It All Changes: An Interview with Monica Drake
Unlike IFC’s “Portlandia,” Monica Drake’s sketches of Portland focus on the poor, the broken, and the working-class people in her new collection of short stories, The Folly of Loving Life. There’s the crowd chatting at the bar, dreading the next day they’ll return to their somewhat deadly blue-collar jobs, the kids working in acne-inducing fast food conditions, the down, the out. Yet there’s also—as in her earlier books Clown Girl and The Stud Book—a huge dose of wonder and humor and depth in her work.
Kati Heng: One of the first lines in this book that left me breathless was in the second story, ‘The Arboretum,’ when a little girl tells her mother: “I can’t wait to be little again.” What do you miss most about being a kid? If you had the chance, would you go back to the days before preschool?
Monica Drake: I did love being a kid! I was good at it. I was obsessive with my collections and close to my friends, deeply interested in the natural world, animals and insects. In that particular story, I was thinking about the inevitable cruelty of the simple forward movement through time, and the way we all age as long as we’re lucky enough to keep living. Aging is kind of a prize. There is no other consolation, other than to age as well as possible, in body and spirit, and to hang on to the people we love. When you have a child you’re launching a darling baby into this cruel stream of time. There’s something so tragic about it even when it’s miraculous. How is a mother–perhaps a father, too–supposed to contain all of that awareness and inevitability? Mortality is heartbreaking, and so simple and complicated at the same time. There’s no escape.
KH: In that same story, there may/may not be spirits/ghosts in the house. Do you believe in ghosts? Do you have any ghost stories of your own?
MD: In a contradictory way, I don’t believe in ghosts, and yet I’ve been in houses that were and maybe still are definitely inhabited. I don’t know how to reconcile my rational beliefs against the more abstract.
I have walked across a floor where my knees buckled as though the floor went out from under me, where I was almost ready to fall, for no reason. I found out later that it was the exact same spot on the floor where a large oil painting repeatedly landed when it fell off the wall at the top of the stairs each night. It was, I learned even later on, a house where terrible things had happened. Families had been destroyed. It was a house where dogs couldn’t stop barking and formerly loving husbands and wives were at each other’s throats, while the children cowered at night.
I have stayed in a hotel in Nashville where I felt pulled into the courtyard in the dark, early hours of morning. It was crazy and inexplicable. There was a seven-floor drop down into an open atrium, and I had to remind myself repeatedly that I would not spontaneously fall over that edge, gravity wouldn’t pull me over the railing. I felt like something was willing me to jump. I will never stay in that hotel again, beautiful as it was. I found out the next morning that four years earlier a man staying on the same floor had actually jumped in the night. How to explain that set of events? Was that man the first, or was he one in a line, also pulled by spirits? Is it all coincidence? I have no explanation, only the moment of experience.
KH: In more than a few stories, you write almost off-handedly about mothers taking meds to keep them sane, checking in and out of psych wards, etc. Can you talk about a little about this and why this is a recurring theme in these stories?
MD: A lot of people take medication just to navigate daily life, right? We like to believe that pharmaceuticals can solve complicated concerns swiftly, with precision. Unfortunately, I’ve watched people get pretty tangled up in their prescriptions, as one course of psycho-pharmaceuticals fails to work, works badly, or stops working abruptly and leads to other complications. I don’t advocate or judge medication as an answer to that interface between the external and internal, the way one’s mind processes the world, but I know how hard it can be for so many. This doesn’t change when a person has children. It only gets worse.
KH: The Folly of Loving Life shows a drastically different version of Portland than the city I see on TV/ have heard about from friends my age. Maybe the best way to summarize this is your line: “In the old Portland, the rainy, broke, working class city… The masses had been more into heroin than doughnuts.” How has Portland changed over the years you’ve been there? Between the Portland we see in your book and the Portland we see in the media, what’s the truth of what the city looks like?
MD: Portland has really ratcheted up so readily in terms of the cost of living. When I went to Portland State, both the school and housing were relatively dirt-cheap. I took out one loan in six years of college, for less than a thousand dollars, and that was only to go to Europe. The rest of my tuition and housing I paid for by working. I did put up with a lot of randomness–my housing wasn’t perfect–and some scary situations I suppose. Now a lot of neighborhoods have gotten what one might call “nicer,” but that gentrification can be so inhumane to many, and it shows. My neighborhood has grown increasingly white, losing Hispanic, Latino and African American families, among others.
Downtown Portland used to be a funky playground for the working class, derelicts and outsiders. We had a large-scale brewery, Henry Weinhard’s, that dated back to Portland’s earliest years, and it pumped raw run-off into the streets. It was nasty in a way, with a heavy malt smell, but also atmospheric and kind of dreamy. It’d leave large drifts of stiff foam at the curbs. Now everyone has a degree in design, and there’s a care taken to presentation that for better or worse, the city doesn’t allow for beer foam to run through downtown. But the old Portland was rich in locally-owned stores that didn’t even think to market themselves as local, they just existed. Now we have more chain stores, more multi-national brands, alongside the local stores that have to shout for local support, and I’m glad they do. Maybe like a lot of the country, we have a greater gulf and tension between those with money and those without.
But I used to think of this town as a little hardcore, in a good way. It was cold and damp, and had a punk rock scene. Contrary to what some people say, Portland wasn’t looking to Seattle to be an older sister city, not at all. It wasn’t looking to New York or anywhere else. Portland had it’s own albeit small scene going on, and the people who stayed here by choice were shaping that scene.
There was an intense heroin problem, and that’s not to be minimized.
Now this new demographic lines up around the block for brunch. Anyone can wear Buddy Holly glasses and knee highs, and act like they’ve discovered thrift stores, right? But what we all want is that spirit of true invention, of the self or of a way of life.
When I wrote my first novel, Clown Girl, I set it in “Baloneytown,” which local readers spotted as a veiled version of the Portland I’d known. I created a path the narrator could walk, from her downtrodden neighborhood into an upscale center of town. I wanted to show how a city can change geographically in a short, walkable distance, but also in a short span of time. Clown Girl was optioned for film by Kristen Wiig, and she held the option up until 2014. She worked with Jonathan Krisel, Zach Galifianakas, and others over the years she had that option. Then in the spring of 2014, she suddenly dropped the option, and two months later Krisel and Galifianakas announced their clown-based show, “Baskets.” I’m surprised at how similar in concept the show is to my work, particularly considering they all worked together. What are the odds that a small cluster of talent in Hollywood would both come up with the same idea, after Wiig had held the option to mine for years? But while Clown Girl was set in Baloneytown, their work is set in Bakersfield. I think they’re tapping into a similar urban concern. My character shops in full clown gear at a fictionalized grocery I called Luxury FoodSmart. I used that location to highlight gentrification and disenfranchisment. Their clown shops in clown gear at Costco. It’s not dissimilar.
Portland has never been good with questions of race. This city was built on segregation, then later red-lining, marking off African American neighborhoods and suppressing the value of homes. The effect of all that lasted up until the 1990’s, and once it was functionally left behind, developers pounced on the previously undervalued close-in neighborhoods, of North and North East Portland, and have created a serious shift or rift in communities, raising prices.
Also, the old Portland was less crowded, which allowed for a tighter, smaller community of creative loners doing good work together. There was a permissive element to the arts scene. Once you raise the cost of living, a lot of that ease goes away. So, in short, I’d say people are more financially stressed, trying to hold on to places to live.
KH: There are a lot of bad, or seemingly bad jobs in this book, between The Fry-O-Lator, museum security guard, asbestos remover, etc. Have you had any of these jobs yourself? What do you think is the worst job in the book? Which would be the worst for you?
MD: I’ve been a clown, and I worked at Burger King. Both of those positions were in costumes of sorts. I worked as a telemarketer, in a pharmacy, for an awning factory, and as an intake assistant for home health care where my job was to write up long lists of health concerns and document the suffering of individuals. I’ve been a museum security guard and sold art in galleries. There have been times that I’ve held three part-time jobs at once. I have never been an asbestos remover or worked at a nuclear power plant however, and I’m grateful to avoid both of those. I’ve met people with those jobs. That’s the kind of work that epitomize the quandary most of us face, which is how to make a living without shortening your own life. We have to make choices about how to sell or trade away the hours of our existence, and in some positions those decisions are made against a very pronounced level of environmental degradation, that takes a toll on the lungs, the cells. I’m not a big fan of Capitalism, honestly–I’m not a fan of money, and that undermines me at times, true, but I prefer to think about meaning and human connections, rather than wealth building, as the financial advisors call it.
There are two jobs that I haven’t yet used in fiction, and that I didn’t have, but people I know did. One is spearing aluminum cans out of raw sewage before it entered into the treatment plant. The other is removing computer ID chips out of dead salmon as part of tracking a salmon rehabilitation program. A friend of mine did this, and her description of the endless smell of dead fish has clung to my memory the way the actual smell once clung to her hair, skin and clothes.
KH: The story “S.T.D. Demons” takes a look at parasites, viruses, baby chicks — the way organisms survive off each other, need to co-exist. I’m curious how this story in particular relates to your role as a mother, especially during pregnancy, a time when your body is literally playing host to another human.
MD: I feel like there’s little to nothing in mass media that captures the heart of what it means bring another life into the world, and to use one’s own body as the vessel to grow that life. Most of the ways our culture–which is Capitalism, really–talks about pregnancy and child bearing is based on consumerism and superficial, external signifiers like blue and pink, or baby showers, gifts, trinkets, even birth plans. The intensity of having a child is in blood and terror, illness, mortality and a kind of love that’s insane and probably chemical at its root. I tried to approach the question of reproduction from multiple, linked perspectives in my second novel, The Stud Book. I consider that one an environmental book, since population and biological diversity is a huge environmental question.
Along with Art History, I studied animal behavior in college. I worked at the Oregon Zoo studying elephants primarily. We had three newborn elephants at the zoo at the time. I wrote a research paper based on my observations, “Infant Asian Elephant Development and Play Behavior.” Then when I had my own child, I felt like I was back in that mode, observing the mysteries of a new animal: my own daughter. It’s daunting, and baffling, challenging and oddly worth it. I’ve read studies that parents aren’t as “happy” as those without children. All of those words kind of swim off the page. Once my daughter was born, my ideas of happiness shifted. It all changes, and there are no answers, only questions and high hopes.