plzplztalk2me: Mary Duffy

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Hi there! I’m so glad to see you. Welcome to plzplztalk2me, a semi-regular feature in which I talk to folks who want to talk to me about stuff they want to talk about.

Recently, I talked with Mary Duffy. Duffy works as an editor of interactive fiction at Choice of Games LLC and is an editor at The Scofield. Her work has appeared on Literary Hub, Fusion.net, The Scofield, and Pacific Standard. She lives in Colorado where she is writing a book about the Jewish refugee crisis that preceded America’s entry into the war and her family. She tweets @maryfduffy.

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Mary Duffy: Writing is making me miserable. Or more properly, surrounding myself with other writers on social media is making me miserable. That’s probably not a great thing to admit to people on the newly launched HTMLGIANT! But it’s true. All these people with books out and touring, people up for awards, people getting published. I love you all and your work, and I realize you richly deserve your success, but I open twitter and have a hard time not sinking into an immediate depression. Right now I have an essay out on spec and I haven’t heard back, and I get the gnawing sense I’m not going to and this makes me want to die, inside, a little bit. The part where it’s just the one essay out there makes me want to die even more.

I work on my book in these tiny trickles. When I’m not working on it, I often think about how no one will read it, and I’m going to have to self-publish it just for my family to read, or rather, for my family to pretend to read. But I suspect your readers will find my self-loathing depression about what a loser I am a bit boring.
How about those Cubs, huh?
p.e. garcia: My readers crave only self-loathing, as they’re probably writers who need to feel better about themselves.

I think a lot about how social media portrays everyone as either more successful or more happy than they really are. I don’t know any writers (or maybe anyone in general) who actually feel happy or successful. I certainly feel neither of those things. My minor successes–like being a part of the mew HTMLGIANT and the Rumpus–feel like dumb luck. What is it? Imposter’s Syndrome or whatever? That thing. And in any case, it’s hard to feel successful when I’m still getting rejections on a fairly regular basis. And I still don’t have a book to my name.

Jess Row told me a long time ago that that feeling never goes away, no matter how much you publish or write. You’ll always feel like a phony a bit. I find that comforting, somehow.

Maybe like with the Cubs. You keep cheering and sticking with them even when they’re losing, and who knows? Maybe someday, after like 70 years, they’ll make it to the World Series. Is that a metaphor? I don’t know sports.

I’ve been eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches for breakfast and I can’t tell if that’s a good idea or just weird. What do you think?

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Duffy: I think peanut butter is a totally fine breakfast spread. So for instance, peanut butter on toast, on English muffins, on a shitty frozen Lender’s plain bagel, these are all acceptable breakfast things in my world. Taking it into the realm of peanut butter and banana sandwiches is good. One of my favorite sandwiches in Philadelphia, where I used to live, and where you now reside, is at Red Hook Coffee and Tea, where you can get the Elvis: peanut butter, banana, and bacon, but the bacon is chopped into these perfectly chewy, almost crispy bits. It’s an amazing sandwich.
I don’t eat breakfast if I can help it. I do like eggs and toast between 11-1 pm. I usually have that. I can just have eggs and toast at 11:30 if I want to because I work at home, and I have a day job that’s not in publishing, but my company is quite a bit like traditional book publishing. One of the things I miss about working in an office is getting dressed up. I used to have very low-level jobs but in fairly fancy places and I enjoyed the getting dressed for work part of the day.
I imagine it’s going to get cold real soon in Philly and in a few weeks the gingkos are going to explode in a flurry of yellow leaves and their extremely pungent gingko nuts. I think gingko nuts smell like expensive stinky cheeses, but other people say: semen. One time in November I was walking home after dark on Pine. At like 9th and Pine, this older Asian woman was shaking gingko nuts off one of the trees. She grabbed the trunk and just violently shook the tree, collecting the nuts that rained down. We were totally alone on Pine, no traffic. It’s been a spooky image of Philly that I carry with me. It’s also a decent metaphor for how I feel about accomplishing anything: I’m a tiny creature trying to get these delicious fruits but I have to shake this nearly immovable thing in order to get anything.
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garcia: I read a recipe in a cookbook for a “breakfast banana and peanut butter sandwich,” which is how I got the idea. In retrospect, it’s weird that they felt the need to give a recipe for that.

Speaking of Elvis, have you ever been to Graceland? I’ve been twice in the past few years (I used to live much closer to it). It’s a weird experience. The second time I went, the audio tour was done by John Stamos.

We’re opposites. For me, breakfast is my favorite part of the day. When I started having breakfast in the morning, I feel like my whole life changed. My least favorite thing is getting dressed for the day, probably in no small part due to the fact that I only own like three different pairs of pants.

Gingko nuts! I’m so glad you mentioned them. I had no idea what they were, and I hate them more than anything I’ve ever hated. I hate the smell. I hate the texture under my feet. I hate them. These are strong emotions for a thing I hardly see anymore now that I don’t live in Center City, but god. They would always get stuck in my shoe and I would drag that horrible smell into my apartment. I would rather step in dog shit. Does that make me bad at being a Philadelphian? At what point can I call myself a Philadelphian?

Duffy: I don’t think you’re bad at being a Philadelphian just because you hate gingkos. I like weird trees, and gingkos are really old and weird and I like them, but that’s me. You could and should call yourself a Philadelphian now, if only because it’s more fun to say than “I’m an Arkansan.”

I haven’t been to Graceland, though I sort of planned to visit when I was last in Memphis. I love Memphis. I stayed at the Peabody with the ducks and all. I love Tennessee, actually. Where I lived in Chattanooga has more geographically/landscape-wise in common with rural Virginia. It’s the terminus of Appalachia, mountain Tennessee, not Delta. And in Chattanooga: boom these big ol’ mountains with fancy suburbs on them. But you’re within driving range of just absolute solitude in the wilderness. I’d go backpacking on weekends in Tennessee and never see another soul. I loved getting just vile in the woods–sweaty, hauling this 35lb pack up the Big Frog mountain or rockhopping across these massive creeks. I looked like the wrath of God when I came out of the woods–my hair all tangled and me bruised and scratched, but leaner, and 5 lbs lighter. I’m real scrappy when I want to be.
Though where I live now there are, uh, some very significant sized mountains. Anyway, Tennessee. Nashville’s cool also; bits of it remind me of Durham where my mother grew up–a southern college town feel. I am both a country fan, and a blues fan, and an Elvis fan, but unlike Paul Simon I do not believe I will be redeemed in Graceland. But I had a wonderful time in Memphis. I also love this writer from Memphis named Steve Stern. He writes beautiful stories and novels about Jewish life in Memphis. Actually! Steve Stern got his MFA at Arkansas too! And another of my favorite writers, Ellen Gilchrist did. Yeah, there’s something magic about those places.
That was a nice little meditation on how much I love and miss Tennessee. Do you have Arkansas stuff you need to expiate with me?
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garcia: I had a workshop with Matthew Dickman and Richard McCann a long time ago. It was the first day where we had to go around the room and introduce ourselves briefly and say where we were from. I had had workshop with Richard before, so we knew each other a little bit. On break that day, he and I were smoking outside (I still smoked at the time) and he said, “Every time you say you’re from Arkansas, you say it like you’re just waiting for someone to make fun of you. Why don’t you try saying it just once like you’re proud of it?”

It sounded less confrontational than it does when I write it out in text. Richard is a person I would describe as incredibly thoughtful and maybe, honestly, kind of mystical. That moment completely and utterly changed my relationship with Arkansas. I’m very used to being made fun of for being from Arkansas, and for having people shamelessly make fun of Arkansas in general (just the other day, at a reading I was doing, someone asked me, “Is Arkansas even still a state?”). But Arkansas is where I’m from, and a lot of people I love are from there and still live there, and it’s what made me who I am. So fuck people who want to make fun of that. Most of them wouldn’t be able to locate Arkansas on a map, anyhow.

That’s my spiel on being from Arkansas. There’s also amazing food there, and amazing people. The Delta is a beautiful place, marred by horrific poverty. It might be the area where I felt most at home, come to think of it. I have a lot to say about Arkansas, clearly, and I regret that for some reason, anytime I talk about it, I automatically take this very defensive stance. Arkansas is Arkansas.

I don’t know if I have the same feeling about Philadelphia yet. I’m very aware of being an outsider here. I live next door to someone who has lived in the same house for 40 years. I’m a gentrifier in my working class neighborhood. Maybe I overthink things, but I wish I knew just how to be somewhere.

Duffy: That’s really beautiful, Phillip. I realize saying “You could and should call yourself a Philadelphian now, if only because it’s more fun to say than ‘I’m an Arkansan'” probably comes off differently than how I intended. I only meant that I like the word, phonically, “Philadelphian” more than I like “Arkansan.”
What’s funny to me is that, while I was living in Philly, I felt the same defensiveness you feel about Arkansas–and I feel that defensiveness about Alabama, where I spent my tween/early teens and somewhat about Tennessee as well. These are all places, Philly included, where I get the sense people are looking down their noses at me when I talk about having lived there.
Now that I live in Colorado, I don’t know. I don’t have many (read: any) friends here. I don’t know how to be somewhere, either. I’m totally rootless. I spent my childhood overseas, and then lived in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington state, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Pennsylvania again, then spent 4 months traveling across the country, then settled in Colorado. To some extent, Twitter gives me the greatest sense of “space,” or “place,” because I spend time there with people like you, who I feel are my friends. This is fairly deluded to some extent, but in another way, in an “you are what you eat” way, I feel like twitter people are my friends because I spend time with them. They see a certain slice of me.
There’s an old Tori Amos lyric that’s stayed with me since I was about 14 years old: Maybe she’s just pieces of me you’ve never seen. It’s an idea I’ve held pretty close over the years, this notion that whatever else someone knows about me, there are surely things they’ve never seen, that they will never see. And the corollary, or the other side of that coin, or something–there are pieces of me I never show. There’s this defensive slant I read in that line–you never sussed these things about me (because you’re not perceptive) or you’ve never seen them because I’m good at hiding.
garcia: I didn’t take it offensively at all, but I think I fell into my natural defensiveness about Arkansas, which seems to be the only way I know how to position myself toward it or to talk about it.

I think about the Delta a lot whenever I think about Arkansas, and, without trying to romanticize it, it just naturally makes me upset to think about how many of the people who live there are erased when we talk about the South; there’s a common perception of the South, but the lived reality of it is so vastly different and more complex, and usually it’s more painful.

I could talk about the South endlessly, but I still can’t help but feel like I’m constantly being defensive of it.

Where did you live overseas? How do you find yourself where you are?

Duffy: I could also talk about the South endlessly, for similar reasons and I too would end up being defensive about it.

I lived in Poland (’87-’91) and in Argentina (’92-’95). I’m not sure how I find myself where I am, exactly. One answer would be I have a full-time remote job and so I can live anywhere there’s internet. Another answer might be that Colorado is beautiful, and still relatively affordable. I had a 2 bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood in Philly. Here, for $10 more per day in rent, I have a 2 bedroom house with a garage, basement, deck, yard, backing up directly onto a trail and park system they call “open space.” Yes, it’s the ‘burbs, but there are also mountains. There’s an amazing public library which has the highest circulation in the state. I joke all the time about the rec center here, which is already large and awesome and which they’re planning on building a $26 million dollar extension/renovation on. My little town was voted best place to raise a family by Money Magazine a few times. Of course, I don’t have kids. In this town that means I don’t really have a social life, either.
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Art by p.e. garcia. If you want to talk2me, hit me up: plzplztalk2me@gmail.com