An Interview with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Accompanying art by Gabi Gonzalez-Yoxtheimer.
It’s an unseasonably warm fall afternoon in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and I are on our knees touching the greenest, bounciest moss I’ve ever felt. Behind us a gay couple stands in the road deciding whether or not they should purchase the brand new modern home across the street. It sounds like I’m making this up, setting the scene, but I promise you I’m not. The stickers are still on the windows, and the boxy construction is a stark departure from the surrounding mansions, each of which borrow from at least three different architectural periods.
I’d reached out to Mattilda in the fall of 2020, hoping to talk more with the writer who’d unwittingly been responsible for a large part of my own literary coming of age in the previous decade, starting with her interview for Carlos Motta’s We Who Feel Differently. That was 2011, and Mattilda’s searching prose has continued to defy categories. Our conversation took place November 2020, on the eve of the publication of her book The Freezer Door, although we discuss her process all the way back to her first novel, Pulling Taffy, and look ahead to Touching The Art, which will be out from Soft Skull in 2023. We began on the lawn of Seattle’s Asian Art Museum which was crowded with sunbathers. We walked into the surrounding neighborhoods dissecting the mishmash of architectural styles. We used stately hedges to realign our backs (captured in the whimsical art of Gabi Gonzalez-Yoxtheimer). For the last several years people have been going on staycations and getting more intimate with their neighborhood parks, but I wonder if they know that the writer they should be reading for this moment is Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore of the long city walks and the specific thoughts those beget.
Much of Mattilda’s work is funny. There’s an overriding sentiment when critics are reviewing books on AIDS and hookup culture that all of this is Very Serious and not a Laughing Matter. One might make a similar judgment of Mattilda’s work. I made that judgment, too, until I heard her read in person in Seattle just before covid hit. Hearing the sentences in her voice gave me a new window onto her work. This isn’t too surprising—she frequently emphasizes the poor substitute virtual life makes for analog interactions. In a way, reading is the original Second Life™ in which life-changing, world-altering ideas were carried further afield than ever before, while leaving behind the embodied reality that produced those texts. With each book, it feels as if Mattilda restores just a little bit more of that embodiment to the project of literature.
These phrases—before, past, post-covid—all ignore the felt reality of the everpresent now that just continues. The grinding death machine that was winter 2020, and then winter 2021, that just kept going. Mattilda has continued, too, participating in many online readings and conversations, a good number of which are archived online (most recently in conversation with Andrea Lawlor and Edgar Garbelotto, discussing Hugs & Cuddles by João Gilberto Noll). Against all odds, these still transmit a good deal of Mattilda’s unceasing aliveness, and I hope they too will be collected in some manner alongside her papers at the San Francisco Public Library, to build her archive of writing toward and against feeling.
"My goal is toward feeling, or, if feeling is impossible, toward not feeling, which is also feeling."
Cal Angus: When you’re out on a walk, are you thinking of writing down all the things you see? Because there’s one point at which you say thinking about writing it down makes you not as present.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I would say that when I’m walking my goal is to somehow feel okay. Because usually I feel horrible especially when I leave the house. So I’m just present in whatever draws my attention. Like today when I was walking here, for example, I was noticing the colors of the fall leaves and thinking that I don’t remember it being this bright here in Seattle. And then I was noticing that just between yesterday and today there are trees where like half the leaves are gone, whereas yesterday they were all there. I was noticing the transition between green and orange and yellow and red. And that’s just kind of how I observe things, and I think the act of observation then makes me more present in a different way. And that helps me to exist, you know?
But! If I think of a sentence that is already in a sentence form and I’m like ‘oh my god, I’m not gonna remember this’, I do write it down when I’m walking around. It’s not necessarily about what’s happening—well, it is sometimes. I will write about emotional states in that moment. Not usually something long, just like a sentence. Or if there’s something I’ve been thinking about like how do I do a specific thing … and then suddenly it’s there, then I’ll write that down.
CA: Do you find that when you go out on a walk you say to yourself ‘okay, I’m going to think about xyz, or something’s really troubling me and I’m going to walk and think about this?
MBS: I would say that does happen, but when it does it’s not intentional. Basically I walk at particular times more or less. I walk to get out of the house and I walk before bed so I can sleep. It’s when I can't get something out of my head. Ideally I’m walking and just thinking about the present moment. My brain, typically, is thinking about everything. So it’s hard to just notice the present moment. And I notice this too when I walk with friends and their brains will just be racing and I’m like ‘can we just talk about what’s happening right now?’ And most people can’t, you know, and I’m sure I was that way too, I know I was, and I think it’s the act … it’s not an intentional meditation necessarily, but it is a meditation of sorts. There are times where I can’t get something out of my head and I will notice that and ask ‘can’t I just focus on this flower?’ But then sometimes I’ll have a moment where I’m like ‘oh! here it is’ Especially if I’m trying to formulate something in a clear way that I haven’t yet. Or maybe I started writing it before I left the house and I’m thinking ‘that sentence isn’t quite right,’ and then I’ll realize it and that’s the kind of thing I have to write down. Or, as an alternative, post on twitter.
CA: Right, yeah
MBS: Because what I like the most about Twitter is that it’s a way to think about text out of context. Or in and out of context. But mostly out of context is when it’s most fun, so I’ll go home and look at that and I’ll be like ‘oh okay, this is it.’ Or, sometimes I may come home and look at something I thought was a total mess, and I look at it in a different emotional state and it’s totally manageable. I’ll think cut this, cut that—usually cut—and there it is.
CA: When you’re putting your writing together into “book form,” do you do a lot of rearranging?
MBS: I was just looking at what was the first draft of The Freezer Door and I tend to think of that first thing, before a book, as “the material.” It’s not necessarily a draft because it hasn’t arrived, but I have a sense that there’s something there that I’m going to make into a draft. As you know, the book is 280 pages, the original draft is just text, so really this is much less than a quarter of the material I had. And then there were probably 15 drafts. So all of that is editing and much of it is cutting. Mostly, cutting and rearranging. And then the form came in. My goal is toward feeling, or, if feeling is impossible, toward not feeling, which is also feeling. That’s the way I want to arrange the text, to maximize that experience. For example, in this case, I do think the writing was strong in the draft, but there might have been, let’s say, 25 times I write about having sex in the park. In the original I might have 100, and what I cut is not necessarily the worst writing, it’s cutting what I need in order to conjure the feeling I’m after. As you know, there’s different kinds of repetition. One kind can lead towards revelation or some kind of breakdown or some kind of rupture. That’s the repetition that I’m after.
CA: Is that goal of writing toward feeling a similar theme across your books?
MBS: It’s more and more the case. When I was a teenager, learning to be invulnerable, or appear invulnerable, it’s what saved me. And that’s how I found people I could connect to, that’s how I eventually felt like I could exist as myself in the world. Now what I feel I’m after is vulnerability, and that’s how I find people and connect. That’s what I want to do in my work. The things that make me feel like I might die, those are the things I need to say so that I don’t die.
Sometimes I’m more vulnerable in my writing than I am talking to people.
CA: I reread Sketchtasy in the early months of the pandemic, and it was exciting to read The Freezer Door so soon after that. Eventually I want to get to the questions about different cities that your work is set in and that you’ve lived in and experienced in different ways. But first I’m curious about a similar voice that shows up in both Sketchtasy and in The Freezer Door, and I guess I’m wondering if writing fiction versus nonfiction looks like a different process for you? How do you move between those two genres?
MBS: I would say that when I start writing, I don’t know what I’m doing in terms of genre. So with Sketchtasy, which, of my novels it’s the most of what someone would call fiction (someone who would decide absurd categories like that) in the sense that there are characters that don’t exist in the world that I created. But the narrator, Alexa, is twenty-one in 1995 in Boston gay club culture making a living as a hooker, and that’s what I was doing in Boston in 1995. So when I started writing it, I just knew that I had these stories. I finished The End of San Francisco and I was like ‘well, now it’s time to write a new book, and I have these stories from when I lived in Boston that I always felt were really interesting but I never …’ Well, I should say, I think they’re fun to tell, but I didn’t know if there was a purpose. But I kept thinking about it, so I thought, let’s just try! Originally, I was definitely just writing my own experience. But then what happened really fast was that the trauma came through and so the trauma of living in Boston and the trauma of existing in a gay culture that magnified the worst aspects of straight normalcy and the trauma of 1995 where these characters are all growing up with AIDS as a central fixture in their desires, and they don’t have a way out. Somewhere in that process, it became fiction.
The Freezer Door is way more vulnerable as nonfiction, in my opinion. The same is true for The End of San Francisco. I didn’t want to call it a memoir, and I hadn’t been exposed to the term lyric essay. Now, Sketchtasy I think is more vulnerable as a novel because I left Boston. I got the fuck out. It’s not that it didn’t form me, it was very formative and that’s why I write about it, but I knew I needed to get out of there. When I lived in Boston, I had a very similar experience to Alexa, the narrator and I realized 'I’m trapped.' And then I left, because I have extremely strong self-preservation mechanisms, even when I lose everything. Now, Alexa, I don’t know that she has that ability. And that’s what I want to explore. I don’t know if any of these characters can leave. That’s what Sketchtasy is about.
My earlier novels are also about what I keep and what I cut. In So Many Ways to Sleep Badly I cut out all the ruminating on politics because it was interrupting the voice, and that book is probably the most voice-driven in a certain way. To me, that’s what made it fiction. In that particular book, almost every single thing happened to me. Same thing with Pulling Taffy, for the most part. It’s about what I focus on and what I don’t. What I focus on in The End of San Francisco and The Freezer Door is way more in my own head.
"People had this idea of Capitol Hill where everyone belonged, and I can say for sure that that never happened. […] gay culture is always interested in claiming community without creating it."
CA: When you were living in Boston, were you writing then?
MBS: Ohhh, that’s funny actually. So my first published story was from when I lived in Boston in 1995.
CA: Short story?
M: Yeah, a short story. When I was a teenager, I would send things off, but I don’t think I had anything published besides like in scams where they’re like ‘You’ve been accepted, pay $100!’ And you know, in spite of the Paris Review’s so-called policy of looking for unnoticed voices, they did not notice my voice in high school.
CA: Those fuckers.
MBS: And still has not!
CA: I know!
MBS: I went to Boston maybe for a month when I finished a draft [of Sketchtasy]. There were some great things that I would never have remembered. I didn’t remember how the wind blows the fuck right through you. I could make up anything I want, but I am very neurotic, especially in that book because it’s not set in the present, I wanted to make sure I got every single detail right. So the things that I see or the things that are in the book, like I would not have remembered that the whole Charles River freezes over and you just see snow from here to Cambridge. So things like that, that really helped. I can invent those things because mostly the characters are high, but I want the noise of the Green line, that screeching sound, I would not have remembered. Going back was useful for certain things like that.
CA: Maybe this is a good moment to ask about how you bring up nostalgia and gentrification in The Freezer Door. You talk about how nostalgia is a process linked to gentrification, though you relate that back to Seattle more than Boston. Can you talk about that a little more, the relationship between nostalgia and gentrification?
MBS: I feel like maybe until five years ago no one in Seattle could even say the word ‘gentrification.’ That’s how middle class the mindset is here. People would say things like ‘increasing the density,’ and you’re either for that, meaning that’s a good thing, or you’re against that, meaning you’re some retrograde, not-in-my-backyard type of wealthy person. There was never the question of what kind of density. The density that’s increasing is overpriced garbage. Like $2500 one-bedrooms. Rent has doubled in seven years; that density is not worth creating, in my opinion. That is not urbanism, and that is not what it means to live in a city. Those spaces might look urban, but people drive to work and they don’t interact.
I also think there was this moment several years ago when there were a lot of violent bashings on Capitol Hill, the gay neighborhood. People were like, ‘I miss the days when Capitol Hill was Capitol Hill.’ I was not here in the 80s, so I can’t speak to that, but people were actually talking about the 90s, and I did live here in ‘96 and ‘97, and I lived here for a month in ‘94. I can guarantee that when I was here then, it was the most middle class place I’ve ever been in my life. The thing that’s changed with gentrification here is that it’s no longer middle class, its upper middle class. People had this idea of Capitol Hill where everyone belonged, and I can say for sure that that never happened. Capitol Hill has always been a white gay neighborhood. People of color have never belonged. Women have never belonged. Trans people have never belonged. To focus on gay culture, gay culture is always interested in claiming community without creating it. So this thing about nostalgia for Capitol Hill, people have nostalgia for glory days that never existed. They could have created that world, they could have done it, and they chose not to. They could have created a world where everyone belonged. Where a street kid could be given a home. They could have done it and they chose not to and that’s what created this. But the gentrification now, the drunk hordes of straight suburbanites living in the $2500 one-bedrooms. So that type of gentrification is disgusting even to middle class white gay people. But those people didn’t give a shit when people more marginalized than them where being affected.
So yes there’s a sadness to the loss of that space, but I’m not going to feel sad about some horrible bar that’s always been racist and misogynist and has horrible carding policies. I refuse to mourn that loss.
"Walking is the thing that keeps me together."
CA: I’m interested also in your relationship to, going back, to process, but more on the promotional side. Not to be crass, I do think that you’re a writer whose books have all been put out to small presses so a lot of promotional work falls to you to make sure you’re read and heard.
MBS: Oh yeah, it’s all me, haha, unfortunately.
CA: I think you’ve done an amazing job! But I don’t think it’s a thing people talk about and it’s kind of taboo. So I’d love to hear a little bit about if you think about promotion and how do you think about it in line with the content?
MBS: When I was growing up, I was told that the best writers never got published. And that was meant to mean that I shouldn’t focus on writing, but it was actually validating. I do still believe it. When I first started writing, publishing was not part of it. And then I tried sending things out. Mostly short stories, for anthologies. And some poetry. So I was like “oh this is interesting; the experience of people reading it adds something.” I don’t know if it’s necessary, but it does add something, because you’re creating a relationship with other people through your work.
So now, the thing I’m most attached to is I want people to read my work. I want it to be available. Writing has become the way I find intimacy with myself and with other people, so I have a lot of attachment to it. There are authors with no attachment to the process. These are usually writers who have a certain pedigree of elite institutions and residencies and fellowships, authors who have always had an agent with a certain kind of access, and they don’t have to have an attachment! Someone is doing it for them. For me, I want my work to be available for people to read, and so it’s important to do whatever possible to make that happen, because it helps me to feel connected to the world.
CA: How has the last, whatever, seven months been for you? Because you wrote The Freezer Door mostly pre-COVID.
MBS: Oh, all of it.
CA: But it still talks about isolation, and so I’m curious if you feel that has intensified?
MBS: The deepest shit for me is that right before [covid] I finally was feeling like I’d figured out a way to have touch in my life in a way that was approaching what I want. This is like an everyday experience, a physically embodied sense with other people. All of that was, or mostly was, through dance. Ecstatic dance, contact improv. I was thinking how do I get more of this in my life? And there’s dancing in The Freezer Door, but that sense is not there, not in the consistent way that I need. So just before COVID I was at like fifty percent of the touch I need with dance, and I was trying to find a way to get more of it in my life. And then overnight that fifty percent went to zero, and that’s where I am now.
CA: Were you walking as much before COVID?
MBS: Yes, walking is the thing that keeps me together.
CA: Has it always been like that?
MBS: No, but way more [after] I moved to Santa Fe. I moved there from San Francisco at the end of 2010, hoping my chronic health problems would be better, but they were worse. But I walked way more because, generally speaking, in San Francisco I took the bus everywhere. I would walk outside, there’s the bus in front of my apartment and I’d get on it. I’d go on walks at night, which I loved. And in the mornings. In Santa Fe, there isn’t public transportation, and to get somewhere, it’d be like two miles. I would never walk two miles in San Francisco. Especially with the hills … like, where’s the bus?
But Santa Fe, I’d be like I’ll just go on this walk for two miles to get to the bookstore. I think I still have that meditative thing. It’s not about people, because you don’t run into people walking down the street in Santa Fe.
In San Francisco I never thought about trees. I’d look at them from my window but there weren’t very many trees. So I guess yeah then from there I moved here. Here [in Seattle] I have become way more connected with trees and landscapes. When everyone lets me down, I still have the trees. I know I need to go on a walk unless I’m totally destroyed. I mean destroyed, like I can’t get up. So on a regular day I might be so exhausted that I get on the street and feel like I can’t get to the corner, but I’ll get to the corner and think, okay, let’s go this way. I just know it’s what keeps me together, so I do it. It’s harder though with winter. I love walks in the rain, but it’s harder to get motivated. If it’s forty and raining, I’ll still do it, but most people will not.
CA: One of my favorite repetitions in The Freezer Door is the tree stretch.
MBS: Yeah exactly! People have these ridiculous hedges here and I love leaning on them. That’s a thing I did not do before Seattle: the idea of molding your body into different shapes. Learning to move through your full range of motion and using your bone structure rather than surface musculature, in order, in my case, to move out of pain, which is something I learned from Feldenkrais, the healing modality that’s worked the best for me.
"Writing has become the way I find intimacy with myself and with other people."
CA: Why did you move to Baltimore?
MBS: To research the next book I’m writing. It’s about touch and …
CA: I feel like I heard something about this before briefly, maybe at a reading.
MBS: I’ve definitely spoken about it. The book is called Touching the Art. Basically it’s about my relationship with my grandmother, who was an abstract artist from Baltimore, who died in 2010. As a child, she was the one person who allowed me to imagine a creative life because I could live it in her studio. As an adult, she tried to renounce all that to get me to fit the narrow path of upward mobility, which was everything I was rejecting and everything that would destroy me creatively. The book is circling around that. She’s my father’s mother. Our first big falling out was when I left college when I was 19, but the second one was when I confronted my father about sexually abusing me. The book is essentially about legacy. The legacy of trauma, the legacy of family, the legacy of the art traditions that she was a part of.
I start the writing where I literally take all these handmade paperworks she made and I’m touching them to see what comes through and what comes through are a lot of memories about her, myself, and my father. And then I realized I had letters she wrote to me when I was eighteen, nineteen, and twenty. I have the letters I wrote to her because I photocopied them. Then I have photos that she took of me when I visited her, in front of her art. I have her art as well. That’s the beginning of the writing process, and then I go to Baltimore basically to see what will come through, partially to find people who knew her, but even more so to just see what will come through. That’s just how I write. Usually I’m writing about where I am.
Then, all these random things come through, some of which are obvious recollections, like going to the Baltimore Museum of Art, and some of which are unexpected. I remembered when I asked my grandmother if she ever went back to the house where she grew up, and she said no, you just can’t. I asked her if it was gone and she said no, you just can’t go there. I knew then that that meant it was in a Black neighborhood. When I was in Baltimore I looked for that house, and I realized it was five blocks from where Freddie Gray was murdered. When her family moved there, it was a white Christian neighborhood, and they were among the first Jews, but now, after decades of white flight and structural abandonment, there's this palpable legacy of racist disinvestment, redlining, predatory lending, all of which continues to this day. In which you can sense in these neighborhoods that have been destroyed, basically, they have been left to rot.
So it was all these things, these layers about Jewish assimilation and white flight and disinvestment, gentrification and redlining and structural violence that came through when I was there. There was so much I wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
CA: You mentioned the letters, photos, different things that you had from your grandmother and prior times in your life. Do you do a lot of hanging on to documentation or archiving of yourself?
MBS: Yeah, I mean, I do have two file cabinets full. Before I left San Francisco—I knew I wasn’t gonna save ten drafts of Pulling Taffy, but these are the most important things to archive, in my opinion—I asked the Hormel Center at the San Francisco Public Library if they would be interested in archiving my papers. And they said yes. So there is an archive of my papers there. I wanted this archive to be publicly accessible so anyone can go and read rather than at a gated institution, and now that’s actually a reality, I have a living archive. The Hormel Center kind of implied it would be a long time before it would be organized so people could look at it, but they are actually now cataloged in the San Francisco History Room at the library. And that’s fantastic. So now I have a place where I will send all the drafts of The Freezer Door.
But all the random shit I save in my filing cabinet … I think it's because when I remembered I was sexually abused, when I realized I had no memory of so much, I became very attached to remembering things. I think it’s part of that.
CA: Well you write about that a bit in The Freezer Door …
MBS: In all my books, I think it comes up in some way, because how could it not. It is what formed me.
CA: You also write a lot about the importance of talking on the phone in The Freezer Door. Which was great, because it made me much less nervous to call you.
MBS: Yeah, this is a conversation made possible by my writing, it wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
CA: Just a comment that I feel like, even when I’ve gotten pretty comfortable on the phone, it’s definitely still something I resist. Or I can have an hour long conversation with people, but it’ll have been something I’ve planned for a month at least. People in my generation just don't use the phone like that anymore. Do you have a cell phone?
MBS: I do but I don’t use it as a phone, unless I’m traveling, which clearly isn’t happening anytime soon. I don’t text ever. I just have rules. I know what would make me feel dead and what makes me feel alive. And I know that I’m cutting myself off, in certain ways. There are people I know I would be friends with much closer if we texted, but I would feel dead, so what’s the point? Talking on the phone to me feels like talking, texting makes me feel disembodied. As a writer, I’m too neurotic about text. I remember, this is funny, someone who I was friends with sent my an email that said “I love you” or something like that, and I looked at that and thought “how fucking dare she! Just sitting outside, sending me a fucking email that says I love you! Fuck this is horrible! That’s not love.” So that’s what I’d be like in texting.
This interview has been condensed and edited to fit this space.