The Millions Interview

Liberating the Essay: A Conversation with Michelle Orange

By posted at 12:00 pm on March 25, 2013 1

coverI was cleaning my apartment when I stumbled upon Michelle Orange’s debut essay collection, This Is Running For Your Life. It was one of a stack of unread books that I was planning to give away, but after reading just a few pages of her opening essay, “The Uses of Nostalgia and Some Thoughts on Ethan Hawke’s Face,” I was hooked by her playful, intelligent, and occasionally spiky voice. Her voice seemed to become stronger with each essay, concluding with a tour-de-force reflection on running, religion, movie-going, romance, and e-mail that was moving, strange, and wise. Orange’s essays are stubbornly her own, refusing to fit into standard molds and one of the pleasures of reading this book is watching her play with the essay form — and make it new again.

Orange is a journalist and film critic whose writing has appeared in a variety of publications including McSweeney’s, The Nation, The Village Voice, and The New York Times. I met with her at a Brooklyn coffee shop where we talked for the better part of an hour about movies, deadlines, discipline, Facebook, and of course, her new book. The below interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Millions: Tell me a little about your career and how you came to write This Is Running For Your Life.

Michelle Orange: I turned to writing full time seriously after moving here [New York City] in 2003. I’d been writing before that since I’d graduated and getting paid intermittently. I’d been doing stuff for McSweeney’s when they were just sort of setting up their website, and that intrigued me and was rewarding to me. When I decided to move here to go to graduate school to study film, I kept up as much writing as I could. And then after I graduated I really tried to make a go of being a freelancer. Because of a couple connections I made at school, that meant I was writing a lot about film — but always keeping in mind that I had these other ambitions.

I don’t think I had a full sense of my ambitions until quite recently, actually. I spent a few years really just trying to make a living. And I felt time passing in a way that was really sort of alarming. I graduated in 2005 and around 2008, 2009, it just seemed like I could keep…spending all of my time writing about film. And that wasn’t something I had ever decided to do…so the book really was an effort to pivot and really concentrate for a while on what it is I like to write about and how I like to write about it.

TM: Some of these essays were published in different forms before they made it into the book, right?

MO: Two of them started out as essays for The Rumpus, around late 2009. Steve Elliot was starting up the site and he was asking some of his friends for ideas and help and I’d been in the recession for about a year at that point, so I had a lot of time on my hands…Steve said, “Do whatever you want” so suddenly I got my brain back in do-whatever-I-want mode. So, two of them started out as Rumpus essays and then one was in the The Rumpus book they put out, Rumpus Women, and one of them was in the VQR — so, four were published.

TM: And when you were structuring the book, were you structuring it around those essays that you’d already written?

MO: I had a bunch of ideas. Steve wanted me to do a column for The Rumpus, so the third one, which appeared in Rumpus Women [“Have a Beautiful Corpse”], actually started out as an idea for the web column, but it just kept growing and wound up becoming too big for a website. But I had a lot of other ambitions and ideas in that vein and my sense was that they were connected. I wasn’t sure exactly how but that’s what I wanted to explore. I wanted to cut myself out some time and figure it out. The structure, interestingly — in terms of just the order of the essays — came very late in the game, and even two of the ideas, two of the essays, were swapped in after I had a contract to write it. When I realized that they were really going to let me do whatever I wanted to do, I was like, “Well, shit, let me rethink this…”

TM: When did you realize that you had free rein?

MO: Well, I mean it’s so weird trying to put a book together like that as a proposal… But once I met the FSG people — and they were really the only ones who not only liked it as it was, but were also interested in whatever I was interested in — I just had the sense that it would be okay if I did it. So I booked the flights to Hawaii and to San Diego and I thought, I just really want to try this. After I’d made the trips I sort of said to them, “So…I have these other ideas.” And they said, “That sounds good — yeah, do that.” So, it feels like a unique experience.

TM: Well, those essays in particular were very strange — in a good way. When I reading them, I thought, “I don’t know who would publish these.” Especially the one in Hawaii, [War and Well-Being, 21° 19’N., 157° 52’W] because it wasn’t like you were taking a stance for or against the new DSMV and it was more interesting because of that.

MO: That’s the thing, that’s how I tend to think about things. I don’t have a lot of magazine writing experience, I guess is the thing, so I don’t really know any other way other than the story that kind of works for me. So yeah, they’re weird. They’re definitely weird.

TM: In a couple essays you write about your ambivalence about writing for a living. Is it just that you get caught up in meeting deadlines and you don’t have time to stretch out and do something weird? Or is it more complicated than that?

MO: No, I think that’s really just it. It’s kind of an obnoxious thing to be ambivalent about, I guess. But it’s what I mentioned before, my sense of just not having decided that this was what I was going to do…especially writing about movies, movies were something that I had a very natural love for, but I’d never had an ambition to be a critic or to write about them on a week-in, week-out basis. So, yeah, it was just a feeling of coming to a moment in my life — I needed to just make a decision. To not just be carried along by the tides. That was probably the bigger part of my ambivalence. But there’s also just feeling burnt out. You know, when you’re hitting deadlines three or four or five times a week… I don’t feel like I’m that kind of writer. I’m not good at that. I didn’t feel like I was doing the best work I could be doing.

coverTM: While we’re on the subject of movies, I really liked your essay “The Dream (Girl) Is Over” which traces the cinematic feminine ideal from Marilyn Monroe to the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” as embodied, most recently, in Zooey Deschanel. After reading it, I have to know what you think about Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. Does she function as an MPDG in that movie?

MO: You know, when I saw the trailer, I was really nervous. The thing about her, though, is that she’s a star. So, I think the specs of the character, you could easily put her into that archetype, but I feel like as an actress she has so much of her own charisma. And the movie was such that it transcended it somehow. I don’t think she fits exactly.

TM: How did that essay come about?

MO: That’s the one essay in the book that was not my idea. It actually came out of a conversation with my agent, who is also my friend. We were at a bar one night or something and I went off on a rant about this phenomenon and she said, “Oh you should write about that.” At the time I was still working on the proposal. And I said, “Really, I don’t know that I have much more to add. I think my two-beer rant was pretty much it.” I was actually pretty reluctant to do it. I thought, “Well, once I get it in there, I can get rid of it.” But then, they were excited about it, too. So suddenly I had to write this thing. And ultimately it was sort of a matter of finding a story and then persuading myself of it. And it wound up being — although I really did not enjoy the writing of it —it wound up being rewarding in that sense, because I did actually persuade myself of it.

TM: Your essays are a mix of memoir and criticism, which a lot of young writers are publishing right now. How did you come to that format? Do you notice that as something that’s happening right now?

MO: I guess I have noticed it, a bit more. But, it felt like a more honest way, for me, to make sense of things, to think about things, was to think about how I experience the world and things I’m exposed to, and the way that they manifest in my life. And I felt like I couldn’t be alone in that. I felt that other people might have those same feelings. It just felt like a natural way to think about the culture that I live in.

TM: You write a lot about time and the way technology changes our relationship to time. I’m assuming you didn’t grow up with the internet or digital photography. Do you think not having that as a kid makes you a better judge of technology now, or do you think it makes you a worse judge?

MO: Probably both. You mean a judge of the impact?

TM: Yeah, I mean can you be more objective about it since you didn’t have it at one point?

MO: When you think about my parents, it was the same with television, and the generation before that, it was the same with the movies. It’s just a question of quantity, I think. But I don’t feel like the internet and television can even be compared because the scale has just expanded a million times over…I feel like it is a very interesting position to be in — having that sort of before and after feeling. And I think it may give you a better feeling of what the impact has been. I think that would have to be self-evident, whereas someone who grew up with it literally doesn’t know anything else. But, they also don’t have the same qualms or reservations, which is sort of a necessity…although I do get the sense with younger people and even with teenagers that they do feel some alarm. It can be overwhelming to most people. Do you feel like you have a better sense?

TM: Well, I notice that people just five years younger than me do not have the same hang-ups that I do.

MO: That is really weird. I recently heard someone refer to someone literally five years younger than him as from a different generation. It’s like, can we at least just agree on what a generation is? I’m imagining it’s like 20 years, but suddenly there are these crazy little micro distinctions. And they’re real…I will be really interested as the next generation of young people moves into their thirties and gets a little older — how their relationship to technology changes. I have a friend who has this theory that the internet culture will wend all the way to one extreme and then there will be a correction like, en masse, and we’ll become a little wiser…a little more judicious about the place in our lives almost naturally. I don’t know if I believe that. But it has been my experience, at least with something like e-mail. When I was in university, that’s when e-mail came out. Everyone just gorged on it. We would just e-mail all day. For years. Writing books. Writing these epics poems to each other. And for me, it really did just reach a point where I was like, I can’t do it anymore… Maybe in order to get a sense of where the balance is you have to take a measure of the other extreme.

TM: What is your balance? Do you only answer e-mails certain times of day?

MO: I wish I had more of it, honestly. My schedule is to get up, try to answer e-mails in the morning, go for a run, make lunch and then start working for the afternoon. I have to get better about just turning the internet off. I did it with the book, I did it religiously because it was the only way to get things done. But it’s so easy to just slide back. I have a smart phone. I don’t like the fact that I have it. But it was sort of given to me as a gift and then I didn’t give it back, so I can’t really pretend that I have no interest. I went and got the plan. But I’m not on Facebook. I don’t engage in long drawn out e-mail correspondences anymore. That might sound a little stupid, but it was a really big part of my life. And I feel like with writers especially, that was not uncommon. It became a real thing for a while there. So I really avoid that…the way it can suck up time is alarming. It really is a lesson in discipline. I’m so undisciplined when it comes to the internet. It’s terrible.

TM: That kind of brings me to your last essay “Ways of Escape,” which is about discipline — well, it’s about a lot of things, but it’s partially about running and discipline. To me it read like a coming of age story and I wondered if you thought about fictionalizing it. You wrote at the beginning of the essay that you had struggled a long time with this time in your life — how to think about it, how to write about it.

MO: Yeah, I hadn’t thought specifically about fictionalizing it because I really avoided thinking about it at all. I really did. And so, I guess with this book I felt like it would be an opportunity to try to figure out that period of my life. And give myself a story at least, that I could hang onto. But I actually was quite reluctant to do that. That seems to be a pattern for me. It’s like, why did I propose writing about it? But I did. But when it came to actually writing it, it turned out much, much different.

TM: What was your proposal for it? How did you describe it? As an essay about being obsessed with running?

MO: Yeah. It was about four paragraphs. It would be interesting to look at it again because it didn’t have anything to do with the person I ended up writing about and only a little bit to do with going to the movies obsessively and alone and nothing to do with my relationship to my faith or anything like that. It was sort of like a big gulp moment when I realized that if I was going to write about that time, then I had to write about all those things because those were the things that started coming out when I was thinking about it and writing about it.

TM: Did you write that essay last? Is that why it comes last?

MO: I think I did write it last because I didn’t want to write it. And then, in terms of the order, I obviously had a better sense of what the book would be and particularly with the first essay, I thought they made an interesting frame — dealing with time and my changing relationship to it. And struggling with it to a certain extent. So I thought it would be a good final one. And also because it’s the most personal one, for me. It just seemed like an intuitive place for it.

TM: To me the first essay is about an older person talking about how quickly time goes by and then the last essay is about a younger person with so much time on her hands she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

MO: Exactly. It’s like, how did that happen? At least there’s a book in between. But yeah, that’s how it feels, right? It’s not a new feeling and yet no one seems to anticipate it happening to them.

 





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