We Believe It Won’t Happen to Us: Elisa Gabbert Interviewed by Lincoln Michel

On disasters, the “perverse incentives” of social media, and writing in catastrophic times.

The Unreality Of Memory5

It’s a truism that you can’t try to write a timely book. The publishing industry’s long production calendar means books are released many months or even years after they’re finished. But sometimes fate intervenes. This is the case with Elisa Gabbert’s latest, The Unreality of Memory (FSG), an insightful and contemplative essay collection focused on how we process catastrophes—from climate change, the plague, and the sinking of the Titanic to more personal disruptions of illness and trauma—a book published in the middle of a global pandemic. 

The first essay opens with Gabbert watching a YouTube animation of the Titanic sinking. Then she moves through the tragedy of 9/11 and the Challenger disaster to look at our simultaneous attraction and repulsion to “magnificent desolation.” In “The Great Mortality,” an extremely tasty glass of tap water makes Gabbert wonder if she has a strange virus. This leads to a look at the Black Death, future viral threats, parasitic mind control, and performative social media death wishes. It’s certainly the most prescient essay in the book—even Dr. Fauci makes an appearance—and offers a chilling warning about the human need to accept a new normal: “It’s paradoxical, how quickly we adapt to suffering.”

Gabbert’s wide-ranging essays span history, scholarship, pop culture, and literature with both nuance and incisiveness. They’re the kind of essays that don’t only teach you things, they leave you thinking harder and deeper about what it means to live in this world. 

—Lincoln Michel

Lincoln Michel The Unreality of Memory opens with five essays dealing with large disasters and the human ability (or more often inability) to come to grips with them. We’re talking during the middle of such a disaster: a global plague that we collectively seem unable to deal with. Did writing about and researching disasters help prepare you for this pandemic or shape how you’ve reacted? 

Elisa Gabbert I started writing the book in 2016, with the knowledge that we were entering into a new kind of disaster, but unsure what shape it would take. It seemed obvious that the Trump administration would let all our ongoing disasters (like climate change and massive income inequality) get worse. But I also feared some unforeseen disaster, and the incompetence and cruelty in how this administration would handle whatever was coming—I felt pre-abandoned. People have already described the book as prescient, but I wasn’t placing bets that there would be a zoonotic pandemic within the next few years. It seemed to be just one of many looming existential threats. 

At the time I wrote “The Great Mortality” essay, I was interested in the metaphorical capacities of viruses—I was also planning to write about mass hysteria and fear as contagion—but I was much more preoccupied with climate change as a threat. Of course, as I discovered when researching that piece, climate change and other human activity have greatly increased the risk of a devastating pandemic. While I’d like to say that doing so much thinking about how disasters happen has prepared me for COVID-19, I still felt deeply unready for this particular disaster. In a way, what I learned was the least helpful lesson: people simply can’t prevent disaster, and we always believe on some level it won’t really happen to us. 

LM Pre-abandoned is a great term. I felt that way the moment the coronavirus hit … and then somehow re-abandoned every day since. It’s also only recently that my brain has started to grasp the scale of COVID both in terms of loss of life and in its (future) historical importance. In your epilogue you note that we don’t only warp reality in our memory, “we are already experiencing our warped version of X.” Is there any way for us to lessen the warp?

EG I think that adjustment we make to thinking “This is fine” is mostly automatic and involuntary, and it’s certainly useful in its way; we can’t function while we’re panicking, and adapting to horror brings our panic levels down. But it can work too well. I think part of the reason we’re so nonchalant about mass death under COVID is because it’s invisible. We’re not seeing much photojournalism or other photos and videos coming out of hospitals, partly due to hospital regulations. We’re not seeing footage of funerals or memorial services, because they’re mostly not happening. That makes the deaths very easy, much too easy, to ignore. 

I’ve seen some data visualizations that put what we’re experiencing in historical perspective, compared to other pandemics, terrorist attacks, wars etcetera; that helps me come closer to grasping the scale of the tragedy. But where does that understanding get me? I was horrified 80,000 deaths ago. I remember asking a couple of friends, shortly after Trump was elected, if they thought there was any way he could be removed from office, and they said, no, impossible. I thought surely there must be some bottom, though, some level of fuck-up that he would have to be held accountable for. I guess my friends were right: there is no level of fuck-up he’ll be held accountable for. 

LM A lot of people talk about how these times affect writers’ productivity—mostly by destroying it—but I’m curious about the larger question of how these “historic times” affect art. In your poetry and essay writing, do you feel a change? Being drawn to different subjects? A shift in what you think literature can or should do? 

EG As I write in the epilogue, my priorities did shift after Trump’s election, and not just in terms of writing; I wanted to read different things too. I remember we had a big stack of unread magazines, The New Yorker and stuff, and we threw them all out, as though nothing in them could possibly be relevant to our lives anymore. But this year, 2020, actually the worst of the years since 2016 by some margin..I just feel kind of lost, if I’m honest. 

I would love to be immersed in a writing project, that state of obsessive immersion that is almost escapist. But I don’t know what I want that project to be. I have often wished I was a novelist, and in particular that when lockdown began I had already started a novel, so I would know exactly how to spend this time. If I was working on a complicated problem that extended years into the future, I think it would help me imagine the future, and how I might exist in it. I also think novels can be less attached to their time, in a way, than the nonfiction I’ve been writing. I guess I want to use writing to time-travel because time right now is hard to live through. Alas, I am not a novelist! So I’m still working this out, but I’m less concerned about writing something strictly germane to “these times” and more concerned with writing something that gives my own life meaning. Despite everything I still want to try to have a good life.

A black and white headshot of the author Elisa Gabbert.

Photo of Elisa Gabbert courtesy of the author.

LM One thing I love about your essays is how wide-ranging they are while still orbiting a single theme (e.g. memory or sleep). Do you start your essays knowing that theme? Or do you start with a point of interest—a computer animation of the Titanic sinking, a study about fighting boy scout troops, etcetera—and discover the larger topic through researching and writing?  

EG I’ve started from both directions, the smaller point of interest and the larger theme. If there’s something small I want to write about, I usually try to find a larger theme or rubric it fits into so I can do more research, expand and write around it. With this book in particular, I had to map out the major themes ahead of time when I wrote the book proposal, but the shape of the book changed a little in the writing. “Big and Slow” wasn’t in my original proposal; that essay really did start with an obsession with the Kelpies and the idea of megalophobia. And I thought there was room for more climate change material in a book about disasters coming out in 2020. (Remember climate change?! Sometimes it feels like we’ve completely stopped talking about it.) My original outline also included an essay about pain and an essay about sleep and consciousness, but, maybe because I was getting close to deadline and going through a very bad spell of insomnia, those ended up becoming a single essay about SUFFERING IN GENERAL. 

I’ve often found that one essay leads to another—I’ll spend a lot of time taking notes and by the time I write the essay, there are some loose ends, stray material that doesn’t fit into the final piece, but that I still want to think about or use somehow. So there are all these little slivers of thematic overlap (I picture overlapping circles) between the essays in the book. Sometimes I would write almost the exact same sentence in a totally different context. Sometimes I think a writer only gets to have two or three good ideas, and we keep writing just to find new ways to say those things over and over. 

LM Speaking of poetry, you’re a poet and an essayist. Do you write both at the same time, or go through periods of poetry and periods of essaying? And how do you decide if an idea is a poetry idea or an essay idea? 

EG I feel like I can always write essays, but I can’t always write poetry; my mind doesn’t always think that way. It’s a gift when it comes. The themes in either form are always the same (time, memory, the self, suffering!) but in poetry I can do things I can’t do in nonfiction—I can make assertions I don’t believe, I can create little fictional, hypothetical worlds. There’s a lot of freedom in knowing you won’t be fact-checked. Perhaps poetry is a better space for ambiguity, for the unresolved or low-resolution, for the truth of ambiguity, to paraphrase Hilton Als. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t write fiction, but I often feel poetry is closer to fiction than nonfiction. 

LM Are there any essay subjects or themes you’ve always wanted to write about yet keep eluding you?

EG Not that I can think of! Robert Hass once said you can will prose into being but you can’t will poetry, or something like that. (He also said he started writing prose poems “to avoid the stricter demands of incantation”!) I find this to be true for me; if I want to write an essay about something all I really have to do is decide to do it. I can’t write a (good) poem about something just because I want to. 

Something I’d like to write about soon, though it’s hard for me to get started on this kind of thing without easy access to a library, is self-doubt and despair, among writers in particular. I recently read Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li, and I love the way she writes about finding comfort in rereading books but also journals and correspondence by her favorite authors. I think I like sad books when I’m sad the same way I like sad music when I’m sad. Not trying to cheer myself up cheers me up.

LM You frequently cite scientific studies and canonical texts, but you’re also explicit about when you found something, say, goofing off online. The first essay, “Magnificent Desolation,” opens: “A couple of years ago, distracting myself at work, I saw a link on Twitter to a YouTube video that caught my attention.” I love this personal touch of the mundane (don’t we all learn this way in 2020?) but it struck me as something many other essayists would cut. Why you included that information? 

EG I like to mix high and low sources—the high stuff, the Tuchmans and the Sontags and whatnot, keeps me humble, but if I were only reading really brilliant historians and essayists, what would there be for me to add? I like to include kind of flat or artless material in my research too, even amateurish, outright bad stuff, so I can absorb information that hasn’t already been processed by somebody smarter than me. I will say, though, I often find that texts I assumed would only be useful as fact repositories (these obscure scholarly texts that I expected to be unreadably dry), are really beautifully written and full of insight. It’s one of my favorite parts of research, that reminder that there’s so much out there we’ve never heard or dreamed of, a library of good human work that is effectively infinite, for my purposes. It’s also a bit of a signature move for me to insert myself and my process right into the essay, to be very explicit about the chance encounters that led me one place or another. It’s so recognizable as a move to me now I should probably veer away from it.

LM I’m curious what other roles Twitter plays in your writing, beyond research. You and I are avid (addicted?) tweeters, and I often see you tweet essayistic ideas and aphoristic takes. Does Twitter serve as a kind of workshop or testing ground for your thinking? 

EG I use Twitter in a few different ways. One of them is as a sort of public notebook, a place to log what I’m thinking about, what I’m feeling, what I feel about what I’m thinking, what I think about what I’m feeling, etc. There’s a way in which tweeting a thought solidifies it and makes it more memorable as a thought than something I just think in passing. And my tweets do sometimes end up in my essays as sentences or in my poems as lines. I’ve also used Twitter as a way to meet and talk to other writers, though it feels like people don’t just chat as much there as they used to, which is sad to me (especially this year). 

Then, of course, I use it to share and promote my work. Over the years as I’ve gotten more followers I’ve realized that at least two of these functions are really at odds with each other—it’s nice to have more people to tell when I have a new book out, or whatever, but it’s much harder to be spontaneous and vulnerable and even interesting when I’ve lost all sense of who is actually reading my tweets. Also, to state the obvious, Twitter has gotten much worse, with all the threading and quote-retweeting, and the way the algorithm creates “perverse incentives,” as my friend Mike always puts it. So it’s becoming less and less useful as a part of my thinking, and I’m trying to be like Sontag or Plath and just use a physical notebook more.

LM What are you writing in your notebooks these days? Which is to say, what’s next?

EG I’ve been reading a new and very long biography of Sylvia Plath, who of course was an obsessive journaler, and it dovetails nicely with my current state of mind (lots of anxiety about the future, and depression which is mostly the result of isolation, not seeing enough people and not being seen). I’m interested in Plath’s constant striving for recognition and validation, and her recurring defeated moods, the tides of failure—the way success so often feels like a failure in itself. So some of this will go into the writing-through-despair essay, but I’m also trying to finish writing a book of poems, which means I’m sitting around trying to have some interesting thoughts, not just so many feelings. 

The Unreality of Memory is available for purchase here.

Lincoln Michel’s fiction and criticism appear in the Paris Review, the New York Times, Granta, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. His story collection, Upright Beasts, was published by Coffee House Press. He teaches writing in the MFA programs at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.

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