Between Friends: An Interview with Rebecca Brill


Image: “Deirdre in Rita’s Living Room,” by Leanne Shapton, 2008.

Sinkhole Editors: How did you begin writing “Grocery Shopping with Mary McCarthy”? 

Rebecca Brill: Last year, I wrote my end-of-year research paper for Sean McCann’s New York in the 1940s class about the friendship between the writer Mary McCarthy and the theorist Hannah Arendt. I read a bunch of historical accounts of their relationship, including Between Friends, a really compelling collection of letters that they exchanged. I was intrigued by the strength of their bond, especially since they had very different world perspectives and political views. During their first meeting at a cocktail party, McCarthy flippantly commented that she pitied Hitler, which enraged Arendt (who had escaped the Holocaust) so much that she stormed out of the room. I was particularly inspired by the anecdote that my essay recounts, as it combines two of my favorite things: intense female friendships and anchovies.
SE: What was the revision process like for this piece? 
RB: Revising this essay mostly entailed changing the order and phrasing of the anchovy anecdotes until they contrasted with the McCarthy/Arendt sections in a meaningful way.
SE: What prompts you to write? 
RB: I’m prompted to write by anecdotes, dreams, and details that intrigue me for reasons I don’t totally understand. I think I mainly write to figure out why I’m interested in what I’m interested in.
SE: Who are your favorite writers? 
RB: Some of my favorite writers are Wayne Koestenbaum, Maggie Nelson, Dorothea Lasky, Lydia Davis, David Rakoff, Jonathan Ames, Fran Leibowitz, Grace Paley, Mary McCarthy, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner.
SE: What are your favorite books?
RB: Some of my favorite books are I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, White Girls by Hilton Als, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, My 1980s & Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum (also everything else by him), The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and Runaway by Alice Munro.
SE: Why McCarthy and Arendt? Simply because of the anchovies link, or is there a deeper connection you feel to them and their relationship (hinted at at the end of the essay)?
RB: In addition to the anchovy thing, I’m interested in the idea of female friendship as a type of romantic bond. As I explain in the essay, a lot of people have speculated that McCarthy and Arendt were in a closeted relationship. While that rumor has been largely disproven, I think it gets at a deeper truth: the idea that the grand romance of many women’s lives is not marriage or a love affair, but the bonds they share with other women. I’m interested in female friendships that are complex, ambiguous, intense, competitive, sisterly, sensual, and passive aggressive—sometimes all at once.

SE: Are you reading anything good right now?

RB: I just finished Eileen Myles’ memoir, Chelsea Girls, and Wayne Koestenbaum’s biography of Andy Warhol. Right now, I’m readingBlood and Guts in High School by Cathy Acker and Get Happy, a biography of the object of my obsession, Judy Garland.

SE: What has your experience with writing at Wesleyan been like and how has it shaped your writing? (Classes you’ve taken, professors you’ve worked with, Stethoscope or other publications, etc.)

RB: It definitely took me a while to get immersed in Wesleyan’s writing scene, which intimidated me during my freshman year. I’m so glad I stuck with it and kept working on my writing because being part of writing at Wesleyan has been incredibly gratifying. I was hell-bent on being a fiction writer until I ended up in Cliff Chase’s Techniques of Nonfiction class during my sophomore year and realized my voice was better suited to creative nonfiction. He, along with professors like Lisa Cohen and my thesis advisor Erica Hunt, pushed me to take risks and become a generally more unconventional writer. Last year, I wrote a memoir for Stethoscope Press called Oh Lord Prepare Me. The book was deeply personal (not to mention deeply weird), but people seemed to connect to it, and it was really gratifying to see it reach such a wide range of people. I edited Steth this year and continue to be amazed by the talent of the writing community at Wesleyan. It’s one of the aspects of school I’ve missed the most since graduating.

SE: Are you working on anything right now–writing or otherwise?

RB: I recently finished my thesis, a creative nonfiction project called Holocaust Girls that explores women’s relationships to Holocaust jokes through cultural figures like Sarah Silverman and Joan Rivers and through anecdotes about my Orthodox Jewish upbringing. I’m not writing anything right now, but I am working as an editorial assistant at Harper’s Magazine.

SE: Is there a main message you want readers to get from “Grocery Shopping”?

RB: Anchovies are an under-appreciated delight. Also, it doesn’t matter what things mean. Just write about things that you like.

This interview was conducted over email by Liz Cettina and Emma Raddatz. Rebecca Brill is a graduating member of the Wesleyan Class of 2016. Read her essay, “Grocery Shopping with Mary McCarthy,” here



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