I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
On writing about performance and relationship paradigms.
I’m not sure how I met Leah Dieterich. She’s a writer, I’m a writer. She was writing about twins and ballet. I was writing about triplets and performance. We were both in queer non-monogamous relationships. Hers lasted, mine didn’t. Leah’s memoir, Vanishing Twins (Soft Skull Press) follows her life as a professional ballet dancer, to her consuming love and marriage to her husband, their exploration of polyamory, and the struggle to be her own person while also craving dangerous, disorienting intimacy. The prose is slick and swift, unfolds as a ballet. The pages themselves are spare, and create a vulnerable, exposed feeling. It approaches the distance that is always, inevitably, between two people—the distance between a wife and a husband on opposite coasts, a wife and a lover in Spain, a writer and the person on the page.
Meg Whiteford’s Callbacks (&NOW Books) unfolds on a series of literal stages. It’s the saga of the Starling sisters: Minny, Esther and Pearl (the narrator) triplets who are abandoned by their mother in their teens and strike out on their own, finding refuge as performers in an all-female vaudevillian sideshow revue. It might have made sense for us to co-write the introduction to this interview in the collective first person “we” since our projects have, at least on paper, so many similarities. It might have been an interesting exercise to see how elastic the word “we” is. Can it allow for difference under the umbrella of collectivity? We both have undertaken an exploration of the limits of certain forms and constraints, from twinship as a relationship paradigm, to the structure of the novel itself.
Leah Dieterich Meg, I know you began Callbacks with the idea to write a novel from the perspective of a TV remote. How did it evolve?
Meg Whiteford That’s right. The Sweet Tooth puppet show that the Starlings watch is the only remaining part from a thing I couldn’t even call a first draft. The book needed to change but I loved those puppets and wanted to keep them in this book no matter where the rest of the narrative went.
LD I love hearing about the evolution of books. My friend had a rejected AWP panel called “Cheating on Your Novel”—about how often a side project or an offshoot of your original project ends up taking over and becoming the main event.
MW That makes me feel better—I feel like a thrifty writer, constantly mining my own work. What sparked your original premise? Did it change at all?
LD Vanishing Twins grew out of two false starts: one was a feature film, and the other, a novel. While we were living apart, my husband met identical twin sisters who were both architects and shared a bed at age twenty-seven. I saw parallels between their twinship and my marriage, and decided I would try to write a feature about a married couple who try non-monogamy as a way to find themselves outside their relationship and end up dating a set of twins who are struggling to do the same. I started interviewing the twins as a way to craft believable characters, and in doing so, I got more interested in examining my own relationship and writing about it.
Prior to meeting the twins, I’d been writing a road trip novel with two characters based loosely on my advertising partner and myself. I wanted to explore the work-husband/work-wife/brother-sister relationship we’d formed over the years and to use that as a jumping off point to a wild road trip that we could have never taken in real life (and wouldn’t have wanted to, anyway). Once I started interviewing the twins and comparing their relationship to my marriage, I began to also see my work-relationship through this lens of twins and began incorporating all of it into what would eventually become Vanishing Twins.
MW There’s a rhythm to Vanishing Twins that evokes some classic ballet tropes and terms. The pas de deux and allegro for example. Were you thinking about emulating ballet in writing this book?
LD I wasn’t thinking about emulating it but I can see how it might have seeped into not only the writing of this particular book but the way I write in general. For me, ballet is all about responding to music, working with and against it, hearing the rhythms and interpreting them with my body. I feel similarly about writing. Things have to have the right sound and cadence for me. While some of the ballets I write about in Vanishing Twins are classic three-act “story ballets,” I think my writing more closely mirrors the modern ballets I prefer. These ballets are shorter and more spare, with fewer costumes and sets. I talk about this a bit in the book itself, and the narrative evolves from preoccupations with Romantic ballets like Giselle to Neoclassical ones like Balanchine’s Agon.
MW Were you thinking of any particular movements? Were you listening to Tchaikovsky as you furiously wrote?
LDI often write in coffee shops and when I write, I like either total silence (I wear ear plugs) or when the din of conversation is so loud it becomes white noise. I need to be able to hear the music coming out of the writing. I listened to Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring when I was writing about performing in that ballet and I also watched video of myself on stage, but beyond that, there wasn’t much of a soundtrack to the writing of this book. What were you listening to when working on Callbacks?
MW I was listening to a lot of jazz, blues and show tunes (my poor roommate). And Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is? It has this creepy tinker toy melody. The lyrics of one stanza go: “And when I was twelve years old, my father took me to a circus, the greatest show on earth / There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears / and a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads … and I said to myself, “is that all there is to a circus?”
That song could very well stand in for how I saw this book (not to mention how I think about life). Everything in it is a failure, just a little too late, and yet people keep going.
LD I just karaoked that song on my birthday. I love that it begins with their house burning down as a child, and even at that age, she’s unmoved. “Is that all there is… to a fire?” she says in that throaty voice.
MW What about reading? I wish all novels had bibliographies at the end.
LDI’m pretty much always re-reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—so that was a huge touchstone. I wanted Vanishing Twins to have the pace and emotion of Bluets, so I was careful not to let the outside research extinguish the heat of the narrative. While I was working on the book I read and loved Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You, Jenny Offil’s The Department of Speculation and Ben Lerner’s 10:04. As far as a bibliography, the books that actually found their way onto the page are: A Lover’s Discourse (Barthes), Monogamy (Philipps), A Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood), 101 Stories of the Great Ballets (Intro by Balanchine), The Symposium (Plato), Bartelby & Co (Vila-Matas), Moby Dick (Melville) and Mirrors (Galeano). In earlier drafts of the book Infinite Jest (Wallace), Nadia (Breton) and Are You My Mother (Bechdel) were there as well. What media were you carefully consuming while working on Callbacks?
MW When I was a kid I was obsessed with Broadway, Nick at Nite, jazz, musicals, and old Hollywood movies. So, in a way, I’ve been preparing to write this book my whole life. I was re-watching There’s No Business Like Show Business, Gaslight, Cabaret, and Sunset Boulevard. This episode of I Love Lucy with Harpo Marx when they mime one another. I was listening to Beckett radio plays. I honestly can’t remember a thing I was reading at the time. Old Vogue magazines? Looking at ads from the 1940s and 1950s. Probably some theory about the male gaze and women in performance. It’s uncanny that Brian Evenson, who does the introduction to the book, mentions David Lynch because I listened to a lot of Julee Cruise when I was writing. And he nailed that. David Lynch’s dream logic is a big influence on all my writing, not just Callbacks. Anything campy. John Waters. Pee Wee forever.
LD You describe a lot of performances in the book itself, not just stage shows but television shows, too. Did you ever think of making it a play or musical instead of a novel?
MW No, I really wanted to make a novel. But, I had no idea how to write a novel so I was reading all these how-to books and the history of the novel. It’s all a bit too precious for me. The moment someone gives me a rule, I want to break it. My instinct is always to ask why? Says who? With Callbacks I said, okay I hear you, but can a novel also be a performance? Can a novel also be a sitcom?
I did stage the parts where the Starlings are scouting the tropical bird. It’s helpful to hear other people read my dialogue. I prefer a little plot and a lot of talking. That’s the Seinfeldian in me. I rely on pacing and don’t linger too long on anything—I think it makes the ordinary hallucinatory.
LD I really enjoyed reliving my ballet performances through writing this book, which brings me to yet another uncanny coincidence—we both use Diaghilev in our books—yours is L’Après Midi D’un Faun and mine is The Rite of Spring, which was the last ballet I performed. What is your personal relationship to L’Après Midi?
MWI’m enamored by the faun/satyr/Pan. The wandering guide, the trouble-making shapeshifter and hedonist. I would be happy to write about and around satyrs for the rest of my life. My first play was about Dionysian panic and my next book is based off the last remaining satyr play, Euripides’ Cyclops. Oh, I forgot: one thing I was watching while writing was The Red Shoes, which is this amazing, grotesque, lush film about a prima ballerina.
LDEmbarrassingly, I still haven’t seen The Red Shoes.
MW Stop everything and watch that movie. Talk about unintentional twinning. What makes a twin for you? You look for examples of twins not just in your personal life but throughout the world and I’m wondering if you found a definition.
LD It’s difficult to define a twin singularly. It’s easier to talk about “twins,” because when you talk about a twin you automatically talk about the person who the twin is twinned with. I prefer to talk about the state of twinship or the act of twinning. Twinship is always about alikeness. How are two things alike? How are two people alike? Did they share a womb? Have the same birthdate? Do they dress alike? Have the same mannerisms, hobbies, job? Like the same movies? I think where shared interests shifts from affinity to twinship is when the scales tip and the cultivation of sameness becomes more important than the nurturing of difference. Overall, I think the concept of twins privileges the pair over the individuals that form it, which is also how I viewed marriage and why I was skeptical of it.
MW Do you see a clear line between the fiction and the memoir within Vanishing Twins?
LD I didn’t need to fictionalize my story any more than memory itself is already a fiction. The way I remember these events is obviously different than the way the other characters in the book might remember them. The book incorporates some fictional material, but it is always presented as such, and I liked that transparency. I liked showing how I was using all kinds of art—poetry, fiction, performance, video—to work through the things I was experiencing. Since it’s acceptable and encouraged in memoir to change names and certain details about the people in your story, I took that opportunity to be very deliberate about the naming of my characters and to use their names as a literary device in the narrative.
MWThe details are where I like to insert symbol nuggets for readers, too. If the reader wanted to do a little digging.
LD One of the main similarities with our books are their fascination with multiple births. These peculiar, perhaps impossible kinds of kinship. Mine wonders who my hypothetical vanished twin might be, as though that person could reappear in the real world to be encountered later in life. Your triplets were born days apart rather than minutes. What is the significance of this implausible delay between their births?
MW The only significance of this delay is that I wanted to write a mythology of these women’s lives. Something just a bit off. Something like you’d see in a soap opera or from some washed-up movie star telling her life story. I like to conflate material reality with dream reality to make the book as a whole unsteady. I love the “impossible kinship” idea and I was definitely curious about what makes a family, and chosen families, too. It’s less about the relationships being impossible though, and more about the inexplicable strength of bonds. There’s no reason any of my characters should feel loyalty to one another, and yet they do. Why do we love people unconditionally? Someone tell me! I really related to how your narrator was searching for that lost kinship in others throughout her life, I think we all feel that sense of never feeling complete.
LD I think it’s truly a hallmark of being human. But why, right? There could be so many reasons, but when I read the statistics about 1 in 8 natural pregnancies start off with twins, (i.e. 15-20% of us who think we are singletons are really one-half of a vanished twin pair) it started to feel like a plausible reason for that phenomenon and made me more confident in my hypothesis about being a vanished twin survivor as the narrative device of this book.
MW It does seem easier to deal with the emptiness if there was once something or someone that could have made things less empty. My grandma died when I was a week old. I was always the black sheep in the family, so I made up this story that she was the one family member who was like me. Who knows if it’s true but it certainly made me feel less alone.
LD Did you ever feel concerned about having the sisters blend together? Pearl definitely feels distinct for me but Minnie and Esther blend a bit more. I knew my characters were all pretty different from one another but I still wanted them to blend a bit, which is why I gave them all names that began with the same letter (E). I worried someone would tell me not to do that, that it would be too confusing, but luckily no one did.
MW No, I wasn’t concerned because I don’t understand why it matters and people who grow up in the same community do often sound and act similarly. I wanted to push against this idea of the distinct character in novels. I wanted to see how close I could get everyone to one another. And I’m a strong believer in mutability of identity. These women all are slightly different iterations of the same human and take on the stories and habits of one another. I liked that about your E technique, too. We’re pattern-seeking animals so I thought the E device was another way your narrator is looking for a pattern and a connection. Even if it is confusing to some readers, isn’t that the point? Being a human is confusing.
Leah Dieterich’s essays and short fiction have been published by Buzzfeed, Bomb, The Nervous Breakdown, Lenny Letter, and Lit Hub. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles, California, with her husband and daughter. Her book, Vanishing Twins: A Marriage, has just been published by Soft Skull Press.
Meg Whiteford is a writer, art critic, and theater maker. Her writing on visual art and performance has appeared in Artforum, Aperture, Garage, and X-TRA. She is the author of The Shapes We Make With Our Bodies (Plays Inverse, 2015), the Curator’s Choice for the 2017 BAM Next Wave Festival Reading Room. This work was performed at the Women’s Center for Creative Work (Los Angeles, 2016) and The Hive (Brooklyn, 2017). Her work has been staged at Pieter Performance Space, Steve Turner, PAM, REDCAT, Machine Project, and Coaxial. She is a 2018 Guernica Fellow and a 2015-16 REEF Residency awardee. Her latest work of theater will premiere at the 2018 PICA Time Based Art Festival. Callbacks is her first novel.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee