Author Allison Green on Women in Literature, Her New Memoir, and the Ghost of Richard Brautigan
Tracing his footsteps, “it started to feel like I was having a religious experience.”
June 8, 2015
Allison Green has a complicated relationship with Richard Brautigan — well, with his books, at least. As a nostalgic teenager in the 1970s, she admired the author’s distinct voice and magnificent visions of America, and envied his freewheeling experience in the ‘60s counterculture. But upon returning years later to his best-known work, Trout Fishing in America, she had trouble understanding her attachment. How could a lesbian and feminist writer identify with an author whose magnum opus refuses even to name its female characters? Her memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel With Me, out now from Ooligan Press, explores this and other questions of identity as Green and her partner drive through Idaho in search of the ghost of her childhood literary hero. Outcryer sat down with Green this past week to discuss trout, ghosts, Brautigan and more.
OUTCRYER: Let’s start with the cover. What I’m most curious about — especially because you spend a lot of time on the woman on the cover, Michaela LeGrand — is, when you first saw the cover, which of the two figures struck you more? And which does now?
ALLISON GREEN: Well, it’s hard to remember exactly how it struck me then. I’m sure I thought she was the height of fashion, with her lace headband and her little feathers and her cape and her tall boots. I’m not sure how I saw her then, but I know that I felt a kind of mixed feeling about not wanting to be a writer — but she’s not the writer, she’s the muse. And in fact Erik Weber, who took the photograph, referred to her as Brautigan’s muse. So I don’t know, I think they were part of a world I wanted to be a part of, that was for sure. Free and more interesting than the world I was in.
When I re-read the book in my mid-40s, of course, my first question was, Who is this woman? So I look at the first chapter of Trout Fishing in America and it’s called “The Cover of Trout Fishing in America,” but it doesn’t mention her anywhere. Erik Weber is the photographer, he’s listed in the front matter. But she’s not. So she’s there, and she’s not there. She’s there as kind of a prop, but she’s listed nowhere, so I had to Google and find her name. What became interesting for me as an adult in my 40s was: There was a girl who would grow up to be a writer, the girl who would grow up to marry a woman, the girl who was already a feminist wearing overalls and clodhoppers in sixth grade — how could she possibly have seen herself in her, or in him? It kind of creates this double consciousness of wanting to be the writer but probably going on to be the muse.
Which is a major issue that creative women throughout this century and all of history have grappled with. And it pops up in Brautigan a lot. You spend a lot of time on his wife and daughter, too, and both of them are portrayed more as ideas than people.
Exactly. So the wife is “the woman who travels with me,” which I play off for my title, The Ghosts Who Traveled with Me. She never has a name and she never has a description. She’s just sort of there.
It’s complicated in a lot of ways. It leads us to the chapter in the bookstore, “Sea, Sea Rider,” in which the narrator is invited to have sex with a complete stranger, and she agrees. You rewrote this from a woman’s perspective. It’s never really mentioned whether or not it’s a straight or queer woman’s perspective. I thought it was fascinating, since identity is a major theme in your book. When you were imagining this scene from this unnamed woman’s perspective, did you associate an identity with her that you didn’t include in the book?
No, I didn’t really know. I was so struck by the cover, with this woman who goes unnamed. And then, in this chapter, we have this woman who just does something so improbable in this bookstore that the bookstore owner goes out, grabs the couple, brings them in, says “Hey, would you sleep with my friend?” and the couple goes upstairs, and she lies down and the narrator has sex with her, and then they leave. It was so improbable that I just thought, Ah, clearly this was just someone’s sort of fantasy, just sitting in a bookstore, thinking, Wouldn’t it be cool, I guess. I didn’t really add more to her in terms of a character than what’s there. Maybe it’s the sense always of, you know, when you’re a woman and you walk into a space, you have a tendency to be aware of who’s in the space with you. You’re always wondering: Is the bookstore empty? Are there enough people that I don’t feel afraid? I think I was just trying to get at that. I wanted her to take up space, mostly.
What’s interesting, though, about this chapter, is that it’s about storytelling. The sex is not the primary thing of interest, I think, to Brautigan as a writer. It’s a bookstore — it’s about stories. After the couple leaves, the bookstore owner spins this epic love story that has to do with the Spanish Civil War. One of the things that’s going on there is Brautigan’s style of marrying the pedestrian with the absurd. The bookstore owner spins this whole story, then another epic story that supposedly really describes their relationship. Then at the end he says, “I’m glad you got laid.”
[Laughs.] That’s Brautigan right there. That pedestrian with these absurd, exuberant, disarming images. That’s what’s really going on. I love that about Brautigan, and yet it’s hard not to read the chapter and think Well, this is sort of silly. Obviously it’s not meant to be literal, but nonetheless.
It’s funny that this idea of marrying the pedestrian with the absurd — the latter of which I would call highly poetic, even — relates to “Worsewick,” which has some incredibly crude, very cringeworthy writing. In fact, you wrote that one passage in particular, in which the narrator has sex with his wife in a hot spring, made you cringe:
My sperm came out into the water, unaccustomed to the light, and instantly it became a misty, stringy kind of thing and swirled out like a falling star, and I saw a dead fish come forward and float into my sperm, bending it in the middle. His eyes were still like iron.
He pits these images of revolting things against these highly poetic metaphors. Obviously this was intentional at the time, but I wonder if it says something about the book now that it may not have intended to.
I have to say that as much as I found this chapter cringeworthy when I first read it, it’s kind of spot on. I’ve come to like this paragraph a lot — and for exactly that reason. The falling star’s like this cosmic semen but it’s mingling with… [Laughs.] It’s just this disarming juxtaposition. For me, there has to be this double consciousness. I think for many readers today, you can’t read this chapter and not notice that the semen and the fish are more described than the woman in the scene. This woman has a little more agency than the woman in the bookstore — she says, “I’m not going to wear my diaphragm, so pull out, would you?” And he says “Oh, OK,” right? It’s not that she no agency, but she’s more prop than anything. It that interesting juxtaposition, that double consciousness of reading it both as a writer, as someone who loves language—and I know that his language interested me even then — I was trying to write like Brautigan in my journal. Who was I? The writer or the muse, the writer or the muse? Of course my partner says I was just titillated. Oh, you can have sex in a hot spring? Cool. [Laughs.]
The fact that it happens in a hot spring gives it a different tenor, I think. Brautigan kind of has sex all the time in this book, but here, it’s of a different sort from the sex you get earlier, which is very poeticized and oriented toward storytelling. As opposed to this scene, which is really just about the sex itself.
This is very different. The bookstore sex is not meant to be taken literally at all, but this is very much about — well, much of the book is about what it means to be in the American wilderness. He’s playing with that idea. They’re out in the wilderness, but there’s this green slime and these dead fish and deerflies. It’s sort of an odd moment and yet it has this cosmic twist to it. There is still something transcendent with that semen like a falling star. [Laughs.]
Then there’s the chapter called “The Teddy Roosevelt Chingader’,” which takes place in a campsite. You said the campsite where Brautigan slept was your Holy Grail on the trip. This is as close as you finally get to the “ghost of Brautigan.” Let’s talk about the title, “Shivering.” That word can be sensual, it can be eerie, it can be exciting, it can be cold. It seems to parallel your feelings toward Brautigan in the book as you work them out yourself.
This was where it started to feel like I was having a religious experience. I got there and I read this passage out loud. We know he had a typewriter with him on this trip. We know that he was writing. For all we know, he was writing this passage at that picnic table or in that campsite, 47 years before. There was something about being on that ground. It wasn’t just in the abstract anymore. Despite all the ways I would qualify my love of this book, there was still something very powerful about being there. I had done a Virginia Woolf literary pilgrimage some years ago, the Mrs. Dalloway walk through London, reading aloud, and it was very similar. It was very physical, physically affecting.
You use the word Eucharist and talk about its roots. When you said that I immediately thought a recurring prop in your book, the Ouija board, and also of communion. The words Eucharist and communion are linked, but so are the words communion and ghost. This concepts really has its hooks in the whole book — it’s channeling his ghost. So I’m really curious: Did you exorcise it?
[Laughs.] Ah. Hm. I think not exorcising it. I think inviting it in. Living with it. It became part of me, like taking communion. It’s not something you can reject wholesale. It’s something you take in and make part of you. It’s also about taking in the part of me that was a 12-year-old girl obsessed with Brautigan. You go back and read your journals and can’t help cringing, like, Who was that? You take in your 12-year-old bewilderment and aches about who you’d be in the world and it all ends up kind of wrapping together. I see in the book, my father’s an anthropologist who studies American death and dying practices. I got these ideas from an anthropologist that he cites who says religion is the manifestation of the transcendent in the material. I think going to the campsite and being fully present with his work was a way of reconciling and owning what was good for me, what works for me, and also what wasn’t, acknowledging it.
The chapter on the surgeon. It has this gorgeous sentence:
We were leaving in the afternoon for Lake Josephus, located at the edge of the Idaho Wilderness, and he was leaving for America, often only a place in the mind.
You wrote that this is perhaps your favorite sentence in the whole book because of its implications for these characters. Did you find the Idaho wilderness, or America? Or did you find both?
I found a place in my mind. [Laughs.] I think I found both. I definitely found the Idaho wilderness, which is stunningly beautiful. It’s just incredibly, awesomely beautiful. Stanley, which was this little village, is at pretty high altitude, very cold at night, even in the summer. It’s just stunning. How many people in the world, or even in the country, really know that? I think people don’t. Yet I definitely was on a journey that was to a place in my mind. In this chapter, the surgeon is so unhappy and nothing’s good enough for him, and he kills this chub salmon just to kill it, just to show his knife is sharp. It’s contrasting the narrator’s contentment in the wilderness versus the surgeon’s discontent, because he’s only living in a place in his mind. But I think that for me, every trip is partially in a real place and partially in a place in your mind. I just love that idea. Brautigan had been on a journey, and I was on this journey following in his footsteps. I was looking for a place in my mind, and yes, it’s just a way of finding both. There’s also this connection to America, because it’s Trout Fishing in America. He was looking for America. There’s something important about that, that this is specifically an American wilderness. It’s certainly important for Brautigan. I just think all of us are on these journeys through both literal and metaphorical places, and he captures that in a sentence.
I think you did too, and it’s funny, because I see it in a lot of ways as a parallel to the sentence in the first chapter, the one that describes the cover, in which he talks about Franz Kafka’s understanding of America based on reading only Benjamin Franklin.
Yeah, that’s a great connection, the Kafka quote at the beginning: “I like the Americans because they’re healthy and optimistic.” [Laughs.] I mean, really, Brautigan does so many things so beautifully. It’s definitely a book worth revisiting. So many people I’ve talked to have told me, “Oh, I used to love Brautigan, too!” I hope they go back.