GO FORTH (VOL. 42)

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An Interview with Kate Bolick

I first encountered Kate Bolick’s writing in 2011, when, along with probably thousands of other “single ladies,” I was forwarded her investigative piece for The Atlantic. “All the Single Ladies” made hard-to-ignore arguments for how marriage had become an unattractive option for many women in an age of financial independence. I was in my early 30s and had been single for the majority of my adult life. I knew a lot of single ladies. It was the first time I’d seen our sheer numbers accounted for. Bolick was featured on the cover of that month’s Atlantic wearing a navy cocktail dress. Attractive, content, self-possessed: she looked like many of the single women I knew.

Last October, after a morning promoting her memoir/literary biography Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own and back-to-back panels at the Montana Book Festival, Bolick agreed to go for a walk with me along Missoula’s Clark Fork River. A strange note about memory: It wasn’t until miles later, as we were walking far off the pedestrian path on a dusty, gravel road, no shade, sun beating down on us, that I looked over at Bolick in her black cocktail dress and matching heels and realized that I might have been more considerate toward her given her footwearor so I remembered it months later, when I sat down to write this introduction. Bolick laughed when she read my account. Turns out she’d been wearing black jeans, a navy shirt, and perfectly walkable navy clogs that day. She must still have looked fancy by Montana standards.

We have since maintained a most cordial correspondence over email. Despite her busy touring schedule and the fact that the day of our walk I was a lowly graduate student with no cool connections, her replies have always been prompt, thoughtful, and gracious. What follows is a transcript of some of this correspondence.

— Alana Trumpy

I. CARVING OUT AN INTERIOR SPACE

THE BELIEVER: Near the beginning of your memoir, you quote Edna St. Vincent Millay: “There, thought unbraids itself, and the mind becomes single.” The line is sublime. Millay’s describing an island, and you quote her to capture how you feel in your childhood bedroom, where you first learned to love solitude. Later you call this draw toward solitude your “spinster wish.”

Do you think it’s any easier for female artists specifically to allow their thoughts to “unbraid themselves”—to have singular focus—when they’re not in a serious romantic relationship?

KATE BOLICK: Isn’t that line of Millay’s beautiful? Too, I like how it’s referencing an island, the natural world’s embodiment of the single life.

After I signed my book deal, it took me a while to start writing the book. I was very nervous and intimidated by what I’d set out to do. After several months of manic stalling (by which I mean I kept accepting freelance magazine assignments, which felt so easy to pull off in comparison), I realized that for reasons I didn’t yet understand, to begin the book I had to head back home, to where I’d begun. I’ve always had a passionate attachment to that little childhood bedroom of mine—that I still have access to it is so rare—but not until I was there, thinking nonstop about the book, did I fully comprehend how the experience of being squirreled away in my own private space at the top of the house, with the comforting sounds of family life rushing through the water pipes and squeaking the floorboards in the rooms below, had shaped my favorite version of solitude: alone, but with loved ones nearby. Falling asleep in that room calms me like nothing else. But such an arrangement is one of the luxuries of childhood. Without adult responsibilities, I was free to disappear whenever I wanted.

Adulthood didn’t seem to offer such an arrangement, not at first. For me, because I am so invested in my friendships and family, and prone to falling in love, one of the tricks of growing up was carving out an interior space that was entirely mine, that precluded visitors—that was, in short, an internalization of that room at the top of the house—and on an intuitive level I knew the only way I could do this was to be alone. I needed to learn how to support myself, financially and emotionally, and be free to hurl myself into writing projects with the selfish recklessness of a feral animal—work all weekend, skip every other meal, forget to shower—without worrying that I was neglecting a loved one. I hate to be gender-essentialist, but this worry and guilt does seem to be a primarily female tendency. History offers all sorts of examples of great male writers who do whatever the hell they want, while the women writers are left holding the bag, so to speak, stealing away to write a few pages before nursing the baby, and I envied men for their relative freedom. But this is me, unique snowflake that I am. Here in this modern world, there are plenty of other female snowflakes who seem to have no problem establishing their writing lives while also tending to partners and children.

While we’re on this topic, I can’t resist including a section of Spinster that I eventually cut for length:

In 1915, when she was forty-two, Willa Cather published The Song of the Lark, the second novel in her celebrated Prairie Trilogy. The story—which follows little yellow-haired Thea Kronborg from her childhood in 1890s Colorado to her successful career as an international opera singer—was inspired by the life of the soprano Olive Fremstad, but it’s also a self-portrait of the author-in-the-making. Cather took the title from an 1884 painting at the Art Institute of Chicago that she loved to visit as a young woman. It’s of a barefoot peasant girl standing alone in a field at sunrise, holding a scythe. The sun is a low red orb just beginning to brighten into the pale pink of dawn. Her mouth is half open. It’s hard to know if she’s simply listening to the birds as they sing their morning song, or joining in herself.

While a teenager, Thea becomes a music teacher, and the first thing she does when she has enough money is “fit up a little room for herself” in her parents’ house. The ceiling slopes down, and there’s only one window, but she papers the walls herself (small red and brown roses on a yellowish ground), buys a brown carpet, and makes white curtains out of cheesecloth. She brings in her old childhood single bed, and her mother gives her a dresser with a broken mirror. Cather is unequivocal about the room’s importance: “The acquisition of this room was the beginning of a new era in Thea’s life. It was one of the most important things that ever happened to her.” Before, Thea was always surrounded by other people, at home, at school, at church. “The clamor about her drowned the voice within herself.” Now, 

In the end of the wing, separated from the other upstairs sleeping-rooms … her mind worked better. She thought things out more clearly. Pleasant plans and ideas occurred to her which had never come before. She had certain thoughts which were like companions, ideas which were like older and wiser friends…. From the time when she moved up into the wing, Thea began to live a double life. During the day, when the hours were full of tasks, she was one of the Kronborg children, but at night she was a different person.

After Thea leaves home for Chicago to train as a singer, she learns a song called “Tak for Dit Rad,” which goes something like:

“Thanks for your advice! But I prefer to steer my boat into the din of roaring breakers. Even if the journey is my last, I may find what I have never found before. Onward must I go, for I yearn for the wild sea. I long to fight my way through the angry waves, and to see how far, and how long I can make them carry me.”

Eventually Thea becomes an international star, and toward the end of the book she comes to New York to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. An old childhood friend, a doctor, on whom she’d sustained a crush as a little girl, makes the trip East to see her. It’s been decades since they’ve met, and when he first spies her in the lobby he thinks to himself,

This woman he had never known; she had somehow devoured his little friend, as the wolf ate up Red Ridinghood…. She was very pale and her face was drawn and deeply lined. She looked, the doctor told himself with a sinking heart, forty years old.

But when they finally spend time together, his dismay vanishes. It’s true that he had never known this woman, or any like her—she had invented herself through decades of discipline and practice, and internally felt at the height of her powers. More surprising still, she’s in love, and the novel ends on that most traditional happy ending, a white wedding.  

This is no conventional love story, however. When the doctor asks if she’s in love with the man she’s about to marry, she muses, “I don’t think I know just what that expression means. I’ve never been able to find out. I think I was in love with you when I was little, but not with any one since then. There are a great many ways of caring for people. It’s not, after all, a simple state, like measles or tonsillitis.”

II. PURPOSEFUL SOLITUDE

BLVR: How about loneliness? What do you even think of that word? I’ve been single for most of my adult life, and, when single, I rarely feel lonely but often feel something closer to that old-fashioned and maybe male-appropriated word “lonesome,” which a) makes me think of spaghetti westerns and b) implies an inward gaze. Is there a word that better describes the “lonely” element in the lives of the women you profile in Spinster? What word best describes your emotional state when single?

KB: Hah! I love this. You are absolutely right. “Lonesome” isn’t nearly as pejorative as “lonely.” When I was alone (I’m currently in a relationship), I was constantly chasing what I thought of as a “purposeful solitude”—that content, focused feeling you get when you’re engrossed in doing something that feels meaningful. But getting there wasn’t easy. I’ve long struggled with depression, and some weekends I’d feel so overwhelmed with the futile loneliness of it all that I couldn’t leave my apartment. Then, once that emotional stomach flu had passed, I’d frenetically over-book my schedule with social engagements and totally exhaust myself. After a while, though, I learned to find a balance between time alone and time with others, and even came to appreciate the unavoidable bouts of “loneliness” for how they taught me things about myself I needed to know. That sounds sort of mystical, I suppose. But that equilibrium was the emotional equivalent of my little childhood bedroom—alone, with close relationships nearby—and, once I’d finally achieved it, I felt more ready to go wherever life took me: either stay alone forever, or fall in love again. Which I eventually did. The man I’m in a relationship with now needs as much time to himself as I do, and is in fact quite introverted, without my appetite for socializing, so it’s very easy for me to continue on with the habits I’d learned before I met him.

BLVR: One of the things I loved about Spinster was that it wasn’t polemical. You seemed to be genuinely searching for answers about what being single actually means. In fact, you don’t rule out that you may be drawn to something that can be achieved within a committed romantic relationship. Can you talk about the intention behind this memoir, as opposed to what you wanted to achieve in your Atlantic article “All the Single Ladies”? Were you surprised at your own shift in tone? I found Spinster to be meditative in a lot of places, even poetic. It felt a lot more like a memoir than a piece with an agenda.

KB: I absolutely intended Spinster to be meditative, and questioning/questing. “All the Single Ladies” was a piece of journalism, and as such it required a point of view and authority about the topic that is antithetical to how I actually live in the world. I didn’t go into writing the article with an agenda in mind, and I reported and wrote it so quickly (about 8 weeks in all), that I didn’t even have much time to live with the conclusions I’d come to before trotting about the news circuit answering questions about them. But the magazine packaged the story in such a way that it appears polemical, if not a manifesto of sorts, even though it’s not. For good or for ill, I am allergic to certainty, and with Spinster I wanted to show the long arc of my own thinking about the topic, the lurching forward and stumbling backward, the doubt and unsureness, along with the glimmers of revelation and so forth, as it felt a more accurate representation of who I am. More importantly, because conversations about singleness and the primacy of the couple are fairly new, they’re often announced via polemic and a rather holier-than-though variety of cultural criticism that I find personally alienating. I wanted to lend my own, non-polemical voice to the chorus and hopefully reach those who, like me, want to think and talk about these ideas, but in a more personal, reflective way.

III. A STRANGE AND OCCASIONALLY PLEASURABLE EXPERIENCE

BLVR: Now that the Spinster manuscript is a year behind you, are you noticing that the women you’ve profiled are popping up in unexpected places? When you come across them out of context, do you feel a certain kinship? For instance, I just read an old interview with Alice Munro in the Atlantic last night in which she mentions one of her favorite writers is “an Irish writer who used to write for The New Yorker called Maeve Brennan.” Because I got to know Brennan so well in your memoir, I was almost personally glad Munro admired her.

KB: Oh, definitely, I feel closer than ever to these women now. There’s been a lot of interest in Maeve Brennan over the past several years, which is especially gratifying. Also great is when Spinster readers surprise me with some new twist. Recently a woman in Canada sent me a tweet about an album of Edna St. Vincent Millay reading her poems, recorded in 1941, and sent to her by Dr. Disc in Ontario, who in turn found and mailed me my own copy (in exchange for a signed copy of Spinster; we like to think we’re enhancing U.S.-Canadian diplomatic relations).

While I was writing the book, I was offered my own annual literary interview series at Edith Wharton’s country house, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts. It is amazing to be able to invite whoever I want—last year was Meghan Daum, Jenny Nordberg, Darryl Pinckney, and Richard Russo—to her estate, which is incredibly beautiful, and feels out of time. When I’m standing on the terrace watching dusk fall across the gardens I can’t get over the fact that I’m seeing and even experiencing, in some small way, what Wharton herself saw and experienced.

BLVR: What are your current obsessions? What are you working on?

KB: Well, speaking of The Mount, at the moment I’m preparing for this year’s lineup: A.O. Scott, Katie Roiphe, and Emma Straub. The interviews will take place over three Thursdays in August. I can’t wait. Info and tickets here. Really, it’s been hard to think about much outside of Spinster this past year. So many distractions, some good, some bad. A highlight was “Spinsters on Stage,” a night of staged readings of century-old one-acts questioning the primacy of marriage, written by Neith Boyce, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, that I hosted at the Bank Street Theater in Manhattan, to celebrate the paperback release. I hatched the idea while writing the book, and hoped to do it when the hardcover came out, but as I explain in an afterword that appears in the paperback (and was also published online at The New Yorker), some health issues got in the way. The filmmaker Nikole Beckwith directed; the “actors” were writer friends: Alex Gallafent, Alexandra Jacobs, Glenn Kenny, Troy Patterson, Sadie Stein, and Seth Colter Walls. The night totally exceeded my expectations. I wish we could bring it on the road!

Writing-wise, I’ve been trying to relax and let myself try different things. I’ve never written fiction, but I’ve long had this notion that someday I’d become a late-in-life novella-ist, and though I figured I had another two decades or so before that would happen, earlier this year I decided to sit down and try, sort of as a dare to myself. It’s been a strange and occasionally pleasurable experience. The concept of just making stuff up is so foreign to me that to unlock my head I had to read some books about how to write fiction. My favorite was Robert McKee’s Story, which is actually about screenwriting, but breaks down all the elements of fiction with great lucidity. That project is ongoing. I’m also trying to think my way into a nonfiction book about a topic that’s fascinated me on a personal level for a very long time, and on an intellectual level since at least the late 1990s. Meantime, I’m teaching creative nonfiction to graduate students in New York University’s Cultural Reporting & Criticism program, which I love doing more than anything. It’s a relief to be out of my own head. 

Alana Trumpy is currently writing about nuns. Big plans ahead to be a more lively Twitter friend. Follow her at @AlanaTrumpy