Mar 7
On February 20th, Emily went to L.A. to throw a party for the e-re-release of My Misspent Youth. Meghan Daum read from her new foreword (only available in this edition!) and from the title essay, and then Emily interviewed her and took questions from the audience.  Emily was supposed to be recording this interview with her phone, but she forgot to turn the recorder on.  Meghan was kind enough to help us piece together a reenactment, opening up about shiksas, the moral questions at the heart of memoir, and the essay in her forthcoming book that that “makes ‘Variations on Grief’ look like Chicken Soup for the Soul by comparison.”
Emily: I started, for some reason, by asking you about the essay “American Shiksa,” which as a non-shiksa I have complicated feelings about.  But you explained your intentions with it in a way that made me see it in a new light — something about inverting the way Jewish men have written about shiksas, exoticizing them in that way. Can you sort of recall what you said?
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Meghan:  “American Shiksa” was a polarizing piece, to say the least. It appeared in GQ and, unsurprisingly, the male (mostly Jewish, if I recall) editors of the magazine were very jazzed about it. I understand that there was a female (also Jewish) editor who’d threatened to quit over it (probably an exaggeration that she’d actually threatened to quit, but she’d been offended by for sure.) I certainly know—and knew then— that the essay had a lot of broad strokes. It’s hardly a subtle piece of writing, but, at the same time, I hadn’t set out to write something subtle. I’d always been a big Philip Roth fan and had always wanted to write something, be it in fiction or nonfiction, that drew from the sensibility of his earlier works but were from the shiksa’s point of view. I seemed to have a habit of dating Jewish men and I’d noticed that the non-Jewish woman/Jewish man presented a sort of dual dynamic. On one hand (and I’m deliberately speaking in stereotypes here) the non-Jewish woman likes it that she’s with someone who’s smart and speaks to her intelligently and expects some baseline of intellectual rapport. On the other hand, the cultural role in which she finds herself is one in which she’s expected to be a little dumber than he is, a little (or a lot) less neurotic, a little more carefree, a bigger drinker, whatever. And there’s a freedom in that, too. It’s like she can take a vacation from her mind while also being with a smart person who expects smart conversation.
 Again, I’m playing with stereotypes. Don’t think I don’t know there are plenty airheady Jewish guys and plenty of neurotic, intellectual non-Jewish girls. But I wanted to work with a literary form in which the stereotypes themselves are a literary conceit. You see it in Woody Allen’s short stories like “The Whore of Mensa” and “The Kugelmass Episode.” You see it in varying degrees in Roth’s work. So basically what I’d set out to do was write Portnoy’s Complaint from the shiksa’s perspective. And that was pretty much guaranteed to be something that offended people, not least of all because Portnoy’s Complaint was something that offended people.
Emily: In both the new foreword that you read and the title essay, you talk about going broke in the service of a dream that you realized was never going to be attainable, but having no regrets. You mentioned that you dislike the conventional redemption narrative in women’s first-person writing and that you try to avoid it.  Can you retell the story of writing an afterword for the paperback of Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House and having your editor say “no” to it?  
Meghan: In a lot of contemporary literature, and in memoir especially, there’s this mandate for redemption at the end. People want a happy ending. If it can’t be happy they at least want to know that the narrator has learned from whatever mistakes she just spent hundreds of pages chronicling and is, by the end of the book, ready to be a better person. I certainly understand the desire for that but, unfortunately, that’s not the way life works. Some mistakes we never learn from. A great portion of our lives are spent engaging in the same unproductive patterns over and over again. 
And, yes, this is something that came up in Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House. The book is a first-person account of a lifetime obsession with housing and real estate and the need to feel at home somewhere. In it, I tell some pretty unflattering (or at least amusing-cum-worrisome) stories about the compulsive and serial moving—“pulling a geographic” they call it in 12-step groups—I’ve done in the hopes that everything in my life would fall into place if only I had the right kind of apartment or lived in the right neighborhood or lived in the country instead of the city. I inherited this restlessness from my mother, who literally went to open houses as a recreational activity. And as the book ends she’s dying of cancer. She’s been living in her dream apartment for two years (though of course she’s still obsessed with moving somewhere else) and suddenly it turns out this is the end of the line. And though she was still alive when I finished the book, I did conclude the book with the suggestion that I, the narrator, had perhaps finally come to see that there were more important things in life than the aesthetics of your living space.
 So when the time came to put out the paperback, my editor asked if I wanted to write an epilogue. My mother had been gone more than a year by then and think the idea was that I’d talk about how I was done with all my silliness about finding the perfect house and being addicted to the real estate section. But when I thought about it I realized that what I’d learned in the course of writing the book—and, moreover, talking about the book to the many, many people who “suffer from the same affliction”—was that this wasn’t an affliction worth fighting. I was simply a person who loved houses. This was something I needed to own, not fix. And I said as much in the new epilogue and my editor was like “no, this isn’t really doing it.” And I went back and tweaked it a bit and it still wasn’t working for her. Keep in mind this is a brilliantly gifted and generous editor, whom I adore. I can certainly see where she was coming from. She’s published many hugely successful books so she knows what she’s doing. But I felt I could not be honest and deliver the kind of redemptive closure she was looking for. It would have felt rigged up and, to me, undermined the whole point of writing anything, which is to tell your reader the truth as opposed to what they think they want to hear. And ultimately there was no epilogue.
Emily: I didn’t ask this, but which are your favorite pieces in this book, and why?  
Meghan: My favorite pieces in the book are the title essay and “Music Is My Bag.” They seem to have the longest legs. I can’t believe that after all these years people still make “bagger” jokes to me. I will say, however, that I really like the prologue I just wrote for this electronic edition of the book, the colorfully named “Foreword 2013.” I cried on stage reading it for the launch event we did in February. And I’m not a crier for the most part.
 Emily: We talked a lot about “Variations on Grief,” which you described as having been a natural thing to include in the collection because, at the time you were putting it together, it was the best thing you’d ever written, and the judgment call of its being worth the pain its publication might cause.  When someone in the audience raised her hand to ask how you perform the delicate calculation of whether a piece of writing is worth potentially hurting anyone, I have to admit I winced.  Always this question!  And there’s never really an answer.  Is there?
 Meghan: Most questions about “Variations on Grief” make me wince, but, hey, you’d have to be brain dead to read that piece and not have a million questions. It’s an essay about the narrator’s friend who dies at 22 and she’s essentially unable to mourn his death because he essentially did nothing with his life—his life was so empty as to almost literally have been heading for death all along. Moreover, the narrator gets into this relationship with the friend’s parents wherein she’s essentially lying to them about what a great life he had. It’s a brutal, brutal piece.  Audiences have every right to ask all the questions they want. So my answer that night, which I’ll reiterate here, is that when you write about real people you’re constantly calibrating what’s worth revealing and what’s just not.
Perhaps the most common question I get about “Variations” is whether “Brian” was my friend’s real name. It was not. I’ve changed the first and last names of everyone in the story. I almost always change names in essays of this type. It’s not a newspaper story but a literary essay and I think changing names to protect people’s privacy is entirely appropriate—a literary essayist does not make the same contract with the reader that a journalist does. That said, I’ve lost a hell of a lot of sleep over this piece over the years. It’s a ruthless piece of writing that has, rightly so, turned a lot of people off. But the flipside of turning some people off is that you’re going to reach other people that much more intensely. So you constantly have to ask yourself if what you’re writing is in service to the piece, if the pain you’re potentially causing one person is worth the possible benefit it might have to readers.
I’ll tell you an interesting story about “Variations on Grief.” When My Misspent Youth (the book) was published I was invited by a women’s book club in rural Nebraska to come talk to them one night. When I got there it turned out they were a Christian book club. They rarely read anything but Christian titles but, because I was living in Nebraska at the time (having fled there from New York after going deep into the debt I discussed in the title essay) I was a “local author” and they decided to read my book. I was worried because I could only imagine how offended they were likely to be because of some of the material and that worry turned to sheer terror when they started talking about “Variations on Grief.” They politely expressed their dismay over it, saying it made them angry, and I explained that the piece was designed to make them angry. And after a few minutes one woman began speaking and explained that her own son had died when he was a teenager after being electrocuted while trying to fix something on the roof. Of course I wanted to fall through a hole in the floor at that moment, but then she said “I want to thank you for writing this. It made me feel relief somehow. It gave me permission to feel all kinds of different ways about his death that I didn’t think I had.” This was one of the more meaningful moments of my career because it reminded me why it’s so important to go to the brutal places and trust that it’s worth it. It also taught me not to judge book clubs by their covers, so to speak. The ladies sent me home with a new King James Bible and a basket of fresh apples. It was a great evening.
 Emily: I also didn’t ask this, but tell me more about the forthcoming book! What should Daum fans expect?! 
 Meghan Daum: The next book you can think of as My Misspent Middle Age. It’s going to be a collection of essays — all or mostly original ones, nothing you’ll have read already in magazines or elsewhere. They’re organized around the theme of American sentimentality and will look at the various ways that sentimentality gunks up the culture with all its treacle (I’m talking to you, redemption narratives!) and yet provides such an important lens through which to process our experiences. I’m aiming for a good mix of funny and sad and light and heavy. There’s one that deals with death that makes “Variations on Grief” look like Chicken Soup for the Soul by comparison. Or, I don’t know, Chicken Soup for the Mildly Dysphoric Shiksa’s Soul? Maybe that should be the title.

On February 20th, Emily went to L.A. to throw a party for the e-re-release of My Misspent Youth. Meghan Daum read from her new foreword (only available in this edition!) and from the title essay, and then Emily interviewed her and took questions from the audience.  Emily was supposed to be recording this interview with her phone, but she forgot to turn the recorder on.  Meghan was kind enough to help us piece together a reenactment, opening up about shiksas, the moral questions at the heart of memoir, and the essay in her forthcoming book that that “makes ‘Variations on Grief’ look like Chicken Soup for the Soul by comparison.”

Emily: I started, for some reason, by asking you about the essay “American Shiksa,” which as a non-shiksa I have complicated feelings about.  But you explained your intentions with it in a way that made me see it in a new light — something about inverting the way Jewish men have written about shiksas, exoticizing them in that way. Can you sort of recall what you said?

Meghan:  “American Shiksa” was a polarizing piece, to say the least. It appeared in GQ and, unsurprisingly, the male (mostly Jewish, if I recall) editors of the magazine were very jazzed about it. I understand that there was a female (also Jewish) editor who’d threatened to quit over it (probably an exaggeration that she’d actually threatened to quit, but she’d been offended by for sure.) I certainly know—and knew then— that the essay had a lot of broad strokes. It’s hardly a subtle piece of writing, but, at the same time, I hadn’t set out to write something subtle. I’d always been a big Philip Roth fan and had always wanted to write something, be it in fiction or nonfiction, that drew from the sensibility of his earlier works but were from the shiksa’s point of view. I seemed to have a habit of dating Jewish men and I’d noticed that the non-Jewish woman/Jewish man presented a sort of dual dynamic. On one hand (and I’m deliberately speaking in stereotypes here) the non-Jewish woman likes it that she’s with someone who’s smart and speaks to her intelligently and expects some baseline of intellectual rapport. On the other hand, the cultural role in which she finds herself is one in which she’s expected to be a little dumber than he is, a little (or a lot) less neurotic, a little more carefree, a bigger drinker, whatever. And there’s a freedom in that, too. It’s like she can take a vacation from her mind while also being with a smart person who expects smart conversation.

 Again, I’m playing with stereotypes. Don’t think I don’t know there are plenty airheady Jewish guys and plenty of neurotic, intellectual non-Jewish girls. But I wanted to work with a literary form in which the stereotypes themselves are a literary conceit. You see it in Woody Allen’s short stories like “The Whore of Mensa” and “The Kugelmass Episode.” You see it in varying degrees in Roth’s work. So basically what I’d set out to do was write Portnoy’s Complaint from the shiksa’s perspective. And that was pretty much guaranteed to be something that offended people, not least of all because Portnoy’s Complaint was something that offended people.

Emily: In both the new foreword that you read and the title essay, you talk about going broke in the service of a dream that you realized was never going to be attainable, but having no regrets. You mentioned that you dislike the conventional redemption narrative in women’s first-person writing and that you try to avoid it.  Can you retell the story of writing an afterword for the paperback of Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House and having your editor say “no” to it?  

Meghan: In a lot of contemporary literature, and in memoir especially, there’s this mandate for redemption at the end. People want a happy ending. If it can’t be happy they at least want to know that the narrator has learned from whatever mistakes she just spent hundreds of pages chronicling and is, by the end of the book, ready to be a better person. I certainly understand the desire for that but, unfortunately, that’s not the way life works. Some mistakes we never learn from. A great portion of our lives are spent engaging in the same unproductive patterns over and over again.

And, yes, this is something that came up in Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House. The book is a first-person account of a lifetime obsession with housing and real estate and the need to feel at home somewhere. In it, I tell some pretty unflattering (or at least amusing-cum-worrisome) stories about the compulsive and serial moving—“pulling a geographic” they call it in 12-step groups—I’ve done in the hopes that everything in my life would fall into place if only I had the right kind of apartment or lived in the right neighborhood or lived in the country instead of the city. I inherited this restlessness from my mother, who literally went to open houses as a recreational activity. And as the book ends she’s dying of cancer. She’s been living in her dream apartment for two years (though of course she’s still obsessed with moving somewhere else) and suddenly it turns out this is the end of the line. And though she was still alive when I finished the book, I did conclude the book with the suggestion that I, the narrator, had perhaps finally come to see that there were more important things in life than the aesthetics of your living space.

 So when the time came to put out the paperback, my editor asked if I wanted to write an epilogue. My mother had been gone more than a year by then and think the idea was that I’d talk about how I was done with all my silliness about finding the perfect house and being addicted to the real estate section. But when I thought about it I realized that what I’d learned in the course of writing the book—and, moreover, talking about the book to the many, many people who “suffer from the same affliction”—was that this wasn’t an affliction worth fighting. I was simply a person who loved houses. This was something I needed to own, not fix. And I said as much in the new epilogue and my editor was like “no, this isn’t really doing it.” And I went back and tweaked it a bit and it still wasn’t working for her. Keep in mind this is a brilliantly gifted and generous editor, whom I adore. I can certainly see where she was coming from. She’s published many hugely successful books so she knows what she’s doing. But I felt I could not be honest and deliver the kind of redemptive closure she was looking for. It would have felt rigged up and, to me, undermined the whole point of writing anything, which is to tell your reader the truth as opposed to what they think they want to hear. And ultimately there was no epilogue.

Emily: I didn’t ask this, but which are your favorite pieces in this book, and why?  

Meghan: My favorite pieces in the book are the title essay and “Music Is My Bag.” They seem to have the longest legs. I can’t believe that after all these years people still make “bagger” jokes to me. I will say, however, that I really like the prologue I just wrote for this electronic edition of the book, the colorfully named “Foreword 2013.” I cried on stage reading it for the launch event we did in February. And I’m not a crier for the most part.

 Emily: We talked a lot about “Variations on Grief,” which you described as having been a natural thing to include in the collection because, at the time you were putting it together, it was the best thing you’d ever written, and the judgment call of its being worth the pain its publication might cause.  When someone in the audience raised her hand to ask how you perform the delicate calculation of whether a piece of writing is worth potentially hurting anyone, I have to admit I winced.  Always this question!  And there’s never really an answer.  Is there?

 Meghan: Most questions about “Variations on Grief” make me wince, but, hey, you’d have to be brain dead to read that piece and not have a million questions. It’s an essay about the narrator’s friend who dies at 22 and she’s essentially unable to mourn his death because he essentially did nothing with his life—his life was so empty as to almost literally have been heading for death all along. Moreover, the narrator gets into this relationship with the friend’s parents wherein she’s essentially lying to them about what a great life he had. It’s a brutal, brutal piece.  Audiences have every right to ask all the questions they want. So my answer that night, which I’ll reiterate here, is that when you write about real people you’re constantly calibrating what’s worth revealing and what’s just not.

Perhaps the most common question I get about “Variations” is whether “Brian” was my friend’s real name. It was not. I’ve changed the first and last names of everyone in the story. I almost always change names in essays of this type. It’s not a newspaper story but a literary essay and I think changing names to protect people’s privacy is entirely appropriate—a literary essayist does not make the same contract with the reader that a journalist does. That said, I’ve lost a hell of a lot of sleep over this piece over the years. It’s a ruthless piece of writing that has, rightly so, turned a lot of people off. But the flipside of turning some people off is that you’re going to reach other people that much more intensely. So you constantly have to ask yourself if what you’re writing is in service to the piece, if the pain you’re potentially causing one person is worth the possible benefit it might have to readers.

I’ll tell you an interesting story about “Variations on Grief.” When My Misspent Youth (the book) was published I was invited by a women’s book club in rural Nebraska to come talk to them one night. When I got there it turned out they were a Christian book club. They rarely read anything but Christian titles but, because I was living in Nebraska at the time (having fled there from New York after going deep into the debt I discussed in the title essay) I was a “local author” and they decided to read my book. I was worried because I could only imagine how offended they were likely to be because of some of the material and that worry turned to sheer terror when they started talking about “Variations on Grief.” They politely expressed their dismay over it, saying it made them angry, and I explained that the piece was designed to make them angry. And after a few minutes one woman began speaking and explained that her own son had died when he was a teenager after being electrocuted while trying to fix something on the roof. Of course I wanted to fall through a hole in the floor at that moment, but then she said “I want to thank you for writing this. It made me feel relief somehow. It gave me permission to feel all kinds of different ways about his death that I didn’t think I had.” This was one of the more meaningful moments of my career because it reminded me why it’s so important to go to the brutal places and trust that it’s worth it. It also taught me not to judge book clubs by their covers, so to speak. The ladies sent me home with a new King James Bible and a basket of fresh apples. It was a great evening.

 Emily: I also didn’t ask this, but tell me more about the forthcoming book! What should Daum fans expect?! 

 Meghan Daum: The next book you can think of as My Misspent Middle Age. It’s going to be a collection of essays — all or mostly original ones, nothing you’ll have read already in magazines or elsewhere. They’re organized around the theme of American sentimentality and will look at the various ways that sentimentality gunks up the culture with all its treacle (I’m talking to you, redemption narratives!) and yet provides such an important lens through which to process our experiences. I’m aiming for a good mix of funny and sad and light and heavy. There’s one that deals with death that makes “Variations on Grief” look like Chicken Soup for the Soul by comparison. Or, I don’t know, Chicken Soup for the Mildly Dysphoric Shiksa’s Soul? Maybe that should be the title.


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