I met Chelsey Johnson at someone else’s literary event at Book Soup, a sprawling but also cave-like bookstore on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. We were introduced as two people who should already know each other, because we had friends in common and were both writers and both got our undergraduate Creative Writing degrees at Oberlin College (albeit separated in time by a little under a decade). Before the reading began, someone (maybe our mutual friend Edan Lepucki, whose event we were attending) pointed across the room at a freshly released hardcover.
“This is the first time I’ve seen it in a bookstore,” Johnson said, because we were looking at her own book, Stray City, already on the shelf even though the official release date wasn’t until the next day.
“What’s it about?” I asked, making a mental note to reserve it from the library, because I didn’t have any discretionary funds left in my bank account.
“A lesbian in Portland in the late 90s and she has a cat,” Johnson replied.
And so then, I needed it immediately. I purchased that shouldn’t-be-there copy with nonexistent money (thanks Chase Sapphire Reserve Travel Credit Card!) and devoured it that same week. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, maybe a Riot Grrl love story, twee and inspirational, in that way that empowerment can come off as bland. Instead, I found the movingly real character Andrea Morales, scraping together a meager income during the drab post Riot Grrl years, after the Portland music scene had been co-opted by the major labors and left the city behind.
A self-described card carrying member of the Lesbian Mafia, Andrea’s recent very public breakup was the talk of her entire scene. Andrea sought solace outside the gossip vortex of the pre-internet Portland lesbian scene with Ryan, a sweet drummer whose philosophy of non-attachment was almost as attractive to Andrea as his distance from her suffocating community. Their affair was meant to be brief, but when Andrea discovered she was pregnant and her friends learned about her affair, her world exploded in ways Andrea hadn’t intended and struggled to recover from.
A few weeks after finishing the book, Johnson and I met in the lounge of Taix restaurant in Echo Park (where we definitely didn’t have a drink before 5pm). Our conversation began with a quick cataloging of the cities Johnson had lived in and the Creative Writing programs she’d attended: While she was still an undergrad at Oberlin, she spent the summer of 1995 in Portland. After graduating in 1997, she went to New York City, where she lived during the years Stray City was set. Next was two years in Iowa City, earning her MFA at the lauded University of Iowa graduate writers’ program, then back to in Portland where she lived during her time as a Stanford University Stegner Fellow (also a lauded program). She wrote Stray City for seven years, off and on, creating a nostalgic echo for city during a time she didn’t live there, but a community of women that to her—and even to me, someone who was about 11 the years this book was set—was intimately familiar.
Chelsey Johnson: I never wanted to write a story set in New York, even though I lived in Brooklyn for three years and knew New York really, really well at the time I was writing. I felt like if I sat down to write a story set in New York, I was entering a very saturated world that had already been described so much.
I wanted to write a story about a place I loved, that I didn’t read much about, with all these people that I loved and also didn’t read much about. I needed to put the story back a little earlier then during my actual time in Portland , because I wanted the story to be analog. I didn’t want the internet and I didn’t want cell phones.
Catie Disabato: Why did you want specifically an analog narrative?
Part of what this story depended on – especially, very heavily, in the first draft – was Ryan bailing on his life, disappearing. He had to be able to make himself untrackable. If you have a cell phone, you’re so trackable. Even using credit cards makes you pretty trackable. Ryan was living on a wad of cash and tips and quarters on a payphone and sitting in an internet café. He has this completely untethered existence.
Part of that untrackability of that time was that, when you left your house, you were just out. To have it be normal that you couldn’t be found, that was very important for the ability of Ryan and Andrea to carry on their affair. For people not to ask them “where are you?” all the time, and to not notice that they weren’t responding in five minutes. During that time, you would sometimes just not hear from somebody for a few days because you hadn’t caught them at the right time. And there wasn’t this sense of constant surveillance of each other, via social media and texts and all that stuff.
I think it’s interesting to return to those kinds of social constraints, which are also really liberating. There’s more action, there’s more physicality in it, whereas I think you could—people I’m sure have—written stories that take place today, entirely via text communication and email. That’s our reality. They’re still compelling narratives of course, but they’re kind of disembodied in a weird way.
Besides the logistical elements, what made you interested in writing about Portland in 1998-1999? I thought it was fascinating that Andrea got to Portland a little bit too late, so she had a nostalgia for a recently-ended culture that she was really never a part of.
I initially wanted to set it during the peak of Riot Grrl, but then I felt the burden of trying to do Riot Grrl correctly—which has been done badly so many times. I actually don’t have much nostalgia for ‘98-‘99 as a time period specifically, because I remember that as being a very weird time, at the end of the millennium. As someone who is a really indie subculture junkie person, it was a cultural trough. Riot Grrl had come and gone, quote unquote alternative culture had risen and exploded and then gotten completely co-opted and turned into crappy alt rock. Everything that was thrilling in the early 90s had been blown out. That created a sense of cultural melancholy, but also created a sense of a liminal time. For some of us, we thought we might be heading towards a massive death in the form of Y2K. We thought, “Fuck it, who knows if we’re going to live.” And that opens people up to transgress, to do things they wouldn’t normally do. Which was certainly the case with these characters.
Instead of writing about a heyday of a culture or a scene or a place, I wanted to land in the aftermath. I wanted to see what was going on those doldrums.
I wrote Stray City while I was far far away from Portland. I missed Portland. I missed my community there. I missed almost everything about it.
Now that I’ve gotten to know you a little bit and gotten to know Andrea, I can see that this character is really different from you. But you are both queer women who lived in Portland in the 90s, and I find that often when a woman writes a book in the first person, from a female point of view, that the character gets associated with the woman writing her.
Especially at first, I really didn’t want Andrea associated with me, so I gave her all these traits that definitely weren’t me. As I relaxed and got more into the story, I wanted to connect more deeply with the character and I wanted people to connect with her too.
I find it helpful, when creating a character, to think about what is a little bit annoying or difficult about me, what is something that other people rub up against and get irked by. And then I give that to a character and blow it up a little bit.
I didn’t put my traumas or big biographical details into her. But I’d give her a shirt of mine or a bad haircut I once gave myself. I learned how to do letterpress while I was like Iowa, so she knew how to do that. It’s never those deep dark truths, never like, This is a Revelation of Chelsey Johnson, via the avatar of Andrea Morales.
The queer community that you wrote in this story, was that aspirational for you? Was it a mirror for your own life?
The queer community that I wrote was a composite of many people that I knew. It really reflected the kind of friendships I had, particularly in Portland, which is where I had the biggest and robust queer community I ever had in my life. In college, I was very queer shy. At Oberlin, I didn’t hang out with that many queer people. There was this posse of hardcore gays in college and I was terrified of them.
I had a couple of great queer friends at Oberlin, but there was also a posse of hot popular lesbians that I felt very frightened of and isolated from.
I was terrified of lesbians! I would go to Meow Mix (a lesbian night) in New York in my early 20s and just be petrified. Dating someone who was a “real lesbian,” I felt like such a fraud or an outsider. I was so insecure about it. Finally, I moved to Portland and I fell in with this great crowd and it kept growing, and I just was one of them. It was amazing. At the same time, it’s a completely insane gossip vortex. I’ve never known any culture that’s so up in each others’ business all the time.
Writing the book, what was hard for me at first—especially in part one when Andrea is facing a lot of resistance after her friends found out she’d had an affair with a man—was to make her friends difficult people. At first, I felt very protective of my community and I didn’t want to make us look bad. But the people you love are often the people who are hardest on you.
I think you really found a balance in that, her friends were shitty to her once the affair was revealed, but they didn’t abandon her. And the way they were shitty to her felt very authentic to me.
For a community that’s built on sexual transgression, whose whole identity is predicated on doing the thing we weren’t supposed to do, why are we then the hardest on people who transgress—or “transgress”—in this very minor way. In the late 90s, there weren’t that many out trans people yet, and the ideas of pansexuality and bisexuality weren’t as prevalent. Also, the characters were in their 20s, and as a teacher of college students, I see people in their late teens and early 20s, who are just getting into the fire of their politics and discovering their identities, they are most vicious identity police there are. But then by 25, 27, etc., they mellow out a lot.
I feel like trans culture has really disrupted the binary, lesbian, you’re-with-us-or-you’re-against-us mentality.
I’ve heard you call Andrea “a lesbian who has sex with a man” and I would really like to hear what you think about the psychological underpinnings of their relationship and the nature of their attraction.
For Andrea, this is a really easy lay. There’s a point when Andrea and Ryan are swimming together and she thinks, “This is what it’s like when your feet always touch bottom.” For her, there’s a clear limit to how far things are going to go with this guy. She can sleep with him without feeling like she’s going to get emotionally sucked into something, its just pleasure. She also has the idea, which turns out to be a little incorrect, that he understands she’s a lesbian so he’s not going to be on her case to commit. At the point when her relationship begins, she’s fed up with queer drama, with everyone sleeping with everyone else, and here’s someone who is completely separate from that light. It just feels good, just physical pleasure and attention from somebody who is ready to give it to her.
Ryan isn’t a commitment kind of person, and he initially Andrea as someone who isn’t going to cling, who isn’t going to ask for anything. Which what he thinks he wants. Then, he does get attached, and it’s the most frustrating, heartbreaking thing ever.
Her sexual attraction for him is legitimate, so what does that say to you about sexuality as a spectrum?
Masculinity can be really beautiful, and her attraction is about a spectrum of masculinity and attractiveness. I’m never going to be attracted to a big, beefy, brawny dude, but when I think back to my high school boyfriend, who was this dainty slim little person with ruby lips… Boys can be really pretty, and people who are cisgender female can be extremely handsome. There’s a spectrum of gender presentation, which can cross some of the wires sexually. I don’t think Ryan is necessarily super feminine, but I think a person can be attracted to a form of masculinity more than men per se.
I think it was really queer-accurate, in a way you don’t see often in fiction, that Andrea wasn’t any lesbian that ended up having a dalliance with a man, it was a lesbian that in text attracted to people who are masculine of center. That felt very accurate to me.
I think women who are attracted to people who are masculine of center are also the ones who are maybe more willing to cross over into lovers who are masculine of biological sex, occasionally.
Another queer-accurate story element of the novel was Andrea’s family refusing to be in her life after finding out that she is a lesbian.
Andrea’s family rejecting her was important for a couple of reasons. On a basic level, it’s what has happened to friends of mine, it’s a real experience. But also, I wanted to write about gay pain.
I didn’t want people to think of this as some kind of Chasing Amy, with a possibility of heterosexual love. I also wanted it to be clear, what Andrea stood to lose by having a relationship with a man. By knowing that she lost her family of origin in order to be who she is, it makes the chosen family all the more fundamental. To risk that becomes so much more powerful. It raised the heat on the character, which fictionally is always productive.
Initially I didn’t want to write a coming out story at all. The whole reason I wrote about a lesbian sleeping with a man was to flip that script of the coming out story. But, in order for that to matter at all, I had to go back into her childhood and show her own coming out.
Does your next novel have characters living in a contemporary queer community?
I’ll just say a little bit because it’s still so early in the process. It definitely has a queer protagonist, but in my new novel, identity is not an issue. One thing I’m interested in touching on in my next novel is the queer rural diaspora. By which I mean, people who grow up in rural spaces and have to leave for the cities. My second novel will cut into the homesickness and longing for a place you can’t ever really return to.
What I discovered with my own very small hometown is that when I go home, I’m fully embraced as a local. When I read in my hometown in April, the newspaper had a front page article, and I haven’t lived there since 1993! But, I’m also cisgender. I pass.
That’s the weird thing about queerness, you’re often not the same as your family. You can be totally alone even amongst people you’ve known your own life.
Catie Disabato’s debut novel The Ghost Network was published in May 2015 and received critical acclaim from numerous outlets including The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and The Kirkus Review. Disabato has written essays and criticism for outlets including LA Weekly, Buzzfeed, Extra Crispy, and of course Full Stop. Her short fiction has been featured in Joyland.