Q&A - My Missspent Youth
You say there’s a theme running throughout these essays. What exactly is it?
MD: I’ve always been interested in the way people use accessories. It seems that our culture invites us to collect accessories and take on affectations that, in some cases, can form a collective entity that becomes a substitute for actually having a personality. I talk about it in the Music Is My Bag essay. We can become tote bag versions of human beings: “cats are my bag,” “where I went to college is my bag,” “NPR is my bag.” We are all guilty of this to some degree. I’ve noticed that these expressions often take the form of products, of ways of decorating our houses, which magazines we choose to display on your coffee table and which ones we pretend we don’t read. Of course, that’s not a revelation. We’ve all heard the expression “you are your car.” But I’m intrigued by how much we rely on these expressions to do the work of having genuine opinions and tastes. And that’s what a lot of the pieces in this book are about.
Why is it that something like whether we have hard wood floors or wall-to-wall carpet in our homes says so much about us? At least in your opinion.
MD: This is one of the central questions of my life! Why is it that certain brand names like, for example, a Subaru station wagon become associated with people are likely to listen to public radio or vote for Democrats or wear colored tights rather than nude pantyhose? These are gross generalizations and they sound silly but they’re very often true. And that’s because of the way definitions of class in this country have shifted over the last few decades. Think about this: perhaps class is now less about money, per se, than about which accessories we choose to use as a means of expressions. The subject of socio-economic class is a loaded one (it’s really the last taboo) so inevitably people get angry when it comes up. But I find it endlessly fascinating and a ONE thread that runs through these essays.
The other thread in the book is perhaps more fundamental, a crisis that most of us experience to one degree or another, which is the problem of getting our real lives to be more like the lives we imagined for ourselves, the gap between reality and fantasy that we’re always trying to fill, if even in the smallest way. That theme is probably expressed more overtly in the book.
Let’s talk about some of the individual essays. The title piece, My Misspent Youth, caused quite a stir when it was first published in The New Yorker. You were very explicit about the debt you accrued while living in New York City. But you’ve said the piece ultimately isn’t about money. What is it about then?
MD: The chronicle of my debt was really a means of getting into a larger, more universal subject—not that debt isn’t fairly universal these days. The piece is really about my experience trying to live out a particular fantasy I had about being a New Yorker and being a writer in New York and how I was almost financially ruined by simply trying to live what used to be considered a modest lifestyle. Over the last twenty years, the economic situation in New York City, particularly as it’s reflected in the cost of real estate, created a situation where the very people who gave the city is creative and cultural cachet—the artists, the intellectuals, the bohemians—simply cannot afford to live there anymore. I find that immensely sad. The essay, to me, is really a valentine to New York. A sad valentine. Maybe even a “Dr. John” letter.
You dumped New York for Nebraska. To that end, your essay is often compared to Joan Didion’s famous homage to New York “Goodbye to All That,” which she wrote right before she left the city and returned to California. Was her essay a starting point for you?
MD: I am flattered at the comparison. But most of my inspiration for my essay came from Edith Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth,” which is about a young woman trying in vain to survive in turn-of-the-century New York in extremely class conscious circles. She dies at the end—guess she should have moved to Nebraska!
The subject of floor coverings seems to be a motif in these essays, most notably in the piece Carpet is Mungers. Can you explain the fixation?
MD: I wrote that one at the last minute, feeling like I needed a short, fun piece to round out the collection. It’s turned out to be the favorite of a lot of readers. It’s really a stand-up comedy routine. It’s not meant to be taken literally, as it’s obviously based on an absurd premise. What I tried to do was use carpet as a metaphor for the whole notion of “the other.” Again, I wanted to talk about how we channel our anxieties and fears through material objects and accessories. I also wrote it because I’ve had more than one conversation with friends about this odd aversion to carpet. One woman refused to move into her fiancé’s house until he removed the carpet from the study. Of course, the intention was to send up not only the idea of fixating on accessories but also expose how shallow we can be about it. As in much of my work, taking things too literally means you’re going to be offended. Interestingly, I was once a guest on a radio show in New York and the entire interview became about carpet and the phones were jammed with people were calling in to talk about how they related to this.
American Shiksa is another piece that seems to have its roots in stand-up comedy. Did you ever try it on stage?
MD: No, I’d be much too embarrassed—I’m a shiksa after all! But you’re right. That piece is a sustained joke. When it was originally published in GQ it ruffled a lot of feathers, which always sort of amuses me because short of wrapping the article in a Mylar bag and putting a big red label on it saying “this is a satire” I don’t see how it could be any more clearly tongue-in-cheek. In some respects I set out to write a sort of female version of Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint. The shiksa [the Yiddish word for a non-Jewish female] has always been a sort of silent, vacuous figure in literature and film, the idea being that she’s some kind of porcelain doll who is lacking in intellectual powers or at least doesn’t have the ability or willingness to express her opinions or engage in debate. So all I’m doing in this essay is kind of playing with that persona and exaggerating the various elements of the two cultures. I do think the shiksa is underrepresented in literature, at least from an authorial standpoint. So I’m only doing my part for the cause.
The first essay, On the Fringes of the Physical World is about an email relationship. In the wake of internet dating, this is something that’s become very common today. Has your perspective changed since you wrote the essay?
MD: On the Fringes was first published in The New Yorker in 1997 under the title “Virtual Love.” Now that internet dating seems to be the default mode of dating in general—no one looks up from their newspapers in the coffee shop anymore, they just run home to their computers—the essay seems quaint in a way. But it was never really a piece about dating. To me, the point of interest was how email communication, particularly when it involves romance or flirtation, is more akin to 18th century courtship than it is a form of post-modern malaise. The epistolary nature of it reveals our need to go back to a more traditional form of communication. The irony is that modern technology is fostering an old-fashioned tradition.
Have you ever tried internet dating?
MD: Never. I generally dislike shopping and internet dating seems like an extreme version of the superstore craze. In fact, I'd rather go to Target than troll an internet dating site. Now that I think of it, Target should have a dating service. I'd sign up for that.
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