Leigh Stein’s literary debut, the critically-acclaimed 2012 novel The Fallback Plan, hit a lot of nerves all at once: economic insecurity, adolescent nostalgia, moving back in with your parents, weirdo babysitting gigs… the list goes on. Six months later, she published Dispatch from the Future, a poetry collection that touches on everything from bad first dates to the computer game Oregon Trail. Stein is currently at work on a grief memoir, and regularly turns to reality TV for artistic inspiration. We spoke to her about a characteristically diverse collection of topics.
Apocalyptic hypothetical question: The Bachelorette is cancelled. What do you do?!
Good question! I started writing my Bachelorette poetry a few years ago when I felt like I couldn’t write “real” poems of my own anymore. It started out as a game, or a private joke with myself, and I was actually really surprised at how profound and epigrammatic some of the poems turned out to be. We’re in between seasons right now, so I’ve come up with a new game for myself, which is making erasure poetry out of Flannery O’Connor diary entries recently published in The New Yorker.
Can you make us a little syllabus based on your own work? If we’re grieving, what literature should we turn to?
I just finished All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa, forthcoming from Other Press in January, and the protagonist is a little like my own Esther: twenty-something, darkly funny, adrift. But then tragedy strikes and the novel takes a turn towards grief. I’ve been reading a lot of books on loss, and Grjasnowa’s descriptions felt fresh. Sharon Olds’s most recent poetry collection, Stag’s Leap, is also a startling portrait of grief (the loss of a marriage), and one of the best books I read this year. Another book I’ve been recommending to everyone lately is Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, a hybrid memoir/literary history of modernist mistresses and wives. I am a total fan girl of Kate’s and have refused to lend out my copy of her book because I need it on my shelf where I can see it.
You’ve been really public about having “mooched” an MFA. Tell us more lifehacks!
Is this the part where I confess that when I worked at The New Yorker I sold review copies at the Strand for extra cash? I know I’m not the only one who did (or still does) that…
What was your most disastrous babysitting experience?
When I was twenty, I had an intense relationship with a mother and her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, which eventually inspired the relationship between Esther and Amy in my novel. Basically, the mother left her job but kept me employed for eight dollars an hour so she would have someone to talk to all day about her depression. Because I was so young and so freaked out, I decided the only way I would ever be able to leave this job/relationship was if I moved out of the state. So that’s what I did.
I’m babysitting again for the first time in years, and I couldn’t have asked for a better family to work for. The mom bakes, so there are often scones or rugelach or challah in the bread box…