Q&A with Meredith Maran, “The New Old Me: A Memoir”

Read Meredith Maran’s bio and you’ll meet a confident person: First poem published at age six (in Highlights for Kids, but still!), former assembly-line worker, exposé-writer, keynote speaker, and the author of 12 books and scores (hundreds?) of essays and book reviews.

But read Meredith Maran’s new memoir, “The New Old Me,” and you’ll meet a vulnerable woman: Newly divorced, a recent arrival to Los Angeles, and (fortunately) working a full-time job as a copywriter for a fashion company. She needs a home, friends, and a love life.

And Maran must accomplish the above, no mean feat for anyone of any age, at 60. As she navigates the landscape of a La-La Land that has no relation to the movie musical, the author demonstrates how tough it can be to retain your sense of self after you’ve left the woman you loved and thought you’d live with for the rest of your life.

BETHANNE PATRICK: When did you know you were going to write this book?

MEREDITH MARAN: On my drive to LA, —because hashtag memoirist! I thought, Goddamnit, if I’m going to cry this much, something good has to come out of it.

I spent the three years before I moved to Los Angeles fighting it out, trying to make my marriage work. I have to say, those were the three hardest years of my life. By the time I got in the car to drive to LA, I knew. It was supposed to be a three-month visit, a trial separation. But—and this is a scene in the book—I was winding my way up through Laurel Canyon the day I arrived and I saw the gardens and the obscene overgrowth of flora and it got inside of me immediately and I thought: Oh my god! What if by accident I actually came to the right place? I knew then that I was starting a new life even when I had no hope.

BP: You talk about going to Al-Anon meetings.

MM: I go to Al-Anon to keep my focus on myself. The message of Al-Anon—“I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, I can’t cure it”— was a big part of the healing when I got here. Learning to stay in my own lane made people start perceiving me in a way that was different from the me who’d been living in a war zone for three years. That was the true and deepest “starting over.”

BP: Do you feel as if Los Angeles became a character for you?

MM: Yeah, I do. . . .You know how you write a book and it’s like the circus clown car? That’s always how I feel when people start talking to me about a book I’ve written: they get more out of it than I put in, at least consciously.

I think a male writer would have written this book differently. It would have been more plot-driven and less character-driven. Most of the characters in the book are friends and lovers, but the co-protagonist is Los Angeles. It was such a relief to be distracted by the glitz and the glare of the glam and the magical sunlight. People often ask me how I can stand to live in La-La Land. I’m love it here.

Part of what made me fall in love with LA is that it’s a company town whose business is creativity. Old-timers say the city changed about 10 years ago, when TV changed. The Jill Soloway crowd, the more cerebral types who produce the brilliant cable series, have changed the culture here. L.A. feels like I felt while I was writing the book: someone who fell from grace and is trying to redeem herself, trying really hard to be a better version of herself. This town is the city of reinvention, the place where anything is possible.

When I was writing the book I was frustrated, trying to describe L.A. My writing buddy—Hannah in the book—told me to stop trying to describe it and start writing about how it makes me feel. That did the trick.

BP: Friendships are a very important part of your life and of this book, particularly those with other women.

MM: Last night I was watching When We Rise, a history of the gay movement, and they were talking about the fact that when AIDS hit, lesbians stepped in and took care of the men. At that same time, lesbians were getting breast cancer in record numbers, and the men weren’t taking care of us. Women are accustomed to rolling up our sleeves and cooking dinner on Tuesdays. No wonder we make such great friends!

When my editor at Blue Rider, Becky Cole, read my first draft, she said that the friendships between women (along with redemption) were really, really important to this book. She wrote me this very moving letter about what she felt, reading about my friendships. It took me aback because I didn’t realize how incredibly lucky I got, landing here and landing with these people.

There’s this sense in LA, that if we don’t live in a village, we’ll live in a wasteland. So people here create their own villages, and we hold onto our people, and they hold onto us. The competitiveness here, the spread-out geography, the hours we spend by ourselves on freeways, lays the groundwork for a certain, old-fashioned kind of friendship. If you’re lucky and determined enough, people really stick and they really are there for you and it’s really beautiful.

BP: Of course, when you arrived, before you met those friends, you were pretty much shattered.

MM: I was really broken down in a deep way, not just bummed out or depressed, not just because my marriage ended, but also because my wife was in a way the first person who wholeheartedly approved of me. My marriage made me feel more successful than I’d ever felt in my life. It mattered more to me than anything besides motherhood. So I was able to defer the work I needed to do on myself, to use a corny LA phrase, because I had someone who told me night and day how great I was and how much she loved me. I’d never had that. I knew I was good at certain things, but I didn’t believe I was overall worthy of adoration. My wife withdrew that endorsement, and when I got to LA I had to learn to give it to myself. That wasn’t going to happen overnight. I knew I’d wither and die if I didn’t have relationships to help me as I learned to be a better person, and think better of myself.

BP: Tell me why it’s so important to you to be married.

MM: I recently wrote a piece about gay marriage and gay divorce for The New York Times, and the last line in the draft was “Would I do it again? Never!” A friend read it and asked me, is that really true?

I’m so glad she challenged me. It made me realize that I would do it again, in a heartbeat, and that’s how I ended the piece. Despite the anguish of divorce, I do want to be married again, My groove is being married. My groove is what I consider to be the ultimate form of intimacy. I’m a love lover. Not a sex and love addict, a 1960s-style love lover. I live for love in all its many forms, but when it comes in a package that contains two people (or more—whatever works!) agree to have each other’s backs in that particular way, that’s what makes life rich and satisfying to me. I’ve gone a long time without it, now, and I’ve had a lot of conversations with my therapist, and with my editor: is it a flaw that I don’t feel fully myself when I’m not in a partnership? The answer is, I don’t care. I don’t care why I’m a writer and I don’t care why being coupled makes me so happy. What makes me unhappy is how hard it is to achieve in a healthy way. I feel so empowered in other areas of my life. There are very few things I don’t manage to either get, or get over! But partnership? That’s not something you can make happen.

BP: And why is it so particularly important for you to be someone’s “wife?”

MM: When my wife and I started using that word to describe our relationship, before we were able to be legally married, we did it as much for political reasons as because it felt true. In the 1990s, it blew a lot of people’s minds, and I’m in the mind-blowing business, in case you hadn’t noticed! In part it’s a remedy for what I feel when my dear straight friends say “my husband.” I feel punched in the stomach by the weight of it, the import of it, the support for it that gay people didn’t have until recently. I don’t think it’s privilege to marry, legally or not. I think it’s a right. Saying that I want to be a wife is a reclaiming and a redefining of what has been a very oppressive word.

Sex is very important to me, too: doing it, and writing about it. I have friends in their 60s and 70s who are also having sexual rennaissances, and why shouldn’t we? Because we’re not 26-year-old hotties? Sex is as much a part of my life as it was when I was a teenager, when I was a free-love hippie, when I was married to a man, to my wife. Sex can be oppressive or liberating, and so can marriage.

BP: Let’s talk about having sex after a divorce.

MM: Once I faced the fact that my marriage was truly over, I knew that having sex again was necessary to crossing the bridge, going to a new land, leaving my marriage behind. I knew that I wasn’t anywhere near ready for a relationship. So I put out a pretty explicit call to friends, and they helped me find a woman who would bring me back to sex in a kind, fun, and therapeutic way. That started the ball rolling, so to speak. Since then, I’ve had the kind of experiences that I would have had in my 20s and 30s if I hadn’t always been married to one person or another! I’m as surprised as anyone that during the past few years I’ve found people—women, mostly but not exclusively—who are up for the kind of sexual adventures I thought only much younger people had. I’m quite proud of that!

Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t all fun. I cried myself to sleep more than once about the failure of a relationship or two that I hoped would flower into more. I spent years worrying that my happy marriage had ruined me for another relationship. My friends kept telling me that I’d know when I found the right person, and they encouraged me to keep looking. They asked me, “How do you think you’re going to get from single to married if you don’t get to know different people?” They were right. Those encounters were a good parsing exercise. They helped me understand what I’m actually looking for. They also made me face the fact that I was looking for what I had and that’s gone. I need to look for something different, stay open to something different and wonderful..

I was catching up with a friend recently and shes aid, “Every time we see each other you have another girlfriend!” She meant it admiringly, but I felt a little shamed. I’ve enjoyed my La-La adventures. But my own values and my own deepest desires are pointing me toward partnership.

BP: Along with sex there seems to have been a lot of drinking.

MM: There was a lot of excess involved; I never said no to anything. Saying yes is freeing and fun and a little scary sometimes—but it doesn’t necessarily lead to the big yes. Among other changes I’ve made since I finished writing the book, I’ve stopped drinking. I don’t want to say any more about that; it’s very much a work in progress.

One of the most powerful messages I want the book to impart is the right of an older woman to be fully in her sexuality. I came of age in the most non-traditional way, living in communes, “creating a new world from the ashes of the old,” and it really shaped me. For the first time in my life, post-divorce, I was truly free to do whatever I wanted sexually. I didn’t know if I was capable of finding, let alone enjoying, recreational sex. Well, guess what? I could!

My favorite Bob Dylan quote is, “To live outside the law you must be honest. That is how I’ve attempted to live my life—often outside the law, in one way or many ways, and as often as I could, with honesty. Having fun affairs, especially between women, requires a level of honesty that is far too difficult for most people. I was surprised to be able to find lesbians who would engage with me on those terms. Most of the women I dated were 5-20 years younger than I am. There just aren’t many 65-year-old lesbians who roll like that.

BP: Why is having sex so essential for older women?

MM: It’s not just have sex to have sex. Sex is one of the most efficient and fun ways to keep your vitality. It’s “For medicinal purposes,” if nothing else. That aliveness is one thing you definitely don’t want to lose!

Women are shamed with sex coming and going, so to speak. Shame and sex are built into the same helixes in our DNA. “Do have it? You’re a slut. Don’t have it? You’re a prude.” The whole point of feminism is choice. And choosing what pleases us sexually, what keeps us vibrant and humming at any age, is our birthright.

 


Bethanne Patrick is the Co-Executive Editor for ROAR, a position she has been training for since childhood, when she organized games of “newsroom” in her basement, and always made the assignments. When she’s not emailing Sarah and Jeet, she can be found reviewing books for The Washington Post and NPR, acting as a contributing editor at Lit Hub, and working on her novel. Just kidding–she’s usually reading, which is why she is also the Books & Media editor for ROAR. Patrick is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

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