An Interview with Alana Massey
Liv Lansdale: Who’s your favorite pop cultural figure?
Alana Massey: Harry Styles. I write and talk a lot about Harry Styles and One Direction in a way that seems a bit flip and like I’m just some sort of overgrown teen with a crush on a floppy-haired boy but I honestly think that Styles is the kind of charismatic performer and person that we get maybe once in a decade, a generation even. People who have followed his career since the beginning of One Direction know that he’s always been exceptionally funny, self-aware, warm, and constantly learning and absorbing information as it pertains to living in a more just world.
LL: Are there any [pop cultural figures] you feel particularly ambivalent about? You love them but you don’t want to, or you believe you should love them but you don’t?
AM: Intellectually, I know I am supposed to revere and care about Madonna because it is indisputable that she’s done incredible things for creativity, for women, and for society. She’s incomparable in so many ways and I get that. But I just have a hard time getting worked up about her or excited, even though I’m a huge fan of the music that made her famous.
LL: At what point did you realize this would be a book of women? Was there a draft with any dude-focused essays?
AM: This was always 100% going to be a book about women and the earliest incarnation of the [book] proposal was actually much angrier and more focused on the evils of men than on the merits of women. I used to think that there was quite enough material about men that I’d never write a word about famous men but as I’ve started doing celebrity profiles and have finally had a chance to write about boy bands at the length and depth I want, I am seriously considering shifting my focus to men. There is a lot of written work about men but very little of it is written by women—what if Vogue and Vanity Fair profiles of men were coming from someone with a hetero-female gaze? Or from a more empathetic, less adulating perspective than so many man-on-man profiles are? What if profiles or essays about men could show that they’re vulnerable more than that they’re cool? Angelica Jade Bastién wrote these two incredible pieces on Keanu Reeves and James Marsden that absolutely blew me away in this area and I would love to see more writing like that from women.
The Winona/Gwyneth essay started as something of a rant that I ended up reading aloud at the first reading I was ever invited to. It read far cattier, far angrier, and far more self-indulgent than the essay that ended up in the book. The first published incarnation of it was on Buzzfeed
and even after it was toned down for that, there was still this dichotomy set up that there really are Winonas and Gwyneths, which I eventually realized was just a really narrow view of possible womanhoods and a disrespectful view of both of these women who seem to bring people joy. I am glad I didn’t end up with an essay that put one woman down in order to elevate another, though I must admit that the germination point was in doing just that.
LL: One of my favorite lines in the book is “Fiona Apple’s center of gravity is her eyes; Del Rey’s is her mouth.” I say this knowing well how carelessly people will write about female artists’ appearance. Do you simply trust your own intentions when you comment on appearances? Is there a set of questions you ask yourself (or that you’d have other writers ask of themselves) before using descriptions of women’s bodies to build an argument?
AM: I try to tread very carefully when describing people physically, whether they are famous or not, because the descriptions that will and won’t hurt people are so unknowable, so deeply personal that what we may think of as a compliment is actually really hurtful. I used to be big on mean descriptions as a sign of wit and I still feel like shit about it. I once called Benedict Cumberbatch “the illegitimate child of a Bengal monitor dragon and Conan O’Brien, Cumberbatch has that certain je-ne-sais-Quasimodo sex appeal” and even though it was for the purpose of describing why his particularly steamy fan fics were so bizarre, it was ultimately unkind. But it becomes inevitable when the person is part of the product, right?So on the Lana and Fiona thing, when I used that description, I actually lied with the metaphor to make a point. Cause like, the center of gravity on a human is usually in a person’s chest or abdomen, it’s where their entire weight is centered and would balance if placed on it. What I meant was that these were the central points of emotive action, the places to look if you wanted to find them most as themselves and I always found Fiona’s range of emotive action to be in her eyes and Lana has killer smirks and half-smiles that communicate a lot. I guess the short version is: I only describe people physically if it lends itself to the bigger story I’m trying to tell about them.
LL: What writing vice do you find yourself at highest risk of committing; in other words, is there a habit you have to resist falling into?
AM: I always want to use Bible stories and metaphors and images. Sometimes those work to my advantage and I can really paint a picture, but other times, they just aren’t appropriate or would go over too many heads because we are not an especially religiously literate society so I opt for something more opaquely religious than like, an actual potter’s field full of blood.
LL: What is the most challenging topic for you to write about, and what do you do to ease your way into it?
AM: I honestly don’t write about topics that are especially challenging to me. I don’t even mention what they are because I feel like I’d be daring myself to write about them when I don’t actually want to. I am very pragmatic when it comes to writing and believe that if something is going to take a lot of internal processing or external skill development that I don’t presently have the time for, then I won’t consider writing on it.
LL: You say those titular broken-bodied girls haunted you well into adulthood. Describe that haunting—was it visceral? Did it manifest as a frequent thought? Is it tied more closely to your being a woman, or a writer? (Not to revive that tired and false dichotomy.) I guess what I’m asking is, Why do the broken-bodied girls still haunt you? It was only two essays before that you idolized a punishing and ruthless idea of Courtney Love. Are you nevertheless afraid of some inner capacity for cruelty?
AM: They haunt me mostly because as ghastly as these characters are: they are in physical pain in what feels like perpetuity because they were written to exist as ghosts, demons, and other cautionary characters that are not human and therefore do not get the reprieve of death. I honestly just play the images of them over and over again in my mind sometimes late at night, and whether I’m hearing Zelda choking or Carrie crying from the humiliation of the prom, I just feel like they’re out there somewhere suffering for nonsensical reasons.
LL: What headlines attract you? What’s the clickbait you find yourself most consistently biting?
AM: Ones that promise AMAZING or UNBELIEVABLE photos of celebrities (that they’ve probably just posted to their Instagram). I am a sucker for a hot yacht shot of two twenty-something stars rubbing suntan lotion on each other.
LL: I was struck by the order of the essays, particularly by the decision to bookend them with ones that chronicle, albeit loosely, past romantic relationships. Was there an arc you were going for when you chose this order? Did you know from the start that it would have to end with “Emparadised”?
AM: The very boring answer to this is that my editor suggested an order and I was OK with it. A lot of people have noted that the order really took them on a particular thematic journey and for that, I hope they are eternally grateful to Libby Burton.