Interview by Lara Lillibridge
I was drawn to lyrical, fragmented form of Lizz Schumer’s Biography of a Body and I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of thoughts on writing interspersed throughout the book. Schumer tackles themes such as religion, disordered eating, sexuality, and the complexity of inhabiting a female body.
About the book: This is less a narrative than a trail of breadcrumbs through an experience, where strange things whisper from the shadows and draw the reader into the dappled darkness. Readers will find themselves wandering along with her, grasping onto vivid insights and suggestions of feelings that will stay with them until long after the last page is turned. (description courtesy Unsolicited Press)
Also the author of Buffalo Steel, Schumer’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, The Rumpus, Entropy Mag, Ploughshares.com, and many other publications.
I sat down with Lizz recently to discuss her new hybrid essay collection, Biography of a Body, out now with Unsolicited Press.
Lara Lillibridge: First of all, how did this how did this book come to be? And how did you wind up at Unsolicited Press?
Lizz Schumer: This is the second book that I published with a small press. The genesis began immediately after I published the first one, because I had a lot of material leftover—that makes it sound like it’s second rate, but you know, in editing, we take things out, and I never want to kill my darlings, I always just relocate my darlings to a better home.
So after the first book, I had more to say. And I had additional pieces that I thought still needed more reworking and looking at from a different perspective. I’m always noodling over fresh ways to look at old ideas, that’s where I get a lot of my material.
As for Unsolicited Press, I’m a very collaborative and very hands-on writer and editor and promoter of all things—just a very hands-on person. That’s why I’ve always liked working with small presses, because I believe that the best creative product comes out of working together. And I knew that this book would have a somewhat niche appeal, since it has hybrid elements to it.
I work in magazine publishing, covering books, actually. So I am more aware than most as to the climate and the general state of publishing, particularly mass market publishing. So that’s why I went in the small press direction for this book, and Unsolicited Press just immediately had a very scrappy, bootstrapping, getting our hands all up in the muck approach. They tackled working together from a place of caring and wanting the work to shine in the way that it was intended from the author to the editors to the designers. We all put a very high degree of care into the work.
LL: That’s excellent. Can you tell me about your cover? Which looks to me like a dirty Barbie doll.
LS: I love this cover! It went through a whole bunch of iterations, because again, I’m very hands-on, perhaps to the designer’s chagrin at times. She initially sent over a version of this cover, along with a bunch of other options, and I loved it. Because, like so many other people, I played with Barbies a lot when I was a kid. And I think there’s something so subversive, and so visceral about a dirty buried doll, because the whole idea of Barbies in particular is that they’re this perfect idealization of what the feminine should look like. It’s not supposed to be dirty, and it’s not supposed to be all messed up and buried in a pile of dirt. It really got at the spirit of the book in a very visceral way. The font is one of my favorite fonts. The designer was kind enough to let me have input on that as well.
LL: So much of this book talks about the feminine and shame, about how when you’re taught what it means to be a girl it means to be ashamed of your body to be ashamed of your body’s urges to be dirty, so the cover definitely conveys the visceral feeling of your writing. Now, let me ask you a question because you are in editor and a staff writer at Good Housekeeping. How do you switch from that sort of journalistic writing to such beautiful, lyrical essays?
LS: That is a great question. I’m a planner. I am a stereotypical white woman in that I bullet journal. I write down every task that needs to be done. And in that way, my time is very deliberately segmented.
I start every morning reading fiction, partially because I have to read a lot for my job, and partially because it gets me in a headspace that is more creative to start my day than, say, Twitter, for example, which is the exact opposite of that. So I schedule out time to work on my day job writing and interviewing and editing, and then I schedule my creative projects. For my particular brain, when I know that this is the time to write an essay versus an article, that gives me permission to just shift gears into that other mode.
I also find the creative, more lyrical stuff that I write to be very freeing and very fun, for lack of a better word, after working on journalistic stuff all day. It’s sort of like my playtime. And of course, there are many, many days where I do not have as much creative bandwidth leftover at the end of writing articles and editing articles all day. But, you know, I also give myself grace for that. I don’t ascribe to the ‘you must write every day in order to be a writer,’ or ‘you have to write a certain amount of pages or you failed,’ mentality. I don’t put restrictions on myself or the craft that way. So when it when it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. When it does, that’s great.
“ I don’t ascribe to the ‘you must write every day in order to be a writer,’ or ‘you have to write a certain amount of pages or you failed,’ mentality.” — Lizz Schumer
Critics often condemned memoirs as navel gazing. As if their own navels weren’t just as full of lint. We’re afraid of those portals into ourselves. And so we avoid them.
We’re afraid to look into our own eyes, so we hide them beneath lids, we paint the colors we wish we were.
Then a little further down the page,
I write those miles of blood and tissue
so you can read what you don’t have the guts to say.
I loved this because I think all creative nonfiction writers deal with people who act like we’re self-absorbed.
Then you have another quote which is similar:
As writers, sometimes we veer toward the confessional, and we talk about that in literary journals like it’s a sin. Like confessional isn’t some of the hardest writing there is, like it isn’t just as deep and just as raw as any other art form we hold in higher regard.
So can you talk a little bit about the idea that there’s something less-than in confessional writing? And I agree with you—to me, it’s the most vibrant, exciting writing, but I will shut up and let you respond to that.
LS:, I feel very strongly that confessional and trauma writing and all this deeply personal writing has value. And I think one of the reasons that I’ve seen, especially in these discourses about trauma writing in general, and not just recently, but throughout the history of the form, is that it is a very traditionally female form.
And I think that is probably—whether we come right out and say it or not—why people look down on confessional writing and trauma writing. We don’t believe that women in particular and especially women who are also minorities, we don’t believe that their stories are as important as the rest of the so-called canon.
But I think there’s a reason why we read these stories, and there’s a reason why we need these stories because they speak to something essential in ourselves.
“But I think there’s a reason why we read these stories, and there’s a reason why we need these stories because they speak to something essential in ourselves.” — Lizz Schumer
Probably it’s from the puritanical basis of our society that we think that we should hide what is not appropriate or is not camera ready, whatever value you want to ascribe to it. And I think that really is to the detriment of literature, and to people having something to connect with.
I’ve talked to a number of people who have read this book who have said, ‘Wow, I realized that I have had a similar experience when I was reading this, and I haven’t had access to stories that felt like mine. And it helped me own my own story to read this one.’ And I think that is the value in confessional and in trauma writing.
I think that’s another issue that we have in creative nonfiction—it’s almost like we don’t want to enjoy reading anymore, right? If it’s fun, it must be fluff. Or if it’s a little spicy, or a little salacious, well, then that must not be serious literature. And now you can write literature about anything, and it’s still literary, and it still deserves its place among the great white men of our age.
LL: I completely agree. And, you know, back in the day of the classics, it was sort of understood that the great white men’s first novels were autobiographical—that was it was read as if, yeah, he’s writing about his own experience. But if you claim your voice somehow that’s not as good.
LS: Exactly, yeah. You look at so much fiction, especially again, women’s fiction, and people are always asking authors, ‘well, are these characters based on your life? Did this really happen to you?’ And you know, it’s sort of a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation, you know, especially, we see this most particularly with LGBTQ+ writers. If they’re not writing about themselves, that’s wrong, if they are writing about themselves, that’s self-indulgent. So it’s a huge challenge, and something that I think we are past due in dealing with.
LL: Absolutely. Now, my last quote from you:
If you think about publishing a book while you’re writing it, you’ve already killed the work.
LS: I also I also teach writing—I should mention that. Something that I talk to my students about a lot is the age-old writer’s block, but also this urge toward publishing and the importance that we attach to publishing. I just had this conversation with my creative nonfiction students on Thursday—that publishing does not have to be the only goal, it does not have to be the goal at all.
I’ll have students who come to me and say, ‘How do I write a marketable book? How do I write a book that makes money?’ Or ‘how do I write a book that hits the bestseller list?’ And I say, if that’s why you’re writing something, you’re not writing it for the right reasons. This is not a money making business. Yes, of course you can write to formula, and I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing, but if you’re following a formula with the aim to be the next fill-in-whomever-here, then it’s not going to be authentic. And it’s not going to be as good as if you just follow whatever your gut tells you that you should be writing.
I very intentionally do not think about publishing when I’m writing and I always joke that I go with small presses because I don’t expect to make any money. And if I wanted to write Twilight, maybe I could, I don’t know, but I don’t. That’s not what this is for me. And I don’t want to ever put that shadow over my creative process because for me it cheapens it.
LL: It’s hard to be brave. I think, at least in the first draft, when you’re thinking about the response of the reader. I was talking to a student of mine about working with small presses and I explained that it’s less likely that your grandmother’s going to pick up your book at Barnes and Noble, and that can be freeing. With small presses, you are writing for a particular market, who is more likely to understand, compared to books that are plastered across the bookstores of America.
I mean, certainly it would be cool to be plastered across the bookstores, from America too, I’m not trying to slam anyone, but there is the niche market that small presses cater to, I think. They can have a more sensitive reader.
LS: A more sensitive reader and also a reader who knows what they’re looking for, because you have to be more intentional about finding books from small presses. And I think a certain type of reader gravitates towards them, which I enjoy. And yes, like you said, if I think about ‘What is Dad going to say when he reads this book?’ than I’m not going to write a good book, I’m going to write a fearful book. Horses can smell fear, and so can readers. I think it’s very obvious when a writer is holding something back.
“Horses can smell fear, and so can readers..” —Lizz Schumer
LS: No, I do. You know, I think Lidia Yuknavitch, is, if not number one, definitely up there. Her book, The Chronology of Water, was the first creative nonfiction that had an element of lyricism and an element of the hybrid that I ever read. Before that I didn’t realize what was possible—she really opened my eyes. You can get weird with it, and your story doesn’t have to be linear. It doesn’t have to be A happened, then B happened, and C happened, and here’s my thesis, and here’s my conclusion. you know, it. It really broke open the boundaries between genres for me, so she’s a big one. Sarah Manguso is another writer I love.
LL: I’m not familiar with her.
LS: Oh, you’ve got to check her out. I’m not sure if it was her first book, but the first one that I read was Two Kinds of Decay. It’s a memoir about when she came down with the illness that left her temporarily paralyzed. The way that she wrote about this really deep trauma and how it interacted with her life and her friends and her family, and the way that she wove in all of these different elements that were both deeply personal and incredibly relatable in a really beautiful, poetic, lyrical way. I always come back to that book once a year just to take it apart again and see how it works. So those are those are my top two.
LL: I’m always looking for experimental or unexpected forms. Which leads me to my next question. I feel like there’s a large segment of readers that are hungry for the unexpected, that are tired of the formulaic, or that are tired of linear, and that really gravitate towards the hybrid and the unexpected. Do you see that as well?
LS: Absolutely, yes. I am always testing Good Housekeeping readers’ boundaries in that way. I think, and this is something that I talk about with our readers and with my students, and with everybody I run into—that we don’t really know what we’re looking for until we find it. I think that’s true in books and in life. And I think there’s a higher tolerance for hybridity and for experimentation than a lot of publishers realize.
Every time I’ve put something that is a little out there in front of our readers, they gobble it up, because they don’t expect it. And they don’t really know what to do with it. But especially right now, when our world has been turned upside down, people go one of two ways: they either rewatch Friends and Seinfeld and descend into the comfortable as their creative safety blanket, or they’re looking for something that reckons with the sense of displacement and the sense of discomfort that we’re all feeling in a very deep way.
When we give someone the opportunity to read a book that is nonlinear or is hybrid, or in some way experimental, I think that can feel very comfortable when your life is also doesn’t make sense in a lot of ways. So I think we’re at a really good time for it. I think we should be seeing more hybrid and more experimentation coming down the pipeline.
“I think there’s a higher tolerance for hybridity and for experimentation than a lot of publishers realize.” — Lizz Schumer
LS: I’m currently working on a braided memoir—it’s a series of road stories, and I mean that very literally and more theoretically. When I was growing up, my family had a little tin pan of a motorhome that we drove across the country for a few weeks every summer. My father kept a journal—he mostly wrote down practical matters like mileage, or what we ate each day—but he would occasionally mark down something interesting that had happened that day or an observation that could get very personal and really, whether he intended it or not, really zinged right at the heart of these trips.
So a few years ago, I went home to my parent’s house and transcribed the journal. I’ve been using that as source material for this book that explores the stories of these trips that we took throughout my childhood and early teens, alongside a diagnosis journey for my fibromyalgia. It took about seven years to get diagnosed, and a lot of other zany things happened along the way. So I’m sort of braiding together these literal journeys and this journey towards the medical conclusion of sorts, and looking at the interstices between how these two things feel and what intersections we can we can tease apart along the way.
LL: Wow, that sounds fascinating.
LS: Thank you.
LL: Well, lastly, do you have any advice for a new essayist or an emerging writer who hasn’t published anything yet?
>LS: I always say just start. I always talk about the tyranny of the blank page, and that little blinking cursor is a scary little guy. I always tell my students to just write something on the page. A lot of my essays start off with, ‘I don’t know what to write.’ And then as soon as I have that there, then the expanse is broken and I can get into something. Whether it’s something good or something decidedly not good, it’s something.
That’s the second piece—even what you see as a truly terrible piece of writing is still writing. And let go of the judgment—I think that’s the other enemy of creativity, right? That self-awareness and that little voice in the back of your head as you’re writing that says, ‘this isn’t any good. No one’s going to want to read this. You’re wasting your time.’ —whatever your internal monologue happens to be. So just to shut down that little voice and write, just have fun with it. I mean, gosh, this was supposed to be fun. It’s certainly not making me rich, so I should be enjoying it, right?
So that’s the third piece—to try to enjoy it. Because then you’ve at least got that, and that’s worth quite a lot in this day and age.