Oakland writer Jan Richman has been one of my closest friends for 15 years, ever since San Francisco writer Jan Richman let me sublet a room in her sweet rent-controlled apartment for $150 per month. She never ran out of coffee beans, and had an arsenal of lipsticks she didn't mind sharing. Jan was also a well-respected and prizewinning poet; her first collection, Because The Brain Can Be Talked Into Anything, was selected for the prestigious Walt Whitman Award in 1994 by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. This was slightly intimidating to me. Of course, I've since come to learn that my most beloved friends are people I'm a little bit scared of, and when it comes to thrills there's nothing like being loved and accepted by someone who also keeps you on your toes.
It was way back then that Jan had the seeds for her novel Thrill-Bent, just released this month by Tupelo Press. Her poet's eye and command of language comes through on every page, but what really kills me about this book, what's inspiring to me as a writer and reader, is the narrator's voice. She's acerbic, critical, adventurous, smart, and lusty, without dipping into the commonplace neurosis that many of us have. She's completely real, but I got the sense the narrator didn't find that aspect of herself very interesting or useful to share with us. Thrill-Bent is a book full of irresistible bravado, the travelogue of a woman who moves through the world like she's not afraid of whatever's coming down the pike.
I checked in with Jan via e-mail as she geared up for the book's recent release party, which was held at the San Francisco's McCroskey Mattress showroom and featured a signature cocktail called the White Knuckle.
BL: I've heard you read parts of Thrill-Bent out loud at readings over the years, and I saw a pretty early draft, but one big surprise is that you eventually decided to name the narrator of your novel Jan Richman. Bold choice, woman.
JR: It's a common name. Kidding. Years ago, on the advice of our mutual friend Jeanne, I started writing about growing up with my dad, who has Tourette's syndrome. I was writing little essays, stories, memories. I wasn't thinking about a bigger project; I was trying to figure something out that was very personal, something about bodies that lurch out of control. It was only later that I decided to incorporate the present-tense chapters about roller coasters, which are told in a more travelogue-y style.
This was around the same time David Foster Wallace published his book of long essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, which gave me a whole new genre to obsessively aspire to. I mean, I was making shit up, I knew it was fiction, but I loved his super-smart observational humor combined with a really intimate, almost confessional voice. You know, like a gonzo Plath or something. (I just read in D.T. Max's biography that DFW considered his nonfiction persona "a little stupider and schmuckier than I really am"—a total humblebrag, because he was still brilliant and unsentimental.)
So by the time I figured out that I had a novel on my hands, it seemed disingenuous to change the character's name to Jane Richardson or something. I mean, it's me. It's a version of me, residing in this fictional universe that I created. My editor strongly suggested I change the name, but I think it's important to maintain that confidential feel. I didn't want any distance between the author and the narrator. I want Jan to be accessible and vulnerable, unclothed, as it were.
Is this your preferred voice in fiction? A close, confidential one? And who besides DFW informs this book? Also, please talk about bodies lurching out of control.
I do like a close, confidential voice. It's very much like having an imaginary friend. Of course, I also love big 19th-century novels where God narrates from on high, dipping in and out of people's interior lives. But that was before movies—I really think film has changed fiction more than anything in the past fifty years. I'm not a fan of cinematic fiction writing, where we "see" everything, but we never really get inside a character's head. What's the point of writing a novel, then? Why not make a film? I love that visceral sense of being in someone's skin, along with all the secret shames and conflicts and fears and sensations and memories.
Also, I just don't feel smart enough or confident enough to manage a whole cast of characters—I guess that makes me an actor rather than a director. As far as bodies lurching out of control, or BLOOC.... Wait. I love picturing the people who would be in a club with that acronym.
I just pictured a contemporary dance group doing a piece called BLOOC with a score by Philip Glass. But since you mentioned movies... you are a big fan of The Cinema and I found your novel very cinematic. Even though there's this beautiful language and the reader is right inside Jan's head, there are so many memorable scenes I would love to see played out on the screen: rollercoasters across America, a Vegas strip club, the dad's Tourettic episodes, sexytimes, and that whole wedding scene. I went through approximately 15 different emotions during that wedding.
Instead of bringing out the ol' saw of your fantasy director and who would play you—I mean, "Jan Richman"—in the movie, how about this: How would Hollywood fuck this up? Or rather: What is it about the character and story you've created that could be misinterpreted, mangled or glossed over by someone trying to make a road trip movie about a modern American libertine woman? And feel free to answer the fantasy question too, because as a woman, I give you permission to fantasize.
Well, the flashbacks will provide plenty of opportunity for ripple dissolves and wistful voiceovers. Toss in a child thespian (always a crowd favorite) and some amazing aging makeup effects (so the dad—a Jewishy John Hamm?—can bounce from 40 to 70), and I think we've got a hit on our hands! The present-day roadtrip part can star an anorexic-yet-somehow-big-boobed 25-year-old who Sex-and-the-Citys her way through various men in different landscapes, all the while saucily telling the camera about their anatomical deficiencies.
To improve the taste in my mouth, I will now imagine a Lena Dunham–meets–Ghost World situation with a full-figured, fortyish protaganist in a cashmere sweater, and her winglady, Martha Plimpton. There, now I feel better.
What was the most difficult part of writing Thrill-Bent?
JR: The hardest part, emotionally, was to write honestly about my dad's Tourette's. It was a comprehensive family cover-up: Tourette'sgate. He wasn't diagnosed until I was in college, so during my childhood we almost never spoke of it, it was just (whisper) "that thing dad does." The dysfunction is much more complicated than his regular outbursts, but it took me a while to connect the dots—how compulsion and helplessness can metastasize into anger and revenge. I still don't understand the nefarious ways that humans endeavor to manipulate and control each other. But it was certainly an interesting exploration, writing about it.
Technically, the hardest part was taking a very episodic tenth draft—which was really more like connected stories and memories—and trying to put a narrative arc in it. It felt like poking bones into a flabby chicken. Definitely a bass-ackwards (as my dad would say) way to go about writing a novel.
It's interesting because the dad character has something in common with all the characters Jan encounters in her travels. They're all kind of outsiders. The dad is living a relatively "normal" suburban life, despite his secret affliction, while the others all seem to have created their own realities to some extent. Talk about Jan's attraction to these people.
The focus on characters who are living outside of the mainstream is important to me. The dad is the only one who seems to really want to conform, to get rid of his difference and "live the dream." He has spent his adulthood trying to escape from his genius, like de Kooning painting still lifes. The other characters are figuring it out in a much more authentic way, even if it means they have to squat in a hut under a roller coaster or barter under-the-counter Darvocet for bootleg cable. No one is living outside the grid; instead they are incredibly creative about navigating the labrynthine rulebook that is American society. I think all of us do this dance all the time, to varying degrees, without necessarily being conscious of defecting or rebelling against "the man."
I remember a couple of years ago when the big financial crash/recession was just starting to happen, and the media was reporting on all these people who were suddenly having to change their lifestyles and be more frugal. And I thought, Who are these people? All my friends are living how we always have, passing on rent-controlled apartments to one another, drinking at bars where we know the bartender, DYI-ing our music, literary, and art projects. We didn't suddenly go from five-star restaurants to three-and-a-half star restaurants; we were always eating at the taco truck.
The idea of conventionality vs. authenticity is interesting to me, and to "Jan," because it is so challenging to be an artist in the United States. Also, I find it inspiring and hilarious how many different ways people find to self-identify and subvert puritanical and materialistic constructs. It's not always about stripping away; one of my favorite characters is a Korean-American teenager in Houston who designs goth Lolita fashions and changes her name from Kyung-Hwa to Buffy.
I love when Jan goes to the karaoke parlor/brothel with Buffy and her friends. It made me wish I lived more like Jan. So, how long do I have to wait to read another novel by you? I'll wait, but come on.
Beth, patience is a virtue. So is chastity, but we're both a little late to the table on that one. Actually I'm almost done with a draft of my next novel, which is about a high-school creative-writing teacher who gets into hot water when a student hands in an extremely violent story. It takes place in New York, which has been a good excuse to visit a lot for "research" reasons. The Rubber Room (its working title) is also somewhat autobiographical—although it has multiple narrators and no one is named Jan Richman—since I experienced something similar a few years ago when I was teaching the Academy of Art in San Francisco. The student was expelled and I was let go, but the story lives on! That's the beauty of art. Revenge. No, I meant to say transformation.
That was a big news story in the Bay Area. Remember the picture of you on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle saying that you might have to resort to selling vintage dresses on eBay now that you'd been fired? And Michael Chabon wrote an op-ed about it in the New York Times.
Spoiler alert! When that photographer from the Chronicle came to my apartment, I suggested we take one joke photo where I looked totally dejected and miserable, like my life had been ruined by being fired. Of course, that's the one they ran. No kidding. I will never live it down, no matter how many glamour shots of me appear on the cover of Vanity Fair. No one should lose their job for bullshit reasons, but in truth it was mostly low-paying gruntwork (grading papers) for rich people who exploited my MFA. I was conflicted about being the poster child for the First Amendment for a few days, but ultimately it was a fascinating, scary, and sometimes comical experience.
Those clowns at that Academy of Art should be shaking in their boots.
Thrill-Bent is out now from Tupelo Press. Beth Lisick is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling memoir Everybody Into the Pool. Her collection of small shames and regrets, Yokohama Threeway, will be published by City Lights/Sister Spit this fall. That's her in Thrill-Bent's book trailer, attempting to read passages from the book while on a roller coaster.