Reading Sarah E Melville feels like catching up with an old friend - you know, the brainy, artsy one who always rocked the best thrift store finds, the one who used to pass you mix tapes filled with amazing bands you couldn't believe you'd never heard before. Or maybe Sarah's too young to have passed mix tapes, but, you know, whatever the kids are doing nowadays. It's amazing how little details like that can betray your age, even just in the northern end of your twenties -- but I digress.
The point is, it's extremely difficult not to like Sarah's work. Her breezy, conversational style is irresistibly endearing whether she's making you laugh or laying herself emotionally bare. Her prose is like her art, lush, emotive, intricately detailed, and exuding the confidence of a master at her craft.
I had the opportunity to chat with this Fresno, CA native and her alter-ego, Paulie, about her new book, Beautiful Things That Happen to Ugly People.
PAULIE: Beautiful Things is about how awesome I am.
SARAH: Not really.
P: No? I thought it was about how cool and sexy I am and how you should be my best friend and send me money based on the aforementioned qualities.
S: Uhm . . . not really. Beautiful Things is about connecting to others through basic emotions; lifting the veil of individual identities to see that we're all the same, deep down, because we're all alive and we all want to be loved.
P: Is it?
P: Hm. Well, it's not like I've read it.
S: You haven't read it?
P: Nope. You haven't mailed me a copy of it yet.
S: I thought you'd read it all.
P: I've only seen what you've put up online. Oh, and all those letters that people wrote to me -- I read those. Pretty good, I have to say. Well, some were creepy.
S: Which ones?
P: Like, the one on the passport page? What the fuck is that? "Hush Hush"!? -- we don't like that.
S: Ha, that one's pretty good.
P: Not from my standpoint. Now whoever got murdered because of that note is going to be traced back to me cause I touched it and it's now slathered in "Paulie did it". Such an idiot! I know better than to open stuff you've mailed to me.
S: You're overreacting.
P: I am not -- I'll end up in the slammer!
S: I don't think so.
P: They'll reopen Alcatraz just to get rid of me. And that place is haunted. I'll get ass-raped by ghosts!
S: It's just a note.
S: It's fiction.
P: Are you sure? Do you know who sent it? Can you trust them?
S: Don't worry about it.
P: I will. I'll worry about it all I want, thank you.
S: Okay, have fun with that.
S: But, ass-raping aside, Beautiful Things was started in 2008, though I didn't have any plans then to make it into a collection, let alone a book. That was decided in Dec 2009, and the whole thing was put together from Feb to May 2010. It started with the stream-of-consciousness vignette "South of the Euphrates" which I wrote up-side down.
P: That one's about one of my good friends who I haven't seen in about . . . two, three years now. She's clinically depressed, like I was back then. "All the sad things you used to say about your life . . . " I hope she's doing better. I miss her.
S: As you may have guessed, Beautiful Things is from Paulie's POV.
P: But I didn't write any of it.
S: No, you're terrible at creative writing.
P: That I am.
S: Paulie's my alter ego, a "young man very much in love, but also very sad."
P: I am sad, aren't I?
P: Sad, but hopeful. Then again no one's really happy -- it's just a world of those who have hope and those who don't.
S: This is something you see throughout the book. It fluctuates between being hopeless, or "dark", and having hope, or being "happy". That's all you can really ask for. Unless you refuse to be conscious of the state of the modern world, you're likely to be a little grim. You can be "happy" in ignorance.
P: But who would want to do that?
S: A lot of people, it seems.
P: Hm. That's sad.
S: It is.
P: What's with the title, by the way?
S: The title comes from the idea of beauty meaning truth, and ugly meaning ordinary. It's like, we don't live in the fabricated world that our media presents to us -- we're not all beautiful movie stars and good guys in novels; we don't live in plots and with contrived symbolism and foiled characters and wrap-around irony. We're ugly in the sense that we're complicated, without those logical A=B idiosyncracies that we often give characters; we're contrary and messed up and some parts of ourselves remain secret and unknown even to ourselves. So we're these ugly, ordinary people that are very real, and it's this reality that's the truth, and the truth is beautiful because it's real. In the end, it just means that whatever happens to us that is true and felt and makes us alive is beautiful. Besides, no one wants to hear stories about beautiful things happening to beautiful people. It's boring. Beautiful things that happen to ugly people is a theory of reality for fiction -- as little fabrication as you can get away with.
P: That's because you take a lot from your own life, right?
S: Yes. I think that's the next question, actually.
P: Oh, okay. Let's get to that, then.
MM: Much of your work has a very personal, confessional feel to it. To what extent is your writing autobiographical? Are we talking straight analogs, or are characters and events amalgamations of real life?
S: The fiction I do with Paulie is very autobiographical -- the work outside Beautiful Things more so than in the book itself. Beautiful Things is autobiographical on feelings -- very bare feelings, while the fiction I post on Year Zero and sometimes my blog is much more a straight translation of me and my life into Paulie. Pieces like "California, Sweating Like Fire" and "These are the Sounds We Hate", along with his blog, are probably where the line between my life and his is the thinnest. But everything I write with Paulie comes from my real life in one way or the other.
MM: Is there a point at which certain personal things are off-limits? Has there ever been any tension over real life events that ended up on the page?
P: There should be a limit! Dear god, all I want for Christmas is some goddamn privacy. First it's like, hey, let's air out one of your teenage sexual fantasies in Beautiful Things --
S: He's talking about "Kings of the Wild Frontier"
P: -- then she's drawing weird naked pictures of me --
S: They weren't that weird or naked. He's referring to the "Husbands and Portraits of their Wives" project, that I --
P: They definitely were weird and naked!
S: Calm down. You couldn't see anything exciting anyway.
P: Did you just call my junk "exciting"?
P: Can I quote you on that?
P: I'm quoting you on that. Sweet!
S: So . . . yes, as you can see, there's some tension. For me, because I do have an alter ego, and it's still fiction, there's nothing that's off limits. The readers's not sure what's me (real) or what's Paulie (fabricated) so I can really write about whatever I want.
But the more honest you are, especially in your fiction, the more you can connect to others, and the more you start to see yourself in other people, in these mirrored emotions. And that's the connection that I want to create, because it's easier to love someone if you understand them.
MM: Why write under an alter-ego? Does it allow you to establish objectivity or emotional distance?
S: I've always had an alter ego as a writer. He wasn't always called Paulie, though.
P: What? You told me I was your first.
S: Sorry, babe, there were others before you.
P: Ew, that doesn't sound right.
S: Yeah, it kinda creeped me out too.
Having an alter ego does allow for objectivity and emotional distance, though -- there's no emotional distance from what I'm writing about, the actual feelings surrounding what happened. When you have an alter-ego you have to start feeling from their point of view as well as your own, so it becomes doubled, and sad things in my life become even sadder and more pressing when I hand them over to Paulie. There's no release or evasion, so you can't quite call it an escape, even though, when you first think of an alter-ego, you do think of an escape -- like you're trying to get away from yourself. Sometimes that happens, but the more you escape through fabrication, the less of an alter-ego they become, and the more they turn into a character, which isn't the point.
And after saying all of that, I think the point of an alter-ego is to distance myself, at least from my fiction. I'm not one that wants to be close to what I write, so putting Paulie in as a buffer between me and my work, and the truth of it, helps, especially when it is so heavily autobiographical. There are some things in my life that I'd never write about if I were the main character. Some of it is too personal, even for me -- like the story "Air", even though the crux of it is nothing but fiction. I can't read it.
MM: In a recent story, Paulie waxed philosophical about the problems with masculine writing. How much do you think gender informs your writing, either consciously or subconsciously?
S: The gender difference is usually at the forefront when I'm writing for Paulie. Especially when I'm writing his blog, as it's supposed to be him writing, not me writing from his point of view. So I consciously try to phrase things and bring out the tendencies of the masculine style of writing, even though he's hopelessly feminine as a person. He likes to relate to people when he tells a story, instead of just inform. But he's a people person, after all.
It doesn't really change what I write about, though, the gender difference. I'm rather androgynous in personality myself, and I understand men more than I do women, so it's not so much of a stretch. I do let the crass humour out when I'm writing as Paulie, which is something I keep in as myself. There's a part of me that's about as mature as a 12 year old boy who just found out what cussing was, and Paulie displays that probably too much.
I have very little perspective on myself, objectively, but I think I'm funnier when I'm writing as Paulie. Actually, I don't think I'm funny as myself.
MM: Does being a woman writing as a male alter-ego change or influence your perspective at all? Alternately, does being voiced by a woman threaten Paulie's masculinity in any way?
P: My masculinity is so threatened it's gone into hiding. I don't even know where it is anymore.
S: That's what she said.
P: Oh, come on!
P: That's so not what I meant. Goodness. Way to insult me on the entire freaking internet.
S: Oh, don't get your panties in a ruffle --
P: You see what I mean? Gosh . . .
You'd think that me being, well, feminine and sensitive would go over really well with the laides, but nope -- I know how to dress myself and that's it -- everyone thinks I'm gay. I have friends that still don't believe me, even though I had a pretty serious girlfriend for about six years. It's ridiculous! But . . . I guess it is nice, in a way, to be hit on by other men. Like, it's flattering and all, but I'm not really into that.
S: Not sober, at least.
P: You said you wouldn't say anything about that. You promised!
S: Sorry. Go on.
P: So . . . yeah, my masculinity suffers quite a bit, being voiced by a 20 year old girl, but as she said, she does have the redeeming feature of being androgynous in personality. If it wasn't for that I'd have ended up gayer than a rainbowed unicorn.
S: Unicorns are gay?
P: . . . yes? I -- I don't know. I'm on so much NyQuil right now I don't even know where I live.
MM: You each have your own blogs and Twitter accounts. Are these types of social media promotional, or have they actually become part of the story, part of the artistic work itself?
S: The last thing our blogs or twitter accounts are is promotional. Mine are personal because, well, I'm a person, not an object or a business or something to sell. I don't see the point in being professional and so business-minded when you're in an art based on connecting with others.
Paulie only got his twitter after months of incessant bothering, and then once he had that he whined and whined until he got his own blog.
P: I only asked, like, twice.
S: Whined like a little girl. I get no rest from this guy.
P: You think I get any rest from you? You're always writing creepy stories about my personal life and putting them online. That keeps a person up at night, you know?
S: Do you see what I mean about the whining? To answer your second question, though, Paulie's blog --
P: Is awesome.
S: -- has definitely become part of the --
S: -- creative work. I've mentioned before how it's --
S: Are you done?
S: Okay. Paulie's blog and twitter have become this strange novel-in-real-time, like a microbiography at times, except there's no plot.
P: There really isn't. My day to day life is super-fucking-boring.
S: I wonder why that is.
P: Because I stopped drinking?
S: I wouldn't say you've stopped.
P: Because I've stopped drinking every night?
S: That's probably closer to the truth.
P: But, seriosly kids, hugs not drugs. And, uhm . . . shoes not booze?
S: Wow. Powerful words.
P: Well, at least it rhymes.
MM: What is relationship between music and your creative process? Do you have certain things you like to listen to while writing or drawing? Do you both have the same tastes?
S: We have mostly similar tastes in music, except --
P: I HATE THE GORILLAZ.
S: There you go.
P: HATE them. I want to stab myself in the fucking FACE every time I hear that one about the sunshine in the bag --
S: Clint Eastwood. That's a classic! And you love Clint Eastwood.
P: Yeah, the person -- not that fucking song.
S: But you haven't even listened to all their material. You really don't know how diverse they --
P: Blah blah blah.
S: Fine. But me loving the Gorillaz is not as bad as you liking Justin Timberlake.
P: Justin Timberlake is awesome.
S: He is not.
P: There's nothing wrong with liking Justin Timberlake. Come on, Sarah, we're bringing sexy back.
S: That was, like, three years ago.
P: Yeah, well, it's taking longer than expected.
S: We agree on about 80% of our musical tastes. Well, 80% of everything, really. I enjoy electronica and dance and indie, and went through a hardcore/screamo stage back in high school, as I believe most of us did, when we were angry teens, so there's a soft spot in my heart for really noisy stuff. Music, no matter the genre, has always been inspirational to my work because nothing makes me feel more than music does, and that's where my art and writing come from -- feelings. I'm always trying to convey emotion.
With Beautiful Things I listened to a lot of Gorillaz (their last album, Plastic Beach came out in March, while I was working on the book), and Metric --
P: Which is my favourite band.
S: He likes Metric as much as I like the Gorillaz.
P: I'm saving myself for Emily Haines.
S: You do know you're not a virgin, right?
P: And? The way I see it, it's the thought that counts.
S: I don't think you can use that expression regarding virginity.
P: I should. If I could go back in time, I . . . I wouldn't get shi. . . uhm, well, we don't need to get into that. We're talking about music, right? Hey, so . . . my name's Paulie and I like Metric.
S: I also listened to a lot of Sigur Ros --
P: Another good one.
S: Not saving yourself for anyone in that band?
P: No, I don't think so. They're all guys anyway. I think. The lead singer's a guy, right?
P: I'll pass, then.
S: And I listened to a healthy dose of ambient/electronica, as well as some of M83's older stuff. But it really comes down to a feeling more than a genre or band. The only rule that seems to exist is that if I'm trying to draw something pretty, I can't listen to pretty music. I thought I'd be listening to lots of Bjork while working on some of these pages, but it never felt right. I had to go to the hardcore stuff to balance it out.
MM: How was the trip to London and performing at a YZW live reading?
S: London was amazing!
P: Except I didn't get to go.
S: No, you didn't.
P: I had to stay home. But . . . it kinda worked out because I have pneumonia -- still -- and have been on bed rest for about two weeks.
S: Are you feeling better?
P: A little. I'm in my . . . third week? No, it's almost been a month now. I just can't seem to kick it. Very tired all the time.
S: It would've been nice if you could've come along, though. I mean, I'd still like to meet you someday.
P: Hm. I'm really mean in person. And ugly.
S: Me too.
P: You seem nice and . . . not that bad looking, I guess. We look like we could be siblings.
P: Yeah. Around the eyes.
S: That's cool. I have yet to see a picture of Paulie, if anyone's wondering.
P: Oh, you've seen a picture of me.
P: There's one on my blog! It's my kindergarten photo.
S: What? That doesn't count. You were five.
P: Well, not much has changed. I mean, I'm a little taller, I guess.
S: I sure hope you'd be taller by now.
P: Not by much, though.
S: I still want to see a picture.
P: I kind of like having no one know what I look like. Mystery is sexy, right? But . . . you probably shouldn't be attracted to me. I think that'd be incest or something.
P: Because we're like twins. Really creepy twins.
S: Except you're older by about five years.
S: You're twenty-six.
P: I'm twenty-seven.
P: I thought I was twenty-seven.
S: You think a lot of things about yourself that aren't necessarily true.
S: Trust me, you're twenty-six.
The Good Ship in Kilburn on 7 July, and the week before I was in Oxford, doing a reading with Dan Holloway at the Albion Beatnik, which was a much smaller setting (but just as wonderful). I, obviously, read from Beautiful Things at each gig, and Dan did Skin Book, which is marvellous in person -- I really think that's the way to experience Skin Book -- and we had Marc Nash with us at the Kilburn gig doing a section from A, B & E while wearing a nurse's uniform.
S: Yeah. He said he got it online.
P: You asked?
S: Why wouldn't I?
P: You're not getting one, are you?
P: Okay, good. I don't want us showing up at a party in the same dress.
S: Nurse's uniform.
P: Is that what we're talking about?
P: Oh. Oh, okay. I tell you what, Rachel must've swapped my medicine for . . . I don't know what's . . . like Groundhog's Day, I mean, every time I wake up Maury's . . . fucking tv and . . .
S: Paulie did sign a few books, though, before I left.
P: . . . goddamn paternity tests . . .
S: But not many people know who he is, surprisingly enough, so he didn't get to sign as many as he would've liked. (He's a little attention-starved.)
P: . . . and I'm like, condoms, bitches!
MM: Do you think writers are going to need to become performers or entertainers to engage modern audiences?
S: I don't think so, no. The danger is in thinking that you have to be more than a writer. Blogs are nice and twitters are nice and gimmicks and alter-egos and all this is really great and can be lots of fun, but you can't let any of it get more important than writing, because if you're writing's not there, once the entertainment side wears off, well, there's not going to be anything left to stick around for. All you need to engage an audience is good writing, although some would argue you don't need the writing, just the story, which is sometimes true and always sad.
MM: In addition to writing, you're also a visual artist. How does the process of telling stories through words compare with telling them through images?
S: Telling a story through words as opposed to images is, as you can image, almost completley opposite. With words you're giving readers the information to create their own images, and with images you're giving viewers information to create their own words. But I don't see myself as someone telling stories through images -- I don't see myself as an artist. I do art sometimes -- little things, but I'm not an artist. I just do what I need to do to get a feeling or an idea out, and once it's out that's that and I can go back to impersonating a normal person. I like telling stories with words more, so I may be more biased in calling myself a writer. There's more freedom in words, but maybe that's because I'm a visual person and I like having that freedom.
MM: Do you think that multimedia and cross-media storytelling are going to be more of an emerging trend in the coming years? Is it artificial to keep trying to distinguish visual versus literary versus performing arts?
S: I think we may indeed, especially with our readers and iPads and all that. Having the internet so readily available (at least in big cities) means that it's much easier to do and easier for people to access. Personally, I like books being books and movies being movies and podcasts being podcasts. Then again, I come from a dial-up mind-set, where the internet is rarely reliable and not very good when it is around. We've levelled up at my house, but it's still a really sketchy situation, internet wise. So, while I'm not for it from a reader's point of view, I do think it will happen. I'll stick to my books for a very long time.
It's not artificial to distinguish, I mean -- we have different words for the different arts, so obviously they're different things. I can see how someone would argue that there's not much difference in inspiration or emotion, but in form they're all very separate. And it's form that makes them what they are.
MM: What are your plans now that Beautiful Things has been released out there into the world? What comes next artistically, professionally, or personally?
S: There's not much difference between the three, I have to say. Hopefully I'll be doing some local readings, in my close-to-home city of Fresno, California, and I'll still be working on Paulie fiction and a novel set in the Middle Ages, all while going back to school full time so I can get my AA and transfer to study linguistics. But we'll see about that.
Paulie, do you have anything to say?
S: I think he's asleep.
S: Well, on behalf of both of us, thank you Moxie for letting us take up some of your blog space. It has been a pleasure.
Sarah blogs at s-melville.blogspot.com & tweets as @sarahemelville
Paulie blogs at thisispaulie.blogspot.com & tweets as @thisispaulie
And check out Sarah's pieces at the Year Zero Writers blog
All artwork is copyright Sarah E Melville. The photo of Sarah is by Dan Holloway.