ‘nothing lasts forever’ thing?
CH: I don’t know enough about Buddhism to answer properly, but I am reminded of a Sarah Manguso quote from The Two Kinds of Decay: “A crow stands outside my window all day, reminding me of the best thing about life—that it ends.” What I wrote about my own experience is another example of the ways things turn into other things—life turns into death, happiness turns into sadness, and heartbreak turns into art.
LG: I was just watching a YouTube video of an interview of the late New York City photographer and graffiti artist Dash Snow. His answers to the two questions in the clip made me quite sad, and I wanted to ask you the same two questions. First, When is the last time you cried (and why?) Second—why do you do what you do? (what keeps you alive?)
CH: The last time I cried was a couple hours ago, but I’ll keep to myself what it was about. I cry often and without much warning—it’s not always a sad thing, it’s sometimes just a release. And in regards to why I do what I do, I think I like the idea that it’s possible to make something beautiful out of something ugly, sad, or terrible. Bearing witness to my life isn’t enough, for some reason—I’ve always wanted to write the witness report, too.