When Cool Girls Grow Up (And Stay Cool As Hell)

An interview with author Claire Dederer about her new memoir, the songs that make us sad, and writing about what makes us uncomfortable

Author Claire Dederer's new memoir, Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, blew my mind. I kept putting the book down to look around my apartment, like, How can she see me? As with the best memoirists, Dederer knows how to find the places where the deeply personal becomes the profoundly universal.

Dederer’s first memoir, the bestseller Poser, focuses on yoga and motherhood. In Love and Trouble, she turns her razor-sharp wit to sex and aging. After years of working her ass off to succeed as a journalist and teacher, a parent and a wife, Dederer finds herself in her mid-forties, suddenly grounded by an inexplicable sadness: “Maybe a woman’s version of a mid-life crisis involves stopping doing stuff?”

She pores over old journals and photos, rediscovering the “pirate slut of a girl” she was in '80s and '90s Seattle. She remembers the sex, the music, the trouble. The book jumps back and forth between her older and younger selves, tangling them together in ways that are daring and hilarious and smart as hell. I will come back to this book again and again to be reminded not to judge my own younger self; to let her astonish me; to learn from her; and, even when it seems impossible, to let go. I’ll also come back as a writer, to figure out how Dederer did that.

We spoke on the phone immediately after watching former FBI director James Comey's Senate testimony, both of us rattled by the proceedings.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

MTV News: I keep thinking of a passage from Love and Trouble where you describe the deep sadness you experienced in your mid-forties, a “world-terror that sometimes sent me to bed in the middle of the day.” Does that line mean something different to you since the election?

Claire Dederer: I’ve been asked several times since the book came out, “Are you still sad?” And I’m not, not in the way I was before. I do feel like it was a season in hell that I passed through. But now I’m in despair and sad and confused every day because of our political situation. So the question is: Is it harder or easier to be sad with a reason? This character — the person I am in the book — has no reason to be sad. Now it’s like history has become an abusive parent, like, “I’ll give you a reason!”

One of the things I appreciated about the book is that there aren’t clear reasons or tidy resolutions. You let your life be messy.

Dederer: As somebody who’s written, read, and taught a lot of memoir, I have thought almost exclusively about the problem of resolution for the past few years. You have this epiphanic solution at the end of the book, and there’s a transformation. My first book [Poser] has that shape. But that’s not how I feel. That’s not my experience with life. In trying to get memoir to fit more closely to reality, I wanted to not resolve, not have my character get better.

It’s interesting how you illustrated that by using so many different literary forms in the book.

Dederer: I was trying to write a straightforward piece, but it wasn’t working. It wasn’t the story I was trying to tell. So I would sneak off and write these play forms, like the ABCs, or the case study, or the second person. At this point, I was into year four, five — I worked on this book for a long time. And my friend Victoria said, “You’ve already written the book. It’s like [Jennifer Egan's 2010 novel] A Visit from the Goon Squad.” I was like, that’s a fictional form, you can’t just write like that as a memoir! And then I looked, and it was like, Oh my lord.

All of a sudden this book that had been inert — and in many ways, for years, joyless — took on a new energy. The forms gave me this comic distance from the self, so writing that had been self-pitying, or mournful, or bullshit lyricism, was all of a sudden funny. I went for a walk the other day with this nice mom and she said this amazing thing: that the patchwork nature of the forms are a reflection of sexuality itself. The book is asserting that sexuality lives inside us, and in the culture, and in the people who do things to us — and the forms reflect that. I was like, Wow, OK.

The literary forms relate to time period, as well. Like your high school years, written as a map of the street where you hung out. Or your time at Oberlin, which is presented as an alphabet, or the letters to Roman Polanski. The jumping-around feeling works because that’s how memory works, especially in the Young Claire scenes, in her teens and early twenties, when she’s drinking a lot.

Dederer: Drinking and taking drugs. I think there was also a sort of druggie or trance-like nature to the way that I used sex as a child.

Can you talk more about that?

Dederer: Drinking and drugging make it so your reality flies away from you. Your body and your mind are not present. I loved that feeling as a kid. For me, the strongest way to have that feeling was love and sex. Not only did I enjoy it — that feeling of being transported — but because I was so boy-identified, first as a tomboy and then [as] a girl who liked to sleep with boys.

You describe your younger self in the book as “horrible.” That adjective really struck me.

Dederer: I wrote a piece maybe 10 years ago about being young and being a fuck-up, screw-up, whatever, and I noticed how upset it made me. That was the moment when I realized, Wow, I really hate this person. I really, really hate her. I think as a memoirist, if there’s something that makes you uncomfortable, that’s something to go toward. But I didn’t know that I was going to write a book about her.

In the first chapter, you’re in the basement looking at old photos and journals. Did you know then you were writing about this version of yourself?

Dederer: When I was really sad, I would be like a little kid wiggling a loose tooth or touching a sore spot — there were things that I did to make myself sadder. It was almost as if I were luxuriant in my own melancholy. Looking at the diaries and thinking about my old self, thinking about my lost youth — that was part of that project of making myself totally miserable.

That makes me think about the songs we listen to when we're sad. We’re not going to make ourselves feel better if we put on Belle and Sebastian.

Dederer: Did you know I followed them on tour [a few years ago]? Right around the time this was staring to happen, I got really into Belle & Sebastian. I have good taste. I know what’s wrong with Belle & Sebastian. I have good taste. I’m a punk-rock person; I know what’s wrong with Belle and Sebastian. But everything that is maudlin about them is what I love. I only like the songs Stuart sings, and it’s when he’s at his most Murdoch and hopelessly sentimental that I love him the most. A lot of his writing, when it’s the saddest, is also the most hilariously funny, like "Lazy Line Painter Jane." This is so pretentious, but he also steals form. That’s the genius of Belle and Sebastian — songs like "Stay Loose" or "Your Cover’s Blown" are pastiche, stolen forms that he’s then reclaiming and making something new and fun and sad out of.

What else were you into then — books, films, music?

Dederer: I was so vulnerable to music during this period. And at a certain point, when my despair became so overwhelming, I just couldn’t listen anymore. I became desensitized, and that was one of the sadnesses. I lost music for a couple of years. I just couldn’t handle it. The film I was into was Melancholia, by Lars von Trier, which is about the end of the world. I loved how extravagantly sad it was, and I loved that he used this Wagnerian soundtrack that was totally about the glamour of despair. It went directly to this adolescent ability to access sadness and real feeling. I think that what I knew as a teenager, and what I rediscovered in my mid-forties, was — aside from the primacy of sexual desire and how strongly it rules me — this idea that we are lucky to feel something. Even if that something is sadness.

So much of the book speaks to those feelings when we’re young — high school and college and our twenties. There’s such pressure to be a part of a scene, an era, an energy.

Dederer: I grew up in this cool scene in Seattle, but it was completely ruled by boys. I think that you can't really go that far down this discussion without acknowledging that — despite lots of people to the contrary, and not at all to denigrate their contribution — it's a male scene. I just figured out ways to slot in as a girl, which were often sexual. I think that's the part that is excruciating to remember. I wish I would have been more of a maker. I wish I would have been more of a writer. I wish I would have not subsumed my will to every boy I had a passing fancy about. That's the part that is horrifying.

I have read many interviews with you where you’ve talked about what you’d want to say to your younger self. What would you say to girls now, growing up in 2017 and living in a world where hopefully this is changing?

Dederer: I feel like I'm supposed to say something like, Your sexuality belongs to you, and think about your own desire. I believe that. But what I really want to say is something that I see girls knowing already, especially as a mother of an 18-year-old artist: Your work and your point of view are important. They are worth representing. I think that is a very normal thing to say now, but it was absolutely radical when I was young.

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