Author Archives

Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is editorial director of TMI Project, a non-profit offering storytelling workshops, and has a column on The Rumpus. She tweets at http://twitter.com/saribotton

The Business of Being “Jane Roe”

Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) and her lawyer Gloria Allred on the steps of the Supreme Court, 1989. Photo by Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, on February 18th, Norma McCorvey — aka “Jane Roe,” the plaintiff in the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court case that legalized abortion — passed away. Four years ago, in February, 2013, Vanity Fair published this fascinating profile of of her. McCorvey, who wasn’t able to actually have the abortion she fought for because of the timing of her pregnancy and the drawn-out case, famously had a change of heart many years later, becoming a pro-life activist. Through most of her adult life, regardless of whether she was fighting for or against women’s reproductive rights, McCorvey managed to monetize her position, not only publishing two memoirs, but forming one sketchy foundation after another, on either side of the argument. Author Joshua Prager had to write around the subject — whom he and all those interviewed portray as mercenary — because she refused to be interviewed without payment of her $1,000 speaking fee.

Young Norma McCorvey had not wanted to further a cause; she had simply wanted an abortion and could not get one in Texas. Even after she became a plaintiff, plucked from obscurity through little agency of her own, she never did get that abortion. McCorvey thus became, ironically, a symbol of the right to a procedure that she herself never underwent. And in the decades since the Roe decision divided the country, the issue of abortion divided McCorvey too. She started out staunchly pro-choice. She is now just as staunchly pro-life.

But in truth McCorvey has long been less pro-choice or pro-life than pro-Norma. And she has played Jane Roe every which way, venturing far from the original script to wring a living from the issue that has come to define her existence.

“I almost forgot i have a one thousand dollar fee,” she texted in August in response to a request for an interview. Told she could not be paid, she texted back: “Then we wont speak.”

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The Humanizing Properties of Depression: Daphne Merkin Talks to Gabby Bess

Photo by Unsplash, via Pexels.com

At Broadly, Gabby Bess — a writer who has depression — interviews life-long sufferer Daphne Merkin, and reviews Merkin’s new memoir, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression, in the process. Although Bess reports that the book doesn’t offer any prescriptions or promises for relief, she seems to find comfort in identification with the frequently suicidal author.

“…during our call, we agree that life is bad. It’s clear from her own case that money can’t buy happiness—it can only buy the stints in psychiatry units, or therapy sessions, or however you take your self-care. Wanting to die while living among the rich and being one them, perhaps, makes the emptiness of our current setup and its values all the more pronounced.

“There’s a lot that’s terrible about life. I think some people have a guard up against it. They overlook it,” she says. “I think that people who suffer from depression are sort of finely tuned to it. I write somewhere in my book that depression is the loss of necessary illusions. You need a certain amount of illusion to live.” She adds, “Depression can be very humanizing. I’ve thought to myself, If [Donald] Trump suffered from some type of depression, he’d be a different person.”

However, until we change the world, which might be more possible now than ever, we need to take care of ourselves and continue living. Merkin recognizes that life is all she has: “I think [suicide] affords a kind of—this is putting it strangely—a paradoxical relief to a very depressed person, to think there’s one way out of it,” she tells me over the phone. “I would somehow think if I commit suicide then I’ll be happy, but where am I going to be happy?”

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‘O Says I Must Keep a Journal’: Bill Hayes’s Diary of Loving Oliver Sacks

Photo by 
Luigi Novi (CC BY 3.0)

BuzzFeed has a touching, intimate excerpt of Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, Bill Hayes’s memoir of his relationship with late neuroscientist and author Oliver Sacks.

10-13-16

I, soaking in the bath, O on the toilet, talking, talking about what he’s been thinking and writing — short personal pieces, for a memoir perhaps. He had brought with him two pillows to sit on and a very large red apple. He opens his mouth wide and takes a gigantic bite. I watch him chewing for quite a while. After he finishes, “Bite me off a piece,” I say. He does so, dislodges the apple from his mouth, and puts the piece in my mouth. We keep talking. I add more hot water. Every other bite, he gives to me.

There is a quiet moment and then, seemingly apropos of nothing, O says: “I am glad to be on planet Earth with you. It would be much lonelier otherwise.”

I reach for his hand and hold it.

“I, too,” I say.

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All You Have to Bring is Your Love of Everything

The Champagne Tower Hot Tub at Cover Haven

Ada Calhoun writes, in Elle, about a weekend getaway with her husband to the kind of “romantic” Poconos resort she used to see advertised on television as a kid. Could a couple of nights away from their kid and all the post-election news — not to mention sleeping on a bed beneath a mirrored ceiling, plus baths in a champagne-glass-shaped jacuzzi — help to rekindle their spark?

Sitting around the bar for Sexual Feud, I saw couples aged 25 to 75 yelling out answers: “Balls!” “Blindfold!” “PMS!” The breakdown between white and African-American guests was about 50-50, and I tried to remember the last time I saw such a diverse group—an older white woman with long gray hair and big glasses, a middle-aged white man with the manner and attire of a duck hunter, and a stylish young black couple with matching cherry-red high-tops—laughing together. There were even people in their twenties and thirties who seemed to be there without irony.

Here the Northeastern middle class, with everyone smelling like bubble bath and sandalwood, was united by its knowledge of popular erogenous zones—”the neck!”—and its stoic refusal to ever laugh at the host’s rape-y “take it” joke. And this may just have been the three glasses of Barefoot pinot grigio talking, but as I looked at the scene I felt genuinely optimistic about America for the first time since the election.

I looked over at Neal. He, too, seemed to be happily watching the couples around us. I wondered if he might also be reflecting on our nation, perhaps having a similar epiphany—that there could be some way to unify the country under a banner of booze and R-rated game shows.

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Porochista Khakpour on Starving as a Young Novelist

Photo by Luigi Novi, via Wikimedia Commons

Lit Hub has a compelling essay by The Last Illusion author Porochista Khakpour — an excerpt from Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living, an anthology edited by Manjula Martin — about her struggle to survive early in her career as a novelist. At one point in 2007, while on book tour, she finds her bank account is overdrawn and she barely has enough money to eat. (Full disclosure: I have an essay in the collection as well.)

I call people, but I don’t want to ask for help. I want them to think of it as a humorous anecdote but not that it’s real, that my life is that difficult. After all, certain friends who are not involved in publishing think I am rich and famous. Why burst that bubble?

In the end, I borrow money from a friend of my boyfriend and take that walk of shame to a yellow cab, when I know there are buses and shuttles and subways and all sorts of only semi-impossible ways to get back to Brooklyn.

Later, when my publicist finds out, she is shocked. Why didn’t you call us?!

I give her some gloss-over answer, but I want to say, I don’t know whom to call, when to call, why to call. I am learning everything over again. I have become what the publishing world and media suspect of a debut novelist—suddenly, I am new to the universe, not just to being a novelist. I suddenly don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Weeks later, I discover during another bad moment—as the value of the dollar plummets and oil is sky-high—that gold is at its peak. I sell what is left of family heirlooms to an old Iranian man in the Diamond District, who listens to a fraction of my story, gives me a decent deal, and tells me, “My boy in medical university; my girl, married and with baby. Your fault for being a starver of an artist, daughter.”

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Carrying the Weight of Black Experience — and Literature — Along the Appalachian Trail

Photo by ih, via Flickr Commons

At Buzzfeed, Eritrean-American essayist and short story writer Rahawa Haile writes about hiking over 2000 miles on the Appalachian Trail in 2016, and carrying with her books by black authors, which she’d leave behind for others to find at shelters along the way.

Racial diversity matters uniquely on a trail that’s considered a great equalizer in most other respects. Individuals have no identity but one: hiker. For many, who you were or what you came from wasn’t important, because everyone was sharing the same stretches of bad weather and sore feet. It was the hiking community’s way of saying all were welcome, and from what I gathered over the six months of my hike, they were. Even me. Especially me. Here, all were purportedly safe. “Look at how we’ve grown.” The unintended consequence of colorblindness was benign erasure, a discomfort with looking at how we hadn’t.

There is no divorcing the lack of diversity in the outdoors from a history of violence against the black body, systemic racism, and income inequality. A thing I found myself repeatedly explaining to hikers who asked about my books and my experience wasn’t that I feared them, but that there was no such thing as freedom from vulnerability for me anywhere in this land. That I might be tolerated in trail towns that didn’t expect to see a black hiker, but I’d rarely if ever feel at ease.

Few seemed to understand that simply because hikers had not targeted me did not mean I had ceased being a target. That I viewed every road crossing as a cue to raise shields, eyes open, ears alert. That in the back of my mind there lived my mother’s voice: or else. Here, they were free, truly free, whereas I was only a little freer than before. That the difference between the two held centuries of slaughters in its maw. That we all carried fears. That some fears never slept.

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Cat Marnell’s Rehab Writing Retreat

Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim, via Wikimedia Commons

At New York Magazine’s The Cut, Emily Gould profiles Cat Marnell, the famously self-destructive former beauty editor who miraculously managed to complete a compelling, well-written memoir, How to Murder Your Life — despite first blowing her entire advance on drugs.

Marnell missed her first book deadline, overdosed on heroin, and spent her whole advance before writing a word. She more than justified the concerns of everyone who thought that book would never be written.

But then Marnell managed to get herself to rehab, at a facility in Thailand helmed by a guru who also treats Pete Doherty. There, she finally started writing without her usual helpers. “Rehab is basically a memoir-writing workshop,” she told me. “You have to reiterate your story so many times, you storyboard it out. You basically leave with an outline that you can send to a publisher.” Now, despite a recent “drug vacation” (more on that below), she says that she’s healthier than ever before. “My survival is not a fluke. I have definitely chosen the better path.” The mere fact of the book’s existence means that she is capable of putting her ambition ahead of her addiction, at least temporarily. The book is also far from messy — her control of style and tone is impressive, as is her wry self-awareness.

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Under Autocracy, The Eroding of Trust

Photo by Mike Martinet, via Flickr Commons.

At New York Magazine, Russian-born Michael Idov reflects on the few years he returned to Moscow to edit the Russian edition of GQ, beginning in 2011. He was surprised by the culture of cynicism he encountered — a response to constant deceit and crushing autocracy under Vladimir Putin. And he wonders whether a similar lack of trust and sense of defeat are in store for the U.S. under Trump.

One tends to imagine life in an autocratic regime as dominated by fear and oppression: armed men in the street, total surveillance, chanted slogans, and whispered secrets. It is probably a version of that picture that has been flitting lately through the nightmares of American liberals fretting about the damage a potential autocrat might do to an open society. But residents of a hybrid regime such as Russia’s — that is, an autocratic one that retains the façade of a democracy — know the Orwellian notion is needlessly romantic. Russian life, I soon found out, was marked less by fear than by cynicism: the all-pervasive idea that no institution is to be trusted, because no institution is bigger than the avarice of the person in charge. This cynicism, coupled with endless conspiracy theories about everything, was at its core defensive (it’s hard to be disappointed if you expect the worst). But it amounted to defeatism. And, interestingly, the higher up the food chain you moved, the more you encountered it. Now that Russia has begun to export this Weltanschauung around the world, in the form of nationalist populism embodied here by Donald Trump, I am increasingly tempted to look at my years there for pointers on what to expect in America.

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Obama by the Books

White House photo by Pete Souza, via Flickr

In Vulture, book critic Christian Lorentzen suggests we dispense with terms like “postmodern” and “postwar” when discussing novels, and instead analyze them relative to the presidential administrations under which they were released.

What will we mean when someday we refer to Obama Lit? I think we’ll be discussing novels about authenticity, or about “problems of authenticity.” What does that mean? After the Bush years, sheer knowingness and artifice that called attention to itself had come to seem flimsy foundations for the novel. Authenticity succeeded storytelling abundance as the prime value of fiction, which meant that artifice now required plausible deniability. The new problems for the novelist became, therefore, how to be authentic (or how to create an authentic character) and how to achieve “authenticity effects” (or how to make artifice seem as true or truer than the real).

That we’ve been passing through an era that especially prizes authenticity in fiction is no coincidence. These were years when America was governed by someone who’d written a genuine literary self-portrait, whose identity was inscribed with the traumas of the age of colonialism and its unraveling, whose political appeal hinged on an aura of authenticity and whose opponents attacked him by casting doubt on the authenticity of that identity. Now, as he leaves the scene, we’re troubled by questions of fakeness — a moment of fake news but also a time when the reassurances of big data have proved fallible, when a shared civic reality has cleaved definitively into a pair of mutually distorting digital bubbles, exposing a national identity crisis that America’s left and its writers (most of them creatures of the left) didn’t know, or want to know, was happening. Even the president-elect’s hair seems to be a fiction. No wonder some are pointing to science fiction as the best predictor of what’s to come.

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A New Era of Unreality: Stop Making Sense, or How to Write in the Age of Trump

Image by DonkeyHotey (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the Village Voice, Aleksandar Hemon explores the “unreality” of a Trump presidency, likening this era of American history to the start of the war in Bosnia in 1992, and calling for new literature that doesn’t shy away from the conflicts and destruction ahead.

There is a certain kind of abdominal pain felt only when a catastrophe appears at the door of the world you know and proceeds to bang on it. The sensation could be likened to a steel ball grinding your intestines. There is nothing like it: There were times when I thought I could hear it revolve. The feeling is simultaneously familiar and totally unfamiliar; it is unquestionably familiar as boilerplate fear, intensified though it may be, but it is also unfamiliar in its specificity: It is the fear of an unimaginable future as seen from this particular terrifying moment. This is the feeling that possessed me during the time my daughter Isabel was sick and then died.

This is the kind of fear that woke up, stretched and elbowed for more room in my stomach on November 8, 2016, as it became increasingly clear that Donald fucking Trump would win the presidential election.

The morning of November 9 I woke up, after a short night of unsettling dreams, in a revengeful country of disgruntled racists, who elected the worst person in America as a gleeful punishment for whatever white grudges had been accumulated during the Obama years, or even during the decades before.

We become of two minds, which cannot agree on what is real. The world looks strange and unreliable, fragile and dangerous. It is itself and not itself. I am myself and someone else.

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