A Colloquy With Jess Stoner
I’m really happy to read that you’re pleased with this letter writing approach. I think it provides the reader with the same sense of intimacy that you were aiming for with your memoir.
I was immediately struck by the composition notebook cover of the book. I felt a connection to it unlike other books I’ve acquired. It was like reading one of my own notebooks; I often found myself picking up a pen or pencil as I read—I wanted to participate with your memories, to make notes, to add marginalia. In fact, looking back through your book there are many passages that are highlighted and circled. (I almost ripped a page out). (Maybe I missed it, but what’s the purpose of making the phone ring?)
You mentioned that you wanted this book to feel like a memoir meant for one person; an explicit confession. This tone felt strongly resonant in the following passage: “I think some memories should be burned, not to make them disappear, but to transform them in to something we can choose whether or not we want to cling to.” Was this your intent by using various mnemonic devices to appeal to your reader, whereby your reader is able to remember what they choose to remember?
You say, “Everyone’s existence is dependent on context.” Of course, as with most mnemonic devices, it takes context to embed something into the architecture of our memory. Would you mind filling in some of the remnants that may be missing for your readers? For instance, I found myself wanting to know more about Ben. But the compassion with which Teddy reminded you of his death created a fondness for Teddy, but that quickly dissipated when I learned he left you. What can you tell me about these two male figures? I also wonder if you were aware of the numerous male figures (e.g., Mendel, Ginsberg, Descartes, Williams, Gilbert, Hulme, Locke, Wright, and Tate) throughout your book.
I’m really struck by a number of things in your last letter. For instance, when you wrote,
“But the compassion with which Teddy reminded you of his death created a fondness for Teddy, but that quickly dissipated when I learned he left you.”
You keep referring to the narrator’s memories as if they’re mine. I could assume that this might just be an easier way of talking about the narrator, since she is not named (because she has already forgotten her name). But I think this might connect to your question about the dissipating remnants of Ben and Teddy and the use of the outside contexts of Locke, Hulme, etc.
Because she is slicing, cutting away the context on which her existence is dependent, these men had to disappear; they have to only exist in remnants. She’s breaking down the brain’s built-in redundancies to protect memory; she’s disrupting the power of the amygdala to make certain memories more visceral, more physically felt, which is how Locke, Mendel, all the other references come in, because they’re not as tightly caught up in all the connected, personal memories: of her brother who killed himself, of her husband who she trusted with her secret. I think that Ben and Teddy couldn’t play a bigger role in the book, although I thought of them as having major roles while I was writing it. They only exist in their connections to her, through the filter of what she can still remember. They couldn’t exist differently for the reader than for the narrator. I felt like I had to stay within the constraints of the point of view, otherwise the book would lose something—its purpose, why it even exists.
And the telephone ringing—the image. I was thinking and researching for years about memory, about how it works. About how our memories are welded to what we know. About the idea, this kind of pushes me towards a panic attack, of how insidious memory might be to knowledge, to facts, to our senses. If the narrator saw an image when the phone rang, like the old phone cords, then that image might start to bubble to the surface as other things dropped away. Although I just wrote that, I’m not sure that even answers the question. But I’m not going to erase it. Maybe it’ll lead us someplace else?
There are dudes all over this book. Frank Lloyd Wright, Locke, and Bach came with the idea of the book. I always wanted Wright there. When he said, “An architect’s most useful tools are an eraser at the drafting board and a wrecking bar at the site,”—that way erasure can create. I thought of that constantly—and the contradiction in the book: the narrator is making her memories go away while she’s making this last thing to give to her daughter. I also love Tate—especially that poem “Fuck the Astronauts” that is quoted in the book. There are other lines in it, “so that my dreams will remember / one another and so that my eyes will not / become blinded by the new world.” Though I’ve never put this connection together: that might be a small part of where the title came from?
I’m sorry this is so long. I just wanted to say one last thing—I was so happy when you said the book made you want “to participate.” There are so many ways to participate in reading, so many non-physical (although still labor-intensive) ways. I think my lifelong goal with writing, with art, with the public projects I’ve done and will be do in the future, is to invite participation—mental and physical. I love the way that, say, Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, makes you flip back to previous photographs, to reinvestigate. Of course he doesn’t tell you to do that, but that’s what I did. I loved that I would lose my page, or how I would have to hold the book to flip in certain ways, that I always knew I was holding a book while I was simultaneously entranced by the story.
This whole letter might come across as manic. If so, I hope it is at least a little bit endearing.
I love the way Van Gogh ended his letters, so I’m going to copy him here:
A good handshake in thought,