An Interview with Chelsea Hodson
Chelsea Hodson’s Pity the Animal was first published by Future Tense and is now available at Emily Books and as an Amazon kindle single. At under forty pages, this slim book is stunning—Pity the Animal delivers crystal prose in a voice both lucid and bold. Hodson, who was a 2012 Pen Center Emerging Voices Fellow, lives in Brooklyn, is an MFA candidate at Bennington, and is teaching this summer in New York through Catapult and Electric Literature.
THE BELIEVER: In Pity the Animal, you seem to maintain an intransigence I find fascinating. There’s also confidence even in your most vulnerable situations. You write, “I pity anything stuck in one role,” and we see you as woman, as girl, as animal, as object. You see yourself in these roles. Can you talk about your role in the book, and what motivated you to write from this voice?
CHELSEA HODSON: I wrote the essay in an attempt to discover the worth of my body versus my mind, as well as examine the roles of woman and artist. I wanted to know why I felt drawn to certain situations which involved me giving up all my power—intellectually, physically, and sexually. And I did see myself as evolving from human to animal to object, and it thrilled me as well as confused me. I thought, what kind of woman longs to be treated like anything less than a woman? But the line, “I pity anything stuck in one role” is meant to be a celebration—I can be anything I want. And every time I willingly gave up what I viewed as power, I gained it in a different form. The transactional nature of human relationships forces us to take on several roles at once.
BLVR: Which role do you prefer? Which role do you feel most when you’re writing?
CH: I’m not sure which role I prefer—I’m excited by complexity and the possibility of having to take on more than one role at a time. As a child I was a cautious observer, but as I get older I feel more drawn to action, risk, and performance. I love the Graham Greene quote, “When are not sure, we are alive.” Nothing interesting happens in my writing or in my life when I’ve planned it all out beforehand. I try to follow my animalistic Freudian id as I write a first draft—later I try to look at it more intellectually.
BLVR: You write beautiful sentences in Pity the Animal. Who do you read that inspires you?
CH: I’m primarily interested in writing nonfiction, though I do write some poetry as well. I like to read an equal amount of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. My favorite writers are usually accused of “genre-bending,” such as Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Joe Wenderoth, and Eula Biss. Thinking about genre is boring to me, I like writing that’s so good it transcends its own restraints. And my favorite recent book is a novel by Patrick deWitt titled Undermajordomo Minor which simultaneously surprised me, broke my heart, and mended it.
BLVR: Yes, now that you say that I think Pity the Animal reminds me a little of some of Eula Biss’s work in its structure and careful attention to brevity. What’s one of the most important points about writing that you’ve learned? Along those same lines, what’s the most important thing you tell your students when you teach?
CH: The element of discovery is key within essays—I’m good at asking questions but I’m not always clear on the answers, and that’s mostly because I’m writing in order to discover something. If I’m not surprised at the end of a draft, I know I’ve done something wrong, and worse—it’s probably dull. I try to encourage myself as well as my students to write messy and wild first drafts.
BLVR: Are you like me and always feel like you need to revise or fuck with it? It’s so tiring.
CH: Fuck with a draft—are you kidding? It’s all I do. Almost none of the first draft makes it into the final draft. Ideally, that wouldn’t be the case, but that’s currently the only way for me to arrive at anything resembling truth.
BLVR: What are your favorite literary journals?
CH: My favorite literary journal is Tin House, hands down. My other favorites include Black Warrior Review, Austin Review, and Caketrain.
BLVR: Do you feel comfortable talking about what you’re currently working on?
CH: I’m working on a book of essays.
BLVR: Pity the Animal haunts me in the best way. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person? Do you believe in ghosts, Chelsea?
CH: No, I don’t consider myself spiritual. I don’t fully believe in ghosts, but I want to believe. I remember that the flickering light from the television in the Pity the Animal trailer is from an episode of Ghost Adventures I was watching that night.
BLVR: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
CH: Sarah Manguso told me, “Be relentless. All over the world, people are working harder than you.” I think of that almost daily. I’m competitive, so it helps.
Brandon Hobson is the recipient of a 2016 Pushcart Prize for his story “Past the Econolodge” from NOON. He is the author of Desolation of Avenues Untold (Civil Coping Mechanisms), Deep Ellum (Calamari), and The Levitationist (Ravenna). His writing has appeared in Conjunctions, NOON, The Paris Review Daily, Post Road, New York Tyrant, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. His review of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers appeared in the September 2012 issue of The Believer.