Writing Against Complacency

The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries

Writing Against Complacency

“COME TO US, and you can finish out your collapse among people who understand,” Jessa Crispin writes at the beginning of The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries (University of Chicago). She’s personifying the city of Berlin, long known as a destination for the wanton and weary, the dreamy and dreary-eyed — but she could also be talking about her debut, a fascinating hybrid of memoir, literary analysis, history, biography, travel reportage, philosophy, and speculation.

The Dead Ladies Project is at once an investigation and a resuscitation, as Crispin sifts through the lives of dead expatriate iconoclasts while traveling through the European cities where they once lived in exile. She’s searching for the impetus that mobilizes creative expression, the drive to survive in spite of persecution, alienation, hopelessness, and self-doubt. “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will,” Crispin quotes from William James’s journals, holding this commitment at the core of The Dead Ladies Project as she allows everything else to collapse and re-form, including the frame of her own life. 

Crispin is the founder and editor of Bookslut, one of the forebears of online literary criticism, which she created in 2002 as a site for reviews, interviews, columns, and queries outside the pressures of publishing industry dictates. In the ensuing years, she has honed her talents as a widely versed critic and editor, and the expansive range of her inquiry makes The Dead Ladies Project a work as thoughtful as it is provocative. 

Here I speak with Crispin about the perils of communication, the dangers of formulaic publishing industry standards, the potential of life in exile, the limitations of literary heroes, the allure of internalized oppression, and the quest for that mysterious thing called “home.”


MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE: I wonder if you could talk about how you originally envisioned this project — traveling across Europe in search of the creative and destructive impulses of dead writers — it’s not exactly history or memoir or biography or travel writing or gossip or literary criticism, but a combination of all these things.

JESSA CRISPIN: I wasn’t sure what this book was going to be until I started the writing. I had the outline of the places I wanted to go and the artists I wanted to write about, but until I sat down and wrote the Berlin chapter, I didn’t know what my own involvement would be. I wasn’t sure how much I was going to be in the pages.

The Berlin chapter I think got written in about four days, a few weeks before I left for Trieste — it was just already there in my head, for the most part. And then that chapter became the template.

But before I write, I have no idea about the tone or what all will be involved. I don’t try to intervene too much in the process, to be honest. I don’t want to control the work or smoosh it into a certain kind of shape. I let it be what it wants to be.

I think one of the strengths of this book is how everything is interwoven — your life now, and the lives of these writers who died 50 years ago. Your desires now, their desires then. Your pain and sorrow and longing — all together now. At one point, you even say, “I have lost track of whether I am writing about Margaret Anderson or about myself,” and I think this losing track is what opens up an emotional resonance that a single-genre-based work would not have allowed. Did you find resistance from publishers, editors, or agents who wanted you to limit the scope, style, and substance of the book?

Oh, so much! The first person I pitched was an agent who sat quietly as I talked through the idea and then said, “This is not a book. Why don’t you just write a memoir instead?” I locked myself in the bathroom and cried.

There was a very long string of rejections, which were all along the same lines: this is too much, you’re doing too much, do less. And I respond weirdly to all of that. On the surface I start to think I should give up, but internally I get really entrenched. A “fuck-you” starts to build that becomes just 100 percent immovable. But then I found Susan Bielstein at the University of Chicago, who was nothing but enormously enthusiastic from the beginning. She trusted that I knew what I was doing, probably more than I trusted myself. She never once asked me to simplify or make the project more marketable. Working with her was a dream.

So in the book you become an exile, in order to imagine, investigate, and conjure the lives of these expatriate writers. Was part of the impetus for this journey a drive to find or define or refine or refuse the terms of your own life?

I get these useless sentences in my head sometimes. Like, at the beginning of this book, it was “I want to go home.” Always spoken to myself, of course, and while I was in my physical home. So I would spend a lot of time wondering, why on earth is this home not enough? What would feel like home? I was certain I didn’t mean the house I grew up in, in Kansas — I was always trying to escape that one, too. So what was this sentence all about? Then somewhere in Trieste the sentence became, “I want my life back.” Back from whom? It was so weird because these thoughts would take over, and they felt really urgent. And the fact that I couldn’t find any answers made me really despair. It’s not that I’ve answered these questions since then, or that they don’t still show up, but they’re not as urgent anymore.

So, not to be too melodramatic about it, but for a long time I felt like I had been living in exile from my real life, a life of my choosing, and this process was a way to actually get back there. Which meant burning down what had come before. And also finding different models, seeing other people fuck up and stumble around in the dark for a while, using the times they spent questioning everything and rebuilding after devastation, allowing that to be a kind of guiding light.

I love the title of the book — by naming it The Dead Ladies Project, it seems that you are both calling in these dead writers, and you’re calling them out. And, in the process of summoning them, you’re summoning yourself. Would you say that “lady” is both an invocation and a critique? 

It’s both sarcastic and sincere. The term is so loaded, isn’t it? You’re a lady if you’re socially acceptable, if you don’t take up too much space. None of these women — or men — were socially acceptable, and they all took up too much space. They were deviants and weirdos, all of them — nothing ladylike about them. I mean, one of them, Maude Gonne, sold her soul to the devil, for god’s sake.

But I’m also sincere in that the word conveys this kind of elevation — not through the traditional ways of money and conformity, but from grit and the power of your own will. Meaning you have this baseline, biological womanhood, and then you fight to elevate yourself to a more refined version of that — to become a lady. And I like that idea.

If you read enough artists’ biographies, there’s almost always a moment when the artist, who is almost always a social reject in some way (either because of poverty or ugliness or just the fact that artists were seen as rough folk for much of our history), suddenly gets invited to the party. Society’s party. But once they get there they usually realize, oh my god, these people are awful. Why did I ever want their approval?

Margaret Anderson, for instance, who was first to publish all of the true great modernists, and lived in poverty and instability to do so, and was made fun of by the establishment and on and on. Finally, James Joyce and the others started to sell, and she found a kind of respectability, but by then she was, like, oh, these ridiculous poseurs. She saw through it.

Several of these dead ladies are writers generally considered “men.” Tell me more about what makes them outliers in the gendered scheme of their, and our, times.

Partly, if only for my own pleasure, I wanted to take apart the lazy idea we have about the Great Male Genius. These men who supposedly strive on their own and live by their wits and their enormous egos, defying haters and naysayers, and overcoming impossible odds. That’s what we tell ourselves about people like Hemingway and Picasso, as if they lived outside of time, weren’t influenced by anyone, and possessed a kind of purity that had to find its expression. All of that bullshit.

So I wanted to call them ladies. I wanted to find their feminine modes. With William James, it was just his enormous need that made him feminine to me. He kind of starts off with a black hole for a heart, there’s just nothing that can fill it, he needs so much from his friends, his siblings, his surroundings. Because he tries to be the male genius, but he keeps fucking up. He tries to be the adventurer, but immediately gets sick and has to come home to recover. But then somehow his black hole un-collapses — he reverses the physics and he finds this deep compassion, despite his despair, and that’s what makes him a human. He no longer labors in this masculine conquering mode; instead his work becomes about connection, about empathy.

Which is kind of similar to W. Somerset Maugham, who, like William’s brother Henry, found women more compelling to write about. Having been held down socially, they had the more interesting storylines, and the greater capacity for real growth. Maugham loved women. He hated his wife, but he loved women. When he wrote autobiographically, again like Henry James, he seems to have used female characters to do so.

How did you choose the writers, and the cities, you decided to investigate — there’s a long list of European and American expatriate writers to choose from — why not James Baldwin or Alice B. Toklas, for example? How did you narrow the scope?

The writers and artists I included were all people I had been thinking about for a long time. And so once I figured out the framework — that they were all going to be expats, that there had to be some sort of connection between the artist, the city, and myself — it became pretty clear who was going to be included and where I wanted to go.

James Baldwin was a pretty obvious candidate, except that he has already written so thoughtfully and beautifully about his exile. There wasn’t anywhere I could have taken the idea. His work on his life in France is essential reading to anyone wanting to think or write about expatriation, though.

But I also knew I didn’t want to write about Americans in France. When we write about expatriation, it’s always those Americans: Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. I just didn’t want to wander into that particular cliché. Even when I was writing about an American — Margaret Anderson — in the South of France, I couldn’t make myself care enough; I kept writing about her in her American life. I didn’t even want to go to France! I have never in my life been so happy about a canceled flight.

You’re writing against the racist and colonial history of travel, and yet traveling in order to write. Would you say that this contradiction is central to the book?

Oh yeah — and again, it is just not easy. You can’t just instantly abandon the way you were raised. I spent a lot of time worshiping at the altar of the great male travel writer — I read all those bastards and romanticized the work. So it’s ingrained — it’s become a part of the way I think. Eventually you see through the romance and into the power dynamics, into the colonial mindset of a lot of these guys. Their macho pose. But just because you see it doesn’t mean you don’t accidentally adopt it yourself.

But yeah, you can’t just abandon the pursuit, either. You can’t say, okay, so, I will avoid this problem altogether by only writing about my own world, about only writing about my own self, because that’s a whole other pre-Copernican center of the universe narcissistic bullshit set-up.

You have to struggle with it! You have to be super-aware of what you are doing and what your intentions are. You know, I wrote this essay about colonialism in travel writing for the Boston Review, and the most frequent feedback I heard was, “You are overthinking this.” A fellow travel writer even said, I don’t think about this, I just pitch ideas that seem like they will sell. And I was horrified! You have to think about this, because it is absolutely important, the stories we tell ourselves about the world. It has a real effect on how we interact with other people. As writers, it is our job to think.

One inevitable theme in the book is misogyny. The misogyny of male writers controlling the lives of women described as muses or sluts or wives or servants. The internalized misogyny of female writers struggling against time and place. You do something unique in that you place yourself inside both of these tendencies — which makes me hold my breath, almost; but it allows for an intimacy that deepens the possibilities of the narrative. Misogyny is heartbreaking, right? We don’t always escape. Can you talk about your choice to implicate yourself?

Like everyone in the world, I guess, I was taught that women are just less valuable. We assign value to masculine traits and characteristics — like rationality, for instance, and of course rationality is the most important thing in the world! And then we label other traits as feminine and useless or weak.

I come from a very conservative background, in rural Kansas, where gender roles are set in stone, in a family where not much is expected of women, unless they can sort of fight their way into being seen as the equals of men, but only if they take on the characteristics of a man. It’s impossible just to discard that stuff, you have to constantly question your first assumptions, your knee-jerk responses to almost every judgment call that you make. You’re going to have certain thoughts — and then you are going to have to take them apart in order to create a new way of responding and reordering your values. To pretend that part of me isn’t still trapped in this very Midwestern way of thinking, this mindset I was raised in, would be dishonest. I still definitely look down on icky girl stuff. I still want to prove how big my intellectual dick is, even though I absolutely also know that is a corrupt desire.

Back in Kansas, most people read you as an outsider. You certainly felt like an outsider. But in Europe, you’re read as one of “us,” even when you don’t speak the language or feel like you fit in. How do you explain this?

I spent a lot of time in my hometown and in my family just feeling like a space alien. Like I was just delivered to the wrong fucking place. From birth, basically.

And it’s painful, especially when you’re a kid and you don’t know what you are doing wrong, and you think it’s you. You don’t know why you can’t be like everyone else. It’s just so hard.

But when you’re that kid, I think it sets you up for just a lifetime of displacement. And there are benefits to that, as long as you manage to get over the self-blame: everywhere in the world can equally feel like home, because you’re so used to feeling like an alien, it doesn’t actually matter where you are. It’s like getting a worldwide backstage pass.

No matter where I am in Europe, I get asked for directions. Something about the way I look reads as local.

In many ways, this book is about language — can we ever really communicate with one another? Will anyone ever understand us? 

When I started all of this, really from the moment I left for Berlin, I was in a place where I was desperate to connect with people. I was like William James with this enormous need, this black hole of a heart. So of course I went to a place where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know anybody, and then as soon as I got comfortable I went to another place where I had to start over with the language and with the people, and so on.

Writing books and traveling are both huge “Please-someone-notice-me” moves. My brilliant friend Veda Hille wrote a song about a girl checking for a “Missed Connections” ad about her on Craigslist, called “Did Someone See Me Today?” and that song breaks my heart because I’ve been a variation of that girl.

So, can we ever really communicate with each other? Probably not. Except for the long conversations you have with dear writers late at night, by reading their novels; except for those brief moments on the road when you spend 10 minutes with a stranger and it sustains you somehow: you make eye contact with someone on the train and somehow you feel seen and heard and known, and that moment puts you back in the world.

In the middle of the book, you ask, “When do you stop growing or fighting or chasing?” Would you say that writing this book was one way for you to keep growing and fighting and chasing?

I don’t want to be complacent. I don’t want to take anything for granted, and having to really pay attention to everything for the two years of travel and writing was my way to fight against that.

When I die, I don’t want to look back on my life and think, “Well, at least I was always very comfortable.”


Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the author of a memoir, The End of San Francisco, winner of a Lambda Literary Award.

LARB Contributor

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author, most recently, of Touching the Art (2023).


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