Interview with elissa washuta

1. We were intrigued by the title My Body is a Book of Rules. Did you play with others? Why did you settle on this particular one? How does the title relate to the way you've structured the book? 

The book’s title was originally The Kindling Effect, but it was a dud. I find the word “kindling” to be a little difficult to pronounce—I can do it without stumbling, but I couldn’t quite imagine making the effort to do it repeatedly for the rest of my life. It also didn’t really spark interest in the book. I was reading from the manuscript while I was still working on it, and the section I read contained the sentence, “My body was a book of rules, my heart the spine, my skin plastered with pages.” A friend who was present at the reading suggested that I might have a different title for the book in front of me, and he was right.

2. Why did you choose the form of a memoir to narrate this particular story?

I was writing fiction right before I began work on the manuscript, and while all of it was autobiographical, once I began writing nonfiction, it was important to me to stay close to what really happened to me and what I really did without inventing anything. I found that by doing this, I forced myself to write about things that were painful to me and create myself as a character in an uncomfortable and often unflattering way. I tried not to let myself off the hook.

Although the book is called a memoir, I think it’s also reasonable to think of it as a series of interlinked essays. I don’t prefer to think of it as an essay collection because I think the chapters belong together, not apart, but the essay is the basis of this book.

3. You deal with a lot of popular culture references in your book. Why did you choose to write so much of your story through the lens of popular culture?

I make sense of my own experience through metaphor. That comes out at the sentence level, and it also comes out on a larger scale, in comparisons of my experience to cultural reference points. It’s hard to describe abstractions—hurt, dread, longing. I try to build those emotions on the page by re-creating the conditions that evoke them in me: marathon Law & Order: Special Victims Unit watching sessions, a hard look at the lies in my Match.com profile. I can tell you “I’m ashamed of who I am and I hate myself,” or I can show you the false self I built on the internet and allow you to explore all the dark corners of that shame.

4. One of the most compelling but most difficult things to read about your book is the way you blend the everyday horrors of an American college student with larger issues of race, genocide, indigeneity, American empire and gender. And, as writers ourselves, we can only imagine, the amount of work that had gone into it. Can you elaborate a little bit on the working process? How you wrote this book, how long did it take you to finish it and what kind of research, other readings did you do while writing this one?

I began writing in autumn 2007 and the book was published in August 2014. I wasn’t writing for all of that time—I was writing and revising the manuscript for about three and a half years before starting the process of trying to get the book published, and I later did quite a bit more work on the book, adding two chapters, cutting one, and writing a research-heavy chapter that never made it in. As I wrote, I collected huge amounts of researched material that I’d dump into a Word document (I now use the Scrivener software, which has made my life so much easier), then sort of write around it, moving things around like puzzle pieces, cutting source material that was repetitive or not valuable enough. At first, everything from outside sources seemed important, but the more I worked in my own narrator’s voice, the more clarity I found in the cutting process.

Most of the research I did is apparent in the finished book, although I also did a lot of reading on fencing that never made it in, because I cut that chapter.

5. We would love to know more about the use of the footnotes in your book. What did you plan to accomplish through them?

Strangely enough, I don’t think I had read David Foster Wallace’s footnoted work, or the work of other writers who use footnotes in creative nonfiction, when I began work on the book. I had just come out of undergrad, and I had been doing tons of academic writing. One of the chapters in the book is a college term paper footnoted with the usual stuff—citations, clarifications—and also some dirty little notes. That chapter’s raw material was actually the last paper I wrote in college. In writing the manuscript, I was working with found forms, the shapes of texts I saw in the world, so why not a term paper about college students’ ways of talking about sex, which was so relevant to the book? I trimmed the paper and made the real story happen in the footnotes. After I did that, I realized I liked the process so much that I carried it into other chapters, like the Match.com profile chapter. I was interested in the possibility of the real story happening in footnotes. So often, in reading monographs for school, I’d read a footnote that seemed to have an interesting bit of subtext, and I wanted to blow up that possibility.

6. Can you tell us more about the sections called "Cascade Autobiography"? Why do they appear separately? 

“A Cascade Autobiography” is a series of sections that appears as inter-chapters throughout the book. Originally, this was a single chapter, and it was the first piece of the book I wrote (though it was repeatedly revised). As I revised the book, I shifted the chapters’ order, trying to shape the narrative, and I could never find the proper place for this chapter—it needed to be at the beginning, middle, end, everywhere. My amazing editor, Nicelle Davis, had the brilliant idea to break it. The chapter became the backbone of the book, as it should be.

7. Some of the most exciting sections of the book were those in which you inserted a personal narrative voice into the dry language of psychiatry, beautifully disrupting its neat categories with the messiness involved in a real experience of mental illness. Could you talk more about these passages and the experience of blending your own voice with such impersonal, often alienating language? 

In my experience of psychiatry, there hasn’t been a ton of room for the consideration of the individual. That’s not the fault of my doctors—that’s just how it works when there’s a limited number of drugs on the market, and when they’re working from a book that classifies people and their internal experiences into categories of psychopathology. This was a terrifying system to enter when my brain felt so out-of-control, and I wanted to show that on the page. Saying “I felt manic” doesn’t mean much, so I wanted to show the contrast of the workings of this system against my brain that couldn’t be still.

8. Your book so beautifully explores different threads of identity (race, gender, sexuality) in the context of trauma. What did writing this book teach you about the different threads of your identity and their relationship to your experiences as a young woman?  

Going into the writing of the book, I knew that these threads were inextricably linked—I couldn’t just write a book about rape, or about Cowlitz/Cascade identity, or about bipolar disorder. I don’t experience these things separately, so it didn’t make sense to me to write a single-issue book. What I learned: writing the book didn’t mean moving onto the next topic and putting these issues away. I will be writing about rape, Cowlitz/Cascade identity, and bipolar disorder until I’m through with them, which may be never, and that’s okay. Perhaps, in My Body Is a Book of Rules, I’ve written about these things as one does in a coming-of-age book. But now I’ve come of age, and I have new things to say about what remains with me.