Rachel Cline // The Cagibi Express Interview

Photo by Nina Subin

Rachel Cline’s latest novel, The Question Authority, has just been published by Red Hen Press. Her earlier novels are My Liar (2008) and What to Keep (2004). Cline is a native of Brooklyn, New York, where she currently lives, and has taught writing at USC, NYU, Sarah Lawrence, and Eugene Lang. More about her latest novel, The Question Authority, follows the interview.

Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

Rachel Cline: Wandering is the closest thing I have to a hobby—NYC, where I live, offers so many self-contained mini-universes, it’s almost like I am traveling. I definitely do it for stimulation—and to get away from my inner monologue, which I suppose is the same as “distraction,” except that sounds pejorative. Maybe “distraction” is a point on the continuum that originates with irritation and ends in fulfillment? Anyway, I get on the subway and get off somewhere I’ve never been—or I go somewhere I have been, but then come home by a circuitous bus route, with my forehead against the window glass. I usually bring home some condiment or snack or mystery veg. The prospect of spending the night in my own bed, poorer only by subway fare and lunch money, is part of the joy.

I get on the subway and get off somewhere I’ve never been—or I go somewhere I have been, but then come home by a circuitous bus route, with my forehead against the window glass.

Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.

Cline: I like to see things that are so old they instantly throw my own life into scale: a lintel touched by ten thousand hands, fabric stained with BCE sweat, glyphs written by someone whose name we won’t ever know… but I am also moved by contemporary, everyday crap. When away from home, I like to visit normal neighborhoods and shop for quotidian items: school supplies, linens, hardware. I like it when the paper clips look different, or when I can’t figure out which end of some basic thing is up. Sometimes I buy a strange flange or fastener, even though I know it will be useless when I get it home.

Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.

Cline: The apartment I’ve lived in since 1999 is about 750 square feet and I have moved my desk at least five times without finding my righteous cagibi. About ten years ago, I had a Feng Shui expert evaluate my writing space and she told me that the sharp edges of the piles of papers on my work surfaces were stabbing me repeatedly in the back. That still makes me laugh. In recent years I’ve started writing my first drafts in longhand and then dictating into my phone—it’s amazing how well this works, and what a gift it is to my poor old hands and wrists! Anyway, for me to get going, I have to start before my mind has woken up enough to start giving me a hard time: I need to have had coffee but not looked in the mirror or tried to get dressed. The Feng Shui expert wasn’t wrong about the back-stabbing! Until I’m in some kind of Wayne Manor situation (Batcave, secret entrance, faithful retainer), my first draft work has to take place pretty close to my bed. The trouble is that I live alone and I also desperately need company, and distraction, and—if at all possible—inside jokes and secret handshakes. It’s a dilemma. I’ve just joined the (new! beautiful!) Center for Fiction library in Brooklyn in the hope that I can do some of my scribbling there and make some friends among the members of their Writers’ Studio.

Cagibi: In an essay in April, you mentioned that in the novel’s early stages you read a phrase in an online discussion among former schoolmates (on the subject of a teacher’s predatory sexual behavior), and you wrote the phrase on an index card: “we can’t unhappen it.” Could you speak to the opportunities in which language can unlock or ignite a story that resonates so well both personally and with readers?

Cline: My mind has always fed on small phrases like the one you noticed: I have a memoir-in-progress called “Dig We Must,” named after the signs that Con Ed used to post around NYC when they were building the world of the future… It’s such a great little piece of copywriting: you believe the imperative, you get a little beatnik rush out of the “dig,” and the inversion even sounds a little Yiddish. But to answer your question, the way those standout phrases work with story is an ouroboros. Hearing how one person’s mind uniquely expresses something calls me into their experience, and that tumbles me into inventing a story around that experience, and then I am forming my own little word-piles and word-fixtures, which, hopefully, invite a reader to enter into my story. On the other hand, my own clever wordings are often the “darlings” I cut in a late pass because they feel too much about me, too attention-seeking. Even though it’s those very individual turns of phrase that draw me to other people and their stories! You never know what’s really going to work. At least I never do.

Hearing how one person’s mind uniquely expresses something calls me into their experience, and that tumbles me into inventing a story around that experience, and then I am forming my own little word-piles and word-fixtures, which, hopefully, invite a reader to enter into my story.

Cagibi: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?

Cline: I’ve got three piles I’m working on: my mother died last year so one is stuff I inherited from her—it includes correspondence with Nelson Algren, with whom she was apparently, briefly, two-timing my father; the second pile is a first draft of a novel set at a mobile home park (if you’ve read Nomadland by Jessica Bruder, I got the idea while reading that); and the third is an illustrated book called The Bark Horse, which my artist friend Jenny Snider is helping me figure out. I wanted to try to make something like the Randall Jarrell books that enchanted me as a young person—The Animal Family and The Bat Poet, but that bar is pretty effing high.

Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?

Cline: Every time I go somewhere, I want to put my story in that place. The mobile home community in that draft novel I just mentioned was originally in Northern New Mexico, near Ghost Ranch; then it was in Temecula, California, near The Dorland Mountain Colony; I also tried putting it in Wellfleet, Massachusetts—because I saw such a plausible location there out of the corner of my eye last summer. But what I need to do is set a novel in Rome so I can go live there for a year, which is an ambition I’ve had since high school.

Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?

Cline: Now that my mother is gone, and I am about to retire from my job, I am going to have a very different approach to travel—no more vacations to “get away,” only (I hope) residencies or visits to the homes of actual friends. I’ve started a spreadsheet of the former…

Cagibi: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.

Cline: This happens to me with every book I read. Seriously. I had always considered Greek islands kind of banal (compared to the coast of Turkey—or of Croatia, where I have yet to go) until I happened to read Clare Boylan’s wonderful, funny novel, Last Resorts. I recently read a memoir called The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer about growing up in Manhasset, on Long Island—a place I have never given a second thought, although it is about half hour from where I live. I know his grandfather’s house can’t still be there, and that the bar he writes about with such elegiac wit will be completely different (if it has survived at all), but I want to go, anyway. Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate made me want to visit Jerusalem, when two thousand years of human history had utterly failed to do so… oh dear, and then there’s Shangri-La, and the baloney-Amazon of Green Mansions, and Ancient Egypt…

Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?

Cline: You mean, other than the uncomfortable space between my ears, where I am hiding this very second? When I was 16, my mother remarried and moved us from Brooklyn to the New Jersey suburbs—an act of betrayal I still haven’t quite forgiven. I had a room of my own there, and no one was interested in spying on me, anyway, but I spent most of that first winter in my walk-in closet, writing poetry. There was a full-length mirror on the inside of the door, where I periodically checked to make sure I still existed. Maybe that was just what one does at 16?

More about Rachel Cline’s The Question Authority

Rachel Cline’s latest novel, The Question Authority, was published by Red Hen Press in April, 2019. From the author’s website: A middle-aged civil servant moves back to her old Brooklyn neighborhood and, reunited with her childhood best friend, confronts the damage done by their charismatic, sexually exploitative 8th grade teacher.

From the publisher:

The Question Authority book cover 2 200w.jpgNora Buchbinder—formerly rich and now broke—would be the last woman in Brooklyn to claim #MeToo, but when a work assignment reunites her with her childhood best friend, Beth, she finds herself in a hall of mirrors. Was their eighth grade teacher Beth’s lover or her rapist? Where were the grown-ups? What should justice look like, after so much time has passed? And what can Nora do, now?

Nora’s memories, and Beth’s, and those of their classmates, their former teacher, and members of his family, bring to light some of the ways we absorb and manage unbearable behavior. From denial to reinvention, self-pity to self-righteousness, endless questioning to intransigent certainty, readers will recognize the ripples sent into the lives of others by one broken man.

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