Interview by Emely Rodriguez
By now, you’ve probably heard of Jeannie Vanasco, the memoirist who interviewed her high school rapist and former friend in her fierce and fearless 2019 book, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl (Tin House). Jeannie is also the author of The Glass Eye. Vanasco was my writing teacher at Towson University, so I was able to snag an interview with her for Welter—we talked about the #MeToo movement, craft, and how she wrote her astounding second book, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice pick.
When did you realize you wanted to write memoir and have you written in other genres?
When I was in undergrad, I studied poetry and fiction. Memoir didn’t even occur to me. I remember thinking of memoir as something that politicians and celebrities write. I never considered memoir as relevant to me, or I didn’t think that I was relevant to memoir. But then, when I was working as a book reviewer in my 20s, someone gave me a copy of Darin Strauss’ memoir Half a Life, and that was so eye-opening in terms of seeing what someone could do with form. And then I became interested in finding other formally inventive memoirs. Sarah Manguso’s Two Kinds of Decay, that was another memoir important to me.
Could you tell me about your writing routine?
When I was working on my first book, I felt guilty for any moments spent not writing. Now, I’m more flexible with the process. I understand that even when I’m not at my computer or not with a notebook writing, I’m still writing; I’m still collecting information. My routine now is such that I don’t beat myself up if there are days when I don’t write something down. I think of living almost as writing. I think that’s why with this most recent book, what I enjoyed most—and it’s strange to say I enjoyed writing it, given that it’s a book about sexual assault—was how my everyday life kind of bled into it. My conversations with friends found their way in. Day-to-day life made its way in. I never really turned my brain off. I usually need a routine or structure to get started, but once I’m inside of a project I can write wherever I am, any time of day, doesn’t matter.
When writing, do you often think about a target audience?
No, because I freeze if I think about audience too much.
What does your revision process look like?
I feel like my writing process is almost like collaging. Most things I write, whether it’s an essay, book-length memoir, or poems, it tends to be material collaged together. Revision is almost like part of the composition process for me because I’m taking everything I’ve already written and then moving it around to find the right order. Even after I think I’ve found the order, I still tend to shuffle material around. I like to print everything out, single-sided, and then put it in a binder. I get some blank pieces of paper, cut stuff up, and move it around. I find the order that way.
Which writers have most influenced your writing style?
I read across genres. I really like the writer Sheila Heti, the novelist Miriam Toews, and the poet James Schuyler. Schuyler’s long poem, “The Morning of the Poem,” meant a lot to me when I was in college because here was someone who was writing in this sort of relaxed way about the writing process and weaving it into part of the poem.
Research is important to your process. For Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, you researched rape statistics as well the change of the legal definition of rape. What were your reasons for including such data points?
I encountered the FBI’s revised definition of rape as I was writing the book. It helped me to reflect: If I had known this definition sooner, would it have shaped how I reacted, or how I felt, or how I thought about what Mark did? By including that definition, I wanted the reader to contemplate how much language really does matter.
You mentioned not wanting to give too much attention to the other incidents that you’ve experienced involving sexual assault and rape—particularly involving your other friend and your high school news advisor. How did you choose to include the moments that you did?
Those moments were in the book mostly as context for how pervasive this problem is. And its pervasiveness is largely why I excused, or tried to forget, Mark’s behavior. People judge women who’ve been sexually assaulted more than once—instead of looking at the larger cultural messages we’re sending boys and men. The experience of reporting my high school teacher, for example, sort of set up my expectations for how sexual assault would be handled. I wanted to include how I was treated by detectives—being asked dumb questions like, “Are you sure his hand didn’t slip?” I wanted to include this experience to give context to why I didn’t report Mark.
The book features a lot of behind-the-scene moments in which you contemplate how you want to proceed with the project. How did you decide which thought processes to include?
I can’t think of anything I didn’t include. Though there was a lot that I didn’t want to include. It was January of 2018 when I started writing the book, and most of the stories I was encountering about #MeToo focused on women’s anger. And it made sense that women were angry—all of these men were not being held accountable. I could feel angry at those men, but I felt guilty that I actually felt bad for Mark, that I sort of missed him. It seemed so taboo. Just fundamentally, the project seemed like something I shouldn’t be doing—and yet, as a writer I knew that my hesitation was the emotional core of the project. A lot of people have described me as brave for talking to him, but I didn’t think of talking to him as brave. If anyone is going to call me brave, then releasing the book and subjecting my reactions, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings to judgment, that seems to me braver than talking to him. The only stuff I didn’t leave in were conversations about his siblings and some stuff about his parents… They weren’t a part of this project and I wanted to respect their privacy. Mark gave his consent to talk, which is even kind of fucked up, the idea of caring about his consent, which made me think, “I have to include that.” I didn’t want to gloss over the messy parts.
There is some internal back-and-forth about including Mark’s voice. What was the determining factor in including him?
Part of it was showing what seemingly nice guys are capable of, and part of it was, I was just curious: Did it still affect him? How has he told himself the story of what happened that night? And it’s really messed up, but I was checking my memories against his. I was so disappointed with myself when I was transcribing the audio because I would say things like: “So this is how I remember it, but correct me if you have a different memory.” I mean I kept giving the power back to him. But I just thought it was important to include him because it makes it that much more insidious to see that these guys you otherwise would not expect, the guys who parents trust, the guys who will ask you about your feelings, that they’re capable of this too. Until we recognize that, it’s going to be really hard to hold the seemingly nice guys accountable. I really didn’t know how I felt. I think that’s how I knew I wanted to include him, because I was confused about how I felt about him now.
You said that “it’s interesting to think about kids growing up with the #MeToo movement.” How do you think incorporating these conversations in our national discourse will affect the kids growing up with this movement?
I’m hopeful that more and more boys are going to grow up to be sensitive about these issues, and that hopefully, more and more girls are growing up to demand more, to demand better behavior from boys, from men. My hope is that things are going to get better.
What advice would you give to a young writer hoping to share their truth about sexual assault or rape?
I would say, write what you feel you need to write. Don’t worry about—try not to worry about—how you’ll be judged. It’s not about reacting correctly or incorrectly, it’s simply about how you reacted. We need more stories like that. If we keep getting stories where sexual assault victims behaved in all of the ways that someone expects, then it sets up this expectation that you can’t react in ways that are messy or different.
What are you working on now?
I’m interested in how storytelling affects mental health treatment. I’m interested in how we receive stories of mental illness; how doctors determine treatment based on what patients are telling them; how it’s not necessarily only about the story or content, but how the story is told. I’m just getting started talking to physicians, patients, to people who have been on both sides of it. I’m talking to people about how they tell their stories. I feel like people feel pressured to tell their stories in a particular way. So, I’m looking into that, that history. It’s very, very early, so who knows, maybe it’ll turn into something else.
Sobering and empowering. The “messiness” (and diversity) in victim reaction is real. Jeannie’s stance is pulse-perfect; absolutely right. Great interview, Emily!