My first novel, Love Me Back
, was published on September 16. Writing the book took seven years, and along the way three chapters were published in different magazines and anthologies as short stories. Those three chapters are highly representative of the book — meaning there's a lot of sex, drugs, and unhappiness.
Marie, the book's narrator, is a young single mother who works at an upscale steakhouse in Dallas. She takes the restaurant's whole fast, dark culture into herself in a feat of almost Sisyphean promiscuity. One night Marie waits on a group of middle-aged, overweight white businessmen — the restaurant's typical wealthy clientele. Near the end of their deal-making dinner, one of the men grabs Marie around the waist, "a liberty taken with me fairly often," she says. "You sign up for a certain kind of life and shell out the dough for it, you expect the waitresses to permit you."
The sex is rarely about pleasure for Marie. She uses it to exorcise her self-hatred and the men use her to use her. She has sex in dirty places and in luxury hotels, with men she despises, men she likes, men she feels nothing about. She dissociates to get through it. She thinks about her daughter while a man pours beer on her and another man has sex with her.
Marie also cuts and burns herself, and is addicted to cocaine. "I am a pile of shit falling endlessly down a dark shaft, I am the hate that hurled the shit and the fear inside the hurled shit," she observes. "If you slip out one stitch in your brain high and low are the same."
A lot of people have either read the previously published material or an advance reading copy at this point; I've given a dozen or so interviews over the past year. Inevitably I am asked some version of the autobiographical question, because a scan of my bio or a quick Googling reveals that I too worked at an upscale Dallas steakhouse. I expected that question, and also expect it to be the first question I'm asked at any reading or public appearance related to the book — while I haven't figured out exactly what causes people (myself included) to fixate on that element of fiction writing, it doesn't surprise me that everyone is curious.
What has surprised me is a different question, one I've been asked almost as regularly as the autobiographical question: "Has your husband read it?"
So far I've stifled the following responses:
"No, has your husband read it?"
"No, because he's not allowed to read. He has too much to do around the house."
"Yes, and he's in therapy. I'm afraid our marriage might not make it."
I suppose those who have posed this question to me could be making the most innocent of inquiries; after all, it's a normal enough thing to wonder about someone who makes any kind of art and has a spouse or partner. But the question still grates, because maybe what they mean is something more like, "Is your husband really OK with the fact that you wrote a book about someone who resembles you in several significant ways, and that person has sex with a lot of different people? Does your husband know that you may have had sex with a lot of different people? How does he feel about that, if so? And if he's OK with it, do you know how lucky you are?"
Even if the asker doesn't realize those are the questions buried in their question, those are the questions I hear. And I can't help but think they wouldn't ask a male writer that question — had he written such a promiscuous disaster of a semi-autobiographical male character, he would more likely be asked, "What are you working on now?" or "What's your writing routine?" or "Who has influenced you as a writer?" Because people are less likely to care whether or not a man has a partner in the first place, and certainly less likely to ask questions that subsume the man's creation under the realm of his partner's consumption and/or approval.
It's as if I'm being asked, "By whose authority does this telling take place?" and all I want to say is, "Mine, and mine alone."
I have written about something that scares heterosexual people: the woman who is out of male control. She scares men because they don't want to lose control, and she scares women because if some women are either wielding their sexuality like a bullwhip, or giving it away for free, what are the rest of the women left with if men get used to that?
On top of which Marie is a mother, and whatever is proscribed for women is usually triply proscribed for mothers. It is generally felt that all of reality would collapse if mothers were allowed to be flawed, and human, and sexual. And I'm not recommending Marie's life path to anyone; I wrote her, and she scares the hell out of me. But I wrote her because there's a stranglehold on who and how women are allowed to be in this world. Still. At this late date. So when someone asks me if my husband has read the book, I also have a thought that goes something like, "Thank you for affirming the ongoing need for my book, at least."
Here are some things I'll share about my husband: He promotes me everywhere he goes. We went to the gynecologist and my legs were up in the stirrups and he pulled a picture of my book up on his computer to show the doctor. He asked me who my dream reader for the audio version would be and I said Lizzy Caplan. He contacted her agent and had the book sent to her, unbeknownst to me. I don't care that she will probably never read my book, if she ever even got it, and I'm totally happy with the reader I chose in the end. And I have my own agent, and editor, and publicity team, and they're all incredible. But not a single person in this world is more proud of me than my husband, or less afraid to tell it on the mountain.
And yes, he's read most of the book. And yes, he finds it intense. Most people do. But he doesn't love me because of, or in spite of, anything I have in common with Marie. And I don't write because of, or in spite of, how he feels about my writing. I write so I can read what I've written. Ask me about that.