Go Forth (Vol. 3)
   by Brandon Hobson for The Believer Logger, October 18, 2012

"Literature: Interview with Courtney Eldridge, Part I"
   by Rebecca Keith for BOMBLOG, June 22, 2011

"Literature: Interview with Courtney Eldridge, Part II"
   by Rebecca Keith for BOMBLOG, June 28, 2011

Newtonville Author Questionnaire
   Newtonville Books, June 2009, Interview with Jaime Clarke and Mary Cotton, co-owner

Go Forth (Vol. 3)

by Brandon Hobson for The Believer Logger, October 18, 2012 Courtney Eldridge in Buenos Aires
I first read Courtney Eldridge in an issue of McSweeney’s and was so floored by her work that I bought her collection, Unkempt, and her novel, The Generosity of Women. I implore you to go out today to an independent bookstore and buy these books. Eldridge is a writer of extreme talent who writes smart, funny, and well-crafted prose. She’s a strong voice in fiction today. I spoke with her via email about humor in her work, her unusual voice in fiction, and what she’s currently working on.

Brandon Hobson

BRANDON HOBSON: Many of your characters from your stories from your collection Unkempt seem helpless, yet you manage to maintain a nice balance of humor. Can you speak to this connection between struggle and humor in your work?

COURTNEY ELDRIDGE: Well, I think we’re all pretty helpless without a sense of humor. Then again, that first book was written during a time of intense personal struggle, both in terms of trying to figure out how to write, how I write, more exactly, and simply keeping a roof over my head while living in NYC. Now, of course, in hindsight, I wish I’d had far more humor about my personal circumstances and my work, both.

BH: Voice seems important in your work (I’m thinking particularly of the voices in The Generosity of Women). Is voice something that drives your fiction most? Does voice inspire you?

CE: The truth is I don’t know how to start a piece without a voice. I mean that literally: if I can’t hear a voice in my head, if I can’t hear the words as I type, I can’t write a word. Until I hear something, there’s just nothing doing, you know? Whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, a character’s voice or my own, same difference.

I think that has to do with how I came to fiction. Growing up, my parents, the three of us, we didn’t have much to our names, certainly not books. But what we did have, the one material possession that we sacrificed for, was vinyl, my parents’ record collection. There was always, always music playing in our house—if there wasn’t, the moment I walked through the front door after school, I knew either no one was home or one of my parents was sick in bed and I had to be quiet. And if my parents didn’t turn me on to many writers, growing up, they certainly shared their appreciation of a huge range of voices, musical styles, and lyrics. I got into writing through record stores first, the library second.

BH: You’ve described your work in the past as “putting on sock puppets and talking to yourself ‘right and left, right and left.’” Can you elaborate on this?

CE: Here, again, I have to plead only child. I did actually play with sock pockets—well, I would play alone all day with my stuffed animals and dolls, making up elaborate stories, Barbie and Babar on safari in Kenya, that sort of thing. I just didn’t consider writing it down for about twenty years, is all. I always think of myself as a late bloomer when it comes to writing, because I didn’t start writing seriously until my mid-twenties.

BH: Whose work influences you most? Why?

CE: Well, of course different writers influence you at different points in time. Overall, I’d say Rick Moody has most influenced me. Because he’s always striving to try something new with his work but as honestly as possible. And when it comes to others—writers, artists, and musicians, you name it—he’s as supportive and generous as anyone I’ve ever met.

Let’s see… there’s Robert Walser, Joan Didion, Stephen Dixon, Robert Coover, Grace Paley, Thomas Bernhard, Amy Hempel—I’ve lost count of how many literary crushes I’ve had over the years. And though I read Henry Green’s Loving; Living; Partygoing every few years, and he knocks me down again—I always feel so small, reading him, but in the best possible way. Like looking at the stars on a clear night.

More recently—I don’t know where the hell I’ve been, but still. I finally read Sam Lipsyte and I could not stop laughing and then I couldn’t stop quoting—just so many lines I’d quote to myself, laughing all over again. “I have eyes. They do business.”

BH: What’s next? What are you currently working on, and can you tell us much about it?

CE: My next novel will be published by Amazon Publishing in spring 2013. It’s called Ghost Time; it’s my first attempt at YA, and it’s the first of a trilogy. The protagonist is a 15-year-old girl named Thea Denny who happens to be a brilliant young artist, and I thought the best way to learn about her would be to figure out a way to work with young artists. I started looking around, seeing all this incredible artwork by teenagers—work that was as good as anything I ever saw back at art school, and the thought, “What if God was a teenage girl?” came to mind. This was in 2009: I’d just moved to Argentina; publishing was in crises; and speaking no Spanish, I found myself dependent on my computer for communication.

With all that in mind, I wanted try to write something different—not just the subject matter, but in terms of how I’d written up to that point, which was hermetically sealed, to say the least. So I started Saccades Project, which includes a website, blog, YouTube channel, FB page and flickr pool. (Twitter is my downfall—the project has a Twitter feed, but I haven’t figured out what the hell to do with it yet.) And under that digital umbrella, I started approaching teen artists I admired, explaining the concept and asking them to contribute a series of their work, eight images, accompanied by a YouTube playlist of eight songs that I could use as inspiration—that I could basically sketch to with this story and this teenage character in mind. Every day, I’d post one image and the song the artist chose, like an AV postcard, and at the end of the day, I’d post the sketch, generally anywhere from 800 to 2,000 words per day.

Up to that point, I was struggling with social media, how to use the internet in a way that felt genuine to me and appropriate for the project. And it worked. A friend stopped me four months after starting the project and posting the first sketch online; he’d printed out all the sketches I’d done up to that point, and he said, “Do you know you have 1,000 pages of writing here?” At which point I stopped seeking contributions and started putting the book together.

Working with artists, that continues. The only difference, really, is that I now work with artists of all ages and from all over the world. In the next month, I’ll start the second book, the sequel, and I intend to work in the same way. A trilogy is such a huge undertaking, so this project keeps me honest.

Brandon Hobson’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Believer, NOON, Puerto del Sol, Post Road, New YorkTyrant, Web Conjunctions, Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, and elsewhere.

"Literature: Interview with Courtney Eldridge, Part I"

by Rebecca Keith for BOMBLOG, June 22, 2011

I can’t help but wonder what would have become of our greatest writers, had they been confronted with current technology. Really, can you imagine John Updike writing a status report: “New poem out in Black Boot Brigade in Ireland. Check it out!” In part one of a two part interview, Rebecca Keith talks to novelist Courtney Eldridge about art school, self promotion, Saccades Project, and working with young artists.

What happened was, Courtney Eldridge wrote a book of short stories, Unkempt, and I wanted to read everything she ever wrote after that collection. When her novel, The Generosity of Women, came out in 2009, I got my hands on the galley as soon as I could and was swept away by the six narrators, from Joyce, a high-powered, brassy Chelsea gallerist, to Bobbie, her best friend and a successful gynecologist. As flawed and self-absorbed as some of them were, their voices were unforgettable. Before The Generosity, Courtney and I had almost met at a party for my job at a literary nonprofit. Let’s be honest, I probably wrote her a sweet little note urging her to come to the party. She showed up, but we didn’t actually get to meet. After that, we became pen pals in the most Anne of Green Gables kindred spirit via email way.

So when the novel came out, I jumped at the chance to interview her. We had a two hour phone interview when she was living in Buenos Aires (she’s since moved to LA), and since then we have continued to gab over email about writing, art, punk rock, and an antique locket I found filled with tiny postcards of Buenos Aires. More recently, we discovered a shared love of Jefferson Airplane which led Courtney to tell the story of the first time she ever got high: eight years old, when she stole not one but two pot brownies during one of her parents’ parties, to the soundtrack of "White Rabbit." One morning last summer I saw a teenage girl and her mother heading across 29th street. The girl, tall and a bit awkward, was toting her modeling portfolio, and her mother looked pleased and unfazed by the Midtown-ish bustle. They reminded me of Lynne and Jordan, a suburban mother and daughter from The Generosity. I wondered what the characters would be up to now, after the novel’s end.

Courtney describes her work as putting on sock puppets and talking to herself, "right and left, right and left." Her characters have such strong voices you feel like they’re calling the shots. Her intricate plots double back on themselves as she skillfully manipulates time and perspectives. Since The Generosity came out, Courtney has written two more novels. Ghost Signs has a teenage protagonist, Thea, with a Louise Brooks/Clara Bow haircut. The spark for the book came when Courtney asked herself, "What if God was a teenage girl?" and she sees it as a possible YA crossover novel. The other novel, DECCA, is a sci-fi thriller set in futuristic Los Angeles, a major departure from her previous work.

Thea Denny from Ghost Signs, as imagined by John Paul Thurlow.

Though Eldridge lived in New York for years, she eschewed the literary cocktail scene. With no MFA and no college degree, she wouldn’t tell people she was a writer until securing her two-book deal from Harcourt. She never finished college, studying English Literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder, apparel at Rhode Island School of Design, and film at the University of Texas, Austin, before becoming a personal assistant to director Richard Linklater. Courtney is excellent at championing other people’s work but quiet about her own. Living in Buenos Aires at the time of its publication, she didn’t do a book tour for The Generosity and does very few readings in general, suffering from stage fright—a huge surprise when you meet her characters. As a four year-old, however, she threw open her parents' bedroom door to announce that she was the reincarnation of Janis Joplin, stage name: Lola Crayola.

Cut to 2010: Maybe talking to herself got tiresome because Courtney launched Saccades Project, a website that would inform the writing of Ghost Signs, initially called Saccades. She was no longer a writer in the void but collaborated with fourteen young artists, many of them teenagers. She continues to display the work of tons more on the Saccades website, Facebook page, Flickr pool, and YouTube channel. Each day for six months she received a photo or group of photos and a playlist from a different artist, which she responded to by writing a section of Ghost Signs and posting that on the site. One group of photos, by Laurence Olivier-Martel, is actually called "The Lola Crayola Chronicles," and Lola pops up as a character Thea draws in Ghost Signs. The book is structured episodically, switching back and forth between the time before and after Thea’s boyfriend Cam disappears from their town in upstate New York.

Laurence Olivier-Martel, from "The Lola Crayola Chronicles" in artists - gallery 2

The following is my attempt to jump through time Courtney-style. The two of us looked back at the 2009 interview, which led to a few follow-up questions, on top of questions about her new projects (which were top secret back when we first spoke). Apparently there is yet another book in the works—an entire draft of which she scrapped—about her ambition to fly a helicopter. She’s also looking to buy a motorcycle. How Courtney has time to write me e-mails is beyond me, but I’m happy to have someone else in my life who appreciates the B-sides (or actually, the melancholy A-sides) of Surrealistic Pillow and has on many an occasion offered to make me the perfect gin and tonic if we’re ever in the same city.

May, 2011

REBECCA KEITH You’ve written two books in the past two to three years, no? How do you work on projects simultaneously? Do you switch back and forth?

COURTNEY ELDRIDGE I started Saccades Project the last week of October 2009 and finished in early March 2011. Then I started DECCA one year ago, and finished this April. So, two books written within eighteen months. They weren’t exactly simultaneous, though. Working on Saccades Project, now called Ghost Signs, in collaboration with artists, one day, I stopped, because I realized that between October 2009 and March 2010, I had written over one thousand pages. So, despite the fact that the original outline for the project had it all mapped and charted out, that it would take one calendar year, measured in eight-day increments, I stopped the collaborations—I stopped all writing, inside six months time, because it was overkill. I took a couple weeks, needed a break, and I’d just moved to LA.

Broke, as always, I wanted to write something for my friend and writing partner, Patrick, for his birthday, something fun, easily consumed, maybe a movie treatment. The first thought that came to mind was a remake of Logan’s Run, only to IMDb it and find out that it had been in the works for years. Then I thought of Westworld, checked, and that was also taken. So, facing strike three, I figured I better write something of my own. I did try simultaneously editing two books, which proved too confusing. So, after much trial and error, I switched off, spending one month focusing on one book, and the next month focusing on the other.

RK How did you reach out to teenagers to submit work to Saccades?

CE It took about four months to get the proposal written and site designed. Much of that time was spent online, at Flickr, and checking out tons of artists and websites. I would spend entire work days just cruising around, jumping from image bank to image bank, downloading thousands of images, anyone and anything that caught my eye.

And one of the artists I kept seeing, one of the first teen artists I really began to follow, was Mike Bailey-Gates. So I wrote him a note right after the site went live, and I invited him to collaborate. He wrote back the next day, and he said yes. After we worked together, I approached Laurence Olivier-Martel and Tara Violet Niami. They’re friends of Mike’s, so they knew what we’d been up to, and then they signed on as well. One by one, that’s how it went. But Mike was really the turning point because I didn’t have to sell him at all. He was so game, so ready to jump—he didn’t care about my CV or need referrals, he just liked the idea and wanted to see what would come of it. When I wrote him I just talked to him, told him the general outline for the story, requested he consider that story and give me a series of images and a playlist. It still makes me so happy that my first collaborator was a teenage boy, actually, and not a girl. Because I want this story to appeal to both, equally, and I certainly want to work with young artists, boys and girls, equally.

RK Now that the book is done, Saccades is still active and you said you might take on guest curators for the site. So once the book comes out, will you see the new photos you post as responses to the story or more like missing pieces—things that happened off the page?

CE Mostly I just choose any image I find inspiring, meaning I post every morning, usually around 6:30. So anything that gets my ass out of bed, that qualifies. The focus for me is continuing to work with visual artists in the interim, between books, and to continue opening up the way I work, the way I write. Sometimes I will see an image that fits so nicely into the story, and I choose it for that reason. But it doesn’t have to be literal in any way, or sometimes I don’t see the connection until much later. I just know there’s something there that catches my eye, and you never know how the pieces might fit together down the line

Yes, I have my first curator lined up for June (the fire-breathing Stacie B. London, woot!) And I’m also about to start a Featured Artist series, which will simply be a series of 12-18 images by someone I’ve just discovered along with a very simple interview with the artist. The dual purposes being to give individual artists more attention—and what better way to reactivate the project blog between books? In lieu of Picture of the Day, I’ll post one of the Featured Artist’s photos and link to the series/interview on the blog on Facebook. I’m debating Tumblr, yes. Again, how can I make use of this technology, these new platforms, all the amazing artists working out there? How can I make use of all this in my own work? That’s what the project’s about.

June, 2009 (two years earlier)

RK What made you want to write about the art world in The Generosity of Women?

CE I think it comes back to the fact that I’m an art school drop out, pretty much a classic case. I went to Rhode Island School of Design, and I suppose now looking at it in hindsight, the book was a way of getting back to those roots. I transferred to RISD after my freshman year, and what I had to do as a transfer was attend a six week summer program. The first real experience I had in art school, returning for the fall semester, was being stopped by a limousine driver in a stretch limousine, and the driver asking me for directions to the freshman dorm. And that was my real introduction to art school, truly of, Wait a minute, who is art for and who the hell are you dropping off at the freshman dorm? Is it an old man or is it a freshman? That’s really scary.

So that was the wake-up call that, one, art for me wasn't a gender issue, it was way more of a socioeconomic issue, and that’s played out my entire writing career, but then the second real wake-up call would’ve been the first day of going to the RISD art supply store. I’d given serious thought for a while to trying to get into the painting program. I fell in love with painting, and one visit to buy painting supplies and finding out how much—I was shocked what canvas cost, what it cost to buy paint and brushes, and there I was, a middle-class kid thinking, What can I do? I’m going to have to use recycled newspaper and sugar and flour, and I can’t begin to participate. How am I going to be a part of this? So art school was a serious struggle, how middle-class kids dealt with the $25,000 a year tuition in 1993. I think in a lot of ways this book came back to that awakening, and I wanted to address those, not just intellectual issues, but really visceral, gut issues of, Oh my god, do I not belong here? So that scene would be the starting point of where I came from.

I think that kind of plays out in Lisa [one of the characters in The Generosity] and the issue of these self-made women who are at the forefront of ’70s feminism, women who made their own way in a world that—how few and rare that is—people who come from a middle-class background and end up being famous art stars. For the ones that you hear about, you know there are many who didn’t make it. I really wanted to stick to the role of art in the lives of real people as I understand them, and people who struggle to make art.

RK I was thinking about how Lisa ran towards the city and the art world, but then later chose to remove herself from it and go back to the suburbs. Joyce remains entrenched in it and sees supposedly everything as inspiration, and then even Adela is drawn to the street mural for Nixzmary Brown [a girl who was murdered by her parents in 2006], which is kind of "outsider art." All the characters are swirling around different kinds of art.

CE That plays into, as much as the politics, the commerce and the industry of art and how that affects individual lives. My personal experience was watching the art world move to Chelsea and really entrench itself in the art bubble that happened in the late 1990s when I just moved to New York, into the 2000s era even, and really weathered post-9/11 better than few industries did. The art world held itself up and exploded. And what was always interesting to me was seeing these women—really the reigning queens of Chelsea are Mary Boone, Barbara Gladstone, Paula Cooper, they dominate. Those are the galleries, so I was really fascinated not with creating an archetype but looking at these women who came up through the sexual revolution and their personal responsibility. Do they have more or less responsibility? Do they even have to deal with affirmative rights or not? Shouldn’t the bottom line be about the work? That’s really difficult as a person who sees how hard working-class kids have to struggle and no longer have a place in New York because they can’t get a place to live, and working three jobs myself and seeing that happen and thinking, Dammit! I should’ve gone with visual arts. I would’ve had a better chance than with writing. But I don’t write to pass judgment. I think the job is really to ask questions and present a case and let readers decide, and many people are going to disagree with you and they’re going to side against you, and that’s okay. I think one of the problems I have with women and art and the whole discussion is that there’s too much need for approval, frankly.

RK By the artist?

CE By women in general to have consensus. We don’t need to have consensus. I think it’s the job of the artist to stand up on their own, whether they’re male or female, to take a stand about what their work is about. I’m not interested in talking about the history and role of women in art. I’m much more interested in women who have learned to take a stand and are willing to take serious critical hits for their perspective, for their viewpoint, for really standing their ground.

RK Like Joyce.

CE Yeah, Joyce. She’s the classic case. She came up through the ranks. She’s a self-made woman. She went through the whole punk scene. She has her foot in that world, but Joyce is a woman who knows what it is to slamdance. She was there at the beginning. She doesn’t need to prove herself to anybody, and I think she has a tremendous strength. And I’m not interested in talking about chick lit or this or that. I’m much more interested in writers who are creating really strong, complicated women, like Joyce and the others. She comes up all the time, like still to this day, Joyce will speak up completely out of the blue. I try to quiet her. She’s so foxy.

RK I’d love to keep hanging out with her.

May, 2011

RK You said back in the day you weren’t interested in talking about chick lit, but I remember you were pretty pleased that the cover of The Generosity of Women didn’t have a high heel on it or something. How did you feel overall about the marketing of the book? Also, you didn’t do a book tour or readings or Twitter or blog or any of that specifically around that book, but the lead-up to Ghost Signs, via Saccades Project, involves a huge web component. What led you to make that choice, and do you plan on doing the full self-promotion blitz when the book eventually comes out? Hopefully your Saccades artists will help get the word out?

CE To be honest, touring wasn’t an issue. Partly, but only partly, because I was living in Argentina at the time, and between the rise of technology and the market plummeting, the publishing world was in turmoil the year before that book was published. I didn’t know it at the time, but now, looking back, I realize how lucky I am that I had a publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, sending out books, trying to get some reviews. But still, by June 2009, staffs had been cut, publications were folding right and left; there were far fewer outlets for print reviews and online was just coming into focus from the perspective of big publishers. This happened inside two years—in 2007, there were publishers offering first-time novelists million-dollar contracts, and a year later, those same publishers were firing their entire publicity departments. So, again, I was very lucky my first novel made it to print. I know many did not.

Self-promotion is a difficult subject, one I’m trying to figure out in terms of my own comfort levels. That is, negotiating what I should do for my work, what I have to do, what I’m willing to do, and what I’m not willing to do. Even now, as I type, I’m thinking, When the time comes, and this piece appears online, do I really need to post this on my Facebook page? Is that necessary? Publishing has changed so radically in the past few years alone, and day in, day out, seeing how much self-promotion goes on in the literary world online, I can’t help but wonder what would have become of our greatest writers had they been confronted with current technology. Really, can you imagine John Updike writing a status report: "New poem out in Black Boot Brigade in Ireland. Check it out!" Or what about Emily Dickinson? Would she have had some sex-crazed lit-girls-gone-wild alter ego? I mean, just imagine how demoralized and despondent Melville would have been, had he read his Amazon reviews: "This book sucks Moby Dick and balls!"

So far as I can tell, like any art, the art of self-promotion requires being brutally honest about what you do well and what you don’t, taking a serious inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. Right now, I think I’m a far better advocate of others—I’m certainly far more comfortable in that role. What I truly enjoy about Saccades Project is searching, finding, and supporting visual artists, especially teenagers and/or self-taught artists. Getting out of my own way, my own head, thinking about someone else and their work. In that sense, it's by far the best thing I’ve done personally and professionally. And when I see one of those young artists land a big review or assignment, whether a national art award or a review in the Huffington Post or a fashion feature for Urban Outfitters, it’s a bigger rush than any success of my own. Honestly, to receive an email from one of the artists, sharing their good news, or to sit down with my morning coffee and see one of them profiled on Ben Trovato’s blog, I’ll shout and clap my hands, bouncing in my chair.

On that note, the best thing I can say about Facebook is the artists I’ve met this past year. For example, my friend Tim Buckwalter, who is brilliant and never fails to lift my spirits, deranged as he is. And, through Tim, I met the painter Betty Tompkins. I love that when you Google Tompkins, her site comes up with this description, which is spot-on, excuse the pun: “Large scale photorealistic paintings of heterosexual intercourse.” We met because Tim recommended she read Generosity, and then she and I became friendly, started corresponding a bit, and in the process, she mentioned the Generosity character Joyce Kessler. Tompkins has been in the New York art world since the ’70s, and she said she loved Joyce most of the six characters, but she wasn’t sure whether or not she’d want to show in Joyce’s gallery. Let’s be honest: that book got little to no attention, but on the bright side, I got to have a conversation with painter Betty Tompkins about a fictional character, a Chelsea art gallerist named Joyce Kessler. Naturally, I couldn’t help myself. I said, Betty, trust me: Joyce Kessler would sell the fuck out of your work. Which was possibly the most rewarding moment with that novel, and imagine, that I owe it to Facebook. By the way, Joan Didion is not on Facebook. I just checked.

RK I finally read Play It as It Lays, which you mentioned in our first interview is one of your favorites. I was riding the subway last week, completely engrossed, and then looked up before my stop and saw that the guy across from me was reading it too—the same edition with the Julia Fullerton-Batten photo you love so much. As a huge Didion fan, I can’t believe it took me so long to get to her fiction. And now that I’ve read it, I can see the influence in your narrative style in the novels—these snapshots that slowly fit together, though Didion has a cool reserve and your characters come on with more of a fury/frantic/chaotic heat/buzz.

Maria’s loneliness and ennui feel completely relevant and possible today in a general sense. But the details are so time and place specific, that late sixties Hollywood, romanticized in a grotesque way. Do you think the same story could be written today? Do you think now she’d be checking Carter’s Twitter and Facebook to fuel her misery or would she specifically avoid them?

CE Now that’s a picture: two people, sitting across from each other on the subway, both reading the Julia Fullerton-Batten edition of Play It As It Lays! No. I think every character is born in a specific time and place, that they’re as much products of their environment as you or I. As contemporary characters, Maria Wyeth couldn’t be written today anymore than Anna Karenina or Clarissa Dalloway. On the other hand, when I first read Play It As It Lays, in the mid-1990s, what floored me was that it’s one of the most confrontational opening lines I know: "What makes Iago evil?" Cutting right to the quick, and before you can catch your breath, you’re immediately challenged with the trapeze-artistry of Didion’s narrative technique—such a bold move, changing up from third-person to first-person in a matter of a few pages, while moving backward and forward in time, while simultaneously juggling chapters that are a page-long or even a paragraph-long. And she makes it look so simple too.

So it wasn’t character or story, it was her structure that most influenced me, and that definitely played out in writing The Generosity of Women. Trying to figure out how to organize six different voices, six different stories, while moving backward and forward in time. Then again, Play It As It Lays is set in Los Angeles, and all these years later, here I am now, passing the Hollywood sign every day, hiking Runyon Canyon. So maybe her influence has been more far-reaching than I realized.

"Literature: Interview with Courtney Eldridge, Part II"

by Rebecca Keith for BOMBLOG, June 28, 2011

. . . [T]he apparel department was very strong in its technical craft, in its design training, and the one lesson they really drilled into me was that classic adage that a garment should be so well made that you can turn it inside out and wear it. I think about that all the time, how to turn a piece of writing inside out. In part two of a two part interview, Rebecca Keith talks to novelist Courtney Eldridge about her experiences at RISD, loyalty, and Battlestar Galactica.

May, 2011

REBECCA KEITH In our first interview, you claimed to have an aversion to plot-driven fiction, starting with voice instead. You said "characters drive plot, plot doesn’t drive characters." But Ghost Signs is such a mystery, cliff-hanger and the narrative so complex. The Generosity was layer upon layer, but this time sequencing seems even more intricate, and the story much more suspenseful. Saccades is the quick, simultaneous movement of both eyes in the same direction—so this clearly played into the narrative’s disjointed structure. How did you conceive of this novel with all its flashbacks and flashforwards? Did it help that you wrote in small chunks based on your collaborators’ contributions? Did you make an outline or know where you were going at all? How did you keep track of the passage of time? How are you going to answer these seven questions at once?

COURTNEY ELDRIDGE My aversion is to the attitude that plot-driven fiction is the right way. Because it’s not. It’s just one way.

Given that there was so much material, having one thousand pages to work with, and fourteen different collaborators, and many other contributors whose imagery resulted in a few pages of writing, when the time came, I had no idea what to do. I never imagined having that much material—and that’s how I thought of it, as material. So I really had to draw on an art school education, design training, and I started by outlining every piece of writing by choosing headlines, or even just writing a single word on hundreds of index cards, and then laying them out on the floor, just so I could see what I was working with. This was a year after the project began, and the original ideas I had conceived weren’t working, because all of these scenes were all over the place, completely random, moving forward and backward in time.

What is the structure? I kept asking myself that question, and finally, a physical image came to mind—an antique, hand-painted fan. That was it, exactly: when closed, an antique fan looks like a rule, linear. As you open it, the material moves from side to side in equal increments, both ways, and when it’s fully opened, it becomes a full circle that clasps together. I had originally conceived that this book would be written in one year, and that the structure would be circular, not linear. The story would start and stop at the same point. The concept of a fan allowed me to move very carefully, preceding one step forward, one step back, and thereby allow a missing character to be present throughout the novel.

Cari Ann Wayman, from "Picture of the Day, Gallery 1"

June, 2009 (two years earlier)

RK You liken the structure of The Generosity of Women to a patchwork quilt, a highly female medium. Can you talk a bit more about that—the structure and sequencing?

CE I come from an oral tradition, not a written tradition. I come from a working class family. We’d sit around the table and tell stories, and voice is again the engine—being able to sit around with my grandfather and his friends. I don’t come from a family that read. I came from a family that told history and stories at the table, so that was a structural element and craft element.

You know, when I was hardest at work on this novel, I was at Ucross, a writer’s retreat in Wyoming—I had a room of my own, all right, and a very nice room, at that, to work—and it was the first time I felt artistic. Inasmuch as I had so many scenes, so many loose threads that it was all I could do to write titles or lines of dialogue on a good two or three hundred note cards at once. It was as close to painting and/or composing as I’ve ever come, really. Because I’d write keywords, some extremely inflammatory (for memory’s sake of course!), and I had a studio space large enough that I literally tacked hundreds of cards on a wall (with tape, so as not to mar their paint job) that was easily fifteen feet high and wide. So, by week two of my residency, I’d stand there for hours some days, just looking at all the scenes, composing. That’s how it felt, at least, hearing all the voices while seeing all the images in my mind’s eye, while trying to create a single narrative thread.

That said, I think the book also challenges the idea of craft versus art. I think women’s contributions are too often reduced to the "craft" camp, when, in fact, art is 90% craft, based in repetition. So I had an idea of a patchwork quilt from the start—something kaleidoscopic, something that would deal with the repetition and interaction of basic units of composition, thereby allowing the six main voices to reflect and refract off each other, while, at the same time, creating one picture—the craftwork of creating something so simple, so visually dynamic, so female, for better or worse.

When I was a little girl, as young as three or four years old, I used to sit and watch my great-grandmother, Margaret Shannon, crocheting these enormous ivory lace tablecloths in her living room. And it always amazed me that she could just sit and stare out the front window, watching her street like a traffic cop, and the whole time, her hands would be moving, creating this pattern, this picture that she was making up, improvising as she went along. I mean, she never followed an actual pattern, just the image in her head, and it never made sense until she was about halfway through a tablecloth, and then you could begin to see forms, shapes—order.

RK Did you actually get to do any painting at RISD or make art in any media?

CE Believe it or not, I was accepted to RISD as an apparel design major. Fashion, yes. I will say that the apparel department was very strong in its technical craft, in its design training, and the one lesson they really drilled into me was that classic adage that a garment should be so well made that you can turn it inside out and wear it. I think about that all the time, how to turn a piece of writing inside out.

But from the first day of my summer transfer session, the first 2D class I took with a painter—and a truly infamous figure on campus—named Alfred DeCredico, I gave serious thought to switching majors to painting. See, the night before his first class, a group of us went out to see Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover—which was a pretty intense film experience for all of us—and I have to say, Alfred was the spitting image of the Thief, walking into class with his cane, stopping before the class to take a long, hard look at us, then pounding his cane on the floor, before barking, "Your assignment is to bring me a painting in three hours. And don’t bring me any SHIT!" Then he turned and walked out.

RK How did you come to writing then?

CE Well, by traveling the world. Between RISD and Austin [where Eldridge studied film and worked as Richard Linklater’s assistant] I went to visit my best friend, in Rome, and I spent three months in Europe, traveling all over by myself in 1993. I spent weeks at a time alone, in towns in Eastern Europe, Poland, where no one spoke a word of English. And since I was really the first person in my family to be able to travel the world like that, and since my mother had never had the opportunity to leave the US, since I needed to speak to someone, I took to writing letters home. Every day, sometimes I’d sit in a café all day long, just writing my mom, wanting her to see and experience everything I was seeing and experiencing. It never occurred to me that a reader wouldn’t understand where I was coming from, because I started writing from that point of intimacy and of . . . well, trust, I suppose. The day after returning from Europe, I left for Mexico with my boyfriend, got stranded down there, had some adventures, and just kept sending the letters home. Eventually, over the next couple years, those letters grew into stories.

Natalia Failde, from Saccades Project’s Facebook page.

May, 2011

RK Sci-fi is about the last genre I’d imagined you’d write. What sparked your interest/drew you to it? Have you read much sci-fi? Also, the opening of DECCA is very noir and cool in a Play It As It Lays (I’m obsessed) way—definitely cleaner than a lot of your other voices. Would you cite any specific influences here or were you just trying something new to you?

CE Actually, yes, I’ve always been a huge sci-fi fan. In fact, one of my earliest memories of a blockbuster, learning the meaning of the very word, was seeing the aerial shots of thousands of people, wrapped around entire city blocks, waiting to see Star Wars. Nearly wet my little cotton pants, when that movie began, and I was hooked on sci-fi—dressed as Princess Leia for the Fourth of July parade, and by the time I started elementary, I was a card-carrying, lunch-box-toting member of Battlestar Galactica.

I was a fan of both Battlestar Galactica series, actually. I don’t care what the so-called "purists" say, the creative decision to reincarnate Starbuck as a badass blonde? Hot. It’s like Orlando in space, and he-she Starbuck’s a laser-gun toting mystic to boot. By the way, did you ever read that Carrie Fisher interview in which she talks about how, still a teenager, and nipping out for the entirety of the shoot, at one point, Fisher approached Lucas and asked why her costume didn’t have any undergarments? To which George Lucas replied, "There’s no underwear in space."

Years later, by the time I was in middle school, I distinctly remember the first three films I ever saw on video, babysitting for some well-to-do neighbors. The first movie was Alien, and the second was Blade Runner. They were game-changing, all right, and those were the movies that led me to check out Star Wars and Dune, which were the first books that got me hooked on reading. Then, of course, seeing Sting in a Lynchian black leather loincloth certainly helped the cause, as well.

Also, keep in mind that over the course of writing two novels, between 2006 and 2010, I had spent four years in solitary confinement with a total of seven women in my head. Because one novel with six women wasn’t enough, why not tackle a novel about a fifteen-year-old girl? Hard to believe, I know, but creatively speaking, I was suffering severe testosterone deficiency, and I wanted to have fun. I wanted to write a book that one could read on, say, a flight from New York City to Los Angeles. I wanted it to move, I didn’t want to think about characters’ feelings much, if at all; I didn’t want to ask, What are you thinking? So, who better to work with than a couple male cops?

For that matter, DECCA never would’ve happened if it weren’t for Ghost Signs, Saccades Project, which changed how I write, or at least presented an alternative. I used to work entirely with voice, dialogue, always waiting until I heard a sentence or a snippet of conversation in my head, my ear, whereas with Saccades Project, I began with imagery and it worked. So I decided to try that again, beginning the writing process by gathering images on the Internet—designing action sequences, building scenes around them, and then writing to spec. So, in the case of DECCA, dialogue is more connective tissue than musculature.

Pinling Huang, from "Picture of the Day, Gallery 1"

RK The Diary of Flight is your next project. What’s that about?

CE My dream has always been to fly a helicopter. And I will. Soon. But the journey to a Robinson R22 starts on two wheels. So, the diary will be just that, all the steps between here and there. And there are a good ten things I want to accomplish along the way.

I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with The Diary of Flight for a couple years now. The reason being that when I first proposed the book, I ran it by this big name in publishing, asking his advice on a proposal. His response was, "But why? Why do you want to fly a helicopter?" Coincidentally, his father happened to be a pilot, and he said there’s always a driving force, that flying is a God complex. (That was a little startling, and I don’t actually see wanting to fly a helicopter as any more or less God complexed than writing a novel, but anyhow.) He asked about my background, and then we got to talking about my childhood, because I’ve wanted to fly a helicopter as far back as I can remember. He was of the opinion that was the story, centering largely around my parents, particularly my father, who’s quite a character, himself.

My dad is a total Gemini: he’s Opie Griffith meets Dr. Gonzo. Seriously, he’s the sweetest, kindest soul you will ever meet, but, at the same time, out of fucking control. And says so, himself: the man’s never met a drug he didn’t like or a law he didn’t break, given half a chance to do either. Seriously, I remember being in kindergarten, watching the old man wheel and deal, thinking to myself, Wow, Dad. You are so innocent, and I love that about you, but you really don’t know what the hell you’re doing, do you? I don’t know about reincarnation, but I definitely believe there are young souls and old souls; my dad is the latter, needless to say.

It’s old news now, but all this talk about the survivor generation, all these children who raised their own parents. Well, believe me, it wasn’t much of a stretch, when the so-called men used to poke their heads in the living room, asking, "Are the pot brownies the ones on the plates with the Mickey Mouse stickers or the plates without?" Anyhow . . .

Working at break-neck speed, sixteen-hour days for five or six weeks, I wrote a memoir, close to four hundred pages. And hands down, the worst writing experience of my life, but I finished. When it was done, the first draft, I wrote my dad. There are few qualities I admire or aspire to more than loyalty, and I couldn’t stop feeling that I was being disloyal. So, finally, I cracked, and I wrote my father an email from Argentina. I told him, straight out. I said, "Dad, I am so torn, because I’ve been trying to write about you for the past six weeks, give or take my whole life, and each time, each sentence, every goddamn word I write about you, even in private, feels like a betrayal. I want you to know I’ll never betray you. Nothing is worth that. And I’m sorry, Dad. I’m so sorry for these impulses, I keep trying to bury them, and they keep coming out. I don’t know how to make it stop, but I will never show this book to anyone without your permission, and Mom’s permission." And then I hit send. And then I drank.

He wrote me back the next day, in record speed for my two-finger typist father, and he said, "Court, I love you. I trust you. So you write anything you want, and know I stand behind you." At long last, I was free. Because the choice was mine—every writer has to find that boundary and make those decisions for herself. I made my choice: Flight will not be a memoir. There were some good stories, maybe. I don’t know—when it’s your own childhood, how do you know if it would interest anyone else? The idea for Saccades Project began immediately after I abandoned that book. And here we are, two years later.

Michael Bailey-Gates, from "In the Beginning" artists - Gallery 1

Rebecca Keith’s poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in Best New Poets, 2009, The Laurel Review, The Rumpus, Dossier, and The Millions, among other publications. She was a semi-finalist for the 2010 "Discovery"/Boston Review poetry contest and has received honors from the Atlantic Monthly. She holds an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and is a founder and curator of Mixer Reading and Music series in New York City. Rebecca sings and plays guitar and keyboards in the Roulettes and Butchers & Bakers.

published online at www.bombiste.com

Newtonville Author Questionnaire

Newtonville Books, June 2009, Interview with Jaime Clarke and Mary Cotton, co-owners:

Newtonville Books: Name a childhood hero.

Courtney Eldridge: In childhood, I think I had more heroes than pairs of underwear--fortunately or unfortunately, some things never change. But as a little girl, the shortlist of my heroes included: Annie Oakley, Amelia Earhart, Lauren Hutton, and, for a couple years, sometime around 1981, I became completely obsessed with Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was, at one point, the richest woman in the world, not to mention queen of England and queen of France. I mean, for a while there, I was like Raingirl, the way I could spout off facts about her marriages to Louis VII and Henry II and her son Richard the Lionhearted and on and on … But it wasn’t any of that that caused my obsession, actually, it was Eleanor’s portrayal as penned by James Goldman and embodied by the stunning Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter. A particularly classic Eleanor quip I’ve always loved:

“I even made poor Louis take me on Crusade. How’s that for blasphemy. I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn … but the troops were dazzled.”

Now that — that, gentlemen, is how you win hearts and minds. And the first time I watched Hepburn recite those lines was the moment I realized the sheer power of words, language — what it meant when people said the pen was mightier than the sword, yes.

NB: Name a work you wished you’d written.

CE: Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. For the seeming effortlessness with which it makes these technically daring leaps of faith, shifting back and forth from first-person to third-person narrative; its total disinterest in conventional plot devices; the sheer density achieved with such sparse language; dialogue cut like diamonds; and the way in which the author redefined the meaning of a “chapter” every single page. All that, and it’s set in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, for god sake? Honestly, I’ve read it fifty times, easily, and still have no idea how Didion pulled it off. For me, it was the book that completely changed my concept of what a novel was, not to mention the possibility of what a novel could be.

NB: Name a writer in history you would’ve like to have been a contemporary of and why.

CE: Many great writers/periods immediately come to mind, from George Eliot to Flannery O’Connor, Jane Bowles to Virginia Woolf to Isaak Denison. However, obviously, as a writer living in these times, here’s the problem when I think about those women and living in those times: I’m a lousy excuse for a Catholic in any age, I cannot imagine writing under a pseudonym, forget contracting venereal disease from my philandering husband and/or drowning myself with rocks in my pockets.

To open up the question, well, many of the writers I most admire are musicians, songwriters and poets, equally, and I admire them for the honesty, individuality, and passion of their voices and their words. That list would include the likes of: Janis Joplin, Chrissie Hynde, and, of course, Patti Smith. But, I guess if I had to choose just one, I would want to live as a contemporary of Patti Smith, New York City in the early seventies, because it was such a dangerous and magical time and place to be a female artist trying to break new ground.

NB: Name a work of yours whose reception you’ve been surprised about and why.

CE: I think I’ve been most surprised that my novella, ‘The Former World Record Holder Settles Down’, was translated into French and published there as a novel. That, and the fact that the book was well received in France, of all places, was pretty shocking. But when I was invited to visit in 2006, I kept getting asked all these questions about bowling — the story mentions bowling and baseball, equally — the French were fascinated with bowling and baseball not at all. Had anyone asked me, I would have gladly shared endless mind-numbing details about, say, oh, Jackie Robinson or Don Zimmer, the Buddha of Baseball, but the history of bowling in the United States? Well. Obviously I didn’t do my research. And I felt like such an asshole for that reason and too many others to name.

NB: Correct a misperception about you as a writer in fifty words or less.

CE: Well, I think it’s generous, not to mention a little presumptuous, to think that any reader has a perception of me, period. So, really, if there were misperceptions, at this point, I guess I’d have to side with the all-publicity-is-good-publicity rule. Come on: I’ve written a collection of short stories and one novel, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

NB: Name a trait you deplore in other writers.

CE: Easy: envy. But that’s a trait I deplore in myself as a writer, first and foremost.

NB: Name a regret, literary or otherwise.

CE: Professionally, I regret how much time I’ve wasted — and still waste on occasion — worrying what others will think of my writing. Personally, I deeply regret how I’ve handled certain relationships, and times, even now, when I don’t know how to correct my mistakes. Fiction is far easier in that respect.

NB: Name your greatest struggle as a writer.

CE: Earning a living.


Juked #6, Spring 2009, Interview with Lindsay Walker (print edition only, but check out juked.com)

Lindsay Walker: In the Acknowledgments you credit the artist Robert Szot and his painting exhibit from which the title of the novel (presumably) comes. Was there something about that painting, or exhibit, or artist that inspired you? Were there other titles you considered?

Courtney Eldridge: I’ve never actually met Robert Szot, and I have only seen a handful of his paintings. Szot was a friend of an ex of mine, who was storing some of Rob’s paintings for him. This was in December 2004, I think, and my ex had a warehouse space in Brooklyn at the time, and after looking at a few of his paintings, which were maybe five foot by five foot canvases, I asked about the artist, and that’s when my ex- told me the title of Szot’s exhibit was, “The Generosity of Women”. Which was just so … so you-cheeky-little-art-boy-you, but at the same time, I was humored. I couldn’t help laughing, really. And over the course of the next year or two, that title kept coming back to me. That was how the book began about a year later, with a title that I wanted to turn inside out.

Vogue Paris

Vogue Paris, September 2005, Interview with Violaine Binet

Interview Magazine

Interview magazine, August 2004, Interview with Michael Agger