Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Sara Astruc Interview

First, a ridiculously long preface.

I'm beyond excited to post this interview with writer Sara Astruc (pictured above), an on and off-line writer whose print work entitled "Jailbait: A Love Story" will finally be available in a couple of months at Amazon.

If you're not familiar, Sara was one of the Original online journalers. Back in the time not too many years after Al Gore sponged the remnant afterbirth of the internet off his inner thighs (no control, sorry). Back then, there were no such things as web logs or blogs or widgets or sites like Blogger that made it possible for everyone and their dog to write online. There was only coding and uploading. (Or something.)

It was the "Information Super Highway" and it was a whole new frontier.

I merged on to the Highway in 1998 and was immediately turned on by a friend of mine to what were then called "online journals" even sometimes "online diaries". I was soon hooked on a few: "Ceej's Battered Black Book", "The Book of Rob", "Daily Dose of Deb, "Dear Jackie Robinson" aka "Bad Hair Days". It was a new sort of addiction that fed into my love of reading and my documentary bent. Suddenly, I was strangely connected, but then not connected, to a whole circle of people and their everyday lives. Or at least the part of their lives they shared (often a suprisingly large amount).

I knew I would one day join their ranks. I loved reading them all.

But none so much as Sara Astruc.

Sara's journal, "Perfect Way" was, and still is, the most compelling blog (online journal) I've ever read. Her vast archives kept me glued to my computer screen for one whole entire Saturday night, as I devoured her writing in one juicy satisfying gulp, in those now faraway days of the 1990's. I became a slavishly devoted fan of her all-to-infrequent posts. What did she write about? Herself. Her past loves--one past love in particular. I think Sara was unusual in this way: that she opened up and shared herself so completely when she told a story. To me, Sara is the Joni Mitchell of blogging. And, of course, that means she is an amazing writer.

Eventually, Sara would stop writing much, at least online. I followed her through a few website incarnations through the years, always hoping she'd write more or get published as I knew she should. She still has a blog and it's still called Perfect Way. It has been near the top of my link list, sort of a little prayer, since I wrote my first post nearly five years ago. The Perfect Way of today, however, does not hint at Sara's prolific online past (though you can get whet your whistle here). Through the years, Sara and I crossed paths online a few times and this connection would eventually lead to a bolt of lightening in my in-box...would I like to interview Sara in my blog?



And then I plotzed from excitement. Completely. And then I ran around like a headless chicken in my brain for a while (not that that's a particularly unusual occurance). And then I finally narrowed down the ridulous number of questions my brain began screaming at me to ten questions.

And then? Holy crap, she answered them.

Which is a really long way of saying: Here's my Sara Astruc interview. It's one of the awesomer things that ever happened to my blog. Enjoy.

ME: Why the long internet silences? Blog, already—I’m dyin’ ovah heeyuh!

SARA: Oh, lots of reasons. I started the page to tell some old stories. I didn't really want to write about the present. I am a private person. I do understand that it's hard to reconcile a private person with the sort of explicit and deeply personal writing I enjoyed putting out into the world, but I could hide behind my anonymity back then. Not so much, anymore.

A lot has happened since I slowed down... September 11th, Nan (my mother) being diagnosed with Stage IV Ovarian-Peritoneal Cancer, some health scares of my own; job stress; my graduate research surfacing on Metafilter, of all places; a complicated relationship; some frightening and unpleasant truths about David (my father) finally coming to light.

The real story is unpleasant and not sparkly and not a fun read. My motto when I started this thing was "do no harm." I never wanted to use my web page as a weapon, never wanted to hurt people that are already wounded. So I started keeping my mouth shut.

And in Seattle, where everyone is so terribly wired, I had a harder time maintaining what was left of my privacy. My worlds finally collided when a guy I worked with and liked very much walked up to my desk and stuck a yellow Post-It to my monitor. It said "Damn Hell Ass Kings," and I thought Oh, shit.

I was going to tell him about the online stuff, of course, but Seattle turned out to be a scary small town and he'd found out all sorts of things about me over that weekend. And these people, who have information about me, well, they mostly got it over the Internet and don't really know me at all. So I had some explaining to do.

He thought it was hilarious, that I lead a double life, except it isn't. It's just all different parts of the same life. My life. And I am uncomfortable having to explain myself.

ME: How do you feel now about the fact that you chronicled, online during the stone age of the internet a) what at least seemed to me to be a very personal account of your first love, with high school BF Robin Artemus (a pseudonym, right?) and b) a list of your lovers otherwise known as "The List". These online writings caused a stir back in the day, did they not?

SARA: I started my web page on GeoCities in 1996 called, simply, The List. It consisted of a recitation of 35 or so names, men that I had all been involved with or dated or even kissed once in an elevator over the years. If you clicked on a name, it lead you to my diary entries from that time in my life. A couple of months after my site went up, it received Cool Site of the Day from Gannett Newspapers, and my traffic skyrocketed.

Having a list of men you've messed around with up on the Internet was a pretty revolutionary concept at the time, and it brought me a certain amount of coverage from the mainstream media. I was first interviewed by Condé Nast's Swoon, and then a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer emailed me. It was his ensuing front page article that brought me to Justin Hall, and my first understanding of online journals.

In an effort to have changing content to my site, I began writing little essays — about my high school reunion, about Bill Clinton, whatever struck my fancy. I called this section of my website "Random Sample", and it wasn't until months later that I finally conceded that I was keeping an online journal, in spite of my best efforts to claim otherwise.

I'm not entirely sure what I expected. The Internet seemed a lot smaller back then. I imagined most of my readers as sort of sweet and dorky IT guys and research scientists. And for a while, this is what it was. The readership was almost universally men. The email they sent was smart and friendly and polite. Sometimes the guys would ask me for advice about their love lives, cry on my shoulder about their broken hearts, and ask if I knew why I was still single.

There were some flirty emails, but nothing scary. So I got more confident, and more open. And then America Online was taking off, and I agreed to appear in a televised interview that showed up in 13 countries, and suddenly my inbox was full of come-ons and intense speculation about where I lived and worked.

The response was amazing and a tiny bit frightening for someone like me.

ME: Does the real Robin know you shared the story—has he read it?

SARA: I told Robin about all of this in 1999. I was long overdue to tell him about the site. How could I not? I'd written about him for years, and then I was going on the television to talk about what I'd written. I had to tell him. He took it pretty well, he knew this day of reckoning would some day come from the little girl who'd loved him so much.

"I have something to tell you," I began, twisting my linen napkin around my fingers. Watching his face was awful. He didn't know what was coming, and it was a terribly tense moment.

I explained that I had written about him, about us, in a public forum, and he cringed. "It isn't bad," I interjected hurriedly. "Well, I mean, we both look equally bad. But it's a love story," I finished lamely.

"What did you name me?"

"What?" Of all the questions I thought he might ask, I never considered this one. Shit. "Robin Altemus.

"He blanched. "Robin? You named me Robin?"

"Robin is my middle name."

I reminded him quietly.

His eyes shot up to mine. "I had forgotten that," he admitted. He picked up his empty glass. Signaled the waiter. "You've been trying to tell me this for a long time, haven't you? You tried to tell me in Florida." The waiter takes his empty glass away. "It's okay, Sara." He throws some bills into the little leather folder. "It doesn't matter."

In the end, that was pretty much all that was said.

ME: Why the move to Seattle? You seem such the NYC girl (sojourns to FL notwithstanding).

SARA: Oh lord, I so do not fit in in Seattle. I used to entertain myself wearing my mother's mink swing coat to the Safeway at the top of Queen Anne Hill. People would actually hiss at me. They do not approve of women cutting up odious little animals for the sake of vanity.

There are some lovely things about Seattle, but none of them seem to be enough to keep me here permanently. I want to go back to my people, even though that life really fucked me up. But maybe now I get that, and why I let it happen, and maybe it won't happen again.

Or maybe it will happen again, maybe I will make all the same mistakes and all I am now is all I will ever be.

Last night I did laundry and sat a long time in front of the Bosch front-loader washer, watching my sheets spin around and around. The washing machine and dryer came with the house and are the fanciest appliances I have ever owned. I wish I could take them with me when I go. Am I going? I doubt it. I don't know where to go.

I want the next time I move to be last time I move, so I am not making any decisions today.

ME: Are you now (or have you ever been) married?

SARA: I have never married. I was legitimately engaged once, very young, and there have been a couple of half-assed offers over the years. I believed I was supposed to get married, that if a man didn't want to marry me then he really didn't love me. I understand it better now. For someone who thought she wanted to get married, though, I managed to duck and run every time it really came up.

Turning 40 was kind of freeing in that regard. It was like some invisible line in my head was crossed, a deadline or something, and I didn't have to pretend I wanted it anymore. I'm relieved now I never married. I like being unfettered in that respect.I am a loner by nature, and suspect I am just not the marrying kind. The men I tend to be interested in are married to their careers. It would have been nice to find a compromise somewhere along the way, but in the end I pick the men over the marriage.

There's always that tiny part of me that resists convention.

ME: Your writing is AMAZING. I think this is partly because you so effectively convey the fact that you feel –how to say—an otherness, sort of separate from or different than everyone else. On the other hand, you seem a totally hip, everything-going-for-you kind of girl. What gives?

SARA: I think the former is more true than the latter. I grew up a little out of step with my peers, being Jewish in a very old school NY social sort of town. I'm still sort of surprised by any social success I had back then.

ME: If memory serves, you began “journaling on-line” (this was waaaay before blogs, kiddies) while convalescing from open-heart surgery at an uncommonly young age (right?). Heck, you’re still young. Are you okay now?

SARA: I am okay. I had a stroke and then open heart surgery to correct an atrial septal defect that caused blood to shunt in the wrong direction in my heart. I was sick for about six years before I had the stroke-- heart palpitations, dizziness, vertigo, fainting. I went to doctor after doctor looking for help. They all diagnosed me with anxiety.

My then-fiance was a doctor and was no help either. My constant illness caused problems at work, with my family, and screwed up a couple of relationships. It's hard to date when you're sick all the time.

When I had the stroke it was a huge relief to find out I had never been crazy, and finally had a diagnosis. I floated along on this little polly-annaish cloud for awhile, and then about five years ago I got really fucking angry. I am only just recently getting over that rage.> >

ME: Do you have a huge legion of internet fans clamoring to read more of your work (much like, for instance, oh I don’t know, ME)?

SARA: I feel fortunate to hear from folks who'd like to read a bit more from me, but I can only hope that they'll feel compelled to buy my book once it's out. I am not taking anything for granted.

ME: A BOOK!!! I’m so excited to hear you’re writing a book!!!! Tell me all about it?

SARA: I'm going to be releasing my diary archives in a self-published book on Amazon in a couple of months. It's primarily the Robin Altemus story from The List. Holding it up all these years have been issues of privacy and money. I'd found an agent in 2001, but after September 11, I crawled into a bottle of scotch and my agent ran away to Vermont. Now, looking at the numbers, I think the story would best be served by me self-publishing.

I am willing and able to do my own promotion, and the Internet has always been kind to me. So I'm not even looking for a publisher at this point. I'm just going to get it out there and hope for the best.

ME: WHY NOT ROBIN 4-EVER? [Can’t help myself.]

God bless Robin, I still love him so. But we are not fated to be together. I would be a terrible wife to him, easily distractible and lost in my own head. He is safely married and has a beautiful daughter and I wish him nothing but a lifetime of peace and happiness after the hurricane that was me blowing in and out of his life.

ME: Bonus Q: Still drive Camilla?

SARA: Camilla went to Jaguar heaven. But in her place is a lovely X-Type, that has served me well. I bought her with the money I was saving in case Skye and I moved in together, or got married, or ran off to to Africa. I've driven her back and forth from Seattle to Florida, and she is a most perfect replacement for my old XJ-6.

It's funny, it's just a dumb hunk of metal, but I felt more like myself again.

Keep up with Sara at Perfect Way as well as at The Simplest, a discussion community she runs. Look for "Jailbait: A Love Story" at Amazon as well as on my own personal Night Stand in a few months.


Brenda said...

Great interview! I simply MUST read her book!

Celia said...

Great investigation of one of the most mysterious and amazing women I've ever known.

Enid said...

Nice interview. Love you, Struc!

Mary Thorsby said...

Excellent! How fun! Loved your questions, loved her answers. We gotta get her to do a reading in Paducah! Well done, MzBizzy!

Jeanna said...

Thanks for the link, even though I'm so very lame. Remember our conversations about SA back in the day? It was like we were gossiping about one of our BFFs.

Congrats on this interview! You can bet your sweet bippy I'll be buying the book.

Allison Hasel said...

I so hope Sara is still publishing a book! I remember pouring over her archives years ago back before the web blew up into blogs, etc.!