2005_11_merricklg.jpgMuch like the quote from Rolling Stone emblazoned on Susie Bright’s blog, Elizabeth Merrick “could not be accused of shutting up.” The writer, teacher, and feminist activist who co-founded the now-defunct Cupcake Reading Series is back with a novel, an anthology, a writing school, a blog, and a new reading series, Grace, named after her grandmother. Throw in a healthy dash of controversy over the pink-hued genre of chick lit, and it’s enough to keep this Brooklyn girl very, very busy. Her 500+ page novel Girly which will be published in December by her own Demimonde Books, is a sweeping epic chronicling several generations of women, centered around sisters Ruth and Racinda as they grapple with living in gossipy small towns, restrictive church teachings, family upheaval, and finding themselves, with detours into affairs, sex, drugs, cults, bands and boys along the way, and walks the line between poetically atmospheric and compulsively readable. Merrick, who holds a BA in Film Studies from Yale, as well as an MFA from Cornell and an MA in Creativity and Art Education from San Francisco State, has made it her mission to expose sexism within the publishing industry, from calling magazines on their lack of female bylines to exploring the state of modern women's literary fiction. 2006 will see the Random House release of Merrick’s anthology This Is Not Chick Lit: A Collection of Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers, featuring fiction from writers such as Aimee Bender, Jennifer Egan, Myla Goldberg, Francine Prose, Curtis Sittenfeld and Vendela Vida. The announcement of the book deal set chick lit writers such as Jennifer Weiner and the book blogosphere buzzing, and has prompted the forthcoming release of the response anthology This Is Chick Lit, edited by Lauren Baratz-Logsted. Now, Merrick has turned her eye toward empowering other writers, and speaks with tones of extreme excitement about her nascent writing school, where she offers an eight week foundation course as well as one day workshops such as the “Strange Tales seminar.” Amidst her hectic schedule, Merrick emailed Gothamist some answers worthy of a woman whose compelling, worth-every-page book could be enough to break your shoulder bag.

The story is so dense and layered between various family members and flashbacks and drama. Did you plot it out and know exactly what was going to happen?
It started with chapter 10, a boy’s voice, Max, in 1994—I wrote that chapter my last week of college. I wrote it feeling very strongly this sweet, smart 17-year-old boy who has absolutely no option, no pathway in front of him as to how to be a man. He trips out on the Michelin Man and all that padding and all the adult men around him look like real jerks and I was just curious: how does he learn to be a man? I love him—he’s a sweetheart and straightforward and was a relief in the writing from all my drama queens. Racinda was a sideline character there in Max’s story and she just spun out this big epic thang that became Girly—her sister, mother, grandmother, her coming of age and getting slutty and having very few options for any sort of dignified path, any beauty in this corporate landscape around her subdivision, her need to reach back into the lives of the women who walked ahead of her in order to have any future at all. The different chapters were voices and tones and songs and lines that would show up in these 40 page chunks until I got a clear vision and structure halfway through, and then it was such a gift to cruise through to the end. Cruise meaning not tear my hair out completely, only sometimes. Music got me “in” to the chapters, also driving around a lot where I lived in upstate New York, not living in the city—being this sort of Bjorklike creature on my own a lot, totally different from how I function here as a person who writes a zillion emails and administrates things. I can edit my work and come up with bits in New York, but the real genesis of the voices—like traveling to another dimension—can only happen where there are serious trees and tons of space and not a lot of email.

2005_11_merrickcover.jpgAlthough it’s a novel, Girly makes some pretty powerful indictments of Christianity and the evils of becoming blindsided by religion, as Amandine, Ruth's and Racinda’s mother does. What kinds of statements were you trying to make about the church?
On one level my personal experience with evangelical Christianity has informed everything for me. My mom was a Born Again when I grew up, and still is. It is a huge gift in my life to love someone tremendously whose politics are such a thorn in my side, though when I was a teenager it was such a problem that I found a way to get myself to boarding school for a bit of a break. The Born Agains I grew up with were the most compassionate and community-minded people I have ever witnessed—they spent the greatest portion of their time, energy, income making sure people were fed and clothed and listened to. Totally separate from the voices on the television, totally not materialistic or concerned about appearances—they have access to a spirituality that most of material secular America is starving for. It was an extremely feminine, spiritual space—people had these strong emotions and this drive to take care of each other, and those families were actually way, way more functional than the norm. The dads hung out and worshipped which was such a cool singing, connected, kind of a vibe.

Of course I have the same despair over the rise of the Christian right as anyone in a blue state. And of course I was so relieved to get to boarding school and college and read Simone de Beauvoir and wear too much eyeliner and encounter Robitussin as a recreational drug etc. etc. But the materialist suburban thang going on in most of America is just so dry spiritually, sensually—people rush to the Christians for that. Have you ever seen someone getting the spirit? It’s the closest thing to an extended massive orgasm you’re going to see on TV in the heartland on Sunday morning or any time. You don’t even get that in porn, you know—you don’t get anything near that kind of sensual, spiritual hit.

Part of the legacy of 5000 years of patriarchy is that we think we have to do penance for any bit of pleasure or comfort we receive. That it somehow hurts people if we receive too much, if we are too happy (and I am not talking about “too much” like a McMansion and a Gucci purse too-much). So you can have these women speaking tongues, you can plug into a supportive, loving version of spirituality as long as you also have that punishing, male, Old Testament voice there to kick you down a bit, to warn you about sinning, to give you guidelines to your pleasure, tell you which kind is okay and which sends you to hell—because the idea of all the beauty we could experience is just too much. The blue state girls do this too, we just have different versions of this Ultimate Old Guy Authority—The New Yorker, The New York Times, the idea that men want Girls Gone Wild more than a real woman, etc. We buy into it and we don’t have to—we can choose to think about it differently and not do that penance for whatever creative, pleasurable things we’ve generated for ourselves. The legacy of Christianity and the patriarchies that preceded it are this resistance to pleasure. Christianity cut women off very specifically from their sexuality, and I still think—witness Female Chauvinist Pigs—that that knowledge is threatening. The version of women’s sexuality we have in popular culture is Britney Spears—a virgin, not concerned with her own pleasure but very happy to be a blowup doll for men, which most men get bored of in reality very quickly of course. If women really listen to their own sensuality, you are not going to be able to control them, and they are an irresistible (and benevolent) force—happy, sensual women do not make men unhappy, they’re a joy to be around, they’re egalitarian, they’re the antithesis of a shrew.

Why did you choose to tell the story with so many different narrators? Did it ever get confusing for you to embody each of them so fully?
I had no interest in writing a typical first novel—it just wasn’t anything I cared about doing. I wanted to read a big-ass, epic, thoughtfully-written novel about the undercurrents of spirituality and sexuality that women are using to transform everything that echoed the stories and worlds I was hearing in Bjork, Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, Sleater Kinney—it didn’t exist, I couldn’t find it. I would look on bookstore shelves so hopefully. But it wasn’t there. So I wrote it. If had known how hard it would be to write something so complex I surely would have chickened out, but once you’re far enough into the writing project you just hate yourself too much if you stop. I seem to write in 40 page chunks so I would stick with a character through their arc and then switch. I never could have written a 500 page novel in one voice. You have a certain temperament: I have 3 small businesses and a day job at the moment, so I like having a lot going on at once. It’s a relief to finally understand that.

The narrators range in age, class, religious beliefs and sensibility; was there any one who you most identified with or were most attached to? Was one the toughest to write about, and why?
You know, it’s like thinking about ex-boyfriends when I think about the characters in Girly—I sort of miss them and there is this thing you went through together, you are separate now but you think about how one of them did something so sweet or so quirky or whatever. And they are still there even if I am not writing. There is a prequel to Girly brewing, and a sequel: the essences of these characters, particularly Button and then this sort of Courtney Love girl Lisa who shows up in the middle of the book to tear shit up, have more to show me. Button, the grandmother of Ruth and Racinda, the two main characters, is kind of close in voice to my grandmother, Grace, in certain ways, and I just named my new reading series after Grace so Button is particularly close to my heart at the moment. She is that Depression generation that is to me sort of like the last American generation to live on the same planet Earth as the thousands of generations gone before (and most of the people on the planet today)—without these ridiculous standards of comfort and fake food and 8 hours of cable TV a day—I’m nostalgic for the earthlings who had something riskier and less toxic going on and she is a connection to that.

The toughest to write about was Amandine, the Born Again mother, who was a little out of it, went through some horrible stuff in her past. The pain at the core of her was hard to be with—I could only take it in small doses. I would fall asleep at 2 in the afternoon after writing for an hour. Also it was so hard when she—Amandine—got really grotesque! I kept trying to make an executive decision in Chapter Two where she reveals this totally weird weird weird thing about herself: I kept trying to figure out how to cut it. Streamline, make more normal and elegant, like I was trying to be a good hostess and get my drunk friend home in a cab. But Girly wasn’t having any of that—the book insisted on revealing and not freaking out about certain feelings of shame that are still there for women. And certain realities about our sexuality, about how our beauty is so essential to our power, about how each little moment you reveal what you really are is where the power, the sex, the genius, the love, the beauty, the revolution, the “savior” live.

When I mentioned that I was reading your book to a friend, she said, “Oh, the one that looks like a bible.” You’re publishing Girly on your own Demimonde Press, and I wanted to find out more about the design, because it’s very stark and straightforward, and since the book is over 500 pages, it could be said to be a little imposing.
It’s a picture of my grandmother Grace’s Bible! (She wasn’t super religious—a Quaker who went Presbyterian for the social life of the choir, where she met my grandfather.) I had it out on my mom’s driveway taking digital pictures and then my friend Wendy helped pick the font and change B-I-B-L-E to G-I-R-L-Y. Describing Girly in a conversation is tough for me still—it’s about two sisters breaking free from the binds of the church, but there’s all sorts of stuff about women’s voices and spirituality that is harder to explain: the cover explains it in a nutshell so much better than I can even try to describe it overall.

You write on your site that you want this to be a novel people can take on a plane and really dig into, but it’s not lighthearted or an “easy” read. What kind of setting or time would you recommend someone start reading it—is this a book to take on vacation?
It’s NOT a book to read when you have to deal with your life in any major way—I love so much, am so grateful for those books that suck me in and away from my own life completely—Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Morrison’s Paradise, Faulkner, etc.—and that was the experience I wanted to provide. Girly is for when you want to sneak away. It’s weird when friends ask for a copy of Girly because I really want to say to them: ONLY when you want to, it’s a desire-based book. Don’t feel like you have to read this like it’s my birthday party you’re supposed to come to—it’s for when the time is right, intuitively. It’s a word-of-mouth book because it takes awhile to read and is for passionate reader-readers, people who want that transporting experience—who want to enter a mythic space away from everyday reality.

Through your previous reading series, Cupcake, and your upcoming anthology This Is Not Chick Lit, you’ve become known as a critic of chick lit, so first I want to ask you about the difference between “women’s fiction” and chick lit. Is there one? Is Girly a women’s book?
I have always thought that men and women really like to read different kinds of novels for the most part and that doesn’t bother me. In fact I love that. A little gender mystery is a beautiful thing. What bothers me is that serious women aren’t getting the bylines or reviews at our major publications in American letters to such an egregious degree that it massively impacts their ability to keep writing—the two recent New York Times articles on womentk.com and Mary Gaitskill’s dire financial straits are testament to this. It’s a matter of math: look at the number of women given bylines vs. the number of men. As for “chick lit,” that term refers generally to commercial fiction by this point, which to me is easily distinguishable from literary fiction in most cases, though of course not all cases. The debate about chick lit has changed since the announcement of This Is Not Chick Lit—when I first spoke out about it on the Cupcake blog, it was out of years of frustration that so much space at the bookstore and review space was going to this commercial fiction by women—literary fiction by women was getting seriously left behind. This marginalizing by commercial fiction was NOT true for literary fiction by men. With the announcement of the This Is Not Chick Lit anthology title, we have a lovely, healthy debate: I think it is important for women to be able to argue aesthetics without someone screaming catfight.

There was a time for me to make a bit of noise about that phenomenon. At the moment, though, I am really building my own thang—through Demimonde, Grace, and my little writing school in Brooklyn—to boost literary fiction by women. There is absolutely a market for it that mainstream publishers are ignoring and that I know how to tap. I used to just think of it as the height of sexism: there is freaking money to be made and you still ignore women literary writers! But now, I have a greater sense of my own ability to do something about the situation. It’s like: do you want to be the Guerrilla Girls or do you want to be Russell Simmons, Jay-Z? I love both stances but at some point it was like: “Oh, I don’t have to ask the literary establishment to pay attention to this market they’re ignoring, I don’t have to constantly point out their egregious byline imbalance, I can just start my own thing and go to town.” And it is so much more fun than pointing out the problems all the time, which is really not my nature but needed to be done for a while there.

You used to do a weekly spiritual reckoning with The New Yorker on the Cupcake Series blog in which you’d count the number of female contributors. Have things improved, at The New Yorker and elsewhere?
No: womentk.com

What kinds of reactions from the literary establishment have you gotten in response to these efforts?
Women literary writers are excited and grateful—they know the degree of the inequality, they just have too much going on to try to have lives, families, a paycheck, and writing time to also create this whole new structure for transforming literary sexism. Women literary writers are happy for the voice about this quite simple issue: equal pay for equal work. A lot of guy editors get a little flummoxed in person when you bring it up but are generally good, thoughtful, heroic guys and will acknowledge the imbalance.

How do you see fiction writing by women, and the push to get more female bylines in major magazines, as fitting within the larger framework of feminism? Is it simply getting more women writing for these magazines, or does the content matter too—can male-authored writing be just as, if not more, feminist than certain female-authored writing?
That’s a great question. Sure male-authored writing can be feminist, just as male-authored Supreme Court decisions can be more feminist than female-authored ones. However, only having two women on the Supreme Court is not enough—how do you think a woman’s right to choose or workplace rights or any of the number of decisions that affect families will look now that it’s about to get worse?

To me, the bottom line is that story is power. Whoever controls the story creates the world. The Christians knew that this—as well as demonizing women’s sexuality—was the key to taking over the world: they transformed local, sexual, gender-equal myths worldwide into Christian myths, saints and made the stories more patriarchal over the centuries.

You can see this same bid for power in the last election: was Bush elected on reality? No—he managed the American (and Christian, for that matter) story exquisitely. This is why the gate keeping is so hardcore not just in literature but in film: still no woman has won Best Director. That’s because the power in visual media is even greater than the power of literature. And it’s so ridiculous, because when women are granted equal power, they are happier and men are happier—it’s when women are voiceless, sexless, and starving that they become angry & castrating & vengeful. But nobody gives up power without a bit of panic and drama, at the very least, and the literary world is no different. As I said, I prefer the creative stance to the critical stance, so in this case the creative stance goes beyond creating literature, to creating economic structures that support new stories.

You also run your own writing school out of your home in Brooklyn and have been teaching for twelve years. How did you get started teaching writing and what do you like best about it?
You know, I got this apartment that was a little bigger and I couldn’t quite afford it and my friend Nathalie said, you should teach ballet classes in this enormous living room! And I got sort of desperate and worn out from copyediting so I ended up, what the hell, starting writing classes by advertising on Craigslist. Forget Jesus—Craigslist is magic. Now it’s mostly word of mouth, and the classes are generally full each round, and I’ve moved the intro course into a public classroom space. The most amazing beings show up in my living room every week—it’s such a huge gift. I have this thriving, not-snobby, passionate, fun, hilarious, hard-working, tight-knit literary community bringing beauty into the world. In my house, every week! It didn’t exist before for me, really—I was a bit sad not to have a literary community, but nothing out there appealed—I didn’t quite have one even in grad school. Now there’s this whole crew making such gorgeous books all around me—it is an honor to be involved with my students. It’s the thing in my life I feel luckiest about in addition to my family. I look back and I see: my god, I would have been so grouchy if I had gotten some big late-nineties book advance and hidden away protecting my writing time a few more years. The way things played out, this lovely community was born. My students inspire me and crack me up every single week and their books are going to floor you, just wait.

Find out more about Elizabeth Merrick at www.elizabethmerrick.com, her writing classes at www.elizabethsworkshops.com and about Girly at www.demimondebooks.com. Girly goes on sale in December. The next Grace Reading Series takes place on Tuesday, November 29th at 7 p.m. at Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction, 34 Avenue A, featuring Beth Lisick, author of Everybody Into The Pool: True Tales.