By Davis Land
Davis Land: I said I’d interview you without much thought so now I’m gonna try and think of some questions that are at least somewhat interesting. How’s life?
Rachel Bell: Hi! Life is good. I’m almost always stressed but coping. Keep having stress dreams about mundane things. Last night I dreamt that my car got booted on Long Island, where I’ve never been. I’m excited to go to Paris. I’m just drinking Earl Grey in my kitchen right now.
Davis Land: We first met “officially,” I guess, when we last read together in Austin like two years ago. I remember being super impressed with your stuff. An honest, funny, and heartbreaking rendering of the big parts of the small parts of life—if that makes sense. One of my favorites is about that person that was trying to get an Uber but had open a delivery app or something. You’re not just writing like “I feel sad in my bed,” you often pick out some specific actions that point to the feeling in a really poignant and unique way. When you sit down to write, or like type into Facebook or Twitter, what are you doing to dig those kernels out?
Rachel Bell: I think of all my favorite lines in bed at night. When I was little and my parents got divorced I would miss them most at night. When I was at my mom’s I’d stay awake crying because I missed my dad and vice versa. When I lived with my dad I shared a room with my older sister and sometimes I’d sleep in the bathtub so that I didn’t wake her up with my crying. That seems like a really sad story but my intense feelings are honestly a blessing. I’m predisposed to being a poet.
Davis Land: Night was always intense for me as a kid. Still is for the most part. What the hell is going on with nighttime?
Rachel Bell: Honestly I have no idea. It makes me miss people. Maybe it’s because you can see the stars and you feel so small. Or maybe it’s because I’ve watched so much Law and Order that I think every sound I hear in the dark is a robber or something. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing but your thoughts. I lay in bed and obsess about my sleeping position. “I can’t sleep unless my hands are in the right spot and I’m spooning the body pillow the right way. Is this an unhealthy way to sleep? What would a chiropractor think? I’m so fucked.”
Davis Land: You have this new book coming out—what’s it called?
Rachel Bell: My book is a novella called Loving the Ocean Won’t Keep it from Killing You.
Davis Land: Why is it called that?
Rachel Bell: It’s a line from the book. The narrator says, about her abuser, “She loved him. But she also loved the ocean, and loving the ocean won’t keep it from killing you.”
Davis Land: I like that line a lot. I think it distills that tension within abuse that is hard to describe to people who haven’t experienced it—certainly something I have a hard time describing to some of my friends. Is this a story that is trying to teach some of those ideas?
Rachel Bell: Yes. I want people to read this book and either relate to it and learn from it, or have it feel totally foreign and learn from it. If you’ve been abused, this book might comfort you. If you haven’t, I hope it instills some empathy in you.
Davis Land: What can we expect from this book? Asking what it’s about feels a little reductive.
Rachel Bell: It’s about being a young woman and how hard that can be. It’s about trying to navigate sexuality in a world that suppresses it, and thus makes it more interesting to young people. Like a forbidden fruit.
Davis Land: That’s a theme you play with a lot, even beyond your writing, it seems. Like to promote this book you offered to send people that preordered a picture of your butt. That plays into that idea of sexuality being forbidden, but then it’s more interesting. Do you think your life/process/methodology as a writer allows you to reclaim sexuality?
Rachel Bell: I think honesty is admirable, so if someone wants to see my ass that’s fine. Maybe I’ll let them and maybe I won’t. I don’t know about reclaiming sexuality. Sometimes I get so frustrated by this that I just start crying. I love to wear what I want and go where I want but certain outfits and places mean I have to expect to be objectified. That sucks. I’m tired of feeling men’s eyes on me when I’m walking to the train. I’m tired of worrying that my nipples are hard when I’m not wearing a bra. I’m tired of wearing a sweatshirt in the heat so that men won’t see my breasts move when I walk. I’m so, so tired. And I have it easy. I’m a white girl. My life is easy compared to the majority of people. And it’s still hard.
Davis Land: It’s certainly not easy making that side of yourself so visible, especially as a woman. Is there a level of creepiness in some people’s reactions that ever makes you think engaging with that material isn’t worth it?
Rachel Bell: I delete so many comments on my posts. I wish I had kept a record of all of them. There are men who I would call some of my biggest supporters and I don’t know whether that’s because of how I look and act or because of how I write. I imagine it’s mostly the way I look, because my writing is geared towards young women. I’ll put up with that shit though, because I’m pursuing the thing I want to do.
Davis Land: What’s your favorite part of this new book? (can be section, something you did stylistically, the font, etc…)
Rachel Bell: I love the cover so much. My friend Tim Curley designed it for me. I also really like the ending, and there’s a part where the main character’s exboyfriend sends her mom a box of live lizards as revenge. I like that part a lot. Feels like modern day mystical realism, like that’s not something that would ever happen but the book doesn’t acknowledge it as strange.
Davis Land: Some people have weird ways of watching Star Wars, they’ll go like 4-5-2-3-6 or something. What’s the order that we should read the Rachel Bell saga, why? Where does this book fall into that?
Rachel Bell: The best way to watch Star Wars is to watch the scene in episode 2 where Anakin talks about how much he hates sand on repeat 36 times, then watch a supercut of every outfit Natalie Portman wears. I think my work is best read chronologically, but I might be biased because I like to watch myself grow.
Davis Land: You’re publishing with the same press, Pioneers Press, as your last book. I guess that means you like working with them? I get the feeling that working with different publishers can get super incongruent in process, even if it’s essentially the same goal: to sell books.
Rachel Bell: I do love to sell books. Pioneers Press has been such a blessing. I worked with them before ever meeting them, which feel special, and then, on my way home from SXSW 2016, they offered to let my friends and I stay at their farm in Leavenworth, Kansas. It was amazing. They have a goat named Edith who acts like a dog, she just follows you around and stands at the front door trying to come inside. I’m also passionate about the work they publish - it deals with queer issues, mental health, radical politics. My writing fits their catalog well and they’re enthusiastic about me. That feels good.
Davis Land: What was the process of working with them? Were there a lot of edits to your book?
Rachel Bell: I started talking to Adam Gnade in maybe early 2014? I liked that he lived on a farm with goats and I had read some of his work. Goats are my favorite animals. He offered to publish me eventually and I said yes. The first book was great so I continued to work with them. As far as edits go, there was one huge mistake in my book that he caught, thank god. Overall though, I didn’t make many changes.
Davis Land: A few months ago someone linked to a thread about you on 4chan’s /lit/ board. Two things I want to know about that: 1) what’s it like to stumble into conversations about yourself, to try and manage a name-recognition/popularity that isn’t necessarily up to you? 2) What’s your response to the haters?
Rachel Bell: That’s a good question, or two good questions. It’s surreal to see people talking about me online. It’s like hearing my name whispered across a room and then making eye contact with the person who said it. Except in real life I can approach the person and say what’s up, what’s going on, and I can assign an identity to the person. As far as haters go, I understand why someone might dislike who I was several years ago. I grew up in Indiana and didn’t learn a lot about social justice for a long time. I try to hold myself accountable for mistakes I have made, but also appreciate the hell out of people who have been patient enough to educate me and help me be better. The internet has been really good for that. My initial, immediate thought when I read this question was, “Haters sell books,” but there’s obviously much more to it than that. That’s just a cute reductive catchphrase.
Davis Land: What’s your response to the lovers?
Rachel Bell: Anyone who has supported me in any way makes me believe in a higher power. When I started writing I definitely didn’t have any grand plans - I never thought, “When I’m 23 my fourth book will be coming out!” It’s so cool that I’ve been able to do this, and it sounds cliche but I literally would not be doing this if it weren’t for the people who have supported me, by housing me on tour, by buying my books, by sharing my work with their friends, by liking my facebook page, my cooking me food, by Paypaling me when I couldn’t afford the morning after pill, by telling me everything is okay when I text them, “Can you tell me everything is okay?”, by kissing the top of my head, by letting me cry when I need to.
Davis Land: Now for some silly questions. I always love knowing random facts about people. What’s your favorite comfort food?
Rachel Bell: Mashed potatoes. I know that’s so lame. But I love them, they remind me of my grandma.
Davis Land: Favorite vegetable?
Rachel Bell: Broccoli is the shit. It’s like little trees.
Davis Land: What was the first website you were a member of?
Rachel Bell: NEOPETS. My username was sneezesneezesneeze.
Davis Land: What kind of bed covers do you have? (ex. I currently have a sheet and a cotton Ralph Lauren knitted blanket that I got on sale for $20)
Rachel Bell: I am obsessed with pillows. I have six to eight pillows on my bed at any time. One is a body pillow that I spoon when I sleep. Then I have three or four blankets. One is a huge faux down comforter because I’m allergic to goose down. I’m allergic to goose down and cats, which can make sleeping at other peoples’ houses really hard.
Rachel Bell lives in Chicago, IL. This is her fourth book.