Q&A with Caren Beilin, author of “Nina’s Alcoholism”

Q&A conducted by the Fiction Editors: Bix Gabriel, Editor; Megan Giddings, Editor; Allison Noelle Connor, Assistant Editor; Penelope Luksic, Assistant Editor

Bix Gabriel: Caren, how do you make your decisions when writing about sex? When and how to be as explicit as you sometimes are, and how you think about writing about sex — because it’s taboo still for literary writing, rare to see women writing about sex using non-euphemistic language and even sometimes language that could be considered a slur against women, and because you do it well. (Also, writing about sex well is hard.)

Caren Beilin: I always want to write about sex. I try to move on but I’m a Freudian person — how we have sex, what we confront in it, want in it, is so much. Sex is the tell. I love to gossip about sex, because I want to know — how did somebody confess what they wanted? What was the manner in which somebody was so different from waking, walking life, this act, this sham, this walking around? How did somebody appear, finally appear, when their desire throttled before them? It is also where (and how) we are most (or not) ethical. Sex is a [violet] burrow where you can go to be the best (and the very worst) to people. It is my favorite activity, even though it is so difficult and depressing and mournful and frightening and very disappointing to have sex with someone who carries in their heart a lot of hatred for women that they repress or don’t and which I fear is so common. Sex is where you can learn how bad things really are out there. It’s where you can save people from a panic attack and express mercy and worship (which is helpful if you don’t pray elsewhere) and tenderness. I am most explicit about sex, in my writing, when I am trying to have a single thought — someone orgasms in this story because she’s being ordered to smash something, to do something that in fact jeopardizes her professional position — that our pleasure is out of order with capital. Ambition. This internalized capitalism is killing me. That we break things to feel things. I don’t know, but it’s where I go, the burrow I go in, to have a single thought. In this story, sex is a strange place, in one instance, it’s abusive, it’s ill-mannered (very, there’s no consent, so it’s assault). If I were completely drunk I wouldn’t want somebody to start touching my pussy, and good for Nina for managing to tell the narrator, “Please stop.” I like to say “pussy” in this story because at least it attaches that word back to vagina — it’s horrifying hearing that word used to describe an uncourageous person. Like with other words, it feels good to take words like pussy back. I like taking it back and stuffing it back in the cunt where it belongs!

Megan Giddings: You’ve moved around a lot: Montana, Philadelphia, and Utah, right? How do you think geographic location effects the way you write?

CB: I have written about place. I have been working this year on a memoir called Spain: an anti-travelogue, which is about a time I lived and traveled briefly in Spain, and I wrote it against the idea that a journey, a new place, expands your horizons, makes you learn new things, grows you. Funny, maybe I actually wrote it against my sister, who works in international education, which would have to do with pent up aggression about something else entirely. Writing, for me, is always about something else, someplace else. Things don’t enter direct. And when you live in a place, you’re often somewhere else. Like many writers, I have most been moved, changed, and made a writer by things like a good bathroom with a lock, a nice coffee situation with a cup everyone knows is yours don’t touch, a table. And more, by other writers. I cannot express to you how much I did not like, as a place, Salt Lake City. It is stunning in many ways but I really struggled with it. But I concede, the best place where I wrote — it is where I wrote alongside Jessica Alexander, Rachel Levy, Meg Day, and Raphael Dagold, who are always breaking things to feel things. I like that I have lived in a few places so far in life (Chicago too), because I went out of Philadelphia and found some people. I’m so glad I went and found them, I went to find them.

Allison Conner: My question for concerns your prose style. It’s disorienting and sensuous (as Bix mentions) and plays with our notions of how writing should behave. Caren, which authors/stories/artists do you look towards when meditating on going beyond the limits of language?

CB: Thank you. I have Clarice Lispector’s Stream of Life by my bed, can only read it by its paragraphs. Every one is a box of violet whips. Kathy Acker moves the world around for me. But it would be maybe efficient to just say de Sade. If you ever want affirmation that language can do anything, put anything you want with anything else, in infinite variation, and that someone in the 1790’s said the worst stuff, read a page. Bataille’s Story of the Eye is also helpful. Steven Dunn, author of the book Potted Meat, recently visited a fiction class I am teaching, and one thing he told my students, “Write the worst shit you can imagine.” Great advice, and I love his book, it ruins the concept of growth (lessons learned, meaning given) and it delivers in materials. Oh my god and Chelsea Minnis.

MG: During the publication process, you’ve been sending me and Bix some of the (excellent!) music you’ve been listening to. Would you be willing to make or create a list of Caren Beilin’s music and inspiring creativity jams?

CB:I sent you a song by Them Are Us Too, “Eudaemonia,” which I discovered after the Oakland warehouse fire. Cash Askew so sadly died in this fire, and she was in Them Are Us Too with Kennedy Ashlyn. I love this music, and am so sad for this loss, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hA2onxrh_9g.




Penelope Luksic: Perhaps it is because this piece is written through the lens of artwork/artifacts, but I’m struck by the violently modified bodies (the bleeding dik dik, the drowning, branded goldfish) that become sort of beautiful items of possession after death. I want to know if, Caren, do you think writing fiction, or editing your own fiction, can be a violent process, and if so, do you think this is necessary to creating a lasting work of art?

CB: Yes, I think writing should be treacherous. And all the books I love were written at risk. Different kinds of risk. I’ve been talking about breaking things, it’s really important to me. Especially being a teacher, it’s often, always, all this pain in normativity, in norms, the should life. People are suffering from it. I want to do violence to the way things are, in many ways. My writing life is figuring out the ways. But as a default, I think I sometimes write in a way that’s violent to myself, that doesn’t put me in an advantageous position. I feel a need to communicate to, to assure my reader, this is worth reading because I’m willing to destroy myself, or my ambition, or my good standing. It’s maybe a small example, but I wrote an essay for Full Stop this past year that I’m really glad I wrote, it’s about the copper IUD, and all the risks in getting one that are not acknowledged officially. I’m glad because I want to protect, to warn other women. In this essay, for really no purpose, I mention in an aside that I don’t think the moon landing ever happened. Whenever I mention my feelings about this socially, it angers some people. Or the conspiracy theorist is like a clown. But I always am feeling that we have not landed on the moon. How could we have gone there? It’s very bright. There is something where even if I am passionate about an argument, I want to destroy a kind of evenness or control. My belief that we didn’t go to the moon has to do with something very hopeful but very hurt, even abused in me. An abused person needs the moon as it’s seen. I want to keep my hurt, my needs in my writing. This is horrible to think about, but to be vulnerable in our capitalist society is to do violence to yourself, socially, economically. I am trying to be vulnerable, if that is violence.

Read it now: “Nina’s Alcoholism,” by Caren Beilin

Nina's Alcoholism

She looked pleased, like alcohol had given her yet another gift. And vicious—alcoholics are so vicious. They'll drink your breath, and I knew it.