HER KIND: Alice Walker once noted, “People do not wish to appear foolish; to avoid the appearance of foolishness, they are willing to remain actually fools.” Have you ever tried to cover up acts of foolishness?
Lillian Ann Slugocki: Whenever I think of the fool, I think of the tarot card. I think of a person so entranced by the world around her— she might not be watching where she’s going, she could fall off a cliff, if she’s not careful. But it’s also the card of infinite possibilities. As a writer, I’ve learned to embrace the fool. Every time I write something, whether I post it on Fictionaut, Facebook or on Tumblr, I’m always walking that fine line between feeling like a fool and feeling like an artist. And I think it’s in that context, that I’ve tried to cover up my foolishness, quickly deleting something I’ve posted, or wishing that I could delete it. On the other hand, I like that risk, that excitement— I risk being a fool every day because every day I might say or do or write something that could be considered foolish, but honestly that’s the fun of life.
Deborah Oster Pannell: You know, I always think I’m the only one who goes through these things. I’ll get these bursts of energy and inspiration, and write furiously, racing to keep up with what seems like an endlessly expanding idea, before it all dissipates. Sometimes I can catch it, and come away with a beautiful poem, or a section of prose that will work for one of my book projects, or a solid piece of a plan. Other times it’s crap. Hopefully I’ll recognize the difference, because chances are, I will probably publish or share some part of this with more people than I will feel comfortable about after the fact. The thing is, I do believe this keeping one’s self off balance thing is essential to my creativity. Of course there’s always going to be the risk of going completely off the rails. That’s part of it, right? As Lillian says, that IS the fun of life.
I’ve begun to realize that the real foolishness in all of this is the moment I hit delete. The moment I allow that impulse of “no, I can’t say that, I can’t do that,” to take over. Those are the moments I really regret. I end up feeling like I’ve torn away something precious from myself, which I can never get back. How do I cover that up? I don’t think I try to cover it up outwardly, as I am relentless in my continuing acts of self-exposure. If there’s any cover-up, it’s internal. I will try to pretend to myself that it doesn’t matter. That may be the most exquisite foolishness of all. Because there’s no way to hide from those feelings. In the end, they always come back, haunting, pressing…
HK: Who are favorites fools you’ve read? Written?
LAS: I think of Lucy Ricardo, the Marx Brothers, Abbot and Costello, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Mae West. I think of the Hopi tricksters like Mud Head and Hano the Glutton, I think of Falstaff, Pan, I think of exaggeration, slipping on a banana peel, I think of schtick, and Bozo the Clown, Didi and Gogo, Pozzo and Lucky, the court jester, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, the underdog that you root for, the ridiculous character that you love because it encompasses your own insanity, your own foolishness. I’m a big believer in the practical joke: the whoopie cushion, the exploding cigar, and Jerry Lewis. Being a fool, is the place we subvert the hierarchy, make fun of the world, and in so doing, make fun of ourselves.
Deb, you told me a story today on the phone, an example of when you were the fool. And I’m sure you wouldn’t want me repeating it here, but the story was genuinely funny, and I could certainly relate. It was of a scatological nature, and this is also one of the defining elements of being “foolish” in the classical sense. I’ve been laughing about it all day. I love people who can make fun of themselves, laugh at themselves, and I certainly like heroes in literature who can do the same. My mother liked to tell this story about filling out a job application, as a young immigrant, fresh off the boat, in the wilds of Midtown Manhattan. Her hat was on backwards, and when she came to section where she had to list her sex, she crossed out male and female, and wrote “no.”
In modern literature, I’ve really loved reading the fools in the work of Jonathan Lethem, David Sedaris, Amy Sedaris, and certainly Jonathan Ames. And I would argue that Hannah in Girls is almost the perfect embodiment of the fool. In The Blue Hours, my novel published in 2012, the protagonist, in search of her sexuality, is never afraid to make a fool of herself in her quest for the perfect orgasm, the perfect man, because how else would we ever achieve any greatness, if we never acknowledge our innate exquisite foolishness?
DOP: As I work more on fiction, and particularly as I am structuring my short stories into a collection, I am really conscious of the thin line between comedy and tragedy, especially as embodied by the fool. Comics like Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, even Jim Carrey, harbor such sadness behind their humor. And then there’s this now legendary set by comic Tig Notaro when she went onstage last summer and talked about her cancer diagnosis, the death of her mother and her breakup… believe it or not, one of the most mind-blowingly funny things I’ve ever heard. There’s something about unflinchingly honest, autobiographical work that really speaks to me, particularly when the writer is able to look back over the years of his or her life and not take it all so seriously. In that vein, I actually adored Stephen King’s book, “On Writing…” It’s my favorite book about the craft to date.
As for literary fools, the first one that came to mind was Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. Truly a fool, and sympathetic even as he was quite repulsive. I find this kind of character appealing in an almost hypnotic, can’t-look-away-from-the-car-crash kind of way. I remember when I first read this book – I was pulled in by his vulnerability, at the same time as I was totally skeeved out by his behavior.
The second one I thought of was the character of Nathan Glass in Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies. I particularly love this story of a fool who finds redemption, almost by accident. He kind of stumbles into it, but knows enough to make the most of what comes his way. Redemption stories are probably my favorite – the leveling impact of seeing the universality of imperfection embodied in the tale of one person’s very flawed existence. The more flawed, the better…
LAS: In the spirit of this conversation, or inspired by it, I deliberately played the *fool* the other day on twitter. A male author had posted tweets about his book events across the country and in New York City. He claimed he’d be “signing tits and slapping asses.” His book is about his no holds barred sexual exploits. He tweeted that he was going to explain the difference between bitch and cunt. I tweeted back, Waiting to hear you parse the difference. He invited me to his book event, and I wrote that I couldn’t attend because I had a heavy BDSM session that night, but wished him luck. I was laughing the whole time. I mean I really was having fun, partly at my own expense, but I knew on some fundamental level that I was seriously ruffling this feathers.
And that made me realize that as a writer of erotica for almost 15 years that I’ve been playing the fool there as well. Through a thinly veiled persona, I willingly exposed myself, both literally and metaphorically to again, subvert the hierarchy, which to my mind had said, good girls aren’t raunchy, good girls don’t write so explicitly about their sexuality because if you do, you will be in trouble. And of course there has been a fair amount of backlash over the years over this— people who didn’t understand that I was *playing* that I was deliberately upending long-standing conventions to make my point. That backlash has included male interviewers who figured I’d be an easy lay, people who assumed I had some secret, inner knowledge about sex (I don’t) family members who shunned me, and even losing jobs because all anyone had to do was Google my name and my whole *shameful* history would be revealed. The fact that I wrote feminist erotica was a distinction few people seemed to understand. But that’s alright with me. It’s now clear to me its been one long, wild ride of “exquisite foolishness.”
DOP: Lillian, I, too have been drawn to write about things considered improper or inappropriate for *polite discussion*. In addition to sex, I find myself exploring the themes of death and grief and sorrow and trauma, often with an approach that some may consider blunt or irreverent. And I say “find” because it’s not always intentional. I experience my most creative writing as a kind of surrender to an unconscious flow… I’m often holding on for dear life, typing or writing furiously as it pours out of me, trying to catch it before it dissipates. Of course later, I go back and do the necessary shaping and editing. But the impulses come from some deep place that I’m not really sure I understand. No, scratch that, I know I don’t understand…
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the act of creation as a kind of audacious madness. The sheer thought of taking an idea and making it into something that can be perceived by others – a story, a painting, a song or a play (or some as yet unnamed art form)… there’s always a risk that someone is going to laugh at you, or castigate you in some way. How dare she say that! No one’s ever done that before? Just who does she think she is? What a fool!
So when it comes to the concept of “exquisite foolishness,” I think of giving in to impulses and feelings that may not necessarily be rational. However, I think this is the place where our greatest stories reside. The terrain that you cover in much of your work is to me, the home of the most complicated desires and urges that hold powerful influence over all of our lives – think about the way whole empires have been lost over the pursuit of some forbidden passion! I consider your writing very brave, precisely because you just go there… regardless of what it took to get those words organized and recorded, and what price you may have paid before, during or after the fact, you still put it out there. I continue to be inspired by your work.
LAS: It might be true that every woman pays a price to have a voice. It might be true that every women who writes is exquisitely foolish. If the job of the fool in the classical sense is to subvert the hierarchy, in other words, poke fun at the king, isn’t every word we write doing just that? Women are not supposed to have a voice. We’re just not. I was told: learn to type. But not your own words, someone else’s. I remember so clearly a conversation with my mother, on the front porch. A small town in the Midwest, and probably summer. I was trying to explain to her what I wanted to do with my life. I said: I really want to be a writer. And she said: You can’t build a life on that. At least get some secretarial skills. I said: No. I’m not going to be a secretary.
I remember this conversation so clearly, because she didn’t have a voice, and probably couldn’t imagine a world where I would have one either. It is still a struggle. For many reasons. But that decision to fly in the face of convention, to not be a wife, or even a secretary, but only a writer, is and has been for me, one long act of exquisite foolishness. And again, and again, I return back to the image of the fool in the tarot deck. At nineteen, standing on the front porch with my mother, I was looking up at the sky and the clouds, and not at the road ahead of me. And thank God for that.
Yesterday I posted on Facebook a black and white photograph of three clowns, which I’m attaching with this conversation. They are vagabonds, they are tramps, dirty and scruffy, but there is something so endearing about them. There is the possibility of innocence, but also mayhem:
“You could be Anna Karenina again, but not a trashy mash-up. Instead of throwing yourself on the tracks and dying, Benito, a maintenance worker, rescues you at the last minute. As he pulls you to safety, his dark eyes blaze a trail through your heart. You find yourself in a supply closet off the main gate. He’s about to fuck you blind, but you don’t mind. He’s stupid, but that doesn’t bother you either. As he roughly unbuttons your silk blouse and rips off your expensive jewelry, you muse that fucking is better than dying. That would be a revelation worthy of your illustrious name. So you don’t fall in love, not at all. But at least you are not pulverized beneath the wheels of a locomotive” (Am I Anna Karenina).
I think its exquisite foolishness to want to re-write one of the seminal female protagonists in Western literature. I do the same with Blanche DuBois. But I do this, I like to play with this, in this spirit of subverting the hierarchy, because they are women written by men. Famous women. Women we all know, and maybe even love. But as As Adrienne Rich writes in “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision, “ She goes to poetry looking for her way of being in the world, she comes up against something that negates everything she is about, she meets the image of Woman in books written by men.”
I think its exquisite foolishness to be a writer. To be a woman. To be a mother.
HK: Do you find clowns endearing? When are they not?
LAS: I find clowns as tramps or hobos endearing. Like Emmett Kelly, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton. Like the image I sent Deb the other day. Circus clowns are scary; orange hair, red lips, giant flower, big feet. They seem to belong more to the tradition of the Lords of Misrule. Maybe they’re the id. The stuff of nightmares. I wouldn’t want a circus clown in my face. Not at all. But the tramp/hobo model has a kind of innocence. Charlie Chaplin isn’t going to scare you, but he will point out your foibles. I still think the Three Stooges are hysterical, I like that slapstick humor, but even they ooze a bit of mayhem, just lurking beneath the surface. And Night at the Opera by the Marx Brothers, has withstood the test to time, those guys were just geniuses. They’re not scary circus clowns at all, more like a pack of wild wolves with a sense of humor.
DOP: I know many people have had traumatic experiences with clowns as kids, but I don’t recall them ever being frightening to me. I know it’s become a real cultural reference point. My son likes to watch these Disney programs, and there’s one called “Kickin It” featuring an ensemble of kids who train together at a dojo. One of the main characters has a huge clown phobia and they trace it back to this flashback of his 5th birthday party. The hired clown is an aggressive drunk who, to the horror of the kids, collapses in front of them. They think he’s dead, until he wakes up and announces that he just hyperventilated from blowing up too many balloons. The sight of the seemingly dead guy rising up again sends all the kids running, screaming from the room.
Yes, this is the kind of dark humor that permeates pre-teen television writing these days, and it makes me think about the loss of innocence behind the image of the smiling, silly, Ringling Brothers circus clown image. Beyond the melancholy of the smile, though your heart is breaking expression of the sad clown, embodied by Pierrot, Pagliacci or even that drawing of the big-eyed clown kid in Paris, there is a sinister, macabre element associated with clowns that is disturbing and frightening. The stuff of nightmares – the terrors of seemingly normal places like supermarkets, or playgrounds, or your own home, their images no doubt imprinted by their proliferation in horror movies…
Lillian, you mentioned that there is an exquisite foolishness to being a writer, a woman, and a mother. I think this is symbolized so poignantly by the absurdity of the joyful clown face, masking so much hidden grief and violence. When I think about what it takes to write, to create, amidst the myriad responsibilities of being not only a grown woman, but also a mother, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That I am able to be prolific against the backdrop of Disney channel situation comedies, video games, and yes, videos of video game play with audio commentary by the players… it’s nothing short of a little miracle, each time.
I’m pretty sure Virginia Woolf had no idea to what extent we, the women of her future, would have to go to find some kind of virtual room of our own in which to craft a creative existence.
LAS: It is absurd, Deb, and it is also exquisite. It’s transpersonal. I’m incredibly grateful to VIDA for the opportunity to have this conversation with you, in a public forum. This has been our room for a week. And I’ve really had fun. One week to explore the fool, one week to be foolish, funny, wise, articulate, but most importantly, one week to have a voice. As I close out this last piece of the conversation, it’s getting ready to snow here in Brooklyn. I have to walk the dog, and have another cup of coffee. But I’m reluctant to close the door of this room, to leave this virtual space. To say good bye to the clowns, the fools, the hobos, the tramps. But hey it’s almost April, and that opens the door to another possibility.
Deborah Oster Pannell is a freelance writer, project manager and event producer who focuses on the arts, innovative & socially responsible business, entrepreneurship, health, wellness, healthcare advocacy and spirituality. She is the founder of Project Mavens, a newly formed content development, event production and media relations firm. Her blog, She Says Yes, features profiles and interviews with notable figures in the arts community, and personal essays on love, loss and parenting. She authors the young entrepreneur interview series at under30ceo.com, and has written about iconic NYC venues and events for evenwtist.com, where she was the Director of Communications. She is also a regular contributor at modernlifeblogs.com and lizkingevents.com, where she writes about life, art and event production. Some of her recent fiction and poetry can be found at fictionaut.com. She is a Smith College graduate, DJ, musician, devoted foodie and the mother of a 10-year-old son.
Lillian Ann Slugocki has created an award-winning body of work on women and sexuality, including fiction, non-fiction, plays, and monologues that have appeared Off-Broadway, on NPR and WBAI radio, and online at Salon. Her work has been reviewed in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Art in America, The New Yorker, The Daily News, The New York Post, Time Out, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph,and The London Sunday Times. Her blog The Velvet Chamber, reframing the female narrative through myth and fairy-tale, was profiled on Jezebel.com. Her short erotic fiction has been published by Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann Press, American Theatre Magazine and fictionaut.com. The award-winning, The Erotica Project, written in collaboration with Erin Cressida Wilson, was produced Off-Broadway at Joe’s Pub/The New York Shakespeare Festival, and later staged in San Francisco, Seattle, Charlottesville, and London, and published by Cleis Press. Her novella, The Blue Hours, was published by Newtown Press, Summer 2012, and profiled on Beatrice.com. The Big Book of Orgasm, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussell, Cleis Press, will include her story, “Are You Ever Allowed to Feel This Good,” Fall, 2013. Lillian has also written on arts and culture for The Brooklyn Heights Blog and Dumbo NYC. She holds an MA in feminist theory and writing from The Gallatin School at NYU.