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"Private Stories of Desperate, Protracted Love": an Interview with Dessa

by Ilana Masad

Dessa is a writer and musician of incredible reputation. Her new book, My Own Devices, was released this month. Our nonfiction editor Ilana Masad asked Dessa some questions about the book and her work. Read on...


Hi Dessa! First of all, thank you so much for doing this interview. It's an honor. I have some general-ish questions and some more specific questions about the book, you as a writer, etc. so here we go:

1. Music and words--especially rapping and words--go hand in hand. Still, I wonder whether there are different sets of writing muscles for writing lyrics, for writing poetry, and for writing memoir and personal essays. Was the process of writing this book unique? How?

Songwriting demands particular attention to phrasing—the very same sentence can sound either poignant or cringe-worthy, depending on the cadence. 

Prose, meanwhile asks for some different considerations. Endings for example—you’ve really got to stick the landing in prose. To close a piece successfully, you’ve got to dispense some clever insight, or deliver a satisfying comic line, or executive some crafty stylistic flourish. You are certainly not allowed to simply repeat the chorus on a fade out. 

Though both art forms happen under the heading of language arts, they definitely demand different skill sets. 

2. Something that kept surprising me as a reader was the way you take several discrete, seemingly disconnected themes, and subtly twine them together in your essays. For instance, in "Going Empty," you discuss deep-sea diving, disordered eating, and the uncertainty you experience in your career - but all these are tied together deftly around the central theme of a kind of hunger, a desire for more.When writing these essays, did you think about metaphor and theme or did they emerge on their own? 

As a reader and an essayist, I’m a sucker for subtext. A writer who’s really good at subtext can tell two stories at once—achieving the ultimate economy of language andearning style points by essentially building a hidden speakeasy into the architecture of a story. That appeals to me. So I strive to write undercurrents into most of my work, little themes or patterns that a careful reader might enjoy along side the main narrative. In music, I think the corollary would be overtones—the high notes that no one is singing, but that are created by the combinations of voices reverberating through a space. 

I also dig unlikely connections—finding the ways in which disparate images, events, or ideas are related. That’s the stuff of metaphor, really, and metaphorical thinking often makes my life feel bigger; it allows a person to go beyond the circumstancesof her life and move onto the analysis of it. You got promoted; you got divorced; you got sick; you got better—so what? How do those personal experiences fit into the larger world, which is full of day traders and silver mines and phytoplankton and K-pop? I find that using a technical lens allows me the space to dive deep into emotional issues without becoming maudlin. Writing about a break-up through the lens of actuary science, for example, cues the reader that the intellect is still very present in the conversation, even in the investigation of really intimate content—nothing’s too sacred to critique rationally. And I hope that’s an invitation to engage. 

3. In "Breaking Even" you discuss the way you do math "to kill the time" on the road (a wonderful turn of phrase seeing that the essay is centered around the train you're on at the time killing a person on the tracks). However, throughout the essays there are hints of your calculations, your interest in mathematics and science and an empirical measurement of the world. What do you find soothing about numbers, about the ability to measure?

I’m not totally sure why I’m so inclined measure and formulate—maybe it’s just a built-in idiosyncrasy, the mental equivalent of fidgeting or finger-tapping.  Or maybe numbers are the pacifier I give my mind to stop it from complaining or kicking the back of my seat during otherwise bored or restless moments.

4. Shifting gears from math to love: too often, I think, we dismiss lovesickness as somehow the stuff of irresponsible or childish youth. But time and again in these essays you make it clear that you and your unnamed ex share respect, professionalism, and still a deep and extremely painful love. Thank you, for writing about your relationship like this. I wonder, why do you think we tend, as a culture, to dismiss difficult and long-lasting love as somehow juvenile?

This is a good question. 

I think we’re unabashedly public about the strength of our love when we’re teenagers. We write boys names on our sneakers and we trade trinkets, and are completely (maybe even insufferably) earnest. But as adults, we’re war-worn and more cautious. 

That said, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have pulled me aside to say they’re still in the throes of intense, dramatic, and often unsuccessful loves. Grizzled stagehands and successful attorneys, and all sorts of individuals who present as People With Their Shit Together, have private stories of desperate, protracted love.

5. The book is eclectic, but at its core, I think, there is a central question of independence and identity paired with connection. None of these essays are about you alone; none of them are so introspective that they ignore the existence of the world you live in; there is always an inclusion of other people, other lives touching yours, even as you strive to understand yourself through words and actions. How has writing the book helped solve questions of identity and independence in your life?

Reading that question I thought to myself, Duuude—that iswhat the book’s about, huh?So it’s probably evident that I haven’t gone clear, answered all my own questions, or reached a revelatory zen. But for me, writing is not about working through my problems—although I certainly write about them sometimes. I don’t look to art to make me feel better. I look for art that feels real. (I can already see a couple of guys in rap crew cringing at that line, but I think it’s true, dammit. And I’m standing by it.) 

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