Melissa Faliveno is a writer, editor, teacher, and author of the debut essay collection Tomboyland (TOPPLE Books, 2020). The former senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, her essays and interviews have appeared in Esquire, Bitch, Ms. magazine, Prairie Schooner, DIAGRAM, and Midwestern Gothic, among others, and received a notable selection in Best American Essays 2016. She has taught nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Catapult and, starting this fall, will be the 2020–2021 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Originally from small-town Wisconsin, she currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
I read Melissa Faliveno’s debut collection, Tomboyland, a few weeks after leaving my childhood home in New Jersey and moving to Illinois, a near-exact reversal of the landscapes Faliveno traverses throughout her book. Whether writing into BDSM potlucks, moths that nosedive into open flames, the thermodynamics of guns, or tornadoes that twist cars around telephone poles, Faliveno’s compass steadfastly twitches towards her personal polar north: Wisconsin.
Brittany Coppla: You often talk about words’ etymologies–including the words “tomboy,” “moth,” and “androgynous”—and the general gravity of names. How does the history of language inform your writing?
Melissa Faliveno: I think I’ve always been really fascinated by language and etymology. It’s always been an entry point into an essay for me to look up the origins of words and place them into historical context. I find it fascinating how fluid language is and how it changes depending on where we are and the historical context.
Really, I just love the process of discovering things. Sometimes I use it as a prompt and then it becomes wrapped up in whatever web I’m weaving. Whether consciously or not, the language becomes a part of the piece. Sometimes I go off on a tangent about that particular word’s origins or how it has shifted. I consider how it impacts the questions that I’m asking or whatever it is that I’m trying to say. I think when I was writing Tomboyland, I was really interested in classification, definitions, boundaries, borders, things like that. That linguistic element kind of worked its way organically into the book.
BC: I wanted to specifically talk about one of the essays, “Meat and Potatoes.” Both of the major threads in this essay—BDSM and food—investigate pretty intimate experiences, BDSM for obvious reasons and food for its regionality, subjectivity, and nostalgia. How did you decide to explore these two ideas in the same space of one essay?
MF: This essay started out predominantly about food. It was actually about my many years-long struggle to reconcile a life as a meat eater and all of the cultural implications and class implications that eating meat has. The essay was about this ethical and moral desire to be a vegetarian and how I have sort of failed at that. If I decide I’m going to do something, I can usually do it. But for some reason, I just kept failing. I am predominantly vegetarian now, but once in a while I really crave a burger, or I really crave my family’s Sunday gravy, and I was getting into these really thorny ethical questions.
I was reading a lot of theory about vegetarianism, veganism, and ethical eating. I come from a part of Wisconsin, and a family, where vegetarianism is not something that anyone thinks about. We were a multi-generational farm family; we ate nothing but meat and potatoes growing up and much of it was factory farmed. If it didn’t come from a family farm, it came from whatever factories were around the area and whatever’s cheapest in the grocery store. As I was reading through that, I started to discover all of these disconnects.
For instance, all the women in my family are animal rights activists in their own way but also meat eaters. I started to dig into that disconnect and talk to my mother about it. I started thinking about eating and the ritual and practices involved. Then, I remembered this anecdote about being in graduate school in my first semester with my roommate. She’s doing this handshake trick. She would shake someone’s hand and decipher what their personality and sexuality was. She called me “meat and potatoes.” Then I started to think about this term “meat and potatoes” in terms of sexuality and all of these other kind of euphemisms we use, “salt of the earth,” for example, or things that include food to describe a certain class or regionality. Then, somehow, this piece about vegetarianism became a piece about sex.
I find that, in my process, I really like to work with multiple threads at once. It’s hard for me to just focus on one subject and dig in to that subject alone. I really like concurrent threads and trying to draw connections out of these seemingly disparate subjects or ideas. As I started revising it, I realized that of course, food and sex are not dissimilar in many ways. There’s ritual and community and caretaking, but also violence. Eating meat is a violent practice. I started thinking specifically about my time in the BDSM community, which was experimenting for the first time in my life with power and the ways we can harness violence and consent, learn how to say “yes” and “no,” things like that. So, it just came together in a way that was really surprising.
BC: It’s funny because it does take that turn, but in a way, it almost seems inevitable. You read this essay and it feels like the most natural and organic way to access both of those explorations. As a writer who loves to cook, how does your writing process compare to your cooking process?
MF: I think what can definitely be said about both processes for me is that I am very detail oriented and very obsessive about details, to a fault. I will revise an essay and keep working at it and tooling around with it well beyond the point that it’s productive. I think I use it as a crutch to not walk away from something. When I cook, I take a really long time doing things. My knife skills are very slow and methodical. I think I get pretty methodical about writing too. I’m always sort of self-flagellating when it comes to whatever I’ve cooked. I always feel I could have cooked a dish so much better. I definitely do that with writing as well.
BC: This collection frequently writes into fear of threats directed towards the body—physical things like guns, men, tornadoes—and then we also have fears that are intrinsic and tethered to the body, like motherhood, physical pain, and rage. How do you give yourself permission to write about fear? How do you do so while still honoring your own joy and self-preservation?
MF: I don’t think I even knew exactly what I was writing into. I knew it had to do with womanhood, gender, and class. But then as my agent was reading Tomboyland, as friends were reading it, my writing group was reading it—they were making other observations that were not entirely clear to me at the time. It was weird the first time someone categorized this book having to do with fear because I literally never thought that was what I was writing about. But obviously it opens with “Finger of God,” which is all about fear and faith.
Maybe part of the reason I could write about it is because I didn’t know I was writing about it? The things that compel me as a writer are things that I don’t fully understand and complex questions to which I don’t have an answer. When I started writing “The Finger of God,” I asked myself, “What is it about tornadoes that had me so obsessively afraid and so enthralled?” I started writing into this idea of an all-encompassing fear but also the thrilling, giddy excitement of it. I made this connection about faith and religion, and losing my faith—or potentially never having it—in this realization that life is vulnerable and that we are vulnerable.
I think that throughout the book, I definitely engaged with fear that is wrapped up in power and violence and the ways it intersects with gender: fear as a woman, fear as a queer person, fear as someone who has been in violent relationships. I just kept coming back to this question of the intersections between fear and violence and gender. That’s where the gun piece, “Gun Country,” came from too.
As it turns out, I think I’m really interested in fear. I think maybe part of it has to do with the fact that I spent a long time trying to claim or reclaim myself and my body as an autonomous, powerful being, and I really strive, to a fault, for control. I think part of writing this book was me letting go of some of those assumptions of control. I was allowing myself to talk about my body as being vulnerable but, at the same time, powerful in its own right.
BC: I feel like that’s something we hear so often. People say, “I didn’t even know I was writing about this major theme!” And then it ends up being one of the unifying threads of their work. At what point in writing Tomboyland did you realize that fear was an engine behind the essays?
MF: I would say it was actually much later, maybe when I was working on “Gun Country.” That’s when I had these revelations about fear. When I start an essay, I have no idea where I’m going. I just dive into a question and circle around a bunch of ideas until I get somewhere. I think while I was writing that piece, something clicked when I talk about guns and gun violence in relation to where I come from.
I remember specifically writing around the gender and gun violence question and coming to this realization that in all of these instances where we talk about gun violence, this image of a man with a gun always comes up. I think I made this realization—which is not revelatory in any way—but maybe what was [revelatory] to me in the moment was that men with guns are the problem. What do we do when some of the men with guns are men you love? How do we reconcile that? It circles around masculinity, too, this storied desire for a masculine kind of power that I knew when I was young but I didn’t necessarily have.
BC: In Tomboyland, you’re able to deconstruct these often-caricaturized communities. You write into this caricature of a person and acknowledge the truth behind those stereotypes but still render contoured and complicated whole people. How do you write about communities in a way that’s accountable, responsible, but also honest?
MF: I think the key for me is that I write about communities of which I’m a part, however deeply or peripherally. I think there’s a tendency when we write about communities that are not our own to inherently other them. When I was a young writer, I was writing features for Isthmus, an alt-weekly in Madison, Wisconsin. I had this beat that was writing about subcultures. In order to write about them, I got involved. That’s kind of how I got involved in BDSM; it’s how I got involved in roller derby. I became interested in a subculture, became a part of it, and then wrote about it.
Becoming a part of a community for a year and then writing about it, in retrospect, feels thin. It was more caricature-driven than it was a whole picture. I’m much older now, and I know that when I write about people and lives, I want to do justice by them. I want to tell their stories as truthfully as I can and paint a picture of their lives as wholly as possible. Most people that I write about are people in my communities, whether or not that’s people like neighbors who survived an F5 tornado or people that I played roller derby with. They’re people that I love and care about and am deeply connected with. I think it’s easier for me to protect them. My point in writing about them is not to be salacious or reveal some secret, but really to try to understand my own questions about my life and about the world.
BC: I think this is an ongoing conversation, both from a fiction and nonfiction perspective, which people are grappling with. What communities do we have access to write about? How do we do so honestly, but also with care and consideration? It’s challenging, but necessary.
Throughout the collection, your home state both haunts your prose and serves as a protector over you as a character. How do you access the nuances and idiosyncrasies of home without actually being there while writing about it?
MF: What’s interesting is that when I lived in Wisconsin, I wrote about anything other than Wisconsin. I wrote some of these hyper-local community pieces for Isthmus, which were very much about Wisconsin. But in personal work, I was writing outside of that.
Then I moved in 2009 to New York. I was very aware of myself as an outsider in New York, both because of where I came from, but also in this class-based way. Everybody that I was meeting came from educated East Coast families and had been to Ivy League schools. Their parents had master’s degrees and Ph.D.s, and I just felt like such a yokel. My parents don’t have college degrees, and I come from a very different place, so education for me was a new frontier, and specifically living in New York and going to this liberal arts college was such a trip. I think I started feeling that outsiderness more and more acutely and then wanted to write into that space of outsiderness.
I was feeling the confines of class and my place in it, which I had not felt in Wisconsin ever. People had used words to describe my family, like “working class,” which I would never have used myself. I was resistant to that at first. I just never saw myself in that distinction, and I found that distinction itself weird and intangible.
I started writing into these liminal spaces of identity. That’s really when I started to write about home and leaving home, exploring how the places that you come from both define and sometimes deeply complicate your identity or sense of self. Sometimes we don’t quite see how exactly defined we are by a place until we leave it.
I don’t think I was able to start writing about Wisconsin—or even this concept of home—until I left it and longed for it. I missed it. I missed my community, missed my family, missed the trees, missed the landscape. There’s so much about New York that I love, but it was and is vastly different.
BC: Much of this collection writes into erasure. If Tomboyland could be nestled on your ideal bookshelf with other texts that also explore erasure, what other titles or authors would you want to keep your book company?
MF: Oh wow, that’s a dream question and also the hardest question. I would definitely start with the some of the books that I use as epigraphs. Virginia Woolf plays a big role in this book; I come back to her work a lot. She has been instrumental in my own development as a writer. If I had to choose one book by her, it would probably be the essay collection Death of a Moth. Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, which, growing up in the Midwest, was a touchstone for me. Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost is one of my Bible books that I return to. And, of course, Ada Limon’s The Carrying.