EXCLUSIVE: Author Alana Massey on Beyonce's Twins and How 'Befriending' Famous Women Helped Her Forgive Hersel
By John Boone
"I go really theological really fast and I'm like, 'Oh, they're going to be the ones that save us. They're, like, our Romulus and Remus who will re-found the country and build us an empire worth fighting for.'"
When I speak with Alana Massey, not even 24 hours have passed since Beyoncé announced she is expecting twins. The 30-year-old author, a graduate of Yale Divinity, quickly proclaims the future Carter-Knowles offspring our saviors when I broach the subject during our phone chat, then at an equally dizzying clip, transitions in earnest to examining how we collectively digested the news.
"I was thinking about how it was such a nice reprieve from, 'Donald Trump Is Burning Down the World.' 'They're Shutting Down NASA and We're Burning Down Yosemite,' and then whatever the hell else is happening politically," Massey rattles off. "Having that be, at least for a while, the thing that took everyone's focus and attention was such a relief. Because I'm like, 'We are still capable of being exuberant and joyful and giddy about the people we admire whose work is life-giving, and not paranoia and sadness-inducing.' And of course it had to be Beyoncé having twins to break us out of it."
Massey knows pop culture, but it's the very personal way in which she interprets and applies the goings-on of the rich and famous to her own life that's shaped her unique voice. It is immediately evident in her essay, "Being Winona in a World Made for Gwyneths," a viral piece which inspired All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers, her debut collection out Feb. 7. The title of the book comes from a Sylvia Plath quote -- "I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want." -- who is just one of the famous friends explored in the book, somewhere between Britney Spears and Princess Di, Lil Kim and Joan Didion.
ET is premiering an exclusive audiobook excerpt, read by Massey herself, from her essay, "No She Without Her: On Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and the Singularity." Listen below and then read on for our Q&A.
ET: Your site says the book is meant to "reimagine the lives and legacies of famous women in a way that makes it easier for us to forgive ourselves." Can you explain what that means to you?
Massey: So many of the essays are rooted in a personal connection to these particular celebrities and how they're our sort of modern fables, because we get these really one-dimensional, distilled version of what their lives and their legacies mean. And at the end of every fable there's supposed to be like and, The thing you do is, you know, not be the hare at the race with the tortoise. And I didn't just want to tell the story and say, Isn't that unfair? That we did that to Anna Nicole Smith? In less blatant and explicit terms, I wanted to communicate that even when women aren't famous or notorious or in the creative arts, that they have probably experienced these things too, on the micro level. Because we don't treat famous women the way we do because they're famous -- we treat them that way because they're women. And it is really outsized because they are famous, and it's really amplified because they're supposed to be our, like, moral guides in the world. But these things happen to women all the time. You don't have to have married a billionaire for someone to think you're a whore for being a stripper, or think you're stupid for coming from a small town. And you don't have to have been Winona Ryder for someone to have routinely dismissed you because you're a little bit weird and cute, or defined you by those things. And you don't have to be Britney Spears for people to scrutinize your body all the time.
In examining the ways that we have both participated in doing these horrible things to these people who are public figures and then how they've been done back to us is a way of saying, It's OK that you did it, because it was a culture that insisted you play along with these ideas of what it means to be a woman in public. But it's also OK to forgive yourself for the same things that they were punished for. Because I hope that the stories about them and the sort of retelling of the things that went down say, It wasn't your fault that the world conspired to make you one-dimensional.
I want to know a bit about your process. Do you start with a celebrity you want to talk about, or a theme you want to explore? Or is it generally some sort of combination?
The impetus for making this collection was the ["Being a Winona"] piece. As I was thinking about that and going over the celebrities that I really care about or who I've really sympathized with, I started often from, Whose treatment in media and entertainment has made me the most angry? And then interrogating myself about, Why? Why did that one bother me? I realized that I get angry about these things because usually I have empathy about them. Because I have at least some tenuous connection to the experience on a much less public scale. Making the selections based on both the sense of injustice that they've experienced, but then also feeling like I had any sort of creative or personal authority to explain why was what guided who I chose and how I wrote about it and why they're not all musicians or all actresses or all writers. It runs the gamut, from fictional to non-fictional-- [Laughs] fictional and real women. I feel like having the personal experience in there is a way of saying, Here's what my skin in the game is. Here's why this matters to me.And here's why I came to these conclusions. Because this is the reflection of how it felt for me.
Was anyone off limits for you in this book? Or, in all of your writing, is there any topic that's off limits for you?
Mhmm! There's tons of topics that are off limits for me. But because they're off limits, I can't sort of say what they are. [Laughs] I didn't go into it thinking, I'm not going to write about this person, because either the story is too new, or there's not enough information or I care too much. There wasn't really much of that, but there are celebrities that I absolutely adore who I don't feel I have the experience or authority to write about well. Or, I don't think that I'm the right person for it.
And then in terms of topics, there are a lot of topics that I just don't cover. It's very interesting that people consider my writing so personal, but I think something that's sort of funny is, like, very few other people from my life show up in my personal writing. I'm not really doing a huge amount of identifying others. Like, I don't talk about my parents. I sort of make other people in my life a little opaque and a little bit unidentifiable, unless they absolutely know it's them. Because I'm telling my story and I know I'm telling my side of events! To throw anyone under the bus or attempt to capture a version of events that's accurate without their input feels irresponsible. I largely don't tell stories that could in any way be considered exceptionally unkind, unless it was, like, something very extreme. So, the last essay in the book, about Joan Didion, it's a pseudonym used, but it's a fairly detailed accounting of something that happened. But the ultimate point was not, Isn't he horrible? It was, And here's how I self-mythologized in order to get through it.
Is there one essay in the book that you're particularly proud of at the moment?
I don't have a favorite, which I maybe should. I think I go between the Britney Spears essay and the Sylvia Plath essay, because the Sylvia Plath essay, I think, ties a lot of it together, in terms of what it means to be a public face and being a woman and being responded to in certain ways and treated in certain ways. But it's hard for me to tell what I really like and what people are most responding to. I take feedback very seriously and very much to heart, because I'm not someone who's like, Well, I wrote what's important to me and I'm very happy with it and that's what matters. I really care that this helps people and that people enjoy it and people connect with it. So, when I hear more people talking about a particular essay, I'm like, OK, I like that one because that means it had a greater net effect on people. And I really do want my work to have utility in that way. I want it to be useful. And the Britney and Sylvia ones have been the ones that people have most frequently returned to, when having those conversations.
What purpose do you think pop culture criticism and writing has right now, when the world seems to be devolving into a political dumpster fire?
I think that pop culture can be a destination for things that are truly revolutionary. I don't think pop culture is frivolous. I don't think pop culture is a deluded, saccharine, palatable imitation of what like true, real, good culture is. I think pop culture is popular for a reason, and it's because it resonates with people and because it gets people to listen to things they might not otherwise. I think that pop culture is this stealth platform by which revolutionary things can meet people without them knowing they're participating in it. Like, Star Trek had the first interracial kiss on TV. People weren't watching Star Trek, like, "I want to be involved in civil rights and understanding interracial relationships!" But they're watching Star Trek, and they're like, "Oh, OK. This is now part of our culture. This is now something that is in the world for us." Beyoncé having the "Feminist" sign behind her and having the audio on loop about what the definition of what a feminist is was a very academic thing to have in the context of a big, popular culture moment at the VMAs. Watching the SAG Awards and people saying revolutionary things in people's living rooms, who are not watching Resistance TV.
And I'm not saying my book is of that scale by any means, but I think pop culture also has the function of exploring a different vertical within our popular discourse and discussions. I would feel slimy being, like, Oh, it's especially relevant now because it's about women being mistreated and Donald Trump treats women like sh*t. Therefore, buy my book! I don't think the book needs that to be relevant. But I think that as a set of conversations that is in the same sort of discussions of, like, misogyny and the way women are treated and the way women are perceived publicly, especially vis-à-vis Hillary Clinton's treatment -- though she's not in the book. She's in my second book, very much, which I'm working on right now. But I think that realizing and discussing and picking apart what's actually happening in ill treatment of women publicly, we really get to an understanding of treatment of women writ large. Because people are so much more likely to become attached to celebrities, they are good case studies. Because little girls want to be Britney Spears more often than they're like, "I want to be Ninth District Representative Jane Jones."
If you had to recommend one book that isn't your own, what is it? What should we be reading once we've finished All the Lives I Want?
Oh my gosh. That's so hard. Because every friend I have that has a book out, I'll be, like, I'm sorry I didn't say your book! Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. [Groans] Um. This really shouldn't be this hard! I'm ready to rush down the stairs and look at my recent pile, because I've been reading so many amazing books. Prostitute Laundry by Charlotte Shane was really good. Bluets by Maggie Nelson was one I just read that I really enjoyed. And...this is so hard!!! Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith.
Great! I'm sorry to put you through that...
I'm like, 'Do I promote friends' books? Or do I promote, like, The Communist Manifesto?' Which is important. But I feel like people who are going to read the interview about me aren't going to be coming for the greatest political analysis, so...