Elna Baker: A Serious Interview

11.11.09 | | 7 comments

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So your whole book is based on the structure of kissing, how did you decide to do that?

It’s funny because the sort of themes or structures that are pointed out to me usually they’re a surprise, like oh I did do that! So I think that I noticed that there were so many stories about kissing and so I just started calling them Take One, Take Two, Take Three and then there were the stories that ended up being about kissing too so we just called them Take Eight, Take Nine and then I found an in an old journal this map of Manhattan that mapped out the different places and I thought it was so funny that I made a copy of it and redrew it for the book. Its something I did when I was 22 but it sort of reflects the 15-year-old behavior and so then I didn’t fill it out when I got older but in the book I just extended the map and filled in all the other people I kissed.

So that raises a couple interesting questions. Before you took the book to the editor—as opposed to how it looks after the editing process—do you think the book is structurally the same now? Did little things like that make a big difference or was it just clarifying what was already there?

My first draft was very different then my second draft. The first draft, I had decided to write the book as if it were in a younger voice. So it begins the same way that the book begins, with the first essay. And I continued to write it in that voice of almost journal entries, “Guess what happened yesterday?” and I took the reader through the whole journey as though it were happening more presently but then book was a lot longer and there were lulls where you couldn’t get to the heart of the information because you had to keep up this pretense. So anyway I woke up this morning and guess what happened? and then a great story. So what my editor said, the first round of notes was just Go deeper, Give us more. Which for me was  very frustrating because I  had just been on a meditation retreat and returning and having someone tell me You should really go try to find yourself. And I was like, What? But in retrospect she was completely right.  I had to do a tremendous amount of work and pick the very strongest pieces and so I scrapped the whole first version of the book and wrote a version of just essays and when I finished that version I was able to see more clearly that it could be not just a book of essays but one story that you wanted to continue to read. And then both my editor and I in the final months pieced the order together.

Interesting, so it’s more of a collection in a way and it was a matter of putting the cards in the right order so they made a picture.

Exactly. And even with weeks to go, it was still What is the right order? How do we piece this together? And it’s interesting because my experience has been individual stories on stage that were 10 to 15 minutes  and so innately you understand how to build that 15-minute story, beginning/middle/end, with character changing and all that, but then when you’re dealing with 280 pages it’s exciting when you get to a place where you know the work well enough where you can keep it all in your head and figure out how you would shape all of it to be like one 15-minute story.

What are some other structures that people have pointed out to you? That you hadn’t noticed?

Somebody said that the reason it’s called The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance and I go back to the dance every several chapters, is because the dance represents my failure to be married and live up to this pressure of what my faith has set up for me and so every year I return is an indication that I haven’t achieved what I had hoped to achieve.

Well that’s a happy way to look at it.

I think it’s like purgurtory.

I can see that. It sort of sounds like it. There are circles and everything that strange people like Dante met doing the electric slide. So do you google yourself very often?

Well my mother lives in Siberia and she doesn’t have a lot to do so she googles me.

So you get it secondhand. Because in preparation I’ve been googling you and reading some of the interviews you have given and, in most of the interviews (until this week) people ask about the stress of  being Mormon and the stresses of Mormonism and how Mormons view you, and the question always comes from and goes back to a nonMormon audience so only that half of your human-PR mechanism is engaged. And I am curious, when you field questions like that, do you consider how you would answer them differently if, say, I were asking them? Because this is an experience we all have, right? Where we have different audiences we are dealing with them so we answer the same question different ways depending on poses it. So when you sculpt answers like this are you consciously pulling out things from one half of the truth file and leaving one half of the truth file alone, or is it just automatic?

I think it’s automatic, just in the sense that I assume the audience is not Mormon, only based on my experience with audiences, because for the most part I’ve never had a Mormon audience. In terms of typical audiences, doing stuff on stage, I think I’ve actually had a lot of support from Mormons in terms of my work over the years so when I answer the question I usually assume that it’s being asked—and usually it is being asked. by someone who isn’t Mormon. But I do think when I am around Mormons or when I’m asked questions by Mormons— In fact, I had a director who had directed one of my first solo shows and he came back to my apartment with me my sister was there with one of her guy friends from the singles ward and I started goofing off with them and the director told me afterwards that he had never seen me quite so comfortable and just natural in my whole life—or in our whole experience together. So I do think that when I am around other Mormons there is a feeling of familiarity and the ability to let your hair down and you aren’t trying to impress them. I don’t know if that answers your question.

It does and it brings me to another question I wanted to ask. In a lot of these answers you give off this sort of sense of being the lone Mormon artist, like you’re this anomonly in Mormondom, something kind of unprecedented. Is that how your self-image is built, that you are this unusual creature, the Mormon artist?

Well, let’s see. I think that— Well, I think that. It sure is an interesting question because— I think that often, for the sake of the storytelling, you do highlight different feelings that you have so I think in that sense sometimes the positive things that I’ve gotten from the mormon community get the short end of the stick, and there is actually a line in my book where I say that or make reference to that which is when I am in the hospital I say that of course the first people to come were—I don’t think I used the term home teacher—but it was my home teacher, and even though I make fun of Mormons all the time when I actually need someone they’re the first to graciously help me out. And yet that being said I think that I have also felt that a lot the feelings within the book come from a place of honesty and I have felt like I didn’t fit in. For most of my life at church activites or church events or within a congregation. But I don’t think that I am the only Mormon artist, I’ve met other Mormon artists so I don’t claim to be the only one.

In the last couple of weeks because of the book, this is your moment that everyone is looking at you and I’ve written about you and you had the interview on By Common Consent—which was yesterday that came out—and have you been following the reaction to those at all?

I try not to. Only because—actually this is advice given to me by a writer who I met in Los Angeles when I was finishing my book and she had had a book come out a few months earlier and there was positive response but there was also a fair amount of negative response on blogs and what not, and she said she made the mistake of becoming upset with reading everything. And there was this one person on a blog that misinterpreted something that she had written in her book and so she tried to clarify it and this is when it escalated into issues and she told me just don’t engage. Basically the advice she said was because it made her feel like now she’s trying to write again but, she had her feelings hurt so much that she lost like her creativity and now she’s working to restore that. Never before in history has there been a time where things increase, where we get more and more aware, where what you create is open to criticism that you have access to. And I actually felt a lot of anxiety about that in the final stages of editing my book because I felt I was in denial of some of the things I was putting in the book and well like, Oh, I just wrote that so my editor could see the missing pieces, but, I would never say that outloud. And then, at the end, when I realized, I was like, Wow, people aren’t really suppose to view this, and I don’t think this is healthy. But, unfortunately it’s too late in the process to totally back out, but to put yourself out there so much means that there is a level of accountability to it, and that you will be accountable for the things that you say, but also you’ve changed as a person so something that you say you could feel differently about several months later or several years later. And for the most part I’ve noticed that the reactions are positive, but then as you scroll down and stumble upon reactions that are really strongly negative and you can’t…you can’t stop it.

So let me let me ask you about something you said somewhere else. You said “I try not to get therapy personal. When you know someone is telling a story about pain that they haven’t worked through yet, the story suffers” and you go on to talk about how you shouldn’t exploit yourself and there are lines you shouldn’t cross. It sounds like maybe you felt like you crossed those lines in the book?

I don’t think I did, I try to work hard not to have self-pity and I think the only time that I did cross the line of what I thought I would include is the story about going to Africa, but that I think that came out of a growing relationship to truth which is what I got from writing the book in that I resisted telling the full truth sometimes because it wasn’t the sort of idealistic or the way I wanted things to turn out, and so you don’t want to write it down because you don’t want it to be the way things are. But ultimately that was the way things were. And in the learning that everything you need to know is always there it’s just that you choose to or choose not to see it in the moment .

So going back to the map of Manhattan which I presume cannot be 100% accurate. So there’s a bit of license in in recreating the past and mention that in the beginning too, how some of the characters have been combined or simplified and how do we, as writers, how do determine where exactly we’re changing the facts to enhance the truth and where so’called enhancement can get in the way of what’s actually true?

Well with the map I mean the only thing—

Right. That’s obviously a minor example—it doesn’t really matter at which intersection you kissed so-and-so.

Well. The numbers are correct. I didn’t make up those numbers, unfortunately. I just had to change the names for legal reasons. I think at the time I was working on the book, there was an article, I think it was in Esquire, about James Frey and where, several years after A Million Little Pieces, about the genre of memoir and how it’s always been a genre were the truth has been bent and he kind of took the brunt of it. And, yeah, looking at the examples he gives, they’re very— You read that as a writer and it makes you paranoid like, Where have I done that?, Do I do that? But then there is, oh I can’t remember exactly the example, but him saying he was in prison when he wasn’t in prison at all? That’s very obvious. There’s nothing like that in my book. Everything in the book has happened to me. For the most part, there isn’t much manipulation of storytelling, everything sort of happens the way it does. But the instances where things do get changed is, if someone gave you advice or said a certain line that really distilled the message of what you’re trying to say, but they were just a random person that you had a random conversation with once, you might say that somebody else said that line, somebody you’ve already introduced in the book. So it’s situations like that.

Here’s something someone said about you.

Uhoh.

Yeah, watch out. They said “It is interesting our appetite for artists’ lives as part of their creation that we consume. We don’t just want their books or performances. We want them. That seems particularly worrisome with comedians, who have to present the world in exaggerated and absurd forms. It’s as if we’re requiring Harpo Marx to keep wearing his wig and overcoat and being mute when he’s off the stage.” And they were saying that in response to their view of your book and particularly how some people might make unkind judgements. What do you think of that criticism? That it is unfair, that your creation of your life needs to be kept separate from the consumers of the art?

Actually think that’s a really nice comment. Because I agree. I didn’t write the book because I didn’t wanted to have everyone know about my life or because I wanted people to follow my life you know or read about my life in the same way that I’m not one to Twitter, I’m terrible at updating my blog or keeping things posted on Facebook because I feel like I don’t have enough time to lead my life and document my life, or have other people see me leading my life, so in that sense that’s not necessarily the style of my work. Instead, I was always good at telling stories. And the stories were about thing that have happened to me. And the stories that I choose to tell are ones that I learned something that helped me figure out how to be a person, for better or for worse. Whether I was learning from a mistake or from a positive choice I’ve made. So in that sense um I didn’t fictionalize the book because I felt the most direct way to express the ideas that I wanted to express—the only way I really knew how to do that was through these personal stories, and each story kind of has a question behind it, something I am trying to figure out and I think that as I pursue that question in search of black or white, right or wrong answer, I’m confronted with life and ambiguity and the way things can be black / white / grey / everything all at once, and the stories navigate through that territory to a place where I can come to a conclusion, at least for that moment of how I want to behave. Does that answer the question?

I think so, yeah, um Mark Twain….

Um—

Oh, sorry, go ahead.

I’m like—did I get—Mark Twain? But then you do that and you write these stories and they are really just about the story but they happened to you, so then it does put you in the position of having to live up to these stories and often the stories are you but you in a different time. Like I got asked out on a date via Internet from someone who was a writer in New York who had heard me on podcast and he was traveling and he sent this email that was like, Oh, just say yes. I know you, that’s probably how you would want things set up anyway, you don’t need a photo, just say yes! Probably me four years ago would’ve been like Yeah, why not?, but me now is a little less willing to just say yes to a stranger on the Internet. So I think that, also, people expect you to be true to yourself, but they choose a moment in the book and they think, Be true to this person. Then you grow, you change, the nature of being true to yourself changes, your self changes. So.

So the reason I mentioned Mark Twain is because the way he described a humorous story sounds like your truth-telling, because he says that, as opposed to the way the British or the French tell stories, the Americans tell stories in a way where the point isn’t that the stories is “funny” and you don’t you don’t put big exclamation points or tell people where to laugh you just tell a story and it’s more in the manner of the telling that it’s funny and it’s not because you are trying to make people laugh it is because— I am not stating this very well. Hang on, let me try this again. “The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even . . . suspects that there is anything funny about it.” And I wouldn’t say that really represents your delivery style, from what I’ve seen of it, but, on the other hand, I don’t feel like you are trying to force people to laugh. Am I making a distinction here or am I just talking in circles?

Yeah, you are. Making sense.

So do you feel like you are sort of that Mark-Twain tradition? Because I would say most stand-up comedy now is very much about punchline-punchline-punchline.

Yeah.

Whereas you are a storyteller.

And in that sense I think that a lot of the things written about, or in the way that I’m pitched, whether it be by Penguin or whether it be the person writing the article or whatnot is as a stand-up comedian. But I don’t think I ever really fit in to that world or made it huge in to that world. I did standup and it was a lot of fun, but I think what I was doing was always different from what the other comedians were doing. And I could be okay with the way the audienced laughed at me if I didn’t need them to laugh all the time. Because what would happen is, as I told stories, they would laugh a lot less than they did in the standup routines where its punch-punch-punch-punch, but then I remember an audience member saying to me, You know, I heard things that were so funny that I laughed so hard on at least two occasions I almost peed my pants but I don’t remember who  the comedian was or the what joke was, but I can repeat your entire story word for word.” And so in that sense you leave an impression on people in the sense that you connect with their memory. And the kind of  comedy that I admire is always the kind that laughter is as the result of the tension that you feel, where it’s natural, I think. You’re laughing because you feel uncomfortable, because you know how much a character wants something and you so when they don’t get it it’s all the more excruciating. So it’s connected to humanity—it’s not just gross-out humor or that kind of humor.

So the story telling is that still part of your Woody-Allen goal? Or have you left that behind then, if aren’t doing strict standup?

It all counts, when I tell a story, because Woody Allen’s material is also stories as well. So I think any time I perform my own work it counts.

This reminds me of something that I have written down in my notes um This was from some other website, it says, “Baker’s main comedic obstacle is really one of timing. Her storytelling M.O. is probably better suited for the page, not the stage where the audience’s attention span can last for a maximum of about 20-seconds between funnies.” Is that a fair assessment of your audiences?

I think that it is a fair assessment of an Internet audience—for a performance  recorded and put on the Internet. Because you kind of have to be there to follow it, so in terms of performing live in front of an audience, absolutely not. You know, sometimes it’s still hit and miss, but for the most part I’ve gotten better at being more hits than misses. But you feel it. You know when an audience is with you, it’s like a wave and it’s the greatest moment that you’ll feel and even though what you’re doing is totally terrifying but it’s like you’re riding a wave and you stop in the middle of a story and you pause because you’re thinking up something and suddenly you hear silence because everyone is listening to you and it dawns on you that you’re standing on stage and they’re all listening and they’re hanging on your every word and you can say whatever you want and do whatever you want and be completely yourself in that moment and they will appreciate it, and that’s a really warm, generous feeling that an audience can give to a performer. And then you get better then you ever have because you feel safe.

I solicited the internet for some questions……:

Q_kentlarsen

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Q_moriahjovan

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DavidJWest'sQuestion

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Q_tylerchadwick

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Q_toddpetersen


(It’s rather difficult to hear, but she finishes the question by talking about a story wherein she made out with a movie star who, for purposes of the book, she refers to as Warren Beatty but whose real identity is shrouded in mystery.)

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Q_williammorris

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And that’s the last of my questions unless there is something else that you want to say—?

Funny, usually these interviews end and I try to say funny comments, but this was a serious interview! I guess— You know— I got an email today, actually, from a Mormon who was very angry with me and said they wish I had taken out the fact that I was Mormon and then they would have been fine with it, and that I don’t represent the values that I should and that I therefore take light of my religion. And I think that, being raised Mormon, I understand where they’re coming from, so. But you just kind of, “Okay, I’ll go get . . . .” But it’s just a silly email. It was in reference to an article that I had written about virginity But I got that one email today, but I also got six emails from girls who were in high school, not Mormon, who talked about how they’ve been struggling with the peer pressure their classmates had given them and they didn’t know why they were holding on to their own values but really appreciated my honesty about of my own struggles with it, because it is hard. And so in that sense, you can get six good emails but you forget them, when you get the one bad email that makes you feel bad. But I think that I’m not trying to be a spokesperson for Mormonism but it’s a big part of who I am. It’s not all of who I am, but it is a part of who I am. I have a loyalty to that community and I’m not trying to offend them. Or disappoint them.

special thanks to Rebecca Phuong
who transcribed this interview

7 comments: “Elna Baker: A Serious Interview

  1. Wm Morris

    Excellent stuff Elna and Theric. I’m glad you did this as a voice interview — it makes for a nice flow.

    And thanks Rebecaa for the transcript.

  2. Steve Evans

    Fantastic work, Theric — and thanks for the answers, Elna! You can really see the difference between the live interviews and the email ones. Really enjoyed this.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing

    I’m 3/4 thru w. the book as I write this and it seems to me those (and this interview doesn’t) who over emphasize her as a comedian or who refer to this book as “funny” are slighting the author. Sure, she’s done stand up. I get that that means she’s a comedian. And she is definitely funny. But Baker is more than just that. She’s a humorist. A humorist pokes fun at the simple experience of living and somehow, through that, extracts, creates,and exposes what really matters. She questions those who question soul: This book is proof that soul exists. Its delightful, charming, bitingly real, and oh by the way (but definitely NOT Bytheway) funny. And Mrs. Baker, if you’ve googled your daughter’s name and find this, congratulations on having reared a young woman of this talent, saavy, bravado, and yeah, sure, testimony.

  4. Wm Morris

    Excellent use of precise language in the service of a needed, very good point, Lisa.

  5. Theric Jepson Post author

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    Having read through my review of the book again, I’m reminded of Elna’s refusal (mentioned here) to read what people say about her. I worry that this fear of engagement is bad for her specifically but others generally. If you fear that everyone will be against you, how will you ever develop a community of the like-minded?

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