“Dear…”: Ben Greeman Talks with Emily Gould About Writing

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

By Ben Greenman

“Letters do take over for diaries. When you fall in love with someone, they become your repository.”

Emily Gould is the author of the memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever…, which reflects on her recent experiences, from high school through her life as a young media professional (and single woman) in New York City. In 2008, Gould wrote a cover story for The New York Times Magazine entitled, Exposed—seemingly the beginnings of her recent memoir. Ben Greenman, an editor at The New Yorker and the author of books like Superbad and Please Step Back, writes fiction that buries autobiographical material under layers of narrative invention. His forthcoming collection of stories, What He’s Poised to Do, is set partly on the moon, where he has never lived, and it investigates how letters operate as autobiographical tools. Gould and Greenman met to discuss memoir, letters, diaries, and writing, from Anne Frank to

Ben Greeman: I am always curious about the pre-writing that writers did as kids. Did you keep a diary?

Emily Gould: Yes. Around eight I started keeping one. I still have it. It’s very embarrassing to read because of how evil and petty I was as an eight-year -old. One of the earliest entries is about how jealous I was of the attention my little brother was getting because he had broken his leg. I continued to keep it throughout middle school and high school and only stopped when I got my first serious boyfriend. My theory is that this happens to many people. You stop because you have a person to tell all this stuff to. How about you?

Greenman: I tried to keep a journal but was bad at it. I was good at acquiring the hardware. I had dozens of fancy blank books. But when I sat down to write in them, I couldn’t figure out how to make the damn things work. The entries were about my life, which meant that they were boring: “Mom and Dad went out–left me with Aaron and Josh. Were back at 7.” The things in my head were more interesting, but I didn’t know how to get them down.

Gould: I tried to write every day. It wasn’t just reporting. It was reflection and analysis. There were little narratives. Many girls learn the format of diary writing from Anne Frank, which is an epistolary form in which you write to your all-knowing nonexistent best friend. “Dear Diary, you’re not going to believe what happened today.” Also, I drew pictures.

Greenman: I think that idea of the nonexistent best friend escaped me. It was a struggle for me to keep it going without an audience. I wrote lots of letters, from very early. I wrote letters to people who lived in the same house with me. When I was nine, I had a pen pal, a girl in Baltimore. I think that I liked playing around with voice and pacing and, also, imagining that I was making other people–ideally girls–laugh.

Gould: Letters do take over for diaries. When you fall in love with someone, they become your repository. My high school boyfriend kept and saved every letter and note. He compiled an album of these letters along with photos of us, which I guess is normal, and also movie stubs from movies we’d been to, which maybe isn’t as normal. He made this big book and presented it to me in a very ceremonial fashion at some point in our relationship. I was in the mode of adoration but at that moment I remember feigning enthusiasm.

Greenman: That’s a great transition to talking about memoir. Your ex-boyfriend’s book, the one with all the photos and the movie stubs, is a kind of memoir.

Gould: Right. It’s his story of the relationship.

Greenman: And it may be crude in some ways, but it’s sophisticated in other ways. The most interesting thing about it, to me, is that he probably thought it was objectively true. He was just documenting the relationship. But my argument—and it’s why I have always written fiction and been suspicious of memoirs and memoirists, even you—is that the more allegedly objective it is, the less accurate it is.

Gould: Well, one of the struggles I had with writing this memoir is that I don’t have a great memory. I had smoked lots of pot.

Greenman: You remember that.

Gould: I remember it vaguely. I have a few friends I’ve had for going on twenty years, and at least two of them have very different kinds of memory from me. They remember things that I said that just aren’t in my memory. But I have to believe that the details I am lucky enough to retain are there for a reason. When I started writing this memoir, which isn’t even about things from that long ago, even, it was a big effort to dredge up some of this stuff. I worked at remembering.

Greenman: How do you work at remembering? Do you walk around the neighborhoods where you lived?

Gould: Not really. I don’t know. It’s not an organized process. Though there’s one story, The Koi Pond, that’s about going to the apartment of someone who claims to be a movie director, and I started writing that story because I happened to pass that guy on the sidewalk recently. I didn’t remember the episode at all until that moment, and then it all came back to me. That wasn’t a story I had told to anyone else, or myself, before.

Greenman: I want to get back to something you said about your friends and how their memories differ from yours. This is something that’s almost terrifyingly foreign to a fiction writer. Why would other people’s sense of events matter at all? But since you are writing about actual other people, you have to consider, even fleetingly, what they remember of the same events.

Gould: Right. I gave my friend Bennett, who is in the book, the first chapter. I didn’t need him to fact check it but I was curious to hear what he’d think. He gave it back to me and he was like, “Great. Only one thing: I didn’t start smoking until college and you have us smoking in the car.” I had a James Frey moment. I kept it.

Greenman: There’s a short story in my book about a guy who goes back to Miami after two decades. He drives by this long, low building and remembers that it once housed a law office where he worked. This triggers a whole memory for him of a relationship, and a betrayal. This particular story is extremely autobiographical, and as I wrote it, I kept changing small things to conceal the real people. In a way, that’s what my fiction ends up being: memoir that is overpainted until you can’t see, but maybe you can sense, the original image. Were you worried about offending people, or about people feeling like they were misrepresented by your version of the story?

Gould: You definitely cannot curate or control what people say about you, who’s offended by what. So why try?

Greenman: But I have a philosophical problem with people being in other people’s books. I don’t think it’s avoidable at all, but it’s such a powerful thing to tell a story. Recently, I was talking to Scott Lindenbaum, from [the short story site] Electric Literature, and he’s interested in doing a project where he finds people who are characters in other people’s memoirs and lets them tell their story. Those issues, of course, are things I mostly avoid by writing fiction.

Gould: There’s plausible deniability for a novelist.

Greenman: And I’m grateful for it. I want to shift over a bit, and talk about structure. In fiction, things happen and then they are resolved. And since fiction is inherently artificial, you generally show only those moments of eventfulness. For you, how did you do this? I ask because your memoir isn’t one of those cases where there’s one formative trauma, like the story of your year as a teenage prostitute. It’s a more general coming-of-age story. So how did you know where the edges of the story were?

Gould: It’s a fantastic question and an important question. I don’t know. The nicest compliment I’ve gotten is that Meghan Daum said I had really good endings for all the episodes. Endings don’t exist in life until you die. This is not an original thought but it’s very hard to finish things. It’s like how landing a plane is harder than flying it.

Greenman: But also, your book resists landing too definitively: there’s no giant epiphany at the end.

Gould: People seem to really love addiction memoirs. Any memoir where something sad and bad is happening to the person who is writing and then later they get to be healed and cured, happier, eating Italian food in Italy. It makes you feel okay about how much you related to them when they were describing puking out their stomach lining and their teeth. My book doesn’t necessarily show things getting better, and people are stuck having related to me when I was in that problematic place. I think they sometimes resent me for leaving them there.

Greenman: Did you read memoir always?

Gould: Yes, all kinds. Also fiction that was heavily autobiographical. Bad Behavior, say, by Mary Gaitskill.

Greenman: Were you drawn to it as a proto-writer? As a voyeur?

Gould: Who knows why we like the stuff we like?

Greenman: We do, right? I don’t like travel writing. I always had a hard time with it, even excellent writers like Bruce Chatwin or Paul Theroux. Either I hadn’t been to the place, so I didn’t have context, or I had been there and I had a different experience. Memoir sometimes affects me that way, and even heavily autobiographical fiction. I liked, and still mostly like, things that aren’t explicitly autobiographical but that have it all encoded in there. Whether it’s Stanley Elkin or Mary Robison or Joy Williams or Jonathan Lethem or Gary Shtenygart, I like the code, not the decode.

Gould: As I get older, I’m less interested in things that are overtly formulaic. When you are starting out, you want to read those kinds of things to learn.

Greenman: Also, some writers live to get material for writing. There’s a kind of memoir that is the result of people putting themselves intentionally in plot’s way. I’m thinking of a book called Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, by two men and a woman who were UN Peacekeeping volunteers. They knew that writing-worthy things would happen to them. Your book isn’t really like that.

Gould: Not at all. Many people have their bag of anecdotes: the ones they use when they first meet you at a party or when they are sitting next to you on a plane. These aren’t the stories I used in my book.

Greenman: I want to wrap up by talking a little bit about technology. Your book is partly about working at Gawker, the Internet gossip site, and you have blogged for years. In general, you’ve used, and possibly been used by, technology.

Gould: And your book doesn’t have any Internet in it, right?

Greenman: Right. One story had e-mail but I took it out.

Gould: Why?

Greenman: It’s a book of stories about letters and letter writing, and since most of the letters are to lovers or ex-lovers, they tend to be forms of self-presentation. But the way people present themselves now are so different than they used to be. If I met you twenty years ago, I wouldn’t know your birthday, and your hometown, and your favorite music, because there was no Facebook profile. Someone I know ran into a friend he hadn’t seen in years. The friend said something like “Oh, I am reconnecting with my stepbrother,” and the first guy said, “Yeah, I know. I saw it on your status update.” So that’s a memoir issue, for me. I think I am trying to describe a time when people had less control and, maybe because of that, took more care in how they presented themselves.

Gould: I don’t think the Internet is either all evil or all good. In some ways it has exposed me too much. In some ways, it has made me too careful. In some ways, it has let me control how people see me, and in some ways it has taken away all control.

Greenman: That seems like a good place to end. So just one more question: What’s your Six-Word Memoir?

Gould: The first tagline on my personal blog, going on six years ago, was “I have a blog so you don’t have to,” but now that seems pompous and also it doesn’t seem to have deterred anyone. Plus, it’s too many words. I think I’ll go with “Giving you pieces of my mind.” It sounds generous, sort of. And you?

Greenman: “Not enough words to finish the…”

Greenman will be discussing his book on June 2 at the Freerange Nonfiction Reading series in NYC, along with SMITH editors Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleier.

Ben Greenman photo: Dorothy Hong; Emily Gould photo courtsey of Free Press.


VISIT Ben Greenman’s website.

BUY What He’s Poised to Do, by Ben Greenman.

SUBMIT to “Letters With Character,” Greenman’s new blog in which readers write real letters to literary characters.

VISIT Emily Gould’s website, and follow her on Twitter.

BUY And The Heart Says Whatever, by Emily Gould.

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