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An Interview with Michelle Cheever

by Dougpaul Case / Beacon Staff • April 21, 2011

to talk about epigraphs, bisexuality, and Miranda July.

Doug Paul Case: How did you pick the collection’s title? Is there a story behind it?

Michelle Cheever: One of my favorite poets is Frank O’Hara and last year I was really obsessed with his poem “St. Paul and All That,” one of his less-known ones, and it’s just this person talking to his lover about being a writer and being in love, but not knowing if the person’s right for you. One of the lines is “You’ll miss me but that’s good,” and I thought it was kind of sweet how this person knows he will be missed, but also kind of bitchy that he thinks he’s that important. But it’s also a good sign if you miss a person. So I thought it was perfect.

I like titles that speak to the reader in a Miranda July way. Like... No One Belongs Here More Than You. But hers is sweeter and more all-inclusive than mine. It’s very hip.

DPC: So hip! I’m reading it thinking, “Am I cool enough to be reading this?”

MC: Yes you are.

DPC: I guess. Anyway, the book’s epigraph is from Richard Siken, and there’s a line “I want what everyone wants,” so I want to ask what everyone wants, and specifically what your characters want.

MC: I think what Siken thought everyone wants is to be loved — and obviously he didn’t say that in the poem because that’s cheesy — but when we were doing the marketing stuff for the book, and I was being asked what my book was about, and I didn’t know until after the book was printed, and I realized they’re all characters who don’t want to be alone and cannot be alone.

The book is about what the cost of not being alone is. So I guess the people in my book just don’t want to be alone, and the stories are about what happens because of that.

DPC: A lot of your characters are bisexual, or have experiences pointing them in that direction. And you minored in women’s and gender studies, so I was wondering if that affected at all how you translated the bisexual experience to the page.

MC: The first class I really took was Queer Identity and it was weird for me because I had no self-awareness, really. So that would’ve been more beneficial had I taken it later. But what really informed a lot of the stories was taking Maria Koundoura’s Cultural Criticism course. We read Foucault and we read Butler and we had to take just anything and apply it to that framework.

I took the entire subject of bisexuality and discussed the term and why it’s such a contested term because even when I was reading the phrase ‘bisexual escapades’ in the materials the pub club sent out, I cringed—

DPC: I wouldn’t say they’re having escapades.

MC: And even if they are, they’re doing things that are bad or disappointing, like cheating on their girlfriends; it’s not because they’re bisexual. It’s because they’re flawed people.

DPC: The stories vary in length from a single page to fifteen. How do the different lengths compare to you? Or don’t they?

MC: I like short-shorts because you only have to hint at things; it’s sometimes so much more beautiful because you only have that tiny, captured space. Someone can read it and their mind can go off to fill in the blanks.

Like with “Strange Places I’ve Woken Up,” in talking about bisexuality, it’s very reductive because it’s about bed-hopping, and that’s furthering the stereotype. But it’s one story out of the nine and I think that if that were to be a longer story there’d be more space to explain why that character is that way. And in truth, straight people sleep with just as many people.

For writing longer works, it’s more like the story needs that space to tell itself. And it’s more work — is what the real difference is. It’s too easy to give up.

DPC: Generally, where do you find inspiration?

MC: Sometimes reading poetry helps. Sometimes, I just decide I want to write about something. I’ll read an Amy Hempel story and I’ll realize I’ve never written about dogs before.

I like reading student work because sometimes I get so inspired and jealous — or other times I’ll be like “I can do that better,” because I’m a bitch. We’re the same age, but I’m going to do this better.

DPC: Do you have a favorite story in the collection?

MC: I think “Automat.” People love that one. People used to really like “Your Name Is Katharine” because they could sense that it was close to me, even though I’m uncomfortable with it.

DPC: Are many of the stories, like “Katharine,” close to you?

MC: No, I mean, my mom’s been calling me and freaking out about that story being published and people reading it. Granted that’s fiction as well. Things are condensed and lied about and untrue. I didn’t feel exactly that way. It’s a character. Anyone could pick apart different things to try to understand something about me, but that would be a pointless exercise.

DPC: How was the experience working with everyone at Wilde Press?

MC: Oh, it was grand. I mostly worked with Marisa [LaFleur], and once I texted her at six in the morning. She finagled some bagels for me.

The marketing part was interesting because they really pushed me. When you’re like ‘it’s a book — they’re stories,’ it’s kind of hard, but they did well. They’re great editors. I was so glad to get to leave Emerson with this, as a thing to celebrate, and they were so helpful.

Click here to read the full book review by Doug Paul Case.