An Interview with Sarah McCarry

Interview conducted by April Murphy

April Murphy: When you began blogging as The Rejectionist, you were anonymous – and the persona you created was pointedly bombastic and irritable. Eventually, this kind of melted away, evolving into a more reflective and sometimes-even-soft Le R, that suddenly, revealed itself to be you – owning up to your real identity and your past and your (exciting/literary) future. I’m curious, did the anonymity help you find your writing voice? Or, once you revealed your identity, did you suddenly feel the need to start writing about your life? 

Sarah McCarry: The funny thing about that is that the early persona of the blog is really what’s uncharacteristic for me as a writer, and the personal stuff is more like what I’ve been writing all along. I’ve been writing a personal zine since 1998 or 1999, and although obviously (well, hopefully) my writing has evolved a lot over the years I’ve always used the lens of my personal experience to examine whatever it is I’m thinking about. Everything I’ve published up until now has been some form of personal essay. When I moved to New York I thought, very briefly, that I wanted to work in publishing, and the blog started as a lark and a sort of escape valve as I was flailing around in that endeavor. But I realized pretty quickly that that wasn’t an industry I wanted to stay in, and I really don’t like writing about publishing–or writing, for that matter–and so the blog shifted back to the kind of writing I’ve always done.

Although I’ve never thought of that early persona as particularly constructed–I mean, there’s certainly a lot of me in there. I’m a cocky bitch. It’s a big advantage, especially if you’re a woman writing on the internet about yourself, to come across as terrifying.

AJM: This reminds me of something Rachel Maddow said recently in an interview with Rolling Stone. Maddow was referring to a confrontation she’d had with Alex Castellanos where he said he liked how passionate she was when she called him out on denying the gender wage gap. In the interview she’s quoted “I wanted to say, ‘Are you saying I’m cute when I’m angry? But I didn’t, because when you’re a woman on television, you can’t even say the word angry.”  I think you could substitute ‘woman writer’ and Maddow’s remark wouldn’t ring any less true. 

One of the things that I admire about your writing is that you aren’t afraid to let people know when you’re angry – and you make no effort to conceal that you have strong opinions about how women are treated both in the publishing world, how they’re treated by writers, and how they are treated at large. I understand it’s nearly impossible to answer “What advice can you give to women writers, people who talk about women writers, and people who write women?” and you’ve been tackling these very questions for years, but what can you tell them about anger? 

SM: I think anger is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me; I think anger can be constructive and instructive and it can make you into a force and it can keep you alive. It has kept me alive, certainly. It’s the thing I recognize in other people and it’s the thing that tells me how much I’m going to love someone, whether we are angry in the same ways about the same things. It can make you totally fearless. But also I think anger is something you have to learn to live with carefully–for me that’s been true, anyway. It’s also important to learn how to take care of yourself and give yourself permission to take breaks from it. Anger for me is like a sort of tiring houseguest; sometimes you have to be like, “Dude, take a walk so I can clean my damn apartment and read some trashy books and drink a beer.” I don’t know what to say about it exactly; if you are a woman your anger will make people scared of you, for sure, but the angrier you are the less you’ll care, and the people who understand your anger and make a space for your anger and are angry with you are the people you want around you anyway.

AJM: When I was in undergrad, one of my professors upon hearing a student say they’d been accepted into a graduate writing program exclaimed that “Dante didn’t need a degree to write the Divine Comedy.”  This has always bothered me, probably because I fear the truth in it. As someone who escaped the MFA/PHD/BA/etc.circus (for a more exciting and literal circus), what has your experience trying to break into the writing world been like?

SM: The short version is that it was about fifteen years of fucking up and going nowhere and then when everything came together for me at last it came together very quickly; like I woke up one morning and the universe had left me a unicorn, pretty much. I knew when I was very young that I didn’t want to do an MFA; I took a couple of writing classes as an undergrad before I dropped out of college and I had no patience for it. I am so bad at workshop, I can’t even tell you. I don’t mean to disparage MFA programs at all, I think they can be wonderful for people who are suited to them, and they can be amazing spaces to get a lot of work done and hopefully find people who understand what you’re trying to do and read your writing well. But I go totally bananas and say hateful things and make people cry, and I think if you’re that sort of person it’s fine too. Just don’t inflict yourself on an MFA program.

This is going to out me as a total hippie but I think it was hard for me for so long because I wasn’t ready; when I started taking myself seriously as a writer and telling people I was a writer, when I started taking my blog seriously and treating the things I was writing as though they were real essays and not just running jokes, that’s when things started to happen for me. I think it’s absolutely true that, MFA or no MFA, if you are moderately talented and willing to work your ass off and never, ever give up, at some point it will pay off for you. There’s no one way to do it.

AJM: Vivian Gornick, in The Situation and the Storydescribes a similar process. She says that sometimes you can’t write the right story until you’ve decided who you must be to tell it. Do you any insight into this process? 

SM: Well, I wish I had something very deep and insightful to say about this process, but honestly it happened to me by accident and I have spent most of my life being terribly impatient and frustrated with myself and ecstatically self-flagellating and all that other awesome stuff that comes from being a human. Things didn’t start happening for me until I was ready for them to happen, but that place is so different for everyone. Some people get there when they’re 23 and some people get there when they’re 63 and either way is fine. I can say for sure that right now is the most amazing place I’ve ever been in my life but I never would have gotten here without aggressively running my life into the ground for a while. If you can get to self-love and dream achievement without epic mismanagement that’s probably a way more advisable route. I’ve been pretty much the same person since the womb but it took me a long time to figure out how to love myself and have faith in what I’m doing. I’ve also been really, really lucky, and there are a lot of incredible people in my life who have supported me in so many ways. Anyone who tells stories is telling them as part of a community and I have been tremendously blessed by the community that I have.

AJM: Serious question: preferred whiskey?

SM: Bulleit Rye.

Sarah McCarry is the author of the novel All Our Pretty Songs, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in 2013. She has published the zine Glossolalia since 1999 and blogged at www.therejectionist.com since 2009. She is the editor and publisher of Guillotine, a series of chapbooks focused on revolutionary nonfiction (http://souslespaves.bigcartel.com).