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."
"Does this mean we won't be seeing another novel?"
"The book I'm working on right now is a graphic novel -- an illustrated novel, I guess.
" The thought of writing another straight-forward novel seems awful, somehow. It's called The Crumb People. It's about a post-September 11 obsessive duck feeder. It's also about being stuck listening to the radio and that kind of every ten-minutes news-report obsession with media after September 11, and then also it's about this relationship that develops at the local pond."
"Will you be illustrating as well as writing?"
"Yes. It's crazy because they aren't a strip, but are full page illustrations -- and there are over 150. They are all pen and ink and watercolor, and it's taking forever. I'm thinking after I get back from my book tour, I'll work on it some more."
"What are your plans for promoting the book?"
"I'm going to be doing a few readings in March, then, during the month of April, I'm going to be on tour. In the late '90s, there was a group of women called Sister Spit. They were this bunch of dykes who got in a van and went across the country and read their work. A couple of them had books, but mostly they were unpublished. It was a very punk-rock do-it-yourself kind of thing. I did that for a couple of years in the '90s.
"One of the founders, Michelle Tea, is starting it up again, and I'm going along for the whole month of April. They're calling this one 'Sister Spit, the Next Generation . '"
"Where are you going first?"
"We start in Seattle. The official schedule hasn't been posted yet, but it should be up very soon. The web address is www.sisterspitnextgen.com."
"Who else will be traveling with you?"
"Eileen Myles, Michelle Tea, myself, and a bunch of younger emerging writers that were part of the anthology, Baby Remember My Name that Michelle edited. I've done several tours of the Unites States, and they were some of the best times I've ever had.
"It's so scary to have a book come out after working with it for so long. It was great and illuminating to be working with an editor and an agent, and I learned so much, but after all that work it's difficult to have it go out there.
"My first book sold four copies, and my mother bought three of them, so this is just such a different experience. The IHOP Papers was reviewed in Entertainment Weekly . Can you believe it?
"I had an old roommate whose best friend had a book reviewed in The New York Times Book Review . It got trashed. I think the first line was, 'Pity the author who doesn't know what he wants to write about.' Then it went downhill from there. But there were, like, four words in the review -- 'Clearly he has talent.' When the guy's agent called, he was all excited about the review, while the author was devastated. The agent said, 'No. Don't you see? Every book you ever publish from now on can have a quote from The New York Times Book Review that says, 'Clearly he has talent.' What a crazy business!"
"I understand you teach writing at UC San Diego. What do you teach?"
"Well, it's very fun. I've been an adjunct there since 2003, teaching a couple of classes a year. I've taught the novella, short fiction, epic poem, and poetry. Right now, I'm teaching an elegy class -- discussing public grief and poetry and the places where they fit together. It's been an interesting class -- for me, at least. I don't know if any of the students are enjoying it.
"I also teach every day at an adult school on the border of Mexico and California. I teach basic skills to adult learners -- things like basic math and basic reading and writing. I've taught ESL and GED preparation and stuff like that.
"I cohost a monthly performance series with my girlfriend, too. It's funny. All these people will come out, but you don't really know where they are the rest of the time. When I lived in Brooklyn, you'd actually see interesting people walking on the streets -- San Francisco, too. Maybe it's the car thing -- everyone's always in their car or their house, so you just don't see them here like you do other places."
"Were you a reader as a little kid or did you come to it later?"
"No, I wasn't, really. For Christmas my parents would buy us books because they thought we should read, but I don't remember being crazy about books. I started writing when I was a teen. A lot of the first books I bought were poetry collections because that's what I was writing at the time.
"I just bought Justin Chinn's new book of poetry called Gutted. I also love Lynda Barry, Arundhati Roy, and Randall Kenan -- he wrote this great book of stories called Let the Dead Bury Their Dead.
"Usually, when I'm leading a class, I don't have a ton of time to read other stuff because I'm immersed in whatever it is I'm teaching. I've been reading a lot of poems right now because I've been teaching a lot of poems. I'm also reading a ton of student poems, because I was just one of the judges for a poetry contest."
"Is San Diego a safe place to be gay?"
"I guess so. It's very conservative, though. I guess it's as good as any. As far as feeling safe, yes, I guess I feel safe. But as far as queer art and queer culture, I don't think there's a great selection now.
"If I could get a job in Brooklyn tomorrow and move back, I would. On the other hand, I'm sitting in my yard out in the sun right now, and it's so beautiful. I'm trying to remember that."