You have to be perfect at everything: An Interview with Chelsea Martin
I first came across Chelsea Martin’s work in 2012. She was doing a comics column for The Rumpus, and I remember feeling irritated that someone younger than me could be extremely talented as both an artist and a writer. A couple months later, I went to go see her read as part of the “Lil Bitch” book tour, because I’d been invited by an acquaintance-bordering-on-friend who was also part of the tour.
Her reading was amazing—Martin has that rare ability to read her work with delivery and style, in a way that seems effortless rather than forced. Even her clothes that night were maddening: khaki shorts. Instead of making her look like a private school nerd she looked effortlessly chic. It made me briefly consider buying khaki shorts until I realized I’d look like an idiot. Some people are just capable of pulling things off. Later, I became close friends with Elizabeth Ellen, who was also on the tour, and, through Elizabeth, became friends with Chelsea. Now, Chelsea is one of my favorite people in the writing world, both as a human and writer.
Mickey, her novella, was published in July by Curbside Splendor. It feels really nice to see a person – whether they are a friend or writer whose work you admire – get better with every book. And Mickey is Chelsea Martin’s best. She’s managed to take what I loved about her shorter works—a somewhat fragmentary structure, a sense of loneliness and despair that is tempered by humor and warmth—and go bigger with all of it. By bigger I mean length (obviously), but also in terms of emotion: there is a vulnerability and a softness to the unnamed narrator that seems ‘next level’ to me. It’s the kind of book that is easy to read but also sticks with you. But I guess that by now I shouldn’t be so shocked at Martin’s dexterity.
The Fanzine: We’re both native Californians who’ve moved around a lot—you just moved from Fenton, MI, to Idaho. When you live somewhere else, what do you miss about living in California? When you live in California, what do you miss about living somewhere else?
Chelsea Martin: The last few years I was in California, I really wanted to leave it. It wasn’t anything against California, I just had always been there and wanted to experience something different. I liked Michigan a lot, and it was just what I wanted at the time. Being more on the east coast was fun because it seemed like there were so many different cities within driving distance. Like we drove to you guys in West Virginia and we drove to Nashville and Buffalo and Cincinnati and Columbus and Chicago and Atlanta. On the west coast there are approximately four cities and they’re all pretty much the same. My family and most of my friends are in California, so that’s mostly what I missed, and still miss, since I’m still not living there. I realized it’s really hard for me to be so far away from the people I love. Is this interesting?
FZ: But what’s the difference in the people? After living in 3 very different areas of the US as an adult myself, it seems like the people are all the same in ways (obviously), but there’s big differences between all of them too. In WV, for example, it seems like PINK brand clothes, super tan skin, and ‘girly’ facial piercings are cool. You wouldn’t be cool at all wearing shit like that in NYC or Southern California. Also I think you were telling me weird stories about your weird neighbor in Fenton but I forget what you said.
CM: One time we had a bonfire at night and were being kind of loud and instead of telling us to be quiet, our neighbor brought us a dozen fresh eggs and chatted with us for twenty minutes before casually slipping in that she had to work at 5am. One of Ian’s coworkers was weirdly open about not liking me. The girl that worked at the copy shop I went to a lot once saw me at a baseball game and yelled “hi” to me from across the food court.
I didn’t meet that many people in Michigan. I guess it seemed like people were trying less hard to be attractive. But I came from LA, where people are trying extremely hard to be attractive. I don’t really have any generalizations beyond that. Am I answering your question at all?
I think the Pink brand/tan/piercing thing is just a certain look. I don’t think it is specific to an area. I don’t think it’s meant to be “cool” as much as “sexy” or something. I’ve heard you complain about Victoria’s Secret a couple times before this. What is it about that company that bothers you? They make nice underwear, you know.
FZ: I just think it’s strange that an underwear company became a cool brand. Like would you wear a wildly overpriced sweatshirt that said Fredericks of Hollywood or Hanes in big letters? I think not! Underwear is supposed to go under your clothes! It’s a science fact.
When I first “met” you (quotes because we didn’t actually talk) at the reading in LA, I told the friend I’d brought to leave you alone because she was asking you questions and it seemed like you hated her. Later, when I met you for real, I sort of felt like you hated me… I remember saying something stupid because when I get nervous I try to cover it up by just saying shit and usually nobody seems to notice that I’m not necessarily making sense, but you asked me about whatever I said, in what I remember as a confrontational-seeming way… but I wasn’t too concerned because my husband Scott told me that’s just kind of how you are. That you’re actually really nice. And later I found out that this is true—you’re really wonderful. What’s it like for some people to think you’re a scary bitch when really you’re a sweet little fuzzball?
CM: I don’t like meeting new people. It’s difficult and awkward. Also, I am usually a very poor judge of character when I meet people. I hate people that end up being my best friends, and I like people who I find out are awful people. It’s been that way all my life, so I’d rather just watch people from afar before I decide whether or not I want to talk to them.
When you and I met, I already knew a little about you because we had mutual friends, and I liked your writing, so I was excited to talk to you. I remember trying to make an effort (probably the confrontational question you mentioned) and you said something funny and then briskly walked away from me to talk to someone else and I felt rejected. You’re a little bit of a scary bitch yourself.
FZ: The epigraph to Mickey reads:
It’s all gonna end and it might as well be my fault. –“3AM,” Matchbox 20
I feel like this is going to cause a lot of people to ask you about Matchbox 20. So, to save you from some tediousness, please explain your feelings about comparable acts Smashmouth and Sugar Ray.
CM: SMASHMOUTH— The first concert I went to was a Smashmouth show. I think I was eleven. I went with my mom and my stepdad’s sister. There was a mosh pit at the show that turned into a legit brawl and several people went to jail. I lost one of my neon green shower sandals in the commotion.
SUGAR RAY—I thought I was supposed to find Mark McGrath sexy and I didn’t. I felt like this fact was symbolic of my lack of femininity, and was a little resentful of Mark McGrath for making me feel this way. The band was ok.
FZ: Do you ever miss the ’90s? I feel like I relate to Gen X’s cynicism and ‘edginess’ way more than millenials’ sincerity and social justice consciousness or whatever (although cynicism and edginess as product are pretty icky to me). And also the ’90s had way better pop stars… like J Law cannot compete with Winona Ryder shoplifting. But maybe I am just old and nostalgic.
CM: I miss the 90s so much. There was definitely the cynicism and edginess in that time, but I think it was also a little bit goofier. I think there was a lot less self-awareness in general, and people were less worried about how they appeared to be and took themselves less seriously.
The thing I don’t like about our stars now is that they have to be so perfect. A lot of 90s stars were regular looking or even ugly. But now, I feel like every single musician has to be gorgeous and also an actor/actress with a charming personality and into social rights activism or something. And I think music suffers because of that, because you can’t just be musically gifted anymore, you have to be perfect at everything. And that usually means you had to grow up rich because if you’re a regular kid you probably don’t have the resources to nurture all of these different talents, and that just produces a lot of mediocre art because it’s just not a very interesting perspective.
I like J Law and all, but I almost feel manipulated into finding her relatable. She’s like the perfect combination of beautiful but not intimidatingly so, funny but not in an overbearing way, smart but not nerdy, charming but slightly self-defacing, and curvy enough to make people feel like she’s challenging Hollywood’s ideal body image, but not so much that she actually looks any different than a normal celebrity. And do all these relatable attributes really add up to someone relatable? Personally, I feel like I’d have way more in common with, yeah, Winona Ryder or Shirley Manson or something.
FZ: I agree about the pop stars and their perfection. Beyonce is cool and everything but I miss the messiness of pop stars like Shirley and Courtney and Madonna and Janet Jackson. I hadn’t really thought of it as a lack of self-awareness, I guess because I think of Gen X/the ’90s being like, Clerks and Reality Bites, but you’re totally right. I figure some of that is the internet, and the ubiquity of cameras and other forms of self-documentation, but do you think there’s more to it than that?
CM: I think it’s probably mostly the internet’s fault. It seems like celebrities really need to feel control over their brand. It makes sense, because if they make a mistake or say something weird or wear something ugly, they can’t erase it, and will likely be criticized for it forever. Regular people don’t have to deal with it quite as much, but if you’re active online you do at least have to think about the repercussions of your actions. ‘You don’t want to ruin your job prospects forever’ = if you make a mistake, you’re over. Also I think the fact that everything you do online can be commented on makes people try to anticipate what will be said about them, which makes them think more about themselves and the choices they’re making. Which isn’t totally a bad thing. But I think it makes people feel paranoid and/or preemptively defensive about their choices. All of which makes you want to control the way you’re perceived. I don’t think that was as big of a concern before we started documenting everything on the internet.
FZ: I’m curious to how Mickey became a book. It’s the longest single piece you’ve written, but it’s told in a very Chelsea Martin-ish way—fragmentary, quippy, equal parts bleak and funny. When did you realize you had something longer than usual? Did you experiment with form at all?
CM: I imagined it longer and less fragmentary, but you can’t fight who you are I guess. It went through a lot of forms, themes, characters, and even time structures. I don’t know if there’s a single sentence that made it from the first draft to the final draft. It is important to me to not try to force an end result in a project, and instead to just see where things go and adjust things that are not helping what’s currently happening, and letting the piece evolve sort of by its own rules. Just like life, man.
FZ: What was the part of Mickey that was essential to you, throughout all its forms and drafts?
CM: The internal monologue quality of it was very important to me. I wanted it to feel like the story was coming from the narrator’s head as the thoughts occurred to her. Her roommate/friend Courtney was also a part of the story in early drafts. I was interested in a kind of fraught or complicated personal relationship that the narrator didn’t really have the time to worry about.
FZ: I kept on trying to find your boyfriend Ian in Mickey… which seemed fucked up of me, because why am I assuming that the romantic interest in your book is the same as your romantic interest IRL? (Also Ian is a lot cooler than Mickey.) Why do we assume things like this about writers? Why do we care if things are true or not?
CM: I don’t think of Mickey as similar to Ian at all. I don’t even think of Mickey as a particularly interesting person. There are small details that match Ian’s personality, such as the fact that Mickey likes to forage for mushrooms. But it definitely doesn’t make the book autobiographical.
I feel like I only make guesses or assumptions about the autobiographical nature of books written by authors that I have met, or who have written personal essays that I’ve read, or who I follow on Twitter or something. If it’s someone else (which is usually someone who I’ve learned about through mainstream channels) I generally don’t think about it or care. Is that how it is for you? I think people are generally more physically isolated from people, and therefore more hungry for personal connection. Maybe we want to believe we are experiencing a connection with the author rather than imaginary people.
FZ: I think you are right. My friends mostly live inside my laptop and phone these days. I like trying to figure out who is based on who in your work and Elizabeth’s work and stuff, but I don’t care about strangers, unless they’re being really mean or gossipy or something.
What does your ~*~dream career~*~ as an artist and writer look like?
CM: I mean… lol… I’d like to have the freedom to work on whatever kind of project I want to at any time. And maybe to have an assistant to write my emails and organize my work spaces for me. And I guess if this is a fantasy I’d like to not live at my boyfriend’s parents’ house.