The unholy idol of narrative: A Conversation with Alice Bolin / by Peter LaBerge

BY MEREDITH DOENCH

 Alice Bolin, author of  Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession  (William Morrow, 2018).

Alice Bolin, author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession (William Morrow, 2018).

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, a New York Times Editor's Choice and  recipient of a Kirkus Star. Her nonfiction appears in publications including The New York Times, ELLE, Vulture, and Tin House. She is assistant professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Memphis.

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I fully admit it—I’m drawn to dead girl stories. It’s an easy pull given that so much of our popular culture employs the trope for entertainment. Dead girl stories are quite literally everywhere. As a thriller writer who has used the trope in my own writing, I was jazzed to read Alice Bolin’s critical essay collection, Dead Girls. What I found was a collection about so much more. Bolin uses the dead girl trope as an entrance into a journey, one that leads the reader through an Americana of popular culture, which expertly turns back around to examine itself. I was thrilled to have the chance to ask Bolin a few questions about her latest work.

Meredith Doench: The collection of Dead Girls covers so many different topics—it’s fascinating to see how they all eventually come together. How did you determine the structure for the book and what were your goals in the ordering of the essays? I’ve heard you refer to the book as the “unholy idol of narrative.” Could you explain what you mean by that and how it fits into the structure of your collection?   

Alice Bolin: The four sections of the book are mostly organized by similarities in topic—the first mostly about true crime and violence against women, the second about Los Angeles, the third about witchcraft and sisterhood, and the fourth a long essay thinking about when I moved to LA and the politics of white femininity. But I do intend for there to be sort of an evolution through the sections. I start out the way readers might expect, talking very explicitly about Dead Girls, but I didn’t want to dwell there. I wanted to try to find a way out—and I model that in the book, straying farther from the “Dead Girl” theory as I go on. I also wanted there to be a way in the book for me to reflect and revise what came before. In the introduction and in the last essay I was able to look at the first essays I wrote in the book and question the assumptions that undercut them.

In the first essay I say that Dead Girls are sacrifices to “the unholy idol of narrative,” meaning that one excuse for killing girls in pop culture is that “it’s a good story.” Today’s humans are addicted to stories, and we probably consume more of them than at any time in history. And these narratives help us to abstract and metabolize pain, like that of living in a violent, misogynist culture. I do see an overarching narrative in my book, but it’s obviously fragmented, out of order, doubling back on itself. I don’t necessarily want it to read smooth. I want the reader to be aware of their experience of reading it.

MD: I was very keen on interviewing you not only because I love works of cultural criticism, but also because the dead girl trope touches on my own work. One aspect of my writing is a lesbian thriller series where the first two books feature a string of “dead girls.” Your book has given me a lot to think about in this regard. You talk about how the dead girl trope can be found in genre and literary styles of writing. What responsibilities do you think an author has to her audience (and possibly culture) when working with this type of trope? Do you think there is any difference in responsibility between genre and literary writers?      

AB: This is a really interesting question. I think that a writer has both ethical and artistic responsibilities to her audience, meaning that she should tell a good story without also telling a damaging one. This is at the heart of my criticism of the Dead Girl story. That it’s not only politically suspect—the catalyst is a teenage girl body quite literally objectified—but also artistically lazy. If we’ve seen it a million times before, is it still a good story? So I think we can follow both our artistic and political instincts to avoid the clichés and pitfalls of this genre. There are a million ways to subvert or complicate this trope narratively, and quite often doing that creates a much fresher and more interesting product.

I think genre writers actually more often push the boundaries of these narrative formulas, because they are so self-referential and allusive—they take it as their duty to comment on and play with the genre conventions.

MD: I think that your father and I might be cut from the same cloth, at least in terms of our reading tastes! I was touched by the descriptions of your father’s personality and his active reading style. In many ways, the descriptions of your father reveal a lot about you. Was it difficult to incorporate such personal relationships and experiences in a book that also feels very academic at times?  

AB: It was difficult, though my relationship with my dad was the least difficult to write about, especially because he took a pretty active role in the writing process. I interviewed both him and my mom and let them read and give notes on the first draft of the essay. My dad loves the essay and keeps rereading it. He is such a ham and likes being one of the stars of the book.

I think to be a nonfiction writer you have to tell yourself that your relationships and experiences are yours to write about in whatever way you choose, but I’m not sure that’s true—I’m still working on not stepping on or appropriating other people’s stories when turning them into characters.

MD: One of my favorite parts about the book is that it brings up issues of writing—in particular, creative nonfiction. I’ve been thinking a lot about the question you ask regarding how you can use the form of the personal narrative without it using the writer. This “meta” question turns the reader’s eye toward the artist’s structure and choices of what to include (and exclude). In some ways, it is like your discussion of how the dead girl trope works. How does your work invite readers to pay attention and consider exactly what they are reading and watching (i.e. consuming)? Do you see what some might call the “blind consumption” of popular culture connecting with crimes against women and minorities in American culture?       

AB: It is really gratifying that you connected with this part of the book! By talking explicitly about the ethics of nonfiction and my specific aims with the book, I am not only inviting people to think about the ways the essays were created, but to take my conclusions with a grain of salt. I want to allow myself room to think things through and to change my mind, and to let my readers do the same. You’re right that one goal I had with the book was to encourage people to be more mindful consumers of popular culture, thinking about what trends and repeated narratives say about our values, and why we are drawn to what we are. I don’t think that that is going to solve all of our cultural problems—in fact it is probably the last place we should start if we want to end gun violence or violence against women or police brutality. But if our culture is a mirror on our values, we can clearly see the problems of our society by watching and reading more critically.

MD: In the not-so-distant wake of reports that Sherman Alexie has continually sexually harassed (his word, in his written statement, was “harmed”) women in the literary communities in which he was a part (and a HUGE name within), how do you feel about including Alexie in a book that seeks to illuminate the harm done to women by men? Had the timeline been different, would you have thought to exclude your analysis of Indian Killer as a part of your essay, “Black Hole,” or have you thought about revising the essay to include the reports? Also, you only briefly mention the privilege of the “Dead Girl,” that is the Dead [White] Girl, and I’m wondering why you neglected to include, in further depth, cultural criticism surrounding the murders of women of color and people of non-conforming genders/sexuality and, perhaps especially in “Black Hole,” the murders and disappearances of indigenous women in North America?

AB: I don’t think I would exclude Alexie entirely, but if the timeline were different I would have written about the allegations against him. I’m a critic, and my essays are not endorsements. I still think Alexie is an important, if obnoxious, figure, and the book I focus on, Indian Killer, is his least successful and most bizarre, with tons of gratuitous violence and no satisfying conclusions. Alexie used his institutional clout to prey on people and otherwise behave badly, and I think it’s crucial that he is stripped of that institutional power. But his literary legacy will have to be reckoned with, and had I had the time I would have considered the way his known transgressions reflect on Indian Killer, this troubling and complicated book. Whether that attention might add to his institutional power is a fair question, but that’s basically the minefield I work in every day.

I am talking mostly about fictional violence in the book (or the dramatized world of true crime), and I’m thinking about the reasons the murders of white girls and women hold so much sway in those arenas. In another version of the book, I would have written in more depth about the marginalized victims you mention, but in the end I decided that it was not primarily about murder and violent crime—it’s about Los Angeles, reality TV, witchcraft, writing, and my own experiences. The Dead Girl story becomes more of a case study or a backdrop; a way to understand both the threats and privileges I carry with me through the world and the paradoxical way white women can be both oppressed and oppressor.

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Meredith Doench teaches writing at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in literary journals such as Hayden's Ferry Review, Women's Studies Quarterly, and Gertrude. She served as a fiction editor at Camera Obscura: Journal of Literature and Photography and her first crime thriller, Crossed, was published by Bold Strokes Books in August 2015.  Her second, Forsaken Trust was released in May of 2017.  Deadeye will be released in early 2019.