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Writer/director/activist/badass Violet Paley is writing a book: here’s everything you need to know

Apr. 3, 2018
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I was lucky enough to sit down with Violet Paley, one of the coolest people I know, to hear all about her new book, Frozen Oranges. Get excited, people—I think this book is going to be a damn good one. Here’s what I learned in my interview with her.

I asked her for a blurb telling us a little bit about herself, and Violet gave us three key facts: “I’m 23 years old, I am a writer, and I… hate Ted Cruz.” All the important info is right there. 

Obviously, my next question was about the book because that’s what we’re all here for, right? I wanted to know, as I’m sure you do too if you’re reading this, what the book is about and why she decided to write it. 

“My book is about my sexual evolution, sexual assault, becoming a grown-up, trauma, things that turn me on, boys, masturbation, little embarrassing stories about myself, and what it’s like to have my mental illness, which is borderline personality disorder, which is a very misunderstood diagnosis. I’ve wanted to write a book for a really long time, I guess I just… I felt kinda stuck, and some bad stuff was happening in my life. I was just a little depressed, and my symptoms from borderline were acting up again. I just started writing and I was like, ‘I’m gonna write a book.’ I told my mom like two hours later, and she was like, ‘No way, I was just about to tell you you should write a book!’ So I guess it was something in the air telling me I [needed] to write a book.”

I wanted to know who inspired her to write the book initially, and I got a beautiful list of book recommendations and authors to check out in the process.  

“I loved Bluets by Maggie Nelson, it felt really honest and I could reread that over and over again. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write something that beautiful but it inspired me. [So did] Amy Poehler's book, Yes Please. It’s very honest, funny, and it’s also heartbreaking. I think I cried during it. I read that a few years ago. More recently, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. It’s the experience of a black woman and her life, and it’s a mixture of poetry and references to pop culture now. I like the mess—I like that it’s not linear. It’s all over the place, so that inspired me. Another one is The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. I relate to her a lot. She has been through so much and her words are extremely beautiful. I could list more people that have inspired me, [like] Anais Nin. Basically, everyone that’s honest in their writing has inspired me.”

Having read very few of these books, I felt like an uneducated swine in her presence, but that’s my own issue. So I quickly moved on to ask her what inspired her during the process of writing the book. 

“Through the process, the people who have continued to inspire me are the people who, after I was in the news for coming out about sexual assault, [reached out] and told me that I helped them or I inspired them or something like that. They inspired me by making me feel like I did the right thing.”

When I asked her how long she had been writing, she responded, “Since I was able to write when I was little.”

She laughed as she told me, “One of my first projects was a script about Jesus cracking out of an egg on Easter, and that was when I was five. It’s probably somewhere. It’s like a brother and a sister and they’re like, ‘it’s Easter, what’s this egg doing?’ and then Jesus cracks out of it and he’s like, ‘Here I am.’ There’s no lesson, but that was my first masterpiece.”

That does sound like a masterpiece, but I was interested in hearing more about the masterpiece that is Frozen Oranges. So, I asked what her writing process looks like.

“At the beginning, it’s the hardest. I sit there, I write a paragraph, and then I can’t think of anything else. And then I’ll get random inspiration and I’ll write it. I’ll write a sentence [about] a point I want to make and elaborate. So if I have something in mind, I’ll just write it and then go back and I’ll make the paragraph. Insomnia helps, and there’s no way to be distracted unless I play Candy Crush on my phone, so I turn off my phone and I just write, write, write. Some of it doesn’t make any sense and I’ll just tell myself, ‘I’ll go back and edit all of this later, I just need to get into the 20,000 word range.’”

Words can be very powerful, there’s no denying it. So I asked Violet to tell us what, in her opinion, makes writing and sharing her voice powerful. 

“I feel like I’m not that articulate, or my emotions get in the way of what I’m trying to say. But through writing, I can get it all out and it feels like such a relief. It’s how I’ve dealt with everything negative that has happened to me. If someone read my diaries, they’d think ‘this is a tragic, sad, self-pitying little person,’ but it’s a healing thing for me. I imagine it’s the same for musicians when they make music, and artists when they paint, and I admire all of that. I’m just not good at any of that. When I write, I get some validation like, ‘Wow, you’re a good writer’ and I’m like, ‘Cool, I was just completely honest in my writing and people liked it.’ So it feels like that’s where my power is, so I want to keep doing it; I want to keep writing. Even when I hate writing, I still do it. ‘Cause you’ll hate writing when you do it all the time. Or when you hate yourself or you’re PMSing or you just got dumped or you have a pimple and you’re just like ‘why do I exist?’ and you don’t want to write, but you just got to. Write about your pimple. Write about it.”

This response hit very close to home for me, as someone who also finds they can express themselves best in writing. I wondered when Violet first understood the power of words, so I asked when in her life she realized that writing and sharing her voice was her power.

“Four years after I was raped, I finally was able to admit that I was. I had suppressed it for so long. In group therapy, I said it and it was kind of muddled with words and I decided I was just going to write it all out. And I wrote it and I did not expect it to be as long as it was, or as detailed as it was, or as coherent as it was. I shared it and so many people reached out to me and said that it helped them and they related, and I am proud of that piece even though it is something really terrible that happened to me because it gave me power. It took the power back. I wasn’t haunted by this traumatic experience that happened to me anymore. I took it and made it part of my story, not who I am.”

After this vulnerable response, I asked what advice she would give to her younger writer self and she said, emphatically:

“Stop playing the Sims, and go write more! Also, write in your fucking diary! My mom would give me diaries, and it seemed like a chore to do it, but I’m always so happy when I go and find one of my old diaries. Just do it more. Do it every day.”

I think this is good advice for any and all of us. Next, I asked her to tell us about her writing style and voice and how it makes her work unique.

“I think my style and voice [are] a bit conversational. I think that if you know me, and you read my writing, you would know it was me. I swear and I use weird metaphors, it’s very much who I am. I’m just trying to get out what’s in my head that I’m not able to say, so perhaps it’s not the most eloquently written, but it’s easy to read… You feel like, “Oh, I can relate to this person” or you at least feel like, “I know this is a person. “”

Having never interviewed someone before, I Googled ‘good questions to ask an author in an interview’ in preparation for my talk with Violet. One of the best questions I found was, “What misconceptions do you foresee people having about this book?” Apparently Violet agreed with me that it was an interesting question, because the first words out of her mouth when I asked it were “Good question!” Thanks, internet. Anyway, here’s her answer:

“Well, there are a few. The one that I’m actually concerned about is I don’t want people to think “This is a memoir about a girl.” Because I am a cis, straight person and this is just my story. This is not what it’s like to be a girl, [these are] not the guidelines of what it’s like to go through puberty and be a girl. This is what it’s like to be Violet, with all of my flaws and stuff, and I don’t want anyone to take it in a way that it’s, like, transphobic, or think it’s selective feminism or anything. This book is just about my opinions on things that happened to me, and also my experiences growing up in my body and stuff. I don’t want it to feel like it invalidates anyone else’s experience. It is not a guidebook, it’s just me sharing my story, it is cathartic for me… Perhaps some people will disagree with my opinions, and I’m always open to discussing that and I respect that. Other [criticism] will probably be like the men’s rights activists that hate me and will call me a slut and all that stuff, which I don’t care about. They’re disgusting and now they actually make me laugh every time I get some hate from them.”

Fuck the men’s rights activists. Bye. 

Okay, not bye. Next question! I asked Violet what the hardest part of writing her book had been.

“The hardest part of writing the book is when I feel like I’m running out of things to talk about or when I think ‘Oh, I talked about this earlier and it’s really scattered' or ‘Oh fuck, I’m only at 8,000 words.’ Just little things like that or getting distracted. But mostly just self-criticism is the hardest part of writing anything. “

Of course, we can’t ask about the lows without asking about the highs, so I asked about the best part of writing the book.

“I feel like I have a goal right now and a purpose. I feel like this is something I’ve always wanted to do, but I never really knew specifically what it was. I’m just so excited that I’m writing a book. I love books, and I always told myself ‘Oh, one day you’re going to write a book,’ but I never thought I was gonna be 23 and writing a book. It’s gonna be a pretty short book, but it’s more than I’ve written in anything else.”

Although none of us can see the future (life is crazy, shit happens), I asked where she sees the future going for her and her book.

“Well, for me, I hope it opens more opportunities for writing and my career. I hope it’s a healing thing for me. I’m still, every day, working on being a better person, more leveled with my personality disorder, more comfortable with sexual things after all the trauma I’ve been through. I hope that it helps me in a personal way and in a career way. I hope that it’s something that other people, even if they haven’t had the same experiences as me, they can read it and maybe relate to a part, or they can think a part’s funny, or maybe get some more insight into what it’s like to be me: someone with borderline personality disorder who had an unconventional childhood and had some weird trauma. I guess I just want people to read it and know it’s honest.”

My last question was about the future generation of writers. I asked her if she had any advice for other writers, especially those of us who are young and trying to write our own books or stories. 

“Just do it! Just write the whole thing, just don’t stop. Turn off your fucking phone, just write it. Don’t reread what you’re doing until you write, like, ten pages because you will never get past a page if you keep going back. We’re perfectionists and we’re self-critical. Just do it! And find someone you trust and respect that can read your stuff, and they can ask you questions that they want to know as a reader so you can add those things in.”

As a young person trying to write a book, I have found this to be very good advice. But this is all about Violet’s book. She read some excerpts of Frozen Oranges to me before we started the interview and I can sum up what I know about the book in one word: raw. Violet is an open book (no pun intended) and freely shares the inner workings of her thoughts—the good, the bad, and the ugly of her life thus far. There is nothing that feels manufactured; it is an honest, funny at times, messy-in-the-best-way, truly human story. Frozen Oranges comes out later this year, and we can’t wait.