Richard Owain Roberts interviews Chelsea Hodson, speaking on her acclaimed essay collection, Tonight I’m Someone Else.
Chelsea Hodson is the author of the essay collection Tonight I’m Someone Else (Holt). Topics we discussed include Bret Easton Ellis, the Kardashians, Marina, Tehching, rural life, bitter teachers, and operating outside of mainstream approval.
Richard Owain Roberts: I enjoyed reading your recent interview with Kendall Jenner. Going back to the moment in December 2019 when Kendall was photographed on a yacht as she read your essay collection Tonight I’m Someone Else, I liked how many post-it notes Kendall appeared to have put in the book. Where and how did you see this photo for the first time, and what did you feel when you first saw it and then later when you had processed it?
Chelsea Hodson: A month before Kendall was photographed on the yacht reading my book, she had posted a video on her Instagram of the books her agent had given her for her birthday. My book was in that stack, so I knew that Kendall had my book in her possession, but when a fashion writer I didn’t know DMed me the initial paparazzi photos, I thought someone was playing a prank on me. I mean, the bikini photos were unreal, so I just thought, “There’s no way this is real.” Soon, the photos were all over TMZ and The Daily Mail, so then it became apparent how real it was. It was a wild day—keep in mind, my book had come out a year and a half prior to these photos. So, my book seemed kind of like old news, even to me. But this gave it a whole new life, which I could have never anticipated.
ROR: Kendall grew up on TV. I have seen maybe thirteen full Keeping Up With The Kardashians episodes, and on multiple occasions 5–20-minute segments from various episodes and to me the show feels somewhere between performance art, sitcom, and something else. It seems soothingly well-crafted. The comic timing, in particularly the three older sisters, is wild.
Something about shows like KUWTK for me replicates how good films that use non-actors, thinking about directors such as Andrea Arnold or Sean Baker for example, can be in terms of the performances elicited and, separately, also the canvas you have for the edit.
CH: I think it’s tempting to say reality television is a kind of performance art, but I think that gives too much credit to the people on these shows. Being self-aware is different from being an artist, and entertainment is not necessarily art. Essentially, I think reality television is trash, and to accompany this statement, I should say I’ve seen almost every episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians (I stopped watching in 2019 or so). There is a calming, neutralizing effect to reality television—one that I find both soothing and incredibly dangerous. But I would be lying if I said there wasn’t something intriguing about watching the Kardashians’ rise to fame. It’s helped me make sense of the American tendency to worship celebrities—if you understand that, then a lot of fame-hungry artist behaviour begins to make a lot more sense.
ROR: That rings very true. You taught at Bennington College. When I attended online, it felt amusing and thrilling to be able to tell people I was at Bennington. Was Bennington’s history a big deal for you? I’m guessing it’s a very different vibe now to that 80s heyday, but did it still feel special and could you sense the history there?
CH: I left my position at Bennington earlier this year in order to focus more on my own writing as well as on my freelance editorial consultations and workshops, but Bennington has been a huge part of my life—I got my MFA there before I was offered a teaching position. When I was on campus as a graduate student, I would do things like try to find Bret Easton Ellis’ old dorm room, and wonder if the music building really was the inspiration for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (there is some debate on this, but I really want to believe it is). So, it is definitely a special place.
ROR: BEE, along with Donna, is probably the most celebrated student of Bennington, and is someone whose writing I’ve admired for many years. I enjoy listening to his podcast, although I miss the adverts he used to read; adverts that he also edited and spent time finessing and re-writing, something that seems equally heart-warming and very comical to imagine.
Do you listen to BEE’s podcast? How do you feel about The Shards?
CH: Yes, I am a subscriber to Bret Easton Ellis’ podcast, and I listened faithfully to The Shards. I’m drawn to polarizing artists and writers—those who people either love or hate. I’m increasingly interested in how artists operate outside of mainstream approval, too, so I admired the way he shared The Shards as he wrote it. The thing I like the most is Ellis’ film criticism, which makes me want to write my own.
ROR: Definitely, and I would be interested to read that. The episodes where Bret covers a whole year of cinema at a time are inspiring to me. The Tom Cruise deep dive with Nic Pizzolatto was something else too. Is there an actor, director, or year you’d most like to listen to receive the full BEE treatment?
I found one of my favourite films, Under the Silver Lake, from listening to Bret Easton Ellis talk about it on his show, so I’d be curious to hear an interview with or more analysis of director David Robert Mitchell. I find Under the Silver Lake to be totally fascinating and perplexing, and I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos attempting to analyse it, and nothing seems exactly right. I like the film more every time I watch it, which almost never happens.
ROR: Rereading some of Tonight I‘m Someone Else and the mentions of Arizona – was your recent move there a move back home?
CH: My move last year was a move back home to Arizona, but not to my hometown, Phoenix, or my college town, Tucson, which are both insanely hot desert towns. My house in Sedona is in a forest at high elevation, so it can get quite cold (it even snows), and it’s not quite the Raising Arizona-style scenery that people seem to envision when I tell them I live in Arizona.
ROR: Did you consider the impact on writing as part of moving from the city to a more rural area?
CH: Absolutely. I used to think of my life in Brooklyn as stimulating and exciting, which it was in many ways, but it was also draining and exhausting, too. Whenever I took trips out of the city to write, whether it was a writing residency in New Hampshire, an Airbnb in upstate New York, or my friend’s family’s barn in Connecticut, I noticed the same thing: in these quiet, green places, my writing came more easily and the quality of my writing was superior. Throughout the first year of COVID in New York, my husband and I just kept aching to leave until there was no choice but to leave.
ROR: How are you finding the difference in location, if any, from a creative point of view?
CH: I find that I love living in a place that feels truly wild. Every day, I see some sort of wildlife—a blue heron, a coyote, a bobcat, a deer, a pack of javelina. This is normal here, but it’s still totally exotic and exciting to me. I realize that the older I get, the more important it has become to feel like I’m connected to nature in some way, even if that’s just by living in the middle of nowhere. I never want to live in a city again.
ROR: I recently moved from working mostly in cafes to working in a cabin at the bottom of my garden. I enjoy the quiet, although sometimes miss the loosely-scripted-feeling conversations with baristas. Working in the cabin means I can start writing very early in the morning, sometimes around four, depending on various things. You talked, I think, about getting up early to work?
CH: I think the time right after waking up is really precious, in terms of a kind of untainted atmosphere in my brain. Ideally, I haven’t looked at my email or phone yet, and I haven’t had to do anything except make my cup of coffee and sit at my desk. When I was writing Tonight I’m Someone Else, I used to think that writing immediately after waking was a way to write more directly from my subconscious—I thought of it as having one foot in my dream world and one foot in my “real” world. Looking at the sentences I wrote in that state, I can see that it worked. Now, I think the time of day has become less important—for instance, these days I exercise right after I wake up, and I write after breakfast. It’s just about creating that uninterrupted space around my writing that’s most important.
ROR: I’ve mentioned a couple of times in two or three different places that Tonight I’m Someone Else is one of my favourite books from the last few years. Thank you for writing it.
In the essay I’m Only a Thousand Miles Away, a bitter art teacher Mr. Bell (real name) mocks Hanson, the band. I also had a bitter art teacher, Mr. Roebuck (real name), and he was by no means the only bitter and insane-seeming teacher I’ve experienced. What do you think motivates teacher such as Mr. Bell and Mr. Roebuck to be like this?
CH: So many of my teachers seemed genuinely unhappy, and I think Mr. Bell was a musician who never made it or even really tried to make it, and then we all had to suffer his judgment calls as a result. Even as a very young child, I remember thinking, “Why can’t he just let me love Hanson in peace?” I was going to change his name in my book, but I thought it was too funny to leave out.
ROR: Using real names is something I want to do more of, it does seem very funny. Tonight I’m Someone Else has recently been translated into Italian by Pidgin Edizioni. Congratulations! Have you heard TISE spoken in Italian yet?
CH: Thank you! No, I haven’t heard the book spoken in Italian, but reading the reviews in Italian is totally amazing to me. I’ve been slowly learning and practicing Italian for the past couple of years, so I can kind of clumsily message these Italian writers in Italian and thank them for reading my book. The translator of my book, Sara Verdecchia, was working as an assistant to my friend Giancarlo DiTrapano in the months before he died, so that was a meaningful connection for me. Some of Sara’s questions about certain phrases or sentences in the book revealed the vagueness of some of my writing—she would ask me, “What does it mean when you say this?” And I would have to explain, “It doesn’t mean anything, it came to me in a dream and I just thought it sounded good there.”
ROR: You were close with the late Giancarlo DiTrapano, founder of Tyrant Books and you co-ran the Mors Tua Vita Mea workshop with him from his villa in Italy. I didn’t know him well at all but even looking mostly from the outside I could see the taste, style, commitment. I appreciate your relationship, he was very real to you, but to someone on the outside, certainly to me, he could easily take up a somewhat mythical status. Stevie Knicks, Rooms On Fire levels. Very rare to have a fully formed character like that exist in real life, I feel. And to not compromise on it. What was Gian about for you?
CH: Giancarlo would have loved that Stevie Nicks reference. You’re right—he had a mythical quality about him, and that has perhaps even intensified after his death. He and I were unlikely friends—complete opposites in almost every way. But our friendship had a foundation of complete mutual respect—we admired and looked up to each other, or at least that’s how it felt to me. I’m an introvert, so I really prefer to be left alone most of the time, but for our Italy workshop, I’d spend up to 12 days with Giancarlo, basically attached at the hip, teaching together, running errands together, eating every meal together, and still sometimes we’d stay up late at night laughing hysterically, just the two of us. I’ve never had that kind of connection with someone, and I know that I’ll never have it again. So, although that is sad, I feel really lucky to have found that kind of friendship at least once in my life.
ROR: We both like the comedian Theo Von, and we’ve discussed that we’re the only people we know who do. I don’t even really know what it is for me. A guy, very singular, his directness, and how at ease he is with himself. There’s something very comforting about this.
CH: I’m a big fan of several comedians—I watched a ton of stand-up comedy when I was still afraid to write about myself and I felt like I was garnering courage to write personal essays. Books helped me, but there was something about watching someone alone onstage speaking about their life (exaggerated or not, fictional or not) that really inspired me. It seemed so raw and vulnerable, and I tried to make sure all my essays felt that way, even if they weren’t funny. But last year, Marc Maron said on his Instagram Live that a lot of my paragraphs were like punch lines, and that was some of the highest praise I’ve ever received. My book gets lumped into the “sad girl” category a lot, which I definitely understand, but the fact that a comedian I admire thought it was funny meant a lot to me. As for Theo Von, he’s one of many comedians whose podcasts I listen to—his off-the-cuff remarks are unmatched.
ROR: Talking of improvisation and performance, you thank Marina Abramovic in the acknowledgements of TISE. She features in the essay Pity The Animal. I know also you’ve been motivated or inspired by other performance artists – thank you for telling me about Tehching Hsieh. One Year Performance 1985-1986 (No Art Piece) is really great, but the way he doubles down and pivots to Tehching Hsieh 1986-1999 (Thirteen Year Plan) is something I think about often with a lot of fondness and amusement.
What is it about these two artists, and performance art in general, that interest you so much?
CH: Marina Abramovic is also referenced in my essay “The New Love,” but I didn’t name her because I thought it would be confusing out of context. In 2014, I sent a copy of my chapbook “Pity the Animal” to the Marina Abramovic Institute because I thought its existence owed a lot to her work and her performance at MoMA, but I never expected anything to come out of it—I just wanted her (or at least the Institute) to have a copy. To my surprise, I heard back from the Institute and they invited me to come meet with them. A few months later, I was hired to be an assistant on Abramovic’s exhibition, Generator. It was totally surreal, since I had spent the prior year studying her work and reading everything I could about her. Suddenly, she was in my life—touching my face, calling me “Chel-see-ya”, and teaching me how to walk in slow motion. I feel strongly that my experiences and training with her greatly influenced who I am as a writer. I once spoke with her about a performance I was planning to do (it was called Inventory: Under Objects Under Oath)—I told her I was planning on practicing the reading in my room to figure out how long it would take. When I told her this, she said, basically, oh no, you can’t do that. You can’t plan like that. The audience is what gives you energy, so you have to use that to perform, you can’t plan it out in advance. This went against my controlling, over-prepared nature, and it was a revelation for me. She was essentially saying, you have to trust yourself with the task you’ve set out to do, and if you fail, it just becomes part of the performance. My goal has always been to write a perfect book, but now I understand that an imperfect book is, in many ways, much more interesting.
Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson is available here.
Richard Owain Roberts’ novel Hello Friend We Missed You is out now.
(Photo credit: Christian Michael Filardo)