Novelist Ali Liebegott on humor as self-defense and bounty in the trash.
Ali Liebegott’s books evoke a life-affirming sensation that comes from embracing the pendular. Her ability to hit the right tone is scientific, almost violent in its precision—a single word or observation, well-placed, can have a reader crying or laughing aloud. I do both when I read her writing.
We spoke at a small café in San Francisco’s Mission District. Liebegott was about to go on a reading tour with Sister Spit—a queer and queer-friendly performance roadshow—and was just that very week celebrating a double book release with the new City Lights/Sister Spit imprint: a reissue of her classic The Beautifully Worthless, which is a novel composed largely of poems and letters, alongside Cha-Ching!, her most recent book.
Evan Karp Let’s talk about Cha-Ching! How did it come about?
Ali Liebegott I don’t even remember. I was writing and noticed there was a lot of gambling, and then . . .
EK Do you gamble?
AL That’s neither here nor there! (laughter) But my family lives in Las Vegas and I’ve spent a lot of time around it. I thought I’d like to write something where it’s one of many addictions, and so that was where I kind of set off. Gambling is the fastest growing addiction in the United States. There are the Indian casinos and Internet gambling. We have so much more access to it, and, as a result, there’s a ton of gambling problems.
EK It does seem so much more omnipresent than ten years ago.
AL Two hours from anywhere and you can get to a casino. Whereas before, you had to go to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or Reno, or bet on horses. But now it’s just everywhere, so I was really interested in that, and I was also really interested in writing about these cities, capturing a time that doesn’t exist there anymore because of gentrification, neighborhoods, things like that. That was what I started off doing, then it got on its own path.
EK The book definitely takes off, even though I feel like, in a way, the plot is pretty simple and not a whole lot happens.
AL Not a whole lot happens in my books.
EK Yeah, which I love. It sucked me in immediately. It feels so very personal. I’m wondering how much is based on your actual life?
AL I don’t know. Obviously this is more fictional than any of my other work, but I write about psyche and inner world, things like that. So I don’t know how to divorce my experience from those kinds of things. It forms a lot of my writing. I’ve lived in the places in the book, but there are characters in there that are just characters—they’re not even thinly veiled, they’re made up. So there’s definitely a large portion of fiction, but the thing here is that I understand the sentiment of being queer in the world, and I understand the sentiment of addiction too.
EK I get the sense when I read your sentences that there’s precision, like each one contains the perfect amount of emotion. Like you have this uncanny way of making me laugh at the right time.
AL What was funny? This book isn’t as funny as other stuff. IHOP Papers has a lot more of that, though it has a lot of sad things too. With Cha-Ching!, I can’t even imagine finding an excerpt to read on tour that’s going to be funny. Let me know if there’s something in there. (laughter)
EK There is. Even in little moments, are you conscious of humor when you’re writing? Are you like, man, this is just too sad?
AL No, I don’t think so. That’s commented on in a lot of my work, that it’s tragic and hilarious. It’s good to balance, but I’m desensitized. I don’t even know what’s sad anymore, in a way. My idea of what’s sad is probably very different from most.
EK One of the quotes I jotted down, something that stuck out to me, was along the lines of: “I spent my younger years trying not to feel anything and maybe it completely backfired.”
AL That’s early on in the book. It backfired. Yep. (laughter)
EK Do you strongly relate to that on a personal level?
AL I think I was really sad in high school. In some way it might have been the tears of a clown, but I think to be a queer person who came of age in a time when that wasn’t so great . . . well, my experience was that there weren’t other queer people in my town, and, of course, there weren’t groups like gay/straight alliances. There weren’t even people on TV who were doing anything gay. You know?
So I came of age, really, with people dying of AIDS. I think sometimes you meet queer people who are very funny, and maybe they had to get funny real fucking quick, either for themselves or to the outside world. That’s probably true for me. You got really funny really fast so people wouldn’t kick your ass or so you wouldn’t be afraid they would. You can have a cocktail party and see people with certain senses of humor and know it’s come from a place of necessity.
EK Maybe people are drawn to that. They might be drawn to the defense mechanism?
AL I wonder if it’s still a defense mechanism, or, like, the residual ash? (laughter) Now you’ve learned this thing and it’s integrated into who you are. Is every joke the result of some sort of escape plan? I don’t know about that.
EK I feel, maybe, that identity is a response to the outside world. You respond to the world and grow up. People might be drawn to you based on what you’ve struggled through or how you’ve handled it.
AL I live a block from the hospital, and I see suffering every fucking day. It’s kind of crazy how much is visible, and it’s really overwhelming. There are a lot of people dealing with addiction and homelessness. It drives me crazy. I step over people every day. That’s intense! We step over people, because what if you stopped every time?
EK You finished this book at a retreat, right?
AL It was intense because I was running the retreat too. I had rented my own little place, like a small casita, so I could get up at any hour and work. I knew I had thirty days to do a certain number of pages, so I was on this breakneck schedule. It was a good thing. I finished a day early.
EK Do you usually write on a schedule like that?
AL No, but I want to get back to it because when I’m working on a longer piece I want to be involved in it every day so I can stay in that world.
EK Do you have a way of entering that world?
AL I always know how. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always had a project. I haven’t had that thing where I sit down and start from scratch and think, “I want to write a book, I wonder what it’s going to be about?” I’ve had the opposite, where I think I’m going to write a book about this or that, and then it ends up being about something else. Or, it ends up not being a book at all. There’s not that much science to it. You just sit down and fucking do it.
EK So a book changes course as you’re writing it because you don’t necessarily know what’s next?
AL I wrote a kind of sequel to The Beautifully Worthless that I haven’t quite figured out. It’s not right yet, and I don’t know why. But I do know it’s not right. So sometimes that’s frustrating. And I threw out two hundred pages of Cha-Ching! I threw out almost two hundred pages of IHOP. Everything you write is not going to enter the world.
EK Do you do a lot of sharing on the retreat? Is there any workshop component?
AL No. We read what we’ve been working on but we don’t comment. If people want to privately talk amongst themselves they have all that time and space to do it.
EK So it’s more just an inspiring atmosphere of people creating stuff.
AL Exactly. It’s not like a retreat where everyone gets their own studio. We’re all at a kitchen table. We have these mandatory quiet hours of writing. You see people working around you, and even if you’re tired you just keep going. So there’s something nice about seeing everybody working. After that it’s up to you. Usually people go swimming or lay around. People smoke in the hammock or take care of feral cats. My goal is to not bring home any more animals, because every time we go we end up adopting something.
What’s kind of inspiring about it is we just had the idea and did it. That is what’s nice about being in such a small organization—there’s no bureaucracy. We want to have a writer’s retreat, and you don’t have to be queer to go there, but probably at least 70 percent usually are.
EK My next big thing is learning how to ask for money.
AL They have whole classes about it. I’m really bad at it. That’s hard when you want to have an organization where you pay people. I would never be able to go to Mexico on my own—there’s no fucking way, and I have three jobs. But it’s a very special place, the town we go to—Akumal. It’s a turtle nesting ground, so you see these sea turtles lay eggs, the eggs hatch, and there’s like sixty of them. Their little old man faces. Adorable.
EK Then only a handful of them make it.
AL Yeah, there’s lots of things that eat you when you’re only this big.
EK Maybe I can ask about a particular emotion: In Cha-Ching!, Theo wins big at the race track and one of the first things she does is buy a good pair of boots. She feels like “a house with a new foundation.” Then she leaves her old shoes on top of a newspaper stand. How is that scene generated for you? Is it that you’re trying to express some emotion and this is how you do it? It’s very powerful.
AL Hmm. What was going on with those shoes? . . . I remember when I lived in Brooklyn there was always good stuff in the trash. Looking back, it might not have been very good at all, but my perception of things was that there was a bounty, always, though I probably wouldn’t pick any of it up now.
I do actually remember finding a pair of boots. They were standing up on a street post, right on the corner at a crosswalk. They were insulated, and it was a very cold day. They were two sizes too big. They were for men.
EK I felt a lot of empathy there, in that shoe scene. She is so grounded in her happy moment because she’s so used to being in a situation of need—
AL But the writing isn’t done like I have an emotion that I want to evoke. It’s more the other way—that I have these images. There’s certain images that I want to enter into stories in the future, things that mean something to me.
The shoes. That’s the only chapter where anything good happens. She wins the money. She buys shoes and steak for the dog. (laughter) I actually own $500 Italian boots and almost no socks.
EK You do?
AL (laughter) It’s a fucking problem.
EK Did you ever think you’d have a book coming out on City Lights?
AL No, I never thought that. It’s really wonderful. I feel very proud of that connection. I hope the book gets a wider readership because of it and doesn’t just stay in the gay ghetto. In some other countries it doesn’t have to work like that. Did you read Gentrification of the Mind by Sara Schulman?
AL Read this book. It’s the most important book I’ve read in ten years. There’s one chapter called “The Gentrification of Our Literature,” and she’s talking about how basically it’s the kiss of death to put any kind of lesbian character into a book. Queer characters, in general, don’t do well, but if you put a lesbian in there, forget it.
But in England, she says, it’s totally different. Lesbian writers are on the same press as everyone else. They get foundational support. As a result, regular people buy their books. They’re not as pigeonholed. She lists the major places of foundational support in the US for writers and lists the queer writers they’ve supported—in ten years, just two.
EK Between the top five foundations?
AL I forget the exact span, but it just talks about what happens when you don’t support and you don’t publish. And then what happens to queer writers who think about creating authentic characters. For me, it’s really important that queer characters be authentic—that they’re not some television version of lesbians.
When I was younger I went to the library to find books with gay people in them. What happens in the cycle is that, when no one publishes the book, nobody finds the book, which is catastrophic.