The Millions Interview

Literature as Self-Defense: An Interview with James Lasdun

By posted at 12:00 pm on February 25, 2013 2

coverJames Lasdun’s new book, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, is a memoir about an experience that is in fact still ongoing. In 2003, he taught a course in creative writing at a college in New York. His most gifted student was an Iranian-born woman in her early 30s, who was writing a novel based on her family’s experiences living in Iran under the shah. In 2005, the woman – whom he calls “Nasreen” – emailed Lasdun to announce that she had finished a draft of her book; although he was too busy to read it at the time, he was confident enough in her talent to recommend her to his agent. They emailed back and forth, and an online friendship began to develop. Nasreen’s correspondence began to intensify, however – to become stranger and more aggressively seductive – and so Lasdun, a happily married man, ceased to respond. The book is an exploration of the effects of this relationship turning sour, as Nasreen continued to hound him online, her emails becoming increasingly hate-filled and anti-Semitic. A major aspect of her psychological guerrilla warfare involved direct attacks on his reputation, accusing him online (in Wikipedia entries, Amazon reviews, in comment sections of his articles) of sexual harassment and plagiarism. Give Me Everything You Have is a harrowing account of what it’s like to have someone expend a great deal of time and energy on the project of damaging your life for no immediately obvious reason. It’s also a beautifully written and digressively essayistic exploration of anti-Semitism, travel, literature, and the mysteriously ramifying effects people have on each other.

The Millions: The thing I was most impressed by in the book is the way you read this situation, this awful ongoing situation of being stalked and harassed, from a variety of conceptual viewpoints. In particular, the way in which you arrange this reading around a cluster of literary texts – TinTin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Plath’s poetry and so on. Was this something you intended to do from the beginning, or did it just sort of come about as you worked your way into the subject?

James Lasdun: I didn’t plan very much, partly because the book didn’t exactly begin its life as a book. It began as an attempt to write a sort of neutral document that I would be able to post somewhere in my defense. It began as a strange sort of personal necessity. And then in the course of doing that I began to see that it wasn’t going to work in that way, because it kept looking as if it was written by a crazy person. But then, I began to feel that there was a more interesting thing to be written. And I just sort of plunged into it and wrote it without plotting and planning. I think I felt quite early on that I would be wanting to pursue some ideas that would enlarge the resonance in some way, and one of those directions was going to be through some things I had read that were very close to me. I think anyone who writes and reads always keeps a few texts in their heads through which they read the world, and read what’s happening to them. Gawain has always been something that I’ve had in my mind, and I knew that I was going to be writing about a particular kind of psychological combat, and that I might be able to find a way of telling my story through that story. And I started doing that and found it kind of interesting to do. From there, other literary interests of mine began to cohere around it.

TM: Let me just return to what you said about the book starting out as a document of self-defense. That’s a very fascinating beginning for a literary work to have.

JL: Yeah. At a certain point I felt I was going to need to create this kind of document, because she was contacting employers, and people were coming to me and saying “what the hell is this all about?” And it’s such a bizarre story, and such a kind of uncomfortable one to have to tell people, that I felt that if I set it down and posted it on my website, then I could direct people to it. It turns out to be very difficult to write a sort of defense of yourself for general consumption when in general people aren’t accusing you of anything. So if you present them with a defense of yourself, it already looks like you’re nuts. When I first tried to get the police involved, I could tell that they just weren’t convinced, that they just thought I was crazy. But I felt that it had become incredibly damaging to me, and it had accumulated over time, with her writing to my boss and things like that. I felt very, very vulnerable, and very much in need of this kind of document. But it turned out that I just couldn’t write it in that way. And another part of it was that I was completely unable to write anything else, because this situation was just absolutely consuming me. It doesn’t anymore to that extent, even though it’s somewhat ongoing, but it did for a long period. To the point where I couldn’t write anything else. So I thought I might as well go at it.

TM: So in a sense you had to write this book in order to clear a path for other subjects?

JL: Well, yes, in way. But really, I wasn’t even thinking about moving on. Literally all I could think about was the situation I was in. It really had absolutely invaded my consciousness. And that in a way, the way it took over my head, was almost as bad as the sense of damage that I felt was going on in the outside world. I’d never experienced these things that you hear about, with people who suffer from post-traumatic stress, where you actually can’t control your thoughts in any way at all, and you can’t stop yourself from thinking about something. I just became very obsessive, in a way that I’m not usually by temperament. And I did find when I started writing about it that I was very quickly improving on that front, that I was able to feel less consumed by it, just in normal daily life. But I don’t even know what I was thinking at the beginning, as to whether this book would be even publishable, or whether I would want to publish it. Initially just to write was what interested me. It wasn’t something that I told my publishers I was doing, or asked them for an advance or a contract or anything like that. I just wrote it. I wrote a draft quite quickly, a much longer draft than what was eventually published. And I just cut and cut and sort of found what I felt was a book that would express what I wanted to express, but also mean something to other people. I mean, it was all very private stuff, very personal, and so there was a question of how interested other people are going to be in your own problems. And I wanted it to have a balance of telling the story as it was – because I do think it’s inherently dramatic, and so weird. I knew that that would be the spine of it. But I felt that it also needed to be as resonant as it could be, and that seemed to lead me to write about all kinds of things that interested me. Literary texts, but also political things, cultural things, personal experience, memory, travel and things like that. I’d never written any extended non-fiction before, and never thought of myself as that kind of writer, but I found that I’ve enjoyed doing it. If “enjoy” is an appropriate word to use there. It’s opened up possibilities in terms of how to write.

TM: I was wondering whether you thought about turning this material into fiction. Because it struck me while I was reading that, as a novel, it would be much more problematic. That this material would seem much more ethically dicey if it were presented in the form of fiction.

JL: Well, as a fiction writer, I was always going to be turning that over in my mind. And some of the fiction I was working on, or trying to work on, was headed in the direction of being a fictionalized version of what was going on. But as you say, it was all wrong. It wasn’t the right way of dealing with it. Also I was still in the thick of the experience. This isn’t a book that comes out of emotion recollected in tranquility or anything like that. This was written right from the thick of the experience, which is a rather strange thing to be doing. And I realized pretty early on that it had to be absolutely truthful. And one of the things that I was aware of was that it might be impossible to publish because of that. And I knew that what I produced, that no publisher would publish it without having it okayed by their legal department.

TM: And you must, throughout the process, have had misgivings, in terms of whether publishing it would exacerbate the situation. This must have been a troubling question for you.

JL: Yes, well the question of whether it would exacerbate the situation – I felt that the situation could not get any worse. I mean, I’d been threatened with death; she was basically threatening to kill me, threatening my children, and I didn’t know how much worse it could get than that. When someone does that, they’ve pushed things as far as they can go. So I felt at that point that the more public I could make this, the safer I would be in fact. I suppose there were times in between my having finished and it coming out, where she’d gone relatively quiet. She does go quiet for periods. And I would sort of think, well, why am I risking stirring up another round of this unpleasantness. And then suddenly out of the blue she would start up again, more violent and more terrifying than ever. And I would think, well, I’m glad I am doing it, because I need to do it. So that’s really where I’m at. You know, it is ongoing, and she has become even worse and now the whole matter has entered a new chapter. It’s in the hands of the hate crimes unit of the NYPD. They’re still not able to do all that much about it, but she has been visited by cops. She’s sort of graduated to phone stuff. So in terms of whether of it would exacerbate the situation, my feeling was it was already as bad as it could be. Being threatened is… I’ve never been threatened before, and it is so deeply unpleasant. You so want to do something about it.

TM: Were you troubled by issues around the ethics of writing about this topic in the first place?

JL: I talk about this a little bit in the book. I’ve never seen a book that’s quite like it, in terms of being about a real situation, with real people, that has not yet resolved itself, and that involves using emails. The book wouldn’t have worked unless I could use the emails verbatim, and I deliberately didn’t find out whether that would be okay or not until I finished the book, because I didn’t want to do a book that couldn’t use the emails, and if it turned out that wasn’t going to be possible, then I was resigned that I just wouldn’t publish the book. I don’t feel personally ethically compromised in any way at all. Partly because this is not an attack on her. I’m not pursuing any kind of vendetta; in fact I bend over backwards to try to understand the situation from her point of view. I acknowledge that she was someone who really interested me. I really admired her writing, and wanted to encourage her. I liked her. I was interested in being in touch with her, and all the rest of it. It’s not in any way me attacking her. Her words are very damning, but those are her words.

TM: I should say that, from a reader’s perspective, it’s very clear how concerned you are with being as evenhanded and unsensational as possible in trying to come to some understanding of why this person is tormenting you in this way. In fact, one of the things I found most interesting about the book is the fact that at its center are two novelists who are, in different ways, trying to create each other as characters. “Nasreen” is very much trying to shape you into a sinister, exploitative figure in the public eye, and you’re trying to understand her actions, to make her make sense as a character. If the book were fiction, this would be a very clever and perhaps excessively convoluted metafictional conceit.

JL: I think that’s a very good description of it. It’s a story about two fiction writers trying to understand each other, and creating characters out of each other. And one of the main themes of it is the idea of what we are in other peoples’ minds, the constructs people make of each other. What I made of her, what she made of me. And that just seemed to be so much a theme of the whole thing, and the question of reputation is very bound up in that. That’s another sort of layer of one’s identity, and it’s one that can’t really be controlled; it’s in the hands of other people. And yet it is oneself. But it has become weirdly vulnerable again, I think, in the age of the internet. But yes, I think you’re right. And again that would have made it impossibly slippery for treatment in a work of fiction.

TM: For me the question that the book turns on is the question of why this is happening at all. And you allude at a few points to this almost Shakespearean question of motiveless malice. Do you feel that you got closer to answering that, or is it still a mystery?

JL: That was a big question that I was exploring, and I didn’t expect to come up with a simple answer. But in the process of that exploration, I had to deal with the question of what I might have brought to the experience. Because when something this extreme and prolonged happens to you, rightly or wrongly the mind looks for reasons. It’s very hard to believe it’s just a random occurrence, something that goes on for this long and so takes over your life, you just instinctively try to understand it in the context of your whole life. And so I was interested in analyzing my own role in it to the extent that I felt that I had one. And one of the things that I came up with that I hadn’t really thought about until I started writing about it was the effect of my silence on her. For me, that had just been what I needed to do, was stop answering her emails. I didn’t make the decision that I was going to stop answering her forever. It just sort of became impossible to start writing back again, because once they started getting obsessive they never let up, and then they turned to hate mail and then there was no question of responding. But I only ever experienced that one-sidedly, in the sense that I just wasn’t answering; I wasn’t thinking about the effect of my not answering. I wasn’t thinking about the effects of silence on someone who is obsessed with you, and with whom you have been in contact. So I was sort of interested in that. And I tried to approach the question of her motive from various different angles, but it could only ever be conjectural and speculative. I didn’t really have much of a model for this book, but to some extent I think Freud’s case histories and his analyses of historic figures like Leonardo and Moses were the closest thing to a literary model for me. You look at an experience, you try to kind of take account of every single detail that you can recall, and you look at it and feel your way into it, and test it for all sorts of associations, whatever resonances you can draw out of it, and you build your document like that. So that was another tack that I took. But you’re right, in the end I don’t supply any explanation. And obviously there’s the whole question of mental illness, and to what extent that answers it. And personally… Well, I don’t know. You know, I can’t pretend to be able to psychiatrically diagnose someone.

TM: Right, yes. And I think what’s most unsettling about the book is this sense that there is no explanation. The book makes it clear that really all that’s necessary for someone to make your life a misery is for them to want that badly enough. That’s all that’s needed. The Internet facilitates this, makes it so much more viable a possibility. And that’s frightening, the idea that all that’s needed is the will.

JL: Yeah, the will and the Internet. That’s a pretty deadly combination. But I mean, there’s mystery that’s total, and there’s mystery that’s informed by whatever little light one can bring to bear on it. And I hope by the end the book, the sense of unanswerable mystery is somewhat enriched or informed by these other things. But it is, ultimately, unanswerable.





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2 Responses to “Literature as Self-Defense: An Interview with James Lasdun”

  1. ian
    at 6:16 am on February 28, 2013

    “I’m pursuing any kind of vendetta;”
    Pretty sure this should be “I’m not pursuing any kind of vendetta;”

    Interesting interview, especially the extent to which the situation remains “live”. Given that, the book seems quite a risk on Lasdun’s part. But the way he describes it as being his only possible response makes a kind of sense.

    I have it but haven’t read it yet: an very keen to do so.

  2. C. Max Magee
    at 7:47 am on February 28, 2013

    Ian: Thanks for pointing that out. We’ve fixed.

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