We sat down with Emily Gould to discuss her new book and her online feminist bookstore, Emily Books.
Photos courtesy of FSG
Emily Gould’s Friendship came to me on a January day when I felt very ill, and very sorry for myself, so I took it like a shot in the arm. The plot involves the hopes and failures of two unserious ladies living in Brooklyn; the novel, unlike most of what we might call “Brooklyn fiction,” has an easy, unliterary cadence and a low threshold for neuroticism (or self-pity). Sometimes it feels like “young adult” fiction about “adult” problems: getting or not getting an abortion, getting or not getting married. When, five months later, I interviewed Emily about the book and its themes – work, life, and balance, often of the karmic variety – I had forgotten some of the plot, but none of its lessons. Friendship is about learning to have regrets.
Emily, who is 32, moved to New York at 19, which makes it even more impressive that she looks about 24. In interviews and at parties, she has the blithe allure of her novel’s main character, Amy. Bev, the other main character and Amy’s best friend, is quieter; I imagine her to walk and talk like Emily’s IRL soul mate, Ruth Curry. Where the novel follows Amy and Bev into shambolic non-participation, the story of Emily and Ruth is a little more, you know, upbeat. In 2011, the two friends founded Emily Books, an online, independent bookstore with a feminist mission: to republish books by women that have either fallen out of print or never received the attention they deserved. Subscribers get one e-book every month; less committal fans, like me, buy them individually on the Emily Books website. It’s a great project, winning Emily a lot of new fans along the internet’s books-cats-manicures axis.
When I started following Emily on Twitter in 2011, I had a dim sense that she had once been controversial, but also felt that we were similar enough –demographically, constitutionally, and astrologically – that any strong feelings I had about her work, I should tell to a therapist, not to everyone. When I met her in the flesh, I not only liked her a lot but also wished she could be that therapist. Emily is one of very few people who can listen to what you’re saying and then tell you what you really mean – and get away with it. She is smart, but doesn’t need you to think so. She is sweet, but not fake. I arrived at her Bed-Stuy apartment feeling like I wanted to quit New York City, if not the whole country, and I left wanting to try, which is something.
VICE: So, female friendship has really been – well, I don’t want to say trending, but…
Emily Gould: It is trending! Not to say that I invented female friendship, either, but when I started writing this, there was no Girls, no Broad City – both of which are great TV shows. There weren’t big-budget buddy comedy movies for women. It wasn’t a big theme emerging from fiction workshops. I still haven’t seen Frances Ha, because Ruth thought it was phony, and although we don’t have exactly the same taste – I mean, Ruth likes Battlestar Galactica – I trust her when she doesn’t believe in something.
Friendship deals with the loss thereof in a way that I found very true. No break-up with a man has been as devastating as estrangement from a woman I love, which feels not like an accident or an inevitability – as romantic break-ups do – but like an absolute indictment of my character.
Yes, and I think that’s because when you break up with a man, all your friends say, “Whatever, he was an asshole. You’ll find someone better.” When you break up with a woman, nobody knows what to say. It’s a very intense, private thing to end a friendship.
Did you start writing the novel as a diary?
It wasn’t so much a diary as a way of trying to describe what was happening in my friendship with Ruth. Yes, there are parts of Amy that are me, and there are parts of Bev that are Ruth, and in the beginning it’s more autobiographical, or will be assumed to be autobiographical. Amy looks like me. Bev talks sort of like Ruth. But what I wanted to do was describe our friendship as it is while writing the characters we aren’t. The plot gets away from life, and so do the characters. By the end of it, you can’t tell who’s who.
Which is the nature of friendship – sometimes. Friendship, the book, doesn’t have an ending exactly.
My book? It has an ending! That ending is much more of an ending than any of the endings I’d written; I wrote several very different ways out before deciding on this one.
It ends, but there isn’t a big resolution. The book ends with resolve, instead. A change in direction, not a full stop.
Landing a plane is much harder than flying a plane, as the cliché goes. You know how New Yorker short stories always end with, like, the action stops and then the camera pans and someone sees a bird out of their window? I hate that shit. It’s awful, and it’s like, mandatory somehow. You’re not allowed to get your MFA until you add three more sentences about seeing a bird or hearing someone mowing your lawn.
You can divide all of literature into bird people and cat people.
I’m both. I really am. I go bird watching.
Do you ever see Jonathan Franzen out there?
No, because he goes to Central Park, and I go to Prospect Park.
Oh, you knew that. Wow. You know where Jonathan Franzen does his birding.
Of course, I mean… [joking voice] everyone knows that.
When you started Emily Books, was it maybe a way to do for other women’s books – books that you love, but that had failed, or had been ignored or misread, or hadn't been published when they should have been – what you couldn’t do for your first book, And the Heart Says Whatever?
Yeah, I have had that thought before, and I do hope there’s some Emily Books analog that’s around in 40 years or 60 years to, you know, scoop me up and say like, “Hey, this book was really misunderstood.”
Have you felt misunderstood often?
I think that my first book encountered a really different cultural moment than the one we’re currently in, and that it’s actually very cheering and heartening what’s been happening in the culture over the past five or six years in regards to women writers. We’re saying that there are ways of reviewing and looking at women that are just. Not. Okay. Critics will be publicly called out if they dismiss a book in certain gendered ways.
You’re on Twitter a lot, and so are your readers. Is it dizzying to get reactions in real time to something you’ve worked on alone for years?
No. This sounds like a lie, but I’m really averse to caring about reactions of any kind. It’s like when you smoke a whole pack of cigarettes to give yourself aversion to smoking: I really, really went deep with being responsive to criticism in my 20s, and now that I’m into my 30s, I don’t feel that anybody’s opinion of my writing matters. At all. Other than Keith, Ruth, Bennett, Lucas, Anya, Miranda, and Mel. That’s it. You know? I’m past the point where I’m waiting for people to tell me about me. I know me.
What is the ideal Emily Book? We both loved Chelsea Hodson’s Pity the Animal, which just came out as a chapbook, and described her as “Emily Books-y.” What does that mean?
What makes a book an Emily Book is that it’s transgressive in some way, queer in some way, usually funny – not always, but 99 percent of the time they’re funny –and written in what I call a transparent style, which can seem like an absence of style, but which is actually really hard to pull off. We don’t go in for lyrical, finely wrought, mega-detailed MFA prose. Emily Books are more narrative-driven, usually written in the first person, almost always written by a woman, and short; in terms of subject matter, our books are about the darker weirder aspects of being alive in the world. Nothing exotic, just being 25 and living in a city.
What is the future of digital publishing?
More experimenting with the subscription model and with niche marketing. I’m really interested in experimental models, but also in the good aspects of traditional models. Mostly, I want to make sure that there are editors for books, and that writers are mentored, and that being an editor continues to be something that is possible. Free market types of publishing people are totally ignoring the editing and mentoring processes and assuming they’ll happen organically.
How often do you write at length on your Tumblr, or on your blog?
Only when I’m moved to blog a way that feels like a bodily compulsion, which at this point is once or twice a year. I’ll post on my Tumblr more frequently, but it’s usually just “I found this cool new beauty product” or “Try this perfume” or “I ate this candy. It was terrible.” I would love it if there were still really good, funny, sharp service journalism happening – anywhere, at any magazine – because that is totally what I would be doing for money.
Twitter killed the blog star. Do you feel that to be true for you?
I have a really dorky sense of humor. I love puns and doggerel and funny aphorisms, and in my more cheerful moments, I think of Twitter as a brave new expressive medium, rather than an addictive substance. It’s both. All these media, all these venues for expression, everything has a dark side and a light side, and they’re inextricably wrapped up in each other.
We used to have fun, destructive drugs, and now we have productive drugs, like pills and Twitter, that are also often secretly destructive.
I think that’s because of how professionalised our culture is, and how expensive it is to live where we live [in Brooklyn]. I hear from my 50-year-old yoga teachers that, a long time ago, you could totally have an overnight proofreading job at a law firm two nights a week, and the rest of the time, you could do what you wanted. I say all the time that living in New York City requires you to find some kind of drug. It can be yoga, or it can be meditation, or it can be drugs. Or all of the above – in moderation.
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