An Interview with Clifford Chase, by Celia Johnson
February 24, 2014
It’s impossible to simply assign a category to Clifford Chase’s work. His prose is undeniably groundbreaking. And even that description doesn’t seem enough. Chase’s new memoir, The Tooth Fairy, was composed with staccato flair. Each sentence, each paragraph offers a brief snippet, of memories, observations, emotions, and more. And Chase brings it all together for a text that is at once universal and yet completely his own. Readers should follow writer Lisa Cohen’s advice: “Read this book out loud.” Chase spoke to me about being a misfit, writing and grief, and why his next book feels like a flying roller coaster.
Throughout the book you explore expectations (self-made and otherwise) that don’t quite fit. When you set out to assemble these essays, did you have this overarching theme in mind?
I suppose I’m so deeply a misfit that the theme of not meeting expectations was bound to be in there. In putting the book together I was less focused on themes than on completing various story lines, such as caring for my parents at the end of their lives and then grieving for them. Or: my mother hands me my brother Ken’s AIDS diary in chapter 2, and I read it several years later, in the final chapter. But in general I had to trust that all of these essays that felt like they belonged together were indeed related, by whatever patterns and ideas my subconscious was seeing.
You write about many different relationships–with your mother, your father, your brother, your long-term boyfriend–and all with raw honesty. Did anything unexpected emerge from exploring these relationships in such depth?
Yes, there were lots of surprises—so many that it’s hard to choose an example. Of course I was talking about all these relationships in therapy all along, and bits of those conversations show up in the book, but laying it all out on the page offers a different sort of perspective. I start seeing people the way a reader will see them, and their shortcomings may become “interesting” rather than frustrating or upsetting. Even so, I’ve often been surprised by readers’ reactions. Regarding the chapter about my mom in a nursing home, my friend the writer Wayne Koestenbaum said, “You’re mother’s a stitch!” I certainly wasn’t feeling that way about her grouchiness, even when I was writing about it, but there it was: her complaints were actually quite funny.
You cover a broad scope in this memoir. Did you find it difficult to cover so many years in one book? Is there anything you reluctantly had to leave out?
I almost didn’t include a chapter on the journals my brother Ken kept during the last five years of his life, because there was already a lot of death in the book. But I’m glad I did—I learned a lot from it, because he, too, became like a character in a book that I could view more objectively than in real life. The main thing I understood was why he had joined Narcotics Anonymous, for what I’d considered a very minor addiction, pot. But from his journals it became clear just how much pot was getting in the way of his emotional life.
Your style is certainly groundbreaking. It evokes a sort of real-life experience for the reader. You weave together all sorts of thoughts and moments that often seem disparate at first and yet, as we discover, are drawn together through the lens of personal experience. I often wondered about your creative process. How did you go writing in such a unique way?
I began writing this way, in one-sentence fragments, in early 2001, as life was unfolding. I had only the vaguest intuition of what I was doing—what constituted a “good” fragment, where it should go in the narrative, why writing this way felt right to me. But I’d always liked working in vignettes, and I suppose The Tooth Fairy simply shrinks the unit of the vignette down to a single sentence. At first I was writing just a single essay, but then I wrote another, and it began to seem like the form had enough possibilities to be sustained over the course of a book.
Would you describe your work space?
My boyfriend and I share a log house in the southern Berkshires, and my study here has one log wall and a slanted roof with a skylight. I write at a small oak library table that had been my grandfather’s and then my father’s, and I look out at maples and pines.
You’ve written two memoirs and a novel. Are you more comfortable with either form?
I’m more at ease with autobiography or autobiographical fiction (Clifford Chase is a character in my novel, Winkie), though at this point I don’t know when I’ll feel like writing about myself again.
Do you have any new projects brewing right now?
I’m working on a novel with no autobiographical content whatsoever, which feels a little like the roller coaster has jumped its track and is flying somewhere above the beach at Coney Island.
Author photo by Koitz.
Clifford Chase is the author of the cult classic novel Winkie. He is also the author of a memoir, The Hurry-Up Song, and edited the anthology Queer 13: Lesbian & Gay Writers Recall Seventh Grade. His writing has appeared in publications ranging from Newsweek.com to Yale Review to McSweeney’s. He lives in New York City and Sharon, Connecticut, and teaches at Wesleyan University. His latest book, The Tooth Fairy: Parents, Lovers, and Other Wayward Deities (A Memoir), was published in February by The Overlook Press.
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She is also a writer, most recently of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway.