In this episode of the Kill Your Darlings Podcast we explore connections made through correspondence, and through the private made public. We listen to Jessica Friedmann speak about our First Book Club pick, Things That Helped, hear how Angie Hart went from reluctant Women of Letters speaker to co-curator, and ask Alexandra Pierce about the multiple identities of Dr Alice Sheldon.
We hope you enjoy their stories as much as we did.
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Meaghan Dew (KYD): Hello and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast – and to the new Kill Your Darlings. We’re going fully digital, so Issue 29, out now, is the last printed one you’ll find. It’s a happy-sad time – like you, we love the feel of paper between our fingers, but the exciting thing is we’ll be publishing more writers than ever, so do subscribe to our website for even more of what you love. But for now, keep doing whatever you’re doing and settle in for the podcast. Today we’re talking about correspondence, and about the previously private made public – or public-er, in any case. We start with Jessica Friedmann, whose debut collection Things That Helped is the Kill Your Darlings Book Club pick for May.
The essays cover really broad territory – were there essays which didn’t fit in as seamlessly, or topics that had to be discarded because they didn’t feel like as cohesive part of the whole?
Jessica Friedmann: I think a lot of the aspects and elements of the essays themselves got shuffled between essays a little bit. I’d start with something which felt like the kernel of a story and then I’d realise that it made more sense to be told elsewhere in different form, in a different story. I also really can’t think in a straight line so a lot of them are quite recursive and loopy and I think there is an element of “everything fits everywhere” and, you know, I hope that’s worked for the book because it really was like making a jigsaw puzzle by the end of the process.
KYD: Who read the book while it was still in progress, and how did their feedback shape the finished work, if it did?
JF: The first person that I really showed it to was Grace Heifetz, my agent, and I showed it to her at a point in time where I’d been approached by a publisher and I didn’t know what to do, and I sent an email to Curtis Brown saying “hi, you know, if I could take somebody out for coffee, not necessarily to be represented by you, but just, help, I’m freaking out,” and then 5 minutes later I got an email from Grace saying “let’s have a chat on the phone,” and she read the essays, I think ‘Red Lips’ was one of them, and maybe maybe ‘Skywhale,’ maybe that came later, they were some of the earlier ones I wrote. And she just, she liked them. And then we signed with Scribe, which was wonderful, Marika, my editor read them, I worked on them and worked on them, and then I got to a point where I really had to show them to other people. So I think everyone who’d seen them before it was published were the people who featured in the book. You know, my husband Mike is in there, we went through the manuscript together, just to make sure that he was absolutely comfortable with everything that I had written, and it was the same with everyone whose story touches on my own personal narrative in a significant way. I wouldn’t publish anything without the permission of people involved. And where I’ve just mentioned somebody in passing I generally changed their names, because, I don’t know, it feels a bit sneaky to just put someone in a book. I really wanted to make sure that I was doing so with as muchg consent as possible.
KYD: This reads as an incredibly personal book, it gives the impression of holding very little back. Does it feel that way to you, with the launch coming up, or is the level of exposition one you’ve carefully navigated?
JF: There are definitely things that have been held back. There was a conversation we had right from the beginning, because the book does discuss suicidal ideation, which was a real low point for me, and I didn’t want to shy away from what that experience was like, but at the same time, you know, I did want to be very mindful of what people’s triggers might be, and I did not want anyone to come to this book looking for illumination and find themselves upset, distressed, unduly moved in a distressing way by something that I have written. So there are things that I quite specifically did not include, that I didn’t include because I thought that they were the kind of details that didn’t add to the story, but might have just provoked a response in readers that I didn’t want to provoke. I didn’t feel as though I could tell this story without being completely frank about it – and no, I mean, it’s… I don’t know if I should be feeling nervous about people knowing so many things about me, but it’s kind of quite a comfort to share the load around, you know. At the moment I’m carrying this, and my therapist is helping, and my husband’s helping, and my mum, but after the book is out, you know, everything I’ve gone through can just be quite safely contained within its pages and then readers can go in conversation with it, and it becomes something new, it’s not just all about me anymore, which is quite nice.
KYD: Melbourne is such a significant part of this book, it’s not just a background to everything that occurs. Do you feel like Canberra will infuse your work in some way in the future, or does already, or could you see it being a part of your work in a similar way?
JF: Nah. (Laughs.) It sounds so parochial, I grew up in Melbourne, I love Melbourne, I, you know, I really regret that I’m probably not going to be able to move back to Melbourne anytime soon, both because of my husband’s work but also because we’ve been priced out of everywhere I’ve ever loved. It’s not just Melbourne, I was lucky enough to travel a bit last year with a Melbourne City of Literature Grant and there were a few places, Marseille or Budapest, where I just felt immediately at home. And I think you if have a strong sense of place, as I do, you can know within a day whether a city will love you back or not. And Canberra is not really my place. It seems to do extraordinary things for other people, I see how beautiful it is naturally and how much the environment seems to give to so many others – but I’m a Melbourne girl, and it’s really a strong part of me.
KYD: What would you like to explore in your work now that this book is complete, and this aspect of your life has been written about?
JF: It’s a big question, a few people asked me if there’s anything on the horizon, and kind of a little, but maybe a bit not quite? There are things within the book that I’d really like to take further – dance particularly is something I’ve always been obsessed with, and the idea of gesture. When I was going through the worst of my depression I really had very little communication ability, and so this idea of being able to make meaning with gesture has become really important to me, in getting away from the written or spoken word, into those interstitial spaces that dancers can occupy. And I guess mimes as well, and people who have language with their body, you know, some people just have the most incredible facility with their bodies. They can tell entire stories just on their face, and I envy that so deeply, and it’s something I’d really like to start trying to explore. At the same time, you know, I did my university training, I guess, in poetry, and I love, I’ve never written a poem I’m happy about so I don’t think I’ll write poetry, but I was talking to Pip Smith recently about fictocriticism, and the fragment in fragmentary spaces, and that’s really where this book came out of, just my love of fragments – so I’d love to do something that’s a bit more in that poetic space, but that’s again quite a nebulous concept at the moment.
KYD: That was Jessica Friedmann. Her book, Things That Helped, is out now with Scribe. Stay tuned to killyourdarlings.com.au next week for a reading from the book.
Offering up the past, our private fears and struggles, can forge new connections. Once a month, Women of Letters encourages women to share a letter onstage. For Angie Hart, that experience with the start of her journey to becoming one of the event’s co-curators.
Angie Hart: Dear Marieke,
I need to tell you something. I have been so afraid. There is so much that I have allowed to drift by on the water alongside my boat, as I navigate the safest and least choppy way to sail. Some days I have been so full of fear that I haven’t even been able to row. The boat still moves, because as you know, nothing on water stays in one place. But I have you. On those days, this is my anchor. You say, ‘I am here’ and I say, ‘I know’.
From the time that the fear took hold until now, where it screams just as loudly but from a much more tolerable distance, you have been there. You asked me to read a letter for your very first Women of Letters event with Michaela, at Bella Union in Carlton. It was truly an honour to be asked. I love writing. I love reading. I hate reading my writing out loud – but I love hearing other people read their work and I want to be like them. The day I read my letter on stage, my body shook so entirely and so visibly that you felt bad for making me do something I find so hard. In truth, the sensation of being out on that limb was thrilling. You didn’t ask me again and I thought it was because I had done so badly.
You see sparks. You find the light in us, no matter how buried, and you give it oxygen to shine brighter. You ask so many timid souls to be brave and they blaze impressively under your gaze. You asked me to read again when you found out that I did not, in fact, hate the idea. I have since read letters out loud at your esteemed literary salon (in front of actual people), three more times. In these letters I have outed my biggest mistake, given voice to my deepest longing and owned my shortcomings in a public apology to my other half.
I am a walking contradiction. I am a chronic avoider. I shut down when things get hard. When you ask me to write something, I think of expanding, opening and shedding dead skin. You invite me to go lightly, if that is all I can manage. This only serves to send me deep. Deep where I need to go. Nobody needs to live inside dead skin.
You called me last month, to invite me to be the host and co-curator for WoL. You assured me that I was perfect for the role, but gave me every kind of ‘out’, if I didn’t feel that it was for me. You said you had all thought of me and something just clicked. Even through all of my self-doubt, it is hard not to believe you. I’m ready to prove you right.
Today, as I write this, the water is still and I am grateful for that. I know that there will continue to be all kinds of weather and I know you’ll be there. To you my dear anchor, my ground, my hand from the pier; thank you.
I am here and I see you. Forevz.
KYD: That was Angie Hart, reading her letter to Marieke Hardy, after accepting the role of Women of Letters co-curator. I asked Angie whether she could tell us about her first encounter with the event.
AH: I would love to, because now I can speak a lot more relaxed, in a more relaxed manner than I could when I read my first letter for the very first Women of Letters, which was just awful! (Laughs) I wrote a letter To The Night I’d Rather Forget, and I wrote a pretty awful letter that didn’t really detail much about anything in my life, and given the wonderful nature of Women of Letters I now know that that was completely off the mark – I committed nothing of myself personally to this letter, and made sure that I named a lot of evenings, and put them – ’cause I have many nights of shame, as most people I know do – I put them all together in a composite and made a very anonymous-type letter, which I was still petrified to read out loud. And the very first Women of Letters was completely sold out, there was a line around the block, it was very well attended and there was some wonderful readers and writers that came to be on the panel that day, and I wish I could take that moment back – except for the fact that it started me writing, and it gave me an itch to do more spoken word or public speaking, or something, so it was good.
KYD: I’m afraid you’ve pretty much guaranteed you’ll continue to be asked about it – so for a letter about a night you’d rather forget, you’re probably going to have to repeat parts of it as it goes along. You mentioned you don’t feel like it was the best example of a Women of Letters letter, what do you think makes good letter for Women of Letters, having been to quite a few of them by this point?
AH: Yeah… I think going there makes it good, like when you really go there. And there are so many women that have read letters about things that we don’t even discuss with our friends sometimes, and they got up in front of, you know, 400-500 people, and read something that means a lot to so many other people, you know, a secret of theirs – and they they did detail it, and they did go there.
KYD: If your first letter for Women of Letters sort of led you down the path of wanting to write more and speak more, was there a particular moment that you felt you wanted to be more involved in Women of Letters specifically?
AH: I guess right from the beginning I have had a passion for Women of Letters. I think most things that – I love Michaela and Marieke, and I think most things that that they have to do with are incredibly human and compassionate, and there was something about Women of Letters from the beginning that… People wanted to volunteer – you want to just be there and help them get going, so myself and many other friends were often there on the door or helping to hand out stamps, or running around, collecting questions for intermission, you just – it’s that kind of thing you just want to give.
KYD: You really appreciate the event as it exists now – what do you hope to bring to Women of Letters?
AH: I think the thing with Women of Letters is that… it’s incredibly delicate in the way that it… it asks a question of people to read a letter about anything they want – but the way that it asks is so beautifully open that people feel that they can give openly of themselves. And there’s not much to be changed about that, and I would be very careful about any changes that I would make to the running of Women of Letters, because, yeah, I have fantasies about things I would like to hear, but it really doesn’t need very much.
KYD: Do you have a dream guest, or a person that you’d really love to read something, that you think is perhaps unlikely – but if you could pick anyone in the world?
AH: I would really love to find a way to… you know, I think about people on the tram, and people that you overhear, like where we’re sitting right now in a very crowded, you may not be able to hear this, but in a very crowded place, and conversations are fascinating. And I guess you get an insight with the people that we ask, but we all know who these people are, and they’re deemed as ‘interesting people’ but everyone’s interesting. So my wish is to somehow incorporate people we haven’t heard of.
KYD: That was Angie Hart, co-curator of Women of Letters. You’re listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast, and this episode was supported by Scribe.
A major in the air force, a member of the CIA and a doctor of psychology, Dr Alice Sheldon had already lived a full life when she embarked upon a new one as James Tiptree Jr, science fiction author. The pen name, and the personality built around it through correspondence with the leading genre writers of the time, lasted nine years before Alice’s identity was revealed. The correspondence before and directly following this revelation forms the basis of Letters to Tiptree, a collection which takes a selection of the deceased author’s numerous letters, and places them alongside new responses to Tiptree’s life and work. Alexandra Pierce co-edited the book, which she reads from now.
Alexandra Pierce: My name’s Alexandra Pierce, and I’m one of the editors of the book Letters to Tiptree, and the other editor was Alisa Krasnostein. This letter was written by Gwyneth Jones, and appeared in Letters to Tiptree.
Dear Dr Sheldon,
I wondered, when I planned writing this letter, how should I address you? Maybe I’m just British, but it worried me. I can’t call you ‘Alice’; or ‘Tip’. That would be rude; I never even met you. ‘Dear Tiptree’ seemed like a possibility, but though ‘Tip’ may have been your handle, among friends, ‘Tiptree’ was never your name. ‘Mr Tiptree’ sounds ridiculous, ‘Mrs Bradley Sheldon’ anachronistic. You were Major Bradley in the US Army; I suppose you were Agent Sheldon in the infant CIA? You had so many titles; so many brilliant careers you seem to have sampled and tossed aside… Then I remembered you had a PhD in Psychology, and I felt my path was clear.
Anyway, the first thing I need to say is what every writer wants to hear: I love your writing. I loved your writing before I had any idea you were a secret agent. I should explain that I’ve read science fiction all my life, but I’ve never been a fan in the technical sense. I had no idea the Science Fiction Community existed until my first novel was ‘hailed’ as SF, back in the eighties. I knew nothing about the controversy around dazzling, honours-laden, ‘ineluctably masculine’ ‘James Tiptree, Jr.’ until it was long over, and you had been unmasked. I have to confess something: I was disappointed. In the seventies I had found plenty of sexual-revolutionary US female SF writers to admire (Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joanna Russ, Vonda McIntyre…for the genre, it was a crowd!). There were men who were okay, doing their best according to their lights (Chip Delany, Fred Pohl). But James Tiptree was different. I remember reading your first novel (Up the Walls of the World) when it was new, in its yellow and red Gollancz jacket, and thinking: at least there’s one. Tiptree gets it, he sees what the problems are… And you were gone. It was a shame.
If I was completely fooled, I was in good company. When someone reads the transcript of Khatru 3 (a free-ranging discussion of sex and gender issues, organised by fanzine editor Jeffrey D. Smith, in 1975) it’s clear that Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ et al. never doubted that Tip was a male fellow traveller—although they took issue with his effusive, dear lady manner, and his tendency to put Woman on a sentimental pedestal. You were having fun, I suppose. But I sometimes wonder, were they disappointed too? Did they wish ‘Tip’ could have been the man they thought he was? The proof that science fiction could change? That male science fiction writers could be everything the SF world wanted, and win all the prizes, and still didn’t have to be sexist?
How did you ever get away with it?
KYD: You’ve just read one of the letters from Letters to Tiptree – what makes that one your favourite?
AP: Well I mean, I love Gwyneth Jones’ style, I think she encapsulates a lot of the really interesting points about Tiptree’s life, and also the… I guess, the problems of someone in the 21st century of trying to understand who James Tiptree or Alice Sheldon actually was, and her point about not trying to lay claim to Tiptree’s identity is, I think, really interesting I love the line about the “doomy, Wagnerian love-death”, I think that’s just… it’s a glorious way of pointing out some the things that Tiptree manage to stay in his/her writing, and the sorts of challenges that were presented by her writing to science fiction. Yeah, so I like the way it’s discussing bothlife and the writing, and I guess putting all of that together.
KYD: The book collects both letters written specifically for the book, and letters written during Tiptree’s life. Do you have a favourite out of the more private letters?
AP: Absolutely – so Tiptree knew when she was going to be outed, and as Gwyneth Jones points out in her letter, Tiptree as Sheldon had formed really quite close letter-writing relationships with a whole bunch of people, some writers, some fans – some of those relationships started by Sheldon writing fan letters as Tiptree, to people like Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ. And when Sheldon knew that she was going to be outed, she wrote to some of those key people to say ‘I have to tell you who I actually am, I’m this… middle-aged woman living in Virginia – basically, I’m so sorry.’ In the letter she writes to Joanna Russ, it’s PS. Oh Joanna, will I have any friends left? And it’s really quiet heartbreaking. But Ursula Le Guin’s response is magnificent. She uses all these different words for basically, you know, ‘you’re my sister,’ she says, I don’t think I’ve ever been truly surprised before until this moment, I’m so excited to meet you. And it’s just, it’s beautiful to see that this woman, who could have been – a bit, frankly, shocked that this person she’s been corresponding with for years is not the person that she thought, in fact Le Guin says later, ‘I always kind of wondered whether Tip might have been gay, because of some of the ways that you were talking, and then I discovered that you’re a woman and that’s just really awesome.’ And I guess I’m really reassured by that, that Le Guin saw their friendship as real enough that an apparent change in gender really didn’t matter – I think that’s beautiful.
KYD: That was actually the one I was thinking of as my favourite of those ones on the way over here, for much the same reasons. Was the correspondence, the existing correspondence, already widely available?
AP: A few bits and pieces had been published, especially from Le Guin and Tiptree’s correspondence, I think it’d been in Locus or another magazine, something like 10 or 20 years beforehand. And some of it had been quoted in Julie Phillips’ amazing biography of Alice Sheldon as well, but as far as I know most of the correspondence with Joanna Russ in particular hadn’t been published very widely at all. So we knew that they’d had a really expensive correspondence, and it was all kept with Tiptree’s correspondence at this university library, and we were able to get scanned copies of it and then we included it, because we got permission from the various different estates. But we knew kind of a starting date that we wanted to look at, because we knew that this central issue of the revealing of the identity was where we wanted to think about the correspondence. But I read – and it was no trial, it was a great privilege – I read many pages of their correspondence trying to figure out which ones would work best, and which ones said the sorts of things that would match and build on the other letters that we had. So we eventually narrowed it down to the ones that we ended up publishing. Some of the rest of it was just the normal sorts of correspondence you get between ordinary people – which was kind of fascinating to see, actually – I mean I love Le Guin and Russ and Tiptree, and to see them talking about, yeah, you know, ‘the kids have got a cold’, was just kind of bizarre. (Laughs.)
KYD: You’ve actually got another collection coming out – would you be able to tell us a little about the Octavia Butler letters collection?
AP: Yeah, so that’s really exciting as well, so Octavia Butler died about ten years ago, and although she’s in no danger of being forgotten, there’s not that same impetus as there was with Tiptree, we thought it was an opportune time to do a similar sort of tribute to her essentially. So again, we’ve approached a whole bunch of people, we’ve put out a pretty broad, as broad a call as we could for people to write for us. Butler was also a… a prolific letter writer and she kept all her correspondence. But it’s not quite the same as it was with Tiptree. Butler was a tutor at Clarion and Clarion West, for example – she went to conventions, people know her rather than with Tiptree, who was a recluse, essentially. So letter writing wasn’t quite as important. So we’re taking a slightly different tack with the Butler book, in that we’re reprinting a whole bunch of academic essays that have been written about Butler’s work, as well as the original letters and original essays that have been written for the book. Also a couple of interviews that were done with Butler during her life, so that we still get to have Butler’s voice in there as well. So we’re really trying to acknowledge the role that Octavia Butler has played, and continues to play. She said that she thought she had three different audiences – a science fiction audience, a feminist audience and a black audience. As basically the first black woman to make a living from science fiction, she played a really huge role in those arenas, and much of what she’s writing about – in only 12 novels, which is quite remarkable – have actually some similar themes to what Tiptree’s talking about in terms of the human race destroying itself, and those sorts of things. So we’re trying to acknowledge all those different strands that are running through Butler’s fiction, and some of the nonfiction as well, she wrote a few essays.
KYD: That was Alexandra Pierce, co-editor of Letters to Tiptree. She’s now working on a new collection, celebrating Octavia Butler. The excerpt she read was from a letter by Gwyneth Jones, and you can hear the complete letter on our website later this week. That’s all we have time for, so as always, thank you to everyone who gave up their evening to read and/or be interviewed for the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew, and I’ll be back with more ready paraphernalia next month. In the meantime, keep an eye on killyourdarlings.com.au, and remember to sign up as a member – you’ll not only gain access to all our fantastic content, you’ll get an invite to our Members-only party in July [sic]. So see you next time.