An Interview with Bee Lavender
I hate to even write my own bylines... how did you
feel writing your own biography? Did it sound like a
good idea at the time, then did you wonder "why did I
want to do this?"
The book started as a traditional childhood memoir,
with an intended story arch that would have taken the
reader up to about age eighteen. I had made
significant progress on that book, even though I found
the topic quite depressing; throughout the first year
of writing, I couldn’t really figure out why I would
bother to publish something so dark. Then one day my
house was robbed, and the only complete version of the
manuscript disappeared along with my laptop (and my
kids’ piggybanks). This was of course a lesson in
making backups, but also a complete mortification. A
couple of the stories had already been published in
anthologies, but I couldn’t face starting from scratch
to recreate the whole narrative. I decided to abandon
Some of my friends were appalled by the loss of the
manuscript and my decision to halt the project. A few
people started giving me gifts of old educational
pamphlets, presumably to entertain me, and when I came
out of the fog of grief I started to write again, in
response to the gifts. I used some of the existing
material but also prepared new work that reflected
titles like “Speak Out!” “Why Marriage?” “Poisonous
Plants in the Garden” “In Time of Emergency” and
“Lessons in Taxidermy.” Those pieces were released as
limited edition handmade cut-and-paste zines. Each one
sold too fast for me to keep up with demand; there are
probably over ten thousand floating around the world.
The zine project went in a direction that was
drastically different from the lost manuscript; by
cutting loose from the precepts of a traditional
memoir I let go of my own preconceived ideas of what a
book might be. The narrative was liberated from the
normative demands of the form. When I stopped
believing that the project would become a book, I
ended up writing one.
Tell us why you wanted to both write this book &
publish it. Did you have a mission?
During the west coast leg of the book tour lots of
people asked me if I thought that the project was
therapeutic. The answer is no. I think the book is
political. Before I became a writer I was a youth
activist, and later had a career implementing civil
rights policies. I have a specific and limited agenda,
for my own life and for society in general. I want to
set a public agenda that allows people to talk about
illness and disability in a real way. I want my
experiences to be recognized as part of an appropriate
public dialogue – without shame, without apology. I
want to tell the truth.
What has reaction to the book been like, especially
the reaction from family & friends?
I assumed that the book would cause a great deal of
trouble in my social life, because I talk about such
hard subjects. To mitigate the damage I maintained a
narrow focus, only discussing my own history and what
I witnessed. Other stories are implied or hinted at
but I tried wherever possible to respect the privacy
of my family members and friends. To my immense
surprise, many of them have since expressed that it
would have been fine to tell more of the stories.
Other people, even a few who visited me in the
hospital, have professed that they never knew that I
was so sick. Or that they never understood how
difficult the early years were. Lots of my friends
have written to say that they literally did not know
about the illness. The people who know me from my
other work certainly had no idea. It has been eerie to
expose so much information – it is not easy to tell
When my mother heard about the book (I didn’t tell her
until the week of publication) she asked if I cast her
as the villain. When she read it she was surprised to
find that she is clearly the hero – and the person I
dedicated the work to. I’ve heard from lots of readers
that they identify with her character, and are in awe
of what she did to protect me. I agree.
My daughter is fifteen now and I was worried that the
book would upset her; she did cry, and was outraged on
my behalf. Then she decided to establish contact with
her biological father. I was surprised; I never
expected the book to serve as a point of
You mentioned to me that you wanted to mention your
sexual experiences, espescially in contrast to your 'body as pain' experiences, but were afraid of reactions... Would you be willing to share more on that with our readers?
I knew that my entire family would read this book,
since it concerns my childhood. I was not interested
in talking about the details of my sexual identity in
a text that my great-aunts would want to discuss at
the next family gathering. This may be pure cowardice,
but the rest of the book required reckless bravery:
before I published it, the general facts were strictly
guarded secrets. I have never lived openly as a person
with cancer, have never spoken to friends about the
accident. Even the partner I’ve lived with since the
early 90’s was surprised by large portions of the
book. I am intrinsically, and excessively, secretive.
Since I was giving away so much information I figured
it was fine to protect one part of my life.
Beyond that, I don’t think that the people I dated
deserve more attention than they were allotted. As a
general rule I have always been attracted to danger,
risk, and drama. This can be conveyed without dwelling
on the fact that I had an early marked tendency to
date criminals. It is more interesting to talk about
how I made a deliberate decision to seek out a
sustainable kind of pleasure, in relationships that
are interesting without requiring sacrifice or
How long ago did you finish the book? How do you look
at it now? As an author & as a woman? In which area
do you think you have grown more?
Most of the book was finished a year ago, but a
critical central chapter was only done as the
manuscript went to press this spring. I hadn’t decided
until the very last second whether to include a couple
of the stories, because I didn’t know if they would
detract from the larger points – the road trip
chapter, for instance, makes a fairly subtle argument
about how lives are valued in economic terms, but some
people read it as a horror sketch. The years after the
accident were significantly more difficult than I
address in the book. I could write a whole book about
that time period, without recycling any of the
material in “Lessons in Taxidermy.”
Since the book has only been in stores for a few
months, and I have been traveling a great deal, I
haven’t really had time to think about how it effects
me as a finished product. The only thing I have
noticed so far is the fact that people treat me
differently; even friends I have known for years are
more solicitous, more cautious. This can be good when
someone wants to drive me somewhere I could not
otherwise go; it can be bad when people say “of
course, nothing I’ve experienced is as bad as what you
That kind of statement is at odds with the premise of
the book. I know very well that there are many
children in the world who have to confront obstacles
and do not have a good mother, a decent home, and a
feverish imagination to pull them through to
What is 'success' for Bee the author? The woman?
Success as a writer is always something abstract that
will immediately feel meaningless once I accomplish
it. If I had the capacity to feel successful I would
never bother to work.
In my personal life I can gauge satisfaction more
easily. I have two eccentric and fascinating children,
a rewarding marriage, and scores of good friends. I
live and work where I wish, travel all the time, and
meet interesting new people wherever I go.
As a reviewer I am always interested in the 'did I get
it right' aspect;) So what grade do I get as a reviewer? How do you feel
about reviews/reviewers in general?
I was educated in alternative schools so I can’t offer
up a letter grade. My narrative evaluation of your
review would include the words “sensitive”
“insightful” and “provocative.” The review you wrote
was one of my favorites, because you picked up certain
subtleties in the text, and did not dwell on the
details of the illnesses.
I have no criticism of other reviews, except that many
do not grasp the fact that I have severely limited the
scope of the narrative; as one my closest friends said
after reading the book, many of the stories were “more
like… trailers.” Anyone who has had significant health
problems knows that I could have dragged the reader
through endless, disgusting, putrid anecdotes. But I
didn’t see the point; it was more important to
describe how it felt, not what it looked like.
Any new projects coming up?
Right now I’m working on promoting the book, including planning a second stateside tour and doing advance publicity for the UK release.
You can read more at her website.