Describe your latest book.
I like to say that Sketchtasy
is a novel that takes place in that late-night moment when everything comes together, and everything falls apart. This is Boston in 1995, a city defined by a rabid fear of difference — Alexa, an incisive 21-year-old queen, faces everyday brutality with determined nonchalance. Rejecting middle-class pretensions, she negotiates past and present traumas with a scathing critique of the world. Drawn to the ecstasy of drugged-out escapades, Alexa searches for nourishment in a gay culture bonded by clubs and conformity, willful apathy, and the specter of AIDS. Is there any hope for communal care?
There’s so much nostalgia in popular culture for the 1990s right now, and in writing Sketchtasy
I wanted to work against that. Because I think nostalgia replaces all the nuance and messiness, the contradictions and possibilities, with a whitewashed product ready for mass consumption. To me, the opposite of nostalgia is truth, and so in Sketchtasy
, the characters are growing up at a time when desire and death are intertwined — I hope this conjures the pain and pageantry of struggling to imagine a future.
What was your favorite book as a child?
As a child I was a voracious reader, because books were a way of escaping the world around me. I would read anything that I could get my hands on. In second grade, I had my own reading group at school, because I had read everything that was available up through the eighth grade level. At an elementary school book fair I remember choosing Watership Down
, because it was the largest book there, and I devoured it. I loved thinking about this parallel world of rabbits living outside my windows; I wanted to escape into that world — there were rabbits living underneath some of the trees in the yard outside the house where I grew up, and I imagined these were those rabbits. By sixth grade, I was reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace
and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment
, and I remember that my teacher, rather than saying that she was proud of me, told my parents that she was worried I was missing out on my childhood. I was an obviously traumatized child, but she didn’t ask about that. She didn’t inquire about what might be going on at home. She didn’t try to intervene. She just asked my parents to read young adult books to me. As if this was what I needed.
When did you know you were a writer?
I think I knew that I wanted to be a writer as a kid, but I was told that that wasn’t possible. But I was also told that the best writers never got published, no one would ever see their work, and ironically this liberated me to only write what I knew I needed. I wrote poetry before prose, and this taught me to edit everything down to its core. Especially with language poetry, where you remove everything and then with just the few words left on the page, you feel it all anyway. Or that’s what I imagined. But then I realized I needed to bring voice back in. When you think this deeply about text, I think this is when you know. Something. Notice that I changed to second person here. What this says about me is the question I’m looking for.
What does your writing workspace look like?
At home I have a crowded desk where I write, but since I’ve been away from home for the last seven months, and also touring for Sketchtasy
, my workspace is basically wherever the table is in the place where I’m staying. And generally it gets piled up with papers fast. In my temporary apartment in Baltimore, which I’m about to leave, I work at this glass table that’s really too high for me, but whatever, it’s the table that’s available. There’s a desk upstairs, but then I have to carry the laptop up there, so generally I end up downstairs. Behind the computer, right in front of my eyes, is a plant, so I always have something growing in front of me, even if it isn’t always words. But, since I’m leaving in a few days, I’m about to give away all my plants, so what will I stare at now?
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
At my launch for Sketchtasy
at McNally Jackson in New York, there was someone sitting in the front row who was really laughing during a coked-out scene at the STD clinic, where the characters are getting their HIV test results — this takes place in 1995, so it’s both completely mundane and completely terrifying. Alexa, the 21-year-old narrator, is imagining what an STD clinic would be like if it wasn’t just a few boring ads for safe sex in a sterile room with people who acted like you were just there to die, and this person in the audience was totally there with every moment. Afterwards he came up to me and said that he had recently tested positive for HIV. He was in his 20s, and he gave me a zine about his experience, which was really beautiful and raw. And pained. There’s this myth right now that younger people don’t deal with the trauma of AIDS, but from reading this zine it was so clear that that’s not true at all. The trauma just plays out differently. It’s not the trauma of losing all your closest friends, like the generation before mine. And it’s not the trauma of growing up with AIDS suffusing your desires, and no possibility of imagining a way out of certain death, like my generation. But it’s still trauma. I keep thinking about this generational conversation that isn’t really happening in the ways that it should be, and I love that zine, which made me sob in that way that necessary tears are always a part of this conversation.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I just read Portland author Sophia Shalmiyev’s debut memoir, Mother Winter
, and it’s gorgeous and intimate and nuanced and raw. And, I see that she’s actually reading at Powell’s the day after me!
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Is sex work strange or interesting? I mean I made a living turning tricks for 15 years or so, and it just felt so mundane, but I know that it also allowed me to live outside of a mainstream consumerist existence, for the most part — I mean except for the obvious consumerism of selling sex. But, I was able to define my life on my own terms, so that I could focus on activism and community-building, friendships, and critical thinking, and for this I’m forever grateful.
What scares you the most as a writer?
What scares me the most as a writer is that I might not write about what scares me the most. When I feel like if I say it aloud I might die, that’s what I need to write. So that I can say it. So that I don’t die.
Offer a favorite sentence from another writer.
I love when Claudia Rankine writes, in Citizen
, “Do feelings lose their feeling if they speak to a lack of feeling?” I think about this a lot.
My Top Five Books About AIDS That Helped Inform My Perspective on Everything:
Memories That Smell Like Gasoline
by David Wojnarowicz
Queer and Loathing
by David B. Feinberg
Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS
by Thomas Avena
City of God
by Gil Cuadros
The Gifts of the Body
by Rebecca Brown
÷ ÷ ÷
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
is the award-winning author of a memoir and three novels, and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. Her most recent title, the novel Sketchtasy
, was named one of the Best Books of 2018 by NPR Books and Jezebel. Her memoir, The End of San Francisco
, won a Lambda Literary Award, and her previous title, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform
was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book.