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The IHOP Papers by Ali Liebegott. Carroll & Graf, 2007, 256 pages, $14.95.

ABOUT THE BOOK:

Francesca, a disgruntled 19-year-old lesbian, tries desperately to pull together the pieces of her scattered life. This novel opens with Francesca in San Francisco. She has fled her hometown, where she rented her childhood room from the family who moved in when her parents moved out. But Francesca's move to San Francisco is no mere coincidence. Obsessed with her philosophy teacher, Francesca has followed her professor, Irene, to California, where Irene has relocated to live with her young male lover, a former student. Once in San Francisco, Francesca is forced to work at the local pancake house. Much to her dismay, she has to wear a ridiculous Heidi of the Alps uniform -- which is almost as humiliating as serving the array of speed freaks and other graveyard shift misfits. Suicidal and euphoric, Francesca seeks solace in anything and anyone who might distract her from her unrequited love for Irene.

WHAT THE REVIEWERS SAY:

Publishers Weekly: Liebegott's debut novel is a coming-of-age coming-out in the tradition of Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle , but here the portrait of an artist as punk waitress is more a celebration of sexuality than humanity. The Lambda Literary Award--winning (for her book-length poem The Beautifully Worthless) Liebegott offers strikingly lyrical moments in an otherwise frank narrative of a writer teetering between adolescence and adulthood.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:

Ali Liebegott was sitting in her back yard when I phoned to talk about The IHOP Papers. With car noises and an occasional dog barking as backdrop, she shared that San Diego isn't exactly feeling like home these days.

"Where did you grow up?"

"I grew up in Southern California. I lived in San Francisco and in Brooklyn for seven years and in Providence, Rhode Island, for three years."

"Was it good to get back to California?"

"Well, yes and no. I'm actually really missing Brooklyn. I miss that it's a city. I like the diversity of New York and the energy of New York and the Met. I've been in San Diego for three and a half years now."

"What drew you here?"

"I keep asking myself that. My girlfriend was from California and we decided to come back. We had a parttime job, but now I'm wondering why I'm living here."

"You sound rather ambivalent."

"Oh, it's worse than that. My girlfriend has a really good job at UCSD. I don't know if we'll leave anytime soon, but it might be the worst place on Earth, San Diego. I live in South San Diego on the border of National City. The weather is really beautiful and, if you get to the beach, it's really beautiful. But, in lots of ways, it's a cultural wasteland. I hate that you have to drive everywhere. It feels like there's no heart to it. I've had a really hard time connecting here."

"Tell me about The IHOP Papers. To what extent is it autobiographical?"

"I waited tables for 15 years of my life. There's some stuff that's autobiographical, but it is a novel."

"I went away feeling like your main character, Francesca, is so loveable. Did you feel that way about her all the way along?"

"That she's loveable? I don't know if I thought about it in those terms, exactly. I just wanted to create a queer character coming of age in the period of time in which I grew up -- in which there weren't the same media resources there are for queer people today. I wanted to capture some of that alienation."

"Did Francesca evolve as your story grew?"

"I worked on the book for seven years and through many drafts. I'm not a very linear writer or person, in general, so it was a hard thing to tell a familiar story. In that way, I feel like I had to make different decisions with Francesca so the storyline connected or was enhanced."

In The IHOP Papers, Francesca uses razor blades to cut herself whenever she is emotionally upset.

"What has been your experience with cutting?"

"I have personal experience with it. As I've gotten older, there's a lot more light on that subject. When I was growing up there wasn't. Maybe it's just the way media works these days -- that it's possible for us to know much more about what other people are doing."

"People are talking about cutting in books now. That seems like a newer thing in literature, doesn't it?"

"I've met many people who have been cutters. It's really interesting. I didn't know anyone who did that growing up. Where did people get the idea? I guess if you're depressed or lonely and you're there long enough, you get the idea for anything.

"I guess I'm not being very forthcoming. It's hard to talk about because there are parts of the book that are autobiographical, but it is a novel."

I share with Ms. Liebegott that some researchers say cutters injure themselves in order to feel a sense of release.

"I would agree with that. If you think about Francesca's case, it's simultaneously a way to feel and not to feel. It's a way to feel and to change the feeling. If she was upset about Maria or Irene and she cut herself it caused a shift of focus. I'd say cutting is a way to shift focus.

"Then, Francesca is also a drama queen. She believes that the wounded one gets the love. So cutting is also a way, for her, of looking as wounded as possible."

"Your writing reads so easily. No one would suspect you labored over any part of it."

"It was so brutal, that book. My first book took a long time to write too, but it was more loose and lyrical. It was a book-length poem. It loosely had some of the same elements, but writing a straight-forward novel is so different. I don't know why people write fiction, actually. It seems like the hardest thing in the world."

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