Page Turner-The Quiet One: An Interview with Author Alice Elliott Dark
Most of us have that album in our lives, the one that’s the instant open doorway to our core. (Mine is Joni Mitchell’s Hejira…or is it P.J. Harvey’s Dry? Never mind—what’s that album for you, Bitch readers?) Our ardent devotion to that watershed CD is the theme of the new anthology Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives, edited by Peter Terzian. The collection includes fine essays by Sheila Heti (on the Annie soundtrack), Stacey D’Erasmo (on Kate Bush’s The Sensual World), Asali Solomon (on Gloria Estefan’s Mi Terra), and Colm Tóibín (on Joni Mitchell’s Blue).
It also includes Alice Elliott Dark’s stunning essay, “The Quiet One,” which chronicles her obsession with the Beatles’ Meet the Beatles! and George Harrison that intensified at a pivotal, tragic point in her girlhood. Dark is the author of the novel Think of England and the short story collections Naked to the Waist and In the Gloaming, the title story of which was selected for the Best American Short Stories of the Century. She's also contributed essays to numerous anthologies.
Page Turner interviewed Dark about writing “The Quiet One”; truth-telling in fiction versus nonfiction; sexism and the boy bands; Beatle wives; and why she abandoned her belief in pop culture.
Page Turner: How did your contribution to Heavy Rotation come about, and what resonated most about the book project for you when you learned of it?
Alice Elliott Dark: I had a letter from the collection editor, Peter Terzian, describing the project and asking me to contribute. I was recommended to him by my friend, Stacey D’Erasmo. I loved the idea immediately; like most people, I could reel off albums and singles that were the soundtracks of my life beginning when I was a small child, sitting in the car while my mother played the radio. Squeeze put it well in their song “If I Didn’t Love You,” in the lyrics “Singles remind me of kisses, Albums remind me of plans.” I’m sure we could all paraphrase this, naming our own associations.
The difficulty was trying to decide which album to choose. I made a long list and considered all of them carefully. This exercise brought into question what period of my life I considered most important; I had music for everything. The Beatles weren’t on my original list. I assumed someone else would pick them—they are so central as to be taken for granted. My early listening habits began with musicals, and I was leaning toward them first of all, South Pacific, Carousel, or Oklahoma, all of which I still listen to often.
After that came albums that surprised me with new sounds—a very long list long. When I spoke to Peter about the list and choosing only one album off of it, it came up that no one had picked the Beatles. I felt an obligation to fill that gap. The Beatles! They changed everything, including me.
PT: Tell me about writing “The Quiet One.” How would you characterize the interior place you inhabited while you wrote the essay?
AED: I wrote this piece when I was at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, one of my favorite places. I tried several approaches to writing the essay, but none of them felt right. Every day I would stop into the kitchen to pick up lunch and describe how I’d spent the morning writing generic drek. I knew what I wanted to say, but couldn’t get at it.
There were a few composers in residence that winter, and I was further intimidated by being around them. It seemed audacious for me to write about the Beatles. Yet these composers also inspired me. Their presence led me to think about how the Beatles’ music had affected me, even during my earliest listenings. I was able to write in the essay about how listening for George’s guitar line taught me to understand how the different instruments worked together, how the different contributions blended to create a whole, a skill I have been able to apply to my writing practice.
PT: “The Quiet One,” among other things, is a personal essay about death, magical thinking, and George Harrison. You made some particular decisions with the piece, including writing it in the second person point of view and in one long, consecutive narrative without breaks. How and why did you make these specific decisions for the essay?
AED: To continue with the previous story, I kept writing versions of the piece that seemed crap to me—serviceable, but not really good. Finally one day I decided to not write at all, but to simply sit in my studio until I found an authentic voice for the piece. I sat in a funky old Barcalounger and looked out the window at a winter landscape, doing absolutely nothing. Occasionally the horses pastured outside would stroll by; otherwise I could see nothing but a few trees and a gray-white winter sky.
I sat for five hours until my mind had quieted enough that I began to hear who I’d been when Meet The Beatles! came out. I went to the desk and wrote a draft of the piece very quickly. The second person was an organic choice—I believe it reflects my feeling of powerlessness at the time, and how sorrow had split me into several parts. I lost my “I,” in other words, and saw a “you” in its stead. The rush of language and run on sentences were an intuitive choice. I liked it, and kept it. It also seemed reflective of a child’s way of talking into the pillow at night.
PT: “The Quiet One” is not only about a particularly pivotal time in your own girlhood, but it is also about a tragic loss in your family. When you write about family history in personal essays, do you ever concede to certain boundaries or lines for the sake of your family? How does the retelling of family events in your writing exist in relation to the people in your life from those events?
AED: I am absolutely undone by the thought of offending my family. I know I’m not supposed to be, but I am. I have written a bunch of stuff about them, but it goes in the drawer. I suppose my boundary is publication. I do think writers should be completely free when they are alone with their pens. What they put out into the world requires a whole different set of considerations.
I stick to publishing pieces that, in my estimation, are about me only. I’m planning to write a long piece about my grandparents—but they have been dead a long time, so I am feeling free to portray them now. I was recently asked to write an essay about sisters and I tried, but I simply couldn’t do it. Every writer must make her own decisions along these lines. I always used to feel a bit cowardly when I read advice and exhortations to be fearless and tell the whole truth. In the end, I began to write more freely about my truth, knowing I wouldn’t publish it if it crossed what I judge to be the line between my life and someone else’s.
PT: How does writing nonfiction allow you to access truth in a way that is different than how you would in your fiction?
AED: I am more and more drawn to nonfiction. I like the effort to remember, and to understand memories. It is a different kind of truth, because in nonfiction one is dealing with the irrational contradictions of real people, whereas in fiction the characters must have a mathematical precision that serves the form of the work. Fictional truth is unreal in many ways, though it may reflect human interpretations of reality, and human dreams.
PT: Were you ever as fascinated with girl groups as you were with the Beatles in your youth? Did you ever identify with a particular Beatle wife or girlfriend above all others—if so, how? And…did you ever find the boy groups sexist?
AED: I wasn’t as fascinated by any whole group as much as the Beatles. Otherwise I was attracted to individuals, be it men or women. I loved Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, because they seemed to run their own shows. I loved Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick for their voices, but they seemed to be singing other people’s songs. The criteria for me was—is she a front singer or her own artist. Don’t know why, exactly. I suppose the notion of originality and control speaks to me more than interpretation.
Beatle wives; I was fascinated by Yoko, Patti Boyd, Linda Eastman, and Barbara Bach. Barbara Bach seemed extremely beautiful and stylish, and I was so saddened to later read that she and Ringo became alcoholics. Yoko was a real artist, and independent. Linda and Paul seemed to have an equal relationship.
Patti Boyd was probably my favorite, though. She was presented as being a central figure in the swinging London scene, the person who upped the Beatles’ game by introducing them to a more sophisticated life, and to Eastern religion. She was very stylish and exemplified a look that fascinated me—thin, long legs, long blond hair, huge brown eyes. I never understood how easily she was written off as being a type. Why are pretty women so hated? She was an interesting person, but the songs written about her by both George Harrison and Eric Clapton emphasized her looks over all else about her. That bugged me—though I guess it’s the convention of love songs.
I found the way boy groups were presented to be sexist. The whole boyish thing—it has the side effect of unsexing women, because it makes us into moms. We’re meant to think their antics are cute. The Beatles were presented as being both innocent and cute and as fun kids who liked a good strip club. This turned me off—still does. This even happened with John and Yoko, when Yoko left him and installed May Pang to babysit him until he sobered up. She was the mom, he the wayward boy. A turn off.
PT: You once said in an interview, “I believe in pop culture, in what touches people.” What about pop culture do you believe in, and what are your current pop culture obsessions?
AED: I’m not as interested in pop culture anymore. I’m much more inspired by really great work that is complex and deeply thought through. I did just read John Waters’ five-part piece on his friendship with Leslie Van Houten in The Huffington Post. Once upon a time I read a lot about the Manson family, and I wondered what Waters had to say. He was mainly advocating for Van Houten to be given parole. A tough sell, but he’s a good writer.
I am also very taken with Lindsey Lohan. I find her compelling and completely interesting—an utterly beautiful and talented woman in search of an identity. Or so I see her—more of a seeker than self destructive, though that’s a fine line. I don’t read about her, but if there’s a photo, I look.
I do open up the links on the AOL home page and look at photos of stars on the beach, et cetera, though I’ve never heard of a lot of them, as I don’t watch TV anymore except House. I like blogs, but only follow one or two.
I love the Internet, and how easy it is for new material to come my way. Maybe I am less interested in pop culture because the saturation level has become so high. I don’t have to go looking.
PT: What are you working on now?
AED: Lots of stuff, but mainly a novel. I’m working toward what I really have to say. Someday it will come out. “The Quiet One” piece was part of it.
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