An Interview With Chelsea Biondolillo by Karissa Womack

Chelsea Biondolillo’s essay, “Crazy” was featured in Sweet Issue 7.2. While reading this issue, I was immediately drawn to the narrative voice and clarity of Chelsea’s essay. If you haven’t already, read it.

Chelsea recently served as the 2014-15 Olive B. O’Connor writing fellow at Colgate University. Her chapbook Ologies is available from Etchings Press.

As a fellow cowgirl, I was lucky enough to steal a few moments of her time for an email interview.

1. In her craft essay, “Going Cold,” Dylan Landis discusses the impact of a writer who is able to “closely examine a character for responses that betray an inner state”. The emotions elicited in your Sweet essay, “Crazy” are unexpected and deeply rooted in your narrative voice. Can you discuss how this conversational voice plays with the charged content of the piece?

I don’t remember being overtly jealous of my best friend growing up. I don’t remember resenting her, or longing to see her mother’s effusiveness in my own. Even as a kid, though, I understood that part of what drew men to her was something separate from her looks, and though I couldn’t name it, I knew I lacked it. I wanted her confidence. In “Crazy,” I was really trying to find that voice of naive longing and nearly-unconscious envy–rather than the reflective voice I (now) apply to almost every interaction from my childhood.

A good friend recently remarked that she loves how clearly she can hear my voice when she reads my essays: “Your writing has no pretense, it’s just raw Chelsea.” Some of my favorite essayists use a conversational tone that makes me suspect I’d enjoy talking to them, if I could (Ellen Meloy, Zadie Smith, David Quammen, and Cheryl Strayed, off the top of my head), and I almost always want my writing to sound like me. Sometimes, I play this up and write just like I speak: with exaggeration and flourishing gestures. But, I don’t want it to become a tic I can’t control. So sometimes I give myself an exercise of writing in a different voice completely. A rueful manager, teenage siren, cold clinician.

In this case, I tried on the voice of 6th grade-me, so full of the ache of ugly-ducklingism. I wanted the reader to understand dynamics that my narrator wasn’t sophisticated enough to fully grasp. My adult voice would’ve ruined it. I would’ve brought too much sarcasm and bitterness to the page–which might have been funny, but I’d have drowned out the fragile and nuanced qualities of what my narrator understood.

2. Your work opens the conversation to women in sciences and related themes of sexism. Can you talk about how “Crazy” ties into your other works, especially your new chapbook, Ologies?

Someone was recently trying to convince me that I should feel comfortable calling myself a feminist writer. I am a feminist–unapologetically, unquietly, and unflinchingly–but it doesn’t always feel honest labeling my writing as such. Which is both funny and sad to me. When writers I admire share their own experiences of girl- and womanhood, I teach their essays to students, and we talk about the power of asserting the female voice. When I do it myself, it doesn’t feel like a political act at all, sometimes it even feels selfish. There’s probably a great gender studies paper already out there on that brand of conditioning that could describe this phenomenon more eloquently than I can.

That said, in that it offers a small window into how beauty standards and the male gaze impacted me as a developing woman, “Crazy” is right in line with the ideas in Ologies. The first essay, “Phrenology,” looks at ways in which my interests in scientific pursuits othered me socially (and frames my own experience with both historic and contemporary marginalization of women in sciences), but as the collection progresses, my speakers find a kind of haven in real or pseudo-scientific observation and analysis. Ologies is probably a bit more optimistic in that sense than “Crazy.” I guess ultimately, I hope that my reader can see into these experiences of “not fitting in,” whether that means not wearing the right size jeans or studying unlady-like subjects, and find a voice of dissent.

3. “I am still on the edge of my life,” you say in your blog, Roaming Cowgirl. Can you tell us more about this feeling and your hopes for the future?

Oh man. No? I mean, I can, but it (always) involves me getting teary eyed and looking off to the right middle distance while I twist the edge of my t-shirt.

I have spent the last six or so years living in nine month stretches (and four different states)–first on the schedule of MFA admissions committees, then in a graduate program, and now looking for work. I knew my MFA wouldn’t guarantee me a job in academia. What I hadn’t pre-visualized was just how much it would make me want one. I love teaching, and all of the usual indicators show me to be pretty good at it. But, understatement of the year: the market isn’t cooperating. Maybe more education would help, surely finishing my book would help.

Right now I’ve only got one hand in the present, because the other has to hustle up a gig and roost for the next stretch. It’s frustrating and I’m often anxious and worried. As a result, I’m writing like I’m living: in short bursts. Lots of essays, no chapters. Right now, I can’t envision the direction of my manuscript anymore than I can envision the next place I’m going to live. Center for me would be a home and job that doesn’t come with a pre-determined expiration date. That’s what I’m hoping for right now.