By the time you get to the murder it’s going to seem like a cough: An Interview with Andrea Seigel
I met Andrea Seigel ~5 years ago while we were both at Bennington. Unlike most writers, she was more down to talk about soap operas and strange medical conditions and wicked dance moves than book junk, which those familiar with her work probably won’t find at all surprising. So far she’s published three books of young adult fiction, of a voice surprising I think to even that genre: often wry and dark and funny, though also carrying heavy material in a rather elegantly surreptitious way. Over the past several weeks we traded emails about her latest book, The Kid Table, as well as the influence of TV and screenwriting, narrative function, daily process, the influence of the internet, particularly twitter (of which, her feed is one of my constant favorites), and more.
BB: I remember when we were in school you said you would often write in front of the TV or with the TV on, and maybe that you couldn’t write without it that way? Is that right, and do you do that still? How does that work, or what does it allow you?
AS: i used to be like that and then i don’t know why, but i didn’t want to do it anymore. maybe it was getting high-speed internet– i didn’t used to have that, and now the combination activity is that i watch tv and fuck around on the internet. around 2008 i was still writing everything but novels with the tv on, like i wrote a screenplay and an sat audiobook that year. but i started writing my young adult book to complete quiet. you know, that could also have something to do with the fact that my boyfriend was basically living with me during that period, and then he was actually living with me, and we were in one room.
the reason i used to write with the tv on was because one, there weren’t enough hours of the day to get everything in that i wanted to get in, so i had to double up. and two, i used to feel that watching tv while i was writing helped me be less neurotic about writing because i’d be half thinking about a performance on “american idol” and half thinking about my book, and maybe this is a false memory, but i remember my first book getting written so easily and so fast that way, like i don’t remember ever being stuck.
BB: So the internet is a fuel for you? I always found it funny that people talk about how they can’t write because of the internet, because I can’t write without it. Does the distraction feed you, keep your brain changing, or what is it about it? Is it different when you are working on a book versus a screenplay?
AS: well, it’s complicated. on one hand, i can just spend hours and hours reading about what britney spears is up to and clicking through pictures of ice-t’s wife coco’s ass and reading every entry in my twitter feed in this really OCD way, so sometimes i feel like i was much better off when i had AOL dial-up because it kept the internet more confined. that’s why i told you when i last saw you, “i want to move to savannah” because i have some fantasy of dropping off facebook, dropping off twitter, and barely looking at the internet (like they don’t have internet there or something) if i lived there. i know that everything i look at on the internet ultimately feeds into whatever i do because i’m a person with VERY limited interests and so the things i’m drawn to are the same pockets i work in. but some days i want to kill myself when every joke i think of for twitter is bullshit, and then that obviously makes it hard to feel like working on a novel too. that’s when it’s bad.
but mostly i agreed with this colson whitehead editorial i read on publisher weekly’s website yesterday, which basically boiled down to the message that you’re a pussy if you don’t recognize that you can look at things on the internet sometimes, and then stop looking at things. that’s how i feel. i only get inescapably sucked into the internet when i’m being lazy. otherwise, when i need to get myself riled up enough about writing a book or whatever it is, then i just go and do it and watch a few less british make-up tutorial videos on youtube.
what do you mean that you can’t write without out? like you can’t sit still and work unless you have fun things to look at in another window?
BB: I agree, that Whitehead piece was really needed, as a reminder that, for me at least, that kind of feed of the surrounding world can be rejuvenating, even while it eats your time. I don’t know, I like to have the onslaught of things coming at my head, and then write in streams of focus and click back out, have somewhere to go and not slog through writing endlessly. It’s like a perpetual reset button, though it can get the better of you if you let it, I imagine. If I didn’t have that set up at this point, like I was writing in a log cabin, I would feel claustrophobic and antsy and weird, whereas the internet lets me feel like I’m in a much bigger room, even if the room is idiotic.
I think that leads into a thing that’s always interested me, which is the way different voices come out at different times. Like, reading your twitter feed, which is always hilarious and crass in certain ways, seems set off in a big way from your fiction, particularly where you are writing for young adults. Your voice is still clearly you, and still with that addictive attitude and spirit, but it seems like there are different modes you switch between, things you let yourself say or not, which makes me wonder what the difference is when you are writing. I mean, writing a tweet is different than a story or a novel obviously, but there is still a craft there when you do it right, and it comes from someone in there.
I guess what I’m asking is, do you see yourself in the novelist mode as under a certain poise? Do you control certain tendencies you might let out elsewhere? Is writing a novel an act of self control, or self aiming in a way?
Also, where and how often do you write?
AS: what you said about the log cabin makes you such a miranda. you’ll only get that if you were into “sex and the city.”
you think my twitter feed is crass? i had this special olympics joke pop into my head the other day, and my boyfriend brent was like, “no. andrea. no. NO. you write books.” and what he meant by that was that if you’re a comedian, people will generally assume that you’re saying insensitive things via a comedic character you’ve invented. (that didn’t work so well for gilbert gottfried and his tsunami tweets, but i get what he was doing.) i’m not a comedian. so since i’m a book writer, then it seems like maybe people don’t allow as much for that separation. not that i believe it would crush my book sales or anything because i don’t have book sales big enough to crush, but brent was just saying, “you don’t want it to be like ‘author andrea seigel hates special olympics participants’.”
so about twitter, i feel like that feed is one of the closer things i’ve ever done to my true sensibility because i just value humor above all else. it’s so much harder to do than any kind of ‘serious’ or beautiful writing. i think a lot of people can write a beautiful passage. but it’s so fucking hard to write a joke that’s successful, and i have the worst time trying to maintain some kind of steadiness with it, but that’s also why it seems worth doing. like i said, i’m not a comedian and i’m not super great at it, but comedians are who i want to read on twitter. when i first opened that account, i initially had a bunch of writer and literary followers because this author who sent me fan email years ago told her followers, “hey everyone, annnnnndrea seigel’s here!” but a lot of those people were doing writing-as-birth-metaphor tweets and inspiration-for-writing tweets and talking-about-your-characters-like-they’re-real-people tweets and they were wanting to read those kinds of tweets, and honestly, i just can’t take that shit. i just can’t. and i was doing vagina tweets. so i get these notifications about who’s unfollowed me because i’m obsessive like that, and maybe a year into me being on twitter, i saw that that author finally dropped me. i was relieved because i could unfollow her too. she liked one of my books, but in “real life”, we’re not for each other. there’s just this whole side of being “a writer” that i’m not into at all, and i can’t help it.
so anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying that the twitter stuff is very much me, and the book stuff is me too, although yes, the young adult stuff is less me, not because i’m not interested in the teenage worldview– that’s almost all i write about– but because ya feels softer to me than i want it to. my first two books are a better look into my personality, i think. the last book is tonally me, but a little neutered, and that’s partially because i knew i was working in a genre, and partially because of some editing i was asked to implement.
as for where i write, these days i’m working in what’s technically the second bedroom or the office, but it’s really our catch-all room because it has the treadmill nobody runs on, a TV that’s not plugged in, decorative pillows we don’t know what to do with, etc. i built a kind of fort using this navajo patterned chair i bought my boyfriend, and i like to write backed up against the wall, blocked by the chair and then another rolling chair and the decorative pillows. it was more chaotic until yesterday, when my boyfriend finally had it and decided he wanted to organize that room. and i got upset with him, like, “now you’ve really gone and messed this situation up.”
as for how often i write, when i’m writing a novel, i do 2 double-spaced 10-point courier new pages a day. one page during the day. one at 11 at night.
i have a picture of you just writing all day. is that true?
BB: God, yeah, that duality of certain kinds of personas who forget that the point of twitter, at least to me, is to be entertaining, or at least to say things that someone else might be interested in hearing maybe, or if not even that then to realize you’re talking in a public forum and conceivably the medium is both spontaneous and yet meditated: shit, like I don’t need you try to sell me something, but also don’t want to hear every time you turn right in your car. Learning how to share what and who is listening and who responds to what is pretty interesting I think, and can be a good tool for people to see how their ideas work. Or just to get shit out. Writers not wanting to hear about yr vagina but wanting to hear about word counts or whatever, that’s hilarious and so true.
Heh, I don’t know if I mean crass as much as I mean like you’re being very honest and yet in a carefully toned way, that works a lot like stand up, yeah. I worry a lot about things like your boyfriend is saying sometimes, about what will I say that will make people think I’m a racist or something when really I’m just playing a game. Who a person is and how they are conceived especially online is really interesting, and I think that variance between your work and your persona, and the overlappings and back and forth there is fun to watch. It makes you an actual person, or maybe an ePerson, more than just a book does. I think I mess with this stuff now as much as I write each day: I’m in front of the computer thinking all the time but half the time I’m maybe typing and half I’m wallowing around and clicking on crap, which I think feeds the other in a different kind of back n forth.
Anyway, let’s talk about your new book. One of the most addictive and defining things about your prose is the observational asides and ways of referring things, that almost have the most in common with the way of speaking we’ve been talking about online. Do you think in ideas mainly, and plan what is going to happen? Or do you kind of let yourself talk and see what comes out? Or some mix of the two? Has this changed since your first book up to The Kid Table?
AS: i think you’ve really got a solid twitter character going, and so you could write something really questionable and i’d just laugh. i also really like your version of “writer” tweets, like “the gang sign for writers is a thumb up yr butt” and “every book every written belongs in the horror section.” because writing gets treated a lot like it’s coal mining, and it’s not. i mean, it can be an incredibly shitty way to spend your day and it has made me more depressed than i’ve ever been in my life, but it’s generally sitting in a chair. maybe i’d be a little more flexible about “i birthed three pages this morning” tweets if those pages had been written from prison and carved into the wall via an exposed toe bone. maybe we should just turn this interview into “favorite and least favorite tweets.”
anyway, i laughed when i read the “defining thing about your prose” statement you made because i pictured you having to read randomized pages of kid table on amazon’s “look before you buy” feature. so yeah, in storytelling, i’m definitely most interested in the way that a narrator/person might process the things they’re seeing or going through, and i’m way less interested in the actual things. sometimes i wish i could be like those writers who can come up with these intense plots and subplots and every page has a cliffhanger. but when left to my own inclinations, the fact is i just end up slowing things down, like, “oh, there’s a murder coming up? let me tell you about the trip to home depot to buy the murder supplies for ten pages, and by the time you get to the murder, it’s going to seem like a cough.” that’s just how i see the world. when i go to a party, i don’t come home and talk about the party as an event. i microanalyze how people were behaving and why they were behaving that way and why certain decorative choices were made and what was going on in people’s eyes when they were describing what they do for a living. which is why i think every book of mine has received at least one review that basically says, “nothing happens,” although to me, a ton of stuff does. with panda, i was coming off feeling very suicidal and i knew i wanted to write a book about a girl who commits suicide, and most importantly, that the book would try to be an explanation of feelings that you couldn’t distill down into a trigger event. so i guess you could even look at that book as a microcosm of how i feel about plot. events are secondary to me, and it’s the examination of events that seems worthwhile. this is called “not living in the moment.”
with the second book, i wrote an even less plot driven narrative than with panda, but by the time that book got published, it had been completely restructured and rewritten because the first version confused everyone (except my best friend geoff and my mom). with kid table, i actually sat down and told myself, “you’re going to write some fucking plot!!” because i knew that young adult books have to move more swiftly, and so that’s the first book that i outlined all the way before writing. and then i still read a review of it that said nothing happens.
BB: That is interesting that you moved from thinking around the thing in a way to wanting to force yourself to write in a more traditional structure. Has what you read changed, too? Do you read often, and do you find you are often very affected by what you take in?
AS: i think i’m pretty much reading the same kind of stuff i was always reading, which is generally contemporary realist fiction that has some element of dark humor, along with contemporary, personal non-fiction that has a lot of humor. i’m not a well-read person in terms of having read the books that go on mfa reading lists, like the classics and a lot of the older, celebrated books. i used to say that i pretty much only want to read books where characters have t.v.’s. and that’s probably true most of the time. it’s just a natural inclination that i can obviously fight if i want to or have to, but i feel like we’re all going to be dead before we know it, so there’s not a whole lot of time to waste trying to be what you’re not. i mean, if you’re a serial murderer, maybe you should attempt to strain against your natural inclination. but on the reading level, it’s not that serious. i have a narrow interest set. i liked sarah silverman’s book the most of any book i read last year, and i’m just going to embrace that.
in terms of how affected i am by what i read, sometimes i get really fixated on the mechanics of a book because i’m jealous if it. like i was just jealous of tina fey’s “bossypants,” and i started thinking that the book i’m writing is really terrible in comparison. the other night i was re-reading “catcher in the rye” because i was feeling superstitious- i read that right before i wrote my first book, and writing my first book was super easy, so i thought if i read it again, i would stop having such a hard time writing the new one. and as i read that book, i realized that i had really similar phrasing in my writing, and i wondered if i started stealing those cues from “catcher” ten years ago, or if salinger and i just both happen to have the same conversational tics, using “i mean” and “the thing is” at the heads of sentences, some of the same talky phrasing. i don’t know.
BB: I believe you’ve written for TV or the screen also, yeah? How is that process different for you from writing fiction?
AS: well, i’ve kind of written for tv and movies, meaning that i’ve written things that i’ve been paid for, but none of them have actually made it onto the screen. nickelodeon’s teen channel “the n” optioned the first book and had me write a pilot, but i guess they didn’t realize they’d bought a book about a suicidal girl. and then i’ve written a few movies– i did an adaptation of a manga called “dramacon” and then, when my first book resold to a film production company, i did that adaptation for them– but neither got made. and right now i have an original script with the producer of winter’s bone, and that should be looking for a director within the next month, i think, and probably has the best chance of getting made of anything i’ve done.
as far as how that kind of writing is different from doing books, first of all, it’s pretty much just dialogue because no one’s really ever going to “hear” your stage directions and character descriptions, so i feel like they’re almost symbolic. it’s pretty much just writing people talking back and forth, which sometimes makes me nervous and i throw on a lot of parentheticals to describe how that line should be said because so many sentences rest on certain subtleties of delivery, you know? you’re not really supposed to do that, but i do it. with a book you have interiority and you have a more general tone going that can usually help tip those ambiguities for a reader. but a script sometimes feels oafy to me. like some guy at a party just yelling out sentences. and because obviously there’s more white space on a script page and the writing is less dense, i’ll go real crazy and aim for somewhere around 4 pages a day when i’m working on a movie. balls to the wall! i’m not a very socially adept person, so dialogue, both in books and movies (except in movies there’s more of it) is a concentrated effort for me because i’m always thinking, “what the fuck do people say to each other?!” with books, i can write what someone’s thinking to themselves for pages and pages. but then a character has to interact, and i get reaaaal slow.
BB: Ha, I love the thought of the non-socially adept person focusing to figure out what people say. Do you think the practice of writing has affected your social life in some way? Do you see yourself growing even more closed in into the future?
AS: i don’t know that it’s writing because i’ve been writing books for almost ten years now, and i’ve felt a sharper decline in my ability to talk to people in the most recent years. my boyfriend thinks this is partially because of worsening responses that he describes as “semi-autistic,” like how if you put me in a room with a ton of people talking, i immediately shut down. like if there are loud voices, i’ll definitely go blank. and then it’s partially, again, according to brent, because of my increasingly goal-oriented nature, which makes me reluctant to make small talk or bullshit around with someone, especially someone who i know isn’t going to be a part of my life, because i can only see that interaction as two people artificially killing time. at this point, i feel like i want to cut through the top layer with people, or i don’t want to talk at all. like my best friend geoff, we see each other mayyyyyyybe once a month despite living close, usually less, but we’ve had this intense email chain going since 2002, have probably exchanged about 1000+ printed pages a year, and that’s a really satisfying interaction for me because those conversations have zero filler. but again, the fact that i have a mostly email relationship with my nearest and dearest friend probably says something about how much i’m failing at being a socially integrated person.
as for the future…look, i want to improve. i want to be able to walk into a party and sit down on a random couch with random people and be like, “hey, where you guys from?” i know that probably sounds like a simple, basic impulse for the person who already does that naturally, but i really have to prod myself. if i’ve tried to properly make the rounds at a party, then i usually come home and stare into space afterward and my boyfriend gets concerned because i’m like a robot that got unplugged.
maybe i should drink more and try drugs.
(on a side note, before we end this interview, i need to update that i’m not longer working in the office. that’s over– i got disillusioned with it. so i’m now going back and forth between the living room couch and the bed.)
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Check out Andrea’s books, including her latest, The Kid Table, here.