An Interview with Beth Lisick: “I have always defined myself by the things that don’t go right as much as the things that do.”
I started reading Yokohama Threeway with no context whatsoever and the process of getting my bearings was part of the fun. What I first took to be some kind of Lydia Davis-style compressed fiction thing I soon realized were true stories—“small shames”—from the author’s life. Shame! My favorite topic. I carried my phone with me around town and found myself laughing out loud on the subway and reading parts of it to friends.
I was excited to meet Beth, laugh with her about all the weird people you meet in her book, and then try to force her to be my friend and mentor, but she has been tour all month with the legendary performance art group and San Francisco institution Sister Spit. The group recently started a feminist publishing imprint with City Lights Books, and Yokohama Threeway is one of their first books. Beth’s roommate was still asleep when we scheduled our interview (so legit!) so she called me from a hotel lobby in Toronto.
Meaghan O’Connell: So you’re on a wild tour right now, huh?
Beth Lisick: Oh my god. Well, I used to tour with these guys when I was in my 20s and it was really wild back then. But we went out last night for maybe the second time on the tour and um, we went to a bar called Zipperz. With two z’s.
MO: Oooh! Are you reading from the book on the tour?
BL: I am! We have a merch table set up at these things so we can sell enough books to buy food or drinks or whatever the next day. So I thought okay, I should read from the book. Though actually last night I did a sort of performance of going through the Table of Contents really rapid-fire and that was actually really fun.
MO: Oh man, because yes there are very many short pieces in the book—how many are there total, actually?
BL: There are 48 but when I started I had about 63. I do have more horrible moments that I have already written about but I left those out. Then the other day I realized, Shit, I’m making more of these every day that I live. So I keep adding to the list.
MO: It’s a life project.
BL: Yes. So anyway there are 48!
MO: I was wondering that as I read. Did you sit down and make a list of the stories you included or have you had like a running document going—?
BL: Well, I had just finished doing this book called Helping Me Help Myself, about the self help industry, and it ended up more personal than I wanted it to be and I couldn’t figure out that hard question of how much to reveal and how much to keep to myself. And after that I was just like, Forget it I’m never writing non-fiction memoir stuff again.
So I started writing a novel, and then all these things started popping into my head like, Oh my god I never wrote about that time I almost killed everyone in the Winnebago or, I never wrote about the Yokohama threeway! So I started making a list on an airplane, my flight was going from San Francisco to New York, and by the time I landed, I had the whole list. And it was so easy for me to come up with it, because these are the things that I think about all the time.
MO: So once you basically gave yourself permission to never write memoir again, all of this stuff came rushing in.
BL: Yeah, almost. I feel like this book is me signing off on writing about myself ever again. Like, Okay, this is all there is to be said. I feel so much more liberated now after trying to write myself, to be honest about myself, but also the stuff you have to do when writing memoir which is like, construct this character of Beth Lisick, that I just find difficult. So I thought you know what? Fuck it, I’m just going to write about everything I can possibly think of and then when I write a novel I’m going to have to come up with new stuff. I can’t reuse or use shit that happened to me, I’m going to have to put myself into a position where I’m pretty tapped out for personal experience at this point, so I have to start coming up with new stuff.
MO: And go even darker, basically.
MO: So I have to say that when I saw that there was an essay called “Fuck You Stephen Elliott,” I was a little disappointed it didn’t end up being this super-scandalous thing.
BL: Oh I know. I emailed him to tell him I wanted to call the essay that and he replied saying I should just call the book that. And I was like, Of course you do. He’s one of those people who I just love to give him shit. I try to do it gently. I kind of got out my feelings just by giving the essay that title.
MO: Stephen Elliott aside, have people been emerging and contacting you after recognizing themselves in the stories? I guess the couch guy is who I’m really thinking about here.
BL: Oh my god, the couch guy. Right. Oh my god. That. I really want him to read that because I felt so bad about that incident, and he apparently lives in San Francisco and is some hot shit advertising guy. Yeah, that would be a good one. I haven’t heard from Po Bronson either and I know that he knows about it.
MO: Oh yeah! Po Bronson whose face you threw a napkin at while he gave a speech at a fundraiser.