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“Really Hard Questions”: Chelsea Martin in Conversation with Colin Winnette

by Colin Winnette
January 24th, 2018

Chelsea Martin is tough. She’s also funny as hell. That’s a tension at the heart of her first book-length work of nonfiction, Caca Dolce, and something I encountered when interviewing her at East Bay Booksellers in Oakland. It’s something she captures in an exchange from a later essay in the book—a boyfriend asks a teenaged Chelsea if she thinks the band The Darkness is joking or totally serious, and her answer is something along the lines of a shrug and, “I don’t know. Probably both.” Dismissive, a little manipulative, joking, and right fucking on.

It’s tempting to call Martin’s work ironic, or detached, and I’m not saying it’s not those things, but it’s also kind of not those things at all. She writes about her relationship with her estranged father with honesty, sincerity, and longing—all the while grinning, maybe just a little bit. She writes about her resistance to a diagnosis of OCD and Tourette’s with quiet rage, dissatisfaction, curiosity, and pure humor. Every insight she offers into her early life—into what it’s like being a broke teenager in a verbally abusive household, what it’s like to experiment with drugs and discover your own power only to feel it becoming a weapon that can be used against you—feels both universal and extremely specific to who she is, to what she’s been through. That’s the brilliant success of this book—it facilitates a connection with another person, someone we hardly know going in, and it starts to feel more like a memory than sympathy extended, or even empathy.

Chelsea Martin and I met live at East Bay Booksellers in Oakland on September 26, 2017 to talk about her book. This interview is from the transcription, which has been shortened/edited for publication. All long pauses and awkward laughter has been removed.

—Colin Winnette

COLIN WINNETTE: This is sold as a collection of essays, but it covers the span of your early life, your upbringing, coming of age, and so I wonder: why is this a collection of essays instead of a memoir?

CHELSEA MARTIN: I consider that a marketing thing. I didn’t really have a major role in how it was described. I wanted it to be a collection of essays where each storyline could be contained.

CW: They still accumulate, but in a more interesting way than just telling a straightforward story. The different Chelseas resonate with one another, they create an atmosphere, and in a way that feels natural, less forced for the sake of the book.

CM: Yeah. I don’t do the like, “This led to this, and this was why this happened.” That doesn’t feel real and isn’t how I experience things. And I wanted each different Chelsea to be able to navigate her own world without having to also speak to a larger narrative.

CW: There’s this obsession with language in the book. The different Chelseas are constantly reflecting on the accuracy of a phrase or a word. Like, this phrase didn’t seem quite right. Or that’s the wrong word.

The only way to get a restraining order against your father, for example, was to make the case that his behavior constituted domestic violence, but the narrator thinks that domestic violence sounds too melodramatic.

CM: I think you’re getting at definitions, maybe.

CW: Maybe. I’m trying to get at your relationship to language, which is complicated, and I’m having trouble expressing it, I think.

CM: I never thought about it.

CW: You never thought about it?

CM: I don’t know.

CW: But… you obsess over it. It’s all through the book.

CM: Well, you want to be able to describe yourself, especially as a kid or teenager. You want to find the words that are your own words that you can use to define yourself and to tell people who you are. When I was going through the stuff with my dad and thinking about terms like restraining order and domestic violence, I was really just searching for a way to define what I was going through. I didn’t really understand what it meant to disown a parent or not want to have a parent in your life. Even the word parent was confusing to me because my father came into my life so late in my teen years. What are the words that you use to describe this whole weird situation?

CW: Were there moments when you were writing the book when you felt like you had found the right words?

CM: Yeah. I mean it wasn’t one of my goals while writing, but yeah. I think I’ve been able to express some of the more complicated feelings I had.

CW: You’re also a visual artist. A painter, a sculptor, a pin maker.

CM: Pins? I don’t know where you’re getting that.

CW: No? You don’t make pins?

CM: No.

CW: Well, you’d be great at it. But you do paint?

CM: Yeah.

CW: Do you feel like there’s an interaction between your writing and your visual art? Is that another way of getting at the definitions you’re looking for.

CM: That’s a big one. I don’t know. Yeah. Probably. Pass.

CW: Okay. There’s a lot of yearning in the book, and often writing and visual art seems to help you obtain that desired thing, if in a skewed way. Like the guy you had a crush on in driver’s ed. There’s this passage where you describe drawing him. You make a video of him, take stills from the video, and you draw his face. You say it was almost like you were touching him over and over again. I thought it was beautiful, and it spoke to that weird way that art can fulfill desire—or bring a desired thing or feeling closer than it could ever otherwise be. Do you think of art in that way?

CM: These are really hard questions.

CW: I really liked your book. It made me think about a lot of things.

CM: I can see that. The thing about writing or making art is that I’m not thinking about that stuff while I’m doing it. Like the driver’s ed kid, in retrospect I see that that was meaningful, and I felt close to him in that way, but at the time I just thought it was fun to draw, and that’s all it was. I think that’s what’s weird about life and about making art. You have to talk about it later. I guess I should be prepared to talk about it now. That is why I’m here. But again, pass.

CW: Has it been hard to talk about this book?

CM: I hate it so much. I don’t like talking in the first place. I think it’s crazy that writers are expected to talk publicly about what they’ve already written about. I don’t have public speaking skills. I write because I express myself better on paper. Interviews make me feel very put on the spot. It takes me a long time to consider a question and come to an honest and coherent answer. And when I’m trying to do that in front of a bunch of people, I feel like I don’t know what I’m thinking or feeling, so it’s just hard. You should’ve sent me notes or something.

CW: But you’ve been talking about this book a lot! Doing interviews, teaching classes on the essay. Is it always this painful?

CM: Yeah. I do a little better with email interviews. I can take my time, figure out what I’m saying. This is pretty painful. I completely don’t remember your question.

CW: Um, you’ve been doing this a lot to promote the book. Is it different for you every time?

CM: I try not to repeat myself too much or develop canned answers.

CW: This all feels very spontaneous.

CM: It’s uncomfortable to just say the first thing that pops into your head, but you have to when you’re speaking in front of people. A lot of times I’ll say something I don’t even believe. I’ve never actually used “pass” before. Last night, you were talking about someone else you interviewed that kept passing. I thought that was a great idea.

CW: Oh yeah, as soon as I said it, I realized: it’s such a powerful tool. What have I done?

CM: I’m really sorry. We can stop whenever.

CW: [Holds up stack of pages.] But look at all these questions!

CM: I’m gonna try to do good from now on.

CW: You’re doing great. Let’s hear it for Chelsea!

[Audience applause]

CM: Just kidding. I’m not gonna do better.

CW: Did you change these characters’ names? The people from your life?

CM: Some of them, yeah.

CW: What was that process like?

CM: I talked to a lawyer. The lawyer told me what I needed to change.

CW: Is Goth Ryan a real name or a fake name?

CM: I’m legally obligated not to tell you.

CW: Did you reach out to people in the book?

CM: No.

CW: Okay, what is a chocolate cafe?

CM: A chocolate cafe is just a cafe that specializes in chocolate drinks. Different kinds of mocha or hot chocolate. Also, chocolate bars.

CW: There’s a very Chelsea Martin maneuver in one of the later essays where you describe something significant happening then just drop in, “…at the chocolate cafe.” And I thought, “Wait, what chocolate? What’s a chocolate cafe?” You just drop it in and move right past it.

CM: I guess I just thought it was obvious.

CW: There’s this tactic in the book of taking enormous life events and talking about them very matter of factly, then taking very brief exchanges or “minor moments” and obsessing over them in this nesting doll kind of way, where there’s layer after layer of self-examination. I don’t have a question about it. I’m just hoping you’ll talk about that tactic: obsessing over minor things and moving as quickly as possible past the major.

CM: I don’t know.

CW: Okay. There’s a lot of strength in this book. Reading it, I kept thinking, “Fuck, I don’t know what I would’ve done in this situation,” but you not only survived them, you seemed to have found a meaningful way of talking about them. Not that they created the perspective you bring to them, but you were able to apply it to difficult subjects and experiences. Which is hard, I think. I want to avoid spoiling the book by going into specifics, but…

CM: Everybody read it.

CW: Raise your hand if you read it.

[Pause]

CW: Okay, a lot of people did. Your mom is here tonight, and she admitted to me last night that she hadn’t read it yet.

Audience Member: Not all of it.

CW: Is there anything you’d like to say to her, Chelsea, before she picks up her copy tonight and starts reading it?

CM: No, thank you.

CW: I feel like I really biffed this interview. What’s your favorite essay in the book?

CM: Hmm. The last time I was asked that, I said “A Year Without Spoons.” Normally you get asked the same questions over and over, so it feels boring to say the same thing. But then I was like, I don’t even know another essay I like. They’re all good.

CW: That’s the one where you decided to stop using spoons.

CM: I stopped using spoons.

CW: And it initially feels like this powerful decision. Like you have this control—sort of like Goth Ryan’s cutting scars—it was something you enacted upon the world, or yourself, in a very purposeful way. But it develops into this complicated OCD  thing, and then the experience of being diagnosed. And the power dynamic switches.

CM: That’s a different essay.

CW: That’s a different essay? Fuck.

CM: But it leads into it.

CW: It’s right before it, right? Wait, what’s the diagnosis one?

CM: It’s about my experience with that stuff before. Whatever. It’s kind of funny because I went to the doctor and got diagnosed with tourette’s, but I would never use that word.

CW: This is what I was talking about with the language.

CM: That was an instance where I was given a word to define my confusing experience, and I’m just like, “nah.”

CW: Like, I’ll find my own word thank you very much.

CM: Yeah. Or maybe I don’t need a word now that I know there is one.

CW: The doctor comes off as a little bit of a dick. He’s constantly recommending The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

CM: The lawyer was so worried about the doctor, because he seems so incompetent. Have you read it?

CW: The Oliver Sacks? No, I tried to read it a long time ago. It was way less interesting than Caca Dolce.

CM: That’s not true. Colin, I think you should write about yourself sometime. It’d be fun to banter about it.

CW: We could talk about how I failed at it.

CM: Have you tried?

CW: Yeah. But, for me, it never feels right. It feels leaden and unalive.

CM: Because you can’t make it up?

CW: I guess so. But I’ve always felt very emotionally invested in the fiction I write. It feels honest in that way. The two things feel really close to one another. But I’ve never felt emotionally invested in my own nonfiction. It feels farther away, even if I’m writing stuff I feel very strongly about. If that makes sense. For whatever reason, the prose never matches the feeling or something. Maybe I’m just bad at it. Or not interested enough in making it work. But in fiction, I feel it. It’s right there. And it feels urgent. It’s never work for me to write fiction. But I would say all the fiction I’ve written is extremely personal.

CM: I can see that.

CW: You’ve gone back in forth between the two, though. Do you feel like it’s a different experience emotionally, writing a novel versus writing essays about yourself?

CM: Yes. Very different. Because in fiction you can make up everything to create the feeling. You can manufacture a story with whatever tools you want. With nonfiction you have to rely on what actually happened to describe what you’re feeling. That’s hard. You have to know what will feed into the emotion you’re trying to convey. And that’s hard because you don’t necessarily know what causes your emotions.

CW: Did you view yourself as a character?

CM: Oh, for sure, yeah. They’re different characters in all the essays.

CW: You respected the mindset of the person you were at that time, instead of each essay having the feeling of you now looking back on who you were. The weight of present day Chelsea isn’t looming over everything.

CM: I really tried not to editorialize from my perspective now.

CW: There’s a part in one of the essays where you describe how the only thing that kept you in a bad relationship was a lifetime of convincing yourself that you didn’t want what you wanted most. By writing these stories, you relive these moments, go back to them and find what was interesting and valuable to you at the time, what you wanted (or weren’t getting), and then you turned it all into something interesting and valuable to us. Was there relief in revisiting these moments to affirm or acknowledge what you wanted at the time?

CM: One thing I thought about a lot while writing was; if it hadn’t worked out, would this even be a story? Would it have been a story if we didn’t end up dating? Would that have been anything? That applies to every story. I feel like it’s only interesting because of how it ended up, and it might have not been interesting. Am I answering it?

CW: I think so, a little bit.

CM: You’re asking, how was it to experience—

CW: —to re-experience.

CM: It was a weird thing, because I was re-experiencing these things that happened a long time ago, and I’m trying to relive it now, and I’m bringing all of my current motivations and personality into that which were not there at the time. It’s hard to remember exactly who I was when I was ten, fifteen.

CW: How did you do it?

CM: Listened to the music that I did at the time, read stuff I was reading at the time, tried to experience what I was experiencing then just to trigger whatever I was worried about.

CW: What were those influences? What books were you reading? What music were you listening to?

CM: I don’t know. I can’t remember.

CW: Any audience questions?

Audience Member: When you’re looking back on your life, obviously you have to sift through a bunch of stories. Were there ones you thought about and threw out, or maybe started to write and then thought: that’s not this book?

CM: There are a lot of stories I thought I would write, that I didn’t end up writing. On paper they didn’t have the momentum, or it was too complicated, or it involved too many things that aren’t my shit, and that I’d have to skip over.

Audience Member: So, you sifted through and chose the one where you felt like, “This is my shit.”

CM: Yes, I was trying to avoid other people’s shit as much as possible, trying to focus on my own shit. Thank you for the question, Mom.

Audience Member: You’re welcome.


Colin Winnette is the author of several books, including Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio) and Coyote (Les Figues). His latest novel, The Job of the Wasp, is out now from Soft Skull Press. He lives in San Francisco.

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