Interview with Erin Judge, Author of "Vow of Celibacy"

Interview with Erin Judge, Author of "Vow of Celibacy"
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This is a book for anyone who doesn’t have a positive body image. For Natalie it was weight, for me it was my patent uncoolness. (Braces, glasses, bad clothes, too many right answers in class—you get the picture.)

This is a book for anyone who continually dated people who didn’t want to be seen with them for any reason. If you have hidden in the shadows, this book is for you.

If you have had a best friend who saved you and/or a critical or complicated family, this book is for you.

If you are a bisexual woman, you will love this book. If you are not a bisexual woman but a woman who owns her sexuality and has felt shamed because of it, I am betting that you will also love this book.

It’s heart ripping and funny and marvelously written. It’s a book I want to keep forever, and also have copies on hand to give to my friends.

In Vow of Celibacy, Natalie, a plus-sized bisexual woman, is trying to restrain herself in a variety of ways, starting with her sexuality. It’s a story of being unrestrained, of people putting restraints on you, and of trying to figure out who to keep and who to let go of. Judge’s tight prose moves quickly, and her characters are fully-formed and complicated. I couldn’t wait to get to the end, but dreaded finishing the book, because I didn’t want it to be over.

I primarily read memoir, so it took me a minute to realize that Natalie wasn’t a real person. I want to go hang out with her and drink wine, eat chocolate, talk all night. I still can’t believe she isn’t out there somewhere, designing clothes and just waiting to be my best friend.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, Erin Judge must be totally cool too, since she wrote this book and is also a stand-up comedian. I’m sure she could be my new best friend in the way that I was once sure that Christina Aguilera would totally be my new best friend if only she got to meet me. Yes, I have a tendency towards fan-girl-ism even though I am 43 and ¾ years old. I now mainly restrict my rabid adoration to writers, so when the Director of Publicity at Rare Bird Books offered to let me interview her, of course I took him up on it. Since I know that public figures tend to have an aversion to rabid fangirls, I figured it was wiser to email her questions than to ask for her number.

Q: First of all, we are both daughters of lesbians. I’m only recently finding fellow queerspawn online, and I am pretty enthused to meet other women with similar upbringings. In Queerspawn in Love, Kellen Anne Kaiser wrote that she felt more open to the idea of bisexuality because of her lesbian moms, but her moms were not closeted. For me, it was the opposite. As a teenager, I was constantly trying to prove my straightness, and any attraction I felt towards women filled me with shame. In The Advocate you wrote about a similar sense of existential angst around being bisexual, and that you didn’t act on it until you were living far from home. Natalie has heterosexual parents, and much less angst about kissing girls in high school. How much do you think your mom’s sexuality affected your own sexuality, if at all? E.g., do you think you might have felt differently if they weren’t so closeted? Did you feel like society expected you to kiss girls? Did you feel it was genetic and therefore something to be defied?

Well, my mom actually identifies as bisexual. Her partner passed away in 2006, and since then my mother has been involved with men. And when I was growing up, my mom and her partner were definitely in the closet. We lived in North Texas, in the Dallas suburbs, and being gay was pretty much the worst thing you could be. I knew I liked girls, and this caused me tremendous anxiety, especially because this was around the launch of the Human Genome project, and everyone was abuzz about how they might isolate the Gay Gene. That freaked me the hell out! So yeah, I was pretty determined to keep that side of my sexuality hidden. Towards the end of high school, I kissed some girls, but I didn’t feel at all comfortable coming out. But then I got to college, and I met people from more accepting environments. My friend who grew up in Santa Cruz, CA, knew a few kids raised by lesbian parents. And several of my peers at college had come out in high school. I realized that my experience wasn’t the only story out there. And of course, I became a lot more comfortable with who I already knew I was, and I came out as bi.
In Vow of Celibacy, Natalie comes from a community more like my college friends’ hometowns. She’s comfortable coming out in high school. I really wanted to play with what can happen with that scenario: when you’re the out person, and everyone in your class knows. That element leads Natalie into one particularly interesting situation in the book!

Q. I liked how you addressed some bisexual stereotypes in this book. For example, Natalie never has a thing for her best friend Staze, though she clearly loves her dearly. You joke in your stand-up about being attracted to everyone, or everyone being your type, but obviously, it’s not how it really works. I also liked how one of your lesbian characters is actually not a love-yourself-women-are-all-beautiful type of lesbian, but rather is as harsh in her attractive bias as many men. Did you set out to make certain points, or did the characters naturally evolve?

I definitely wanted to put female friendship at the center of the book, and I wanted to show a kind of love that does not involve romance or sex, which is why the relationship between Natalie and Staze gets so much focus. With the lesbian character you refer to – Alex – I wanted to create a character who desperately wants to conform to society’s standards, who always wants to “win” life based on some unstated and narrow social rules. Like all of these characters, Alex is based on some people I’ve known over the years. It seems like such a painful way to live, to want so badly to conform and to live in fear of what might happen if you slip. So I wanted to play with that in this book, especially given the main theme, which is how Natalie consistently fixates on people who keep her a secret.

Q: Natalie has what to me seems like a dream job. Do you have any experience with the fashion industry? Do you feel that the experience of doing stand-up comedy up on a stage, with everyone looking at you, is in some ways similar to modeling?

In 2005, when I was a baby stand-up comedian in Boston, the Improper Bostonian magazine did a photo spread of local comics all dressed up as classic comedians. I was on the cover as Lucille Ball. The woman who styled that spread was the fashion editor of the magazine, and we became friends. And a few years later, I co-hosted a comedy show in Boston with a hilarious comic and storyteller named Bethany Van Delft, who also worked as a model. So everything those two women exposed me to really helped shape the part of the book that focuses on Natalie’s career. Stand-up, fortunately for me, feels nothing like modeling, because what matters is what I’m saying. I really don’t like people looking at me unless I’m making them laugh. Making them laugh intentionally!!!

Q: I have been told that the best way to learn to write tight, plot-driven prose is to study stand-up comedians. Do you think that your comedic work contributed to the overall tightness and flow of the novel? Or was it the opposite—that your brain is wired to form short, tight, bits, and the longer project was daunting? I mean, funny voices and dramatic pauses don’t translate well on the page.

That’s so interesting! I haven’t heard that. I think my prose is more character-driven, which probably has a lot to do with my stand-up. I do a lot of characters in my act. But another key element of my approach as a writer is my focus on the reader’s experience. Stand-up is entirely audience-focused. You can love a joke with your whole heart, but if you try it in front of a few different audiences and it gets nothing, then you have to let it go. So I think my stand-up background helped me to build a fast pace and create an engaging narration with this book, by keeping me focused on the experience of the reader.

Q: You call stand-up “a cult of compulsive public honesty” yet you chose to write a novel, not a memoir. What made fiction the best vehicle to tell this story?

Vow of Celibacy is not my story. Natalie is bi, like me, and a plus-sized redhead, like me, but, unlike me, she comes from a pretty typical suburban family background. Her relationship patterns are nothing like my own. She comes out in high school. Her college experience and her career and her friendships are pretty different from my own. I really wanted to invent something new with this book, and to bring in elements from many different themes that interested me: How does it feel to grow up in the shadow of famous parents? What is it like to get involved with somebody who claims he would never date outside his religion? How does a person who prefers to stay behind the scenes take control of her career? That last one is a pivotal struggle for both Natalie and Staze, and it’s what ties their arcs together in this book.

Q: Someone said that every character in a book resides in some aspect of the writer. As I see it, you share some characteristics with Natalie, but you and Staze are both writers. Are these characters different aspects of yourself, perhaps an interplay between the cerebral and the corporeal?

I really don’t identify with Staze. She’s her own interesting and amazing person, and, like most of my characters, is cobbled together from various people I’ve known, with some completely made-up stuff thrown in there too. She’s also a very different kind of writer than I am; I’ll admit, I’m actually a little envious of writers with Serious Literary Minds like Staze. Natalie and I have more in common, but honestly I think she’s just much more relatable than I am. I wanted her to confront problems and issues I’ve seen too many women face, and I wanted her to come out on top. Ultimately, I hope these characters feel relatable to readers, and that they inspire young women from different backgrounds and with different personalities to be bold and take risks and value themselves and get out of their own way.

Q. What are working on now? Please tell me you have another book in the works!

Right now I’m working on a bunch of scripts. I’ve got a couple of pilots in the works, including an adaptation of Vow of Celibacy. I’d be so great to see a TV show out there about plus size models. I think audiences would love it. On the book front…to be honest, I was working on a second novel, but since the election, it doesn’t feel quite relevant anymore. I’m sure I’m not the only novelist experiencing this feeling right now. I’m hoping to spend some time this summer going back and re-framing it in this uncertain and messed up situation we find ourselves in. But no matter how it takes shape, I really only like to write entertaining and uplifting stories. I think optimism and hope are so necessary, even–maybe especially–in the context we’re living in now.

Vow of Celibacy, Winner of Best Fiction Award by the Bisexual Writers Association and Nominated for Writer of the Year by the Bisexual Writers Association is available at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, IndieBound, or your local bookseller. I was given a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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