Books In Conversation
State Your Name for the Record: NATALIE SINGER with Christine Sang
California Calling: A Self-Interrogation
(Hawthorne Books, 2018)
“Because I could not speak, because I could not say, when interrogated in that courtroom, We are a family—because women have bodies that can lead to the unraveling of everything—we lost my little brother.”
In Natalie Singer’s memoir, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, (Hawthorne Books, 2018), the author lays out all manner of forces to evacuate a silenced voice, a self she lost at sixteen years old. California Calling is the remembering of a mosaic of experiences, growing up female in a divided family, within the myths of California—a state that promised becoming and belonging.
California Calling was first runner-up for the Red Hen Press nonfiction prize and a finalist for the Autumn House Press nonfiction prize. Natalie Singer holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington.
Our interview was conducted by phone and email, linking Seattle, Savannah, and New York City.
Christine Sang (Rail): Natalie, your memoir begins with a prologue, the memory of being on a witness stand. You write that the moment called on you not only to speak of adultery, but “to testify about who I am, what I am. Who we have allowed inside of us. I must defend the women in my family, all the way back, and every girl and woman who ever was.”
Natalie Singer: All of this started with that obsessive memory. It would come back to me in dreams. Basically, it haunted me. I’d ask myself for a long time, “what does this memory want me to do with it?” I was on a courtroom witness stand. I remember it not being fun; it was upsetting. Life seemed kind of different after that. The memory wouldn’t go away. What does this memory want from me? I followed that down the track, and started making broader connections. What does society want from us? When are we allowed to speak and when are we silenced? What if we can’t silence ourselves?
I did some research into trauma. I came across this idea that you’re not necessarily able to forget trauma until you’ve done testimony about it and born witness to it. It’s not about going public, but you’re looking at it and you’re talking through what happened in the way a witness might do. We can’t process something that’s traumatic that happens to us in the moment. We can only do it later, and there’s an importance to bearing witness to that.
Rail: In your book, you examine other events that spiral out of this. You write, “I have a relationship with interrogation.” There are eight sections to the memoir. Four of the eight headings are named and patterned after the stages of a cross-examination—Formation, Preparation, Interaction, Completion.
Singer: The book started out as more a traditional narrative, and I had most of the book written that way. It felt to me at that point that it didn’t feel true to what I thought the story needed to be. I spent a couple of years playing with different structures. In trying to figure out what didn’t feel right to me, eventually I came to the place where I realized the idea of interrogation was really important to the center of my story. I needed to use the form of the book with that idea and that theme. That’s how I ended up reframing a lot of the work with shorter, I guess you could call them chapters, shorter sections or vignettes, each with a title formed as a question. That’s essentially how the book started to became fragmented.
Rail: The fragmentation reflects your family, and your growing up, also. When you moved from Montreal to California in the early ‘90s, your family, “a hastily and sloppily assembled family, like a project for the school science fair,” consisted of five kids from three different fathers and two different mothers. The idea of interrogation not only includes divorce, but also immigration and belonging.
You latch onto California. “It is about how we search for things we don’t know are there, bringing myths to life. It is about longing. The taste of it and the shame of it. It is about mapping one’s way out of the silence of girlhood.”
You weave in snips. “Memory is funny that way. One sniff, one note, and the whole lost world opens up again.” “I will remember the . . . spray of surf; my mother’s Chanel perfume and pink Bubblicious chewing gum and lemony Mr. Clean and her hidden, hungry heart.”
Singer: As I kept working on it, it felt right to me. I’m working a lot obviously with memoir and memories, and so one of the challenges is that memory is fragmented and my memories were very fragmented. I was going through the process of trying to find those, and translating the story in the way that I remembered it, which was little bits and pieces here and there. My quest or question was in struggling to connect those as an overall story, not just in a book form, but in how all this is connected to my own story or my own life. I came to a point where that structure was right for the book.
Rail: Even though you incorporate a narrative, you use many forms to voice your Self.
Singer: It’s a bit of a hybrid work so it is memoir, it is creative non-fiction. There are certain sections of the book that read more like poetry, there are other sections of the book that bring in forms like media news reports, or types of questioning, interrogative questioning.
Rail: There’s a short scene from a play. News reports of Baby Jessica falling into the abandoned well. Margaret Trudeau “dropping her basket.” It’s like a scrapbook of scattered moments that add up for the reader. A montage evoking a way to see clearly.
Singer: Some of the sections are one sentence long, and some sections go on for several pages. That speaks to their goal of exploring how fragments can make a whole. It was very important to me from the outset that it felt like a fragmented work. That’s the essential reason that the book looks the way it does.
Rail: At the top of each page, a question is asked in bold type, such as “Identify the point of departure,” or “What evidence would you present?” Does this play the role of an Interrogator, to which you must respond to?
Singer: Absolutely. Well, one thing is, I can’t really definitively say for the reader who this Interrogator is. Ultimately, I want the reader to think about who that narrator or who that Interrogator feels like, in their own lives, and what their role is in questioning their own experience. For me, the exercise began as a way to take that power or voice over my own story.
Rail: You wanted the person to look into their own lives and see who their own interrogator was from their own experience? Yet, quickly, the Interrogator and your responses aren’t consistent. The Interrogator changes roles, switches points of view, makes inquiries, comments, scolds. Your responses often don’t answer the questions the way an interrogation would demand.
Singer: I’m hesitant to answer this question too deeply, because I think part of the experience of reading the book and thinking about it, is for readers to think of their own coming of age, and their own story. Who controls the narrative of their own story? Who have they had to answer to? It became a goal of mine with this work to take back voice or to disrupt the feeling by taking control of that interrogation. I’m using that voice, but now I’m in control of it. Obviously as I’m the writer, I’m wielding it the way that I need, but some could say I might be making a commentary on the role of our interrogators, and the people who question us, and require us to provide answers or perform answers in our lives, because I’m playing with it. Sometimes it’s tongue-in-cheek, sometimes the Interrogator is actually on the side of the character, the protagonist. Sometimes I feel like the Interrogator has been exposed, for tactics that aren’t there. There are all kinds of different angles to it.
Rail: The Interrogator/Responder is set up as the form, but just as you lost your voice in court, the destruction of the form, the non-form, becomes the form. Even though one of the Interrogator’s questions is to state the rules of the game, your truth is there are no rules.
Singer: The form changes. It’s not consistent, and once you begin to expect something with the form, the form changes.
Rail: There are juxtapositions that occur. A description of California follows a first kiss with a boyfriend. “The air smells like sea salt and nectar and oranges, even here beside the inland freeway that rims the airport. There is nothing staid or weighty or static about this place, I conclude after only my first five minutes. It is giving not taking. I close my eyes, and I feel it—her, the state—touch my skin with the cool palm of an open hand. I part my lips. I’ve been waiting for you, California whispers.”
This is followed by a sociologist’s definition of interpenetration, “acquiring the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of others . . .”
There are also four sections in the midst of the interrogation-format, in which you explore your role as a journalist in the Yosemite murders of three women, and of your experience being a nanny within a perfect family. Will you talk about your decision to include these sections?
Singer: This may be a reflection on the climate that we’re in right now, and conversations that are happening all around us. It might be more of what a feminist work, if one calls it that, something that is, in part, doing the task of making commentary of how girls and women are required to be in the world.
I was very sensitive to that by the time I was finished with the draft version that went to a copy editor.
Rail: You’ve included some of his notes as part of the book. I’m guessing the copy-editor was male?
Singer: Yes, exactly. I have a very close circle of readers as part of this work, most happened to be women, and then there was the copy editor, who was a stranger. Obviously this was very normal. I noticed myself reacting or bristling at the way he phrased some of the questions in his edits. I want to give him credit. He was a great copy editor! He caught a lot of things, including a song that to me shimmered with the time reference, but actually hadn’t come out ‘til later. He definitely did his job, and I’m grateful. Yet, I noticed in myself a reaction to the way he framed some questions, and he became part of the narrative structure. In another case, his questions stirred a memory that hadn’t been in the book before, and yet felt like it belonged. That’s how those got in there.
Rail: Are you bringing in other people’s stories, to help you excavate your own? You write, “In Gold Country I had quietly moved my body all over a landscape like a chess board, while a killer had quietly moved his body across the very same scene. But I had also interviewed everyday people . . . to facilitate other people telling their stories, to exercise their own voices . . . I will have to forge a new way of being in my mind and in my body without concern for who is watching me, or not watching.”
Singer: As I got further and further into the work, the protagonist started to answer some of her own questions, having more agency over her story, so the previous structure form became less important to me. It was important to me to say the story in a chronological way, in that my memoir takes place over the course of 7 to 8 years from the moment—the year that I arrive on that plane to California until the year that I leave California. It ends when I leave, but I also felt like there are parts of this story that happened long before then. It also felt important in terms of inquiry to move around, and bring in something from the future to show this perspective or experience. I’m telling this story from the now, so that’s the voice of experience, and what allows me to bring in these other non-chronological snippets, snapshots, vignettes, to deepen or enrich the coming of age chronological story. This character is coming of age; coming of age is something that happens over years, and that’s a very familiar story.
Rail: Yes, your images of California resonate with a universal idea of its dream.
“What do you think California will be like?
It will be like a secret society.
Like pineapple Jell-O.
It will be like a woman in a silver Speedo and an alligator mask.
Shaving her legs in a public fountain.
A jar of marmalade.
A pink tattoo.
A Barbie doll with hair you can braid.
It will be like a silk nightgown a baby bear tongue-tied night-
ingale a wet nurse laurel shrine sugar pine larkspur revolt a quiet scream.
It will be like a dream.”
At one point you bring up the Brady Bunch. I lived around the corner from that iconic TV home, and walked past it daily. Your “interrogator” asks why is this story special? What makes your familiar story important, if it was everyone’s story in that time period?
Singer: I like to think it’s universal. This is a question a lot of memoirists have very close to them, when they’re creating a work, unless they have a story like The Glass Castle in which something very out of the ordinary happens. Very outrageous. Many of us have very regular stories. Yes, my family exploded, maybe somewhat spectacularly, but certainly in a way that many others have as well. So what is special about that, or why should it be written about?
For me it wasn’t that I needed to tell an unbelievable story in a narrative form. It was always that I needed to understand what happened to me, which happens to everybody. And if I don’t know where I belong or don’t know who I belong to, how is my story connected to that, and is there a way to figure that out? Is there a way to think about my story, my family, and my experience and get to some kind of an answer from examining it. I think so much of the human experience is trying to understand our story. It’s not navel gazing, but it is what drives us. I embrace that. I have to shut down the voice that says, “What’s special here, this happens to everyone,” and just follow the voice that wants me to understand how that changed me. That’s the desire that many of us have had. All of us.
Rail: That’s what literature allows us, isn’t it. Throughout the vignettes, you include quotes and perspectives of other writers, starting with the Queen of California myth-tress, Joan Didion. Are all these writers associated?
Singer: Essentially I had a short list of writers that I kept close to me during this project. It felt like I was writing to them, or was in conversation with them, and that we were together writing about similar themes. For Didion, obviously, and in the way she writes with so much dimension, something central to the book is the California myth. Another major drive for me was to dissect that myth, which made California seem so special and necessary to me in the first place. A lot of people think California is where their dreams can come true. Shiny Hollywood, the sun’s always out, land of possibility. There’s a reason for that picture, there’s a history for that. I think what Didion does so masterfully is she interrogates that myth. I wanted to not just interpret the California myth, but the mythology that we built our lives on, our family mythology, like what it means to be a good family, to belong, to be loved. Those mythologies are our foundations. She interrogates that with regards to California and also what that represents. Very important to me, her work in that space.
With some of the other writers, it was their ability to look critically at how girls move around in the world, and are allowed to develop and come of age. And then, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets which was very close to me for several years while I was working on this. The connection there was, what was grief, and how she chose to look at grief. She looks at grief not head on, she looks at the side. She comes through the back door. It’s something that I choose to do as well.
Rail: Do you mean in the way the gossip article about Margaret Trudeau is a stand-in for telling the reader your mother had an affair? How your stepbrother slamming your choice on the radio blindsides your memory of your father’s love of music?
Singer: I feel it’s sometimes more effective to look to the side of something than to shine a light directly on it. For different reasons these writers influenced me and taught me, and opened up possibilities to have me look at my story and tell it.
Rail: At the end of the memoir, the Interrogator is still at the top of each page. That voice hasn’t been quieted, even after all the Responder has gone through. How do you feel about where you leave yourself?
Singer: It felt like at a certain point the Interrogator’s voice transitions into my own voice, asking myself questions—and that voice will never be shut up. It never shuts up. It constantly questions about how should I be, is this right? What should happen next? What should I do? Did I do the right thing? What is the right thing? As opposed to outside interrogative voices that often hamper us, this voice to me is essential. It makes me think of a conversation I had over Thanksgiving, when my family and I visited my uncle in Palm Springs. This is the uncle in the book, who comes out during the time we’re in California with my step-family. We are having dinner, and I’m married to someone who’s not Jewish, and he’s married to someone who’s not Jewish, and this conversation starts up about a movie portraying Jewish characters. I was saying I really like this, and here’s why, and my uncle’s husband says, “Okay, don’t take this the wrong way, but aren’t you guys tired that the characterization of Jewish people always seems to be the same? Overcome with angst, and always self-questioning, question! question! question!” My uncle and I looked at each other and burst out laughing—because we were like, you just explained the Jewish experience. This is, to us, completely normal. You’re constantly asking what else should you be doing. We were saying, we don’t find that upsetting. This is comforting to us. We’re constantly having a conversation with ourselves about how to be, and who to be.
So at the end of the book, I’m trying to gesture towards this idea there will always be questions, and now these are my questions, and I’m free to ask them. Whatever I need to move ahead. I’m answering to my own desire to understand things.
Rail: From your memoir—“I’m beginning to love her, California. Every direction is a new part of her mapped body, wild grasses like silky hair. Kidney swimming pools; flower-bud breath; warm-arteried highways. From my driver’s seat, I look out at her . . .” Although you write about having a love affair with California and your episodes together in growing sexuality, by the end of the book you’ve met your husband, and are moving into your future life and a family. For me as a reader, it’s as if you broke up with California. How did those feelings change into a relationship with Lucas?
Singer: Actually, that was something I felt very conflicted about. I wanted to be true to the story, which in a sense ends when I leave the state. When that happened, I had Lucas. He was there. This isn’t a story about a guy who saves her. She only finds herself. It was very tricky territory because again I have to be true—it didn’t feel right to write him out of the story. But the story wasn’t him.
California always felt like a she to me. Is California sexualized? Yes. Is California a metaphor for my own identity, or sexuality, or coming into myself? Finding out where I belong? Do I belong to myself? There’s definitely a thread there.
Rail: You now live in Seattle with your family. Did you find the answers you needed in California? Why did you leave? Was it a place left behind?
Singer: Good question. I’m not sure how to answer that. It feels like I didn’t leave California. Because I didn’t necessarily want to. I feel like I’m always longing for it, and I always feel like my identity is tied to those places. Part of it is, we leave the places that we feel are our places. They’re imprinted upon us or we imprint upon them. I never looked at it so much as closing a door, as more ending a chapter. But I still feel, very much, I belong there. I wish I was there right now. Even though I do love where I am now. I have a family where I am now, and a life here. Maybe it is true that it was left, out of a need to move forward, but I always felt very conflicted about that.
Rail: Perhaps the truth of it is that you didn’t really close the door. It still pulls you. It’s still part of you.
Singer: Maybe that’s reflected in the book.
Rail: The Interrogator questions, “Be careful what you wish for.” Your response ends with, “A story is yours alone until it is spoken. When words are secret, it is you who decides if they exist.”
Later, the Interrogator asks, “Is form a response to silence?” Is this one of the themes of the book?
Singer: Absolutely. I was just working on an essay, which is exactly about that. Lydia Davis’s writing around fragments and fragmented work asks the question—is form a response to doubt? She’s an advocate for fragmented writing and how bits can make a whole. I was thinking about that. I asked myself—can form be a response to silence? In fact, the book is an experiment to try to get an answer to that question. Yes, the entire book is an effort to answer that.