WAG: What motivated you to write Skin
I'm fascinated by the idea of identity—who
you think you are, who others perceive you as,
how we can or can't play with who we are, how
each of us is always ultimately unknowable, how
those with whom we are most intimate can be virtual
strangers nonetheless. I'm always intrigued by
stories of people who change identities, take
up new lives. That's what really interested me
in writing this book—it's a story about
the uncertainty of identity, of living very tenuously
in one's own skin.
The book began as a piece I
wrote for a graduate writing seminar, about what
it was like growing up on the boys' school campus
where I lived as a child, where my parents were
teachers. I was exploring the nuances of the unsettling
mix of desire and terrible self-consciousness
that was my experience of coming of age in that
environment, and the self-injury served in the
narrative as the literal expression of the raw,
livid power of my feelings then—desire and
anger and despair and passion. Adults tend quite
wrongly to think of the emotional life of twelve
or thirteen as rather sweet and inconsequential,
but in my experience it was more like being ripped
apart every day in a different way.
People with no experience of
self-injury responded very well to the shorter
piece, and from that I knew that this could be
a book that was more than just a "disease-of-the-week"
memoir, which honestly would not have interested
me as a writer.
On a more pragmatic level, I
had seen several books come out on the subject
of self-injury, and all of them seemed to deal
with the most extreme cases—people whose
self-injury had grown out of lives of terrible
abuse and suffering. I thought it was important
to help complete the picture by pointing out that
really quite ordinary people may also turn to
self-injury—that sometimes the reasons why
you take up self-injury aren't so apparent.
In the essay, and in the final
book, with its ambiguously suggestive title, Skin
Game, I worked very hard to give to the self-injury
scenes the kind of intensity, almost eroticized,
of the experience, to try to convey what it felt
like from the inside.
I've had people tell me I was
"brave" to write the book, but honestly,
bravery never really came into the equation for
me. I'm not that altruistic.
Did being so frank about your
personal life give you any qualms? I would think,
if nothing else, that it puts you at an awkward
disadvantage when you meet a stranger who's read
the book: they know more about you, at least in
some ways, than they might know about their own
I think I must have been in denial
on this point while I was working on the book.
Every now and then, I'd wake up in the middle
of the night with this horrified "Oh my God,
what am I doing?" But for the most part I
was so absorbed in the work of writing,
of crafting language and structure, that the fact
that the book was about my life seemed like an
The hardest thing about writing
a memoir is walking that fine line between honesty
and the fact that you are not, after all, obligated
to reveal every single detail of your private
life. I believe that when you write from life
you do owe it to your reader not to fabricate;
the challenge of literary non-fiction is to create
something powerful from lived experience itself.
But how much detail do I owe my reader?
It is weird when I stop to think
that my neighbors or my insurance agent know these
very personal details about my life. What I've
found out since the book came out, however, is
that life just goes on anyway, and most people
are basically too much absorbed in their own lives—as
well they ought to be—to spend a great deal
of time ruminating over mine.
Your writing voice in Skin
Game is refreshingly ironic and amusing, but
it's a little surprising for the genre. What sort
of reaction have you gotten from it?
People have told me they were surprised
to start reading the book and find that parts
of it are funny, that the voice is very wry. That
is my voice, and I couldn't have written
any other way. The book also needs those moments
of levity as a break from the intensity of some
scenes. Some reviewers have been taken aback by
the tone—one deemed the book "at a
remove that forbids empathy." But most readers
seem to have responded very well. Really, it is
rather an absurd story—all I did was allow
that absurdity to play out.
I'm well aware of all the criticism
of memoir as a genre, that it's the sorry evidence
of our culture's utter self-absorption and narcissism
and so forth, that it's all of a piece with Jerry
Springer, that memoir writers are a craven lot
who will shirk no nadir of seamy self-revelation
to make a buck. Good writers know that—they
can't approach a memoir without being aware of
that, and some number of them have started playing
with the ideas and expectations about the genre.
I did a little of that. Dave Eggers new book,
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,
has gotten a great deal of attention for doing
that even more overtly.
Did you read—or, alternatively,
avoid—any particular memoirs before you
began writing Skin Game?
Before starting the book, I'd become
quite taken with the "personal essay"
in general, and then there were several memoirs
of particular strength that inspired me. Susanna
Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted is a wonderfully,
mordantly wry and spare and witty book that offers
some intriguing and challenging questions about
the nature of what we call mental illness—and
I'm afraid the book was done a serious disservice
in character, if not in sales, by the lame movie
"based" on it. Another book I kept going
back to was the nature writer Gretel Ehrlich's
A Match to the Heart, her memoir of being
struck by lightning and the physical and emotional
aftermath of that event. It's a very powerful
book that balances reflection with an engrossing
account of what happens to a body struck by lightning.
When I was actually writing,
however, I couldn't look at other memoirs, as
inevitably I'd find their style infecting my own,
or I'd lose focus on what I was trying to accomplish
with my own book.
Is there a risk of feeling pigeon-holed
as a writer after publishing a memoir like
Skin Game? Is it harder to pitch radically
different ideas to your editor or agent?
My editor and agent are game for a
new idea, I'm happy to say. In pitching new ideas
to magazine editors, I've found I haven't quite
figured out how to present my book, however. I
don't want editors to say, "Oh, she's that
kind of writer," and relegate me to the disease-and-dysfunction-writers
ghetto. There's some kind of irony in having a
book on your resume and not quite knowing how
to admit to it.
Wherever I go next, I do expect
it to be a radical departure from Skin Game,
but I suspect I will continue to revisit in other
guises those ideas about identity that continue
to interest me.
What, on the other end of the
spectrum, is the best thing about having written
It has been wonderful to have readers—most
of whom have no history with self-injury—come
up and tell me that the book meant something to
them. They've told me that my emotional experiences
resonated with their own—all those awful
conflicted feelings that go with coming of age.
I received some very positive reviews as well,
and this kind of feedback is undeniably encouraging
in the otherwise lonely and unglamorous work of
sitting at one's desk and writing.
I learned a great deal about
writing—and particularly about revising—from
writing the book. Writing from your own life means
you start with this huge, undifferentiated mass
of possible material and you have to carve your
story from it the way a sculptor turns a lump
of stone into something meaningful. My first draft
was nearly twice the length of the final manuscript;
my editor's one comment was "cut it in half."
You hear over and over again in writing classes
that the true art of writing is in the revising,
but nothing drives that point home like having
to get rid of half your book. In fact in the end,
over the course of two major revisions, I wrote
what amounted almost to an entirely new book,
and if I'd had time for one more revision, the
book would have ended up even more rigorously
spare. I've learned the power of letting a single
word or phrase or detail carry a weight of meaning.
Would you consider writing another
memoir, if the occasion arose? And what about
I think I've said pretty much all I'd
like to say about my mental life. However, I remain
engrossed in literary non-fiction, which allows
the writer to be present in the story without
having to be the focus of the narrative. We delude
ourselves if we think there is any such thing
as "objective" truth—how we "read"
an event or story is shaped by the details the
writer chooses to present or exclude, and that
is as true in journalism as it is in more "creative"
writing. It seems to me, then, that in literary
non-fiction, where the author's experiences or
reactions or impressions can be admitted, there
is actually the possibility of a greater depth
of truth or honesty. What makes literary non-fiction
powerful is that it is shaped from the
raw materials of lived experience.
Right now, I see so many places
I could go with literary non-fiction that I don't
know whether I'll ever wander over into fiction.
If I do, I imagine what will take me there will
be a character taking shape and demanding a story
to give it life.
What projects are you working
I developed a sudden addiction to true
adventure books last year, and Antarctica tales
in particular, after reading Shackleton's South
and Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey
in the World. I don't think Antarctica is
in my immediate future, but right now I'm trying
to pin down what it is about these books that
really grips me. There's some question there that
I want to ask, and when I get a better sense of
the question, I'll know where to begin.