Danielle Chelosky

On Immortalizing Yourself Through Writing, Annie Ernaux, The Pressure to Publish Young, and Her Debut Novel ‘Pregaming Grief’

Cover of Danielle Chelosky: On Immortalizing Yourself Through Writing, Annie Ernaux, The Pressure to Publish Young, and Her Debut Novel ‘Pregaming Grief’

I don’t remember how I first came across Danielle Chelosky’s work, but I know it was somewhere on the internet and that I was moved enough by it that I instantly wanted more. Shortly after, I found her website (or maybe it was her “X” account) and I saw that she’d just finished a zine and was mailing them out. I ordered one, excited by the DIY aesthetic reminiscent of times when art felt purer, and a week or so later, reading the hand-stapled book, I remember thinking, I’m excited for what this writer does next.

Fast-forward a couple of years later, and I read her debut novel, Pregaming Grief (Short Flight/Long Drive, 2024), in two all-consuming days. The novel (which, in conversation with Danielle, she slips in and out of discussing it as a type of confessional before finally referring to it as autofiction) is written as a 2nd person address from the female protagonist (also named Danielle) to an ex-boyfriend. She writes about their ill-fated love, her forays into sex with other men (namely, Andrew, a man more than a decade older than her), heavy drinking, and writing. In prose as intoxicating as infatuation, Chelosky captures an all too familiar girlhood rite of passage: falling under the influence of an older man and abandoning the self to become something else—desired.

At every turn, Danielle’s love interest, Andrew, remains unreachable, seemingly only available to fill her with alcohol, niche facts about culture, and rough sex. Despite his remove, the narrator returns over and over again to his apartment desperate to consume what he represents: a portal to adulthood, an education of sorts.

Inspired by master of confessional Annie Ernaux, Chelosky’s work is a painfully authentic depiction of what it means to yearn for a person who is a symbol and how we make ourselves pliable for the objects of our desires.

I spoke with Danielle via Zoom about cultural obsessions with youth, writing confessional fiction, and her first book, Pregaming Grief.

 

Shelby Hinte: I wanted to start by talking to you about your age. You’re 23, right?

Danielle Chelosky: Yes.

SH: I wanted to bring up age first because a lot of Pregaming Grief is about age, but also a lot of the publicity and social media has been related to your age as a writer. I’m curious to hear from you what role you think age, or your age specifically, plays in writing and publishing.

DC: I’ve been writing since I was like a kid, and I feel like I’ve always been in a rush to write a novel. Like it was my dream for my whole life. And when I was a teenager, I was like, time is running out. I have to write the next Great American Novel and I set this deadline for myself. Because I was like, if I don’t write a book before I’m twenty, then no one’s going to care. I thought I had to be some kind of teenage prodigy or something. But I feel that pressure exists for women. I’m kind of thinking of Olivia Rodrigo right now because that’s a big part of her last album. There was a song where a lyric was like, is anyone going to care in a few years? She is like twenty now and probably wrote it when she was like nineteen. So much of her publicity is about how young she is. People say that about me all the time when they’re complimenting me: she’s so good; she’s so young. It’s weird. I remind myself that Toni Morrison wrote her first book at like thirty-nine, I think. So I don’t know how much of it is actually true, or how much of that pressure is realistic. I didn’t have to write a novel before I was twenty, but there’s just this pressure.

SH: Where do you think that fear of not being remembered or not having something published by a certain age comes from for you?

DC: Probably my intense fear of death. 

SH: There’s an interesting line in Pregaming Grief where someone says to the narrator, you don’t have to have all these toxic sexual encounters to immortalize them in your writing. And there does sort of feel like the book is a little bit about trying to immortalize the self. Do you think a lot about your writing in relation to fear of death?

DC: I mean, I don’t think about it because if I start thinking about my fear of death, then I’ll just spiral. But I do feel like one of my goals in writing is immortalizing relationships that are important to me. It’s definitely complicated because with this book, I feel like I probably shouldn’t have wanted to immortalize relationships that were causing me such pain. But also, by immortalizing them and writing about them, I feel a little bit better about them because people can read it and feel things. I don’t know what they’re going to feel, but just people experiencing it with me, even though it’s in the past, kind of helps.

SH: One of the things that you write about, is writing and art that deals with making real people part of its subject. At one point, you write about dating a guy with a podcast and hearing him directly address your narrator on an episode. And then later in the book you share numerous scenes where people are either asking your narrator to write about them or to not write about them, or expressing how they specifically want to be captured. What has been your experience writing about real people? Any guiding principles of where you draw the line and where you do not draw the line?

DC: I was pretty stubborn at first with this manuscript about keeping real first names. Mostly because I worship Chris Kraus and I loved, I love Dick. And Richard, who that book is about and who is a known dude and was petty about it—he tried to fight against it. And Chris Kraus was like, no, I’m going to do it. And I think it works so well in that book. I kind of wanted to do that. But then I wrote something last year for my blog with real first names and I got a phone call. I was trying to rationalize it to him. It was just someone from high school. And I heard how stupid I sounded trying to be like, no, you don’t understand, this is art. You’re fine. No one’s going to know it’s you. And he was like, you don’t have to do this. What’s interesting about that ethical tension is that it is complicated, and you can’t just go into it being like, I’m going to do what I want to do and that’s art. I think part of what’s interesting about it is that you have to think about it more and you have to consider that they are real people. I ended up using fake names, so I feel good about that.

SH: Are you afraid at all of anyone reaching out to you and sharing their feelings about how they perceive they’ve been represented? 

DC: I write and publish things with the assumption that not a lot of people are going to read it because I’m not Julia Fox. I don’t think it’s going to be a New York Times bestseller. And I don’t think people are going to be trying to find out who it is. But I try not to think about that. One of the exes that’s in the book, I told him about it a couple of years ago, and he was really flattered. He wants to read it. I don’t know if I’m actually going to reach out and send him a link to it because I just don’t want to open that can of worms. But I have told the people who I’m still in contact with who are in the book that they’re in it. 

SH: One of the things that you do so well in the book is the way you capture how older men feel inclined to educate young women. At one point, you’re writing about Andrew, who’s eleven years older than the protagonist, and she´s preparing to go over to his house and meet with him:

“It was a prerequisite that I would come prepared to engage in a dialogue about something, whether that be music, comedy, film, literature. There was so much I didn’t know and he wanted to fix that.”

I just felt like that is such a universal experience among women who are not only dating, but surrounding themselves in any way with older men. What drew you to writing about that specific dynamic between men and women of different ages?

DC: I feel like it is a universal thing, and it feels like such a cliché, and you think it won’t happen to you, but then it happens and it’s like, clichés are clichés for a reason. But I mostly wrote about it because it was just all-consuming. When I think back to that time in my life, I just feel so removed from the person I was, because I felt so at his mercy, and I have not felt that way about a person since. It felt like more than just a romantic relationship because it was tied up in all these things he was showing me. It felt like I was kind of transforming alongside our relationship unfolding. 

SH: There’s some humor to the way you capture that dynamic because on an ostensible level, he’s kind of a loser. He’s unemployed, he can barely make rent, he’s more than a decade older. There’s this great moment where you write:

“My career as a music journalist was on an upward trajectory. I wasn’t making much money, but I was freelancing and interning and gaining recognition. Still, Andrew posited, ‘I could do your job if I wanted.’”

Where do you think that confidence from people, but especially men, comes from when they see other people making art that they feel is something anyone could do?

DC: A lot of our relationship was him wanting to feel superior. It was so hard for me to capture how I saw him as this figure on a pedestal above me when he was objectively a loser. So it did feel like a lot of it was just him trying really hard to put himself above me. Yeah, that line is crazy, and there’s another moment, I didn’t put this in [Pregaming Grief], but I’m trying to write a sequel, where I told him that I felt manipulated by him because of our dynamic and that he was ten years older than me, and he said that if anything, I was at the higher level of the dynamic because I had higher social status. So it was messy, but I think that on some level he knew that I was kind of above him in that way, but he was trying to just play the role of someone who was above me. 

SH: It’s interesting thinking about the difference between power. I always think of age as being such a power dynamic, but there’s this sense of social status, too. I don’t know if I agree with him in this case, but you do have a really impressive resume. Not just for someone your age, but for anyone. You write at Stereogum, you have all these bylines, you’re an editor. To me, freelancing feels like such an insane puzzle to try and put together. What is it like for you trying to put the puzzle pieces of literary life together? 

DC: When it comes to freelancing and getting bylines about music stuff, I was just really restless in college and I kind of prioritized doing that over studying stuff at college. Growing up on the internet, I learned my way around Twitter which is where I got a lot of my contacts and I learned how to send emails even though I definitely sent a lot of embarrassing ones when I was like seventeen. The literary world is a lot different than the journalism world. Journalism was pretty easy for me to learn, but I’m still learning with literary stuff. This book is being published by Short Flight/Long Drive, which came about because I became acquainted with Elizabeth Ellen when I sent her an essay for Hobart. That was 2021, I think. And she was the first person to publish one of my creative pieces. 

SH: What do you feel are the biggest differences between the lit world and the journalism world?

DC: Journalism pays money. Not a lot, but it pays money. It’s funny because journalists are always talking about how the industry doesn’t pay and how it’s just hard to make a living off of it, but making a living off of literary stuff is impossible. There’s really no money involved. At least not where I am.

SH: What has your experience been working with Elizabeth Ellen to bring this book out? Can you talk a little bit about the editorial process?

DC: It’s funny. The first draft I sent her was totally different. It was only like ninety pages, and I feel like I kind of threw it together just wanting to be published, not really putting a lot of thought to it. I hate to say that, but part of me just wanted to have a book and I didn’t really care if it was a good book. But she liked it. Then, as soon as she accepted it, I was like, this is going to be published. And I just went in and started rewriting it entirely. And when I turned that into her, she was like, What the? This is so different. And I think she was a little mad, but I was like, don’t worry, this is so much better. The process was definitely crazy. Most of the editing was last year—sending it to her, her sending it back to me, me sending it back to her. It was a lot of rewriting. At one point I made a change where I got rid of the “you” and I put a fake name instead and she was like, why would you do that? And I was like, I don’t know, I thought you would like it. And then I changed that back. I am definitely the worst writer to work with, the worst writer to be edited because I never want to stop rewriting it. I want it to be as accurate as possible, but it has to end eventually and I’m happy with how it turned out. Thank God.

SH: I’m thinking back to you being a Chris Kraus fan, and in I Love Dick, she writes about how everything she writes is essentially a lie, or she feels like it’s a lie because almost immediately she feels differently after she’s written it. I really relate to that feeling of reworking stuff, especially over a number of years, and realizing I don’t feel at all the way I did the day I first wrote it. Sometimes it’s a year later and sometimes it’s the next day or the next hour. How did you make peace with that process?

DC: I didn’t. I guess that’s why I’m not against calling it autofiction because in a way, everything that’s nonfiction is kind of autofiction because nothing is you. You can’t just capture the truth no matter how much you want to. And things are always changing. 

SH: Do you have any fears that years from now you’re going to feel any regret?

DC: I’ve seen a lot of people express regret about publishing a memoir too young in their life. But I don’t think I would want to be writing about this part of my life later in my life. I would love to get this part of my life behind me—like working on the sequel, I’m already over it. I am kind of always just writing about what’s happening currently and it’s so hard to just keep up with it. I wrote a lot about last year and living in Pennsylvania and my relationship that I had there, and I want to make that into a book, but life keeps moving forward and it is so hard to keep up with everything that’s happening. Writing about your life is hard. But I don’t think I care that much about how I’ll perceive it in the future because I’ll probably just be working on something else and rushing to keep up with time.

SH: I think a lot about how confessional or memoir writing are perceived. I haven’t read any of Honor Levy’s work, but I recently read a review where someone said something along the lines of, every couple of years some girl comes along and essentially publishes her diary and thinks it’s so interesting. She sort of responded in an interview by asking what was wrong with that, suggesting that the most interesting thing out there to read is someone else’s diary. Do you ever struggle with feelings that confession writing is ‘less serious’?

DC: Yeah, I used to have a crisis about why I was writing about this? Like, who is going to care about my interpersonal relationships that are being shared to such an explicit extent, like every detail. But then, I realize that the writers I worship are Chris Kraus; Anaïs Nin, who literally published her diaries; and Annie Ernaux, who just won a Nobel Prize in literature for literally writing about how down bad she is for some guy who treats her like shit. So apparently, people do care about this kind of stuff. The thing is, I don’t assume that what I write about is interesting. I just write about it because it ends up being what I write about. I hate that assumption that you’re publishing something because you think people will find it interesting. I don’t really think about how people are going to perceive it. If I did, it would be very different from what I write. I just write it because it’s what comes out. 

SH: So much of Pregaming Grief feels like it’s about all the different ways we are educated via friendships, peers, sexual partners. But it’s also about your experience at Sarah Lawrence. What do you think has been most instructive to you as a writer?

DC: I definitely feel like reading is the only way to figure out how to write. I’m still struggling with being an editor at Hobart, editing pieces and trying to give guidance to writers who send their work to me. I feel like I shouldn’t be telling them what to do with their piece or even changing it. It feels wrong to me to change something because writing is so personal, and with my writing, I usually just trust my first instinct. I mean, a lot of editing does go in, but it’s hard for another person to know enough about you to give advice to you about your writing. But I do feel like reading is how I’ve developed a style that feels right for what I’m doing. I do think that sometimes you’ll read someone and then you’ll try to imitate them and then it’ll go terribly. Like with Annie Ernaux, I wanted to sound as eloquent as she does, but she’s in her seventies or something. She is allowed to have her wisdom and her writing. But I can’t like write about my life in that way. But I think having a few writers that you worship will guide you better than being in a writing workshop. Writing workshops are really weird. 

 

 

Danielle Chelosky is a writer from New York. She is an editor at Hobart, an editorial assistant at Amphetamine Sulphate, and a music journalist at Stereogum. PREGAMING GRIEF is her first novel.

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