On Writing, Post-Its and the Portland Literati: An Interview With Chloe Caldwell, author of LEGS GET LED ASTRAY
By Mira Ptacin
April 3, 2012
Freerange loves Chloe. When we found her essay “My Heart Was Still Beating,” in our slush pile last year, we knew right away that this gal was a firework. Since then, she’s rocked the Freerange stage twice (her first performance was our personal favorite, “Say Yes to Carrots,”) started her own reading series in Hudson, New York, and published her first book, Legs Get Led Astray (Future Tense Books, April 2012).
Chloe’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Nylon Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Freerange Nonfiction, The Frisky and The Faster Times. She is the founder and curator of the Hudson River Loft Reading Series and she splits her time living in Hudson, New York, and Portland, Oregon. www.chloecaldwell.com
1. Why did you write “Legs Get Led Astray”?
I never sat down with the idea to write “Legs Get Led Astray.” It was after two years of writing essays that I wondered what the essays would look like side by side. When I sent the original manuscript to Future Tense almost a year ago, it looked nothing like the one it is now. I wrote a lot of new pieces since then. My publisher says that it went from “a wild, volatile animal to a beautiful, lean creature.” Why did I write it? Well, I wrote the contents of this book because I enjoyed doing so and had a strong desire to. The page gave me a place to put my energy and my emotions. It gave me a place to put my pain. I think when I was living in Brooklyn in my early twenties, I was doing some things that were mildly self-destructive, and had a relationship which brought out some anger in me. Writing was how I coped with some intense emotions, and feelings of over-stimulation.
2. Do you think anything would have been different had you written this book five years from now?
Of course. I wrote all of these essays from age 21-25 and I wrote a lot of them while the situations were going on. Five years from now, I wonder if I would be interested in writing this book. No one has brought this up yet—that I wrote about my life in real time. If these essays were written five years from now, with more hindsight, I wonder if they would lose their immediacy and if they’d be more or less impactful to the reader.
3. How did you end up with Future Tense Books?
My friend Sean H. Doyle told me about Future Tense Books when I was living in Seattle in 2010. I checked out the website and bought some Future Tense books at the store Pilot Books. I felt like FT was really open-minded about what they published, and I was drawn to that. On March 27th, 2010 I emailed Kevin Sampsell, the publisher of Future Tense, and introduced myself and sent him one of my essays. He claimed to like my stuff, but explained that he was backed up with projects, and told me not to wait for him. I thought that he was just being polite and that I would never hear from him again. One year later though, he wrote to me and said “Send me stuff now.” My writing probably wasn’t ready until that “Send me stuff now” email, anyway, so everything worked out. I was kind of just sitting there with my manuscript, unsure of what to do with it. I’d did show the collection to a couple of other publisher’s, but always held out hope that Future Tense would come around.
4. Who is your intended audience, and what do you hope readers will gain from your book? What have some of the responses been?
I never intended for a particular audience, though I suppose if I had to choose, I was probably thinking of my peers in the back of my mind while I wrote. I think anyone from age seventeen on, can probably relate to the book, though. A couple of teenagers have been reading it, as well as people well into their sixties. If people feel like they want to write after reading my book, or while reading my book, that would be pretty fantastic.
So far I’ve been humbled and overjoyed by the responses to the book. Most people tell me that they “read the book in one sitting” which seems like a good sign to me. Four out of five people tell me that the book made them cry. Not that there is anything particularly sad in LGLA, but maybe because it’s relatable. One girl wrote to me and told her that I made her feel like she had a “friend for the day.”
However, the book’s true release date is today, (April 3rd, 2012) so the reactions have only just begun. I know they say not to read your own reviews, but I’m incredibly curious. My very first review was in The Portland Mercury, and the reviewer said that some of the essays made her “want to throw the book across the room.” But she did say that she would pick it back up. I guess that’s what matters.
5. What do you consider the message of your book to be?
I think that I love making people feel less alone. When I was an adolescent, and into my early twenties, that’s what I turned to books for. I still do, obviously, but even more so when I was younger. I was so hungry to relate to people, to read true sentences and feel reassured.
So, maybe the message is to comfort people that they aren’t alone in their darkness or in their joy. We are all tragically human, and that’s okay—because it has to be.
6. What is the most surprising reaction you’ve received from this book?
Like I said above—I will have to keep you posted on this! But as of now, I guess that my dad sort of surprised me. He took my book on an airplane to Vietnam a couple of weeks ago, and I put Post-It notes over a couple of the essays and told him it might be better if he just skipped them. When I spoke with him on the phone while he was at one of the airports, I asked him if he saw my post-its. “Yeah,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Jack Kerouac wasn’t writing for his parents either.”
I thought that was really sweet.
7. What did you learn from writing this book, as well the lead up to publication (and beyond)? What has the whole experience been like?
I’ve learned copious amounts of things. It was a very hands-on process. Working with a small press has endless perks. It’s like being behind the scenes with your favorite band for months and months. I learned terminology I’d never known before, (widow, flapping, one-sheet,) I think my eye for detail got a little bit better, and I’ve learned to slow down, that a little bit of patience never killed anybody.
Also, since my publisher is also a bookseller at Powell’s Books, I was able to gain the perspective of bookselling. I look at books in a different way now—how they’re designed, the blurbs, where they are shelved in the store, how to reach out to book reviewers and how to treat bookstores, because I’ve seen first-hand what goes on behind closed doors. Once my dad joked that through Future Tense, I had gained a master of fine arts. I wouldn’t go that far, but this entire process was most definitely like a crash course. Each time I visit Portland, I meet many Northwest authors and it’s ridiculously inspiring. They tell me now that I am part of the “Portland Literati.” Ha!
Most significantly, through the Future Tense team, I really learned the importance of communication and teamwork. The whole experience has been profoundly fulfilling. The people that craft your book with you—they become a family of a sort.
8. What are your thoughts regarding your next project?
Well, I recently decided that I want to do the teacher training hours to become a certified yoga teacher. That will take a year or two. I’d also like to take more writing classes, and explore more with my writing. I’d like to get better. I’d like to tackle new subjects, and maybe even focus a little bit on journalism. And, of course, I will continue to write personal essays, because god damn, do I love writing them.
BONUS: Oh, and do I still use Yes To Carrots? No. I never did use it. However, when I was writing that essay, I splurged on the shower gel and lotion for research purposes. I wanted to smell it to trigger some memories. It worked, I think. I do have the Yes To Tomatoes mud mask in the bathroom though. I admit it.