SARAH BLACKWOOD: Okay, Pete, to set the weepy, emo tone of the evening, I wanted to tell a quick story about the beginning of our friendship. If you recall, when we first met, you were in the thick of the heartbreak you chronicle in this book, and I was still in graduate school. But, to bracket for a moment what was going on with you at the time — promise, we’ll get back to it! — I just want to say that from my side of things, meeting you at that moment was sort of life-changing? Like there I was, a gnarled and unhappy student, certain that I would never know enough, that I’d be revealed as a fraud at any moment, just in the thick, miasmic forest of graduate school neurosis, and when you arrived it was like, Oh. Oh! Here is a way to be! A super smart, accomplished intellect who was also somehow raw and open and occupying his intellect in this sort of full-bodied way. And so in those last months, as we started to become friends, something also happened in my writing. It opened up. That’s a very real gift you gave me! What is more, I recognized it at the time. I recently went digging through old files (horror!) to remind myself what I wrote about you in the acknowledgments (lol) to my dissertation (lol), and this is what I found: “Peter Coviello showed up in Chicago at just the right time to remind me that writing and talking about literature should be a joyful endeavor.”
[Pause for Pete to quietly weep for a minute.]
Now of course, I see that what I took for joyful openness was coming from real heartbreak. But in reading this book now, almost 10 years later, it really struck me, the extent to which you were still able to give — as a friend, as a scholar, as a community member — even while you were completely losing your shit.
So, Pete: How did you do that?! Or maybe that’s an impossible question, so how about we start here: memoir is sometimes derided as a solipsistic, naval-gazing genre, but I found this book just the way I have always found you to be, which is very other oriented. You know, obviously this book is radically peopled — it includes a lot of friends and characters strewn all over the world — and I wonder if you could speak a little to how the writing process brought you in touch with yourself but also with all these other people, and maybe you could speak a little to how you see personal writing working in that way: as a way to both look inward and outward at the same time?
PETER COVIELLO: Well, Sarah, the first thing to say is: That’s a ridiculously moving story! That I was in any kind of heartening relation to anybody during that queasy, ill-spirited time is basically an amazement — let alone to you, whom I remember because you were so ready to get a drink, and to introduce me to your people, and to fall to cheerful fighting about, like, Henry James heroines. You helped to nurture in me the fragile little belief that there might yet be worlds, new worlds, left for me to inhabit, there in the aftermath of the collapse of the intimate world anchored by my marriage.
So this is just a really kind thing to say. One of the nicest responses I’ve received to the book was when someone at a reading said, “It seems like you were loved extremely well by your friends” — which was of course gratifying, because, just as you suggest, a lot of the book comes out of this sense of startled, dumbstruck gratitude. I was cared for, in those bad days, in ways so far beyond what I was able to return, even marginally, in terms of attentiveness or affection or really any of the rudiments of grown-up friendship. I think the book got a lot better, over the course of its drafting, when it ceased to be a meticulous accounting of these long inward seasons of sorrow and became something closer to what it is now, which is a kind of love letter. Or, more truthfully, several love letters, sewn together into one: a love letter to all the people who, with an extraordinary delicacy and patience, loved me back into a belief in the happier possibilities of being alive; to the little girls, my suddenly ex-stepdaughters, who sustained our closeness with these fully amazing everyday feats of ingenuity and openheartedness; and, of course, to all those songs — songs and songs and songs — which pretty much never stopped offering me the sensation, if not quite the fact, of better, brighter eventualities. They kept offering, I mean, a way to feel tethered to the world, and to all these beloved people.
Another way to say it, I suppose, is that writing like this — “personal writing,” or whatever we want to call it, became for me a way to think, with some sustained focus, both about gratitude and how to be in relation to it. It occurred to me, late in the compositional day, that a good deal of what those turbulent years entailed for me was figuring out how to get a handle on the stark surprise of being loved — by friends, but not only by friends — when everything inside me was shouting out, pretty convincingly, that if what happened to me showed anything at all, it was that I was not, finally, lovable. To anybody.
So, I mean, loving people back toward a mislaid belief in the ampler possibilities of being alive? I still think that’s an extraordinary human transaction. I should say too that it’s one I would not know half as much about without, oh, many, many years immersed in queer theory, and for that matter in the worlds of queer sociability out of which that scholarship grows. I think part of me wanted to write a book about that, which meant tending to all those passages of sustaining friendship.
One thing I really loved about this book’s accounting of heartbreak and friendship was its timeline: it bounces around, even as it tells a roughly chronological story, and reflects how emotional life so often fails to follow a narrative of progress.
Can you talk a little bit about how you found the experience of trying to map or chart a set of feelings, like how to put into narrative coherence the way that heartbreak and depression don’t follow a ladder-step of progress?
Oh man, I like what you say about the, as it were, competing chronologies of heartbreak: the actual one, where you travel from city to city and make new friends and do your job and such, and the emotional one, where you’re all over the fucking map. That was certainly my experience of that subspecies of plummeting misery: “One night is lovely, the next is brutal,” as Liz Phair puts it, with enviable concision. So having to map those two very different trajectories — that was a challenge! — but it was also, in the end, a fun kind of writerly challenge.
Here’s a quick way of saying what I mean, which comes with a little story. When I first drafted the book, it was much longer, and it had a pretty different trajectory. When I finished that initial draft, I was so psyched. I gave it to my agent in this state of amped-up pride and eager expectation, and he read it, line by line by line by line, and — total hero that he is — he was like, “Yeah man, this is so great, nicely done, good work! Also: It’s really wrong.” And what was wrong was that it did not move — it was just, in that first draft, one long, wearying account of the intricacies of, you know, being devastated by a divorce. And what Chris said, and what even more amazingly he said in such a way that I could hear it and not just be fucking demolished by it, was: “Ultimately, your sadness is just not that interesting.”
Writers! This is spectacularly good counsel! It was, of course, devastating (I think part of me was like, “No dude, there is nothing more interesting than my prolix sadness!”), but it had the great effect of making me think about exactly what you’re talking about: how to plot the book, according to what arcs of development, and across what grids of circumstance.
This did two things that ended up being just hugely important to me. It forced me to back away from that story of, like, Woe Woe Woe Is Me!, and, in turn, to get enough room to see a very different story than the one I’d been telling. That was the story of how much I had been involved in the making of that terrible period of sorrow — how much I had done to contribute to it, to make it happen, and to sustain it. We are back here, I think, to shame, because one of the things the book is finally and most largely about, I think, is its protagonist’s terrible, blinding narcissism — his eager, grandiose belief that he could (for instance) just love the sorrow right out of anybody. Having to rewrite the emotional order of the book forced me to grapple with that and to see that part of what the book might be about is the labor of unlearning that kind of self-aggrandizing narcissism, that garden-variety “my love can redeem all hurt” sort of dumb masculinity.
Because I mean how better to unlearn your narcissistic grandiosity than by, oh, writing a memoir?
Chris’s insistence that I needed to rethink the plotting of the book — along with that of my wonderful editor, Elda — also brought home, at last, the thing they’d been trying to tell me for quite a while. This was just that the book wasn’t really about my sadness, or my loss, or whatever. The best version of the book, they kept saying, was going to be about the girls, and they were right.
The girls! Pete, I say with some authority: you are an excellent writer of children and parents (for example: “We were people with children standing mannequinlike and laden with mittens and scarves and snacks among others like ourselves in humid waiting rooms,” or the concision of describing children as “by mystifying turns noisy and silent.”) I’m curious: Did you keep notebooks while the girls were children? How did you muster all that rich detail about a time pretty long past?
Dude, of course I kept notebooks when the girls were little! This I did for no better reason than that I was so stunned, so day-by-day overwhelmed, by how fucking bad I was at being in a parental role! I was forever failing in patience, in equanimity, in wisdom, in all of what I took to be the minimum requirements of parenthood. Only later did I come to understand that this feeling — the feeling of perpetual and abject failure — was not due to my being a stepparent, or not solely. (Come to find out, the proper name for that feeling of swamping incompetence is: Parenthood!) That everyday sense of being involved in something I wasn’t good enough for, and the volatile cocktail of anger and shame that went with it, made for something of the, let’s say, vividness of those early days.
The other side of it was this insinuating knowledge that, even at my most frustrated and fearful, I could never quite manage to keep wholly hidden from myself: the simple knowledge that the girls were, in the ordinariest ways, fucking amazing — hilarious, weird, each her own little cosmos, and also just astonishingly loving little persons. As I think the book tries to describe, this was just one of the adult facts of existence for which I was astonishingly unprepared.
Right, right: the deep failure, and unpreparedness, and improvisation of parenting! So the book is very much about improvised family — and it was released in June for Father’s Day. As you know, I am pretty singularly obsessed not just with writing about motherhood but also with how our culture treats writing about motherhood. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve observed from your conversations and reviews, et cetera, about how this book is being received as writing about parenthood?
I wish I better knew how the book was being received in terms of parenthood. I’ll say that one perpetually awful thing about the way our culture treats writing about motherhood — and this is something I’ve begun to learn how to be better attentive to, not least by reading you — is that fatherhood can very easily come to be assessed with the ridiculous absolving praiseful hyperforgivingness reserved for, y’know, dudes, or at least bougie white dudes. It is what my friend Katherine calls, perfectly, “the low bar of masculinity.” If, for that reason alone, it seemed to me important to stick pretty closely, in the book, to shame, to not let it dissipate, to not dismiss it as just the interior white noise proper to the rigors of parenthood. Because, I mean, if there’s anything men could stand to get in fucking relation to, it is shame — and by that I mean, precisely, getting accustomed to the practice of not dismissing it, of not being a shut-down kind of defensive. Of being willing to actually do the grinding work of parsing it out.
As you know from spending years talking about it with me, a lot of what I felt about the kind of parent I had managed to be was shame. One of the things that happens in the book, I think, is that the protagonist tries to figure out what parts of that shame were actually misapprehending — self-punishing misreadings — and what parts were totally, utterly earned. That is at least one of what you could call the “plots” of the book. And, as it turns out, I came by a lot of that shame honestly.
But this is less about the girls and more about, oh, everything else I was terrible at!
Well, one thing you are not terrible at is loving music and making mixtapes! What are some of your favorite pop songs/artists right now, here in the summer of seemingly the final year of the American experiment?
Oh, man, there’s just so much great music, you know? I’ll just say two things, both of which riff a bit from this little piece I got to write for Largehearted Boy, where you make a mix based on your book and then annotate it. First, we are fully immersed in this astonishing era of black pop genius: D’Angelo, Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Chance, Frank Ocean for the love of god! And that is a list even I can give you, even someone with such pathetically middle-aged and basic taste as mine. Also, as my friend Mark says, the daughters of indie rock are bringing it home: bands like Girlpool and Charly Bliss and Vagabon and Big Thief, and dream-pop’ers like Japanese Breakfast and electro-folk outfits like Sylvan Esso … kids who probably grew up listening to records of the bands you and I were seeing at the Lounge Ax in 1994, or whatever, because that’s what their parents were listening to. They’re heartlifting.
And because we — or at least I — am fully and unmaskably middle aged, I might as well just admit that for a long time now the girls and I have reversed roles. I do not, categorically do not, give them music they haven’t heard. They’re the ones with their ears to the ground. (Which is how I came to know at all about Earl Sweatshirt, Sylvan Esso, Kali Uchis, and even — as you know — Chance himself.)
Okay, one last (big) question. Are you happy now? Pete, I know that you have found love, but do you want say a bit about what that’s meant to you?
Oh, Sarah. One thing to say is: You have been very patient with me, and very loving, over many years! That is to say: You have listened very gamely to a lot of lovelorn narration.
I guess I’ll say that the combined process of writing this book and falling in heart-swept love again — it was edifying. On the one hand, a lot of the book, as I’ve said, is about reckoning with all the ways that I was really, truly not at all good enough — however earnest and heartfelt I was in my efforts — at loving the people I loved. So one feeling is, like, Do better! Don’t entangle the person you so love with your own grandiose fantasies about yourself! (Or at least not too many of them…) Try to love the people you cherish a little less stupidly: that, for me, is one interior moral of the book.
But the other, I guess happier, side of it is different. At our reading in Brooklyn, one of the audience members said something that about knocked me over. It was something like, “There’s a lot of harm in the book, and a lot of sorrow — but not a lot of cruelty.” And I needed a minute to, like, take that in. What I suppose I hope he was saying was that, if the book is any evidence — and maybe it is, maybe it isn’t — I’d managed to free myself of the seductive story, the great narcotic fantasy, that I had been wronged, treated with callous disregard, or whatever. God knows that is how I thought about things for a stubbornly long time. But it was not a way of telling the story of those years that really did anything good for me — or for the girls, or for anyone.
So when he said that — you remember! — I kind of got teary. Because I thought, Oh jesus, maybe all the sharper edges of what happened — fully fucking 10 years ago — maybe that is, at last, as much as can be hoped, a thing that is behind me.
It made the kind of happiness I’m standing inside right now feel, suddenly, spacious. And what could be happier than that you were right there beside me as it happened? And that we’d head out to the bar to talk about it?
Sarah Blackwood has written about gender, popular culture, motherhood, and bodies for the New Republic, Slate, The Hairpin, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. With Sarah Mesle, she is co-editor of Avidly and the Avidly Reads book series, forthcoming from NYU Press.