If I were Chelsea Hodson*, I would show up to one of her readings alone, stand inconspicuously in the back, and leave before anyone noticed me. Then I might tell Chelsea later, via email, that I had been to her reading. Or, if someone did notice me, I would introduce myself, and leave when they weren’t paying attention. This was my interaction with Chelsea the first two times we “met.” The third time, at a reading I did at Franklin Park last September, we chatted outside at a picnic table for a while. Invariably, she leaves me wanting more each time I see her. I think this is premeditated and smart and also reflects her writing. “Pity the Animal” was the best book I remember reading in 2015. “I don’t get it,” her detractors said. “It’s only one essay.” Sure, but it was a more interesting essay than most books of essays. It was more interesting than most novels, for that matter. I read it over and over. I keep it on my bedside table. It is stark and finely edited and ends before you want it to. Most people overstay their welcome. Not Chelsea Hodson. The same could be said of every essay in her new collection, Tonight I’m Someone Else. Finally, here are fifteen new essays (along with the original, “Pity the Animal”) to study and to read and to savor.
*full disclosure, this is the second time I’ve interviewed Chelsea for Hobart. You can read our first interview here.
E.E.: Let’s start with a list of what I call “mmhmm moments” from the book, lines that made me underline them while emitting a low mmhmm to myself:
“Nothing could be more important than hurting myself in these small, private ways.”
“I have lived in America so long that money started to seem like a good idea.”
“But what if she loves her mistakes more than her life?”
“It was great the way we never kissed and still got what we wanted.”
“I’m trying to write my life down before it’s too late.”
“We were bound by cruelty, which was sharper than love. He taught me that.”
“When I washed my hands in the bar bathroom later, it was religious how long I took to lather my hands and reapply my lipstick. With every movement my body made, I grew further from myself until I was all pretend.”
“Secrecy is our currency, and we’re spending it quicker than we can make it.”
What first jumps to mind, rereading all these lines back-to-back together, in my mind, anyway, aside from their sheer beauty and aha-ness, is they have a Gatsbyesque or Fitzgeraldian feeling/quality to them, the mentions of America and money and art and Hollywood and tenderness. Which also reminds me a bit of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, the idea of image and style and reinvention and secrecy. Have you ever felt like a character in a Fitzgerald or Highsmith novel? The title of your book *is* Tonight I’m Someone Else….
C.H.: I’ve never felt like a character in a Fitzgerald or Highsmith novel, but I do love The Talented Mr. Ripley, and I think parts of that movie must have probably influenced my book somehow. I like The Talented Mr. Ripley because it takes the idea of otherness to an extreme—Tom kills in order to become someone else. I’m more interested in documenting how my life has merged with another life, and how difficult it is to be content in one’s own life. For me, what doesn’t happen is just as interesting as something that does.
E.E.: The characteristic I most associate with you as a person and with your writing is style.
“I’m trying to say what I mean without any stylistic interruptions.”
I think you may be the best self-editor currently writing. At least that I’ve read. I also love how disjointed your essays can seem, if you pause long enough to think about them (“What does information A have to do with information B in this essay? And then what’s this, information C?!). But how they actually all work, you pull it off by the end of the essay. Maybe they’re so stylistically good, it doesn’t matter that all the information doesn’t neatly tie together in a way we’re used to in essays. I also like the unexpected in writing and the occasional disjointedness kept me intrigued.
[While drinking, working on this interview, and watching special features on various Hitchcock DVDs last night, I wrote: “STYLE LIKE HITCHCOCK just came to mind. STYLE LIKE A MURDERER who gets away with murder. If I had to knee-jerk compare this book to the set of a movie it would be to Hitchcock’s Rope, or to ‘Tippi’ Hendren’s screen test for The Birds in which she walks around a very waspy living room, in front of a fireplace, in a series of very waspy cocktail dresses, while conversing flirtatiously with a man seated on a couch in a suit, as coached by an off screen Hitchcock.”]
I don’t know what all of the above means but I mean it all complimentarily. I think style is seriously lacking in all aspects of our lives today, including literature. So how important is style to you? Are you consciously thinking of style when writing? Is style a method of control? Keeping people/the audience at a safe distance?
C.H.: I hardly ever consciously think about style when I’m writing, and even when I’m editing—I think it’s more about a rhythm I can hear in the prose when I read it aloud. Even when things are disjointed, I want there to be a momentum that pushes the reader forward. In novels, I think this momentum usually comes from a plot that unfurls page by page. But for an essay that’s meandering between past and present, real and imagined, I think the way the sentences sound can push the reader along in a similar way that plot does. This is something I believe is emphasized in poetry but sometimes gets forgotten in prose. I don’t want to write something so obscured by its own style that the reader gets frustrated and puts the book down. I want the reader to get something new from an essay each time they read it, a sensation I experience with my favorite films.
E.E.: What % ‘hustle for the future’ vs what % ‘living in present moment’ would be your goal for every day? does that change with the increase of opportunity?
“My career takes off without me.”
Would you ever ‘ghost’ the literary world for a year or two or five or ten? Do you have that level of control? That level of self-confidence and self-assuredness?
I always think of the Playboy interview John and Yoko did when I feel (self) pressured to put out a book every year or publish a story every month:
ONO: John was like an artist who is very good at drawing circles. He sticks to that and it becomes his label. He has a gallery to promote that. And the next year, he will do triangles or something. It doesn’t reflect his life at all. when you continue doing the same thing for ten years, you get a prize for having done it.
LENNON: You get the big prize when you get cancer and you have been drawing circles and triangles for ten years. I had become a craftsman and I could have continued being a craftsman. I respect craftsmen, but I am not interested in becoming one.
ONO: Just to prove that you can go on dishing out things.
PLAYBOY: You’re talking about records, of course.
LENNON: Yeah, to churn them out because I was expected to, like so many people who put out an album every six months because they’re supposed to.
C.H.: Yeah, I haven’t felt that kind of pressure in a really long time. I think because youth is so highly valued in our culture that, at first, it seemed important to write a book when I was very young. But I published a few poems, a chapbook, did some readings, and there was a satisfaction in simply feeling like things were in motion. When I saw the disparity between what I was writing and the books I loved, that distance was so great that I was able to acknowledge that I still needed to work longer and harder. And after Pity the Animal was published as a chapbook, I think I did kind of “ghost” the literary world for a couple of years. I was around, but I went very inward and went back to school and stopped publishing. By the time I graduated, my book was nearly done.
I think it’s interesting that you designate “hustle for the future” and “living in the present moment” as separate entities, since, for me, they’re pretty indistinguishable. All throughout writing the book, I had to balance working several part-time jobs while fitting in writing whenever I could. That, to me, is one big hustle. When I was young, I assumed only rich people wrote books. As I got older, I saw how I might pursue writing in a different way I had envisioned—a path that would take much longer, but I became patient.
That line you mention, “My career takes off without me” is a reference to how separate I feel from my writing sometimes. When I published “Pity the Animal,” I would sometimes feel as if someone else had written it. Once it was in print, I had officially extracted it from my mind and my body. How could it still belong to me?
E.E.: The first essay in your collection is titled, “Red Letters from a Red Planet,” and is about both working for NASA and dating a man named Cody who is a graffiti artist and a little bit criminal, a little bit violent. So why did I feel like I was instantly drawn to Cody? What is it about men like Cody that attracts women like us? At least in our youth? Is it that violence feels like emotion? Feels like sex? That it’s the opposite of control and style and us?
C.H.: I would say that violence reminds me of death, which made me feel alive. And yes, that element of loss of control was key for me as well. But I wasn’t so intellectual about it at the time. All I knew is that I would have rather died than be without him. That’s why I wrote about him—I’m still learning things about myself from how I was with him. I think what we had was wild and special all the way until it wasn’t.
That kind of wildness is something I’ve sought out in friends, too, so it’s not just a relationship thing. Like in the essay, “Small Crimes,” I was drawn to the bad girl at camp because I was fascinated by how wild she was. These people don’t tend to remain life long friends, but they are the type of people that stay with me in my mind forever, and I’m grateful for that.
E.E.: I love your essay, “Simple Woman,” about working at American Apparel (and at the Black and White store, before that). About the latter, you write,
“I thought the job would feel sleazy, but I loved being in a store full of women.”
I felt similarly about working at Victoria’s Secret years ago. Every day felt a little like Christmas, opening shipments of new clothes, picking out stuff to set aside for payday, gossiping with (female) coworkers about (female) customers, trying on perfumes and lotions when the store was dead, and just generally being surrounded by women. It was probably the closest I came to living in a dorm with women or being in a sorority or on a female sports team…You don’t mention female friendships or women too much in this collection (there was one, maybe two, very quick mentions of your sister late in the book and prior to them I had assumed you were an only child), other than this line about being in a store full of women and the other Chelsea, and I wonder if that’s because as challenging as male/female relationships are, female/female relationships, when platonic, can be even more challenging?
I also love this essay because I love picturing you pre-being a writer, as more Harriet-the-Spy, a brunette Veronica Lake, out in the world, working various jobs, taking mental notes for later. I love all your observations and asides. Did you keep a diary or journals? Do you think you’ll ever again have a job unrelated to writing?
C.H.: The essay “Small Crimes” is all about female friendship, and I have a couple other sections in the book about female friends that were extremely meaningful to me, but the book mainly became about life-altering love and desire, so friendship doesn’t always fit into that narrative. In fact, I’ve often sacrificed friends who didn’t approve of my ill-fated relationships.
In the first essay, I write about not keeping a journal because “I thought anything important would stay with me. Perhaps it has.” That has continued to be true to this day—I rarely write things down as they’re happening anymore. I’m content to return to them later, because I find it difficult to perceive the importance or significance of certain events as they’re happening. And I still have non-writing jobs, they’re just more part-time than they used to be, as I’ve made room for more teaching opportunities, which I really enjoy.
E.E.: In an essay titled, “Second Row,” you write about going to punk shows in Phoenix and falling in love with the singer in a punk band, and in the essay you refer to Phoenix as the “ugliest city in the world.” Which to me sounds sort of glamorous. Like The Sex Pistols or, specifically, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, or GG Allin. Maybe I’m confusing glamour with violence (again). Or ugliness with violence. Or glamour with ugliness.
The most violent year of my life (to date – there’s still time!) was the year I lived in Mesa, Arizona. Do you think Arizona is the most violent state? (Phoenix – ugliest city; Arizona – most violent state. What’s holding us back from moving there right now?!)
How did you end up, at age seventeen, at a punk show in the ugliest city in the world, by yourself? Were you into the music? Were you just looking for an escape from suburbia?
C.H.: I like that you read it that way, because I certainly think there is a beauty within “ugliness”—or beauty in extremes, which is where I think ugliness belongs. I wouldn’t call GG Allin beautiful, but his extreme ugliness makes him fascinating and memorable—that’s the kind of thing I have a hard time looking away from.
I went to that DIY venue at least once a week—my entire high school existence was built around being able to go there. I worked so I’d have enough money to pay for gas and records, I studied so I’d have grades good enough to go, and I behaved myself at home so that my parents would allow me to take their cars and go out alone. My father later revealed that he once followed me to make sure I wasn’t lying, but once he saw my car parked outside a show, they just let me do my thing. I was a good kid, but I was definitely looking for an escape from suburbia—the shows I went to were visceral and physical in a way that was thrilling for me. The venue didn’t have A/C, so a crowded show in the summer there was brutally hot—I’d come out of a show bruised, sweaty, and utterly depleted.
E.E.: THIS IS MY LANA DEL REY QUESTION(S):
On page 132, I wrote in the margin of your essay, “Artist Statement,” “Lana Del Rey lyrics?”
“I wear black but feel blue.”
“I want to fall in love but I don’t know how to be good.”
“I want to be good but I think I was born bad.”
“I sent you a poem but you didn’t listen to it.”
I think I may have written that, though, because The New York Times Magazine was opened on the table above my notebook and I could see both your name and Lana Del Rey’s name from where I was sitting — the magazine was open to a one-page article you wrote about her. In the article you wrote:
“Over the past few years, [Lana] has seemed like the poster girl for sad songs about bad men. She has turned toward something much lighter now, perhaps the beginning of her version of happiness.”
Which leads me to two questions:
1) Will Lana, in writing lyrics that are happier, sunnier, lighter, be less interesting? I read somewhere, recently, that if you write a negative review of something, you seem smarter and more interesting. If you write books or songs about being sad or conflicted, you will probably seem smarter and more interesting than if you wrote happy songs and books, no? Is happiness something to be suspicious or wary of, then, as an artist?
2) If Lana has been the poster girl for sad songs about bad men, what would you say you have been or are the poster girl for?
But also a 3rd question I almost forgot: Has Lana Del Rey been an influence on you?
C.H.: For me personally, Lana Del Rey’s happiness is interesting because it seems to be a shift from her former outlook on life, at least as an artist. Her suffering was never the main reason I liked her, but I do love her tragic songs the most. Boring pop songs about optimism and empowerment seemed to be what people wanted for a long time, so it surprised me how popular Lana Del Rey became while singing about self-destruction as a kind of love. That’s an extreme position to take—I admired her devotion to writing about it and I still do.
I think she’s influenced me in terms of how I think idea of a persona. Much has been speculated about her “authenticity,” which I think is irrelevant. I like the idea of making art from different versions of oneself, and I like watching artists play their roles well, the way actors do. In essays, I think there’s this notion that the writer is one hundred percent the person speaking in the essay. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s just one voice from one point in time. Once, after I read a sad essay in public, several women came up to ask if I was “okay.” I wasn’t emotional reading the essay, I simply had written about something sad and difficult, and they perceived me as being perpetually sad about it. This seems like a failure to understand the idea of persona in literature—something I think many people have failed to understand in Lana as well.
E.E.: MY RITA HAYWORTH QUESTION:
Speaking of style and image and persona, Rita Hayworth famously said, “They go to bed with Gilda, they wake up with me.” Or something to that effect. Gilda being her most famous role.
Do you think that’s a legit fear for a female artist/writer/musician? The fear of disappointing anyone you let in close?
C.H.: I’ve known more men than women that have encountered this issue, actually. I think people long for heroes and idols, so it becomes easier to idealize someone than it is to acknowledge someone’s flaws and complexities. Rita Hayworth (not her real name) went through rigorous beauty surgeries and procedures to lighten her hair and change her hairline to appear less ethnic, so I think she, like many celebrities, pinned herself into a corner where she ends up resenting the new, false version of herself that everyone else perceives. I don’t worry about disappointing people—and in fact I usually don’t let people in at all. Despite writing nonfiction and being on social media, I actually consider myself to be a somewhat private person.
E.E.: At the beginning of your essay, “Artist Statement,” you have a quote from the movie Before Sunset:
“I think I wrote it, in a way, to try to find you.”
—Jesse (Ethan Hawke) to Celine (Julie Delpy)
I remember watching those movies, the first two, especially. Why did you include that bit of dialogue here, and do you think any part of you wanted to be a writer because of those movies?
C.H.: “Artist Statement” is a series of statements that begin with “I’m trying,” and it was written in response to my friend Steven telling me to “write about not having any ideas” (which appears in the essay itself). That gave me something to react against—I thought, OK, what am I trying to do when I write? And because I was thinking about the words “try” and “trying” so much, I remembered this line from Before Sunset, and wanted to put it at the beginning. By trying to find “you,” I think the “you” can become a kind of answer or destination, as it often does in life.
E.E.: In one of your essays, “The Id Speaks, Mid-Transformation,” you say you like going out alone – “so that I’m accountable to no one.”
Some of the times I was in NYC alone, were the most memorable, and maybe the most enjoyable. I remember walking through Central Park alone, going to the zoo, buying a hot dog…I remember a time I went to see a play by Pinter alone, and I left at intermission without any guilt, which I probably wouldn’t have had I been with someone…This might be boring for other people, but I’m just curious if you go to many plays alone, and if you have any desires to ever write a play. I ask because that’s a lifelong goal of mine and also because I think you’d be good at it.
C.H.: Thank you. I have never written a play, and I’ve only been to a handful in my life. I can imagine writing a play, but I think I’d like to make a record first. I write songs and play guitar privately—it’s a kind of secret that I’d like to make public someday.
E.E.: Finally, why were you checking out books about private investigators?
“Are you going undercover? the librarian asked me once as I checked out books about private investigators. I said, If I were, do you think I’d tell you?”
Or if you told us, would you have to kill us?
C.H.: I’m always looking for ways to pay more attention. I thought maybe I could be a better writer if I knew what private investigators knew, if I could see a clue for what it was. I’m still learning.