MCF Preview: Renowned rock journalist-turned-novelist Carola Dibbell on language, voice and identity

Carola Dibbell

Lit Crawl; White Rabbit — Fri., Apr. 8 at 6 p.m.

Carola Dibbell (reading) and Sarah Cram (performance)

Mission Boutique; RSVP — Sat., Apr. 9 at 2 p.m.

The Only Ones - Carola Dibbell
Carola Dibbell, author of ‘The Only Ones,’ reads twice this weekend as part of the Mission Creearliest al.
Carola Dibble was raised in Greenwich Village, New York. Her early career path involved teaching infants and preschoolers in London and New York; from there, she went on to a long and storied career as a rock journalist. In her debut novel, The Only Ones, she somehow fuses these disparate worlds. The book is a delightfully distorted sci-fi tale that explores child development through the lens of cloning, and flows with a wild and raucous rock and roll cadence to its prose. The language is unique; the story of its heroine is defiant. Dibbell drew also on her own experiences with infertility, which she explored with raw power in her non-fiction essay “Thinking About the Inconceivable.”

The Only Ones is a startling first novel. Dibbell’s journalistic background is evident throughout; her narrator, Inez (or “I,” as she prefers) has a brilliantly unique voice, but her defining characteristic is her observational prowess. The book falls squarely in the realm of “literary sci-fi,” of the China Mieville variety, but its grounding is rock solid and its science well-researched and compelling. Dibbell will read from her book twice during the Mission Creek Festival this weekend — once at 6 p.m. today, as part of the Lit Crawl, and again tomorrow, Apr. 9, at 2 p.m., as part of the Little Village-sponsored Mission Boutique. She generously answered LV questions via email.

Little Village: A large chunk of your working life was spent as a rock journalist. What is your relationship to music like today? Do you tend to view current trends and movements with a critical eye? What excites you most about music in 2016?

Well, it’s a little early to understand 2016 but, whatever this proves, I’ve had more fun with the new Kanye than the last ones that are supposedly better. Music is on all the time in my home, usually new things my husband, Robert Christgau, is reviewing, so I hear a lot even if I’m not reviewing it myself. What I notice tend to be individual voices or tracks, though in the past five years I’ve been excited by EDM and can always handle more sounds from Mali, especially desert music with female screamers. In 2015 I got excited by the funny feminist Portland punk band Childbirth. Right now I’m hooked on a bittersweet song called “Celebrate” from Anderson .Paak. And I’m always addicted to Cincinnati’s Wussy, whose stand-out track on the new album is “Hello I’m a Ghost.”

In your essay “Inside Was Us: Women and Punk,” you say, “If Janis Joplin was an impossible act to follow, Patti Smith was almost as impossible not to follow.” Are there women in music today who you see filling that role, standing both as a challenge and an invitation to the next generation, welcoming presences who are impossible not to follow?

I’m not sure it’s for me to say how performers today impact women 40 (and 50) years younger than me — and it’s worth mentioning that plenty of women in my generation didn’t see a thing in Patti Smith. Beyonce’s combination of feminism and sexiness, common sense and joy, is clearly brave and empowering. Adele has an ability to simultaneously be a star and Anywoman that can make fans feel she’s telling their own story, and that can be empowering too. Personally I have always leaned toward androgynous bohos, so Sleater-Kinney, who aren’t exactly new, have done more for me as a vision of new womanhood. On the other hand, I am on my way to becoming an old woman, so I have my own needs. I’m hungry for voices that age interestingly, like Lucinda Williams’, Joni Mitchell’s (and yes, Patti Smith’s). Yoko Ono, who doesn’t try to look young but acts like a kid on stage, is an inspiration. But if I’m really looking for strong “mature” women, I find most help in British cop shows, especially the one called Vera, where a dumpy chief inspector uses her grandmotherly wiles to trap perps. (Interestingly, Patti is also a fan of TV detectives and is thinking of writing a detective mystery herself.)

Also as part of the Mission Creek Festival, Lisa Jane Persky will be showing her photo exhibit, X-Offenders: A Year in the Life of a Proto-Punk (1976), and speaking about her experiences in New York in the mid- to late-’70s over the course of several events. Were you two acquainted on the scene? Will you have a chance to visit her exhibit, or attend one another’s events, while you’re here?

I didn’t know Lisa back in the CBGB years, but we recently met at an EMP pop conference, and I like her a lot. Her Proto-punk presentation at last year’s EMP was great, and I look forward to seeing her at MC.

Much of your writing, both fiction and non-fiction, ties in to notions of identity. From what angle, personally, do you approach that? Do you have strong memories of developing your sense of self, in childhood, or youth? Does identity seem like a thing of clarity to you, or malleable, a creative enterprise?

Is this strange? I don’t actually think of The Only Ones as being about identity, even though the meaning of genetic identity is central. If anything, I think of it as a trip to entitlement—not that the two aren’t related. In my own life, starting when in adolescence I realized that I was a NY bohemian whose background was New England Wasp, I’ve often wondered where I fit in. But I came to like things that way. Gave me a little space. I am uneasy about being pigeonholed. So sure, malleable will work.

Your first novel, The Only Ones, was released last year. How has that affected your sense of identity — to be, now, “novelist Carola Dibbell?” Is this something that you’ve always hoped for, or an evolution of sorts?

I thought of myself as a writer before and I still do, but my malleable identity includes many personal parts that my writing would be less interesting without, and I’m very aware that I need to tend to them so my next novel will be interesting too. It’s true I have more confidence, and I do actually get treated differently in some situations. But the biggest change is having readers. I take that very personally. Sometimes my heart even still does a little skip when I see the book in stores.

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In The Only Ones, toward the end, the main character, I, says of her scientific work: “I just committed a crime against nature with my own hands so my daughter could go to a really good school.” This comes just pages after she refuses to give, specifically, a “hand job” for the same purpose. This contrast really fascinates me — this focus on hands, on the work of our hands. Can you talk a little bit about this? Why does what we make, what we do with our hands, matter?

I don’t recall going anywhere thematic with those particular examples, but it’s true there is a lot of emphasis on Rauden’s hands earlier in the book — “It’s all about the hands,” he says. Rauden’s a veterinarian who knows how to clone, and I made a point of showing his hands as they worked because I wanted the cloning scenes to be very personal, even erotic. I once shook hands with Dr. Spock — his were so gentle it was almost a shock to touch them. The OBGYN who delivered me was a family friend who I knew as a child, and I remember being impressed by his hands too.

You’ve written about your struggles with infertility (in “Thinking About the Inconceivable”), and you note on your website that a lot of that made its way into The Only Ones. Was that mostly in the sense of philosophy and character development, or did you go into the novel with a strong sense of the science already in place as well? How much hard research went into building the science fiction of the book?

I did a lot of research for this book, not only about cloning (which is pretty easy to grasp if you know anything about in vitro conception) but about disease and also prenatal gestation. I came in knowing a lot about reproductive science, but what my own years of infertility treatments mainly gave the story was a sense of the emotions, the psychological drama of trying and trying to make conception work. The hope, the crushing disappointments, and especially, the waiting. Throughout, it was my goal to play the outlandish sci-fi against recognizable, sometimes humorous, human details.

You have a daughter; so do I. My daughter is 14, which made reading many parts of the book rather difficult. How did your relationship with your daughter affect your approach to writing The Only Ones? Is she old enough to read it yet, and do you want her to?

My experiences bringing up my daughter informed the story, but it always belonged to Inez. I talked a great deal with my daughter about the book as I wrote it, not just the logistics and plotting (the carrier pigeons were her idea), but how the themes connected to our relationship in our adoptive family. I dedicated the book to her and gave her a copy. And, well, she hasn’t read it yet — she’s not a big reader. But she’s been to my readings and has clearly been very proud and quite kind and supportive. She knows how long I waited for this. And yeah, adolescence is hard.

Your narrator, I, has the kind of precise, distinctive voice that causes me, as a reader, to find myself thinking in her speech patterns, after being immersed in the book for a while. How did you develop her way of speaking? Were you deliberate from the outset in your twists of time and grammar, or did her voice become clearer as you wrote?

When I was first showing drafts to friends, some of them emailed me back in voice, like, “Man! I’m running to a public Board. Whatever!” I’d hoped the voice would be like that, like a song that you can’t get out of your head. When I decided I wanted to have a barely literate narrator — and initially I did this just for a change, to see what happened — I found myself thinking about my own early grade school notebooks — “Today is Monday. It is sunny.” — and fooled around with that stiffness combined with street language and grammatical mistakes. I loved the voice that came out of that and kept it, trying to be true to what would be I’s vocabulary and logic. Some quirks developed as I worked, like the tense shifts. But the voice was essentially in place very quickly. I wish everything about writing came as easily as that voice came to me.

The Only Ones is set in a future rife with disease and battered by one contamination or virus after another. Are you much of a board gamer, by any chance? Are you familiar with the Z-Man Games cooperative board game Pandemic, in which players work as a team against the board to prevent the world from succumbing to various diseases? (As a certain type of geek, that was the first thing that came to mind when I started reading the book, so I was curious!)

Sorry! I’m not a gamer. But would it be fun to invent an Only Ones game, with a crew of viables, some Knights of Life bad guys, and the map of Queens?