Q&A with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Q&A with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Photo: Jeffery Walls

Indefatigable queer activist and gender bender Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the award-winning author of Pulling Taffy and the acclaimed editor of several edgy anthologies, including Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity and Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write About Their Clients. Her latest book—the brilliantly sexy So Many Ways to Sleep Badly—is about sex and sex work, friendship and danger and loving among the ruins of an assimilated, “post-gay” San Francisco.

Reviews of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly describe it as a memoir, but you describe it as a novel.

Most of the specific events I describe did happen to me or someone very much like me in the actual world, but what makes it a novel is the way I’m focusing on tone, texture, voice, repetition [and] the theme of danger, whether it’s roaches or rats or pigeons or NPR or bad sex or dreams or insomnia or incest memories. All the ways it’s layered makes it fiction. I don’t want it just to fit into the hot marketing genre of the moment, which is memoir, of course.

Resistance seems important to your writing and activism. Is there a connection between resistance and the fragmented feel of the novel?

I want to convey this world where nothing really comes together as we expect it to, with the overwhelm of the everyday and the larger overwhelm of impending violence and war and loss and gentrification. I wanted to convey both the way that the narrator is surrounded by the things that she’s both fighting and enmeshed in.

So the reader has to create meaning with you?

When you explain everything to the reader, that’s not understanding. That’s some sort of gawking. I’m attempting to avoid that by not including explication, even in terms of the narrative. So, the reader can choose to do one of two things. You can close the book and not read any more, or you can try to enter on the terms of the writing.

You make writing sound like a direct action protest.

I can’t think of a better compliment. While there’s obviously direct action protest in the novel, I wanted to avoid making it a moralistic “protest novel.” I wanted to convey the messiness, and maybe that’s its own protest of sorts. There are moments when it seems like everything could change, and then you’re back in the oppressive structure.

How did your experience with chronic pain affect the writing of this book?

In the past, I’d always written when I felt like something happened to me, and if I didn’t get it down immediately then I would completely fall apart. I’d write in this crazed mania, for 10 pages, and then I might not write for weeks until that same flash of inspiration would occur. When I first started developing chronic pain in my wrists, I knew I couldn’t write that way anymore. I thought, well, let me see if I can use my physical limitations to increase possibility rather than decrease it. I’m going to write two paragraphs a day…then I’d hear something on the radio or I’d go outside or have some kind of homophobic basher experience or amazing sex and I’d write it down in three sentences or one sentence and layer it all together. ... After a couple of years, I had 400 pages, which was twice as much as I though I’d have. I ended up feeling more empowered. (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com)

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