OBJECTS OF DERISION
AN INTERVIEW WITH TABITHA BLANKENBILLER
NGQ: If you had to introduce yourself as a character in a story, how might you do so in a single sentence?
TABITHA BLANKENBILLER: Tabitha, the high-strung thirtysomething with Valley of the Dolls cover model hair and a trigger-happy Instagram finger.
NGQ: Your upcoming essay collection EATS OF EDEN touches on the ghosts in our day to day lives, on reuniting with the people we once thought friends we are reminded of our former selves, of the people we used to be, or might have been. What do you think about the existence of these reminders in our lives? Do you think that they serve a purpose—as a way to view the progress we might have made, or do you feel that the nostalgic mourning, the longing for our lost friends is a harmful presence? That we ought not to look back on the pain?
BLANKENBILLER: I think that people mourn friendship in different ways, just like people process any other kind of breakup or loss in a myriad of ways. I’m sentimental by nature, so I enjoy tipping back into the past—visiting old neighborhoods, going through old photos. The trade-off is that they’re not all going to be rosy, perfect memories. Any time you honestly look backwards, you’re waving that loss back through the threshold. I’m sure that some people are able to exist within the world they used to inhabit and no longer associate it with who they were and those they used to be with. I have a difficult time separating the two. When I lost my best friend, I felt like part of me had been torched. The other half of my adolescence and young adulthood was irreconcilably gone. Although in the last ten years I’ve moved past dwelling on what maybe could have been, I know I’m never going to forget her. I can’t rewrite that chunk of my life without her in it. I don’t want her back, and I don’t want her erased. I think that the harm comes in failing to strike that equilibrium.
NGQ: Can you pull one or two favourite lines from your collection? Why do these lines resonate so much with you in this moment?
BLANKENBILLER: I just turned in the manuscript two weeks ago and I’m waiting for comments back, so these could end up in the “Director’s Cut” version of next fall’s book! But right this moment…
“We had an open marriage—I fucked around with art, and he knew better than to ask questions.” I think this embodies the voice of the book, and my relationship between my husband and writing, better than anything else. I have a super-separate relationship between my marriage and my writing. My husband is not a writer. I’d say of anything I’ve ever published, he’s maybe read one or two pieces. So many couples I know are both writers, but I don’t think that dynamic would ever work for me. I like the freedom to do what I want artistically without my partner’s input or opinion. He supports and respects what I do without understanding it, which is unconditional love.”
“Food and joy were intrinsically tied to my being; the connection between heart and body and memory.” The collection is about food and writing, and feeding yourself from the page and the kitchen. I think this encapsulates that theme and how tied up and tangled they are in my life.”
NGQ: Your collection also touches on the act of writing a novel over the course of a year. What has the act of writing about writing taught you about yourself as a person and as a writer? Has this process illuminated some of your approach to writing to yourself? Have you adjusted the way you write as a result?
BLANKENBILLER: Basically it’s made me question my sanity.
But whatever those results may be, it hasn’t changed the way I write so much as affirmed that how I write is the way that works for me. I work full-time at an office job, and I’m always jealous of anyone that is working part-time or committed to full-time writing, or can afford the PTO and admission to those fancy writing retreats where you fly halfway around the world and stay in a Transylvanian princess’s boudoir while cherubs leave fresh-baked biscuits and honey baskets at your door and your favorite famous writer becomes your best friend every night over dinner and blurbs the Masterwork you’ve had time to craft by churning out 20 pages a day for a month. But then on the few occasions I did have a seemingly unlimited chunk of writing time, like over my Christmas vacation, I completely froze. Sitting at my writing desk felt like crawling out of my skin. I can’t be a writer without structure. Just like I can’t do anything in my life without structure.
I work best when the lights are almost out, when I’ve only got an hour between finishing up dinner and passing out in bed, and I’m in this kind of delirious state where I’m racing to eke out as many words as I can against all odds of a worknight. It’s kind of a rush, like I’m sticking it to…somebody.
NGQ: What do ghosts mean to you? Do you believe in them?
BLANKENBILLER: Ghost stories are my favorite stories! They tie into my nostalgia addiction, as an imprint of a brief or distant past. They’re a reminder that we weren’t here first and that our pain is not unique. What has been felt has been lived before. That being said, I’d rather not be in the same room with one again. That was fucking terrifying.
NGQ: Do you have a favourite ghost story, then?
BLANKENBILLER: YES! I was obsessed with the story of the Hotel Cecil, which is an old hostel in Los Angeles with a sketchy, sordid history of serial killers and suicides. The last season of American Horror Story was based on The Cecil. It’s also the hotel where Elisa Lam was staying several years ago before being found mysteriously drowned in a rooftop water tank after guests reported black water coming through their faucets. If that wasn’t terrifying enough, footage leaked of Lam’s last known elevator ride that appears to show her being chased and tormented by something off-camera, moving around like the girl from The Ring. I watched the YouTube video and couldn’t sleep all night and ended up reading everything I could find about the case. The place’s reputation became so bad, the owners tried to “rebrand” the hotel as Stay on Main. Like a logo change equals an exorcism.
A year or so later I was at AWP Los Angeles taking an Uber to a new poke bar I read about, and we stopped in front of this mammoth old building, plastered with big STAY ON MAIN signs! I was so freaked out to be in the same block radius as the thing, and then at a reading that night I discovered one of my Twitter writer friends was freaking Staying There. Because it was cheap. He seemed more amused by the coincidence than anything, even after I showed him the footage. “Oh yeah, that’s my elevator!” Some people’s kids.
NGQ: Speaking of being in the same room as a ghost—your essay in this issue, “Ghost in the Corner”, touches on your real life experience with a ghost amid travelling back to a place in your past, revisiting old friends and places of employment. Both seem equally as terrifying—we’re reminded of our mistakes, our missteps when we look back—but we’re also confronted by what could be an apparition of another person’s past, of a life already lived in the spaces that we now live in. The idea of ghosts in our own lives immediately made me think of our fluid identities, of how we change over time. Do you think about the past echoes of Tabitha like they are separate entities? Like they are lives already lived? Or are these past selves never separate?
BLANKENBILLER: I definitely feel like past selves are separate. That isn’t to say that they go away; identity seems more cyclical than that. The older I get, the more I feel closer to who I was when I was 10. Back when I wasn’t afraid to be myself and I wasn’t spending all the energy I used in my teens and twenties to fit in or be loved. I wear the loud, brassy outfits she would’ve loved and know that I’m never going to have any chill factor. When I’m in a situation like in the essay, where I’m so far outside my routine and comfort zone and element, I cozy back up to that 19-year-old who was in survival mode and would do anything for a seat at the table, an invite, a whiff of belonging. All those ugly, awkward drafts of the person you grow into don’t die, as much as I thought otherwise. They’re just dormant.
NGQ: What inspires you to return to writing when your well is empty? Who are your great influences?
BLANKENBILLER: Reading, of course, is always the way back to the page. Any time I read essays by Chloe Caldwell, her work dares me to dive back in. Same with Jo Ann Beard, Chelsea Hodson, Jess Walter. I want to be a sexy Frankenstein’s monster of all of them. I’m also propelled by friends who are doing huge, important work. I need to be surrounded by hustlers. They keep me turning to the page on nights I’d rather be a DVR zombie.