Legs Get Led Astray, the 2012 debut from Chloe Caldwell abounded with raw emotion, accounts of loss, and knowing accounts of cities close to home and across the ocean. That demonstrated her proficiency with the personal essay; with her recently-released novella Women, she’s turned her eye to fiction. Women is the story of an unnamed writer who moves to a new city and embarks on a problematic relationship with a woman she meets there. In it, Caldwell poses questions of intimacy, self-awareness, and storytelling; that several of the characters work at a library is no coincidence. In advance of Caldwell’s reading on Friday at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, I reached out to her via email. An edited version of our conversation follows.
There’s a somewhat metafictional element to Women: the narrator talks about earlier versions of the manuscript we’re reading, and the process of revision is one of the themes of the book. At the same time, Women is a novella, so I’m curious: how closely did your revisions of the book mirror the narrator’s?
That’s a great question. I’d never done as heavy edits with anything as I did with Women, so editing, and everything that means was on my mind. Elizabeth Ellen had a fun way of doing edits. (My friend says EE is like Andy Warhol when she hears the eccentric trips we take.)
Here’s one example: EE would give me a shit ton of deep edits, and then say the deadline was May 15th or whatever, and on May 15th we would meet in Myrtle Beach. That way, I’d work really hard with a reward at the end.
During our weekend in Myrtle, we laid by the pool and she read my new draft and we talked about edits and conflicts as they came up. When we got back to our respective cities, she’d send me the overall edits and I’d begin implementing them.
My edits were close in some ways (I think? Now I can’t remember what I say in Women) to the narrators but not the truth of what they were. End of The Story was one of the books I read while writing Women, and Lydia Davis writes often about being conflicted with her novel, so that was an inspiration. There was a similar thing going on in The Buddhist by Dodie Bellamy, which I also read during this time. I like when writers acknowledge their process in their work, so I thought I’d experiment with it.
Reading Women, I found myself noticing the contrast between elements of the narrator’s life: some actions and activities are revealed in great detail, while others (such as the names of certain characters) are left more opaque. How did you go about achieving this balance?
I don’t know. I suppose I wanted to be in control of some of the story I was telling, but wanted the reader to make up the other half.
The design of this book is very minimal: the front cover lists your name and the title, and no summary is given. Was that your decision or a choice made by your publisher, or something that you decided on together?
I don’t think any of the SF/LD books have blurbs, or say if they are “stories” or “essays” or “a novel” or “a memoir’. It’s just their aesthetic, and I think that’s really interesting. Originally we imagined it having an image of some sort, and we were going to use the NYC artist that designs most of the SF/LD books. But at one point my friend sent me these covers of French books: The Stranger by Camus for example, and was like, “I picture your book like this.” Aaron and Elizabeth agreed, so Aaron Burch designed it for me. I love it. The inside says “a novella” and we contemplated putting that on the front, quite a bit, but for whatever reason decided not to.
At what point in the writing of this did you arrive at the title? What was the appeal, for you, of going with something so universal?
I was pretty married to the nuanced title Dyke Aching for a while. But it felt jarring to most everyone except me. I think EE was cool with it, and if I’d fought it, she would have gone with it. But later on I decided it would be a better term for a chapter or an essay or something anyway. A friend had suggested Women before I’d even written the book, so I ended up going back to it. I’m usually good with titles but felt kind of stumped on this book. And there are so many women in it! The narrator is constantly around women and thinking about women and reading women. So: Women.
I think there are pros and cons of it being such a universal and vague title. The story I wrote is rather universal—a break up. Love and loss. Female friendship and it’s complications and joys. A mother and a daughter. But it’s unique in it’s grief, the way everyone’s grief is unique.
The narrator sometimes references events in her relationship with Finn that haven’t happened yet. What steps did you take as you were writing this in order to look at the narrative from the outside?
Women begins with an epigraph from Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay. Where did you first encounter this? Do you feel that Carson’s work is in dialogue with some of the other writers cited in the novella, such as Katherine Angel and Adrienne Rich?
Sounds weird, because obviously I can’t look at my work in a super human way, but I can attempt to look at is as a book I would want to read, so I do a lot of that. I try with all my might to read it as if someone else wrote it. Does this answer the question or no? And EE helped. She was looking it from the outside while I looked from the inside. We worked really closely together on this book.
Feels like all I’m doing is talking about EE. I’m not in love with her–I swear. Okay, last fall I went to Ann Arbor and stayed at EE and Aaron’s and she handed me the book to look at. Glass, Irony, And God, telling me to read The Glass Essay. I loved it, found it incredibly moving. I didn’t have my own copy but I printed it out and kept it on my desk as I wrote. I had dozens of different epigraphs that are now escaping me–I know that one was Bill Callahan–but when I read that Anne Carson line, I knew it was the one.
Is it in dialogue with the other writers? I think so, sure. They have three very different voices and come at writing about sex and emotion from different angles, but what they have in common is how often they have these incredible lines that cut to your heart and gut. And how seriously they take their emotional lives.
“Being a writer, I assumed I was at least mildly self-aware,” the narrator says early in the book. Would you say that self-awareness is the central theme of Women?
I never thought of it that way, but maybe? Why, do you? Haha. I don’t really think of the book in terms of theme while I write. I usually find that out when others read my work, and then they reflect back to me what it’s “about”. I definitely think the narrator sees herself from above through the narrative, but still doesn’t know how to put a stop to what she is doing. I don’t know if it’s dissociation, but almost. Yeah. Thinking you’re self-aware but then being totally wrecked by something you weren’t aware of. Sure, it’s a central theme.
Your first book was an essay collection; this new one is a novella. Do you see yourself continuing to work with both fiction and nonfiction in the future?
Definitely! I’d love to write a novel. I’d love to write a memoir. I’m working on another essay collection. I’d love to write a YA novel. I have no idea what I’ll do next.