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Following a Trail of Dead Ladies and Trying Not to Kill Yourself

We got drunk with Jessa Crispin, the founder of Bookslut, to talk about her new essay collection, "The Dead Ladies Project," in which she writes about literary expats to stave off wanting to die.

Lauren Oyler

Lauren Oyler

One of the "dead ladies," French artist and writer Claude Cahun. Photo via Flickr user lightsgoingon

Like much travel writing, Jessa Crispin's new book, The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, & Ex-Countries, begins with a departure. Like markedly less travel writing, it ends with one, too. One could say that the cliché it's not about the destination, but the journey applies to the essay collection, but The Dead Ladies Project is also just as much about destinations as it is about journeys. It's reflective, extensively researched, and very good.

Jessa and I are friends, which I have to disclose up front. I met her in Berlin after she published what would eventually become the first essay in this collection, "Talking to the Dead: Channeling William James in Berlin." I contacted her because I connected very strongly with her depressed vision of the city; because she was integrating personal writing with smart, researched literary biography/criticism in a way I hadn't seen before; and because not one week before discovering the essay I had enjoyed a creepily similar experience to one she describes in it: On her way home with a man one night, she slips and falls on sidewalk ice and responds with "Fuck this city. Fuck it. Why the fuck did I ever move here, god fucking damn it." I was also familiar with her blog, Bookslut, which is often cited as the first of its kind and which I later wrote a lot for.

Anyway, here's what you need to know to follow along with our conversation: The Dead Ladies Project consists of nine essays that, like the William James one, blend the biographies of various literary/artistic expat "dead ladies" (three are men) with Jessa's travel/personal writing. Early on in the book, Jessa finds out that her "lover" (always unnamed) has been married the entire time they were together, which is awful, but her narrative starts earlier: During a prelude (which is very darkly funny), Jessa abandons a life in Chicago and embarks on the dead ladies project to keep herself from committing suicide. After channeling William James's futility in Berlin, she travels to eight other cities where her literary dead ladies spent time trying to find whatever it was they were trying to find—not necessarily "themselves." (Jessa does not like Elizabeth Gilbert.)

In keeping with the nature of our friendship, we did this drunk.

Photo courtesy of Jessa Crispin

BROADLY: OK. My first question: Where does the title, The Dead Ladies Project, come from?
Jessa Crispin: The title happened before the book happened, and it was actually Dennis and Valerie from Melville House [who helped me come up with it]. I was in a depressed state; I was in this place where I wasn't eating unless they were physically putting food in my hands. We just spent three days walking around Brooklyn, and at some point, Dennis was like, "OK if you could write a book, what would it be? Let's just give you a book to work on." The title happened that night somehow—I was drunk, so I don't really remember the specifics of it. The content of the book completely changed, but the title stuck.

What was the content originally?
It was going to be essays still, but not really about travel—just sort of historical women that I thought were under-appreciated. More research-based. Done in my little room, because I couldn't really envision going anywhere ever again.

I like it, but how do you justify the use of the word "ladies," despite all the subjects in the book not being ladies?
I think I'm all right with those dudes having to be ladies. How many times have women had to be generalized under the name "man": "policeman," "mailman," whatever.

"You guys."
"You guys"! So fuck them. Plus, I don't think any of them would really have a problem with it. Maybe Stravinsky.

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Was that before you moved to Berlin, or that was after?
No, it was mid-Berlin. But I'm always depressed—there's no location for my depression. It's a free-floating experience.

Had you ever thought about writing a book before that?
No, not really, no. I never really wanted to be a writer. I always thought I was going to move into publishing, that I would go from editing a magazine to maybe working at a publisher or something like that. Surely Penguin was almost about to call me and offer me an imprint.

I stopped being able to make money. It was a bad time.

From Bookslut?
Yeah, and then weirdly, the only job I could find was a writing job, so I took that. I looked for editing jobs and proofreading jobs and nobody would even email me back and so the writing gig—that's sort of what started it. I really resisted. I didn't want to be a writer. It seemed horrible.

It still is.
It's really bad.

Maud Gonne, another dead lady. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I used to really care about the progress of feminism—both online feminism and contemporary feminism in general—and now I really don't care about it anymore; it doesn't make me furious. Do you feel that, too?
They don't anger me so much either, but I feel a low-level, pulsating, never-ending rage directed towards contemporary feminism that isn't sparked and doesn't come out as much anymore, but it's certainly there.

In what way?
I feel like there's no thinking in feminism anymore. It's all just, I mean, outrage.

You still feel that way? I don't pay attention anymore.
Oh, fuck, the last thing that made me angry was the Tim Hunt thing, which was: A scientist made a bad joke.

The UCL guy?
They got him fired. The joke was taken completely out of context.

Oh, really?
Because he was talking about—and it was clear in the context of the speech—his wife, who he fucking met in the lab and who fell in love with him and that was it. That was the joke. And so one lady—sorry, "lady" isn't really the right word to use in this context—one woman takes offense, tweets it, and then immediately: We're in this position of [being] coiled and ready to fucking tear somebody's throat out. It's like if you work with an old man, he must be a misogynist jerk.

I just find that a ridiculous process. Everybody wants to be powerful by destroying somebody...

But by righteously destroying somebody.
I mean, as women, we all have these experiences. We've had these men, but we can't take revenge on these men because that was 18 years ago when your math teacher was mean to you or whatever, so we can't destroy him. But if somebody reminds us of him, we flip out.

You can write a personal essay about it. Speaking of, how did the book morph into a more personal narrative? Was that uncomfortable?
[Without it] the book didn't work. I did make a minor effort at writing the book that Dennis and I had talked about, but it didn't really work.

I don't fucking care, which does not mean that I'm incapable of feeling shame.

Why?
There was no reason to put [the essays] in a book. They would be fine essays or columns, but there wasn't anything special about them. I was complaining to Laura [Kipnis], and she was like, "Well, who are these people?" and I was explaining it to her, and at one point she looked at me and said, "Have you figured out yet that all these people were expats?" and I said, "No..." And she said, "Why don't you just go to all the cities and live in them for awhile and write about them that way?" It was like she handed me the book in this conversation.

So when did you doing the book in earnest? You published that William James essay at the end of 2012.
[It started with that essay.] I had the outline for the book, and I knew it was going to start with William James in Berlin. I needed to do a proposal to sell the book because I didn't have any money, so I wrote the essay, and it didn't take very long at all, so I was like, "Oh, this is what the book is." It was personal without being confessional, so that essay became a template for what I was going to write.

What do you mean by "personal without being confessional"?
"Confessional" to me feels like that's all there is—like that's all the content is. Like you're in your little box, in the confessional; the outside world is kind of shut out and you're just spilling everything out.

I like some confessional writing. I like By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept and things of that ilk, so I'm not putting it down—it just seems like a different thing from what I was doing.

W. Somerset Maugham, another dead lady. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Were you worried about putting all the personal stuff [about being suicidal and about your boyfriend—"lover"—having been married while you were together] in there?
Not really. I can't imagine that anyone would really care.

Really?
It's a small-scale book. It's not going to be online, you know, "Guess the married lover in the book!"

Well, some people would be embarrassed to admit that the person they were dating ended up being married.
I don't fucking care, which does not mean that I'm incapable of feeling shame. I wasn't really ashamed of it. I guess maybe part of my not feeling ashamed of it was reading so many biographies of artists and writers all in a row; everybody had a fucked-up life. Everybody fucks up, and you can't really hide it. It comes up eventually, unless you burn everything on your deathbed. If you do good work, it doesn't matter in the long run.

Were you fucking up?
I mean, to be lied to for so long and not catch on to the thing—it felt like fucking up. And I felt like I was failing to get it together. I felt like I was failing to find the thing that I needed to find for a really long time, so it felt like fucking up, even though externally it probably looked like I was succeeding.

Do you feel like you're no longer fucking up anymore? That you found the thing? You moved back to America.
Now I feel like the time to find the thing is a much more interesting process and is not necessarily fucking up.

Also, I didn't know you wanted to kill yourself—I wanted to kill myself all the time!
And the tone of the interview changes!

[We laugh, darkly.]

I used to not be able to take walks because I would get so stuck in my head that I would think my way into a panic attack. I would think of all the ways I was a failure and wouldn't redeem myself. Now I found some sort of weird stability where I can go on a walk and be in my head and not have it be a tragedy.

I feel a low-level, pulsating, never-ending rage directed towards contemporary feminism.

How long did that last? Do you want to kill yourself now?
No. Not anymore. That was the last time, seven or eight years ago.

In Berlin you were still very depressed, no?
Oh, yeah, but I didn't necessarily want to die anymore.

What's the difference?
The wanting-to-die was acute. Like it wasn't, "Everything sucks. If I were dead, I wouldn't have to deal with whatever," but the suicide drive is very: You have to, you're a fucking burden, you're screwing it up, you have to get out. It really sort of shuts down all other thoughts.

While I was writing the prelude chapter, I wasn't going to put in the suicide stuff.

Really? It's incredible.
I wasn't going to put it in. I hadn't even thought to put it in, and I was writing the Claude Cahun chapter, which also mentions suicide, and a friend killed himself as I was writing it. So I threw out everything I had written and started over when it became clear what I had to do. That really fucked me up, his death. I was almost done writing when it happened.

Was it hard?
No, it just became obvious that it had to be there, and the book didn't really make sense [without it]. And I should just say his name—it was Ned Vizzini. I don't know why I'm being cagey about it. He was a writer, and somebody who had written about his depression and suicidal impulses, and the outpouring of grief from his readers—it just felt like I had to be as honest as he had been.

The Dead Ladies Project is available now from the University of Chicago Press. Crispin will be discussing the book with Laura Kipnis on Tuesday, September 29 at Melville House in Brooklyn.