Review and Interview: Being Lolita by Alisson Wood
A primer in flash memoiring by Leonora Desar
As a flash writer who is secretly dying to write a memoir, it can be easy to be daunted. A memoir just seems….well, long. It encompasses a life. Chapters. Perhaps, the flash writer thinks, I could glue all my flash pieces together and call it “my memoir.”
Sound ridiculous? Maybe. But not impossible. While glue may be a little messy, it is possible to write a memoir, one flash at a time. In Being Lolita, Alisson Wood shows us how it’s done. Her chapters—some short as half a page—are flash gems. They are concise meditations that center on a central image or event—a bakery string woven around a wrist, kissing a mosquito bite. For the flash writer, this is good news. Yes, a memoir may be long. Yes, it contains chapters. Yes, it may come with (gasp) a word count in the tens of thousands.
But it can be done—flash by flash by flash.
Being Lolita is a story of survival. As a 17-year-old high school student, Wood is groomed for abuse by English teacher, Nick North. Wood deftly shows us the way grooming works. The abuser doesn’t just show up and say, I’m going to abuse you. Rather, he creeps in. He slowly dials up the heat. The victim is like a frog boiling in water. In North’s case, his abuse creeps up in increments—He demands secrecy; he insists that Wood destroy the papers that they write to each other on, lest he be incriminated; he insists she get herself a boyfriend to throw people off the scent, then he insists that they break up—and then, in the ultimate of horrors (to this reader)—he insists that she give up writing.
By the time the frog notices that she’s boiling, she has third degree burns and the building is on fire.
In Being Lolita, Wood gives us a duality. On the one hand, young Alisson. We have the immediacy of her experience, the visceral emotion of it. And on the other, we have the narrator, who is older and wiser. In a delicate balancing act, Wood allows you into the head of young Alisson, while sharing the insight that adult Alisson has gained. Wood’s prose is like a lens—one minute panoramic, hovering over the scene, contextualizing it like a voiceover in a film. And the next, it delves into young Alisson, so that her experience becomes our own.
For instance, when Wood and North have sex for the first time. We are in young Alisson’s head, in her body. Wood has placed us here—through the staccato of her short, breathless sentences:
“I heard a door slam. And then only the water. I counted my breaths. I counted to ten.”
A page later, after they sleep together again, adult Alisson steps in and provides some context:
“And then when it was over there was blood again. I didn’t want to ask him to be gentle because I didn’t want him to think I was a child who didn’t know what was good for her.”
Even when the adult narrator steps back, Wood finds other ways to clue us in. North lectures young Alisson on Lolita, but adult Wood finds ways to undercut him. As he pontificates, she shows how he stuffs his mouth with fries.
Wood uses juxtaposition. To prep for her and North’s first time, young Alisson gets a bikini wax. She tells us how proud of herself she was—“I wasn’t a child.” But then, a sentence later, she reveals that she ordered lingerie, not with her own money but with her father’s credit card. Duh, the reader sees—of course she was a child.
Sometimes, all it takes is a single word. Wood sleeps with North in his parents’ bed, in their condo. Still, North insists that it’s his apartment. Totally. Wood paraphrases his defense, allowing her to layer her own take:
“They moved to Florida and left him the condo. So while it was his place, totally, he said, he couldn’t just trash things…”
That word—totally—sounds more like a 17-year-old surfer dude than an esteemed teacher of English. It tells us all we need to know.
I spoke with Wood about her book, narration, and how to approach writing trauma.
As a flash writer I am so grateful for this memoir and the short, flash-like chapters. Did you have experience writing flash before? What made you decide to keep the chapters short?
I love flash, and while I’ve written quite a bit of flash, I’ve never published any. (I’m too shy to submit those pieces!) I think there’s this weird pressure in prose to write long chapters, and it wasn’t organic. I find myself more inclined towards short bursts of prose, perhaps because I also started out in poetry. (I also have no published poetry; much much too shy there!) I think it’s also reflective of the work of memory; it’s not often that you remember a long expanse of time in detail, moreso flashes, moments, a setting, a look. So I used those as my foundation and built from there, and only built as far as felt true. Naturally, this created shorter chapters.
In Being Lolita, you do a great job of balancing young Alisson with older, wiser Alisson. We have a visceral sense of young Alisson’s experience, but tempered with older Alisson’s guidance and interpretation. How did you approach incorporating both views?
I was very determined to let my reader see, hear, and feel my body, my inner-most thoughts, the world I was in at seventeen. I knew I wasn’t going to write a book that was exclusively from my current, 36-year-old perspective. That’s a really boring book; something awful happened and it was traumatizing. The end. Instead, I wanted to truly capture my experience on the page, to the best of my ability. I didn’t want it to just be that though—I might as well have written a novel. I believe part of the power of memoir is that you can tell the story from a character’s (your) point of view at the time, in the past, but also intersperse your current point of view, the point of telling. I think that intersection is what really makes memoir special, what lets it do what no other writing can. There’s a layer you can create in nonfiction that just doesn’t exist anywhere else in prose. At times it was a natural process, at others I had to look at where it was missing consciously in the book and insert it. But I was determined to make sure it felt right, and true.
If you could go back in time and have fifteen minutes alone with 17-year-old Alisson, what would you tell her? What would you tell Nick?
I would sit next to my seventeen-year-old self, hold her hands, and promise her that things will get better. She will not be sad and alone forever. And that she is a powerful being, a bomb, brilliant, that she will be everything she wants to be. And that men will only get in her way, and are dangerous, and that confidence doesn’t rub off on you through sex. I wouldn’t tell her to “stay away from Mr. North” because she would just revolt from that, roll her eyes and assure me she could handle it, so I would try to appeal to her intelligence and instinct. And just assure her. She will go on.
I wouldn’t tell Nick anything. He didn’t think of himself as a monster, I’m sure, so talking about those things wouldn’t accomplish anything. It wouldn’t compute. There’s nothing I could say to him then or now that would make him understand how damaging he was. Words aren’t enough.
How did you deal with confronting painful memories on the page? What advice would you give to someone new to writing memoir, especially to one writing about trauma and abuse?
My first piece of advice to anyone—a student or friend—who is working on a project, especially a larger piece, about trauma is to find a good therapist. Truly. There is this myth of finding catharsis on the page, but that has not been my experience. I believe catharsis happens off the page, during your personal work of processing and understanding what happened to you. While writing can be incredibly therapeutic, that cannot be the goal when writing with publication in mind. Then you have to be able to step back, accept edits (even if they are big!), not be so attached. You can’t have this kind of critical eye to your own work, to think about it from a reader’s point of view, if you are so close. This is the difference of writing for therapy (journaling, early stages of drafting) versus trying to make a piece the very best it can be. You need emotional space for that to happen. For the reader, and especially yourself.
Did you write the book sequentially? Or out of order? What advice would you give to those of us struggling to write a book (ahem)?
I wrote the book entirely out of order, from the most charged moments, the most clear ones, to the next. Darin Strauss once said that in longer projects, think about writing from strength to strength. If something isn’t doing work (moving the story forward, illuminating something, creating a connection for the reader), what is the point of it? Cut it. Be brutal.
Then, of course, after the clearest moments came the much harder work of filling in the gaps in the narrative, the steps that were missed, things that had to be explained, backstory. I was incredibly lucky that I am a bit of a paper hoarder and kept all of my journals from my senior year of high school, I have nearly a dozen, and the ephemera from that time—hall passes, notes, a hotel bill, his tie, the Tiffany ring—all the things that can help fill in those blanks and make things feel visceral, and answer questions about chronology. Memory is tangible and elastic; trauma can make things crystalize but also blur. I think memoir is the hardest genre to create because you have to be committed to the truth, even when it’s ugly or shameful, which has its own struggle, but also bend to the will of narrative, plot, all those fundamentals of storytelling. It’s a special kind of hell, one of your own making.
You write both fiction and memoir. How do you change approaches when writing genres? Does writing one teach or help when writing the other, and if so, how?
I got my MFA in Fiction, not nonfiction. That was partially because a nonfiction track wasn’t offered at the time at my MFA, but it was also a conscious choice. I wanted my book to read like a story, to utilize the tools of fiction to take my reader through the experience. I wanted to spend my time focusing on the bones of the work versus the content, and I felt confident that could happen if I focused on fiction. I believe the only difference between memoir and fiction is the truth. Anything less than 100% is fiction, plain and simple. The sub-genre of auto-fiction kind of pinches me. If it’s not fully honest, it’s fiction. That’s it. I know there’s a big discussion about how genre doesn’t matter, it’s beside the point, but I think a lot of that is the literary world finally acknowledging that writing from a place of your life isn’t a bad thing, that memoir isn’t “writing your diary.” So auto-fiction is almost a half-step to giving memoir the respect it deserves, and no longer dismissing it. Memoir can also be Very Important Writing too!
What is your next project?
A lot of sleep! And a novel. I think I’ll be writing about power and gender and trauma always. So you can expect more of that.
Alisson Wood’s writing has been published in the New York Times, The Paris Review, The Rumpus, Catapult, and No Tokens Magazine. Alisson teaches creative writing at New York University and at Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the founder and Editor in Chief of Pigeon Pages, a NYC literary journal and reading series. Alisson was a winner of the inaugural Breakout 8 Award from Epiphany Magazine and Author’s Guild. You can find her on Twitter at @LiteraryTSwift and on Instagram at @AlissonWood. Being Lolita, from Flatiron Books at Macmillan, is her first book.
Leonora Desar’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in River Styx, Passages North, Black Warrior Review Online, Mid-American Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, and Quarter After Eight, among others. She won third place in River Styx’s microfiction contest, and was a runner-up/finalist in Quarter After Eight’s Robert J. DeMott Short Prose contest, judged by Stuart Dybek. She writes a column for New Flash Fiction Review—DEAR LEO.She avoids writing @LeonoraDesar and by fiddling withwww.leonoradesar.com.