Bookforum talks to Jia Tolentino

Jia Tolentino. Photo: Elena Mudd

Jia Tolentino is the Jia Tolentino of our generation. Formerly a deputy editor at Jezebel and contributing editor at the Hairpin, Tolentino is currently a staff writer at the New Yorker. As she put it to me when we spoke recently, these jobs have allowed her to “push against the conventional wisdom of online feminism” and “make youth and internet culture legible to the New Yorker’s readership.” In her debut collection of essays, Trick Mirror, she explores her own feelings about certain systems governing contemporary life. The nine essays comprising her first collection aren’t entirely memoir but reveal the writer’s bearings to evangelism, rape culture, and reality television, to name several of Tolentino’s more intimate inquiries. A through line of the book is tracking what she described to me as “the self as a thing that's constructed in conversation with structures; a self that only exists in context.” Often flensed of her obsessions after writing about them, Tolentino was most generous in discussing her process over the phone in early August.

In the book, particularly when you write about feminism, you note how the success of women as individuals is—

––prioritized over our collective wellbeing in a way that’s basically monstrous. And here I am pushing myself towards it as fast as I can.

How does it feel to have written and promoted a book that details that pattern?

I’ve thought about that a lot lately, doing so much self-promotion. So many of my actions over the last two years are inevitably tied up with me trying to make myself successful. I’ve been trying to think of it like, what you were also doing is just writing. You’re also doing the thing that you love most and get the most meaning from.

One thing that comforts me constantly is that the best things in our lives are still somewhat out of reach of all of these systems. They’re out of reach of the algorithm. The market knows about them, but doesn’t know them. I’ve been finding myself trying to, when I can, retreat into whatever is off limits. What I always turn to is music. Especially live music.

What would be on the soundtrack for Trick Mirror?

I wrote while listening to Caribou, Kamasi Washington, Frank Ocean, Mitski. Towards the end, a lot of Talk Talk. There was this amazing jazz composer at MacDowell while I was there, Mark Dresser, who showed me a lot of jazz that I had never listened to.

Did you feel pressured to describe the setting you were writing in, for instance at the MacDowell residency where you finished writing the book?

I’m really sensitive to environment, but I don’t translate that into my writing right away. I’ve realized recently that I am not actually very good at processing the present when I’m in it, which I think is one of the reasons that I write so much and always have. I can trust myself to feel something very deeply but not have to process it at all in the present. I think that whenever I’m writing about something that happened in the past, the setting is very physically vivid for me, and maybe it filters into the writing. But where I am right now almost always feels very separate from what I’m writing. Especially for the book, it was about things that had gripped me in the past.

I realized in grad school that I had the ability to pretty calmly divide my attention among a lot of things, a lot of intensities, and to do it in a way that felt mostly great. In 2013, I was writing a novel and I was teaching and I was in grad school and I was editing The Hairpin. That sort of set the precedent for the way that I worked basically until the New Yorker. Even at the New Yorker, I was writing a lot of things at once. MacDowell was really the first time since grad school that I had permission to have undivided attention. That felt nearly holy. The greatest thing about the residency was being in the company of thirty other people who found no greater peace and fulfillment and pleasure and meaning than in just working all fucking day on, for all of them, art. For me, I don’t consider what I do art. They treated it that way, though. It was a nice reminder that you can let something be special enough to take up all of your time.

Did you consider your writing art when you were writing fiction?

No, never, which is maybe why I wasn’t good at it. As a reader, I consider fiction art—art and magic. Nonfiction journalism is work and it feels like work. And I like work. When I waited tables all through college, I liked the work of it. I’m much better thinking about art as a consumer. There’s just something deep within me that will never, ever be able to consider anything I do art in the slightest!

At the same time, there are those flashes sometimes. You know that feeling when something comes out and you don’t know where it came from? When that happens to me, I still don’t consider it art, but it is a special feeling. I edit myself to death, I go over everything a million times, but there are certain paragraphs that come out all at once and never, ever change. That feeling is really special to me—and beyond my comprehension.

It’s like with poetry: I taught it to third graders in Houston and I taught it in grad school and I loved teaching it, because it was so obvious that it was this opaque black box of magic. Which made me love to read it so much more. I like reading fiction more than nonfiction, just because when it’s great it feels like you can’t imagine how anyone could have possibly written it. It just feels dropped on the page from the heavens.

You write about forgetting everything you don’t need to turn into a story. When did you start writing to avoid losing things?

My partner is an architect and he remembers every building he’s been in, every restaurant: what the ceiling beams look like, what the joints of the table are like, the light fixtures. We remember what our brains are keyed to remember. I could not tell you what the sink looks like in my own apartment, but I can tell you the emotional mood of any conversation I’ve ever had. I’m sure you’re probably like that: I think a lot of writers are. I started writing a thousand words every day just to get out all my feelings in adolescence, between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Before that, I would say I started writing things down pretty regularly in third grade.

Detailing your appearance on the fourth season of a reality television show called Girls V. Boys, you write of “a certain amount of family instability and a certain amount of wild overconfidence being factors that self-selected” you and the other contestants for your moment on the show. Did these factors also self-select you for writing?

Well, it’s not like I’ve been flying completely without a safety net. I’ve had a lot of institutional financial support in my life and I’m conscious that it has given me class mobility. But when I graduated college, even though I knew vaguely that I wanted to be a writer, I felt strongly that I could not afford to try. If you can’t trust that someone can spot you two month’s rent here and there—a request I was not willing to subject my parents to––then you have the sense that there’s nothing to expect and nothing to count on.

I understood that if I ever got a chance to write, it would be a fluke, and who knows how long it would last? When I was starting out in grad school, another one of these life-changing institutional support periods, I never trusted being able to write for very long. That made me really figure out how to get a shit-ton of pleasure out of the act of writing itself. To me, that was the only thing you could count on: finding pleasure in writing. That was it. You couldn’t count on anyone being able to read you. You couldn’t count on being able to pay your rent. In a way, this has made me a better writer, because I never thought about it as a career.

And the wild overconfidence, that’s so basic, right? You have to be overconfident, in a way, to be a writer. There’s this deep, monstrous audacity in thinking people should read what you have to say. The harshness with which I treat myself when I’m actually writing belies some level of doubt, but I also operate in the world as someone who just does anything at any time. I think that’s why I like blogging. You’ve got to just trust that whatever your brain shits out at any given moment is going to be okay. Not necessarily great, but worth reading in some way. That was pretty easy for me to do.

How has your path as a writer most surprised you?

Every single step has surprised me. When the New Yorker hired me, I was shocked for six months. I know it’s extremely difficult to get paid, let alone paid well, to write things that you liked to write. This thing I’m able to do at this moment is super rare. I feel so lucky, and it also feels bad, as with a lot of things, to be enjoying a situation that a lot more people should have. The book is the first time I made a conscious decision, asking myself: You are here, you are able to write for a living. What are you going to do now?

Thora Siemsen is an interviewer and writer living in New York City.