Lily Brooks-Dalton is the author of Motorcycles I’ve Loved: A Memoir (Riverhead Books, 2015), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. In addition to her memoir, Brooks-Dalton has written for The Toast, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times. Her debut novel, Good Morning, Midnight, will be published by Random House on August 9, 2016.
E.B. Bartels: How did you begin writing nonfiction?
Lily Brooks-Dalton: I’m not sure it was a conscious choice for me. I’ve always thought of myself as a fiction writer, but when I started riding motorcycles and then thinking about my mother’s motorcycle stories, I felt suddenly inspired to write about those things. My experiences with riding motorcycles and studying physics and just generally dealing with my family started clicking into place for me as a writer. The ideas were sliding together in this way that demanded my attention.
EB: It seems most nonfiction writers started off thinking of themselves as fiction writers. I definitely did—most of the women I’ve interviewed for this series did. Having now written a memoir, what do you find rewarding about writing nonfiction?
LBD: I appreciate the honesty that memoir and personal essay can access. It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror for an extended period of time, far longer than is comfortable, in order to see what’s underneath that daily facade. Adhering to social norms involves sacrificing a certain level on honesty—someone asks how you are and you say fine even if you’re not fine, or maybe you pretend to agree with something in order to be polite, or you offer up a fake smile to someone you don’t want to be smiling at. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that stuff, but sometimes it’s a relief to just tell it like it is.
EB: And what about the challenges? What’s the hardest part of writing nonfiction for you?
LBD: The intimacy of being so honest is rewarding but also terrifying and hard. It’s always seemed odd to me that I write and then publish nonfiction, because as a person I’m not very forthcoming. I’m an observer, not a sharer. And while there are certainly experiences and parts of myself that I haven’t written about and don’t plan to write about, a lot of really personal stuff has made it into my work and that is excruciating for me as a person. Vital for me as a writer, but excruciating for me as a person. A number of my oldest, dearest friends have expressed surprise at learning new things about me from reading my work. It’s so weird—I’ll tell the world on the paper, but I won’t say it out loud. Total weirdo.
EB: How does it feel then to know all these strangers that have read your book know these intimate things about you?
LBD: It has definitely gotten easier. I think when my memoir first came out I was way out in the deep end of understanding what it really means to expose your writing to the world, and not only that, to expose the most personal and vulnerable writing you’ve ever done. But sharing work and bearing the judgment placed on that work is part of what writers do, and I’ve definitely come to terms with it. It’s still an odd sensation to have someone refer to my brother by his pseudonym or something like that, or have a stranger speak to me as if they’ve known me for years, but I think the whole process has helped me be a little more transparent in general, and for me that’s a good thing.
EB: It’s interesting how one’s persona in real life can be so different from one’s paper persona. Do you think your real-life personality influences your writing?
LBD: You know, I wish it did a little more in some respects—in life, I have a wry sense of humor and a smattering of goofiness, but I struggle to give my sense of humor much space in my work. Humor writing is so difficult for me, I’m always crazy impressed by people who do that really well. I think the more earnest side of me comes out to play in my nonfiction, and that’s okay, but I’d like to get better at writing funny stuff.
EB: Going off of that, what do you think makes something distinctly Lily Brooks-Dalton nonfiction, as opposed to Meghan Daum nonfiction or Margo Jefferson nonfiction?
LBD: This question flummoxes me, which probably means it’s a good one.
EB: Thank you! If it makes you feel better, most of the other writers I’ve interviewed also struggled with this question.
LBD: Oh good, I’m glad I’m not the only one! I suppose certain things do come to mind—science, for one. I like to weave elements of science into the narrative in lyrical ways, but that isn’t something I do in everything that I write, and I’m certainly not the only writer who does this.
Maybe urgency is a better answer—because I don’t think of myself as primarily a nonfiction writer, there is often something actively pressing me into nonfiction territory, otherwise I would probably be noodling around with my fiction. So, while I don’t think I’m the only writer to write urgent nonfiction (by a long shot), I do think it’s an important part of what I put out there.
The other side of urgency is distance. Distance breeds perspective, which is a glorious, invaluable thing. But sometimes a story demands to be told and it isn’t going to wait around ten years for a writer’s perspective to sharpen, and I think in those cases there is a different kind of energy to the writing. A writer who is in the middle of something, who is living in it, portrays those experiences much differently than a writer who has already lived through it and is looking back. So I think that when I turn my hand to nonfiction, it’s usually because I’m in the midst of something, and I like to think that urgency shows up on the page in a compelling or useful way.
EB: That’s so interesting—I had never thought about the role that urgency plays in the creation of nonfiction, but that feels especially true for me as well. So when something isn’t urgent, you turn to fiction?
LBD: I don’t think it will necessarily be true for me forever that I only turn to nonfiction when it’s urgent, but it does seem like a fairly consistent pattern to what I’ve done so far. Either that or someone has specifically asked me to write something—but even then, I think I reach for a topic or an angle that feels immediate, that is on my mind in an active way as opposed to something I have a fully formed and somewhat removed perspective on.
EB: You have a novel forthcoming this summer—Good Morning, Midnight. How do you find writing fiction similar to or different from writing nonfiction?
LBD: With fiction, there’s no emotional tax, which isn’t to say I don’t feel emotions for my characters, but it doesn’t leave me wilted from the process. They aren’t my emotions, they are my characters’. I can write a really difficult and sad scene for one of my characters and then get up from my desk feeling pretty satisfied with the work I’ve done, whereas if I’m writing about a difficult moment in my life I can’t just get up and walk away from it—it follows me for the rest of the day. Maybe longer.
EB: I feel you. Writing nonfiction can be so emotionally draining. How else does writing nonfiction affect your life as a writer and also a person?
LBD: As a person, writing nonfiction certainly presents an array of challenges. Earlier this year I published an essay in The New York Times about a really fresh heartbreak, and the duality of experiencing that publication as an accolade but also a kind of deeply sad and personal confession was confusing—for me, but for someone else as well. This dance between being grateful to publish what I write, terrified because what I write can be so intimate, and uncertain how the people in my life will respond to being revealed on the page is complex. It’s a push/pull kind of sensation—because sometimes doing my job well and publishing something honest hurts a little bit.
As a writer—well, I’m not really sure how to answer that. I suppose there are moments when things happen in my life and I think, I can build an essay around this. But the same happens with fiction. I’ll notice something and think, oh my god this has to be in my novel.
EB: You’ve spoken a lot about the intimacy of nonfiction. When you’re writing something personal, like a memoir, do you approach writing your nonfiction differently than you would if you were to approach writing researched nonfiction?
LBD: Well I think Motorcycles I’ve Loved is sort of a mix, because researched nonfiction does play a critical role in the structure of the narrative, but it is also quite personal. So I guess I’d have to say that these two modes of writing often blend together for me. Although, recently I’ve begun getting into freelancing and steering the gaze away from myself, so that’s been different and refreshing. It feels a bit more like fiction to be honest—I’m telling someone else’s story, it just so happens that it’s true and I’m bound by the facts. But then, if I’m dealing with a subject who I’m interviewing directly then that makes me approach it differently, too, because it starts to feel a bit more personal. I’m working on a piece about a woman who stunts on Harleys right now and I find myself wanting to be really gentle and complimentary because I like her and she deserves the accolades, but at the same time, it’s not about writing the story she wants, it’s about writing the story my editor wants. I’m basically a beginner when it comes to journalism, so I think a lot of what I’m navigating is pretty 101. But it’s fun—I like being able to explore all these varying modes of writing and seeing how the different skills inform and enhance each other.
EB: Working as a writer, how has being a woman affected your experience—both in general, and as a writer of nonfiction? Also, how has your gender impacted your experience as a motorcyclist?
LBD: Ha, in all the ways. I can’t even begin to separate my gender from my experiences. I think it’s safe to say that many of the responses to my writing would be very different (less mansplaining and fewer lewd comments for starters)—but the thing is, responses to me walking down the street, buying groceries, teaching a class, etc., would all be different.
As a female motorcyclist, it’s a little easier to pinpoint. The main thing is, it’s hard to be taken seriously. The assumption is that I just own a motorcycle because I think it makes me look hot, or because some boyfriend bought it for me, or—more generally—that I don’t know what I’m doing. And sure, I could whip out the number of miles I’ve logged or bikes I’ve owned, but why bother. It’s become less important to me to prove myself to dipshits than to simply stop participating in that dynamic. I know who I am, what I’m capable of. Sometimes that has to be enough.
EB: Yes! We all need to stop wasting time proving ourselves to dipshits. Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
LBD: I can’t say it’s my favorite, because then all my other favorites would be jealous. But here’s a quote that has stuck with me lately:
“Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.” —Annie Dillard
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.