SHE WAS GREAT: SHE TRIED TO SUE ME: An Interview with Iphgenia Baal
Iphgenia Baal lives in London, England. She is the author of three books, the most recent, Death & Facebook, was published in July by We Heard You Like Books. Death & Facebook memorializes the sometimes turbulent relationship she had with a boyfriend who died of a drug overdose. Across devices and social networks, their online exchanges propel the narrative. Death & Facebook makes you consider all the e-artifacts left behind to speak for you when you die. For a book about missed connections and the tragedy of dying young, it’s a lot of fun, with truncated critiques of rave culture, wealth and celebrity. (I kept thinking of Tama Jankowitz. Iphgenia probably won’t like that.) Iphgenia was a writer for Dazed and the end of her time at the magazine is chronicled in Death & Facebook.
Iphgenia and I hung out in New York City last year. She is the kind of person who can turn an everyday occurrence into an unexpected adventure. I watched her hide one of her books on a shelf in the Rare Book Room at The Strand and thought to myself, “What an ingenious idea,” but didn’t have any of my books with me to hide. We also took a morning stroll to David Wojnarowicz and Peter Hujar’s old apartment on 2nd Ave. I talked to Iphgenia over Skype while she was visiting Los Angeles. This interview has been edited.
FIONA: Are you liking L.A? Did you have any exposure to it before this visit?
IPHGENIA: I’ve been here twice before. The first time was years ago, which was a complete disaster. I was with all these awful fashion people and it was just really confusing. The first night I arrived I was taken to like a Swatch party at Britney Spears’s house and it just didn’t make any sense. She wasn’t even there, which was annoying. It was just loads of like watches on plinths, backlit. Stupid.
Was this while you were writing for Dazed ?
Yes. They hired me when I was 20-21, and I liked it for ages, but then very quickly I started to hate it. After that, it ended pretty fast.
In Death & Facebook there is a redacted email from one of your co-workers at Dazed that explains how things ended for you there—why you were fired. There was something that happened backstage at Coachella?
Yeah. It actually doesn’t really tie in to the rest of what Death & Facebook is about, but the letter’s so good, I thought I had to get it in print. It’s hilarious.
So, did you really threaten to leak pictures of Lily Allen doing coke?
No. I wish I did. Are you familiar with the guy who wrote the email? His name is Jeremy Scott.
No, but I recognized the name of one of the photographers you mention working with at Dazed.
Yes. He killed himself!
He did kill himself.
That sounds so crass, but I remember his photographs of celebrities, and you keep suicides in your memory more than other deaths. At least I do.
Him dying was a weird one. It was years after my working relationship with him at Dazed ended. I got fired in 2009, I think. I’d been there for six years, but Matt had only been there a couple of months, but he really befriended me. Then, when we were in Los Angeles, he turned on me completely. Like he had a split personality. Really vengeful and insane. It didn’t make sense at the time, but when I found out he’d killed himself, it, I don’t know, made sense? He had crazy Christian parents, who I think disowned him when he came out of the closet, and from thereon, it sounds like everything was pretty fucked up.
He was a good photographer.
He was. But I think part of the problem was his work. I mean, he had his own style, which he basically abandoned for ultra-cutesy, pop pics of Harry Styles. I don’t have a problem with that stuff, and it works for fashion, but I think if you aren’t a moron, then that kind of thing in the end, just drives you crazy. So yea, when I found it he was dead, it seemed kind of obvious. He wrote his will on ‘stickies’.
Sticky notes? That makes it sound like his death was very spur of the moment.
I think he was just very out of touch with reality. He was so Instagram that it never occurred to him that ‘stickies’ wasn’t a legally binding medium.
I like that expression, “so Instagram.” When you wrote for Dazed did you see much behind the scenes brokenness?
I guess so, but what I really saw was a bunch of ageing geeks trying to maintain their relevance. It wasn’t a very glamorous place. Just a warehouse filled with people on less than minimum wage, who had to suck up to total dickheads for their wages. Then again, I must’ve liked it a bit at some point, because I was there for a long time.
You did an interesting interview with Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex before she died.
She was great. But she tried to sue me. That was sort of the beginning of my downfall at Dazed. I went to interview her about her punk rock days, it was supposed to be ‘looking back’, but she’d turned into a massive hippy and wasn’t interested in X-Ray Spex, which I thought was fair enough, so we talked about whatever, and when I wrote the article, I just made the whole thing up. That was the sort of journalist I was. Anyway, she had a brother who was a Nation of Islam lawyer and she called me up and told me she would sue me. But then she died. I felt awful. But also I didn’t. I mean, who cares? It’s not like Dazed is exactly a verifiable source of information. I didn’t take offense. But it’s weird, because years later, Dazed put the article up on their website. I think it’s the only thing up on it by me, so maybe they don’t remember being threatened with legal action. Or maybe they just don’t care.
Death & Facebook is about the relationship you had with a boyfriend who died of a heroin overdose. The text of the book is made up of your virtual interactions: your Facebook comments, emails and text messages to each other. I don’t want my questions to come across as crass or cold. Your boyfriend’s death, which opens the book, is very sad, but your interactions, as they’re happening across all these different social mediums, are very funny. There’s a real joy to reading the text. It’s not at all heavy or somber, even though we know from the beginning of the book that he dies. In the first chapter, you’re out at a party and your phone starts ringing, and people approach you and tell you that he’s died. There are a few girls at the party who are also reacting to his death, and they’re saying things like, “He was my best friend!” and “My best friend just died!” I’ve had friends die, and I’ve noticed this phenomenon where people try to lay claim to the dead person, to what there relationship was, almost competitively. You see it online to an extent when a celebrity dies. People either expound on or embellish their connection to the person. It becomes like a performance. Did you feel like you experienced this with your boyfriend’s death?
The weekend he died, which makes up the start of the book, was very like that. Everyone competitive as to who knew him best, or who saw him last. I felt especially weird because my relationship with him was over. We hadn’t spoken in a couple of months. This guy who I kind of loved, but now hated me, was dead so, what do I do? What’s funny is that everyone laying claim to him after he was dead disgusted me, but later I realized that the book is, in a way, the ultimate laying claim to someone. First, I wouldn’t have able to write it if he wasn’t dead. But also, because most of what people other people said was spoken, in the pub, at parties, but mine was in print. And in print means forever. Or as good as.
You use web links in the book to illustrate things that aren’t necessarily spelled out in the text. There’s a link that shows how your boyfriend’s death was covered by the British media. He was good friends with the sons’ of Ron Wood and Mick Jagger. How did it feel seeing him represented in the media that way? As the deceased friend of famous people’s children? His death was used by British tabloids to write salacious stories on the children of rock stars.
It was depressing. I mean, what a way to sum up someone’s life. It’s really grim. But I think the saddest thing about it, is that the all those rock star kids are as much a victim of it as the people who aren’t and just read it in the paper. They were actually his friends, and I don’t think they’d want him remembered as ‘someone famous’s son’s friend’ either.
How much editing did you end up doing to the book? How did you choose what online interactions to include? Did you have a narrative in mind?
I only decided to write something about it, a long time after the event, so initially, I chose what to include just by what I could find, and trying to make sense out of conversations that jumped from one medium to another. Like from Facebook to phone. I left out a few conversations which implied other people who were still alive’s criminality. Also, stuff that just didn’t make sense. I added things like conversations we had in reality or over the phone, and wrote them out as text messages. I did find an old Blackberry, which had a lot of messages from the start of the two of us hanging out. But basically, I tried to piece together everything I had with everything I thought, felt, and remembered and then make it make sense. To me, as much as to anyone else.
I thought that that was a really smart device: you don’t say that he was definitely involved in drug smuggling, you just sort of imply it, through google search links about drug smuggling.
I think it works, mainly because most of the time when someone is up to ‘no good’, no one ever comes out and tells you or says it, there is just a general sense that something’s going on. You suspect. It’s like watching someone try and keep control of a situation, who’s already out of control.
There’s a lot of travel in the book. You go to Africa, your boyfriend goes to Ethiopia, and then he goes to Thailand.
When I think back to that time, it felt like he was this guy who had money and could do what he wanted and I was just sitting around in a council flat wishing I had a life. But when I looked back, I realized I travelled quite a lot. I think it’s one of those things, if you are brought up thinking you can go places and do what you want, that is essentially wealth. More than money. The idea that you are allowed, whether or not you can afford it. This also applies to writing, the idea that it is allowed.
Your two other books Gentle Art and The Hardy Tree are fiction. You play with the font and size of the text, and break up sections in Gentle Art with images that say things like “WANK FANTASIES HAVE FEELINGS TOO.” Is Death & Facebook your most autobiographical work? Would you have written Death & Facebook in a regularly structured format?
Death & Facebook was the first book I’ve done that is ‘real’, as in it’s about real people doing real things. I redacted a lot of names, but people can recognize themselves. Just before it came out, I got really paranoid that people in it would freak out, but instead there’s been a vacuum of response. The conclusion I come to, was that the sort of people I am writing about don’t read. All your work that I’ve read is about ‘real’ people. Do you ever worry about people getting pissed off?
I had a boyfriend tell me blatantly, ‘I don’t want you to write about me’. He also made a concerted effort to try to change the way that I wrote. On holidays, his sister wrote long epic poems about all the things her family was doing. I remember him showing me something she’d written about Christmas stockings and saying I should write like this, which was not just insulting and dismissive, but totally impossible. To write like that would have required me to be a totally different person. I’ve had concerns about making people mad, but I guess those people don’t really read, either. I would describe your fiction writing as esoteric, yet accessible. Gentle Art is a collection of short stories. One of those short stories is told through quotations from the Book of Revelations, another is written in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure.
I always loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. I’d love to write a proper novel like that, but it’s so difficult. You need to keep so many strands of possibility open. It’s a total headfuck, when you are writing about anything more complex than whether or not there is a dragon in a cave.
Do you have anything in mind for what you’re going to publish next?
I’ve always hated the idea of writing a ‘proper’ novel. Everything of mine is short. I think Death & Facebook is the longest continuous text I’ve done and it’s 30,000 words, so I decided to try and write something normal novel length. Just to not get stuck in the doldrums of only doing insignificant-length texts. Just to prove I can, you know? I’m writing about a girl who ends up living in a car in L.A.