INTERVIEW with Melissa Febos

INTERVIEW with Melissa Febos

Abandon Me: Memoirs by Melissa Febos

Emma discovered Abandon Me through her friend, Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter. Emma picked it up at Type Books while on location in Toronto and immediately texted Karah, “Go buy Abandon Me RIGHT NOW.” So Karah did just that – she went to the bookstore and bought the book… and was hooked.

Abandon Me is not a traditional memoir.  It is a book about feelings that we all have at one time or another; feelings of separation anxiety, loss, great joy, sexual excitement, sexual frustration, and perfectionism.  At its core, Abandon Me is a book about the thing that so many books are about and what so much of our lives are about; that is: love.  

Melissa Febos is originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. Her first book, Whip Smart, is about her
time spent transitioning from a college student to a  professional
dominatrix in Midtown Manhattan.

A few weeks ago, Emma + Karah met up with Melissa in New York to chat about Abandon Me, tattoos, intimacy, and why it’s so hard to leave. Here’s an edited and condensed version of their discussion:

xoxo
Emma & Karah
aka
B E L L E T R I S T

3481bccf-931b-4fb1-a84c-7dbf77fa77a7.jpg

An interview with
Melissa Febos
by  E M M A and K A R A H


---


E M M A

I was wondering how you started writing the
book and when did you choose to call it
“Memoirs” instead of “A Memoir”? 



M E L I S S A

The book is almost exactly the way that I particularly
made it. They didn't change anything. When I started
writing it, I had a sense that it was not going to be a
regular memoir or a regular essay collection.
I thought okay, for the first time in my life, I'm
going to try to be patient. I'm going to finish
 this entirely because I have a feeling it's going to
be good. If I try to describe it, it's going to
sound like an enormous mess. 


E M M A

Yeah, I went into it having read
nothing about it.


 

M E L I S S A


The best way to read a book.

 

E M M A

Stephanie [Danler] telling me to read it,
was the best way, 'cause I think if anyone
had tried to describe it to me, I would have
been like "what?" I liked going into it blind. 


 

M E L I S S A

That is my ideal way for people to read
things. As for the “Memoirs”, I actually
wanted to have nothing on it. And for a little
while, it seemed like I might get away with
that but people don’t know where to shelve
things that are nonfiction. So we have to put
something on it. I was like okay, but essays
seemed to suggest that they might be less
connected than they actually are.


E M M A

They're very connected.

 

M E L I S S A

And a memoir would have also been
misleading…


---

 

K A R A H

Em and I were talking yesterday. There's a
line in your book where you say "the ocean
disappears things."

We were interested in what you meant by
that. What does it mean to "disappear
things"? Why did you choose that language
as opposed to “swallow” or something like
that? 



M E L I S S A

I think that particular line is from “Call My
Name,” which is very much about limits and
also the experience of having people
disappear. I think this has to do with the
experience of being a child and not being
able to comprehend what it means when
someone is gone, or understanding the
emotional intricacies of why people go or
stay or disappear. This connection that I
made between the ocean or infinite things
and people I love disappearing.

I was a control freakish child. I wanted to be
in charge of things, I wanted to be my own
higher power. Infinite things scared me, and
they still do. I feel frozen and I want of sort
of curl into a ball, but give me a container
and say fill this in a particular way, and I'll
just get to work.

Still, even when it comes to writing craft and
form, I prefer constriction; it's part of why I
like nonfiction. Writing fiction, is much
harder for me. 


E M M A

I loved in that part of the story when you
say, "I like the pool because it has sides",
because I feel my safest place is in the
bathtub. The bathtub is my happy place.



M E L I S S A

I think with non-fiction or writing personal
essays, you have this finite amount of
material, which is what happens in your
thoughts. You have to find a way to make
that work so that it's worth other people's
time and maybe so that it adheres to a
certain kind of form. Even as a kid, if
teachers or whomever were like, "Go ahead,
do anything, here's a crayon", I'd be like
"aaaah, give me an assignment".


E M M A

Give me a theme!


---

 

K A R A H

I always wonder with nonfiction writers,
or people who write memoirs, specifically -
how do you decide what people are going
to want to read? Or do you not care? 



M E L I S S A

I have found that the things that feel most
urgent and terrifying to me are also those
which most interest other people. I think
we're all terrified of uncertainty. We're all
scared of taking risks and so it's really
compelling to watch somebody else take a
risk that you yourself are drawn to or scared
by. 


---


E M M A

You talk about how you change the spelling
of your name. I feel like when we're kids we
all kind of do that--



M E L I S S A

Yup.


E M M A

... I mean I started spelling my name
E-M-M-A-H because everyone’s name was
H-A-N-N-A-H



K A R A H

Well I'm K-A-R-A-H for real. 


E M M A

I remember feeling so in control of my
seven or eight-year-old life--Emma with
the H--and being like “I'm spelling my
name like this.” I loved how you broke
down your thought process of spelling your
name to better represent yourself. 



M E L I S S A

I think that's it, right? If I change the
container I can change what's in it. So I
think the way we change our name, we want
to be different.


E M M A

Is it a phase or is it a characteristic? 


M E L I S S A

It's hard to say because after publishing that
essay, I've gotten so many responses to that.
But then, those are also people who are
reading my work who are like a pretty
self-selected group. So I wonder, as you
were saying, that particularly driven women
are like "okay, I'm going to test control in
this very small way.” It’s like taking control
of my identity or my destiny or whatever it's
a symbol for. 


E M M A

When you really think of it, your parents
give you this name and you're just
supposed to grow into it and that's what
you go by for your whole life? For me, as a
kid, that was unacceptable. I always
wanted to change my name and then I
settled with changing the spelling, and my
mom was like, "I named you Emma, that's
your name. I don't know why we are
having this big to do about it.” And I just
couldn't wrap my brain around that as a
child. 



M E L I S S A

I think you reach a certain age -- for me it
was adolescence -- where I was like - oh no, I
don't want to be that person who was
wounded or dis-empowered in whatever
ways I was - so I'm going to start over.
Maybe Melysa. 


E M M A

I went through phases where I wanted to
be more exotic and then I wanted to be
more normal. Then I wanted to be Lisa
for a long time. 

K A R A H

I always wonder with writers, and
especially writers of nonfiction:
when you're doing things that you know
are harmful to you, or maybe you don't
know they're harmful yet, but you know
they might not be good--like heroin, for
example--is there consolation in knowing
that you'll somehow be able to write about
it? 



M E L I S S A

The question I usually get is "Do you make
choices because you think you might be able
to write about them?", which is actually not
what you asked. What you asked is what's
more true for me - which is do you get
consolation out of it? Is there comfort in
knowing that you can perform some kind of
alchemy and make this more than just a bad
decision or a harmful choice that you made?

Yes. I found that that's been a result. With
heroin, it was no. I had never planned on
writing about being a dominatrix, none of
that. I wasn't doing it thinking that I would
create some character in a fiction story one
day to spice things up.

In the midst of these experiences -
particularly the relationship that I write
about in [Abandon Me] - there was a
moment, where I thought I was actually
writing this book but I didn't yet know it
was this book. I was just sort of writing, but
I was just miserable. I was just in the center
of it, and I was in so much pain. I was
crying every day, the skin was peeling off my
face... I was like, “this is bad news.” This is
not a healthy situation. And I had this
thought that maybe I would write about it
and then I'll be able to turn it into
something useful rather than just feeling
like a sick and broken person, which is how
I felt in that moment. 


E M M A

I loved how you wrote about the relationship. 


[reading] “When I looked at her, I wondered. Are you my wrecking shore? Are you my third rail? Or are you my hallelujah?” 


M E L I S S A

My wrecking shore, my hallelujah, yeah. 


E M M A

That really resonated with me because I
feel like every relationship you go into, you
think: “what are you going to be for me?
Are you going to be easy, are you going to
be hard, are you going to be fun or ruin
me?” 



K A R A H

That's very true. 


---


E M M A

Do you want to ask about (looks at Karah)- 


K A R A H

What? 


E M M A

Do you want to ask... the tours of tattoos? 


K A R A H

I know you want to ask about tattoos. 


E M M A

I do. I loved when you were talking about
the tour of the tattoos. I mean, I only have a
couple, but, like, I had none and now I have
five. 



M E L I S S A

Do you have one on your hand?
Very bold. 


E M M A

I know, it didn't seem like a big deal at the
time, and then a year later I was like, "Why
did I let this person tattoo my fingers?" 



M E L I S S A

I actually remember thinking - I'm never
going to have a straight job, so why does it
matter? And now I'm like God, how
arrogant was I, the truth is I did have to get
regular jobs. 


---


K A R A H

I wanted to ask what you meant by:
"I still wanted to be a princess and not just
for political power"? 



E M M A

That's one of my favorite lines. 


M E L I S S A

I was raised by a very serious feminist. I
have been calling myself a feminist since I
was a child. I was very political and
empowered. I fantasized about being an
intellectual when I was a kid - that was my
ideal.

I'm very much a product of second wave
feminism. But I also am a girl, and not every
girl is like this, but I wanted to wear tutus
and high heels. I felt really ashamed of that
for a long time.

I think I went to great lengths to try to find
spaces where I could give myself permission
to be all of the things that I was. Being a
dominatrix happened to be a place where I
could wear high heels and stockings, and
feel empowered. One of the sort of fruits of
that experience was arriving at a different
level of acceptance for myself - where I
realized I could wear a tiara and have my
name on a mortgage. 


E M M A

I have always been someone who likes
girly things. I am girly -- but I also love to
read and want to be intelligent and want to
have an opinion. And I feel like sometimes -
people make you feel like you have to
choose. So when I read that line, I just loved
it because it was so honest. You should be
allowed to feel like that sometimes. 



M E L I S S A

Yeah, I remember I went to a lecture that
Gloria Steinem gave when I was a teenager.
I was wearing overalls every day and not
shaving my legs. And I really wanted to wear
makeup, but I was like 'my politics are more
important', and someone in the audience
asked, "Gloria, do you shave your legs? Are
we allowed to shave our legs?"

She said, "Yes, you can do whatever you
want, that's what feminism is.” And I was
like "thank you!" 


E M M A

I don't shave my armpits, but I shave my
legs. I don't know what that says about
me.... 



M E L I S S A

You can be whatever you want. 


E M M A

I want permission to be the contradiction
of having long armpit hair, but having
smooth legs. 



M E L I S S A

You can do whatever you want with your
body. 


E M M A

...And with your mind.

When I'm reading a book on set, some
people will come up to me and ask, "You
read?" And I say: “What part of that is
surprising? Because I'm an actress?
Because I have blonde hair? What is it that
literally stopped you in your tracks to be
shocked that I can read and do read, that's
really crazy.”

And they're like, "Well it just didn't seem
like you would read." So, I ask "why?" And
no one can really give me an answer. I
always find that interesting. I would
actually assume somebody reads before I
would assume that they don't read. Being
an actress, I think that people are just
surprised that you do anything else. 



M E L I S S A

Yeah, it would be nice if one day they would
be like, "Oh, I'm so sorry, that was just my
own entrenched sexism." I think the more
that you embody those contradictions, the
more you embody the things that are
dictated on either side of that false binary
and the more conscious you are of how
profoundly it's inside of people and it forms
the way they look at things.

All the time, even with both of my books it
was like, "Oh, you write memoirs. Oh you
write about sex, you write about
relationships, you write about your
childhood.”

Even friends of mine - after reading both of
my books - would almost surprisingly say,
"Hey, that was really good." 


E M M A

People's reactions will never cease to
amaze me. 



K A R A H

I think people are also very uncomfortable
with- 



E M M A

Other people being comfortable. 


K A R A H

Yeah, well that and also just ambiguity in
general. 



M E L I S S A

People are really uncomfortable admitting
that they don't know something or even
changing their minds about things but that's
another soapbox I can get on.

You're allowed to change your mind. It
doesn't make you a hypocrite. It just makes
you... 


E M M A

Oh! THAT'S why, in the book, you say: "I
don't believe in hypocrites…” 



M E L I S S A

When I was younger, I remember being in
my MFA program with other young writers
and other writers feeling like: “ugh, memoir,
writing isn't supposed to be therapy.” and I
would agree with them

And then I went and wrote a memoir and I
was like “this is an aesthetic work of art, like
this is an intellectual work and also it is
totally cathartic. So scratch that out, high
art can be therapy and it often is.” 


E M M A

I love memoirs, and not even purposely - I
accidentally love memoirs. The past three
books I've read have been memoirs, and
they are the most beautiful kind of art to
me. I definitely get more inspiration from
reading a memoir than I do reading a
novel. I love novels, but in a different way. 



K A R A H

First of all, why are we doing this -
Making it a thing where one type of writing
should be better? That's bullshit. We've
reached a point, culturally, where it's like
“thank you for writing!” At least you're
writing and not doing something else.. 

E M M A

On another note... What kind of notebook
and pen do you use? Do you write notes on
the computer? 



M E L I S S A

I write on the computer when I start
drafting. On the first day of class, when I
teach, I make all of my students take out
their pen and notebook. And I say, "I'm not
shaming you, but if you want to be a writer
in any capacity, these are your tools and you
should know which ones you like best. So, if
you didn't pick that notebook and that pen
specifically, your first homework
assignment is to go to the stationary store
and try out pens and try out notebooks and
find the ones that you love."

My everyday pen is a Pilot G2, I like to say
it's the Toyota of pens. Very reliable, there's
no cap...It's not even fancy. I also like an
EnerGel. I have one in my bag. I like
Decomposition notebooks. 


K A R A H

Oh yeah, we love those. 


M E L I S S A

I use Decomposition notebooks for specific
things. I have a system of notebooks, but I
also like the slim Moleskine. That's sort of
the half size, but they're very soft and fold-y. 


---


K A R A H

Do you write things down? Are you a note
taker? 



M E L I S S A

Yes. Be very suspicious of the writer who
you interview who is not a note taker. 


E M M A

My phone shattered two weeks ago and I
lost every note I ever wrote on my phone. 



K A R A H

She's [Emma] like "Do you have any of my
notes on your phone?" I'm like, "Why the
fuck would I have your notes on my phone?" 



---


E M M A

Wait, the last thing I'm going to ask you
about is The Book of Hours. Why is that a
must read? 



M E L I S S A

I think it's a must-read because they are
beautiful poems and Rilke is a master poet.
For me so much of this book is about
teasing apart that deep, intrinsic longing
that we have for love - like to be loved and
to be loved in a perfect way. Our whole
culture is obsessed with it, but I think
individually we're pretty obsessed with it
too. It’s just like you want to be known
entirely and have a lover who intuits all of
your needs and meets them perfectly.

I think when you read The Book of Hours,
it's not the only book that addresses this,
but it does it pretty well. It's naming that
need and that longing, but the subtitle of it
is “Love Poems to God.” And so for me, I
was rereading that book while writing this
book and living this book and I thought “oh
shit, that's right, God or God in a big sense, -
whatever that means to you - that's not the
kind of love we can expect from any other
human. No human is ever going to do that
for any of us. 


---


K A R A H

This goes back to my favorite thing that
you wrote in your book that I think is the
hardest lesson, at least in my experience,
“why is it so hard to hurt without leaving?”

How do you teach kids the lesson: “you're
going to be uncomfortable in your life, but
don't wig out!” 



M E L I S S A

Yeah, honestly, I think that's basically what
I teach. We call it creative writing. 


E M M A

But it's really how not to freak out in the
world. 



M E L I S S A

It really is the most valuable thing I feel
like I can teach my students. It’s the oldest
lesson. The first lesson. It's like the first
noble truth of Buddhism - there's going to
be suffering, and that's okay. It’s
mandatory. It's included. It doesn't mean
you're broken. It doesn't mean that you're a
victim necessarily - it's just part of it. You're
going to hurt, and you can survive that.

I feel like writing is really good practice for
that because it's so uncomfortable and you
have to stay with it through the discomfort
and you do come out the other side if you
just don't stop. You have to go through that
so many times writing a book. Just staying
in the discomfort and keep moving through
it. Then it passes and then you feel jubilant
and you feel like a genius... 


E M M A

And what doesn't kill you goes in your
memoir. 



M E L I S S A

There’s an exercise I do with my students
where I make them make eye contact for a
solid minute where it's spectacularly
uncomfortable for them, and afterwards
they're giddy because they're like “oh,that’s a
really hard thing. I did it!” 


E M M A

As you say in your book, “For most people,
that kind of sustained eye contact only
precedes violence or sex.” Eye contact is
hard for a lot of people. Confusing as well. 



M E L I S S A

I do that exercise all the time. I do it when I
give lectures. I do it at readings sometimes.
I do it with almost every class of students I
ever teach, because I feel like, inherent in
that exercise, is a little tiny taste of the
promise that you can survive suffering. 


K A R A H

It's just crazy, we live in a world where
everything that we do is to avoid that. 



E M M A

I want to start doing this thing where my
boyfriend and I - at the end of every day -
take turns picking a song and you have to
dance through the whole song looking at
the other person and not talk. I pick a song
one day, you pick a song and you can't sing
along. You just dance and look at the other
person. 



M E L I S S A

That's so cute. 


K A R A H

That's hell. 


E M M A

I'm not saying I’m a good dancer or a good
music picker. I'm bad at both. I just thought
it would be interesting if maybe one day it's
a piano song and maybe the next day it's a
pop song or a rap song. It could be
anything and you just have to look at the
other person and make it work. 



M E L I S S A

I think that's a perfect exercise. We are so
habituated to wanting to check out of any
kind of intimacy or vulnerability. But if you
do that exercise every day, it could be
interesting. 


E M M A

We still haven't done it yet. I really want to.
I think it'd be good. 



M E L I S S A

Yeah. I remember I once suggested to an ex
of mine in a failing relationship, that I
thought we should sit facing each other with
our knees touching and tell each other
something we appreciate about each other- 


E M M A

I love that. 


M E L I S S A

... and he was like "I'm never doing that."
Are we still together? No…

Intimacy is uncomfortable. It asks
something of you and if you have the option
not to be vulnerable, you probably won't be.
Then what is lost is intimacy, which is
actually what makes life worth living.

When I turned 30 I started asking myself all
the time, "Am I going to be glad I spent this
time doing this when I am dying? Do I want
to have spent all that time watching TV with
my partner or do I want to spend some time
telling them what I appreciate about them
and making eye contact?”

In the moment, I don't want to do it, but
afterwards I'm really, really glad I did. Just
like writing. I never want to do it, but I'm
always glad I did. 


K A R A H

Whoa. 


E M M A

Thank you. 


---

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