| Written by:
this Issue of Curve:
Ali Liebegott’s new novel The Beautifully Worthless (Suspect Thoughts) is part epic poem, part love letter, part to-do list and part road trip opus. The narrator, a runaway waitress, leaves her girlfriend in search of Camus, Idaho, after having a prophetic dream back home in Brooklyn. Along the way she loses her mind, confuses her sexuality and explores the twin meanings of love and hope. Compassionate, heartbreaking and original, Liebegott’s new book has Michelle Tea declaring her “a genius.”
You experiment with multiple genres and varying tones in this book — witty, heartbroken, casual, elegant — all in 150 pages. What was it like working on so many different levels at once?
I’ve actually never thought about that. I think I have such terrible ADD that the different kinds of writing made sense at different times. Like sometimes the voice inside me was a poem and sometimes a to-do list. I really like cross-genre things. There’s something really paralyzing and horrifying to try and write a shopping list and have your soul fall out. I think about all the times the inside part of my life meets the outside world. Once I was waitressing and I was having such a bad day, maybe breaking up with my girlfriend or something, and I had to waitress through my whole shift sobbing. That was the reality. I couldn’t not go to work and I didn’t have a job in a backroom filing alone. It was this moment of things slopping over. At the time I wasn’t into it, even though I think that was the only day that the customers weren’t assholes, but I’m really interested in those moments of life.
Michelle Tea, Eileen Myles and Joan Larkin have all sung the praises of your book. What has the reception of The Beautifully Worthless been like for you?
It’s been great. People have said really kind things to me and I think they’ve meant them. It was great touring [with] it, and I still like reading from it. I’m really proud of this book. I’m trying to do the 234th draft of my novel right now because I really want to feel about it like I do about this book. And I’m also trying to finish an illustrated novel, and I just really want to feel about both projects, when they’re done, like I do about The Beautifully Worthless.
Do you see any of yourself in the narrator? Have you ever wanted to just say “fuck it” and embark on an ill-planned postmodern cross-country quest?
It’s actually 97 percent true. I’ll let you guess about which 3 percent isn’t. At the time I didn’t know it was an ill-planned trip. I’ll never forget being surprised that you couldn’t get motel rooms for twelve dollars. I mean this was 1988. Talk about living under a rock.
What’s the queer lit scene in San Diego like?
You know, I barely leave my house with the exception of going to work, so I’m probably not the best person to ask. But Anna Joy Springer and Jenny Donovan host a monthly feminist and queer open mic and performance/reading called T.M.I. And there’s another girl, Abby, who hosts an open mic called Siren. I know a lot of young writers from teaching at UCSD, but only a few queer writers from school.
I’m really struck by the kind of temporal shift that happens midway. We lost what feels like several years at once. Were those parts of the book written at different times? Was there material you trimmed out for publication?
I was writing it for years and the mid-section was a “bottom” of sorts, emotionally. I was living alone on a farm with my dog, basically going crazy and being the guy from The Shining. Later, I realized the book was sort of an excavation of depression or sadness or something, and then I looked at everything I had and figured out how to put it together. But I wrote hundreds of pages that never made it in the book. The main road trip was written in a month or so and then worked and re-worked, but the ending was written five years before I finished the book, and I didn’t even know it was the ending when I wrote it. I literally wrote the last stanza in a campsite on a manual typewriter somewhere in God-knows-where Utah or Idaho.
What about the road trip theme appealed to you?
It just seemed like a journey from the get-go. I was looking for a place where sadness wasn’t. And I tried to locate that literally. Then when I started reading lots of epics to get information on how to write one, most were journeys, and it made sense to me. I really hate road trips now. I’ve driven across the country so many times, because of moving or touring or freaking out, that I’d be happy to never do it again. It’s okay with people if you’re touring, but I just hate being in the car that long eating McDonald’s for weeks.
The narrator of this books is painfully disconnected from the people in her life, but she never stops trying to connect. Is that a comment on hope?
Is she disconnected? She doesn’t really have anyone in her life. Peter? Lamby? They’re all figments or fantasies or left behind. With the exception of Rorschach, it’s almost hard to tell who is even a real person and what are real events to me. Even the town Camus isn’t a real place. I do think it’s a book about hope, though. That might sound insane, like “I hit you because I love you,” but she does continue looking for hope. Most people do though, I think. They just don’t document every hour of the looking …
What’s beautifully worthless?
I am obsessed with pennies and their uselessness to people. How people won’t stop to pick them up because they’re not worth bending over for. Or I constantly had to make a decision when sweeping a floor if there was a penny in the dustpan to pick it out of the pile of dog hair and cigarettes or not. There is a morality issue for me in a way, like who would just throw out a penny. Waster. Ungrateful Loser. So usually, I’d pick them out. My grandma brought me up by telling me never to take my eyes off the ground because there might be a penny. And she had my brother and I shove our fingers in every filthy coin return on payphones and newspaper stands looking for money, so I feel like I grew up with this really ingrained version of the value of spare change. Do I sound insane? Anyway, I love how when pennies decay they turn that gorgeous green. And it just felt like here was this thing that people think is worthless, but look at that gorgeous green. Or, look at all the things a penny can do. It can be smashed on the train track by a train wheel or glued over a door lock as an act of vandalism or … and on and on. So I had this idea about all the items in life that people consider worthless and how probably there is value or alternative uses in all of them. Including us.