Lolita, Pigeons, and T-Swift: An Interview with Managing Editor Alisson Wood
To kick off the new semester here at NYU, to celebrate the closing of Washington Square Review’s Issue 44 submission period (submissions open again August 1st), and to brighten up your winter, we sat down with Managing Editor, Alisson Wood, to chat about WSR, her forthcoming book, Pigeon Pages, and her Twitter handle.
Alisson Wood’s writing has been published in places including The New York Times, Catapult, and Epiphany. She won the inaugural Breakout 8 Writers Prize, chosen by Alexander Chee, Hannah Tinti, and Tracey O’Neill on behalf of Epiphany magazine and the Author’s Guild. A graduate of NYU, she is a Professor of Creative Writing for undergraduates at her alma mater and teaches Creative Nonfiction at Sackett Street. She is the founder & editor of Pigeon Pages, an online literary journal and NYC reading series. You can find her online at alissonwood.com or on Twitter at @literaryTSwift. Her memoir, Being Lolita, is forthcoming from Flatiron Books (Macmillan) in 2020.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You've been the assiduous Managing Editor/backbone for Washington Square Review since August; what drew you to the journal and do you have any big plans for spring?
ALISSON WOOD: I knew I wanted to be involved with Washington Square Review since the first NYU MFA open house event, before I was even accepted. (Maybe even before I had applied?) For me, being a writer is very much about creating an artistic community and there's no better way than through a literary journal. It's the writer version of putting on a play, making a movie, or forming a rock band. Writing is such a singular and isolated act that it's really important for my creative health to have other people in the real world who I can go to for advice, encouragement, or just a coffee. I know we have this idea of writers all going to their respective empty corners to write a novel for months and years at a time all by their lonesome, but that's not how I function. I need other writers in my life. And I knew that by working on Washington Square Review I'd be truly surrounded.
I'm not exactly sure about big plans, but I've dipped into the slush for Washington Square Review on our Submittable and am already certain we have some rockstar pieces for our next issue, #44. Somehow #43 is already almost to press! How does time move so quickly?
WS: Word on the street is you're working on a book! Congratulations! Can you give us any more details?
AW: The street-word is correct! Thank you. I'm in the final stages with my editor for my book—which, by the way, may be the oddest combination of two words I find myself writing without a fictional or goal-actualization-practice context: my book—a memoir, Being Lolita. It will be out from Flatiron Books, a division of MacMillan, in 2020. It's all very overwhelming and also very surreal. And hard. It's about how, at seventeen, I became trapped in this very abusive and also very seductive relationship with an English teacher in my high school. It's also about Lolita and Nabokov and the sexualization of young women in our culture, it's about writing and power and sex. One question I really am trying to answer is what would have happened to Lolita if she hadn't died? (Spoiler: Lolita dies.) It's a lot for a first book. But I've never been shy.
WS: I think there's a stark urgency for women to tell these stories, especially given the political climate in America. What has it been like to revisit/write about that relationship? Does the writing process for a memoir feel comparable to any previous writing projects?
AW: I feel the urgency every day. It's been a very difficult, deeply uncomfortable process to delve back into myself as a senior in high school—I don't know many people who were happy with who they were or what choices they were making as a teenager, and I'm writing a whole book about some of the things I am most ashamed about. And whether or not that shame I feel is even fair. One of my biggest questions in this process is really about my own reliability to my situation at seventeen—at the time, I would have sworn to you that I was the luckiest girl in the world to have that kind of attention from my teacher, that I wanted to be with him more than anything. But I was seventeen. And now that I'm a teacher myself (as a professor of undergraduates here at NYU, to students not that much older than I was), it's so abundantly clear that in reality I was vulnerable and while I was desperate for attention, it was literally a cry for help, not to be fucked by my teacher. I've spent much of my writing life trying to create art from awful things, and this project is no different in that way.
WS: So you're the founder of Pigeon Pages, which is a literary journal that grew from a reading series. What motivated you to start the reading series, and what are you most excited about now for Pigeon Pages?
AW: I didn't want to start a literary reading series. At all. I knew it would be so much work and I was afraid. But I got an offer for a series spot at the beloved, Brooklyn bookstore, BookCourt (RIP!), and decided, okay, I'll try it once. And it was so fun, getting to curate my own series and uplift voices and writers I cared about and believed in. And about a year and a half ago, we spread our wings into a literary journal, and now the Pigeon team is over a dozen women. The reading series nests monthly at McNally Jackson Books in Williamsburg, a truly gorgeous space, and we host contests a few times a year with fancy judges and cash prizes (most recently with Garrard Conley, who wrote the memoir Boy Erased), and we're publishing new writing weekly online paired with this amazing art, along with interviews. We just added poetry to the nest too! (Madeleine Mori is our new Poetry Editor, who was the WSR Poetry Editor last year and is an alumna of the MFA.) I really can't gush enough about how proud I am of all the things Pigeon is up to, and to sing the praises of all the women who make it happen. I'm so lucky to be surrounded by so many intelligent, strong, and insightful women in my world. And that they say yes when I ask them to do wild things like start a lit mag with me!
WS: I have to ask, how did the Twitter handle @literaryTSwift emerge?
AW: It was really a lark—I have complicated feminist feelings about Taylor Swift, as I'm sure many do, so it was partially a joke about how some characterize her as "always writing songs about boys", and much of my published work has been around power and gender and therefore men in my life, so it was very ha ha I'm like a literary Taylor Swift. It was also a bit reactionary to that though, since I think it's deeply sexist and unfair to brush off her artistic work as inconsequential and less-than since it investigates romantic relationships and femininity. It's the whole idea of the intimate and inter-personal relationships as the sphere of women artists and so not as worthy as more "important" work about politics or war or whatever by men. I deeply believe the personal is political. So the Twitter name was also a fuck-you to those who want to write me off because I write essays and books about relationships with men I've had in my life, or even that I'm writing memoir/personal essays right now instead of a Very Important Novel (which, again, is very gendered). So it's a joke and also a not-joke. Really, I'm just a huge T. Swift fan. That "Shake It Off" song is brilliant.