I first met Liz a few years ago at Metropolitan Community College, where she teaches writing, but teaching is just one of her many pursuits. Liz is a founding editor of Spark Wheel Press and the journal burntdistrict. She is the recipient of prestigious awards for poetry, and her poems have been published in the likes of Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Nimrod, Willow Springs, The New York Quarterly, Iron Horse Literary Review, Redactions, and Sugar House Review.
This summer, Liz is launching a new career as a novelist. Monsters: A Love Story (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) was selected as one of Harper’s Bazaar’s Summer Beach Reads, but that label is deceptive. Liz and I meet for coffee to talk about writing, her new book, and why it pushes a lot of people’s buttons.
Eve: Thank you for meeting with me today. Before we talk about Monsters, let’s talk a little bit about your back ground. How old were you when you first started writing, and what kind of writing did you do then?
Liz: I think I’ve been writing since I learned how to make letters on a page. I’ve always been interested in storytelling, and I started a handful of novels when I was 10 or 11. I mostly wrote about my sister Katie, who was mean, and I wrote her into murder mysteries in which she was the victim.
Eve: (laughs) Was there anyone besides your mean sister who inspired you to write?
Liz: In high school, I got very involved in creative writing, and my high school creative writing teacher, Nona Horsley, was tremendously encouraging. By college, I’d moved almost exclusively into poetry, and took as many classes as I could from poet Brad Roghaar.
Eve: You are well-known as a poet. What made you decide to write a novel?
Liz: I don’t know that I decided to write a novel. I barely admitted that I was writing a novel.
Over the years, my poetry has become increasingly narrative, but it’s also become very, very spare. Most of the poems I’ve written in the last few years are probably between 60 and 150 words and lean heavily on formatting and white-space.
The novel (that I did not admit I was writing) felt like the opposite of that work. It was expansive and fun and I just found myself completely absorbed by it.
Eve: Are you still writing poetry?
Liz: I’m not writing any poetry right now, but I’m sure a poetry project is in my future again at some point.
Eve: Who are some of your favorite writers and what are some of your favorite poems or novels?
Liz: I fell in love with poetry through T.S. Eliot, and he remains at the top of the list, but in contemporary poetry, I’d list Sharon Olds and Kim Addonizio and Nickole Brown. Louse Glück’s First Four Books had a tremendous impact on me.
The poetry I read leans dark, so I tend to read novels that are significantly more fun—Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (which is dark, but darkly funny). I loved Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming which was startlingly smart for a thriller. My favorite author is probably Jane Austen though, and I reread her novels every few years.
Eve: Are you able to make a living (or part of one) with your writing?
Liz: (laughs) Fiction pays better than poetry, but I’m not quitting teaching anytime soon.
Eve: Some writers I have spoken with feel that teaching or editing interferes with creative writing energy. How does teaching or editing affect your life as a writer?
Liz: I actually do my best work when I’m busy. The pressure of carving out time to write becomes a kind of driving influence. I love teaching and it gives me a very different kind of outlet and challenge, so I don’t feel like it has a negative impact on my work. Editing on the other hand can be extremely draining. It’s something I’m still really learning to navigate.
Eve: Do you have a writing routine that you follow?
Liz: No, definitely not. I am, and always have been, a binge writer. When I’m in a project, I work in every spare second of the day. When I’m between projects or stalled (or distracted by things like a book launch), I can’t really work at all. Forcing it or writing just to write because of a schedule has never worked for me, so I try to just accept the anxiety that comes with not writing and use the time to read and relax and gather all the sparks that will go into the work during the next binge.
Eve: What themes do you find yourself coming back to, or have they changed?
Liz: I write a lot about gender expectations, sexual power dynamics, family dynamics, the demands and failures of mothering.
Eve: Well, that’s a good segue into talking about your book. Monsters: A Love Story has been called “A cracklingly funny and poignant debut novel about the ways we love, even when we’re not at our best” and “a blistering tale about a problematic relationship between two deeply flawed and charismatic characters.” And, sure, it is all those things, but I felt there was more to the story than that “fun beach read.” Did I detect a sense of social commentary?
For instance, that scene when Stacey and Tommy are talking about the monster in Stacey’s book, how her creator cut out her tongue because he thought she’d be a more perfect woman if she couldn’t talk, and Stacey’s response, “I know what that’s like because I was married for ten years.”
Liz: Yes! Women are silenced in so many ways, and we silence ourselves because we feel we have to be perfect. Women end up being kind of fractured personalities, broken identities, because we feel like monsters if we’re not perfect, so we end up being different people depending on who we are with. We want to be the perfect wife or mom, so we end up performing, even within our families.
We’re hard on ourselves in ways men would never think about. We eat pizza, and we’re like “Oh, my god, I’m so disgusting.” You hear women say that all the time. I’m horrible, I’m disgusting. I’m a monster.
Eve: And some of the reviews seemed to miss that larger issue. Like that Kirkus review. That guy was annoyed by what he called your character’s “micro-reporting of her obnoxious thoughts about her food consumption,” and I was thinking, he obviously doesn’t realize that those are real thoughts that real women have, counting the potato chips or counting the apple slices, because if they eat too much or gain too much weight, they think of themselves as disgusting, a monster.
Liz: Body image is a gender expectation that isn’t imposed on men nearly to the extent that it is on women. And there’s also the point of sexual violence.
Eve: Yes, I did notice more than once that Tommy is, well, forcing himself on Stacey. He’s almost kind of, well, rapey. And yet he’s considered by some to be the more sympathetic character, like in that Novel Hermit review that said, “Who would’ve thought a suburban mom would be the asshole instead of the Hollywood star?”
Liz: That speaks to gender expectations again. Many, many readers thought Stacey was the real monster because she’s drinking a lot, and because she’s not being a “good” mom.
Eve: But she’s a lot better parent than Tommy!
Liz: Right, he gets a lot more slack for his behavior because of gender. Kind of like when you’re at the store, and there’s a dad with kids, and people are like, “Oh, he’s so great to go to the store and take care of the kids!” Does anyone ever have that thought when they see a mom is at the store with her kids?
Tommy was actually a lot worse as a human being, he’s even sexually violent, yet a lot of readers’ reaction is, “Oh, but he’s so cute!” In fact, there was a review recently in the Washington Independent and it was the first and only review that even noticed that the sex was not always consensual. I think that is proving the very point I am trying to make.
Women are held accountable in ways that men are not, whether it’s for drinking or parenting. Stacey herself has internalized these views and is very hard on herself, even while letting Tommy off the hook.
Eve: Are you surprised at some of the reactions to Monsters? Because to me it seems that, in poetry circles, readers are often other poets, so they know what one is trying to achieve, and they appreciate it even if the theme doesn’t resonate with them.
Liz: (laughs) Absolutely, poets are a very supportive community. Look, I am aware that my book is not for everyone. But still, it is a bit surprising when someone comes up and says, “I read your book, and I hated it!” or “Your grammar and punctuation was great!”
Eve: Yikes! So to publish a book you certainly can’t have a thin skin. What are you proud of as a writer? What are you happiest about?
Liz: I work really, really hard, and that’s probably what I’m proudest of. I don’t know that I’m happy about any of it, in terms of results, but when I’m writing and it’s going well, I am very very happy. The act of writing makes me happy.
Eve: What’s your advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
Liz: Don’t. And I don’t mean this as a joke. I really, strongly recommend against it.
Eve: What is your biggest setback as a writer?
Liz: Every day as a writer is a setback. Every single day. There’s so much self-doubt and struggle and rejection and dissatisfaction with what’s finally on the page. I’m a lot harder on myself as a writer than as a woman.
Being a writer means coming to terms with a total lack of contentment, but then contentment is probably the enemy of art. I don’t mean to say that artists can’t be happy. I think I’m generally happy in my life, but I’m never satisfied, and the day that I am, I’m probably finished writing.
An excerpt of Monsters is available here.