Author Interview: Audrey Beth Stein
We’re featuring Audrey’s memoir, Map, for the month of June here at yaReads. Her story is a brave account of her life as she explores her sexuality, and her candidness continues in this interview. Enjoy yaReaders!
It’s a true story, usually focused on one time period or theme in the life of a regular person, as opposed to an autobiography which is generally about the entire life-to-date of someone famous. So for instance my memoir Map is a coming-of-age story about a time when it was easier to admit that you were in love with another girl than that you’d met someone on the internet.
Did you decide to use alias names for the people in your story, or did you just tell it how it was?
It was important to me tell the truth, both factually and emotionally, as best as I could. I even used old credit card receipts and telephone bills and emails to remember facts. But to respect people’s privacy I used pseudonyms for almost every character in Map, except in the case of two minor characters who gave me explicit permission to use their real names.
How long did MAP take you to write?
Nine-and-a-half years, start to finish. The first draft took me only a couple of months, but I left out the climax! My writing group was pretty insistent that that wasn’t allowed. It took some time for me to get comfortable enough to share the hard parts. And then with each successive draft, I heard “more,” or “deeper,” or “you need more perspective,” until finally the story was on the page the way it needed to be.
Would you say that writing a memoir is easier, or harder than writing fiction?
Ooh, good question. I think they’re challenging in different ways. In both cases, you need to be able to tell a good story and bring compelling characters alive on the page, and neither lets you evade emotional truth if you are doing it well. I think for me, memoir’s largest challenge was how to write both honestly and respectfully about other real live human beings—many of whom were still a part of my life. With the novel I recently finished, on the other hand, I had to work to understand multiple characters so that their motivations and actions, not my authorial plot-needs, were driving the story.
At the beginning of MAP, you question your sexuality and essentially conclude that you’re bisexual. Although you were cautious about coming out, it didn’t ever seem like you were completely scared or feared any kind of social rejection. Can you talk about your feelings on this subject?
I’m still not sure how much of my experience was luck of environment. By the time I came out, there were plenty of queer people around me, and I’d witnessed parts of the coming out of a few gay friends and acquaintances. Some of them had challenges with their families, or with their own comfort levels, but if they experienced any social rejection, I was completely oblivious. There just didn’t seem to be anything to worry about in that arena. And I grew up with activist parents, and although their activism was mostly centered around the Jewish community, it was unfathomable that they wouldn’t be supportive of gay rights and whatnot. So where a lot of people might worry about homophobia, I was more concerned that people would realize I was confused about something, that I wasn’t as “together” and know-it-all as I pretended to be.
How does falling in love with someone you’ve never met in person differ to the more ‘conventional’ way?
Emotionally, I think it’s very much the same, and the differences I’ve experienced in more recent relationships have more to do with the fact that they aren’t “first love.” But you do miss out on body language, on eye contact, on touch, on scent, which are all different ways to know a person. You find different sort of rhythms. There’s an intensity to it, a focus and an adrenaline rush that heightens feeling. You rely a lot on voice, both telephone and written, which I think might be hard if the object of your affections was more kinesthetically or visually inclined. In either situation, you face the challenge of trying to grow an initial falling in love into a sustainable relationship, and although I’ve seen it done successfully both ways, I think the sooner you are fully “in person” present with each other, the better your chances.
Looking back on your relationship with Catrina, do you think that perhaps when reality set in that you were going to meet in person, she freaked out?
I could speculate, but ultimately she is the only one who knows what was going on for her. It definitely upped the stakes.
Although your relationship with Catrina didn’t work out so great in the end, it appears that she was exactly who she said she was. What advice can you give to teens that might be pursuing online relationships about the dangers associated with meeting online friends?
Don’t do it! You might get your heart broken! Just kidding… but there’s always a risk of online chemistry (friendship or otherwise) not translating to in-person interactions. There’s a great essay by Meghan Daum that I read when I was first working on Map called “On the Fringes of the Physical World” which captures this dynamic and the disappointment really well. Of course the other danger is the physical safety one, and for that the usual blind date precautions apply: let someone else know where you are going, meet in a public place, have plenty of extra cash and your own way to get home, stay sober and trust your instincts and don’t let embarrassment trump safety. Someone worth spending time with is going to respect your boundaries, no matter how cautious or quirky, and if you rush off in weird panic and later decide you were overreacting, you can always send an email the next day.
I like this notion of committing to finding a soul mate, not a gender… do you still believe in that, or do you identify more as a lesbian these days?
The “not a gender” part, yes, I still believe, and as to identity, I usually describe myself as queer. As I get older, “soul mate” speaks to me less than “right choice.” I think our initial choice of partner is hugely important, but it is over time that we discover whether we are on compatible paths, how we interact, how well we can grow together. Sometimes right choice means recognizing incompatibility and breaking up. But when we continue to choose each other, choose to give, choose to create something together, choose to make room in our lives for the entirety of another person as they are and as they may become, that’s huge, and it is those continued choices over time that make a partnership.
What happened to the novel that you were working on in MAP?
The novel turned into a short story called The Pre-Fame Days
The short story I was writing in Map, which is called On the Eighth Day came in second place in a national short story contest, and then I got more curious about the characters and spent eight years turning the story into a novel that I’ve begun shopping around to agents and publishers. (Any agents or publishers reading this, I’d love to hear from you!)
What is in your to-be-read pile right now?
Meghan Daum’s new book, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House. A book about homeschooling that I picked up at a library book sale… I love reading about education. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. Nature Girl by Jane Kelley – a YA novel I discovered on GoodReads about an eleven-year-old who gets lost on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont and decides to hike to Massachusetts to visit her best friend.
If there was going to be a movie made about your story, who would you want to see play Audrey?
I think Winona Ryder, circa 1994, might play me well. I shudder to think of my life being turned into a movie though.
I love the rock references in your story. What are you listening to these days?
Well I still listen to the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco, though not nearly as often, and I’ve been a huge Kris Delmhorst fan since about the time I started writing Map. One of my cousins turned me on to the Israeli singer Miri Mesika… she’s wonderful. And I’ve been soaking up Mary Chapin Carpenter’s newest CD, The Age of Miracles.
For the gay teens of our community that might be struggling with their identity and/or coming out, what advice would you give to them?
Trust yourself, take the time you need, and it’s okay to not be sure or to come out as “questioning.” A world full of richness awaits you and often the good stuff involves taking risks, so start practicing! (And to those of you who know you’re not queer, you’re still part of the welcoming committee, so let’s see those ally buttons on display!)
Anyone who’s interested in reading Map can find direct links to purchase on my website at http://map.audreybethstein.com, and I believe there’s free shipping all summer if you buy two copies, so it’s a great opportunity to donate a copy to your local library or GLBT youth group.