The work of memoirist Melissa Febos might convince you, as it did editor Adam Ross, that there is “a watchmaker God.” Her work looks back at her own past with the tenderness that survival affords: “I don’t retain my capacity for reflection in the moment,” Febos says. “I can’t perform that kind of psychological alchemy.” But by writing about and from memory, Febos unearths obscured truths.
This conversation, which took place during the 2019 AWP conference in Portland, provides a closer look at her body of work. In her debut memoir Whip Smart, Febos maps her college years working as a dominatrix. She explains the uncanniness of how she, stuck in a compartmentalized life, and unable, Ross observes, “to break open her various matryoshka dolls selves” nevertheless found “herself standing in front of another person, who in a way is similarly stuck.” In Abandon Me, her second memoir, Febos charts her experiences with love and loss, of lost fathers and relationships that shaped her identity, and how desire bends violently into exhilaration and obsession.
The conversation hinges on a close look at Febos’s essay “Thesmophoria,” which was published in the Spring 2019 issue of the Review and informs Girlhood, Febos’s forthcoming memoir. About this work, Febos says: “the story-making that I do . . . is much more binary, is much more simplistic than actual experience,” but in the writing there’s room from the “safe vantage of having survived the experience” to love, and even to claim, what she describes as “those orphaned parts of . . . myself.”
This episode was recorded at Saint Cecilia Studios, with special thanks to Steven Lee Tracy. The Sewanee Review Podcast is produced by Hellen Wainaina and edited by Alex Martin, with music by Annie Bowers. Don’t miss any of our conversations with some of today’s best writers. Subscribe to the Sewanee Review podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.