An Interview with Bee Lavender

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DeeDee speaks with Bee regarding her life and her autobiography, Lessons in Taxidermy.

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 the book.

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?

Author Bee Lavender 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 the truth.

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 reconciliation.

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 self-immolation.

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 went through.”

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 adulthood.

What is 'success' for Bee the author? The woman?

Interview with Bee Lavender 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.

 

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