The New Now: A Conversation with Laurie Stone about her latest work, Everything is Personal, and the production of a book via social media
The writer Chris Kraus introduced me to Laurie Stone via Facebook some years ago, and I was immediately engaged by the audacity and lucidity of her posts. I loved the combination of acerbic wit and gentle nostalgia, and the way she used social media to talk about feminism. A feminism that spoke to me, and a writing-style that struck me as fresh because she ditched theory and got to whatever point she was trying to make. We met in London one summer, and she came to my house, and I wrote with her and her partner Richard Toon. She made me think about how writing has to get to the thing we want to read about, to identify the heart of things and to ‘eliminate creating heroes and victims’. She also taught me that we don’t have to endure things that are boring. She once walked out of a screening we went to together of Marguerite Duras’ Le Camion, and a few minutes later I joined her in the lobby of the cinema, realising I was also bored, and talking to Laurie was much more interesting.
Everything is Personal, Notes on Now pulls together the essays and hybrid narrative pieces she has written for publications—including n+1 and Women’s Review of Books—between the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 and August, 2019. The pieces evolved in many cases from Facebook posts, journal notes, and prompts written with Richard. Stone has taken the zeitgeist and thrown it on the page in a breathtaking assemblage of thoughts, ideas, and conversations. Several chapters called “The Clock” form a Facebook diary of daily life in these times. How to resist? What things might mean. How to get through the day? How to think about time in terms of history and in terms of one’s momentary sensations. She runs with thoughts as they occur to her without losing us, taking in her sister’s death and other losses, considering such writers as Charlotte Brontë and Valerie Solanas, reporting things said at dinners and streetwise personal observations.
Stone remembers studying with Kate Millett at Barnard College in the 60s and her 25 years writing for the Village Voice, and as she writes about everything and anything, we see her particular version of feminism and its evolution. Everything is Personal could be described as a prototype for a fifth-wave feminism that is eclectic, fierce, and fearless in its contemplations of received knowledge about human identity and human potential. In her Facebook practise, she’s invented a new literary genre that is by turns angry, loving, and enchanting, floating between essay, memoir, and newsfeed, mixing the personal and political so that each is always both. After reading the book, I wanted to ask her a series of questions, and we wrote back and forth to create this dialogue.
Ruth Novaczek: Do you see yourself as fearless?
Laurie Stone: No! I have lots of fears, but maybe not too many as a writer. You are remarking on something I have heard—that I’m not gaming a particular response from readers. My views don’t represent anything but me. I don’t stand for an institution or publication. Also, I’m not that well socialized. Most of the time I’m not thinking about what other people want or expect, so it may seem I am defying these things when they just haven’t entered my thoughts.
RN: You said you didn’t like people calling you ‘brave’, is this because it backgrounds real critique of the writing itself?
LS: I mean I don’t think it’s brave to be yourself. You would have to be overcoming a great risk to be brave. I don’t feel at risk about losing readers. I don’t assume I have that many.
RN: Towards the end of the book you equate break-up with death, near the beginning, the entry for Sept 19 2017 reads ‘Every day is the break-up museum.’ What do you mean?
LS: It’s the kind of statement I am hoping people will interpret for themselves. As for me, I think a lot about people I have lost in my life. And there are lots of friends and close relationships I have lost—you could call it a collection, as in a museum. Sometimes connections are revived. Often I see my actions as the reason for the break, and I brood about this. I don’t get better at connection, but I brood.
RN: Chris Kraus offers in her introduction that losing your job at the Village Voice made you seek another outlet in social media. Can you talk about that?
LS: It’s always interesting to see what other people make of your migrations. From my perspective, I flow into openings that are there. There were 10 years between my leaving the Voice and finding Facebook, in which I wrote for other publications and worked as a caterer. I was not on the edge financially. I wanted to do something physical to make money, and I loved the camaraderie I found in that world. I didn’t know there was a certain way to write on social media. I just wrote the way I write, and it was fun getting immediate responses.
RN: You’re sharply critical, gently observant, always in the world and assuming a place in it. Is this your version of feminism?
LS: What you say about “assuming a place” in the world is interesting. I think you mean a kind of confidence in the voice I use that knows things and takes that knowledge for granted. I allow myself to be wrong, and if I have been hurtful, I apologize. I don’t think much about consequences because I don’t want to be stopped by them, and that has hurt me and other people. I’m not the best observer of boundaries, and I lost a close friend several years ago when I wrote a little story about a dog she had that died and published it without showing it to her first. The tone in the piece was comic, and she felt I had exploited and betrayed her. The voice I use in my writing is not my actual voice. My actual voice wants attention and affirmation. The voice I’ve invented operates on three principles: don’t apologise, don’t translate yourself, and don’t ask for love. I would add a fourth: don’t need the reader to take your side (another version of not asking for love, I can see). I think this is important at the moment with so many people expecting a right-think and group-think mentality from you—or else cancellation. As far as narrative goes, I try not to burden the reader with the needs of the narrator. It gives the reader space for their own feelings. My aim is to get the reader to enter the story as if the story is about the reader.
RN: Your self-criticism is sharp too, ‘the only times I’ve changed were when I couldn’t bear another second of myself’ and then the gentler ‘there is something magnetic about the situations that produce remorse’, and the the almost disingenuous ‘my whole life I have not known how to behave’. How do your ideas resonate with Millennials and how has your book been received by younger women?
LS: I have an ad hoc writing workshop in New York City, and there are a number of Millennials and Gen-Xers in the mix. Young women seem to like my writing. I think I am giving them space to reject virtue signalling and good girlitis. I don’t acceed to all the cultural forms ushered by groupthink. I don’t use the prefix cis for example that to me creates another binary based on perceived biological determinism. Who’s to know who is what, based on appearances? I think it’s a stage in trans self-determinism, and I wish them all the best possible ride in life, but cis, no, not for me. I’m a gender nonconforming woman and always have been. That was the whole point of the rise of feminism in the 1960s.
RN: Is debate in danger of being shut down now?
LS: Personally, I don’t like debate as a social form. People ‘splain to each other. I prefer people posting their own thing oppositionally, but I don’t believe in persuasion. I think we learn from roaming around until we find language and ideas that represent us or open us to possibilities we didn’t know were there. I learn more about writing from reading poetry these days, even though I write prose. But poems show me new ways to use language. That’s what I’m looking for more than ideas right now.
RN: Who are your fiercest critics?
LS: Well, my dead mother was excellent at this, although as time goes by I find myself in the dark about her enmity toward me. Sometimes I think I can see what she found difficult, and that makes me feel compassion for her—for having to be my mother, no fault of hers! The thing we had in common was finding comedy in situations, no matter how grotesque. We fought. I didn’t like her, either, in fairness, although I loved her the way all children love their parents. Other critics might be standard misogynists and well-intentioned excellent human beings irked by my resistance to their notions of goodness.
RN: Who are your biggest fans?
LS: I have fans?
RN: Your relationship with Richard is central to the book, to your life, you acknowledge the collaboration of a partner. You also talk of male human behaviours with brilliant severity. How did you arrive at Richard and how did he arrive at you? (is this a weird question?)
LS: All good questions are weird. We met at Yaddo, an artist colony in Saratoga Springs, NY, in 2006. He was married. I don’t think I knew this right away. There was some kind of spark from the beginning. We would look out for one another and slip alongside. One night we had sex. It was right before he was returning to Arizona. We had started writing together a bit. I threw out a prompt to him, and he wrote this gorgeous thing he read to me the next day. I told him he was a writer, a real writer, and I think it was catnip to him, and he recklessly threw in his lot with me before we had any real knowledge of the other. It was like jumping off a cliff. I have often been at stages in my life when I felt I had nothing to lose. The person who had something to lose was the woman Richard was married to. That someone has paid a large price for us to be together is in the fiber of our connection, and it’s a sorrow. We have the same sense of humor and no metaphysics. We are materialists all the way in and all the way out. Maybe that’s our bond—you should excuse the metaphysics.
RN: I was reading your book as Brexit loomed, I read sexist attacks on Elizabeth Warren, and other issues that have saddened and outraged me. Your words felt like a little sanity. The posts were a means for me to get a perspective, to advocate independent thinking in an era of group-thinking. During the time we started this conversation, a pandemic has flared and seized the world! Everything else feels small right now. I was going to ask you about buying a house with Richard in upstate New York and making it your own. How are you imagining riding out virus time?
LS: Assuming we do get through. I am writing this on Friday, March 13 2020, and things in the US are changing as fast as the virus is spreading. It’s been on everyone’s mind for about two weeks, I would say, and I have been watching the tone of posters on Facebook shift. At first there was a kind of macho rejection of social separation and hand-washing, as if they represented official compliance and it was cool to be rebellious. It was cool to look like you weren’t scared of whatever there was to be scared of. And in five minutes there was preparedness shaming by the cool kids.
Richard, as a type 1 diabetic—and he is also 69—is in a high risk group, and the death rate with this pneumonia for his group is closer to 20% than the 2% over all. Given that between 50% and 70% of the world’s population will probably contract the virus at some point, that’s a lot of deaths.
Once epidemiologists established that people needed to isolate themselves to slow the rate of contagion and thus retard the overrun of health services, people started to see social isolation not as hoarding your temporary stable health (a bad thing) but as a social and collective good (yes, good, and kosher!). I don’t like having to attach virtue to embracing life. When a man I was with for many years was dying of bone marrow cancer, there was a kind of wanting-to-live-as-long-as-possible shaming in the air. The virtue—the macho? The cool?—way was to peg it without a fight? Submitting to nature? Now, I’m seeing a lot of head girl finger wagging and march captain Bible quoting about moral comeuppance. I wish people would stop with the schooling and virtue leadership. I am advocating we love each other’s messy, silly, selfish, and brief existences and hold each other’s virtual hands, washed, of course.
From what I’m reading, I think we are looking at two years of possible contagion, and I don’t think life in the US will return to what it was. Life is taking a breather, and at least as far as the Trump occupation is concerned, I’m glad.
RN: Maybe capitalism and strong-man patriarchal populists have met their match in a microbe!
LS: Well, words and actions failed to topple them. We’ll go local, go feral, go for a walk. Keep our hands to ourselves. Saliva will take on the aspect of fang drip. Public space will cease to beckon. Strangers will not touch. It is already here.
RN: Where are you writing from?
LS: Right now, as the first wave of contagion moves through the US, we’re in our house and getting it ready for spring. We’ll see if we’re lucky and don’t get sick. Poorer people will have a harder time with everything because poor people have more health issues to begin with. The sky darkens and through the window tall trees about to burst into bloom shoot up to dusky clouds. A few shrubs have arrived at the nurseries. The shoots of bulbs poke up on the flower beds. We’ve been working outside for 10 hours each day. Last night I was my old New York self, wide awake all night and finally took a pill. I am glad, at least, for this break from things that had to be halted. The thing that has happened to us that is not a virus was allowed to kill people for many more years.
RN: Any thoughts about what comes next?
LS: I don’t think life will be recognizable after the era of the virus becomes the era of what that era will be called. I feel vulnerable. It adds a layer of vulnerability to express this. Nothing that was important a week ago matters now or much registers. The primaries. The election. Our house. My book. My next book. This morning I said to Richard, “After the virus apocalypse, one thing will be left standing: misogyny.” He said, “It’s good to have something to believe in.” If all goes well, I will hope to meet you in some post-apocalyptic rubble somewhere. I still itch a bit from poison ivy.
Laurie Stone is author of five books, most recently Everything is Personal, Notes on Now and My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She has published numerous stories in such publications as N + 1, Waxwing, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Electric Lit, Fence, Open City, and Creative Nonfiction. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
Ruth Novaczek is an experimental filmmaker, teacher and writer currently based in London. Her website is ruthnovaczek.com. Author photograph courtesy of Lorna Milburn.