Photos courtesy of Chelsea Martin and Soft Skull Press
Chelsea Martin is a prolific and exciting writer, part of the whole Mira Gonzalez/Melissa Broder scene of internet-addled, funny-but-sad "Weird Twitter" scribes who hate being called alt-lit. The 31-year-old's fourth book and first collection of essays, Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life (out now through Soft Skull), is reminiscent of her other works in that it's dry, thoughtful, and laugh-out-loud hilarious. In Caca Dolce, however, Martin trades her signature sparse, artsy style of prose, for a more conventional and straightforward look into the turbulent, dysfunctional past of the talented young artist.
The stories take place over the course of her life and range in age from "too young to know what sex is" to the present. Martin's essays explore the guiding themes of life (family, money, class) through the lens of an ever-evolving young woman. For example, in "I Lost a Tooth at Work," an essay that originally appeared in Buzzfeed, what seems like a funny, anecdotal story about a missing tooth blooms into an exploration of the inherent shame associated with growing up poor:
"I knew that the joke was directed toward meth heads who used until their teeth fell out, and wasn't meant for people with congenitally missing teeth like me. But I still felt insulted by the stereotype. I may not have been on meth, but I did live in Clearlake, I did have missing teeth, and I was too poor to fix them. I had done so much to separate myself from the stereotypes of my hometown. I'd left immediately after high school, put myself into debt to attend an expensive private art college, and now had a job catering to the high-end chocolate cravings of Oakland's most privileged stay-at-home mothers. But it only took a single second for my shame and embarrassment to come rushing back. I was still the poor, toothless girl I had always been."
We sat down with Martin on a cement wall near Fairfax and Melrose to talk about the book, becoming an artist without a financial safety net, and navigating the plight of our millennial generation.
Photo via Chelsea Martin's Instagram
MERRY JANE: While I know some of the essays were published previously, did you set out to write a book of essays, or did the book come together in pieces?
Chelsea Martin: I started writing an essay collection from the beginning. The first ones were written around three or four years ago. I was living here in LA, so writing it was hard because I was working full time. Then I moved to Michigan, where I had more time, and wrote the bulk of the book there two years ago.
You move around a lot, where are you living now?
I know, I really do. It's a lot. I live in Spokane, Washington right now, actually. I've been there like a year.
Do you like it?
It's OK. It's a small, weird city that has nothing going on.
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Major themes in the book seem to be family dynamics, sex, class and money, which, I suppose, are the leading themes of life in general. Do you try to focus on specific thematic elements or do these topics tend to arise naturally in the chronicling of your past?
I think kind of both. They naturally come up because that's just what people deal with, but I think I also was paying attention to stories that fit together so the progression would feel right.
A number of the essays appear to be about a one-dimensional, surface topic, then end up exploring something deeper. When you experienced what you're writing about, did you see it in that way? Or through writing about the experience did you discover a deeper meaning?
It's hard because I think I was thinking those things at the time, but it was definitely through writing that I really was able to figure them out. For example, in "I Lost a Tooth at Work," at the time, it felt so ironic I was working for these rich fuckers, and the implication of working at a chocolate place and losing your teeth is really sad and ironic. All that was deep down inside, when on the surface I was just like something is so weird about this, I need to write about it.
Was it at all like being your own therapist, elucidating these memories, some of which must have been dormant, or revisiting things that may not have made sense as a child?
For sure. Even if you don't figure out what it all meant, just thinking about it all so much is really therapeutic.
This book is a pretty different style than your previous works, where space is utilized heavily and much is left unsaid. What was it like switching up your writing style?
This style of writing is scarier. In some of my other work, I rely on the white space to kind of let the reader draw their own conclusions. In Caca Dolce, I just laid it all out, leaving less up to reader's interpretations. I felt a lot more pressure to say something meaningful and specific. So, that was hard. But I do feel it was the right choice for the stories I was trying to tell. I needed to do it that way to express myself clearly.
Image via Chelsea Martin's Instagram
Can you talk about airing your some of your darkest or most humiliating moments, and is it weird reading them aloud to rooms full of people?
It's not really that bad. What I find hard is interviews where I have to talk a lot about my writing process. I feel like that's really painful. Or, being asked a lot about what my family thinks, or how the people I wrote about responded to the book. It's hard for me to answer, and one of the more stressful parts of this process. But with the writing, I don't feel embarrassed about the stuff that's in the stories, so I don't feel ashamed of having people read them or know about them.
Don't kill me for asking this, but was your family bummed?
It's been all over the place. Some people have been confused. My mom just told me she read it last night, so I haven't really talked to her about it yet. That's a big one. My dad was really upset, but I don't talk to him so I just got an angry email that I didn't respond to. Other family members have read it and didn't talk to me about it at all, so I don't know what that means. There's been a full spectrum of response.
While this is your first technical work of nonfiction, I feel like your other books were pretty nonfictional as well.
I'm always thinking about something I am trying to work through. If I were to write about a relationship I had but make a sculpture, like an abstract sculpture, that's kind of how I feel like my work is. It's about something, but I'm not always representing that something literally. I'm trying to get my feelings across, but in a different way. Think of an abstract painting, like a splatter painting. The artist was working through some anger issue related to something specific. The artist could be like, "This is about my pain and my anger, my divorce," or something like that. The audience could get pain and anger, but they really don't know what it's about specifically, because it's not in the painting literally.
I really loved your perspective on millennials in your recent Los Angeles Review of Books interview. Can you talk a little more about our millennial predicament?
There's pretty much nothing going in our favor, right? The economy is terrible, all the job markets are changing. We have to reinvent everything we're doing. Every kind of job is being reinvented by us just to figure out how to make money. And we're doing all this while we're severely in debt, none of what we went to school for actually got us a job, it's crazy. I really do think we're doing a pretty good job, though. Not only are we taking care of ourselves, we're worried about the environment and other people. We're really taking the time to understand cultural problems and try to figure out how to start addressing them. We're amazing.
Image via Chelsea Martin's Instagram
What's your relationship (if any) with marijuana?
I don't love it, but it's legal in Washington so I have gotten into it a little bit. Now that I can pick what strain I like it's a lot better, and I can finally use it to relax.
Most artists tend to come from wealthy backgrounds, as that's how they are allowed the leisure and financial space to enter the field to begin with. Can you talk about what it's like to become an artist without a financial pillow?
I feel like I just lucked into it, which I think is a really frustrating answer. I don't feel right in encouraging poor artists to pursue art or writing because it is so unreasonable and almost impossible. I just happened to meet people who wanted to support me really early on. But I also feel like moving to Spokane was a real compromise. I had to do that to keep making art, move somewhere where it's so cheap. My rent is under $800 for a whole house. But it's a BIG compromise, don't get me wrong. Spokane is really weird, but I can work just barely and make enough money to survive there. That's probably the main thing I can tell artists, don't move to New York. Don't move to LA. It's too expensive.
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