December 9, 2009
In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).
Diana Spechler is an author whose latest novel is Who By Fire.
Writer Diana Spechler interviews Alicia Jo Rabins of Girls in Trouble:
Diana: I'm listening to your album. I'm a big groupie.
Alicia: I just read your novel. Now I don't know what to do without Bits and Ash to hang out with. I even miss Monica.
Diana: Try going on book tour with them. That'll get 'em out of your system.
Alicia: Ha! So…I wanted to ask you: Do you have that experience novelists talk about when your characters surprise you while you're writing?
Diana: Oh, totally. I always know the writing is really working when my characters hatch in my head and start living their own lives. Does that happen to you? I guess you don't work with characters as much, so what's an analogous situation?
Alicia: I was always jealous of novelists. I wanted that experience, and I never had it with my poetry. So I was pleasantly surprised when it happened as I was writing the first Girls in Trouble album, since I was writing about characters. (All the Girls in Trouble songs are about women in Torah—mostly obscure and/or dark stories.)
Diana: Anything about Delilah?
Alicia: "Hunter/The Bee Lays Her Honey" is about Samson's first fiance, before Delilah.
Diana: I've always been really drawn to vixens, in literature and in Torah. In mythology, too. Vixens, girls who aren't nice, girls who are all-out evil. Delilah, Daisy Buchanan, Helen of Troy, Medea.
Alicia: I'm drawn to vixens, too, and also to stories about the terrible things people to do each other, on purpose and by accident. That was a major inspiration for this project, because I think all great literature deals with the terrible shit we do to each other and to ourselves (and the noble things we do to fix the terrible shit). The characters in the Torah are no different.
Diana: The human experience is, in many ways, about negotiating those transgressions and their repercussions, isn't it? That's kind of what my book is about. Specifically, it's about guilt. Are you a victim of Jewish Guilt?
Alicia: You know, it's funny, I don't really think of myself as a guilty person, but I do feel terrible when I feel like I've wronged someone, even in the tiniest way. Maybe that's more an issue of Jewish Perfectionism. Are you a victim of Jewish Guilt? Or of Jewish Perfectionism?
Diana: Both! Probably secular perfectionism too. Guilt is human. But the Jews have it bad. I write a lot about guilt.
Alicia: I write a lot about imperfection. Exile. Standing on the outside. All of that might be Jewish…or maybe it's just human.
Diana: Do you consider yourself a Jewish artist? (How much do you hate that question? But it's relevant to our "Jewish artist” dialogue.)
Alicia: Speaking of Jewish artists, I was so happy reading your book because it gave me a little distance from my own work. It felt amazing to see communities I've been a part of represented in a novel. The label does chafe a bit, though…I don't just make art about Jews; I make art about humans. But it is through a Jewish lens, at least in this project. I got that feeling when I read your book, too.
Diana: When I listen to your music, I feel a kinship to you, too, because we've clearly had many similar inspirations; I get the sense that a lot of the things that move me artistically move you, too.
Alicia: Exactly! So how do you deal with the "Jewish artist" thing?
Diana: To bring our conversation full circle, sometimes I feel guilty when I write something that has nothing Jewish in it. That's also how I used to feel dating non-Jews.
Alicia: That's a hell of an analogy!
Diana: But in the end, it's not enough of a reason to avoid either of the two. Some of my favorite things I've written have nothing to do with Judaism. With that said, I do appreciate how deep a well our culture is, and I'm grateful to be able to draw from it. What a gift.
Alicia: I have a Chinese-American writer friend who has a very similar relationship to the theme of Chinese-Americans in her work. One question she asked agents before signing with one was, "Would you be willing to represent my second novel if it were not about Asian-Americans?" A few were reluctant to say yes. She wound up signing with the one who answered, “Absolutely!”
Diana: Honestly, if an artist has all that culture, I want to see it in the art! In a way, it's only fair. If you're an artist with a lot of information that most people don't have, why not share it with the world? But at the same time, no artist should be pigeon-holed.
Alicia: That's a great way to look at it, actually. I'm thinking about T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound--American men who moved to Europe and adopted the European literary canon as their own. In that way, they kind of made their roots invisible. I think part of my reluctance to write about nothing but Judaism is that, like you said, it's limiting. We're all surrounded, throughout our lives, by people who live differently from how we live. We absorb their stories, too.
Diana: I agree, but it's tough. Sometimes when I want to tell someone else's story, I feel uneasy. In my novel, for example, I even felt a little weird writing from the point of view of a middle-aged woman. I kept thinking, "Who the hell am I? What do I know?" But the truth is, the people around us, the people who are unlike us, help us to understand ourselves. I would never want to associate with only Jews or write about or care about or think about only Jews. Not that I'm in danger of that, but theoretically, it would be artistically detrimental.
Alicia: Yes, but then again, assuming someone else's voice can create issues.
Diana: I agree, but it's been done really well, many times. For example, Mona Simpson wrote from the perspective of a nanny from the Philippines. It was wholly convincing. But it must have required a lot of research. Of course, when it comes to inhabiting characters, there's a spectrum: You can take on the voice of a man (which is a challenge) or you can take on the voice of a man who lived in Italy three hundred years ago. The latter is obviously going to be much more difficult. If you connect with the character in a deep way (which I assume you do with your biblical women), it's probably easier. What do you think?
Alicia: I think a fundamental part of writing any narrative (memoir perhaps excluded) is projecting one's self into someone else. That's why Girls in Trouble has been so much fun for me: as a poet, I don't generally write narrative about characters. The closest was when I used to write persona poems. But in these songs, I get to speak in all these other voices. It's a treat.
Diana: That's really interesting. Do you think of yourself as a poet first and a musician second, as a musician first and a poet second, or neither? Or does it change all the time?
Alicia: It changes all the time. You know, it's not so different from the "Jewish artist" question; in a roomful of poets, I'm a poet. In a roomful of musicians, I'm a musician. Or, at any time, in any room, I can explain that I'm both. By the same token, I'm both a Jew and an artist. At Yom Kippur services, I may be a Jew first and an artist second, but at a show or a reading, I feel like I'm an artist first and a Jew second. I'm not talking order of importance, just of relevance. Maybe it's easier to keep things in their categories, but that doesn't work for me. It's like a kind of bisexuality of the arts. Categories be damned!
Diana: Which were you first, a musician or a poet?
Alicia: I started playing violin when I was three after my mom saw a Phil Donahue special, but I started writing early too, in elementary school. In high school, I identified primarily as a poet, and thought of music as secondary--I loved it, but I was more serious about poetry. I majored in poetry in college. But I also played all kinds of music in college and it was music that made me happiest. Honestly, the two are so interwoven...
Diana: Bisexuality indeed! It's difficult for me to imagine doing both. Music is a performance art, and it's an art you often do with others. Writing is so different. The only time I "perform" is when I give a reading. I like giving readings, but my natural state is in my pajamas, alone with my laptop.
Alicia: Do you have a secret love besides writing?
Diana: My family. My friends. People in general. I love the whole crazy mix of people in this world. And Bikram yoga.
Alicia: Yoga helps my art. And keeps me functional. OK, a question for you: I've been wondering, how was your book received by the Jewish community, and by different parts of it?
Diana: Before it came out, I was terrified of backlash from the Orthodox community. I learned about Orthodox Judaism primarily through research, so I kept worrying that I was getting things wrong. I was terrified of offending. Now I wish I hadn't been. Of course, some readers wrote to me to tell me about mistakes I'd made (people love to tell you about your mistakes), but for the most part, the response was really positive. I got a lot of fan mail from ba'alei teshuva. With the novel I'm working on now, one thing I'm trying really hard not to do is worry about offending people. Offending some people is inevitable, and as an artist, it's kind of a silly thing to worry about. It stops me up.
Alicia: Were the ba'alei teshuva asking for dates?
Diana: I've been asked out on dates by fans. But I've never said yes. Have you?
Alicia: I can't remember. Is that bad?
Diana: Are you just saying that in case your husband reads this?
Alicia: Ha! Let's put it this way: I've never gone on a date with someone who's emailed me after seeing a performance, but I may have gone on a few dates with people I met at shows. Maybe. But relatively few, considering how many shows I've played. I did get a YouTube comment last week that said, "I'd like to lick her legs." I'm not sure how to take it. Someone marked it as spam, but I thought maybe it was a compliment.
Diana: How could it be anything else? I think you should let him lick your leg. Videotape it and post it on YouTube.
Alicia: I feel like I should be offended, but instead I'm like, "Maybe my career is going places."
Diana: No stranger has ever admitted to wanting to lick my legs. But I did get a marriage proposal recently from someone who read a magazine article of mine. Of course I said yes.
Alicia: I can't wait for your wedding. Maybe I can play the Hora.
Diana Spechler links:
Girls in Trouble links and free and legal mp3 downloads:
also at Largehearted Boy:
previous musician/author interviews
Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
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directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks