Lankier Than A Polar Bear: An Interview with Rachel Bell
Too often when reading books I get the feeling that I am being fed something, even just a little. The injection of style in literature, espcially contemporary literature, feels too obvious or planned. Perhaps this is because I’m a writer, but I think it points to a way writers are so processed through MFAs, along with a bleeding market for traditional books. This may not be the way most people view books today, but it is how I do, or at least I did, for a a number of books, until I read Rachel Bell’s book, WELCOME TO YOUR NEW LIFE WITH YOU BEING HAPPY.
In parts, Bell’s book is a straightforward romance story. But it’s also like riding on a time machine from present-day to Chicago to small town Indiana to all the moments in between, wherever or whenever Bell decides to stop. There aren’t page numbers. There isn’t one over-arching narrative but instead vignettes, which all feel perfectly chosen and placed. When I started thinking about talking to her about this book, I quickly realized it wasn’t fiction, something I hadn’t been consciously aware of when I started reading it. I guess it didn’t even occur to me to think about genre; anyways, it was all non-fiction. I feel like everytime I read non-fiction there always qualifiers like “essay” or “memoir” or “biography.” This book is just a story, or rather a group of stories, harvested into the world from Rachel Bell.
Out from acclaimed diy/punk publisher Pioneer Press, the book has been a top small press seller since it was released mid-summer. Bell, who had already established a pretty big online media following, seemed to quickly be getting bigger after the book’s release. While I was visiting Guillaume Morrissette in Montreal, he recommended the book to me, so I got it, finishing it soon after it arrived.
I asked Rachel if we could talk about it, she agreed, and we did.
Andrew Worthington: The first part of your book refer to songs that people listen to at karaoke on the North Side. Does this mean North Chicago, where you live?
Rachel Bell: Yeah. Every song title mentioned in that section is one that my boyfriend and I sing at karaoke at this tiny dive bar. I don’t even want to say the name of it because it’s so rarely crowded that I’m afraid I’ll ruin it if I tell anyone. That sounds pretentious but I don’t care. The mixed drinks are really strong and the bartender is creepy. I live south of downtown and that bar is so special to me that I drive the 10 miles north to go to it. It’s so far north that it doesn’t feel like chicago anymore. It sort of feels like being in Indiana again.
AW: In one story, you mention Indiana as being somewhere you would never want to die. You title one of the sections of the book “if I die in Indiana, I will kill myself.” Have you lived in Indiana?
RB: I grew up in Indianapolis. I lived there until I moved to Chicago to start school when I was 18. That didn’t last long, so I moved back and entered into a really bad relationship. I talk about him in the second half, when I say that I asked this guy out on a date because I needed a ride home and we ended up dating for over a year. He was not good to me and I saved up enough money to come back to Chicago. Indiana is significant to me because my mom and my brother are there. I don’t feel like I belong there and I have a lot of bad memories there. I feel like I had to work really hard to be able to live and thrive on my own in Chicago and it’s not something I would give up easily.
AW: Who were you reading a lot when you wrote this?
RB: I think the first books that made me recognize the power of the written word were all ones I read in junior and senior years of high school, in my teacher Ms. Owen’s class. We read Why We Can’t Wait by MLK Jr. and that blew me away. I still have that copy. That taught me how to communicate more effectively but also emotionally with my writing. I also really enjoyed The House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende. When I was sad, I always used to write people letters even if I never intended to send them. I liked that Allende started that book as a letter to her dying grandfather.
When I wrote my book I was reading Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets, which is one of my favorite collections of all time, and Things I Have Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi. That was a big influence. I love that book. She talks about the nature of human relationships while also teaching the reader so much about Iranian history. And The World According to Garp made me want to be a writer.
AW: One story is about a Protestant girl going to Catholic school, where a lot of social and culture tension arises. Why do you think Catholics and Protestants still cannot get along? It’s insane. Of course, in the story, it is a secular/agnostic character, right? So, that’s a whole different tension there. Feel free to talk about whatever.
RB: That story is about me. That sucked so much. Those were some of the hardest times of my life, because I was so adolescent and so confused already and then I was thrown into this school where everyone had known each other for eleven years and I was a pastor’s daughter with a rebellious attitude. People didn’t even get that my dad was a preacher. They were so used to priests not being allowed to marry or have kids. They thought it was even weirder that my dad was a divorced and remarried preacher. But that’s allowed in the Presbyterian church, as it should be. I remember wondering why God would make teenagers with so many hormones if he thought it was a sin to masturbate and didn’t want us to have premarital sex. I was so confused and angry. Catholic school was where I really stopped feeling like I had a relationship with God. The girl who sat behind me in religion class was an atheist and this kid Cameron I think actually thought she was the devil. It was hard for me to respect my peers because they didn’t seem to have any desire to explore different religious views. Their parents went to mass and the country club and they were happy with that.
AW: Did you ever consider making this book “fiction”?
RB: I have been practicing that in my free time, playing around with the idea of writing a YA novel. I didn’t really realize the book was basically a memoir until after I published it. I do write fiction, but I have a lot of stories to tell, and the first half was written when I was filled with excitement about falling in love. It’s hard for me to write about anything else when I feel like that.
AW: Has anyone mentioned in the book told you what they think of it?
RB: My boyfriend says he likes it. A few of my friends who are casually mentioned got really excited when they read it. I specifically asked permission to mention the son of the director of Hoop Dreams because I didn’t want to offend him. The guy who I heard read a poem about the Western Conference finals and said ‘Who cares?’ apparently read the book and felt bad. I apologized to him though and he said it was fine. I liked his poem, I just didn’t understand why a room full of people had a strong opinion about the outcome of the 2002 Western Conference finals.
AW: I liked how every song title kind of went with the story it was linked to. Which of the songs that are “titles” for the stories is your favorite? Why?
RB: I love to sing “At Last” by Etta James and “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor. I like to walk in and sign up for At Last right away and then sit down on a stool and sing it as seriously as possible. Like try really hard. I love to sing.
AW: Have you ever recorded yourself singing for a band or as an artist or is it just something you like to do for fun?
RB: Oh yeah. There’s a youtube account out there with 25 videos of me singing songs in my room or in my parents kitchen when I was fifteen and sixteen. I also did talent show every year.
AW: What songs did you sing at talent shows? I remember at talent shows in middle school there was always at least 1 band that would do “Smells like Teen Spirit” or “Brainstew.” They were so bad always.
RB: I made my friends mom cry singing “Downeaster Alexa” by Billy Joel with my punk boyfriend backing me up on nylon string guitar. That was so weird. That song came on the radio while I was driving my boyfriend around recently and I sang all the words and he laughed at me. In retrospect it was really weird for a tenth grader to sing a Billy Joel sea shanty to an auditorium.
AW: How did you find your press?
RB: My press is Pioneers Press. I added Adam Gnade on Facebook in 2013. He lives on the Hard Fifty Farm which is where Pioneers Press operates, in Leavenworth, Kansas. I want to visit someday, but in my mind i imagine it as an idyllic place where grown up punks and goats wander freely. Making zines. They publish a lot of stuff about self care and gender and mental health. They’re great.
AW: Where do you usually like to do writing? When do you do writing?
RB: I just finally bought myself a desktop. First non-hand me down computer I’ve ever owned. It helps me so much to have a work station. I also write a lot in my iPhone notes like a lot of people do. I write every day. Sometimes when I’m falling asleep I have an idea and I make a voice memo or dictate a memo into my iPhone notes. Let me find one i dictated the other night while I was half asleep, hold on.
‘Large white animal with four legs resembling a polar bear
Purple and blue frosted tips
Also make the animal lankier than a polar bear’
I don’t know why I thought it was important I remember that.
AW:I went to Catholic school, too, and I was from a Protestant family. It was weird, although they were Jesuits, so they were more chilled out than other Catholics. A lot of the kids didn’t attend mass regularly. Did you encounter that? Do you think that when we are old there will be very few religious people left? Sometimes I think that, but then sometimes I don’t. There have always be latent and revival periods for religion throughout history.
RB: Yeah, they liked being Catholic because they were used to it mostly. I think a lot of the kids I knew were comfortable. They didn’t exert themselves too much in their beliefs.
I think religion will be prevalent our entire lives. Churches have noticed that less and less young people come to services and they’re making changes to accommodate that.
Church is still a business.
AW: You have a couple stories about rape that tackle the subject head-on but in forgiving and even sometimes sort of humorous ways. How did you come to see rape in those kinds of ways?
RB: It definitely wasn’t easy or immediate. I went through a lot of treatment and spent many years working on myself. I had to seriously take care of myself, sometimes to a point that seemed ridiculous. Listening to my feelings and learning to express them unapologetically was a really big step for me. It felt toxic and ugly to hold onto anger for my rapists. I can mourn the way it hurt me while forgiving the person who hurt me. That feels extremely powerful to me. It was the only way I felt able to (eventually, after years of work) take the power back from the situation.
AW: In the so-called “Alt Lit” scene there were several well-publicized instances of rape last year, or at least they became publicly known last year. Do you think the overall reaction was correct in those instances? I know some people came out and opposed the uniformed or polarized nature of the way people were talking about it.
RB: When I had just been raped, there were times where I felt very violent. I actually used to have intrusive thoughts about hurting my rapist. I wanted everyone to know what he had done to me. I don’t feel that way anymore, and hadn’t felt that way in some time when the information came out about the rapes.
I believe people when they say they have been raped. It’s so scary to say it out loud, much less on the internet. One of the people who was publicly accused had been predatory toward me. I didn’t act on my feelings about the accusations as some people did, because I had worked to remove from myself my anger about being raped. I had to do that to survive. It enraged me to hear about these people being victimized, but I didn’t feel like it was my right to attack them.
When I was raped, a lot of people wanted to tell me how to deal with it. People say that it’s not real unless you press charges or that you must have done something to make it happen. I didn’t want to in any way make a situation worse for a victim by attacking someone’s abuser, but I didn’t want to support abusers anymore. So I removed any of them that I had known from my life. It is easy to not support people who habitually hurt others. You just don’t.
I literally didn’t feel like I could without taking a huge step back in my healing process. I yelled at one of them over chat I remember and it scared me that I was indulging that anger again.
AW: There are drugs in your stories, and the people doing the drugs are usually young. How do drugs help people live, do you think? Why are drugs so prevalent amoung younger people?
RB: I was laying in bed thinking about drugs last night. I don’t feel driven to do them like I used to. I feel like it happened fast for me, the drug-heavy phase. I was always very careful to avoid using them as a coping mechanism, but seems like a lot of people are gifted with that amount of control. I’m lucky.
I did have some important moments with drugs. I told my friend recently that I felt like MDMA comedown helped me a lot. The day after taking MDMA I was at work and felt so sad, and I realized that as long as I reminded myself that it was just a chemical that had temporarily made me feel that way, I could keep my head above water. I still use those skills when I’m premenstrual. I just remind myself that I don’t actually hate my body and the sound of my voice. It’s just a chemical reaction in my body that is making me feel that way for now.
Like forgiving your rapist, drugs are not something I would suggest everyone do, because they can be dangerous. They were briefly important to me, but they aren’t as much anymore. I’ve talked to more people about being raped since the book has been out than I have in 22 years on earth. And I’m proud that I’m doing that almost every day without losing my damn mind and without behavioral medication.
Rachel Bell is the author of the book WELCOME TO YOUR NEW LIFE WITH YOU BEING HAPPY. She lives in Chicago and can be found here.
Andrew Duncan Worthington is the author of the novel WALLS. He lives in New York and can be found at andrewduncanworthington.com