"My discoveries weren’t any more extensive or alarming than most people’s. I just chose to look."

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Antonia Crane Talks to Cris Mazza

Cris Mazza is the author of nineteen books, all grounded in post-feminist, contemporary experimental fiction. In her newest book, Something Wrong with Her, she writes in a frank yet musical style about her own inorgasmia in a time where sexual excess is flaunted, bloated, bared and memoir’d to death. 

My pro-sex pro-porn go team feminism met Mazza in the hallway of her so called frigidity, but Mazza’s story is anything but frigid. It contains a hot, complex, rich texture in ample, musical supply. Aggressive and responsive, even her footnotes engage an ex-lover, whom she calls “Mark” directly, like a text message we glance at over her shoulder throughout the text and sweat. Mazza takes obsession to a jazzy level that borders on David Foster Wallace footnotes in its quest to discover the truth about her “condition.” But while reading Something Wrong With Her, I realized her book is not really about our collective coldness at all but about the dissonant language of sexuality and yearning: the forensics of love itself. 

—Antonia Crane

I. SOME KIND OF FATHOMLESS YEARNING

ANTONIA CRANE: Early on, you provide a stark contrast between your low-key style of dress and being called “the sad girl” and other women. You write, “There were always bold and vivacious girls.” And those annoying cheerleader types with wind-swept thick blonde hair and big teeth got the higher paying jobs. In my first read, I thought I detected contempt for those women, but now I think it’s more about invisibility vs. visibility. Can you reveal how you retreated into invisibility and what you were conveying about women, sexism, the workplace and our culture?

CRIS MAZZA: It was, simply, easier to be invisible than to have attention called to my complete frumpiness. Invisibility came in stages, the first being androgyny.  If I did not wear female-only apparel, I was not judged as a female (as openly—it was still there, just not as brutally). Then if I played an instrument in band that only boys played, it was not to be closer to all the boys, it was to disguise my lack of girlishness. I didn’t have that conscious goal at the time, but I’ve recognized the tacit motive since then.  In college, unable to be “special”—or in demand—as a girl, I made myself useful, even essential, in my microcosm—as a writer and photographer for the band, particularly for the band director. My “specialness” was to produce something of value, not to look like something (with that different kind of “value”), so I was still fundamentally invisible, but had a significant purpose.  My ambition to be a novelist was already there, and fit easily into this brand of invisibility… including this androgynous name I adopted in college. 

I could produce something—something effective, evocative, maybe beautiful, hopefully memorable—out of my own sensibility, perception and emotions, and it would be out there in the world, not me.  Sadly, too much has changed about publishing … not only does attractiveness matter to agents and editors, but there’s no room anymore for a reclusive writer. 

As a professor, I have been out of the regular workplace in our culture for over 20 years, so I don’t know what kind of sexism still reigns there. I suspect a lot, but maybe in different ways?  When I was in college — before sexual harassment laws had been written—a pop culture role model (for girls) of an independent working women was Mary Tyler Moore (on her TV show).  An independent single woman focused on a non-fluffy career — it was a breakthrough.  But if you watch that show now, it is rife with overt sexism and sexual harassment that was never acknowledged as such (seldom part of the show’s “situation”), it was just there for laughs or as a matter-of-fact. 

I think a certain kind of sexism now is so matter-of-fact, and has been for so long, that young women feel less valuable or second-tier if their gender and attractiveness or sexual desirability are not being commented on in the workplace. I know I occasionally feel contempt for that attitude when I perceive it, but maybe that’s not fair. By our culture we’ve been taught who is most valued and who is not.  

AC: Let’s talk about “the older male thing” and the creepy, erotic mentorships you encountered. I cannot even think about “the older male thing” without thinking about Marie Calloway. And I’m not even sure where I am going with that because the thing behind the girl and the affair and the story is that there’s something fucked up in our culture. Maybe you can help excavate what that is. In Something Wrong With Her, professors and more experienced gents show up to guide and torture. This dynamic shapes our gender relations and sexuality in such a profound way. You even quote the song, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” as if we are all seeking for “daddy” to guide us. What are we all really yearning for?

CM: This question is so loaded, do we have several months to discuss it?  Do I start with the non-question, “something is really fucked up in our culture,” or the question-marked plea, “What are we really yearning for?”  (I wrote a book trying to answer that one. No, I wrote 17 books.) The fucked-up-ness is a girl believing her value is in the degree of desire someone else has to fuck her. But when a man says “If you let me fuck you, I’ll help you become a writer,” it’s vile harassment, but when a young woman says, “I’ll fuck you if you’ll help me be a writer,” it’s doing whatever we can to make it? Something very wrong there too. That’s fighting against this corrupt society that has devalued us … by devaluing ourselvesThat’s fucked-up.  And what’s more fucked-up is a person like me staring slack-jawed at the girls who do it, who can do it, who have what it takes to do it, and wishing I could have had something, anything, like that to get me just an iota more attention.  

It’s like that story I tell in this book: two students laughing over the clumsy flirtations of a 60-something male professor, and me thinking, “Hey, he’s never sexually harassed me, what’s wrong with me?” 

If it’s fucked-up that our value is measured in how badly and how many want to bed us, then how fucked-up is it that we agree?  And why do we?  Has culture or society determined sexual desirability is what makes us important so long that it’s now part of our sensibility from birth?  Little girls know. From around 2 or 3, the pretty ones already know how and why they get attention. And how quickly they learn to play it.  Use it.  And how quickly the rest of us figure out we don’t have it.  “It” — the quality that will get us … what?  Attention equals importance equals value equals ego.  Or, more realistically, Attention equals success.  If you can get sexual attention and then (or therefore) succeed as a writer — or [fill in career blank] — that means you’re a writer worthy of literary respect?  I mean, no one would claim to believe that, but one doesn’t have to look hard to observe women writers acting that way.

And if I’d ever thought of that tactic when I was a grad student or Marie Calloway’s age, the fact is I couldn’t have pulled it off, didn’t have the moxie, didn’t have the built-in assurance that my sexuality was something of value that others might want to reward me for. If some visiting writer had offered me career help in exchange for sex? Shit, I was too goddamn afraid of sex to have been able to take advantage of some poor middle-aged guy’s only way to get laid. But I can’t imagine doing it anyway.  I simply expected my work to be what was noticed, appreciated or what would eventually succeed.

In the 70s and early 80s, writers who came to give readings at colleges—all male in my experience—expected that part of their recompense would be access to a coed or two. I’ve heard tales of the girl being picked out and offered up by the sponsor. But usually the old dude just took his pick, and no one thought anything of it—and neither did the girls who were picked, I suspect.  Although one girl I knew told me about being chased around the sofa of her apartment where the visiting writer had convinced her to take him when she was supposed to be ferrying him to his motel. She had decided to say no, but I think a majority of the chosen did not. Hearing these stories, my first—and always tacit—reflection was to point out to myself that I hadn’t been chosen.  And yes, I was aware it wasn’t a manuscript competition that resulted in the choosing.  Later thoughts would explain: you don’t look like them, you don’t know how to act like them.   

So, you’re right. Despite my belief that somehow my work would get me where I wanted to be, there was still some kind of fathomless yearning. Yes, my career aspirations were always goading me. But partially, I think I tried to let those dreams replace or become the other yearning, to have that other form of value. Pathetic on so many levels, but besides the most obvious (self-abandonment), there’s the boy who valued me that way, and who I couldn’t (wouldn’t) see. He wasn’t an “older man.”  He was, as the book says, always relentlessly my age. 

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II. AMBITION IS SOMETHING YOU TURN INTO PUBLICITY

AC: From the section: Is it sexual harassment yet? You write, “A professor telling a virgin student her lack of sex life was something wrong with her; that men have the right to act on their impulses; that women secretly want them to. And that if instead of wanting it, a girl is afraid of it, there must be something wrong [with her]." 

This, I feel is the whole shebang. I think if we look closely, what is wrong with her is what is wrong with the world. What do you see happening in our culture regarding sexual harassment? Is it better or worse?

CM: What I was being told in my 20s in that close-quartered, male-ego-infused work space, was that I had to stop reacting with my emotions. The change, in other words, had to be made in me. A lot of change has, since then, been imposed on everyone in the workplace (or society in general) and things have somehow, in some ways, gotten worse. Or stayed the same. How about junior-high-aged girls who give blow-jobs to boys in order to be more popular? That’s truly an act (especially at that age) where only one participant — the male — is getting anything out of the experience, unless you count that the girl is gaining a form of popularity. It was a tactic I didn’t turn to until in my later 20s when oral-sex-starved men were so grateful that someone would “do that.” (It was not reciprocated.)  Their gratitude equaled my incentive.

So I’m not aware of sexual harassment cases causing the chaos they did in the 90s, when the first waves of charges made news. But the way a girl feels is still devalued.  The status quo is: If men don’t respond with emotion, then that’s not how people should respond.  Unless men do respond with emotion, and then it’s a horrific tragedy. The scandal with priests in the Catholic Church is considered as dreadful as it is mainly because it was happening to boys, too. Funny how we don’t hear about the girl victims much.

Girls are meant to spread their legs. The attitude shows in how society reacts to the same crime perpetrated on male and female.  That attitude shows in what my mentor said to me, “She [might have been scared] but she liked it, she might have been hoping for it. If a girl hasn’t experienced it by that age, she’s in trouble.” So I knew I was in trouble.

Everyone I know, men and women alike, would say they would love to see the world changed so that boys and girls, men and women are valued equally for what we contribute, despite the differences in how our brains and bodies work. And to have the “what we contribute” for women not just be sexual possibility or pleasure for men. It won’t ever start until more people can teach their sons that girls are not just put on earth for their amusement while they (the boys) do the important things. 

But I’ve written myself into a question: if sexuality is beginning in such a skewed way: that boys expect to receive sexual pleasure and girls are expected to give it without reciprocation, is that why young women, even unintentionally, turn to getting something else in return for sex? Whether it be popularity, career success, professional attention.

Wasn’t there a female sports announcer whose career spiked when it became known that she was the victim of a peeping tom with a video camera?  Not that she asked for or set up the humiliation, but as soon as men in general could view her more sexually, her career amped up?  That’s an example on one end of the scale. The other end is the girls who actually act as though being more openly sexualized in their career milieu can bring some brand of career-assisting attention.  

AC: The economy of sexuality is such a juicy and complex issue. That is the entire locus on which the sex industry is based, right? Beyond the literal sexual commerce of it is the way women are taught to be available to men sexually in the first place. For me, this began very early. From a ridiculously young age, I always felt that I had to sell myself to my father—and other adults— to be acknowledged. I had to learn how to speak their language: sports, politics or money and then later, I had to accomplish things or else I was not awarded attention. But there was never enough attention and it was unreliable, so I learned how to spread my hustle: go to different men for different types of validation. In that way, the sex industry is extremely handy, while being based on this sad, desperate, sexist premise.

It’s taken a long time to learn how to turn inward and validate myself by the ways I contribute to people’s lives. Working with inner city kids and incarcerated girls has fed my self-worth more than any sexual validation I have received for my looks. I was curious about the self-abandonment in your story. I’m talking about the way that smart, ferocious women abandon themselves and tie themselves into a pretzel to accommodate men and what this says about gender relations in general. I related in a way that disturbed me to this passage where you write: "I went [to the meetings] to prove my tolerance for his beliefs, to make myself more attractive to his conflicted feelings.” Meaning, he was a fucking Jehovah’s Witness and you curled yourself around his crazy. I guess my question is less a real question and more of a, What the fuck? 

CM: Look at the way college girls (for 8 or 10 years now) have said they’re all for equal-pay for equal work, and there should never be gender discrimination in work, education, recreation, etc.  But they answer, “No, I’m not a feminist,” when that’s the next question. 

They’re afraid the F-word will make them unattractive to boys.  Of course this has to do with how Feminism has been treated by the right-wing press and scream-radio, the strident stereotypes. But still, it’s a young woman throwing herself in opposite directions, like the clapper of a bell, clanging this way and that ‘til she’s tone deaf and a little crazy. 

The Jehovah’s Witness: a bleak example, but not the last time I self-abandoned. There were periods of high heels and miniskirts (completely outside my style parameters) or playing the away-from-home un-needy fantasy-temporary-lover, because those were someone’s idea of my value. 

But in this worst-case example, what did I think I was progressing toward? I was swearing to myself I was not going to convert to that religion, hearing from him that dating outside his religion was taboo, hearing that I was considered “untouchable” by the “elders” who were guiding his indoctrination, yet I still occasionally attended meetings with him and let him guide my daily schedule — take me to school and home from late rehearsals, etc. I swear part of me thought he would choose me over the religion, but for that to happen I had to seem tolerant and supportive of his perusal of it.

He invited me to see him get baptized (and of course that was the clank of his handcuffs being locked), and still I maintained some kind of hope, that if I was “there for him,” (whatever that meant for a guy who thought he’d found what his life needed in that stringent doctrine) he would “come around.” And then holding those ranting debates with myself over the party-line jargon he used to reject me (over and over again) after having a drink and touching me.  It—or he—was hope, was better than the grim bubble of isolation I lived in with my ambition. 

Sidenote: after looking at only a little of the hoopla over Marie Calloway (from a year and a half ago and I just heard of it from you last week), and plus everything I have managed to see/hear on social media over the past 5 years, I’ve realized very few, if anyone, lives in that kind of isolation anymore.  Nobody sits alone accompanied only by a stewing ambition that won’t see fruit for years. Now ambition is something you turn into publicity before there’s anything to publicize.  Ambition is something you turn into a plan to create an online personality, a brand, a network.  Has it reduced a young woman’s propensity for self-abandonment?  If Marie Calloway is an example, then no.  But it certainly has changed the meaning of the world isolation or introvert.  One can apparently claim to be a social introvert but still run away at 15 years old to meet up with an online hookup. That sure wasn’t the kind of introversion I knew at 21. 

AC: The publicity that you are talking about is what I call “car crash tactics” where someone does something so shocking that onlookers cannot keep themselves from gawking. But the more that online data numbs audiences due to saturation, the less effective this tactic will be. I believe in Steve Almond’s observation that people are terminally lonely, seeking human connection and when they read a story that alters them in a profound way and makes them connect deeply and provides understanding, it will leave a lasting impression. The lasting impression writers will be the ones that thrive, not the more glib shock value writers. In ten years, “50 Shades of Gray” will be forgotten, but Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” is unforgettable, for instance. 

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III. FOSSILS LEFT TO EXCAVATE 

AC: The forensics you offer in “Something Wrong” were multi-layered. You utilized footnotes and journal entries. It made me think about the forensics of memory, of love and the busy chatter of suffering. You kept looping back to those 1980 moments with Mark and the confrontational footnotes addressed him like a battle cry, an orgasm, a blood curdling screech. It’s as if by identifying the blood, scraping skin graphs and demanding dental records, we could unlock the key to the above “What the fuck?”. The forensics, I feel are the connective tissue of “Something Wrong With Her.” What are you uncovering? What dead bodies remain to be exhumed?

CM: I think I’ve been answering that “What the fuck?” not only in every question here, not only in the whole book we’re talking about, but in every book I’ve written.  (Just look at the previous book’s title: Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls. It could be the title of my whole body of work.) 

But OK, let’s talk forensics: the biggest hunk of forensics were the journals. At first I wasn’t going to use them. I could barely make myself read them. The frustration was that even they were holding me back, putting up barricades to what I was looking for. I didn’t do all that feverish scribbling with any clairvoyance that in 30 years I wouldn’t still know exactly what I was screaming about. That’s the difference between a real journal and one that’s invented for a novel.  A novel journal has to be manipulated so someone reading it can have enough comprehension, which means the person writing it would’ve had to have a sense of a someday-audience. Which I did not. It wasn’t, after all, a blog. Why should I explain something to myself that I was intensely feeling at the time of writing?  So some of it is buried simply in that record of rage or confusion, dejection or fear, sometimes going for pages without enough substance (or DNA) to give a positive ID. What cracked things open for me was partially a coincidence, except maybe it wasn’t. It was Mark. 

It was nine or ten months after I started the book that Mark and I got back into contact.  We hadn’t seen each other in over 20 years and hadn’t been in contact for 8.  We’d had a brief period of email exchanges around 1999-2000, and before that another decade-plus of no contact.  But the new contact between Mark and me in 2008 wasn’t because I’d started this book and wanted to hear his memoirs about certain events.  That’s why I say it was a coincidence.  In fall of 2007 I was doing a mailing of a flier for a just-released novel, and as I peeled address stickers printed from my personal database, I came across his. So when I stuffed his envelope with the flier, I also included a business card that had my home address, phone and email.  It took him 6 months to decide to contact me. He said he had the card hidden in a drawer in his desk in his office at school, where he was a junior high band director, would see it every day, and every day question himself whether or not he should open “it” all up again.  When he finally did email me, his message was brief, inquiring whether it was still my email, and “some things have happened that I want to tell you.” What this truly meant, I could never have imagined until it all started. 

So which of us reached out first and why?  The novel whose flier I was sending had hit some unforeseeable snags – including a printing error requiring all returned copies to be pulped.  It was supposed to be a breakout book and now was being returned and destroyed, with only a promise of 600 corrected copies being printed.  I was circling the angst drain.  The mailing of the fliers an act of desperation.  Wasn’t the business card going into Mark’s envelope an additional cry for help?  Admittedly I didn’t think about the act more than a few times in the six months it took him to decide to contact me.  I was trying to turn my attention to Something Wrong With Her (probably still untitled at this point).  When my email dialogue did start with Mark, and because he’d been “present” (or in the vicinity) during much of the time Something was supposed to cover, and because he knew those male mentors, I shared with him some of the scenes or memoires I was working with.  So we began sharing memoires.  And some of these slipped into areas of memory I hadn’t thought to access.  And as he shared memories, Mark asked questions.  And thus changed the tide of where this book was going and what it was really about.

Forensically, Mark also helped uncover more because our dialogue helped me recall that I’d written (typed) very long, very detailed letters to him for several months during one of my anxious periods, and I’d kept copies of all the letters.  I don’t remember why I’d done that, but I think I was cognizant that the events I was describing to him were not detailed in any comprehensive or understandable way in my journals.  And so they did turn out to be records of situations, circumstances, events, and my decisions and responses that the journal could never have given me. 

And yet, nowhere, not in the journals and not in letters, was there any ranting, sighing, deliberating or justifying “that night in 1980” which Something circles so long before it touches down there. I only had the fictional account I’d written a few years afterwards.  I knew I would have to pick it apart, put it together with my memoirs, look at what I’d changed and why, and then own what I’d done.  So I added the scanned pages from published fiction to the forensics. Not to give an author’s critical analysis of meaning, but to investigate what I’d changed when I wrote it as a story, what I hadn’t realized I was saying, the author’s attempting-to-be-honest look at what came out the other side of the sausage-grinder of life-becoming-fiction.

What was buried there?  (Or how about fossils left to excavate, since at one time I’d wanted to be an archaeologist.)  Was the book even finished or did I simply have to stop?   My discoveries weren’t any more extensive or alarming than most people’s. I just chose to look. 

You’re so right, it was all about yearning. And ended up with answers having more to do with regret, complicity and loss. 

Antonia Crane is a writer and runner in Los Angeles. She teaches media writing at UCSD to students who know more about Tumblr than she does. Her memoir about her mother’s illness and the sex industry Spent is forthcoming on Barnacle Books March 18th, 2014. Her other work can be found in The Heroin Chronicles, Soft Skull Press’ Johns, Marks, Tricks & Chickenhawks: Professionals & Their Clients Writing about Each Other,The Rumpus, Dame Magazine, Salon, PANK magazine, Black Clock, Frequencies, Slake, The Los Angeles Review and other places.

Something Wrong With Her will be officially released on November 15th. Each pre-order of the book from Jaded Ibis Press comes with a copy of a soundtrack, composed and performed especially for the book.