Books In Conversation
TO THROW AWAY UNOPENED: VIV ALBERTINE with Yvonne C. Garrett
Viv Albertine is an erudite and elegant woman, an accomplished writer whose first book, the 2014 Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir achieved both critical and popular acclaim. Apart from her writing career, Albertine is best–known as a member of the British all–women punk band, The Slits. Outspoken and wildly innovative, The Slits served as role models for a generation of young women, giving us the courage to speak up, to create our own art, and our own narratives.
Albertine’s new book, To Throw Away Unopened, takes up roughly where the first left off detailing the final night of her mother’s life and Albertine’s investigations into her family and her own history. This book is a sort of detective story, a well–wrought exercise in tracking down the source of rage—her own rage, her mother’s rage, and the rage of so many women oppressed by the constraints of patriarchal society. This detective story is structured in segments each starting with the connective tissue of the narrative of her mother’s last night alive. The structure is innovative, challenging, and incredibly compelling. Throughout, Albertine delves deeply into her own anger, frustrations, and fears.
We spoke the day after Albertine’s book event at McNally Jackson.
Yvonne Garrett (Rail): Can you talk a little bit about making the decision to write? Some musicians who also write have said it’s a similar process to writing a song, others that it is an entirely different process. At the end of this, your second book, you state that you no longer play music. Has writing taken the place of music for you? Is it different? Every writer has a different process—what’s yours and was it the same for this book as the last?
Viv Albertine: I never expected to be a writer. The first book (Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music Music Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir, 2014) came about over years and it was a long process coming to the idea of writing a book, with absolute dread I might add, not having written anything long form, only three or four minute songs. Although I’ve read a lot, I left school at seventeen, went to art school, so it’s not like I have an MFA. I was really self–conscious about my lack of this, that, and the other. When I eventually thought &ldquoI’m going to try and tackle a book,“ my so–called manager at the time said “It will be shit if you write it yourself,” so that didn’t help my self–esteem. But I also knew I couldn’t speak totally honestly to some ghost writer. What came out of me at the kitchen table when it was just between me and the computer or the page would be so much more intimate than if I sat chatting to a ghost writer. Once I’d got through writing the book, I was absolutely terrified of it being published because I didn’t know if it was any good, I didn’t know if the writing was readable, and I didn’t know if what I’d said was so intimate I’d come to regret it. But I got such a warm response to the book that I think it gave me confidence.
I didn’t really intend to write another book. I thought well why be like some commercial machine—in music they expect you to churn out an album every eighteen months and now churn out a new book, I’m not churning. But then some months went by and I found I missed the process of going downstairs to my computer. I missed the process of writing, of that little book sitting downstairs needing me. I missed not having that. I think humans like to be needed in a way and I didn’t have anything else that needed me so that’s why I thought, “I’m going to write another book.rdquo; I was missing that feeling the process, those four hours a day of work, the calling of the project. I don’t really find it difficult to think about what to write. Having said that—what I thought I was going to write totally didn’t happen.
Rail: You’ve used the phrase a “self-help book for girlsrdquo; about your first book; do you see both books in that light? Because this new book certainly is helpful to those of us of a certain age, particularly when you say, “I became someone who after every failure, rejection and mistake can pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again” (256). Sean O’Hagan in The Guardian states that the book “could well have been called How to be Alone and that the “book is an argument for living against . . .” When you write do you think about the reader? Do you hope that women will read your work and that it will resonate?
Albertine: Definitely whilst writing the first book I had a sort of very loose ideal reader which was young women but wasn’t sure it would reach them. I knew it’d appeal to women of a certain age and that guys who were into music or into punk at least would be interested in it. But in my heart of hearts I was calling out to young women—to give them a very honest appraisal of a bumpy life, but very honestly told so that it could be a sort of manual if they came across failure after failure, they could say, “well I’ve heard an honest account of this and it didn’t go so terribly wrong and this is all part of building a life.” In fact, I did reach those young women and loads came last night to the talk and they’re both coming up to me and writing to me—very young women, seventeen and eighteen years old—so that’s fantastic. But for this second book, I didn’t really have an ideal reader in mind. I think it was more for myself. I started off thinking that I wanted to make a project and I would like to write a fiction about this middle–aged woman who has murderous thoughts and then interweave it with non–fiction of where I lived in East London, sort of pscyho–geographical bits about the area where I lived.
But as I was writing, after about three or four months, the fictional bit didn’t interest me and the reality did. I am someone who likes to deal in reality and the book evolved into being much more about what was happening in my life at the time. My mother died, I found her diary, and I found my father’s diary. The book just grew over three years into this thing but I didn’t really have an ideal reader in mind. Also, I wouldn’t say it’s so much “a manual for being alone” but I definitely think it’s a book about living against. Toward the end of the book I realize these are choices I’m making right now, that I’m not going to pursue that ideal of a romantic love or a partner anymore, I think I’m processing that through the book and I’m really only on the verge toward the end—so it can’t be a “manual for being alone.“ In the book I still was trying to make relationships work, thinking about my parent’s relationship and others in my past.
There were loads of young women at the reading last night and I asked, does the book resonate with you? Because I thought it would really only resonate with older people who’ve been through a parent dying but it struck these young women. I’m so pleased because if it strikes a chord and helps any woman or person live their life a bit nearer to how they’d like to live their life rather than being caught up in the charade of consumerism and patriarchy and trying to be appealing to men in whatever way and oh god…if it can help them get one step closer to that…great!
Rail: The book is structured in a very specific way with each section starting out with a paragraph about the last night of your mother’s life, creating a separate narrative that also informs the larger sections. Can you talk about how the structure came about and if that was an organic thing that happened while writing or editing or if instead it was a decision you made with your editor(s)?
Albertine: Once I decided to incorporate the night of my mother’s death into the book (which I didn’t really decide until I read her diary and my father’s diary) I knew I wanted to include not only her death but also the events that led up to that night interjected into these little pieces throughout the book. When anything traumatic happens, we don’t think of it in linear terms but instead it comes back in flashes. It’s a protective mechanism humans have to only let a little bit in at a time. Even four years later I think of that night in tiny little moments because any more than that would be too painful. The structure of that one night being broken up is not some sort of literary device—although it works as that—and it was not some sort of self–conscious decision. It came from an organic emotional response to what happened and because I’ve worked in rhythm with music, it just seemed the most natural thing to do.
Rail: The book has several quotes from other women writers and at last night’s reading you mentioned the importance of featuring other women’s voices. I want to ask from a craft perspective about how you decided which quotes to use. Did they come after, in the editing process or did you use some of them in the generative process—as sort of writing prompts?
Albertine: They are totally part of the process and become part of the chapters as I’m writing. Some of the quotes I’ve known for years, some I’ve stumbled across over time. They’re not something that was stuck on afterwards but instead another stratum in the book that is acknowledging women who have influenced me. Obviously lots of women’s histories have not been logged. At some point in the book I thought, I’m going to give credit to my friend there for saying that or my mother or grandmother for saying that and give them the same credit and the same space as I would to Alice Walker or whomever. It’s a thread running through the book which acknowledges other women around me and their strength. I mainly read and look at work by women now. I find I’m sixty odd and just naturally drawn to redressing the balance of the very male culture I’ve been taught and immersed in for so many years, decades. That’s another natural reason why it was women that I quoted—they suited what I was saying more.
Rail: While I was reading the book, reading past interviews with you, and also at last night’s reading, I jotted down the following words: women, writing, and ego, honesty versus self–deprecation, the clamor to be heard. Can you talk a little bit about any of these?
Albertine: As I say in the book, I have a compulsion to find honesty, to speak honestly, to find out the truth. It’s not something I think everyone should do or is such a great thing to do in many ways because it can be hurtful to those around you and it can keep your own wounds open for much longer if you’re constantly searching and probing but it is something I’ve done from very young.
Rail: You’ve said you see this book as a sort of detective story—tracking down the source of “rage.“
Albertine: I read quite a lot of thrillers based in domestic situations and I wrote with that sensibility. There aren’t murders, people being stalked at night, etc. but, I did want that tension and that questing for the outcome and the truth that you get in domestic noir. I wrote with that sensibility because I want the reader to turn the page, to be really drawn in.
Rail: And tracking down the source of rage?
Albertine: When I first decided to write the book I was going to write it about a woman full of rage, of course eventually I realized that was me and that there was no point making a fiction of it. But I was quite shy of admitting to how rage–filled and resentful and angry and furious I am. I was born in the fifties and to be angry as a woman, to be rage–filled even now, is considered ugly and unfeminine. Even at my age and with what I’ve been through, I felt embarrassed about admitting to my rage. But as usual, when I write, I had to go there. I feel like what’s the point of writing if you’re not honest about what you’re writing. If I’m not honest then this book’s going to be no use to anyone and I would like it to be useful. Of course the place where I could show my rage, where a few young women could show rage, was during punk times. We made the space, we allowed ourselves to do that. It was a culture and a movement that didn’t hide rage and girls were just as rage filled as the boys. Of course society penalized us for it but our own immediate circle didn’t. Even though I looked one, it’s the only time I haven’t felt a complete freak on this planet.
During the course of writing this book, when I realized I could not make a fiction of this woman who is full of rage, I thought well, I better find out where it came from then. Finding the source of that rage was interesting to me and I hoped possibly would be interesting to others, that there are other women out there who are also full of rage. I find if you tell your deepest darkest secrets and fears it’s amazing how many people, women say, “I feel exactly the same.” I trusted in the process and I trusted that if I was honest I would find it would resonate with people out there. As I wrote, I uncovered that a lot of the rage came from having a very intelligent mother brought up into very stifling patriarchal times and then myself also born into very stifling times so I filled up with her rage, then I had my rage, at the anger of my situation and seeing the unfairness and inequality around me so—yeah—the most interesting thing was tracking it down to my mother and what she’d been through that had made her so rageful.
Rail: You talk a lot about rage in the book, “I’ve been angry since the ’70s,” and resilience “You have to fight right to the end,” and also the debt we owe to the women who came before: “It took three generations to make me a punk,” and “We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn.” Can you talk a little about women and rage and what I might call the inner punk rocker in some of us that just does not go away? On page forty–nine you say, “It comes back to you, your punk attitude, when you need it,” in a scene where you are throwing drinks instead of punches.
Albertine: I lost my punk attitude for quite a long time. It was beaten out of me by my cancer and my years of IVF. When you’re very ill you hardly have the energy for anger or rage or fighting. That went for maybe fifteen or twenty years and I had my two big illnesses and then I had my daughter and it wasn’t really until I started to heal and my daughter started to grow up and slightly move away from me that I was in a state where I could look around me and see and feel the injustices again. It’s quite interesting that when you’re ill, there’s nothing but to fight for your survival, your body shuts down, the cells just work for that, your mind just works for that, and how when I healed, it came back.
Rail: In the book and in interviews you refer to yourself as “uneducated”—can you talk a little about the importance of education to you and how you’re defining “uneducated”? To me you seem as well–read and a better writer than a lot of academics I know. Do you think this self–description as “uneducated” is at all related to the way women are treated in general—assumptions that we are less intelligent, less educated, etc.
Albertine: It’s not that I’m “uneducated” but instead not formally educated. It’s well–known that women have a very strong imposter syndrome but on top of that, I was brought up in a deprived home. I thought I was rebelling by not really bothering with school but when I look back I realize that it was actually circumstances. If you come from a stable background you have a better attention span, you’re not emotionally distracted, and you’re not wanting to run away from authority, etc. etc. I’m an autodidact and the same with music. There’s part of me that thinks people who aren’t trained in the arts make better art. You can’t really do that if you’re a doctor or a rocket scientist or whatever but in the arts if you’re not (formally) trained in your discipline, you just come at it from a different angle, it is so much more interesting. I think punk has changed that a bit—people realize that you don’t have to be a virtuoso in the arts to have something worth saying. I learned that through punk by watching Vivienne Westwood make fashion without any training and watching fellow band members and other bands make music and statements without being trained that were much more immediate and current than people playing fantastic guitar solos, etc. Without that experience I probably wouldn’t have dared tackle writing a first or even a second book. What I went through in punk taught me that there is a way to impart what you’ve learned even if you’re not formally trained. So even though I call myself not formally educated, I now see that as actually an advantage.
And of course, the trouble is if you do question your education and educators and politicians which I was brought up to do, it can do nothing but make you a rebel really or a refuser and sometimes that’s to your own detriment. But I feel I’ve got there in the end; I have educated myself, very specifically. I say in the book the good thing about being in school is having to learn things that you don’t choose to learn, but once you leave school and you start to read and look only at things you’re interested in, it does narrow your education down.
Rail: Thinking about the phrase you use, “burn the diaries,” can you talk a little about the idea that “truth is splintered” —how families create stories, how difficult it is to get at the “truth” of any history, and if such a thing can actually exist? Also, how this relates to something you said about the idea of “nonfiction” and varying perspectives. Certainly, there is a recent tradition of questioning the validity of nonfiction of truth in memoir—the ways we all construct memory, there is a phrase you use, “the truth is splintered.”
Albertine: I agree with the questioning of nonfiction. By the time I finished my book, I realized that I’d truncated events, put it into a whole shape, made a structure out of the story, and chosen which stories are intertwined. The book is from my perspective and people don’t have their own voices in the stories. And then there was my mother and father writing day by day about the same two years and how different their perspectives were and how much they both believed that they were writing the truth. There was my third view on top of that, plus my sister’s which didn’t really get included. It isn’t the truth as much as I searched for it and tried to unearth it and tried to write it, it isn’t the truth, it’s nowhere near the truth. I don’t think that invalidates it. I think that journey and that search, the attempt to adhere to at least not glamorizing or fabricating what I did come across. It doesn’t invalidate so–called nonfiction but maybe there should be another word for it.
Rail: A central part of your book is your mother’s voice, when you discover her diary and you see some of what she was going through.
Albertine: Society was against her, the legal system was against her. She had no voice. She had to manipulate us, which is tragic; you could say the criminal here was not her, it was the system who made her and has made lots of women resort to devious means to get themselves heard or to get justice. All the anger I had towards her that was buried in my body and my subconscious and came out when she died, thank god that I wrote this book because I’ve gone into it and found out why she behaved like that. And if she hadn’t had to fight for custody, what a different life we would all have had. So how can I ever not be full of rage really? I think I’ve turned it into a positive.