Originally published in KISSED BY VENUS, July 2010.
Ali Liebegott has published two books, both of which have won a Lambda Literary Award. Her first book, The Beautifully Worthless (Suspect Thoughts, 2005) is a road trip tale stitched together from poetry, lists, and letters to an ex-lover. This not easily classifiable work is messy and confessional, but I found myself sucking on some of the lines, as though they were caramels. For instance, the delightful paradox found when Ali writes, “The way I love her is like the way I can’t love a part of me.”
The IHOP Papers (Carroll & Graf, 2007) is a more accessible coming of age novel written in a tight realist style. Like her first work, The IHOP Papers features a first person narrator who works as a waitress while struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, cutting, and emotional drama. The world Ali’s characters inhabit isn’t so much “edgy” as dreary and flaky, and she effortlessly captures the people and situations with deadpan style and pitch-perfect dialogue. Whether the narrator is breaking her hymen with a pen, or telling an outrageous lie to get the attention of her sexy AA sponsor, or madly charging up and down the street to freshen up her waitress uniform, it is impossible not to be charmed. In addition to a Lambda Award, The IHOP Papers scooped up a Ferro-Grumley Award and was a finalist for the Stonewall Prize.
Nairne Holtz: You described The Beautifully Worthless as 97% real. Would you write a novel featuring a protagonist who is distinctly different from you?
Ali Liebegott: I can't believe I said it was 97% real. What a lie. It's probably only 60% real. My next, next book that I'm drafting this summer has a very old man as a protagonist. But I don't know if that exactly makes him distinctly different from me. As I write this, my back's thrown out, my shoulder hurts, and I'm sick in bed with pneumonia . . .so I definitely feel like an arthritic old man.
NH: Why do you think the real world of work so rarely appears in fiction? Why do you write about your experiences as a waitress?
AL: I don't know if I agree that the real world of work rarely appears in fiction. I think all writers use their experiences in their writing, and since most of us have to work, there it is. I write a lot about waitressing because I did it for so long, over fifteen years. Half of my memories are somehow fused to being a waitress and restaurant work culture.
NH: What are some things you consider beautifully worthless?
AL: Well, it's funny because when I wrote the book I was obsessed with pennies. And matchbooks. Things you find on the ground while looking down. Those same things don't resonate with me now. I have the terrible luck though of finding dead pigeons several times a month, though. Pigeons die horrible deaths everywhere. At least in San Francisco they do. Maybe I'm moving away from the idea of looking for beauty in decay or tragedy. I do enjoy a pair of old shoes thrown over a telephone line if the shoes are a nice color, though.
NH: You once stated your vice was “mentally unstable women,” and certainly, Irene, the love interest in The IHOP Papers, is the embodiment of dysfunction. What appeals to you about crazy girls? Would you say they are your muses?
AL: Gross. Who says that? I'm so glad I went to therapy! Let's just say I've moved on to women who have their shit together. So much nicer for everyone that way.
NH: Both of your books deal with longing. The narrators seek fulfillment in unknown people and places, but the reality is never as satisfying as the anticipation. Is this true for you, or do you see longing as a larger societal problem?
AL: I think it's easy to think the grass is always greener. As someone who has experienced some bad health recently, and gone through some health problems in my lifetime—I always come back to the adage if you have your health you have everything. I remember when my appendix burst and the hospital made a mistake and sent me home with antacid!! I'd never been in so much pain in my life. And I told myself after my emergency appendectomy if I can just tie my shoes without crying, then I'll never complain about anything again. But I did—only a few weeks later. It's so human.
NH: Your work sometimes reads like a stand-up comedy routine. Do you have a background in theatre or comedy? Did performing regularly with Sister Spit shape your fiction?
AL: I honestly believe a lot of my humor was born as a survival skill out of growing up gay in a smallish town. Hahaha! Don't kill me, I'm funny. People always tell me I should do stand-up, but that seems hard. I have no comedy/theater background, but I've always been a ham. And I'm a Leo. Performing with Sister Spit just helped me to know how to excerpt pieces for more rowdy environments.
NH: What do you prefer about writing poetry?
AL: I love how poems are just these deeply emotional and vulnerable moments for me that I can offer up and hope someone else reads at a vulnerable moment.
NH: What do you prefer about writing fiction?
AL: Fiction is a way to really have a whole new take on something. Sometimes when I think of making up stories I think of doing it as a way to have a bit of justice about an event or to try and pull on the heart strings of terribly mean, bitter people. You have so much control over a person if you can get them lost in a book.
NH: In addition to your writing, you paint portraits of ducks. Why ducks?
AL: I started painting ducks almost ten years ago. But they are weird ducks. Sad ducks. Ducks with a lot on their minds. And a few years ago I started doing a whole series of my favorite dead authors as ducks. I think I draw ducks because when I was teaching myself to draw it was at the same time that I was feeding this very tattered duck named Slim at the public pond every day. The events fused and now ducks kind of symbolize the ultimate benevolent underdog for me.
NH: What role do animals play in your life?
AL: I LOVE almost all animals. I have an almost sixteen-year-old Dalmatian named Rorschach who is heavily featured in my trilogy of book-length poems. Right now she's sleeping next to me in a gray argyle turtleneck sweater, and I'm writing this sentence for the sole purpose of knowing I'll want to have a memory of her sleeping next to me in that sweater when she's gone. For me, it seems like a terribly lonely life without animals. I also live with a cat named Hamotzi, who is a true cat's cat. I'd like to have another bird in the future and a greyhound. If I ever got rich I'd buy a farm and have goats, geese, sheep, horses, pigs, and ducks. That would be my dream.
NH: What are you working on right now?
AL: I'm completing the second book in a trilogy of hybrid book-length poems started by The Beautifully Worthless. The second book is called The Summer of Dead Birds and the last book is tentatively called The Heart has many Doors—after an Emily Dickinson line. This summer I plan to write a straight up novel that is another attempt at finishing my graphic novel about a post 9/11 obsessive duck feeder. Plus, I'm always painting ducks. And listening to the New York Mets on the radio.