Alexandra Auder

On Feminist Triads, Mining the Failures of Selfhood, and Maggie Nelson Impersonation

Cover of Alexandra Auder: On Feminist Triads, Mining the Failures of Selfhood, and Maggie Nelson Impersonation

Alexandra Auder was Chris Meehan’s first love. I met Chris in New Orleans in the late 90s, a few years after he and Alex graduated from Bard college. We clicked. A charismatic and flamboyant storyteller, Chris waxed nostalgic about Alex his ex all the time; how Alex grew up in the Chelsea Hotel, how her dad (photographer and filmmaker Michel Auder) filmed her mother Viva (the Viva Superstar) giving birth to her, how Alex had a fling with Vincent Gallo, how Alex could perform a one-arm handstand. I thought it was hyperbole; then I met her. 


Alex and I reconnected in Italy last summer at a creative retreat she organized at the grandly decrepit Villa Bice, the Tuscan villa where Mark Twain stayed before he went broke. Since then, we see each other over Zoom on weekday mornings in Chelsea Hodson’s Morning Writing Club. I think we both benefit from structure. We recently talked over e-mail about Alex’s new memoir Don’t Call Me Home, which has been praised and blurbed by literary royalty – Eileen Myles, Maggie Nelson, Lynne Tillman, Hilton Als. Reader note: I edited the extra !!! and some of the CAPS, but left a few for the sake of authenticity and to capture the bravura of Alex Auder’s voice.


Marin Kosut: I love the title Don’t Call Me Home and how it doesn’t directly reference the Chelsea. It could have been “Warhol’s in the Water,” something dorky like that. How’d you come up with it?


Alexandra Auder: Hahahah! Warhol’s in the Water! I must be honest. And you are hearing this for the first time. Someone else gave me the title. Gasp! I’ve never admitted it publicly. But maybe I had come up with a version. I’m not even sure anymore. I love the title—and I can say that because I didn’t come up with it. If I were a man, I could say it if I DID come up with it. Simple answer: It’s a line from a Nico song called “Little Sister.” It’s also a play on Thomas Wolfe’s (I have to look up the spelling of his name EVERY time I write it), “You Can’t Go Home Again” which he wrote at the Chelsea. Nostalgia, the sickness of longing. I love the way it can be read in multiple ways. Don’t tell me to come home right now or ever. Me saying: Don’t use me as your safety net. The building, the city, saying: Don’t think of me as your home sweet home, I’ll throw you out. My mother saying: I’m not going to parent you the way you want/need. Me saying: I’m not going to parent you, I’m not your home. The world saying: Don’t get too comfortable. The mind saying: Don’t call me home.


MK: Memory is the meat of the memoir. I was struck by how much you remember from your childhood and early teen era and your vivid narration. Of course, Michel documented much of your childhood on film/video and in photographs, beginning with your actual birth, so there is a unique visual archive to draw from. And Viva wrote and published about her own life as well. I’m wondering how your memories are situated within these constellations of artifacts and documents, and if you reflected upon them consciously as you wrote.


AA: I think Michel’s videos allowed me to confidently start from the beginning – and I mean “beginning” in a literal way. I found it funny to start the memoir from a first-person account of my own birth. And this also felt sort of satirically male in that Art Monster-y way: I am THIS important! I will start with my birth!  I had to grapple with the fact that my early memories had been hijacked by Michel’s video camera. But once I decided to use them, to transcribe them, it was freeing. To let myself somatically embody the images. Because, after all, I did experience what I was seeing on screen. I found using Michel’s visual work as a tool easier than using my mother’s books. I shied away from reading them again when I wrote this final version of my own story. Maybe my mother’s books were too close to what I was doing, too raw, too much to handle and then try to digest and make my own. But, I do think that my mother writing those great books freed me up to write my own, gave me license, and inspired me for sure. Once I got past writing the stories from my early childhood, I felt like I totally owned the material. The material being my memory. It felt very separate from what Michel and Viva had materialized. That said, Viva probably wouldn’t agree. She thinks I made it all up. 


MK: This book for me is a kind of feminist manifesto. A story of three women (Viva & you, and then later your sister Gaby [actor Gabby Hoffman]) banding together to make rent, live authentically, be artists, trouble makers. Men came and went, but you had the triad, the holy trinity. Did Viva ever talk about feminism? 


AA: The holy trinity! Cool, I never even realized this. Yeah, Viva did talk about it. She didn’t often, in my memory, use the word “feminism” but she was in an almost daily rant about how women are treated like shit. Of course, she also ranted about cunty other women. But the majority of her rants were about what fucking cocksuckers men are (and she didn’t mean cocksucking gay men, she loved gay men, though she also thought they hated women, but that’s another story).  Listening to her as a child, I learned a lot about clitoridectomy, the misogyny of the birthing industrial complex, the misogyny of family court, the misogyny of the commercial surrogate-mother industry, everyday sexism on the streets, and more.


MK: I recently took Alexander Chee’s craft seminar “What I learned about the essay while editing Best American Essays.” I’ve been thinking about what I learned, how the idea of personal growth, exploiting the self to glean wisdom, and/or the memoir (and essay) as a story of becoming is standard. Like when Vivian Gornick writes “A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom.” What’s your take on the conventions of writing the self?  I’m resistant to this thinking, this growth, I feel like it traffics on the edge of self-help and it’s too tidy, too American. 


AA: I’m jealous you took that seminar. I thought about it, then suddenly you are telling me you did it and it’s over. I’m so resistant to “growth.” I have always been told I have to present a problem and solve it, you know? Like, in order to get my memoir published there had to be transformation within the narrative arc. I don’t think I’ve ever felt transformation in real life. Sustained transformation, that is. Maybe for five or ten minutes at a time I’ve felt “wow, things have changed” or “I’m enlightened” or “I’ve resolved this issue!” or “I LOVE life” or “god is love” or “I am such a good mother” or “I’ll never act that way again, now I see the light.” Then the issue comes back, I’m miserable again, I’m a cunt of a mother, and I’m doing exactly what I said I’ll never do again, and god is dead. Cue: hello darkness my old friend. Well, that’s the writing of the self, I guess, that’s what I’m interested in— the failures of selfhood. Coming up short in between small windows of insight. There is certainly a “shaping” as Gornick says; an exploitation for sure! I feel the exploitation the most. I don’t mind it. How can I exploit my persona to shape the story while also, for laughs – for oomph — briefly drop the persona, but not too much, otherwise it’s too self-indulgent. Someone said a terrible memoir is one where the memoirist loves herself too much, but the opposite must be true as well. I think when writing the self you can’t be afraid to turn self into a story. Otherwise, it’s a list of memories. That could be boring. And there’s nothing worse than being boring. Maybe cruelty is worse. But cruelty can be really entertaining. Until it’s not. Is this wisdom?


MK: Your voice is effortlessly natural on the page. Don’t Call Me Home sounds like you – the way you speak in person, sound in e-mails, etc. But there’s a difference between everyday forms of speech and polished writing that sounds natural.  I’m not sure what my question is, perhaps you can talk about how writing involves much labor to appear unlaborious. 


AA: I was SO worried about NOT sounding like myself! In fact, after copy editing the final draft, my biggest worry was that it was not funny at all. I was like: is this a YA book? Nothing against YA books but that’s not what I intended. I just deleted everything that sounded pretentious or ingenuine when I read it over aloud. You know, I tried a few pages where I did a really bad job at a Maggie Nelson impersonation. I got all critical-minded and self-reflective and referential. Oy vey, it was no good. I won’t lie: getting the book to the form it is presently in—and unchangeable—was arduous. So. Many. Drafts. And there is still stuff I would change if I could! Lines I hate. Repetitive words that stab me in the guts when I read them aloud. 


MK: Maggie Nelson impersonation is hilarious! I think she spawned a lot of imitators, but you need to know your theory, ya know? 


AA: Yeah, ya really do. Maggie makes it look easy, but clearly, it’s not. I am so attracted to work that weaves criticism/theory with personal story/Self, but at the end of the day I think I’m just an old-fashioned storyteller with the ultimate goal of making people laugh.  


MK: You started out very young as an actor, then after college found your way to teaching yoga to earn a living. Were you always writing alongside the other projects you pursued? I’m curious if writing was a constant and how it fit(s) into your life now.


AA: My instinct here is to say no. But if I’m honest—it’s a yes! I was always writing. I have a lot of unfinished scripts, essays about yoga shit, hate letters, a weird play based on the book called “Since I Can’t Publish My Memoir Let Me Perform It For You.”  But I never had a truly consistent writing practice. Now I do. For the last few years, while I was writing the book (the final published version), I wrote almost every day. Once I finished it, I went right into a new project because I was scared to lose the momentum. Then you turned me onto Morning Writing Club and it stuck. Although, I will admit, during this book launch I’ve slacked big time. And I hate myself for it. I hate myself for loving myself so much that all I do is promote my book. See, it’s really boring to read about someone hating themselves too much. Let’s try this: I LOVE myself for writing every day! Ugh, worse. Let’s go back to hating myself. 


MK: I like receiving feedback on drafts, especially when I get some friction. Did you share your memoir with others informally or in a workshop setting? Or squirrel away and then do a mic drop? Like, blam bitches.


AA: I question everything I write. In fact, I am in awe of writers who do the “blam, bitches.” I still can’t even decide on punctuation! I need input, opinion, praise. I don’t always listen, but even opinions I don’t agree with still help me. I had some women friends—two—who generously read a couple of drafts at least. And my editor at Viking—I relied on her input. I fought for some stuff I wanted, but I generally agreed with her. I would have had twice the amount of stories had it not been edited. Probably for the worse. I do very messy initial drafts. I need to re-write a fuck-ton. Once in a while I know something’s good and I trust myself. I’m good at endings, which is odd, because I hate to leave a party. 


MK: The first version of Don’t Call Me Home was fiction or autofiction and remained on the back burner for about twenty years or so before you revised it as a memoir. Have you considered returning to fiction or are you mainly interested in writing nonfiction? 


AA: I WANT to write fiction but it feels so wrong! In the last story I wrote, the one I’ve been working on in Morning Writing Club, it’s autofiction for sure (I’m shy to use that word), but I still must remind myself: it is OK to make things up. I so much admire fiction writers. It seems like magic. Like music, which I have no clue how people make. I get stuck on something in the story — the timeline — and chant to myself: make it up, make it up, invent it, choreograph it, manipulate it to fit the story, make it up!


MK: What are you working on now? 


AA: I’m trying to write a short-but-now-way-too-long story about a family trip. It’s us; my husband and two kids. I wrote one draft in third person with no names. I was too chicken to even make up names, it was just: The Girl, The Boy, The Wife, yadda yadda. Didn’t work. Switched it to first person with new names, not our own. The truth is I simply just want to use our real names and tell the truth. Help me. 


MK: The heart of your memoir is family. You and Viva, then and now, the messy mother/child bond. I think the casual reader would think some of Viva’s antics were beyond questionable, possibly verging on call the authorities. When I read it, I was jealous, Viva was/is so fucking liberated. Ahead of her time in terms of lots of stuff, especially body liberation and sexual liberation. I can see that in you.


AA: Thanks, yeah, I do feel I have body liberation and I’m not shy to admit it. I did, I guess, what we are not supposed to do and read some of my Goodreads reviews. One person wrote something like “god what messed up life this girl had!” and “she made my skin crawl with descriptions of her mother’s actions” and “the heroin addicted father was the more stable parent.” It’s strange because while I clearly intended for the story to be read in this way, I still bristle a bit when readers think Viva is SO FUCKED UP. I feel just ever so slightly defensive. I’m moved that you get her, that you can read between the lines and see how ahead of her time she was. Gaby and I both celebrate exactly what you just said—that we imbibed the body freedom from her. To be honest, though, I’m not that sexually liberated. In fact, Marin, I have a pretty good feeling you are way more sexually liberated than I am. Once the door is closed, I’m sort of bashful, sexually. 


MK: For your NYC book launch you stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. What was it like in the gentrified upgraded version? Any nostalgia or ghosts? 

AA: I wish you had come that night—back to the Chelsea with us. I had so much fun. That said, I had to let go of my fury about how it all went down. I wanted to have the launch party at the Chelsea and “the man” said he’d give me a deal. The deal was: $10,500 for three hours in the piano bar with some trays of food and some drinks. This supposed “deal” took months to negotiate—at first with the Chelsea’s “events planners” and finally with “the man” (whom I know, but that obviously meant nothing to him). Meanwhile, the lobby bar has a $32 cocktail called The Viva Superstar. On the Chelsea website there is an old picture of Michel and Viva sitting on a bed in one of the rooms. It enraged me that they were using my broke mother’s name to sell fucking cocktails while trying to charge me a year’s worth of school payments to enter my own home—so, Don’t Call me Home, motherfuckers. Of course, though, I’m a ho, so when Viking said they’d pay for us to stay two nights at the Chelsea during the launch I didn’t hesitate. We had a huge suite two floors above my old apartment, same views out the back, towards downtown. Obviously, it was forty million dollars fancier than when we lived there, but with the same view. I roamed the halls at three am by myself, stood outside my old door listening for life, felt the parallel lines of time, stole a bathrobe, some sheets, stationary, and planned to sic my mother on the “the man” once the launch was over.



Alexandra Auder is a writer and actor. Born in New York City to mother Viva, a Warhol superstar, and father Michel Auder, an award-winning filmmaker who directed Chelsea Girls with Andy Warhol. Alexandra has been a featured character in HBO’s High Maintenance and has acted in the films of Wim Wenders and Jodie Foster, among others. She resides in Philadelphia with her two children and husband, filmmaker Nick Nehez, with whom she co-produces and collaborates.



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