Talking William James, Traveling Alone and 'Actual Weirdos' With Jessa Crispin

In Depth

In The Dead Ladies Project, Jessa Crispin—founder of the online lit mag Bookslut—weaves together longtime preoccupations to create a bracing, prickly, through-provoking book.

Each chapter pairs a person and a place, so that she considers Rebecca West in Sarajevo, Maud Gonne in Galway, Claude Cahun in Jersey Island, William James in Berlin. It’s an antidote to the Eat Pray Love school of travel writing—and deliberately so. As she winds through her list of dead ladies, Crispin interrogates marriage and family and the assumptions people still make about how we should organize our lives. It’s personal, but rather than looking relentlessly inward, she’s getting there by writing about literature, and specific historical personalities, and in one case some charming Swiss cows.

To give you a taste: “So I spend my birthday in proper spinster fashion,” she writes at one point, “with a night at the Russian ballet, wearing a ridiculous dress and sparkly shoes, sipping champagne and eating little caviar sandwiches, smoking on the rooftop without inhaling, just kind of lighting the cigarettes and waving them around, and looking out to the river that flows to the Baltic.” Buy it as a season’s-greetings gift for your friend who’ll fucking scream if she has to hear “Here Comes Santa Claus” one more goddamn time.

I sat down with Crispin and we talked traveling, dead ladies, weirdos, and tarot, among other things. Here’s an edited-down version of that conversation.

Tell me about how you picked the ladies that you did. And not just ladies—you ended up with William James, as well. Did you pick them before you embarked?

Once I figured out what the structure was going to be, it became really clear who was in and who was out. I needed some sort of link between them and the city and me, some sort of metaphor that worked. There were a couple that got cut, but the list that I started with was essentially the list.

Who’d you cut?

Robert Graves, in Majorca. Because he doesn’t like women, but he worships women, and I find that really interesting to think about. But I didn’t feel ready to deal with that, because that’s gross, and he’s gross. He has this book of poetry called Man Does, Woman Is. Fuck you, Robert Graves. I decided I didn’t want to do that.

The other one is Josephine Baker. She aged amazingly. She became a radical political person, a communist, and fought for equal rights and for the poor and adopted kids and became this amazing person, which you don’t expect for any sort of figure who is, like, the sex figure. Like Madonna. Madonna has not aged well. She has not become a humanitarian or anybody interesting at all. But Baker did. Maybe I’ll do it at some point, but I am interested in how that even happens. Because I’m scared of losing it, whatever it is. Becoming boring, or starting to fuck with my face. She got cut only because I didn’t want to go to Paris, and I didn’t want to do two French chapters, because anytime you read about expats, it’s Americans in France. And I had more personal connection to Margaret Anderson, just because our biographies are strikingly similar.

Tell me about Jean Rhys. because you got to London and you were like, “Oh my God—”

“This bitch.”

“Fuck this bitch,” basically!

Yeah, I did that.

I just don’t like that woman. And I don’t mean just her, but that female archetype. And so when I realized that’s who she was as a person, I just got repulsed. I feel like that person is my enemy, because I feel like I’m always in danger of becoming that person somehow.

You feel like that?

I feel like it’s an alternate, parallel universe version of me, maybe. It would have been easy for me to slip into that.

I tend to attract those women into my life, and you know, I’ve had friends who just—you know, they’re vampires. And we all know women like that. And certainly I’ve had several male friends who, when they try to break up with some girl who’s been a drain or whatever, threatens suicide or fakes a suicide attempt. It’s all the same archetype. And not to say that there’s not the male version of that, certainly. But I think it springs from a different place.

I just didn’t care for her as a person. And it felt really awkward to write about her, because my rage just kept building whenever I would think about her, and I felt bad about that, about my lack of empathy for her. But at the end of the day, I was just like, fuck it. I can’t find the empathy so let’s just move on. Let’s just put it as rage.

You picked a bunch of, to varying degrees, lesser-known female figures. It’s so easy to just engage with the well-known people. You go to Paris and you talk about Hemingway, or whatever. It takes more work and you risk what happened with Jean Rhys, where you learn more about her and it’s a turnoff. Could you talk a little bit more about why you think it’s important to do that work?

A lot of the women that are big figures in literary or musical or whatever history are allowed to be there by men, because they’ve been deemed safe. A lot of the actual weirdos—who maybe can teach us how it’s okay to be a weirdo—have gotten left out of the conversation. So it wasn’t like I thought, Oh, let me find some obscure people. It was who in my research have I come upon who speaks to me, who has something to say to me. And it was these people. It wasn’t a conscious decision. If that were the case, I probably wouldn’t have put Stravinsky in it. Everybody writes about Stravinsky. It really was just these women who speak to me. I guess probably Josephine Baker would have been a more obvious choice; Dorothy Parker went to Paris although she wasn’t there for very long. I’m sure there are more obvious choices, but to me, these were my people. This was, like, my family.

You have this long-running love of the James family. And it’s not a competition between the siblings, but I’m curious about how you think about each of them and how your love for them fits together.

Well, I hate Alice.

She’s kind of like Rhys, right?

She’s exactly like Rhys. When William was getting married, she didn’t like that he was getting married because he was going to move out of the family house, and so she pitched a fit. She took to her bed, thinking that she could get the wedding called off, and it didn’t work.

William to me—if I need to think something through, he’s the way I think through it. If I need to feel my way through something, I go to Henry. Henry is better at emotions. William feels his way to his philosophy, so he takes what he feels, and then thinks his way through it. With Henry, it’s always like—I don’t know how he does what he does. I reread Portrait of a Lady this year, and half the time I was just like, motherfucker, how is anyone this good? It’s nuts. The way he understands women, the way he understands societal pressure, the way he understands marriage. It’s just fucking insane.

That feels so amazing when it’s coming from a male writer. In your book you talk about mystery novels, and how often there’s a dead girl representing innocence and a younger lover representing better innocence. You just encounter that over and over. I can’t even hardly read novels by men anymore.

Have you read Daisy Miller, by Henry James?

I have not.

It’s an amazing take on the younger female lover that everybody’s projecting their shit onto. It’s incredible the first time you read it, because it’s the older guy narrating it, and you’re taking his point of view about Daisy Miller. “Oh, what a flirt, oh, what an idiot, why is she so irresponsible, why can’t she pull her shit together?” And then you realize—oh wait, why am I taking this guy’s side? She seems actually amazing.

I feel really down on male American writers. I just don’t get much out of them. But fucking Henry James, man. I don’t even get where that came from.

Tell me about the tarot. You funded a lot of your travel with tarot readings, right?

I’ve been learning for about ten years, I’ve only been reading for other people really since I started travel for the book. and that was because I ran out of money. Yeah, what would you like to know?

I think there’s this stereotype of literary culture, where people who read books are all materialist atheists, basically. Whenever somebody bucks that trend, I’m automatically interested.

I wrote this thing for the New York Times about becoming a tarot card reader, and before it came out I was like, Oh, fuck, nobody’s ever gonna hire me to write for anything intellectual ever again. I was really terrified.

It was so compelling—such a thing that shouldn’t work and did. Not even in a mystical way like, Here’s your future, but in a way of helping you think and feel differently about what’s happening to you. I got a spectacular reading by an amazing woman and had to know what that was all about. I didn’t know anything about the tarot at that point, anything about what the cards meant. Then it was just a really long learning process, and the learning process was kind of terrible, because the books about the tarot are nonsense. They’re either super-serious occult studies or it’s the Oh you need to manifest your dreams! bullshit. Those are the two ways of thinking about it and both have an intellectual poverty.

I just started self-teaching, which was just to pull one card a day and to see how it lined up.

It sounds like you almost think about the tarot similarly to the way you think about writing personally in a way that’s not the Eat Pray Love style. It’s not wholly personal or wholly cerebral.

It is kind of funny—the combination of thinking and feeling should not be a radical one, and yet it kind of is in the literary world. And you know, Marguerite Duras and Kathy Acker and all the other tough bitches have been trying to show us the way toward that for such a long time. But people don’t really know what to do with you, I find, if you’re that way. If you’re able to combine those two things.

I love the tarot. My favorite thing in the world is a really good tarot reading. It’s not even work to me, it’s play. I love doing it.

It seems like it’s a different way to walk through—so much of the way we think about our lives is very driven by either psychology or religion. We have a set of paradigms. And it seems like, in the way you do it, it’s a lesser-used one.

I find that what makes a good tarot reader is also what makes a good writer. At least, as far as what I read and readings that I get from tarot card readers. It’s just this immense curiosity and not accepting somebody else’s idea of how something should be as appropriate.

I’ve gotten a lot of tarot readings by a lot of different people, because when I started doing it for money, I just wanted to see other people’s styles. I didn’t trust the way I was doing it. And you would just get these—especially if I got a reading from a dude—really rigid things. This card means this thing. And there wasn’t any flexibility and there wasn’t any kind of fluidity. And I find that with a lot of terrible fiction that’s published these days—this rigidity of the genre. Like in a book written by a woman, you’re expected to give it this redemptive arc. The problem has to be resolved and the woman has to learn something, or heal, or whatever the hell. And I find that ruins so many books. I was rooting for the person, then I see it happening, I can see them trying to fit everything into that arc. Why are you doing that? It doesn’t have to go that way.

So I’m proud that all of the problems I have at the beginning of the book, I still have at the end of the book. No growth, whatsoever.

False growth is the worst thing of all. When somebody sets out to have an epiphany and then has the epiphany. Why didn’t you stay home and have the epiphany?

You already knew what it was going to be. When I tried to sell the book, I got the same thing a couple times, which was, “What’s the arc?” There’s no arc. But several people said the same thing. “You should base it around the idea of home. You should go out and find a home in one of these cities.”

Home is nice and domestic, and women have homes.

But how do you—“Oh I’m definitely going to live in one of these places. One of these places is really, definitely going to speak to me.” That was like at the back of my head for a lot of the travels—Is this my home? And why am I even looking? If I ever found a place where I actually wanted to spend the rest of my life, I’d have to kill myself, because I would obviously be possessed by a demon of some sort, because that’s just not who I am.

Those arcs, they’re kind of contagious. So it was like, Is this my home? Are you my mom? Is this my home? No, of course not. And I was a little bit scared when I turned the book in that they were going to expect something, like, Oh, and then I realized this is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. And my editor didn’t give a shit. She’s amazing.

This is going to sound ridiculous. But what do you think it means to be a woman traveling alone? It’s such a culturally weighted thing, and it’s wellspring of so many personal essays. “What I learned when I traveled by myself and didn’t shave my legs for six weeks,” or whatever. But what do you think it can mean?

It’s funny, because I’ve never really had the experiences of any of those women writers who traveled alone and then wrote personal essays about it. Because I’ve read a lot of them, and I’ve never had anybody weirded out by the fact I was on the road alone. I’ve never had anybody feel either protective or predatory because of it. I’ve never felt weird about it myself. I’ve never really felt really lonely or “What am I doing?”

So I don’t know really how to answer that, because to me, it’s not that much different. Maybe it’s just because it’s been ten years that I’ve been living alone as well as traveling alone—being single in the world is secondhand to me. I don’t even think about it.

But I feel like the job of a lot of those essays is to make women afraid of traveling alone. To put it in this place of, you have to think about it, you have to prepare for it. You’re in danger if you travel alone. The New York Times loves to tell women about how dangerous it is for them to be traveling alone—there’s always these stories that oh, this woman was murdered in Istanbul, she was a tourist. People get murdered everywhere. You could get murdered in your goddamned house. You’re way more likely to be murdered by you boyfriend or your father than by some stranger out on the road.

I think that the women perpetuate a bad stereotype by writing those kinds of things, and I try purposefully not to talk too much about that in those terms. I do feel like women should travel by themselves. It’s a great experience. Too many people, not just women but also men travel in groups or in couples or whatever. It’s really not the same experience at all. I was talking about this with a friend, because she traveled with her boyfriend for the first time and she had always traveled on her own. and she was like, I fucking hated it. I had somebody’s needs to consider other than my own and I was always worried that he wasn’t entertained.

It sounds cheesy, but you end up less open.

No, it’s totally real. If you have this one person satisfying your needs, and you’re taking care of their needs, then you’re not responding to the environment, and you’re not vulnerable. And I think the primary point of traveling is to make yourself vulnerable, so you can be affected by what’s going around. If you’re preventing that because you need somebody to talk to—I don’t know, there’s Skype, you can talk to them at night. Talk to the fucking person at the cafe!

Contact the author at [email protected].

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