Ali Liebegott: Highways and Byways
“Where will queers and artists live in this day and age? I felt driven to try and capture a bit of these places before they were gentrified and unaffordable.”
Ali Liebegott is an award-winning author of three novels, a celebrated spoken word performer, and the managing director of Radar Productions—a San Francisco-based non-profit dedicated to nurturing queer and underground literature. One of the original members of Sister Spit, she has performed her work all around the country and is currently touring with the group for her fifth time.
Just this month the City Lights/Sister Spit imprint re-released Liebegott’s Lambda Award-winning debut book, The Beautifully Worthless—a novel-length road poem that merges verse and prose—along with her newest work Cha-Ching!, the story of Theo, a “bighearted and quick-witted heroine” and her various ventures in Brooklyn, Atlantic City, and Yonkers after moving cross-country from San Francisco. In her lyrical voice that never ceases to draw you deeper into the character and her journey, Liebegott explores the “conjoined hearts of hope and addiction in an unforgettable story of what it means to be young and broke in America.”
Liebegott was kind enough to talk with the Lambda Literary Review about her process writing the book, her work with Sister Spit, and some exciting forthcoming projects, including The Heart has many Doors, a series of interviews with women poets Liebegott conducted during her train trip across the United States to Emily Dickinson’s house in Massachusetts.
Cha-Ching! is set in 1994 and explores several different settings (San Francisco, Yonkers, NYC), with the majority of the book taking place in Brooklyn. What inspired you to write about this particular time and these particular cities?
I’ve lived in all these cities and more. I used to move around a lot. Now cities like San Francisco and Brooklyn are virtually impossible to move to due to ridiculous rents. A normal person who does not have a fancy job can’t move to these cities. That’s sad to me. Especially in places like San Francisco which was a gay mecca and destination for young queers looking for community, and New York as well.
Where will queers and artists live in this day and age? I felt driven to try and capture a bit of these places before they were gentrified and unaffordable.
How did you first get the idea to tell this story? What was your process of writing the book like?
I don’t even remember how Cha-Ching! started. I think I found myself writing a bunch of smaller works that seemed connected and then I decided to write a novel. I had written a lot about gambling, and so I thought I’d try and make a novel that included this addiction as a major theme. When everything was said and done, it was a couple-year time span. The last month, I sequestered myself in a casita in the Yucatan where I help run the RADAR Lab—a free writer and artist retreat. I had myself on an intense deadline. Note cards everywhere. 15 pages a day of editing. A lot of coffee. I think people were afraid to knock on the door. I remember when I finished, a day early of my deadline, I went into one of the other condos and tapped my friend Christina who was cooking for all the other writers. We went out on the beach and took our picture. I smoked cigarettes and drank Coke. And then in the next six months did more edits with City Lights. A book always has many celebrations. You celebrate every time you think you’re done.
When Theo moves from San Francisco to New York in the beginning of the book, there is this sense of her wanting to be reinvented in the new city, or erase the parts of herself that she is ashamed of. What role do you think shame plays in the novel? How do you think it informs the characters’ relationships both with others and themselves?
I’ve always thought of myself as shameless. But I think that’s because I probably have a deep, deep shame I’m not connected to! Thank God for denial. I don’t think of shame when I think of these characters’ struggles, but I could see how they might be viewed that way. Theo and Marisol are both caught in their own cycles of addiction. Marisol with pills and Theo with gambling and alcohol and pills later. I think of them more isolated than in a cloud of shame.
Many scenes in the book address how fraught everyday situations—things like getting a haircut or using a public restroom—can be for people who are genderqueer or who don’t conform to gender stereotypes. What are your thoughts on how (or if) this has changed from the 90s to present day?
Honestly, I don’t think much has changed. Maybe the most that has changed is people’s awareness. Like now people talk about the importance of having gender-neutral public restrooms, etc. But I think this is a country with deeply entrenched ideas about gender. It sucks to always have to wonder: is it going to be a scene when I go into a bathroom? A person can only hold it so long! What if you’re at Disneyland? I’ll tell you what—there are single-seaters on Tom Sawyer Island. (Laughs)
The book is told through Theo’s point of view up to chapter twelve when it switches into the perspective of her love interest, Marisol. How did you decide to include Marisol’s voice? Did you encounter any challenges in switching perspectives?
I wish there was more of Marisol in the book. I was really fond of her and that chapter from her perspective is one of my favorite chapters in the book. I didn’t know how else to talk about her addiction without doing at least some of it from her perspective. Also, I was trying to get a lot of her back story in a short amount of time. When I finished writing Cha-Ching!, I wasn’t sure if I’d finished with Marisol. Maybe she’ll end up in something else in the future.
From Rorschach in The Beautifully Worthless to Cary Grant in Cha-Ching!, animals seem to play a significant role in your books. I really loved the line: “There was something perfect about how a dog greeted you.” (It is one of those feelings that is so very true and that I’d never seen written down.) Can you speak to the role of animals in your writing? To the role of Cary Grant in Cha-Ching!?
Oh, I love animals so much. I wish that I could have a farmhouse with ten acres in the middle of San Francisco and fill it with rescued animals. Rorschach was my actual dog, a Dalmatian that lived for 16 years. I dedicated [the lastest] printing of The Beautifully Worthless to her, Adrienne Rich and Deborah Digges. Rorschach was incredible. And when I say incredible, I mean she bit several of my girlfriends and was totally insane. But also excellent. We took several road trips together. I just got her box of ashes out the other night and put them on the coffee table when some old friends who knew her came over. I still miss her almost every day and she’s been dead for almost three years. Cary Grant is a fictional dog but not really. How many dogs need homes? So many. I don’t think I’ll ever adopt a child that needs a home so it’s at least my responsibility to adopt a “troubled dog.”
Right now my dog, Flaca, I flew all the way home from Mexico. She was a street dog. She’s so pretty and so crazy. She kind of looks like a cross between a baby deer and a dingo. She’s not the kind of dog you leave tied up outside of a café. I’ve had her a year and a half in a one-bedroom apartment with two cats and my girlfriend. We’re at our capacity. When a pet dies, we wait a week and then get another one from the pound. One dog and two cats are capacity. But it’s insane and unmanageable. Someone buy me a farm!
Did you draw on any of your own experiences when writing this book?
For sure. But at the same time there is a lot of fiction in the book. I don’t know how to write without including my emotional landscapes in some way.
The first time I read a sneak preview of Cha-Ching!, it was in the Sister Spit anthology, Sister Spit: Writing, Rants & Reminiscence from the Road. Could you talk about your involvement with Sister Spit? Do your experiences writing and performing spoken word inform one another in any way?
I’ve been on so many Sister Spit tours. ’97, ’99, 2007, 2010, and this year. Plus a few one-offs. Michelle Tea and I have known each other since the very early 90s, so she first asked me way back in ’97. I love Sister Spit. It really lets writers have a wider audience than they could get on their own for a reading. We’re about to go on tour starting March 31st. I’ll get to be in a van for three weeks with Michelle Tea, Cristy C. Road, DavEnd, Daniel LeVesque, Texta Queen and our tour manager Jerry Lee. It’s nice to go places that are dying for queer art. I’ve lived in those kinds of places so I know how exciting it can be when someone comes to town. I don’t really think about performing when I’m writing. After I’ve written the book, I go back and think about what would be best excerpted for a reading.
What is your next project?
I’m finishing a collection of long poems tentatively called The Summer of Dead Birds or Tell the Donor Family A Little Bit About Yourself. I haven’t decided on which title yet. I’m also finishing transcribing a bunch of interviews I did with women writers in 2010 when I traveled across the country by train and ended at Emily Dickinson’s house. That project is called, The Heart has many Doors (a line from a Emily Dickinson poem) and is posted on The Believer Logger. And then I’m going to get to work on finishing something I started eleven years ago! An illustrated novel called The Crumb People about a post 9/11 obsessive duck feeder. More animals! Yay.
Yes, I actually remember reading your interview with Amy Gerstler on the The Believer Logger! What inspired The Heart has Many Doors– and what was that experience like? Is Emily Dickinson one of your writing influences?
At first I wanted to write what I thought was the third book in a trilogy started by The Beautifully Worthless. I wrote a book after The Beautifully Worthless called The Summer of Dead Birds, which is another hybrid text follow-up to The Beautifully Worthless. But it’s never seen the light of day. After that I wanted to write another book that asked the question, “Who would a poet seek answers from when their dog is dead?” I know this sounds insane. So the answer was, “Other poets. Women poets.” Instead of driving I took a train trip across America—something I’d always wanted to do. It was great and also not what I thought it would be like. I loved the dining car in Amtrak. I loved looking out the windows. That’s what I did for many days. And I interviewed twelve women poets. I wanted to interview more but not everyone agreed. Then one poet agreed I could visit but with no interview. That was Anne Carson. I went to dinner with her in New York. Which was very exciting for me because she is a big hero of mine.
So now two years later I’ve almost transcribed all the interviews, and then I edit them down so they can be read online. I like meeting people face-to-face. It’s a different quality of conversation that happens. The last interview I did was in New York. And then I took the train to Amherst to Emily Dickinson’s house. Which I’ve been to before. It was so beautiful in Amherst because the leaves were changing. And I went to the former of home of Deborah Digges, a poet and teacher and someone who took care of my Dalmatian Rorschach when I was gone one summer. And I went to the stadium where [Digges] apparently jumped to her death. Then I got on a train and took it all the way home. I am astonished by Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The words, yes—but just how she seemed so completely plugged in to poetry.