Interview with Kate Zambreno

image by Hedi El Kholti for semiotext(e)

“It is perhaps the most crucial thing however to write of one’s breakdowns,” writes Kate Zambreno near the end of her critical memoir Heroines. This sentence came as such a relief to me — much of the book does — as this great swell of frustration and encouragement and allowance. Fact is, I’ve spent many years writing, most of it unpublished, and I think the center, the crux, that I avoided — out of fear of self-indulgence, out of fear of censure, out of anxiety — was truly facing myself in my writing, the breakdown(s) of self. Thus I avoided the possibility of building something up, something I could live with.

I got the chance to speak with Zambreno about Heroines, out November 1 from Semiotext(e). The book stems from the ideas tackled on Zambreno’s widely linked blog Frances Farmer Is My Sister. In Heroines, Zambreno courts the ghosts and memories of the modernist wives and mistresses, asking why these women, artists and writers themselves, served as lovers and muses of great male writers and were routinely silenced, institutionalized, and forgotten.

The question of who gets to write and who is the author came up in a conversation that circles around the enduring debate of what literature is supposed to be and how Great Literature has often excluded the voice of the girl, the muse, who is often someone else’s heroine but never her own.

Kate: I only took one creative writing class ever. It was horrible.

Mary: I only took one writing class too! Screenwriting. I was always scared of the creative writing girls at Barnard.

K: I was scared of the comp-lit people. They smoked clove cigarettes and were cosmopolitan, and I was just a messy slut who waited night shifts and got high quite often. I wrote a story about a fucked-up girl (basically, myself), and they measured everything about whether it was "realistic.” I found the workshop model terrifying. I still do. It seems to be about grooming and disciplining writing. And it's measured by the mass appeal.

M: I was terrified of that too, the reaction to one's writing in workshop. I would write short stories or not even that, just stories, fiction or not, and sometimes a friend would read it and be like, "This is so and so, isn't it," and I'd be like yes, okay, sure, but what did you think of the story?

K: I have young women writers contact me now, in programs, telling me that their work is often critiqued as being too like a diary or too "messy," and I don't think there's often room for that in creative-writing programs. I think there's more permission online in terms of that sort of writing — writing that is more openly hybrid, or autobiographical, or taking the form of the diary or the notebook.

M: There is absolutely, as you talk about again and again in Heroines, this constant social checking on the desire to write from life for women. And girl-on-girl crime within writing. I always felt that in college we were all just learning the rubric to hate each other's creative impulses, to discipline them.

K: The big rhetorical leap I'm taking in Heroines is that the impulse to discipline the self or the excessive out of our literature, comes from modernism and is mostly about moral attitudes of the time. In modernism we see this happen more with women writers, whose work and behavior was often critiqued as being TOO MUCH. Too excessive, too autobiographical, and then, not literary enough. There was a simultaneous horror for as well as fetishizing of the feminine in modernism. And now, think in terms of how Sheila Heti's book was often reviewed. I'm curious why our conversation about fiction seems to often pivot on how fictional a work is. If that makes sense.

M: Also, the creation of separate categories like "creative nonfiction" or "memoir" as though there is this clean division between what is written from the writer. As though writing isn't all of those things at one point during the process. I always think that, even though stylistically and input-wise we might be in a postmodern mood culturally, we are still stymied by modernism. We are still living under the constraints, if you will, of modernism.

K: Absolutely. I think writing has become more and more professionalized and institutionalized, and so we began to critique writing by how well it fits into a category. Christopher Isherwood or Henry Miller considered their works novels, even if the first person was taken from their own life, quite openly. And perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems like the autobiographical impulse has historically been disciplined more in women than in men, and not only by male critics against women but often female critics against other women writers, and I think this is because our values in literature, in what is considered important and worthy of our novel, is still in that category of the "masculine" that Virginia Woolf writes about. Books by women that draw from life, especially if it is a life that is seen as not noble or empowering or likable enough, or seen as too privileged, are often raked over the coals: Jean Rhys, Sheila Heti, Anais Nin. Something of a literary form that draws from the diary. And I think I'm arguing, Why isn't this potentially literature, work that is inspired by this girlish form, the diary? Can the diary be recovered?

M: Yes, it is so glaringly true when you look back at the historical scope of writing. Rousseau's Confessions? Hello! That was hailed. That was memoir.

K: I think if Jane Bowles wasn't so pressured to write a fictional novel, she probably would have written a lot more. Rousseau's work, Montaigne's work, still hailed, still taught as canonical in creative-nonfiction programs. But sometimes when the mode is emotional versus logical, or way too subjective as opposed to intellectual and objective, that's seen as unliterary. Especially if she writes of being silly and fucking up and falling in love and coveting dresses. I mean there are literary examples of works where this is done brilliantly — Edith Wharton, Jean Rhys. Somehow, though, when Henry James or Scott Fitzgerald writes their Daisies, it's not taboo. They are not judged for being their characters, their lives are not the ones judged instead of the books. I think so often, especially if the work is perceived of as being drawn from life, the woman, not her book, is reviewed.


M: I wanted to talk about mental health a little as it relates to Heroines. I guess I want to talk about the epigraph dedicated, in part, to “the girls who still seem so fearfully depressed.”  What do you mean by this? Sometimes I think of depression as a symptom of feeling trapped, not necessarily externally, institutionally, but internally, these days.

K: I agree — depression can be a going inward, internalizing judgment and shame and guilt. There’s a passivity to it, a passive reaction to entrapment. The epigraph is a nod to Virginia Woolf, her writing in a letter that she wrote A Room of One’s Own for the "young girls, who appear so frightfully depressed" or fearfully, it's fearfully but I thought it was frightfully, or vice versa. Anyway. In many ways I think of Heroines as a conversation with Room, picking up some of the same issues, although I’m less concerned with future women of genius, I’m more interested in dismantling the idea of genius. I think that this sort of depression can come out of the culture. And I think it has something to do with how girls are made into characters, and then how they are disciplined or mocked when they tell their own stories of their lives. I mean, that seems simplistic, but I think it's pretty deep-seated, that idea. If you are the character, how can you be your own author?

M: But as you note in the book, these wives of modernism were often not labeled as depressed but rather bridging out of hysterical, neurasthenic, schizophrenic, which as you rightly point out became borderline-personality disorder (BPD) and bipolar later. Depression is far less grandiose. It's more constant. It is very much a state of being and feeling that has persisted into the 21st century, that and anxiety.

K: I mean, they were perceived as being depressed too, but yes, the narrative was more about nerves, at first, and then schizoid later. I think I speak though of depression more generally, as opposed to a specific designation in the DSM. In our culture we have a sense that a diagnosis somehow makes it real ... it is real, of course, because of suffering. But a diagnosis of a mental illness is a discursive label that is culturally and historically situated. People take it as uncontestable fact that Zelda was schizophrenic. People also have no idea that schizophrenia was then a much more catch-all category, often applied to deviant woman/troublesome wives in that time. I am interested in the genealogy of all of this. I think that mental illness is real — but I am critical of the absolutism of the psychiatric diagnosis. I’m interested in language, how these women were in so many ways constructed by language. The thing about writing, if one can be empowered to write, one can actually succeed in writing against the culture, in challenging how you’ve been written. And if you cannot write, if you are silenced, others are allowed to write your narrative for you.

M: Yes. I remember you writing about these diagnostic labels "as discursive categories" and people not being aware of this any more than they are aware of the discursive categories of fiction, memoir, etc.

K: Many people really benefit from and need psychiatric and psychological treatment, of all types. But we take it as natural in our culture, these labels, as absolutely authoritative, when they're not.

M: Yeah, I have great skepticism toward the diagnostic model in mental health and from my own experiences with breakdowns, which I sense you do too in Heroines.

K: I am critical of what has been called the "medical model" of mental illness. Unfortunately most literary biographers are not critical of the system. My own experiences have informed a lot of this. That can politicize us, right? Breaking down. Being taken up by psychiatry, becoming a psychiatric patient. Something that catalyzed this project is how often biographies of these women (the writers, the wives), as well as the biographies of their famous husbands, rely on diagnostic labels as a way to explain or dismiss them. This happens so much less to the "genius men" —  it undercuts the canonization. I guess that's what I'm saying about hysteria and anxiety. These men channeled and fetishized the feminine, the hysterical, in these great modernist texts, and even though they were nervous messes, it didn't dictate their identity or how they’re read or perceived now. They weren't often NAMED. To be named — to name yourself, to see your identity through merely a diagnostic label — how does that change how you view yourself? As a writer?

M: Yes, and as you say, a personality disorder based around the idea of not having an identity, as is the case with BPD, is fascinating and strange.

K: Right, it comes out of our culture. Not having a clear sense of identity, feeling extreme psychic pain and only being able to channel that violence inward, because of the concept there’s no way to externalize that fury, no place in our culture that will allow it. I kind of detest the BPD label, but I actually think the treatment pioneered for it — dialectical behaviorial therapy by Marsha Lineham — can be quite helpful. I'm in DBT now. Could these women I write about have benefited from it? I’m sure. But also, and this has been covered in their biographies, the feminist ones — the good ones — their diagnosis and treatments often really exacerbated everything.

A Fitzgerald biographer wrote to me re: Zelda, something like “but I mean but she was batshit crazy, right, we can at least agree upon that.” But seriously, Fitzgerald wasn't crazy? We use the genius label to excuse the canonized man's terrible behavior. I don't think Zelda or Vivien(ne) were geniuses, necessarily. Well, maybe Zelda had more potential to be. Her husband even wrote that in a letter to his daughter, that maybe she would have been a genius, if they had never met. I don't think they were ever allowed to be. And so many of the anonymous girls like them who were not married to famous men. And what is a genius? A genius must be allowed, must be nurtured. One is not born a genius, to return back to Woolf’s dictum.

M: Well they're literally de-pressed, compressed, sampled from. They are not whole, wholly participating. I think therapy is crucial — and I think the different kinds are manifold. Even something that isn't formal. I mean, writing has, at times, been therapy for me.

K: Writing has also been therapy for me. Although I actually don't like the MFA idea that it's okay for students to pay $$$ for creative-writing programs as a form of therapy. But I don't think all writers have to write the next great American novel. I think coming to writing is a really important process. For subjectivity. For self-knowledge.

M: Do you still personally feel to be a serious writer you must write novels? You wrestle with this in Heroines, this idea that you must "transmute memories and experiences into fiction."

K: No, I don’t. Although it's still very much a part of our culture — our cultural conversation, especially as women writers — we are not supposed to be openly writing nonfiction. We want to be taken so seriously (Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist, Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty). And writing nonfiction is a way to open oneself for criticism. To have your life, as opposed to your book, reviewed, found wanting, lacking empowerment or appropriate gravitas. That said, I think the novel can be nonfiction. I like Henry James’ idea of the novel as a baggy monster.

M: I think this is such a fascinating thing that you bring up because I have absolutely felt it too (I'm not a writer unless I am working on a novel) and I think this idea of fiction as true writing is somehow linked to the great male novels. I think the novel can be nonfiction too.

K: I try to really break this down in Heroines — the idea coming out of modernism, informed by the feud between the married Fitzgeralds, revolving around Zelda writing Save Me the Waltz, drawing from her experiences breaking down in the Riviera, while Scott is stalled on Tender, circling around the same material— that the man can write the female character— but if the woman writes something seemingly drawn from a life like hers — like Zelda did — it is dangerous to the institution of fiction, this sacred institution, that all narratives are supposed to come out of thin air, so her writing somehow challenges the idea of the male author as a god figure, spinning transcendence out of her little life.

M: But I also wonder, Why does writing have to be great? That's why I also like your idea of being a "bad reader" that you’ve written about on your blog.

K: I am really beginning in my critical and creative life to be against ideas of mastery, more toward ideas of failure. Something so fascist about craft.

M: And this idea of reading and writing "like a girl,” I actually do think it's great but it is not necessarily received as great or serious.

K: I think perhaps we need to stop caring whether we're perceived as such because we probably won’t be anyway. We need to carve out room in the margins. And anyway, the current market does not dictate what is remembered later — not absolutely — or what books touch or change lives or radicalize something.

I think a lot of freedom opened up for me when I realized I would probably never be perceived of as a Great Writer by the status quo. And I get into trouble when I care. When I care how I'm perceived. I get stuck in paranoia and bad faith. Beckett and Joyce — they were kind of fuck-ups. I mean that's what I love about the modernists. Even Eliot.

EVEN ELIOT. And Woolf and all them. They self-published. They had their little magazines. They did not have to be wholly concerned with the market and Amazon Author Rankings. Although I think Eliot's ideas of criticism is the exact opposite of reading like a girl.

M: Well the mythos that surrounds a person and the work is so different than the person, you know, the person who had to take dumps in the morning and put their pants on one leg at a time, etc. I think Eliot was really, really scared of a lot.

K: Yes, and yet he had absolute authority, and he wrote with absolute authority. And he with absolute authority dictated how literature should be read, these ideas that still exist.

M: Which makes him great but, yeah, he shaped ideas to control the unknown and the fear of it — woman, even — with New Criticism.

K: And he was an editor and a fascist even though he was edited by Ezra, all the overtly confessional edited out of The Waste Land. In Heroines I circle around his concept of the objective correlative in his reading of Hamlet. That emotion in a work of literature cannot be excessive, has to have an appropriate source. I mean these philosopher-writers - they were concerned with the Hamlets. I'm more concerned, I guess, with the Ophelias. I don't see why Ophelia's rent and rage is not as serious as Hamlet's. But her madness, her unraveling, is perceived as comic, strange, a joke. Eliot: "I distrust the Feminine in literature." And the idea that one cannot even look for the autobiography in literature, it is not supposed to be there. Literature has to transcend—life— has to be this transcendent, other-thing. We are not supposed to ask or tell.  I am curious - how much our ideas of literature infect girls' sense of esteem and unhappiness. Gilbert and Gubar in Madwomen in the Attic are writing about stereotypes in fairytales and how that infected the 19th century woman writer — Emily D., the Brontes etc. — I do wonder how our myths and demonologies of mad wives and mistresses, all our inheritance from modernism, of the male novelist conceiving and cultivating his court of crazy girls and femme fatales, how does that infect women and girls when they attempt to write, when they attempt to conceive of themselves as writers.

Send your responses to [email protected]

M: I like when you write in Heroines "when I write I am an ugly woman."

K: It's true.

M: I think that is part of the problem, part of what creates the depression.

K: The ugliness? To be a woman writer I think you have to partially overcome, or at least wrangle with, the desire to be the object. Zelda came into writing when she got out of the first institution — that picture of her haglike and  free in that sailor suit. Cured! she scrawled across the bottom. I like to imagine she’s being cured from being the muse-girl. I think ugliness or enforced isolation in a woman can be perceived of as depression — the antidepressant advertisement, and yet it’s also essential to the creative process, to burrow under, to work not thinking of one’s appearance. Think of Edna Pontellier painting every day, drained and yet more alive than ever and not receiving callers in The Awakening. Her doctor and husband chose to pathologize it, only because that behavior was unacceptable. And today we still have behavior that is perceived of as unacceptable, that stands in the way of women being artists, like the fear of ugliness, in so many ways, and the fear of nakedness, which I think is a fear of judgment and reprisal. When male writers decide their first novel will be coming-of-age, drawing from their experiences, I’m pretty sure they don’t have that dread and guilt and shame. They don’t have the work of others before them serving as a cautionary tale.

M: Do you feel you channeled these women, that they possessed you — and/or did you realize a part of yourself through your engagement with them?

K: I felt haunted by them for years. I felt compelled to tell their story. Like a literary executor of the dead and erased.

M: I think there is a good balance between your immersion in their lives and stories and your experience of your life ... I like the pacing of Heroines very much.

K: They became my point of reference for years — so it was intertwined.

M: [Laughs] I was reading your book intensely for days and people started asking, "Ok ok, what is this book?” What is this book you are so enraptured by? And I said, "Well, it's a book I've been waiting for for a long time." I am very excited it exists.

K: That's really wonderful to hear, Mary. I hope — I guess you always hope you will be read, really read. I wrote the books for girls like you and me and our former selves. For depressed girls too, for girls who keep Tumblrs, the girls in community college, the girls behind the counter.