Blurring the Lines: An Interview with Michelle Orange


At Work

Orange300Last month I read a book by David Foster Wallace for the first time. (Dare I admit that? Not having read DFW is practically a sin in most literary circles; it was something that embarrassed me for years.) I finally read the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. When I finished the book, I was greedy for more essay collections in which the author gets me to read about something I didn’t realize I had any interest in.

Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life is exactly what I was looking for. While the author deserves comparisons to DFW and John Jeremiah Sullivan, she has her own distinct voice. Orange’s prose is animated by her innate curiosity and her convincing meditations on culture and her own life. I recently interviewed her via e-mail.

I was struck by the essay about your grandmother, in which you talked about the many ticket stubs she sent you on which she had scrawled short reviews. Movies, it seems, are more than a personal pleasure. It’s almost as if you genetically inherited the desire to watch cinema, to immerse yourself in the stories. Did you become a film critic partially because of your relationship with your grandmother?

There does seem to be something passed down about that kind of movie love, although in this case it skipped a generation—my mom is more of a special-event moviegoer. My father, though, is at least as devoted a movie-lover as my grandmother was, so I had it coming from several directions. What I sensed with my grandmother is that she seemed to need the movies as much as she loved them. Our trips to the Cineplex, where she would take seven-year-old me to see rated-R-for-mature-content movies like Night Shift, were the only time we spent alone together. They were memorable for that alone, but I think they embedded some of that need in me as well. She wasn’t interested in talking about a movie afterward. The pleasure was really in discovering and rediscovering that private response. Which is what made the ticket stubs so special to me—her effort to connect through this thing that we both loved so privately.

In “The Dream Girl Is Over,” you posit, “What if all life, but especially the part of it that involves consuming art and images, is in some sense a reminder?” Do you think that’s why those of us who are drawn to art, in whatever form we consume it, find some sense of recognition and familiarity in the work that we love?

There’s nothing better than encountering a voice that seems to have been living in your head, waiting for a microphone, or an interlocutor. It’s a feeling of being called. When art can make that connection it couldn’t be more personal.

Most of your essays are a blend of personal anecdotes and cultural criticism. Is that what you prefer to read, too? What are your thoughts on essays that are more memoir-driven?

It’s definitely something I’m drawn to in writers like Nicholson Baker, Vivian Gornick, and Geoff Dyer. I like to see how other people are managing in a world I can recognize. Raul Ruiz has a great line, in his preface to Poetics of Cinema, where he mentions that he’s not a scholar, and that he reads in zigzags, which is not without risk. He admits it’s possible that certain of his interpretations are “stretched or simply gratuitous. However, this book is a journey—and travelers should be aware that paths leading nowhere are also part of the trip.” I’m drawn to that, the “just come along for a ride, it could be cool” kind of attitude.

I think essay and memoir hang together in a balance. There’s any number of ways to strike it, but from Montaigne on down that balance seems key to their design.

Some of your essays are more journalistic in nature—in one such essay you visit Beirut, in another you attend the annual American Psychiatric Association conference in Hawaii. What inspired you to write about these topics?

My fascination with Beirut goes back to absorbing, as a kid, fragments of the tragic news coming out of this place called “the Middle East.” With the 2006 war I started thinking about Lebanon again. I remember reading the Ahmedinejad quote, which I use as an epigraph—essentially saying as it goes in Lebanon, so it goes for the Middle East. And Lebanon’s situation does seem to epitomize so many of the problems in the region. It seemed like a good place to try and gain a better understanding.

The development of DSM-5 has been in the news for years now, and I remember in particular reading about confidentiality agreements designed to keep the process secret. That seemed like a bad sign. I was intrigued by the power the APA wields in rewriting their manual of what’s normal and what qualifies as a mental disorder. It sounded like rich territory, and I wanted to try and learn more about how these decisions get made and what was at stake.

Where do the best essay ideas come from?

It seems important for an essay to spring from confusion. The best ones grapple with some kind of uncertainty and give it shape. Which is another way of saying they should come from a deep need to be written, as all the best stories do.

One of my favorite essays in your book is “Pixelation Nation,” in which you talk about Middlemarch and memory and how “looking through carefully curated Facebook albums one often senses the longing of the subject to remember herself the way she would have others do.” At one point you say “true memory is a forest; remembering is just the trees.” Do you think a picture’s worth a thousand words, as the cliché goes? Do we learn something different from movies and photographs than we do from prose?

There’s no quantifying a picture’s worth, that’s what makes them so crazy powerful. I appreciated Ben Lerner’s observation, in an interview, that the ability of the photographic image to represent the world in razor-sharp terms put a new pressure on the novel—to figure out what it can do that the image can’t. I think inundation puts a parallel pressure on prose, to capture what it feels like to live in an image-lined world. I must say I’m very excited by upcoming books apparently inspired by actual photographs—Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and Marisa Silver’s Mary Coin.

In “Do I Know You,” you say “Sometimes I worry that I’m actually most alive at the movies, and that their primeval overtures to our most private selves are the reason we can’t help but see them like lovers—which is to say everywhere we go, and in everyone we meet.” This is how I feel about movies and books, too. Is there a danger in watching too many movies or reading too many books? It’s kind of a sacrilege for me to even ask you that question, since I subscribe to Alberto Manguel’s belief. He says “Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function.”

One of my favorite books in school was The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox, about a young woman who expects in her own life the same level of adventure and incident she finds in her favorite novels. I think projection is a natural and unavoidable part of human interaction—and always was, before romance novels and romantic comedies. And brokering between one’s inner life and one’s place in the world and in other people’s lives is part of becoming a person. Art is designed to help us with that, but as with anything else it’s a matter of avoiding extremes. You might prefer to live in a book or a movie—and you can, for a while—but it’s so much more interesting to live in the space they open up between you and the world.

In “The San Diego of My Mind” you talk about how criticism, at first, was a good way to start out as a writer. Do you still believe that to be true?

I had been writing—essays, travel stuff, a little fiction—for a number of years before I started writing book and film criticism. What I hadn’t been doing was getting paid! So I was very lucky to find paid work as a critic and have the chance to work with great editors. Working for a public broadcaster, my first job, required a little bit of everything—writing, producing, directing, editing, shooting, slapping on a cowgirl outfit if the star needed a stand-in. Variety is a good way to learn. Criticism is not for every writer, but for me the variety was important. I needed discipline, as well as money, and I got some. Not enough of either, but that’s another story.

At the end of your book, you write about your relationship to e-mail changing. You don’t approach it the same way you once did. Why is that?

E-mail was this funny new thing for a while—nobody quite knew how it worked or what the parameters were. For those of us who didn’t grow up with e-mail but were still very young when it came along, it felt like inventing a new way to communicate as we went. It was also a way to expend energy that lacked some more immediate outlet—creative energy, romantic energy, writing energy. That is, if you were so inclined—and certainly in my life it seemed like everybody was. The books we wrote! The epic poems!

For me it was a matter of going from one extreme, no e-mail, to another, so much e-mail, and then trying to find a balance. I remember seeing one of those perfect tweets about the Atlantic story “Does Facebook Make Us Lonely?” Someone—probably several someones—replied, “More like: Does Lonely Make Us Facebook?” It got tricky. Having watched myself get caught up in many long, involved, often very rewarding but just as often merely tortuous e-mail campaigns, I chose to be more careful. It had started to feel like cheating on my own life.

I can’t stop thinking about a sentence in “Have A Beautiful Corpse,” where you write about “doomed performers” and our transfixion with celebrity deaths and suffering artists. You say, “The line between performer and performance is long gone. The line between performer and audience continues its slow fade.” I can’t help but connect these sentences with the image on the cover of your book, where a shadow figure holds on for dear life to another shadow figure falling out of the movie screen. Have we lost more or gained more from the blurring of these lines?

I like that you saw a movie screen! It’s actually a piece of paper from a diorama, but it can easily be a movie screen too. That’s such a hard question, I’m not sure there is a clear answer, except to say that those lines are blurring for a reason. We seem to want them blurred, which is a fascinating and perhaps troubling thing to want.