Bookforum talks to Chelsea Hodson

In the autobiographical essays that make up her debut collection, Tonight I’m Someone Else, Chelsea Hodson examines the chaotic and bewildering experience of being an American woman and artist. At first glance, some essays resemble a well-curated Twitter feed—like the single-line, stream-of-consciousness observations found in “The End of Longing”—but Hodson offers much more than aphoristic quips: She delves deeply into themes such as longing, desire, performance, and voyeurism. Her fragmentary, self-aware style evokes recent works by Sarah Manguso, Jenny Offill, and Maggie Nelson, yet her meticulously-crafted sentences sing with an elegance that is entirely her own. A sharp observer, Hodson strikes an artful balance between objective analysis and emotional vulnerability. She unearths both beauty and brutality in the mundane, and considers the bizarre with a shrewd investigative eye.

I met Hodson in the back garden of an East Williamsburg bar in early May. After several days of rain, new life was springing up all around us. Police sirens wailed through the streets as we talked; a terrier with an uncanny resemblance to Groucho Marx howled along mournfully. We burst into laughter, and, as Hodson writes in one of her essays, “I thought, This is a peak experience, because I knew it was about to end.”

What was the genesis of this book like? Did you have a specific vision, or did it surprise you?

I had a vision of a collection, but I didn’t know anything beyond that. I just knew that I didn’t seem to be able to write more than twenty pages at a time. I couldn’t really imagine a 300-page book like a lot of my friends could, and so I was at peace with a collection of short-form pieces. The first piece I wrote in this collection was “Pity the Animal.”That one was the first essay where I felt like I was finding my voice. I could see these elements that I was working with coming together in a way that was satisfying to me, whereas before it always felt like I was close, but I wasn’t quite there—my taste felt so far removed from my ability. “Pity the Animal”was the first essay where I was like, “Yeah, that was actually what I was trying to do.” From there, I could see how other essays I was writing were fitting into certain themes, almost unintentionally—themes like commodification and desire.

There’s such a balance in this book between precision and vulnerability. You write with such poise—yet there’s an unflinching, messy quality to your content, a refusal to look away—to keep pushing through the most disturbing or disquieting moments.

That’s important to me, that balance. I like this idea of it being kind of messy, but also very contained and clean. That kind of pairing also comes up a lot in terms of the surreal with the very real, mundane, or boring. I’m trying to mix it up to kind of keep my reader on their toes, I guess. Or even really to keep myself on my toes while I’m writing. I think the ability to surprise yourself while you’re writing is so hard to do, and I’m always trying to do that—to make things interesting for myself when I’m writing it, and to discover something, even if it’s very small.

I’m interested in the question of how we rewrite our memories, and the concept that all memories are, in a sense, fiction—since different people remember things differently. Did you ever find yourself remembering things that surprised you in some way, doubting or questioning the way you had remembered something, or being afraid you wouldn’t be able to remember?

The essay “Swollen and Victorious” comes to mind, where I really can’t remember what I said, or any detail about meeting Gabrielle Giffords. She was always—I always tried to write about learning about the shooting, and things like that, because it really affected me, but I could never figure out how to write about it if I didn’t write anything down at the time, and it felt so long ago. And so I didn’t know how to do that. And once I wrote the first two parts of that essay, personal violence and then a courtroom trial, I felt like it needed to have Gabrielle Giffords, because that was part of this narrative in my mind. So I was faced with the conflict of, how do I approach something that I have no memory of? I have a memory of a photograph that I don’t even have anymore. So in that instance in particular, I just came up with the repetition of “I don’t remember.” That’s my way of writing about it. It’s like, “I don’t remember what she said,” and then I can kind of fill in other details around it without explicitly making it up. There are tricks that you can use to maneuver through those missing spaces, and to fill in the blanks.

So much of your work deals with the theme of being seen or looked at, especially as a woman—this simultaneous desire to be seen and anxiety about not being seen in the right way. How would you characterize your relationship with performance, masquerade, the fine line between “being someone else” for a night and exposing the core of who you really are?

One of the reasons I was interested in writing about modeling, for instance, was that I think it’s often viewed as a negative thing for women—like, “How awful. They’re only judged for how they look, or their bodies.” But for me, there was great comfort in it. I didn’t really have a negative experience with it. It was very visceral, and real, and comforting for me. It was often really relaxing. There was so much time when I was just sitting around on set. I never was successful enough for it to be really cutthroat or anything for me. But I’ve never read an account where it wasn’t like, “Oh, the poor woman.”

But I think it’s definitely kind of a battle with another part of myself, wanting to reveal and wanting to hide. There’s a line in the book, “You don’t have to hide, I often tell people right before I hide.” You know, I’m always telling people, “You don’t have to be afraid! You can tell me!” And yet I also have that tendency a lot, to be alone or be private and not reveal myself at all. And I think writing is something where I can do that without seeing the audience in front of me, so it’s less intimidating to someone that’s not a natural performer—because I don’t think I am by any means—so it’s something that can come out later, and people can interact with.

I love the way you portray longing, desire, and loneliness without being maudlin. Was it difficult to get to a place where you could talk about your own unrequited loves and unfulfilled desires without shame or sentimentality?

Not really. When I first started writing “Pity the Animal,” for instance, I didn’t have any of my own narrative in it. I don’t think it even had the word “I” in it. It was very, like, “Okay, I want to be taken seriously, so I’ll take this more journalistic, academic approach of looking at the ways in which art can show women as objects.” So I started with that, and it just wasn’t coming together. I just felt something was false about it. Behind that academic narrative was me, wanting to talk about what I was interested in, my conflicts with myself, and my own desires. Again, I just kind of thought about other women’s art that reveals themselves in an unflattering light, and I thought, well, why don’t I try that? Maybe that will help this come together.

I was writing it for Future Tense, the chapbook series, which was going to print five hundred copies of it, and so I just thought no one was going to read it anyway. So the stakes felt very low, and that honestly gave me so much permission. And instead, people were emailing me and saying how much they related to it. And that gave me a lot of permission.

There is a distinct and visceral sense of place in these essays, especially in “Red Letters from a Red Planet.” How did your background, your upbringing, and where you’re from contribute to your ability to see and convey a place?

Phoenix to me has little to no atmosphere, and yet I do write about it in the book, like in the essay “Second Row” about driving around trying to find this house at night. There’s a lot of freeway driving in my memories from high school, a lot of speeding, trying to get home before curfew. But beyond that, Tucson was what really stayed with me once I moved from Arizona, and once I was in New York I was just always thinking about how it felt to be alone at night in Tucson. I don’t know why. But it just has a very eerie quality to it, and I think that’s why I was drawn back to it so often, and why I ended up writing about it. It just had this feeling of danger and potential, like anything could happen. I always think about that. It had a downtown area, and yet it always felt like I was the only one there. I could never figure out why that was. Why am I the only one up? I was never up that late, even. It had this feeling of a small town—that everything was in private, almost. It gave it this kind of heat. So Phoenix definitely has something to do with it, but Tucson is the place that always sticks with me, even though I only lived there for four years during college. That’s what I really think about and miss a lot, in terms of atmosphere. In my mind it feels very cinematic.

How much do other artistic disciplines—watching a film, looking at visual art—influence or find their way into your writing?

I love film a lot. Certain films have really helped me in terms of atmosphere. For some reason I really loved this movie Heaven Knows What. It has these amazing close-ups on the actors’ faces, and it’s very grainy and cold-toned. I always like things like that, things that have a really strong aesthetic in terms of the mood, or something being kind of gloomy—how they sustain that is interesting to me. And then I also love certain soundtracks. So sometimes even if I think the film is fine, I’ll obsess over the soundtrack, and write to the soundtrack.

I think film influences me more than books do. I’m thinking of the long shot in the beginning of Boogie Nights. I’ve thought to myself, how can I write something that feels like that—a long shot where the camera doesn’t cut away? And sometimes I’m able to think about prompts for myself from film that I can’t with books. Sometimes when I love a book, I just wish I had written the book—I cant really separate myself from that, and it doesn’t really help me that much. A great book can stay with you, and be important, but it’s less clear to me how that directly influences my work.

Annabel Graham is a fiction writer, photographer, and arts journalist. She serves as co-fiction editor of No Tokens, and is currently at work on her first novel.