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How to Be a Dutiful Thing: Elizabeth Ellen Interviews Chelsea Hodson photo

I don’t know Chelsea Hodson. We’ve been in the same room—once in Brooklyn, seated on the same couch, once in Manhattan—twice now, but we’ve never met. I remember seeing her Tumblr posts with objects a couple years ago but never thought about them long enough to realize they were a ‘project.’ I probably heard about her Future Tense book, Pity the Animal, a good six to twelve months, before reading it. Maybe it had received so much word of mouth, I was reluctant to join the conversation. I’m often an asshole like that. I finally read it last autumn, mostly in a bathtub, the final pages wrapped in a towel seated on my bathroom floor. I read it again the day I wrote the questions for this interview. From page one on, I knew why everyone was talking about it:

“I was sitting on the rooftop of my apartment building in May waiting for July’s fireworks. I was cleaning high-rise condos in Manhattan, teaching fourth grade in Queens, eating wheat bread and American cheese sandwiches that the government delivered to the school. I was writing everything down as if I knew what I was seeing. I was pretending to be a neutral observer, but I kept trying to override my heartbreak with poignancy. It was almost working.”

It’s beautifully written, dark, neat, styled, mysterious, a bit like the author, or of what I can make of the author. The author seems as smart and stylized and careful as the writing in her book. I admire that. I most often admire what or whom is most opposite me. Similarly, I am drawn to that and those which hold themselves distant from me. It goes without saying, then, though I am saying it explicitly here: I am drawn to Chelsea Hodson, in the same way I was drawn to Pity the Animal. In the same way I was drawn to The Lover and The Glass Essay, all three of which will be kept in a neat pile on my writing desk for inspiration and as a reminder of the distance between them and me.




Hi, Chelsea. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. I have so many questions for you but feel unsure where to begin. Let’s begin, I guess, ostensibly, with me. Ha. This morning I received an email from a friend about a manuscript I had sent her (I had written). Her response was to urge me not to publish it as it portrayed me in a bad light. A really bad light. She seemed to think. And named many ways in which I portrayed myself, essentially, as a bad person. Ironically, her response only strengthened my belief in that writing, as I figured if she felt that strongly about it, even negatively, it must be a really honest portrayal of my thoughts and what I was going through at the time the manuscript takes place…and I guess that’s what I’m most interested in reading by other people. Something a person who cares about you might urge you not to publish. Did you ever feel that way about Pity the Animal or did anyone ever urge you not to publish it?

Well, I’d argue that a strong reaction doesn’t necessarily equal honest writing, but it certainly could, and I’m interested in that kind of polarizing reaction. I usually think it’s a good sign, and most of my favorite writers and artists are those that people either worship or despise.

No one ever urged me to keep Pity the Animal to myself, but perhaps that’s because it was on its way to publication by the time I showed it to anyone (besides Kevin Sampsell, who published it). I’d spent so much time (a little over a year) working through the material by myself that, by the time I was done, I didn’t really want anyone else’s opinion. I’m usually so neurotic about finishing an essay—I feel I could just keep editing forever, but something clicked when I finished Pity. I knew, without hesitation, that it was done. So if anyone had urged me not to publish it, I wouldn’t have listened. There was also an element of denial at work—part of me genuinely thought that no one would read it. It was only once I mailed a copy to my mother (enclosed with a letter of apology) that I thought, “What have I done?”


Recently I saw the new Angelina Jolie (written/directed) film By the Sea, despite or because of its negative reviews, it’s being referred to as a ‘vanity project.’ I saw it alone and want to see it alone again. I found it extremely interesting even while recognizing how others would likely find it boring (I would never recommend it to anyone else because of this), and can’t stop thinking about it or about Angelina. In no way am I comparing your book—which is the exact opposite of messy or boring, which is so tightly edited I have asked you to edit my novel—to By the Sea. I only wonder if there is a knee jerk response to label female art as ‘a vanity project’ and what your thoughts are about that, if you ever felt your book could be defined as such or how you would defend it against that claim (I’m pretty sure everything I write is referred to as overindulgent or a vanity project by a number of people), and what you think about the word ‘overindulgent’ as a criticism of one’s work in general. [on edit: I guess same question re your Tumblr project Inventory; meaning, has anyone ever referred to it as ‘overindulgent’ or ‘a vanity project’ and how would you respond to such claims?]

I saw a trailer for By the Sea—I want to see it simply because of the way Angelina is placing her fake eyelash on in the mirror (“Love you back,” I think she says). This is an interesting question, but to be quite honest, my brain shuts off a little when I hear words like “vanity project”—most art I love could be described as such. I think it’s the easiest thing in the world to dismiss women writing about themselves as “overindulgent,” but I’m not here to make a political statement or change anyone’s mind. My work is often indulgent and self-absorbed. And?

To me, the Inventory images of myself paired with each object were crucial to the project’s documentation element, so I never questioned it once I began. Last week I was remembering a Blogspot I kept in college that was like a diary—long-winded and extremely personal. Someone kept anonymously commenting things like, “Do you really think anyone cares about your life? Shut up already.” That seemed odd, but it didn’t stop me or make me question myself—I thought, I’m not forcing my blog on anyone, and that’s how I felt about Inventory, too.


As I said, Pity the Animal is nothing if not tight. I’m curious if this is essentially how you wrote it or if the original manuscript was much longer and you cut a great deal of it, ala Katherine Faw Morris with Young God – I think she said she cut her manuscript from about 100k words down to 20something.

I didn’t know that about Katherine’s book—that makes sense now why Young God is so refined. With everything I write, I build up and destroy, build up and destroy (I’d estimate about 10 percent of the original content stays in the final draft). It feels terrible (I will typically throw some kind of tantrum along the way), but it’s also liberating, and when I finish an essay, I can see that I couldn’t have written it any other way. It’s amazing how dishonest I can be in early drafts—I have to see it written down to realize that’s not what I wanted to say at all.


How did you decide to publish Pity the Animal – a brilliant idea, by the way – as a stand alone chapbook with Future Tense, instead of holding onto it to put in a collection or as opposed to turning it into a full length book of its own? Did you ever consider turning it into a full length manuscript? Or did you always know it would be this length?

I was content to not publish it at all until much later—I thought I would save it for a future book of essays, but then Kevin Sampsell asked me to do a chapbook. I declined at first (out of fear), but I was a big fan of his writing, I valued his opinion as an editor, and ultimately I trusted him—it seemed right, and it was. I never envisioned Pity as a full-length manuscript. Like I said, when I finished it, I knew it was done.


Recently I hosted a reading at KGB Bar in New York and someone mentioned afterword that you had been there, in the back, but left immediately after. I thought that was interesting. It seems most people come to a reading in order to meet the readers. Especially other writers (which is most of the crowd). I think I remember you being at a reading we did at Mellow Pages a couple years ago also. I think you may have been alone both times. This fits with the idea I have of you from reading Pity the Animal. I like the aloneness of that book. The sense of you always alone, even when you mention being somewhere with ‘a friend.’ Do you often go to readings alone and leave immediately after? What is your internal experience like at these events? And is there ever a pull to stay longer, to talk to anyone in the crowd or that has read?

When you emailed me, I didn’t even mention seeing you at Mellow Pages because I was embarrassed I didn’t introduce myself—funny that you remember seeing me there. I remember we were even sitting on the same couch at the end of the night (though I didn’t read that night—I just looked it up in my journal. “November 17, 2013: Went to Mellow Pages to see Mike Bushnell, Sarah Jean Alexander, Gabby Bess, Elizabeth Ellen, and Chelsea Martin read”).

My life has been changed for the better by living in New York and being friends with other writers whose work I love—it’s invaluable to me—but there is still some magic to me in only knowing someone through their work. So, I do often go to readings alone and leave immediately after, but I think you’re the only person to ever point it out. I am quite social at times, but I don’t even like talking after my own readings, so I suppose I often feel like I’m imposing if I approach someone after theirs.


Before I read Pity the Animal, I had not read anything by you. I had been very mildly aware of your Tumblr posts a couple years ago (‘mildly aware’ meaning I noticed you frequently posting photographs of yourself holding different objects but did not consciously recognize it as ‘art’ or read about the project at the time) and thought the photographs were interesting when I noticed them but did not look into them or what you were doing further. A couple months before I finally read Pity the Animal, I was part of a conversation about you. There seemed to be speculation as to why you were as ‘famous’ or ‘big’ as you were based on ‘one essay,’ Ie why famous people were talking about it and taking pictures with you (eg: Marc Maron, Miranda July, Marina Abramovic) and with it/Pity the Animal. Conspiracies were concocted. Someone said you must have a famous parent. Maybe even Marina Abramovic herself! Then I read Pity the Animal and I felt immediately like ‘I got it.’ (I felt like almost every sentence in the book could be quoted as something ‘new’ or ‘significant.’ And there was a dark, solitary beauty to the prose I have seldom encountered (We touched the petals but all we could smell were the fireworks reaching their dark ends above us.”).) Do you find this is a common reaction to you and your work? Before people ‘get it.’ Have you been surprised by the response of ‘famous’ people to your work? How important do you think it is today to have someone famous (like Lena Dunham putting a photograph of Chloe Caldwell’s Women on Instagram or Lily Allen doing same with Mira Gonzalez’s book I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough to Make Us Beautiful Together?) cheerlead your work? Is this something a writer or artist should actively seek?

I don’t think the artist should actively seek fame or celebrity praise, no. And I get quite nervous if I think about attention too much, because I feel it’s usually the worst work that gets the most praise (Oscar Wilde: “To be popular one must be a mediocrity”). The internet distorts proportion anyway—the littlest things seem huge. 


I find it interesting that on the first page of Pity the Animal you disclose heartache – “I kept trying to override my heartbreak with poignancy”  but never discuss it again in the book, at least not in any direct manner. I also was unsure of the word ‘poignancy’ in that context. What you meant by it. Guess I’m asking, what did you mean by it and why was there no more direct addressing of the heartbreak, what or who had caused it, if it was subsiding, etc? Again, also, I’ll ask how much editing you did. Was there at one time more about the heartbreak, for instance?

The line “I kept trying to override my heartbreak with poignancy” could translate to “I was desperate.” Some people rebound sexually or do drugs or something—I developed an anxiety disorder and tried to find meaning in art. I needed to be reminded that there were more beautiful things than my broken heart. Then, one day, the haze of sadness lifted a little, and I realized my broken heart was also beautiful. I didn’t feel any need to mention it again in the essay because it was simply a way to introduce my state of mind at that point.


In Pity the Animal you quote both Marina Abramovic and ‘Nana,’ a character/prostitute in a Jean-Luc Godard film, Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live), as saying some version of I take responsibility.” Why did you keep repeating this phrase, quoting other people who have said it, and even adding, at the end, I go to a party – I am responsible”? What does it mean for you, in Pity the Animal and in general? for a woman, for you, to take responsibility? Also, I’ve noticed many films in the 60s centered on an ‘average middle class woman’ turning to prostitution, for a variety of reasons, sometimes financial, sometimes seemingly psychological or emotional. I just recently watched Belle de Jour, for instance. Why do you think that was, and is there a resurgence of interest in prostitution and sex work, somewhat touched on in Pity the Animal, and of course, in Marie Calloway’s book, What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life? Was her book an influence on you as you were writing Pity the Animal? Were those movies from the 60s?

I’m not sure I can answer your first question about what it means for me to take responsibility, because I think Pity is my attempt to answer that. Responsibility is power, and it has a duality that’s fascinating to me. It can be empowering, but what if what I want is to be weak? I feel like I could unravel that question for years, perhaps a lifetime.

I hadn’t read Marie Calloway’s book until after I wrote Pity, so no, it wasn’t an influence. I always cite Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and Oriana Small aka Ashley Blue’s Girlvert as my main literary influences for the chapbook. In regards to Vivre Sa Vie, I didn’t seek it out, I just happened to see it for the first time in the middle of writing the essay, and the role of Nana seemed to align perfectly with the topics I was writing about, so I decided to place her within the essay itself.


Can you speak to a line from Pity the Animal, It felt easy being told what to do”? I kept reading that line over and over. I felt like I could heavily relate to the line without knowing exactly what that meant, to me or to you. I guess the liberty of submission? Can you talk about that and how it differs from ‘victimhood,’ possibly?

“The liberty of submission” is a good way to put it, I think. I felt overwhelmed by everything, so at some point, it became part of a fantasy for me to have all my decisions made for me—even if that just meant in one room for one hour or something. I still do this in little socially acceptable ways—I always ask my friends or my partner to choose where we sit in a movie or a restaurant, I like when people order food on my behalf, and so on. Part of me thinks, if I let others make the little choices for me, then maybe I can make better big decisions. As if my ability to choose was a battery I could charge.


Recently there seems to be a trend or move from ‘pandering’ to pleasing men, when it comes to writing or art produced by women, to pandering to women, specifically, to the feminist movement; to writing something that can be easily construed as ‘feminist.’ Do you think about either, when writing or making art? Meaning, do you think about pleasing men or pleasing women or pleasing specific groups of either gender? And/or has there been a change, since you started writing/making art, in how you think of it/an audience/who it is for?

After I wrote Pity, I assumed only women would read it and men would mock even the idea of it. I think this lazy premonition was a result of receiving feedback years prior from a male editor that told me my first chapbook was immature and superfluous, simply because it was about female friendship. “Why do girls always write about camp?” he said, “It’s as if they think it’s the most important thing in the world or something.” I was very young and impressionable, so it was quite shocking to me to be so casually dismissed, and it made me fear that men would never take me seriously. Even then, that realization did nothing except propel me forward with a burning desire to prove him wrong, which was extremely motivating and helpful. I’m happy that I think my premonition about my chapbook was wrong, but I think it’s my role to stay focused on the work itself, since any outside reading or interpretation is beyond my control anyway.


In Pity the Animal there is the line, I never went through with it…the negotiation became a dominance I despised.” I found this interesting not only in its original context, ie sex work, but in the context of negotiating anything, specifically, contracts; working with agents and publishers, and wondered how you feel about that, if you see similarities. I have not signed with an agent but many of my friends have recently, I think you have, and while there seem to be many pros, there seem to be an equal amount of cons, most of which are, obviously, related to negotiations. What has been your experience working with an agent so far? Do you think you would ever consider remaining independent, giving up the agent? I do see ways in which my friends are already making compromises, both with their agents, and with larger publishers, and that makes me….antsy. or mistrustful. Of the process. To an extent. What do you give up in having more money/a larger publisher? (thinking too of the submission/dominance that is a theme in Pity the Animal)

My agent has been instrumental in the e-book versions of my chapbook, which I would have never thought was even a possibility. So, after seeing what she’s capable of, I would never consider navigating on my own. I’m happy to focus on the work itself and let someone else talk business. She’s full of great ideas and I trust her completely. I wouldn’t know what’s lost when working with a larger publisher. I’m sure an agent could encourage a writer to compromise their art or make a bad deal, but ultimately the decision is up to the writer whether or not to compromise.


You talk in Pity the Animal about being twelve and playing an online game – Purple Moon – and how men came on to talk to young girls, and how you liked talking to them and mirrored their desires back to them (in your chats). But do you remember having any desires yourself? Do you think you were purely mirroring? Also I am wondering if you can talk a little about ‘consent’ and what age you think you were capable of consenting, to sex or to talking about sex, etc.

I’m definitely not qualified to speak on consent, but I was a child in this limited generational window that existed before NSA or To Catch a Predator was a thing—I think pedophiles must have made up at least half of the users on the Purple Moon website. Periodically they’d get banned, but then they’d just reappear under another screen name and message me again. I think I was most excited by the idea of a persona (before I knew that term, of course)—the words were mine, but my identity and my body were protected, so it was liberating in a strange way.


Though he did force himself on me, the truth is I stayed at the party for something to happen. Everyone at the party left, and still, nothing happened. He wasn’t a stranger – I knew he was a bad man, I’d known that for a long time. That’s why I stayed.” I found this passage very intriguing, more in how you present it, what words you use to tell us, than in what actually happened. Because, to be very blunt, I think the current mode would be to call this rape or sexual assault. Because you could make the argument you didn’t consent. Or am I wrong about that? You use the words ‘force himself on me’ but follow it up by telling us you wanted that, I think, right? That’s why I stayed.” So it’s a sort of interesting complication, you’ve given this scene, almost a ‘mixed message.’ Would you say you allowed him to force himself on you? would you say you were consciously not labeling what this was? And if so, why?

I think there’s a tendency now to want to label everything, but I always think about the Graham Greene quote, “When we are not sure, we are alive.” The ambiguities and complications revolving around desire are more interesting to me, and I don’t think naming something necessarily solves the emotional problem of it. I’m content to let that scene speak for itself.


There is talk of your ‘top button’ toward the end of the book. One friend tells you, that top button isn’t fooling anyone” and a man says to you, as soon as I saw your top button, I knew you were a slut.” To which you say, My top button: my protector, my signal.” Again, complications. Mixed messages. I love this about your writing. The lack of labeling. The lack of explicitness. The mysteriousness. How do you personally feel about the word ‘slut’ and how did you respond (internally or externally) to the man telling you that?

I was in love with the man that said that to me, and I loved knowing that he saw past my conservative efforts to conceal myself. It meant he was paying attention, which is more than most people do. It was said in a serious tone, but I remember laughing, thinking it was really funny.


The passage I maybe most related to (and I related to almost everything in this book) was the one in which you run into a former peer from college at the library and avoid talking to her. In her, I recognized the meek reflection of someone I used to be. I walked away from this person.” I grew up in Ohio and tell people now I hate Ohio but I think what I really hate, is the person I was then, when I lived there: meek, insecure, pathetic, invisible. And I find myself also actively turning away from people who remind me of myself then. Can you speak a bit more to the meekness you feel you once inhabited (or that once inhabited you)? And the repulsion you feel now when you recognize it/yourself in others?

According to my parents, I was obedient from birth—I emerged in silence and then slept through the night. I was just never interested in rebelling—even as a “punk,” I got good grades and was always home by curfew. My best friends or boyfriends were usually the “bad” ones—it’s as if just being near them was enough excitement for me. I wouldn’t say I’m repulsed by people that remind me of my former (and current) self, I was repulsed in that moment I wrote about. I had a desire to shed this version of myself the way a tarantula molts its skin and leaves it behind fully intact. It was painful for me to realize that was impossible. 


One of the most beautiful passages in Pity the Animal, well, there are a whole succession of them here at the end (the imagining yourself on all fours on the island, for example), I think, is Either I await instruction on how to be a dutiful thing or I am the explorer leading this ship or I am a piece of luggage holding other belongings. I take up barely any space at all.” Gorgeous, gorgeous prose! But the thought of being a ‘dutiful thing’ or ‘the explorer leading this ship’ really gave me pause and felt, again, relatable without fully understanding what it was I was relating to…I guess I should go back to the line that precedes, If I can’t have that, then I can attempt to reduce myself to the most vulnerable object possible.” We are either dominant or submissive and there is equal satisfaction and necessity in both? Is that something like you are saying here? You are okay being one or the other? or both interchangeably? I remember be unable to tell, but wanting for whatever reason to decide, if I was acting masochistically or sadistically in a relationship, if my leanings were more one or the other, because I honestly felt both, on different days….and maybe that’s the point. I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. Ha. Has anything I’ve said made a bit of sense to you, Chelsea?

Well, I’m not sure what to add. It has to do with roles I inhabit and my experience within them, and the realization that one doesn’t necessarily make me happier than the other.


I must be getting mentally tired. I want to say something easy like, So there’s a lot of talk of hunting and animals and prey in this book. Do you see yourself or women as prey or do you ever see yourself as the hunter or what do you mean?” So I guess I’m just going to say that. and see how you respond.

In a perfect world, I could be hunter, animal, and weapon all at the same time.


Which brings us to the last passage, So circle me like the prey I’m dressed as, erase my penciled-in boundary, pay me for the privilege. If I wave a flag of your face long enough, I can forget my own.” The first time I read that passage, I read the ending part as a question, as I think that’s how I’d write that part, If I wave a flag of your face long enough, can I forget my own?” I love that line. I love the imagery. The desire to forget one’s own face/being/existence, in favor of someone else’s. Isn’t that the root of all obsession? And isn’t that the point of ‘obsession,’ because it’s the easiest way to cope with meaninglessness and lostness? What a beautiful way to end.

Thank you. That’s interesting you would phrase it as a question—I liked the certainty of a statement paired with the uncertainty of the ending. And something about flags feels inherently masculine to me, so I like the thought of someone else’s face being my flag that I hold with my own strength.


Oh, but also, did you ever figure out ‘how to be a dutiful thing’?

Yes, it’s my most natural state, and I thank the drunk man at a party that phrased it as such.

image: Chelsea Hodson