Indie-lit author Cris Mazza’s seventeenth book, Something Wrong with Her (Jaded Ibis Press 2014), is a memoir of anorgasmia, but it’s also a book about writing a life rather than living it. Mazza refuses the constraints of chronologic narration, juxtaposing diary fragments, email excerpts, and samples of her award-winning fiction to create a pastiche that mimics the rhythms and structures of jazz. Exposing a deep-seated fear in all of us, Something Wrong with Her explores what it means to consider oneself worthy of love.
Mazza’s previous work includes Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, and a collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, most recently Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. She is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and will be a guest-lecturer in the fall of 2014 at The Johns Hopkins University.
Brooke Wonders: There are many ways in which your latest book replicates the form of jazz. One of the ways is in its repetition: for instance, there’s a section in the beginning that exactly matches three paragraphs that appear toward the end of the book. How did you approach the challenge of invoking an auditory form on the page?
Cris Mazza: Partially this happened instinctively. In jazz, the initial melody of a tune is called the head. Then when the musicians improvise on the chord changes, it is within the style or mood of that original head, although they experiment with other emotions or even other related themes. When the tune is getting ready to end, the musicians return to the head. The listeners then know that the musicians have brought the tune full circle, have developed the changes and said what they have to say. How could that form not be attractive for a memoirist who is not just telling a story she already knows but investigating a story she’s not sure she does remember all of (or remember correctly, or understand), and thus must invent or improvise or re-tell from another perspective, all while keeping that original storyline (melody) in mind. Then it was so fitting that Mark -- who started as a character and ended up being a book contributor -- was the one talking about jazz, how it works; he was the one thinking like a musician while he read portions of the book and reacted to them -- similar to how one musician listens to the other improvise, then responds when it’s his turn to play. So I was soaking in Mark’s way of developing a thought in music, while I was also researching the jazz terms and how they all seemed to be double entendres to ideas I was writing about. Once I felt it working, it was easy to compose in that mode, just as a jazz musician knows how to jam as long as s/he knows the chords and feels the rhythm.
BW: You write that “you hope this book is more like jazz than like a novel,” and I feel badly for the novel and want to defend it. What’s wrong with the novel? And what does jazz offer you, a novelist many times over, that the novel can’t or doesn't or doesn’t anymore?
CM: No, nothing is wrong with the novel. I also said a novel is like classical music. I don’t mean “classical” in the sense of the classical period, but instrumental music that is written out completely -- scored for orchestra or quartet or chamber group or soloist -- and the musician or ensemble plays all the notes that are written (and rarely adds extra notes), doesn’t change the rhythm, etc. I realize there are some interactive novels being written today, which would require interplay between reader and writer, so that the experience is vastly different each time it is “read.” I was talking about the novel as I’ve known it, whether traditional or experimental, the author wrote all the words I read, and I read them (usually) in the order he or she wrote them (I know of at least one book that wasn’t bound, the pages came in a box, so they could be shuffled). There are always exceptions, so I was making a generalization, and referring to my own novels being more like classical music in that I had no collaborator; the form, once written, was always read in the way I formed it. Just like with symphonic music, readers (and conductors) can (are invited to) interpret differently, but there’s a bit more inherent control for the author (composer). Jazz offered me the opportunity, as a memoirist, to not have that kind of control. The book can never really be like a jazz performance since it has been published, the pages are in a particular order, the words don’t change, etc. But the writing of it felt more like improvisation than when I write novels. I don’t mean I outline novels or stick to a formula, but the repetitions, the stopping to cogitate, the speeches made to characters, the lulls in action and digressions … it would take a novel specifically designed to be about those things to tolerate as many of them as this book allowed.
BW: In a Rumpus interview about your previous book, Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, you said the following: “The narrator is completely conscious that she is producing a narrative; so conscious, in fact, that she anticipates how others will quarrel with or dismiss her, frequently questions her own memory and sometimes narrates in questions, wonders if what she’s remembering has been distorted by experiences she’d had or realizations she made since a particular event, digresses in flash-forwards to layer what she knows now over what she knew then. Most importantly, and something I didn’t plan but which might have come out of my own first person motto -- the fact that a character in the story is telling the story has to be part of what the story is about -- a significant catharsis for the narrator occurs as she is writing the culminating scenes -- scenes that, obviously, have already happened, several years before she is narrating. But it is the act of narrating, of wrestling with those questions about memory and compulsion distorting ‘truth,’ that causes her to grasp a new glimmer of insight about herself.” This is also an accurate description of Something Wrong with Her, save that the character in question is explicitly you. Could you talk about how you approach these writerly preoccupations differently in fiction versus nonfiction -- or why you don’t?
CM: Yes, writerly preoccupations, exactly what it (partially) is: I wanted to write a highly self-conscious first-person novel because I was seeing so many first-person books that didn’t seem to understand the layers and complexities of a character-narrator. But once into a novel, the novel’s thematic intent takes over for writerly preoccupations, and it became the book it needed to be for me at the time -- i.e. other personal preoccupations came to the front to chemically react, if you will, with the social themes having to do with human trafficking and the sexualization of culture. But, of course, that latter theme (and the personal preoccupations, namely sexual dysfunction) are also all over Something Wrong with Her.
I said above that “it would take a novel specifically designed to be about those things to tolerate as many of them as this [memoir] allowed.” Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls was, I suppose, such a book. It couldn’t tolerate as much cogitation and repetition as the memoir, but the self-conscious narrator and how the act of writing is what leads to her revelation about herself is an analogous process to what happened in the memoir.
I knew, as soon as I began the memoir, that Something would be a companion book to Various Men, so the interview quote you’ve offered is highly relevant in their relationship to each other. I had wanted to subtitle Various Men “A 1/3 true novel,” without indicating which part is “true.” (Without having to account for how much of every novel is, similarly, “true.”) But the story of the supervisor of my practice-teaching taking me to XXX video booths and showing me certain magazines, encouraging a flirtation that was abruptly ended -- not by me -- was the “inciter,” if you will, of both books, even though it did not stay the central significant event of the memoir.
BW: Something Wrong with Her incorporates text from nearly all of your previous books. In this way, it acts like an introduction to the prevailing themes of the Mazza corpus (take note, future biographers). Imagining a reader who hasn’t encountered your work before, should they start with Something Wrong with Her? What was at stake for you in cannibalizing so much of your previous work?
CM: Mostly, at stake for me, was discovering in my cache of work a layer of understanding about myself I hadn’t accessed before. This is a kind of understanding I wouldn’t expect a reader of any particular novel to be aware of, or even care about. The novels should have their own relevance regardless of a reader’s awareness of the author’s personal life. I wasn’t investigating them as a literary critic but as an archeologist with a set of artifacts. (My lesser reasons for using scenes from books were times I felt it was pretentious to re-dramatize the same scene after I’d already done so in a book.) I was thinking about why I made certain changes, used certain images, when thirty years later I can see new significance in them. I guess I was investigating my original act in writing the story, not the stories or novel themselves, as they stand on their own for any reader. However, it’s possible the memoir would also incite readers of my fiction to have other ideas about those works -- ideas even I have missed, and I always welcome those. I’m not sure whether Something would be a good introduction to my fiction, but it’s difficult for me to say because I can’t have the experience of reading Something in the context of being ignorant about my fiction. I would be interested to hear a reader tell me about what kind of introduction it is.
BW: You also use multiple epigraphs from authors ranging from Grace Paley to Erica Jong. The hybrid memoir is a popular form right now, with practitioners including Anna Joy Springer and Janice Lee. This is a two-part-er: how do you see this work in relation to 1) the tradition of the hybrid memoir, and 2) the work of the authors whom you’ve chosen as epigraphs?
CM: I was completely unaware of the “tradition” of the hybrid memoir when I was writing this book. For all I know Lee, Springer and I (all ending up with the same publisher) were working on our books at the same time. This book was essentially finished in 2011 and enjoyed (?) a long production period. I had been more familiar with Ander Monson’s essays, but I don’t feel I am working in his unique realm. The format and image-content of Something come from my packrat nature -- the keeping and preserving of symbolic artifacts, not just general hoarding. I had all those journals, I had all those letters, cartoons, poems, photos, notes, etc. I had kept them because of who I am/was, so that’s also why the book is constructed of them, not because I’d presupposed thirty years ago that I would join a hybrid memoir movement.
I don’t think I have an Erica Jong epigraph, but she’s definitely quoted in here. Fear of Flying changed the type of writer I would become, and also treated sexuality and sexualization so differently than my own experience, that it represents both a door-opening (as far as my creative work) and door-closing (as far as my personal sexual life) for me. Something deals with both sides.
The other quotes are not so much because I want to believe my work resides in the same sphere as theirs, but because something they said has seemed particularly apt to my relationship with my work, not to theirs. Grace Paley was one of the judges when my first novel won a national award for fiction still in-manuscript (How to Leave a Country). Having her as one of the judges was an incredible honor, and pretty much guaranteed that the prize-winning book would not be taken by a commercial publisher, and so in a way Paley help set the course for my career trajectory.
BW: Reviewers have referred to your earlier work as postfeminist; a recent interview noted that you coined the term chick-lit, but with a “postfeminist sneer.” In Something Wrong with Her, you lay blame at the feet of feminism -- not for your anorgasmia, precisely, but certainly for some of your feelings of shame about it. The narrator-you in the book appears to have gotten her ideas about sex and relationships from the ideals held by 1970s era feminists. This seems odd to me, someone who came of age decades later and after the backlash -- I only wish I’d gotten my ideals about sex from feminism, instead of pop culture at large. To state the obvious, you seem to feel like feminism has not been a helpful framework for understanding your own life experiences. And yet, memoir as a genre has attracted a fair amount of feminist scholarship, as has the subject of anorgasmia. Could you talk a bit about how you understand your current relationship to feminism? In this book, what new offensive are you launching?
CM: Wow, I hope I’m not trying to start a war where there aren’t even two sides in conflict. Postfeminism, as I saw it, did have some issues with second-wave feminism: that is, the “blame” could not wholly be piled on men anymore. By the 90s we had some control (admittedly only some) over how we react to a society that values us most for our sexiness. When I was recently advised to use an author photo where I’m smiling instead of serious, it was not a man who advised this. In my view, women should not be taking up these kinds of sexist double-standards.
In Something, I didn’t think I was blaming feminism, per se, for my attitudes and perspectives about sex. Certainly feminism had nothing to do with my unnatural fear of the whole deal. On the contrary, feminist novels showed me women who were quite comfortable with their sexuality, pursued sexual contact for the sakes of their own needs, and seemed more accepting of their erogenous zones. All these things were the opposite of my experience, and I couldn’t (then or now) figure out why. Yes, in that way, it incited some of my shame. But 1970s and 80s feminism tried to help us -- me included, if I’d known where to look. If, for example, I’d gone to Our Bodies Ourselves instead of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).
I see why you’re suggesting I blame contemporary feminism for my “shame” about anorgasmia, but it wasn’t feminism I was thinking about, but culture in general’s continued amping up of the sexualization of everything, and that (many) women do buy into it as a way to gain whatever status or attention they’re not gaining with their work. So, yes, if there’s an offensive, it’s toward the way girls and young women have been inundated with ideas about sex from pop culture instead of messages about identity from feminism. A more healthy way to learn about sexuality was available to me, through feminism, I just didn’t access it, or was already so screwed up with fear I chose not to.
BW: You teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago -- what are we calling that mix of graduate and undergraduate students these days? Young writers? Early-career writers? Anyway. What advice would you offer would-be writers hoping to construct their own experimental memoirs?
CM: It is indeed an unusual mix at UIC. While the undergrads would still be in the “inexperienced writer” camp, our PhD program brings us writers who are already beginning to be accomplished. This week I’ve been reading admissions writing-samples for our PhD program. These are samples from post MFA students, sometimes many years post MFA, some with books already published. We would have to think of these as early career writers, which has not always been the case with our graduate students. This is a change that’s been rolling in for the past 5 years or so.
I haven’t had more than a handful of students working on nontraditional memoirs. Many of them say they have a particular experience suited to a memoir, but after that they want to write fiction. I came to memoir the other way, believing until the ‘90s (after nine books of fiction) that I had no experiences worthy of a nonfiction treatment. So it’s challenging for me as well to work with students who are not necessarily struggling with the me-now, me-then self divided by a time-expanse of a decade or more. But I’m interested in ways of accessing the personal through impersonal observations and observed events, through discussions of nature or place or pets or relatives or even politics, through flash pieces that might be used as a Facebook post (and surely are wasted as comments tossed into the blizzard of social media). I start my undergrads with flash pieces, and have thought that a few of them could do a whole book with pieces no longer than a page each, yet have it add up to something that could be called a memoir. I’m figuring this out as I go, with each new batch of students bringing me something I didn’t have before.
BW: The book is coming out on independent press, Jaded Ibis, and your previous works have been published by many of the best independent presses, from FC2 to Soft Skull. Jaded Ibis in particular has an innovative publishing model featuring fine-art versions of books and printing on demand. What’s your take on the evolution of independent presses? Any predictions you’d care to make about the future of publishing, independent or otherwise?
CM: Certain aspects of publishing, even indie publishing, are being dragged kicking and screaming into the new era of digital-everything. Don’t get me wrong, I like hard-copy books, although the last time I moved I wondered why. But I’ve been having to learn that the old model of having a physical bound galley six months before pub date -- the old model of even having a set pub-date -- is being replaced by a more fluid and digital system. We may have seen this coming, but never the extent of what the additional dimension of social media has done to reading-in-general. Forget the old surfing-the-web, just scrolling through social media a person might feel he or she has read all s/he needs about a book or play or concert, no need to get the book or hear the concert. Surveys keep telling us there are fewer readers, and yet there always seem to be more and new independent publishers … who then disappear in an average of five years. Print-on-demand is no longer considered an inferior way to publish, just as digital magazines are no longer considered so. Everything is moving in that direction, some for the better, and some not, or we’re still waiting to see. Everyone -- writers, publishers, publicists, editors -- has to be flexible, able to adapt. If independent presses (lighter on their feet) can continue to adjust, to offer more reading experiences -- like Jaded Ibis and the original music “soundtracks” for the books, the art versions, the interactive books, etc -- it might be the way that literature survives.
Brooke Wonders is from the snowy part of Arizona. She is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is at work on an experimental memoir about suicide. Her prose can be found at or is forthcoming from Brevity, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM, among other places, and she blogs at girlwonders.wordpress.com.
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