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November 30, 2018 Interview

An Interview With Leah Dieterich

Rebecca van Laer

An Interview With Leah Dieterich photo

Leah Dieterich:’s Vanishing Twins A Marriage came onto my radar when I saw it described as a Barthes-like book of fragments about an open marriage. As I read it, I discovered that it’s a book about many more things than the limits and possibilities of monogamy—it’s also a story of a woman discovering her queer identity and coming of age as an artist. Finally, it’s a sort of redemption of the figure of Narcissus, that Greek God in love with his own reflection. In conversation with art and psychoanalysis, Leah reveals the (queer) desire to love someone like herself as, in fact, a path towards discovering the self through the other.

I’m always on the lookout for books that push the boundaries of what a memoir can be books that challenge our assumptions that memoirs are “unshaped” or somehow easier to write than novels. So I was excited that Leah was kind of to talk to me about her book, as well as her writing process. 

 

Rebecca van Laer:  Thank you much for talking to me about this gorgeous and perceptive memoir. I want to start by asking you how you decided to title this book Vanishing Twins A Marriage.  I'm particularly interested in that second part, “a marriage,” and how it felt to tell the story of two in just one voice.

Leah Dieterich:  The title Vanishing Twins came up late in the process, although at this point it seems like such an obvious title to me the book itself deals with the phenomenon called “vanishing twin syndrome,” where one twin is absorbed by the other or back into the mother's uterus. This potential disappearance led me on this journey to look at my intimate relationships through this lens. I had found myself drawn to these very intense partnerships throughout my life, and I started to see all of those as, in a way, marriages. Obviously, the main story is about my relationship with my husband, but throughout that time I had really intense relationships with other people. I thought of my advertising partnership as an arranged marriage, for example.

I felt like it needed a subtitle in some way, and I was resisting the idea of Vanishing Twins A Memoir. But I liked the fact that memoir and marriage both start with an M, and we could almost misread it. At the end of the day, it's about how a marriage works or has worked or is working. That’s at the center of this book trying to figure out how you can be very close to someone but still maintain your autonomy. 

 

RVL: It occurs to me that the fragmented form is part of what allows you to braid together these various relationships that you come to think of as marriages. One of the things that drew me to this book was the fact that it is written in fragments. I'm wondering if you see any commonalities in the fragmented works that inspire you— if you think there are particular kinds of stories that are best told in fragments. 

LD: Books that I referred to as I was writing my own, [included] A Lover’s Discourse and Adam Phillips’ Monogamy. There's definitely a similarity between the two both books are about love and the different roles that people take on in a relationship. And the topic of love is just so enormous. Maybe the only way that you can see it is in the specificities these little moments that the fragmented form allows you to give a lot of attention to. When you're dealing with something so enormous, maybe that's the only way you can understand it—in flashes or moments. Likewise, I was very inspired by Maggie Nelson’s Bluetsand The Argonauts. I love the way that fragments allow you to write in a more lyrical, poetic way, and when they kind of accrue, there can be a narrative, but each one on its own can stand alone. 

I found that really appealing for my project I was trying to talk about how an individual can hold onto their selfhood while staying close to someone else. So maybe the form parallels that effort these fragments have to be able to stand on their own as well as act in concert with the others. 

RVL: That's a beautiful metaphor, kind of like the Corps de Ballet that you talk about. 

LD: I was just sort of thinking about that as it was coming out of my mouth too. 

 

RVL: That takes me to a question that I had about your experience as a dancer. This book is also about your growth as an artist, moving from dance to film to writing. And I noticed that when you talk about the first two, you describe some of the pleasure and strangeness of looking at a past image of yourself. I'm wondering how it feels now to look back on the version of yourself captured in Vanishing Twins to know whether you experienced any of that same disjunction or fascination. 

LD:  I have, in the same way that I described the experience of watching footage of myself dancing and being able to see myself in an objective way at a particular point in time. That's very much what this book is too looking at a version of myself that I no longer am; that, a version of myself 10 years ago. It's funny when writing in an autobiographical way about something that happened that far in the past, the line between fiction and nonfiction gets very blurry. And I kind of liked that. I think it took me that distance to be able to render my thoughts and feelings and motivations of that time properly, because as I was experiencing it, or even a year or two later, I was still too close to that person. I hadn't matured and evolved enough to see what some of what I was doing. It is a really similar experience, and satisfying to be able to put that person or that experience down on paper and let it live for itself.

 

RVL: I didn't realize these events happened 10 years ago the idea that it would be somewhere between fiction and nonfiction is so interesting to me. And I read that at first you actually weren't sure whether it would be a novel or a memoir. 

LD: I originally wanted to write a novel because I thought that was somehow the greatest challenge or the highest form of writing. And then I realized that the books that I love are these lyrical memoirs Sarah Manguso and Maggie Nelson’s books. These women in particular are investigating their lives and their experiences and doing so within prose that has a real attention to detail and beauty. I realizedthat's the kind of book I want write, so I don't know why I was trying to write a novel or to force myself to make something up. And when I started to look at the details of my own experience, I was like, oh, they're strange enough to write about.

I thought even as I finished the book that I might still call it an “autobiographical novel” because there are other writers like Sheila Heti or Rachel Cusk who I love, and their books are “novels.” I think it lends an element of mystery that is appealing and seductive, to wonder,how much of this is real life and how much of this is made up? That’s always going to be fascinating. I thought that maybe I wanted that kind of mystery for myself. But then I think, I haven't really made anything up. Memory is slippery, but I did my very best to be true to the memories I had. I kept a lot of notes during that time there's even verbatim email and message correspondence. I thought perhaps I would be trying to hide a little bit if I called it a novel. I admired writers who don’t hide behind the veil of fiction, just being honest about their lives and their experiences. Maybe that's why I'm so moved by their work they're putting it out there. 

 

RVL:  This is something I've been thinking about actually writing about. I wrote this piece called “Just Admit It, You Wrote a Memoir,” where I'm thinking particularly about the fact that when women's books are called memoirs, that it might be perceived as quote “just memoir,” and that when you label a book as a memoir, it also invites the reader to judge you or relate to your work differently than they would a novel. 

LD: In fact, that reminds me, Daniel Mendelsohn reviewed Karl Knausgaard’s last book and wondered why Knausgaardnever wants to even compare his work to memoir. [Rebecca’s note Mendelsohn calls it ‘soft.’] I hate that. I hate that thought—that it should be seen as a lesser form—because it's just a difficult to write—I think in a lot of ways. 

 

RVL: Yeah, absolutely. I think that level of truth and vulnerability is what really helps readers to invest in and relate to memoir so much.  And I have several questions that are specifically related to how you decide what to conceal and reveal—especially when it comes to writing about sex. The “Twincest Ballet” where you imagine yourself in Eric as a brother and sister who consummate their desire. You have these sex scenes with Elena where you almost become a creature, but in this one you go back to that role as a ballerina. 

LD: Right, and also back to my original conceit twinship. We had enacted this fantasy together way before I had found this lens for the book. We had become very much like a brother and a sister, and I think we were attracted to that particular fantasy because we were trying to find a way out of that mode of being together. How we could make that brother, sister relationship, exciting and taboo again? I think desire needs danger and uncertainty and that can be tough to cultivate in a long-term “stable” monogamous relationship. When I wrote about that fantasy (even though it was early in the writing of the book), it was one of those light bulb moments this is the ending. 

 

RVL: At the end of the end you in fact write “something had been completed.” I was thinking that in a certain sense the whole book could be about ending the search for a twin and moving past that desire. I was wondering if acknowledging and performing that desire in the twins as ballet as it's recorded in the book marks the end of it or for you, or if there's still something sexy, compelling and even necessary in that idea of the twin. 

LD: I think that scene gave a certain closure to this desire because I finally understood it, or understood the role it had been playing in my life. But beyond that, the act of writing a book was really the thing that closed that loop for me. Even at the beginning, it was my goal was for the book itself to be my twin. There’s this term for the vanished twin  fetus papyraceus. It has the root words of paper in it. It felt perfect. This paper object, this book could be my fetus papyraceusand I could hold in my hands so that I wouldn't have to put that burden of being my twin onto another person. I wanted to be able to hold that last twin in the form of something that was my own. 

The book also took the place of the open relationship those outside lovers were replaced by the writing of the book; my project was my lover. I went to see it after work every night. It really filled this role for me. I had needed love and validation; and when I started to get some of that for my creative work, and that was really satisfying and felt more sustainable long term. 

 

RVL: In this book, psychoanalysis plays a role in helping you think about what it means to perform your queer identity by writing rather than by pursuing queer relationships. I'd love to hear more about how therapy—and the auto analysis of this book—taught you lessons about writing.

LD: In therapy as in writing, I wanted to understand my motivations. I had spent so much of my time just acting, that I didn’t see the repetitive patterns that I was continually trying to find a twin in my relationships, so to speak. Each time one of these intense partnerships started to show cracks, I'd go in search of another—until started going through analysis. When I realized that I wanted to write about this particular time period, I immediately had concerns with all the problems of writing about people in my life. Like should I show it to my husband? It was really helpful that my therapist said, no, just keep writingyou're going to censor yourself otherwiseWait until you have a complete thing, the best thing you can make, and then show it to him.I needed somebody to give me that permission, because I couldn't have given it to myself at that time. 

Once I had a first draft, sharing it with my husband became part of the process. It was difficult at the beginning, and the book evolved a lot both after sharing it with him and also a number of other trusted readers. Writing the book was a continuation of the experience of individuating myself in my partnership. 

 

RVL: I wonder if that corresponds to a moment in the book I wanted to talk more about—where you buy this apricot in Australia. It's bruised, and you say “they were the best bites of any fruit I'd ever had. I vowed never again, to avoid the hurt parts of things.” I'm wondering what hurt you were avoiding, and if confronting the hurt parts has continued to be sweet. 

LD: What I was avoiding was probably twofold one, the pain of feeling like I didn't know how to be myself. The pain of always feeling like I was half of something. When I talk about the apricot, I think I was realizing that I was trying with the open relationship to feel more like an individual, more autonomous but also more dependent on a larger number of people.

Likewise, I was kind of avoiding the pain the open relationship was causing my other partners. At a certain point, it became really clear to me that, while it was working in a particular way for me, it was coming at a great cost to some of the other people I was in relationships with. I realized that just because someone says they are okay with something doesn't necessarily mean that they are or continue to be, and I wanted to be more willing to ask those questions, and to not be so afraid of hearing about someone else's pain and letting it inform how I was going to move forward.

 

RVL: I noticed that after that moment, there are all of these references to bodily perception. You have a feeling claustrophobic when Elena bites you; pain in your ribs when Eric is away; your body telling you your relationship is in crisis. I'm guessing that mind/body connection might have been something you've cultivated as a dancer and returned to in those moments where your body starts to help you better understand your limits and feeling. So I wanted to talk about whether that awareness became a part of your process, if there were physical rituals or routines that helped you in the writing of this book, or if you continued to have those kind of check-ins with your body to know if you were going in the right direction? 

LD: I definitely relied on routines as far as the writing of this book went I wrote after work at the same time, at the same place pretty much every day. And that was enormously important in a similar way to the way that you practice dance. You have to keep your muscles in shape. 

In terms of the emotions coming out through the body—I didn't realize how much my body was telling me about my true feelings until I started writing about them. Then it became very clear to me, but it wasn't clear at the time. I just thought,why am I getting shingles? Why do I have this stabbing pain in my ribs?It was nice to be able to, to see those emerge, and hopefully as I move forward in life to be a little bit more in tune with them. 

 

RVL: I have another question about embodiment, have you gotten any new tattoos since the period that you returned to in this book? 

LD: I have. In a certain period in our marriage, we stopped wearing our rings because I didn't want people to see my ring and go, oh, she's a married personbecause I felt like they would have certain judgments about me—because maybe I made those judgments about other people. So we stopped wearing them, and we don't really wear them anymore even though we’ve been monogamous for so many years since then.

But I got a little sparrows’ head in profile with three little halos above it that represent my three wedding bands (I had three instead of two which now I find to be kind of ironic and telling and amazing). The sparrow comes from a memory of when we went on our honeymoon to Paris. There were all these sparrows in front of Notre Dame. I bought bread, and all these birds landed on my hands. It was the most incredible feeling so much joy. I remember my husband saying that my face was so lit up, so happy to have all these little birds on my fingers, that he’d maybe never seen me so happy in my life. So I got that tattoo to signify our recommitment to each other, and so I would always have those rings with me even if I don't wear them. 

 

RVL: Thank you for sharing that moment with me it’s nice to hear about that other moment a little bit further down the road. I have one more question. In this book, there are references to the other types art that you've experimented with your incomplete volume of short stories, your films. I'm just wondering what's next for you? 

LD: I want to write about childbirth. I have a two-year old, and it was an incredibly transformative experience. I'm pretty preoccupied with that topic, and I’m interested in midwives and natural child birth and doulas. For a time, I thought, I'm so passionate about midwifery and women’s rights in the birth process—I should become a midwife! Then I realized that I could probably do more good and reach more people through the thing I already know how to do writing. 

RVL:  I look forward to seeing or reading it when it's ready! 

 

image: Rebecca van Laer


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