Daphne Gottlieb “stitches together the ivory tower and the gutter” in Saint 1001
On January 1, 2021, Daphne Gottlieb sent me a message on LinkedIn.
“Happy New Year!,” it read. “I will make this shortish and sweetish. My first novel is coming out on Valentine’s Day. It’s a mix of anonymous sex, po mo theory, Scheherazade and 1001 Nights, and the search for meaning…This is the best book I’ve ever made, and I want to get it to the people who need it.”
Her novel was titled Saint 1001. It did not come out on Valentine’s Day, but it was mixed as described. I read it ravenously.
As a San Francisco-based writer and winner of the Acker Award for Excellence in the Avant-Garde, Daphne Gottlieb had appealed to me long before our virtual meeting. She had been on my radar as a writer of interest, but I had yet to read her work. Then along came Saint 1001.
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Saint 1001 is a devastating collection of letters written by loveless S. to her first love, J. Her letters are rife with text pulled from existing cultural artifacts, including The Graduate, The Story of O, and the Bible, among many others.
Reading Gottlieb’s work, I was struck by her craftsmanship, her darkness, and her penchant for depicting a beautiful, shrieking mind. Sex, melancholy, desperation, wit: These elements tore through in spades.
Naturally, I had questions. In June, I interviewed Gottlieb for Worms Magazine, hoping to divine a few quotes. Now, I am eager to share that interview in full.
Where did this project begin? How did it emerge?
Daphne Gottlieb: I guess there was something I had to say and I knew at the beginning it was going to take more than one tongue to say it because I couldn’t translate everything, every word. So I cobbled it together, and it was done, but there were all these scraps of culture and detritus next to it, along with memory and myth, so I started building again. And again.
Sex is present in the subject matter, but also in the act of merging texts. How did you go about selecting your source material?
DG: The texts pretty much presented themselves – they’re already indelible. So if I write about an older-younger relationship, for example, I’m going to séance in Lolita and/or The Graduate, right? We are making the texts, but the texts make us, too.
S. narrates herself and her life for her first love, J. What is your relationship to writing about your own life?
DG: I think it’s time for a disclaimer: I’m not S. I haven’t had S’s experiences, and if I was writing about my sex life, it would be a lot queerer and a lot more fun.
That said, I learn things about myself all the time through my writing; things I didn’t mean, things I didn’t see, things that were set up in a certain way like dominos, and I didn’t expect them there, half-cocked. The best example of this is my ex-roommate, who said to me, “You think you wrote a book about sex, but you wrote a book about PTSD.” She was absolutely right. I hate her.
In sampling media-informed conceptions of love and heartbreak, you toy with Lolita, The Graduate, and pop song lyrics, among many other cultural constructions. Life mimics art, and vice versa. How do you think these longstanding cultural conceptions and myths inform our lives, and the way that we interact with one another?
DG: I am so very much more interested in what you think, especially after reading the book.
There seems to be a theme of finding interplay between dichotomies (e.g. Pain/Pleasure, Admiration/Hatred, Sex/Death). It echoes your introduction of seemingly incongruent texts. In this time of political polarization, it seems this cleavage is all the more apparent. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on seeking nuance, fusion, sex in spite of this.
DG: Well, every binary invokes hierarchy, right? So as far as nuance, it’s not at the surface, which is a blunt wound – it’s a few layers down. I’m not sure fusion is healthy unless you’re an atom. So that leaves seeking sex, which, if you’re het, makes life very easy, since we have these cut-and-paste ideas about masculinity, femininity and attraction, and we just need to follow along. Rightly or wrongly.
The trappings of womanhood afford S. new methods of seizing ‘love’ but they also invite new dangers, vulnerabilities, fears. I’m wondering whether the notion of the young girl speaking through a woman was something you were thinking about in presenting mature themes within the framework of fairy tales.
DG: I was. I was thinking a little bit about being lost in/because of the body/not speaking the language of the body/not speaking the language others used about the body. Not to mention, all the theorists ascribe sexual content in fairytales, from the frog prince to Rapunzel, so clearly, they had to come be part of the conversation.
You deftly position the quotidian alongside (and within) horror. I’m thinking of a note that reads “Today I went to the drug store” slotted between two reports of femicide. There is a sense of horror present in the banalities of running an errand. How does that everyday navigation of horror influence the woman as an artist and a writer?
DG: Here is somewhere where maybe S. and I meet: Some days, making it to the drug store, taking a shower, boiling water for spaghetti, is like winning the Olympics. That, in spite of the femicide, there is Pepto-Bismol.
S. writes, “I used to be a lot less scared walking around back when I walked around when this was a ‘bad’ neighborhood. Now there are people with money around. People you’d really want to mug, not us fuck-ups…They are selling the idea of who we are and what we like to people who like it so much they move into our apartments and throw us out in the street. There’s more than one kind of murder.” Sounds like San Francisco… Do you have hope for artists and/or “fuck-ups” in this city?
DG: I currently have extenuating circumstances so I can’t answer anything about “hope”.
You were working with some heavier, haunting source material. I’m curious about what the writing experience was like for you, emotionally.
DG: I’m not sure how to answer that – I walk around with it all the time. It’s not a vein I tap into, it’s my blood type. I’m not bragging.
Can you tell me a little bit about the collaborative follow-up project, Saint 1002?
DG: Sure. The book is in large part assembled from so many found texts. To keep the cycle going, then, I gave a chapter of my book to musicians and artists, and asked them to respond musically/artistically. It continues the cycle, then, of texts being recombinant and as they are consumed, they give way to more recombinant texts. I’ll be hosting them on my website, about one a week after the book comes out.
Is it enough to know someone in words? How does the written self compare to the fleshed self, moving and speaking in real time?
DG: I think that anyone who has gone on an OKCupid date can answer that, no?
What’s next for you, creatively and otherwise?
DG: Joy. I am writing it down and that’s so scary. Like everyone, my life was derailed by COVID. I have had enough chaos and friction and fear for a lifetime. I am ready for sweetness and boredom. At least a little bit.