Chloe Caldwell is the author of the essay collection, Legs Get Led Astray. Her writing has also appeared in The Rumpus, Nylon Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Chronogram, The Frisky, The Sun Magazine, SMITH Magazine, Jewcy, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Vol 1. Brooklyn, & Freerange Nonfiction.
"Chloe Caldwell's Legs Get Led Astray is a scorching hot glitter box of youthful despair and dark delight. Tender and sharp, wide-eyed and searching, these essays have a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic."
"Prepare to shed skin. Chloe Caldwell's essays will dare you to dissect your own life. Shot-through with sexuality and sass, her language will get up in you and turn you inside out in the best possible way."
"These true stories are raw and heartfelt . . . gems galore."
Here’s a moment that hit me early, from the end of an essay called “On Snooping”:
“I can accept that all I’ve ever wanted is not very special — all I’ve ever wanted, like most people, is proof of love.”
Chloe Caldwell’s debut, Legs Get Led Astray, is exactly that — a proof of love. Which is what writing ought to be. Be it love of the subject, love of the form, or just plain loving language, the best writing (and by that I mean what you, dear reader, consider “the best”) captivates us because it speaks some kind of truth directly to us. Great writing wants us to believe in it, to love it. I mean love here in the mutual sense. I mean love in the two-way-street sense. The writing we love most, we love because it loved us first.
Caldwell’s essays in LGLA take us around the world as it is in your early twenties. Everything is possible. Everything is art. Everything is as beautiful as it will ever be, or at least it will be when we’re done with it. Friends are family and family is unconditional love. You can become homeless when your apartment building collapses and wake up next to a bottle of gin in what may or may not be the Strand Bookstore. Jobs are not yet careers and careers are for your thirties. Work is the Strand Bookstore. Home is the Strand Bookstore. A friend is anyone with a yellow Strand bag in his or her kitchen. There are housewarming parties with buckets of black paint to make the walls more interesting. There are babysitting jobs with naked little boys as obsessed with their penises as their full-grown counterparts. There is music, so much music. And there is love, love, and more love.
If you couldn’t tell, I loved this book. And I was grateful to get in touch with Chloe over the last couple weeks to ask her some questions about it.
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Joseph Riippi: I’m interested in the role music plays in these essays. Many of the people you’ve loved in your life you associate with different songs — be it your mother and Rufus Wainwright’s “The Art Teacher,” the score of A Chorus Line as a child, or a past boyfriend and Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love.” What is it about music that works to plot point memory so well?
Chloe Caldwell: Music is a very strong trigger for memories because there’s an emotional response to senses. The sense of hearing (music) is much more of a layered and luscious sensation. Also — I grew up in a musical household and now I live above and work at, a music store. And when I first moved to New York, I lived with my brother who is a musician and we’d have lots of conversations, meditating on music, went to tons of shows, stuff like that. I guess it’s just a huge part of my life, so it comes through in my essays, like all of the other reoccurring threads.
JR: You write that most of the people you met upon first arriving in New York City worked at (or lived with people who worked at) the Strand Bookstore, and in Williamsburg you and your brother left a typewriter in the bathroom with “Please continue the story” written in sharpie above it. For all the references to specific songs in specific places in these essays, there are far fewer references to specific books or poems. How is writing’s role in memory different than music’s? How do they complement (or contradict) each other in your life?
CC: I did this subconsciously. I don’t craft my essays thinking about this kind of thing. I stick with what naturally comes out. But maybe music sets the tone more. Books more tell what kind of person you are.
A good example is from the essay, “My Mother Wanted To Be Betty Boop.” I open the essay with “My Mother wanted to be a dancer. In the living room when I was a kid we danced to “Stop In The Name Of Love. . . .” And later in the piece I say, “My mother’s books next to the toilet in the downstairs bathroom: Uncertainty. Anger. When Things Fall Apart.”
Which of these details is more affective? I guess that depends on the reader. Some people can hear the song “Stop In The Name Of Love” more easily than visualize the cover of When Things Fall Apart, and vice versa.
Also, books are maybe more internal and personal to you. Music is more universal or communal. Like, you’re at a party and a song is playing and you get excited. Someone at the same party might be reading a cool poem out loud but that just doesn’t happen as much. Maybe there’s this to consider as well: By the time a person turns 22 (ish), they’ve probably heard thousands of songs. But how many books have they read? It depends. Maybe 10. Maybe 100. But still, that’s like 10,000 songs verses 100 books. I’m just thinking out loud here.
JR: One of my favorite moments in the book is in “That Was Called Love,” a kind of love letter to New York City from Seattle, when you write: “Last night I described New York to a rock climber in Seattle. ‘It sounds like, New York is for you, what the mountains are for me.’” Since then you’ve moved back to New York (but now just outside the city). Have you found for yourself a permanent mountain?
CC: No. I think “mountains” or “homes” are specific to what you need at that time in your life. For a long time, I truly did think you could count on a place to make you happy. Like, when I moved to New York City, I was young and so affected by it that I thought it was alive. Now I see that just like people — there is not one person or place that you can get everything you want from. It’s all about compromise. If I could mix my mother’s backyard, Brooklyn, and Portland together, that would be a pretty sweet home. When I left the city to move to Washington, I thought that Seattle would be as new and exciting. But it was far from it and for a while, that was hard for me to cope with and accept. It’s like this quote by Fran Lebowitz: “When you leave New York, you are astonished at how clean the rest of the world is. Clean is not enough.”
If you’re asking me what I’ve learned now about finding a “home” within the world, then I would say you have to find it within yourself. This is going to sound new age-ish but in yoga, they say to treat your body as a temple, not a dump. It’s kind of like that. If you keep moving cities or trying different drugs or men to feel safe, it will never happen. You have to look inwards and love yourself. Then you can be (pretty) comfortable anywhere, I think.
JR: I notice you left out Berlin in your answer to that last question, when you say you’d like to combine Brooklyn, Portland, and your mother’s backyard to make a home. You write in “Berlin: Strange Like the Music of the Doors,” that “every day in Berlin is an existential crisis” and you couldn’t wait to get back to “Metrocard land.” However, when I began reading the essay and found you’d gone to Berlin, it made sense: I was struck by the parallel of your falling-apart home at 156 India Street, where “the doorknob was hanging by a thread” and “‘the back wall of your building began to crumble,” with Berlin, a city that is itself constantly in a state of not only rebuilding, but finding a new identity. Your essay is beautiful in describing the “existential crisis” bit of your time there, (the regressing clock, etc) but at the same time I can’t help but wonder what deeper difference drove you away from the city. Was it just the wrong place at the wrong time, or something more? (I should disclose that it’s one of my favorite European cities, so I’m quite curious).
CC: Well, you just reminded me that I left a large component of why I was unhappy in Berlin, out of that essay. The original plan was that I was going to Berlin to visit my brother for five nights. But I never took my flight home; I decided to stay for a few months. That threw everything off. I was there, in Berlin with one pair of jeans, two shirts, one bra, one notebook, no job and no apartment. I totally forgot to mention that in my essay, huh? Whoops! Isn’t non-fiction a trip? So since I had no real reason or desire to be in Berlin, it was completely jarring. I was totally aimless and depressed. I’d also had my heart broken right before I left, so that was more fuel to stay in Berlin, slash, another contributing factor to why I was so upset there.
The thing about Berlin is that it’s amazing. That summer was incredible — we could drink outside, there were playgrounds for adults, the sun never went down, and I met a melting pot of interesting people doing creative things. But yes, it was bad timing and bad decision making on my part. I’d love to try it again at some point.
JR: Also in the Berlin essay is a moment when you ask your brother where he’d like his ashes scattered after he dies. He answers, “I don’t know. I don’t care. But wherever you do it, plant tomatoes. Then I could live inside tomatoes. That would be cool.” I love this moment so much. There is so much siblingness in it, tenderness, emotion. For a last question, then, I have to ask you to top your brother: Where would you like your ashes scattered?
CC: I love that moment, too. Thank you. I would want my ashes scattered in the backyard of the house I grew up in, where my mother still lives, in the woods, near the dilapidated tree house and swings. It’s where I feel most at home, most like myself.