I hadn’t laughed so much since, well, since reading Diana Joseph’s memoir I'm Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog. The bio at the back of I’m Sorry You Feel That Way says that “Diana Joseph teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato.” True, but inadequate. Go to Joseph’s website, and you learn that she “has worked as a waitress, a short order cook, a typist, and a teacher…” Also true. Delve a bit further into her website and you begin to get a feel for Diana Joseph – her answers to the FAQ are well worth the read. However, nowhere could I find anything that said that if you call Joseph for an interview, you will laugh and chat about motherhood — including cheating at Candyland (she did, I didn’t), and cutting entire paragraphs from classic children’s books to shorten storytime at night (I did, she didn’t;) social awkwardness; the gullibility of men; and pets for a full ten minutes before the interview can actually begin.
Joseph warned me at the outset, “you have to keep me on track; I’m terrible. I’m capable of going off on tangents forever, and you may not get what you want.” Personally, tangents happen to be some of my favorite things — nonetheless, I had an interview to conduct.
So, having read I’m Sorry You Feel That Way I would guess that you aren’t often found haunting Hallmark stores?
Hallmark stores, no… I made my own Valentines’ Day cards this year. This is what I mean by a tangent. I love to craft – I have the skills of an incompetent third grader, but I basically like to glue pieces of paper to other pieces of paper.
I had an idea that it could be really funny to make these Valentines’ cards that were really pretty on the outside, but when you opened them up, they had pictures of Herpes. I forgot to ask if she meant pictures of the clinical disease or of the virus itself, but after our interview, I would be willing to bet the former.
Clayton, my son [“the boy” in I’m Sorry You Feel That Way] walked into the room as I was Google imaging Herpes. He asked “what are you doing?” When I told him, he asked “who are you sending these cards to?” “My friends.” “Well, do any of your friends have Herpes?” “No, no of course not.” He looked at me and said, “Mom, thousands of people have Herpes. How would you know? I just think that if I had Herpes and I got one of these cards, I would feel really bad.”
He was right. So I went to the porn store and bought a magazine…I came home and cut out penises. I made these little accordions and glued the penises to them inside the card, so that when you opened them, the penises popped out at you.
So, no, Hallmark’s not really me.
Just out of curiosity, in your experience, do boys ever start voluntarily wearing clean socks?
I think boys don’t start wearing clean socks until some girl tells them to. When boys discover girls, they get very clean…I just thought of that. When they’re little, like right now your son…how old is he? Almost 8. Right now his mind is pure and good, but his body is dirty. When they hit a certain age, their bodies get clean but their minds get very dirty. No italics can possibly capture the ominous chuckle in that “very.”
How is the Boy?
He’s going to be 18; he’s graduating from high school this year. He’s so fantastic. He’s going to live at home when he goes to college. This was his idea. My university gives a tuition waiver for dependents, so he decided he could go there for his four years of undergraduate and live at home and not have to take out any student loans. I don’t know many 18-year olds that think that way.
He’s a smart, wise kid. He went through a pretty crappy stage around age 15 or so… adolescent misery… But once he got through that, he’s been so lovely and pleasant.
He treats me like I’m a very cute, well-intentioned fuckup… Maybe I am…
[Diana went on to tell the stories of her son coping with both the cell-phone salesman, and the cable repairman for her.]
He does take care of all of the computer-related things. It’s so nice, I can’t handle those things at all. He does indulge me and keep me from having to handle them.
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way ends on a poignant, and very hopeful note. How has life been since the book was written/published. Any thing new to share?
Well, the marriage to Al didn’t work out…
(Pause) Oh, I’m…sorry. Ugh, this is why I hate asking personal questions.
It’s okay. I know it’s going to happen. I know I’m going to be doing readings and people are going to ask “How’s Al?” “Where’s Al?” It’s one of those things.
I’m going to be 40. I didn’t expect to be single, but I’m single anyway. In fact … you probably have one of those ‘what are you working on now questions,’ don’t you?
Yes, I have it listed as the annoying, yet unavoidable question.
I’m working on another set of essays, these are more about what it means to be a woman, things like what do you do when your kid moves out or you find yourself unexpectedly single. I didn’t expect a second failed marriage.
I didn’t expect to find myself here.There’s an essay, it will probably be the first or second piece in the collection that’s being published by the literary magazine Willow Springs; it’s in the current issue.
I do want to give a plug for this magazine. Literary magazines are dying. They’re so important; they’re where emerging authors can get their start. I think this is a great magazine; it’s put out by Eastern Washington University.
I’m Sorry You Feel that Way is striking in its candor. How was the book’s publication received by those around you; particularly the men in your life?
There’s no anger; there’s no hostility. It’s been well received. I don’t think anybody finds it surprising that I’d write a book that’s emotional, or emotionally vulnerable. Whatever the DNA is that let’s a person self-censor, it skipped me. I don’t have it.
My son was the person I was worried about most. He knew I was writing the book, but he was about 14 at the time, so he wasn’t interested. He thought it was weird that people would be interested in that stuff. It wasn’t until he read a review in Entertainment Weekly that he became interested and wanted to read it.
What worried me most – I wasn’t worried about embarrassing him… I think I was pretty clear and honest about how I feel about him. I worried about how he’d respond to the less positive stuff about me. I was worried that he’d be embarrassed by me, or judgmental, or not thinking well of me. I underestimated him.
There’s this version of your parents that they give to you as a kid. Then you get to know them as the people they are when you become an adult. Clayton got a stronger picture of me as the person I am earlier than most of us do.
But, do you know what he said? He read it and said “there’s some stuff about your sex life that I didn’t need to know, but otherwise I thought it was pretty good.” And he bought me a fondue pot.
I was particularly struck by the scene early in the book depicting your interactions with the T-ball mothers, and its similarity to the much later scene of the “cat-talkers” party. Do you feel that there is an unwritten code or cult of womanhood, particularly for mothers?
Oh, this is going to involve some gender stereotyping, I hate that, but in my experience, and this is totally unscientific…Those rules went straight over my head. It took me a long time to navigate those social circles, particularly with other mothers. I had trouble figuring out how to talk with a group of women – what’s funny and what’s not…
I think it depends on the circumstances… If you have a personality that is strange or different or not traditionally female, if you laugh too loud, or your jokes are too dirty… it may be frowned upon… I used to be very direct, if I didn’t like something, or if something hurt my feelings… with men that was okay, but I learned with women you can’t always do that.
It’s interesting, with the responses to the book – some of the strongest negative responses have been from women; I haven’t had any hate mail from men.
You’ve gotten hate mail, really?
Oh yeah. It’s usually things about being a bad mother, because I didn’t like T-ball or whatnot, or that I’m anti-feminist, or anti-female because there are so many men in the book. I don’t have responses to those things, but to say “No, I’m not. No, I’m not…”
The bad mother thing … I think we live in a very child-centric culture. Especially if you don’t have a child-centered life…I have a child, and he is great, but I have my own life. I think of the Toni Morrison novel Beloved, and at the end, this mother who is full of grief says of her child “she was my best thing,” and another character says to her “no, you are your best thing.”
I went to this dinner party, and I don’t know if it was a penance for eating dinner or what, but afterward, we were supposed to all sit down and watch the children perform a puppet show.
I teach at a college; I’ve seen the self-esteem movement. I ask the kids in my class how many of them have trophies for 10th place – hands go up. I ask how many have certificates of participation – hands go up. They want to be graded on effort, not always on outcome. I don’t think it’s good for kids…
They have so many playdates… She went on to discuss a Michael Chabon essay on the structured lives of children. They get to the class room and so many struggle with independent thought; they want to be told what to do. I don’t know, I think kids should sneak out. I think they should learn to do these things. We work so hard to keep them safe that they don’t know how to get out of trouble.
I loved the book’s subtitle (The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man & Dog). Was it your creation, or did it come about during the publishing process? It just seems so apt for so many of us.
I did that. I remember exactly how it came about. I was sitting in my office at school trying to come up with titles. I kept doing male stuff, titles that indicated my relations with men. It wasn’t working, then I twisted it around and made each descriptor about me.
…The word “slut,” most people respond to that.
I have been all of those things, and some of them overlap. I think you can have all of those parts of your identity. Some mothers forget who they are – as lovers or wives or friends or just women…
What is the funniest thing in the world?
The funniest thing? To me?
Yes, to you
I have pugs. I think lots of things are funny – like when a man puts a paper bag over his head, and then draws a face on his stomach, especially if he has a big gut – that’s hysterical.
But, pets are pretty hilarious. I give animals these personalities…what’s the word, anthropomorphasize? I have a cat; I imagine she’s a heroin junkie who steals out of my purse and would like to slit my throat while sleeping.
I have two dogs, shelter dogs. The pug, lab cross… my vet says he’s grossly obese… I do not understand why he’s so fat… he groans and grunts… I have the big pug and the little pug – they have some type of homoerotic thing going on; they tongue kiss and take turns humping each other.
What I like best about dogs is when they gloat… I commissioned an oil painting of the big pug from a friend. I told Clayton that he has to hang it in his house after I’m dead. I imagine my son with this wife who really hates that painting…
One aspect of the book that stands out is your vivid use of the sorts of details that most of us miss. Are you a detail-oriented person in your daily life as well as in your writing?
Yes and no. I’m not eensy, not a control freak… I like noticing things. You know what I especially like, I like people. I like noticing things about people – noticing the difference between what people are saying and what they are wearing or doing.
I think that sort of vigilance comes from growing up with a father with a temper. You develop an awareness…I think a lot of those people do become artists and writers…
Is your life as male dominated as it seems based on your book?
No, no not at all. I even have textual evidence to support that. I have an essay in the March issue of Marie Claire about my best friend and our relationship. I’m crazy about my son’s girlfriend. My best friend from childhood – we’ve been friends for 35 years. But, I wanted the book to have a single center or focus.
You know, I don’t have a big female group, not a gaggle. My women friendships tend to be one on one. I’ve always been Elaine [from Seinfeld], the girl tagging along with a bunch of guys. I have groups of guys but lots of one on one female friendships.
My female friendships are also with women who to really like guys. I tend to think guys are pretty hilarious. This is just an observation, but when a female friend and I are hanging out with our guy friends gossiping about people we know, and we ask the guys “do you think she’s pretty?” “Yeah.” “Well, do you think she’s pretty?” “Yeah.” “How about her, is she pretty?” “Yeah.” It turns out they think everybody’s pretty because they’re all girls… Women tend to get a little more critical or picky…
…Women dress for other women…I don’t think guys care so much. They seem so much easier to please.
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way reads as an assortment of individual essays. I understand that you have also published a short story collection. Do you see yourself primarily as a short-form writer, or do you also work in longer formats?
I think I’m a short form writer. I don’t even read a lot of novels. I like what a masterful short story writer can do with that compressed form. A story comes closer to poetry…
There is such a sense of energy, of neurons firing rapidly, in I’m Sorry You Feel That Way. What is your writing process like?
I know exactly how I did that essay collection. I got my MFA at Syracuse. I had a teacher there, an amazing mentor, Melanie Rae Thon. I finished the program in ’96. Melanie’s kind of a technophobe, so she hand wrote letters. We’ve kept up this handwritten correspondence. What you see in the book is my letter writing voice.
When I sat down to write a piece, I’d often write ‘Dear Melanie’ at the top. She’s such an empathetic reader. I know that she loves me unconditionally. I felt very safe while writing.
She once wrote the kindest thing anyone’s ever said to me. I was engaging in some behaviors that she wasn’t crazy about… She wrote “I understand the impulse, but I wouldn’t want you to do that.” That “I understand the impulse” – it was just so generous.
Diana Joseph learned generosity from a master, then. Not only is she generous with her own vulnerabilities in her memoir, but she was generous with her time, humor, opinions and advice during our interview. We were still chatting as I backed my truck out of the driveway, late to get the kids from school, and as I hung up the phone, the cab was unbearably silent. I wanted one more joke, one more quip. I guess I’ll have to wait for her next essay collection…