JUNE 1, 2015
THE TITLE OF KATE CARROLL DE GUTES’S debut essay collection acts as both observation and warning, as if to remind you that things aren’t as they seem when seen backwards: Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. The collection is a consideration of the difficulties of long-term commitment — the ways we figure out how we want to live and who we want to be. It presents the author’s observations on flailing and failing marriages — her own, and her parents’ — as well as her thoughts about gender identity and her own coming out. De Gutes writes with compelling honesty, and the book is a triumph of coming to terms with herself and her world.
She and I recently talked about the challenges, rewards, and repercussions of writing such a personal story.
CLAIRE LUCHETTE: How did you determine that you had enough distance from the end of your marriage to be able to write about it — or did the process of writing provide the distance?
KATE CARROLL DE GUTES: I’m not sure you ever have the distance to write about your own marriage, but at some point you just have to put the pen to page. Initially, I wrote as a way to work through what I thought had happened and (I hope) to look at both sides of the story. I left my wife, and I was racked with guilt about that. Who leaves a 23-year marriage? The comfort of someone you grew up with, the house you renovated together, the inside jokes, the history … Writing helped me try to find some balance and see the bigger picture — to let go of my guilt over walking out. Of course, those early essays were sentimental and dramatic — and not in a good way. So I let the pages sit.
I finished a draft in 2010, and Judith Kitchen, the late editor and publisher of Ovenbird Books, kept nagging me to submit. But I knew it wasn’t quite right, didn’t quite hang together the way it should. I knew I needed more time to metabolize what had happened. In 2014, I finally got serious about reworking the manuscript, at which point I threw out 45 pages and wrote 40 new ones. The four additional years gave me more perspective, and I hope that’s there on the page.
About the title: did you experience a sense of caution in looking back on your marriage and your coming out?
I chose that title because I thought it might give my reader a clue to the book’s reverse chronology. But, I suppose it’s a warning, too: as in, be careful, because your past might sneak up on you. I think I certainly felt cautious about looking back at my marriage. I wanted to tell the story honestly without eroding the many wonderful things that kept the marriage alive for all those years. I think that’s the balancing act of writing nonfiction: to tell a story honestly and completely but without distorting after the fact — because that’s what those side-view mirrors do. We naturally change a story when we impose craft and structure — but can we do that without warping the truth? And without invading another person’s privacy? I hope so. I did give a copy of the book to my ex-wife and told her I was willing to omit anything that made her uncomfortable. She’s a great reader of nonfiction and, over the years, we’d had lots of conversations about how you craft an essay, how it changes from a dinner table story to something meant for the page. She was very generous. Before even reading the manuscript, she said, “It’s your story. I’m fine with it.”
In terms of looking back at coming out, I suppose I might have felt cautious if this was 1990, or maybe even 2000. I could imagine having felt more nervous about the public response, worrying about being marginalized as a gay writer (and not simply considered a writer who happens to be gay), worrying about what some relatives and neighbors would say (and I suppose I am a little worried about that — these people are from the Midwest). But was I concerned about what I would find? Or how my parents would feel? No. In that regard, I did not proceed with a whit of caution. It is just one part of the story of who I am, and I’ve been out for years.
Do you think your butch identity is something you grew into, or does it grow with you?
It’s both. When I came out, it wasn’t politically correct to be butch or femme. We were all these androgynous looking women in pleated chinos and polo shirts with the collars turned up (it was the ’80s, it wasn’t as egregious a look back then), and even though I wanted to dress more butch, the culture at large, the lesbian culture— and, even to some degree, my wife — didn’t like it. There was so much to fight against. So I stayed away from the ties and the boots and all the overt symbols we think of as butch. But that identity was there in me. And, I spent time discovering and internalizing, and, I suppose, becoming comfortable with what I think of as the qualities and energies of butch — a chivalry, a way of relating to the feminine in women and in myself. When I was finally able to embody all that (and once YouTube taught me how to tie a bow tie and a double Windsor knot), I became comfortable enough to be that way full-time. But that’s a very Portlandia answer, isn’t it? How about I just say, it’s both.
Tell me about the use of the second person in the book (especially in “Quite Suddenly”): what were the challenges of using that voice, and how did it help the narration?
I use second person quite a bit to get into subjects that I think are tricky or emotionally risky. The point of view lets me take a step back from myself — and from the story I’m telling myself about the story that I’m telling, does that make sense? It’s also how I think and how I tell stories around the dinner table. You know, you’re sitting there, leaning back in your chair, telling your beloved … it’s just natural to slip into that stance. The challenge is in getting the voice right so that it doesn’t sound like an instruction manual or like a lecture. Or to the point that it becomes hypnotic and the reader winds up lost. An interesting accident of using second person is that I’ve had lots of straight people come up to me after readings and say they understand exactly what I’m saying about the dread of bringing a partner home to meet the family, or the excitement and fear of having sex for the first time. Second person allows readers to enter the story more fully so that when I’m writing about kissing my wife for the first time, they’re imagining their first kisses.
I play around with point of view and tense quite a bit in this book. There’s first, second, and third person; there’s past, present, and future tense. In particular, the tenses helped me tell a story with a backwards thrust and not have to have everything in exact chronological order. For instance, “Don We Now Our Gay Apparel” comes early in the book — which really means at the end of my story about divorce — but talks about how as a young woman I didn’t wear hats because they made me look butch. To address where it was positioned in the manuscript, tenses had to shift so the reader could track the narrative arc.
Sex scenes can be hard, but yours avoid the trappings of cliché and overwriting. Were they difficult to put together?
You’re right, sex is stupidly difficult to write — how do you do it without looking prurient, prudish, or puerile? I don’t really know —which is why I try and avoid writing about it. What helped in this case was to remember the emotions, to focus on the feelings and not the facts (by which I mean the acts). But honestly, I think I just got lucky that these scenes turned out reasonably well. Everything else I’ve ever written about sex sounded like that novel about the color gray.
What were you reading while you were writing this? Did you consult journals from these times?
I read so many other writer’s memoirs on sexuality. Three come to mind: Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now, Minnie Bruce Pratt’s S/He, Leslie Feinberg’s Drag King Dreams. Much of my work about gender initially occurred in a vacuum because I didn’t want to read theory, I wanted to read story. Luckily, I stumbled onto Kate Bornstein, Ivan Coyote, and Leslie Feinberg. All three greatly educated me and helped clarify my thinking.
Like most writers I know, I have boxes and boxes of journals. I made good use of them — when I could read my handwriting — in order to try and accurately capture what occurred. I know there’s always a faction who says that nonfiction should not include dialogue, that a writer can’t really know what was said five hours much less five years ago, but I disagree. I come from a background in journalism, and I’m always striving to catch cadence correctly. When I report on what happened — whether it was something I witnessed in the coffee shop this morning or a story about a boy we beat up in sixth grade — I want to capture all the details in order to give the reader a complete picture. My journals go all the way back to third grade, and even back then I wrote dialogue. Like just this morning I found this line in my diary from third grade: “Mom said she didn’t give two hoops what that lady thought.” (By the way, I have no idea what “two hoops” are.)
What topics of sexuality and gender presentation interest you most right now?
There’s so much discussion and friction in the lesbian community right now over the number of younger women transitioning to male. In my circle, we spend a lot of time talking about how butch is again being marginalized by our community. Now it seems that the thought is if you are butch, you’re just waiting to transition. Because why would you want to learn to be uncomfortable being masculine-of-center? While transitioning is never easy, what I’m trying to figure out, what my butch friends and I wonder, is if it isn’t a quick fix. And I don’t really know the answer. Partly, everyone is walking on eggshells, afraid to say, “Why are you doing this now? How will you feel at 40 or 50?” And the question that we really want to ask: “Are you actually buying into misogyny because you perceive that it’s easier to be male than a masculine-of-center female?” No one wants to hurt another, deny another, shame another, but I think we need open conversations about this divide. I started an open mic in Portland for queer, genderqueer, and trans writers. I’m hoping that we can listen to each other and find some understanding.
What in your life have you not yet written about, but feel the need to?
Well, my mother has Alzheimer’s, so that is absolutely what I’m writing about next from the personal perspective; essays about things I never thought I’d have to do — like brush my mom’s dentures for her — as well as writing more practical advice for negotiating caregiving while still maintaining your own life. One of my mentors encouraged me to track the number of hours I spend managing things for my mom, as if all that were part of my day job. You don’t really think about the calls to the bank, or how long you wait on hold to talk to the doctor, or even the time it takes to arrange additional care. I think this topic is big — I mean, I’m living it right now so it’s big for me. But in 14 years, there will be 71 million people over the age of 65 in the US. Right, now, I look at my mom’s assisted living facility and try to imagine myself there: a dapper old queer dressing for dinner. I just can’t see it. All this is very personal — trying to figure out how and where to age, what kind of community I want. It’s another conversation I think we need to have.