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An Interview with Caren Beilin

[Writer]
by Aaron Shulman
January 11th, 2019

“I would say it’s a privilege not to be paranoid.”

Things That Are Awkward:
Being an Artist
Making Art
Taking Yourself Seriously

I met Caren Beilin in 2007, when we both moved to Missoula, Montana to do our MFAs. We were both in our mid-twenties, and the first time I read her fiction for workshop I felt jealous. I loved her exquisitely out-there metaphors (from memory I’m recalling she somehow pulled off describing something as “Pluto jelly”) and was awed by her dark subject matter (abuse of all kinds) and even darker humor. Caren and I quickly became close friends, and nearly ten years since completing our degrees in Montana, we remain close, even as our lives have changed and geography makes seeing each other difficult. Like most writer friends, we’ve stayed connected in part through reading and responding to each other’s work. In 2012, Caren published the fiction chapbook Americans, Guests, or Us, and in 2014, the novel The University of Pennsylvania.This past March, Caren wrote to tell me that she had a new book coming out in the fall. She was thinking of titling it Aaron’s Wedding. And it wasn’t a novel. It was a memoir.

Oh boy, I thought.

In the summer of 2011, Caren had come to my wedding in Cordoba, Spain, where I was living at the time. I had recently heard of a new artist residency opening in a small town about an hour and a half from Cordoba, so I connected Caren to the people who ran it. Sure enough, they offered her a spot, so she flew to Spain and took up residence in an old Andalusian house for two months before my wedding.

The experience, let’s say, wasn’t what she expected or desired, and that’s what her new book published by Rescue Press in November is about: the bizarre, uncomfortable comedy of not fitting into small-town life in southern Spain (which was perhaps to be expected) or the artist residency (which perhaps wasn’t). But at the same time that’s not really what the book is about. Underneath the surface, the book is about family and pain, about living and making art as a woman, and about how to bend and derange words and syntax to assert power and anger when others try to rob you of it.

In the end, Caren decided not to call the book Aaron’s Wedding, which makes sense, since I don’t appear in it and neither does my wedding. Instead, she chose to title the book, simply, Spain.

—Aaron Shulman

THE BELIEVER: The first thing I’m interested in is how to read this novel. Is it about you? Is it about a character named Caren Beilin? Is it about some mix of those two?

CAREN BEILIN: I wanted Spain, initially, to be labeled autofiction. Autobiography and nonfiction, these are overdetermined spaces where you’re going to elaborate a meaning or convey a truth or transmit information. Something about autofiction seems like a space where you’re using autobiographical material, but you’re using it to play. Autobiography is the stuff you’re using to create an artistic impression. I was into that. Then Rescue Press, my publisher—they are wonderful, daring in what they publish, and savvy about the how—was more interested in this being nonfiction. They had this talk with me where they said, “It’s nonfiction, right?” I couldn’t look at anything in Spain and say, “No, I really made that up,” but the caveat is that it’s all coming through my paranoid perception.

I say it’s a necessitated paranoia. I’m very paranoid. I grew up with a very paranoid parent. I now enjoy the paranoid mode. I was a literature student who got into things like paranoid reading, thinking about the ways we have to train ourselves to be paranoid, to find the margins, the intent. A woman or anybody who experiences oppression based on how they are read in public is a paranoid person. That’s a necessitated paranoia. When I walk around, I have all kinds of paranoias going on. Survival mechanisms. I walk through my life and think, “Why is that person doing that? Are they following me? Are they trying to economically undermine me?” My experience is shaped by the horror-pneuma of possibility, and all the millions of gestures in this world that, if not enacting the pure horror sure point to it. I’m reading all the arrows.

This paranoid reading of the arrows leads to some maybe accurate perceptions and maybe also some really sad, abused, and morbid perceptions of what the world is like. I would say it’s a privilege not to be paranoid. For Spain, I was sitting in my paranoia. I don’t necessarily affirm that everything that I say happened did happen, but it was sometimes the sadness of how I had to read the situation.

BLVR: I remember your time in Spain pretty well. We went to visit you, you came to Cordoba. We talked and emailed while you were there. There are obviously scenes that you didn’t relate to me, but a lot of this book, you did. I think I got a little sense of it in real time. In the book, I got to reread your experience, but through the slant and syntax and the risks of your fiction writing. That was really cool for me because it felt like there’s a layering of Caren’s fictional voice on the nonfiction of her life.

CB: That was what got me started: the syntax. The engine or a certain kind of tactic or sentence pattern made me want to keep writing Spain. I didn’t want to write Spain out of a need to convey what happened to me in Spain because it’s super minor what happened to me in Spain. [Laughter.] I went to your wedding.

BLVR: You went to a weird writing residency in a weird town.

CB: I went to a writing residency while I was over there for your wedding and it was dysfunctional and super boring. I didn’t have any feeling like, “I have to tell this story. Everybody needs to know what happened to me, a young writer in Spain.” Nobody needs to know anything about that. But I was becoming exasperated with writing. The ways in which being asked to be a good writer felt like being asked to be a good woman, and a good person, and a really hopeful person, almost like somebody who would help the reader understand something or make some sort of important empathic connection. As a woman, I was just sick of doing shit for people. All of that connecting work. I was sick of being solicited to do that shit. As a writer, I felt, I don’t want to do anything anymore for anybody. I’m just so sick of my feminine service, my feminine servitude, like, “What do you think I have to give you?” And I was thinking back to workshops.

In that space, you get called upon to explain yourself more or, “But tease this out more. Flesh this out. Make that connection.” I felt angry at that. I had so much feminist rage at that point. I had spent four years in Utah doing a PhD in creative writing, which provoked a lot of feminist rage in me. I started to be like, “I’m just going to talk about the most boring thing, the most useless thing I’ve ever done because I’m sick of conveying meaning or grand things because first of all, I don’t feel like serving anybody anything. Also, I don’t think I have them. I’m not going to say that I have these things.”

I started writing sentences like, “Spain is like Spain, sheep is like sheep.” I was trying to write tautological metaphors. I wrote one, “A fire is like a daffodil on fire.” I had to build things that went nowhere. I started enjoying that. Spain, to me, was a series of funny stories I would tell. So I thought, “I’ve got this set of stories I’m always telling, I’ll use them as the vehicle to make more of this pissed off syntax that I’m into right now.”

BLVR: But there is a lot of conventional syntax. Obviously, you and I have such a different approach to our writing. I’ve always been challenged by your writing, wanting more things to hold on to, more linearity, easier syntax. Interestingly for me, I thought—and maybe just because the material was so dear to my heart—but I felt like there was such a wonderful balance here between me knowing what’s going on, feeling very connected to the character, but also the sentences spinning out in really strange, dislocating ways. It seems like you struck a balance by deconstructing form while at the same time using conventional form subversively.

CB: I started writing it maybe in 2016. You got married in 2011. So I had spent five years telling funny stories about Spain. Whereas in the University of Pennsylvania, my previous novel, I was very serious, “I will write the most lyrical juiced sentence you’ve ever read.” With Spain, I was more used to just telling these funny stories to people, and you know, for people.

BLVR: That makes sense. What I was also really interested by, and I’m not sure how much you’ve read this sort of stuff or how purposeful this was, but there is a sort of sub-genre about the foreigner falling in love with small-town life in Spain. There’s so much romance historically of writers loving the exoticism in Spain. I mean, I’ve lived a bit of that experience, though eventually it came just to be real life to me, with less romance. But I really loved how Spain was just a complete rebuttal of that literary genre.

CB: Yes, I’m laughing as I’m remembering because you and Elisa came and visited me in the pueblo. I was so desperate for people to come and stay there. I was like, “You guys could have an arts vacation!” and you both were just, “Bye.”

[Laughter]

BLVR: Sorry, we left you there.

CB: For me, it felt very elsewhere. The experience of language, of isolation, that I had wanted to have—actually Spain seemed against it, at least southern Spain seems really against introspective Robert Irwin style getaways. It’s such a social country.

BLVR: I think you have a line about just how uncomfortable people in southern Spain are with other people liking being alone. I definitely found that. In Spain, or at least in Andalucía, it sort of makes people feel somehow overwhelmed if they know that you’re alone and feel fine with that.

CB: I would be walking alone, enjoying a walk, and people would come out of their houses concerned. Being an artist is awkward, creating art is so awkward. It’s super awkward to be somebody who is working on something that isn’t dignified as productive. It’s so awkward to take yourself seriously. And southern Spain is just very social. Every time I was working at this residency, even the people running it would be like, “Are you okay? Do you want to go somewhere?” They hadn’t fully examined what working looks like. Working doesn’t look like experience.

BLVR: I would think especially writing because until much further on, you’re not creating a physical object or maybe you were never even creating a physical object. And so I think that is different than an artist creating an installation or doing something with wool, like one of the artists there. I think it can really be confusing for people.

CB: Yes. I was really failing. I was noticing that I was particularly failing as a young woman. I saw a male artist there being allowed to be a solitary figure, an interesting, solitary, introspective figure. I was not quite allowed that same space.

I was so inspired by Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen, which made microaggression a common term, all of a sudden, every undergraduate understood the concept of microaggression. One of my aspirations for Spain became, as I was writing and editing it, to think about it as a book that talks about the micro-aggressive behavior that women experience. Things that are not as overt, startling, and horrifying as a sexual assault, but these microaggressions (things like mansplaining) shape how we can even think about experience and what kinds of experiences we even want to engage in.

BLVR: I like the idea that you’re feeling read in a certain way that’s completely unfair when you’re out in the street, and so in this book, you’re reading back. Maybe it could feel like, well, if they read your book, they might be like, “Whoa, what’s all this? It was just a residency. You didn’t like it, we didn’t gel. So what?” But it feels fair that you’re reading their subtext back and you have every right to do that.

CB: I think it’s a very feminist project to record that you were there and that your mind was there. It’s often dangerous for people to actually out their presence and their understanding of what’s going on in the moment. Plus, it’s often impossible because even though you’re completely absorbing the moment, you’re completely being affected by the moment, you can feel the ways in which that moment is shaping you. It’s an injustice. Your articulation is a few years away. We can be shamed for not doing something about it in the moment.

Of course there’s so many reasons why people don’t completely appear and completely flash themselves in a moment and flash their perfect, beautiful presence all the time. It’s neat to be engaged in a feminist project of just flashing on and being like, “Yes, the shit was in me while you were saying this shit.” (Or in 2019, I might say, “It’s in my hippocampus, Motherfucker.”) It feels really, really important to remind people that the lights are on. That’s a way of saying years later, “I was there. I was there at that moment and I recorded it. I’m submitting my recording.”

BLVR: This is a more traditional memoir-related question. This book isn’t just about Spain. You talk about some very intense stuff with your family. Have they read it yet? How has that been?

CB: Probably different for different family members. My mom gave me her full blessing to write whatever I wanted about her. She’s a mom. She’s really supportive and loving and just wanted me to express whatever I want to express. It is a way for me to share that I’m here and looking at her and thinking about her. She’s painted as a pretty neat figure in the book. I talk about her life with disability as being very punk rock.

I have no idea if my dad will read the book. If he does, I doubt he would be very pleased.

BLVR: Is it about irreconcilable points of view, or about the person inflicting damage doesn’t get what they’re doing or they don’t care about what they’re doing?

CB: I think it’s about insanity. Our culture is extremely insane. This imperialist culture of ours is not reflective about power dynamics and the family can enact its billions of microcosms of that way we have of unreflectively torturing others and imparting our desires and perspectives on others. I wasn’t raised in a house where my perspective counted for much. God that house was so gaslit. I relish writing. I have to publish. It does feel like compulsion. I still—still angrily—have to push my goddamn perspective right out of that same house.

In Spain I write about my dad and some intense, and mysterious, things that occurred, but it’s mostly about my dad because it’s a joyfully pissed off book. I cultivated a lot of angry and glorious ecstasy around a difficult childhood and that’s the spirit of the book.

BLVR: It’s about your dad because of how having parents and being a child works. Everything you do is a little bit a thing your parents authored, as much as we might hate that.

CB: Yes, and just walking around pretty bent-up. [Laughter]

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