Author Rebecca Solnit on her childhood manifesto and the writing desk that shaped her career
The Recollections of My Nonexistence author reveals that she thinks two of her books have "the worst titles."
Rebecca Solnit has become a singular voice in feminist writing, shaping a career out of necessary scrutiny. Her essays and books touch on everything from female anger to mansplaining to solo walking. But in her book, Recollections of My Nonexistence (on shelves now), she tackles a new genre: memoir.
The author looks back on her life, starting in 1970s and '80s San Francisco, reflecting on the way her experiences informed her budding writing career and, as always, discussing the larger political connotations. We see how and why her opinions began to form. Here, she takes EW's recurring author questionnaire, mulling on an early sentiment against marriage and why she doesn't cry when reading.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
REBECCA SOLNIT: Oh this is so terrible, as a condemnation of my parents’ marriage and mother’s plight, and early signs of my attitude. In its entirety, “When I grow up I will never get married.” From early in first grade, possibly my first essay, as well as my first manifesto. With a crayon drawing of a man saying “Get married with me.” And the woman saying, “No, no.”
What is the last book that made you cry?
Books don’t make me cry, but I am halfway through The Crying Book, and I do tear up at really moving things — more the noble ones than the sad ones. I mean, I’m a person as likely to cry at weddings as funerals, and my friend Leigh’s younger brother Roman Mars ruined my mascara with his tribute to her at her fiftieth birthday party.
Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
I’m very excited to finally crack my friend Andri Snaer Magnason’s book on climate chaos in Iceland, Of Time and Water. He’s a brilliant writer, as scathing about politics as he is lyrical about the tangible world. I also have in my backpack Ilhan Omar’s memoir in case I have time to blurb it. I tend to read books that have been out for several decades or books that aren’t out yet, I’m afraid.
Where do you write?
This is such a big part of Recollections of My Nonexistence. Though I wander with my laptop, all over the apartment and beyond, formally I write at a little desk a friend gave me when I was 19, a friend who was stabbed and left to bleed to death by a man for leaving him. As I wrote the book it came to seem significant that everything I’d ever written had been on this platform given to me by a woman who was not supposed to survive, who a man tried to silence into nonexistence. A platform on which I made some noise. Some of it for women like my friend.
Which book made you a forever reader?
I was so damn excited by the act of reading itself I was ecstatic about one of those “see Spot run” books and my older brothers mocked me for it, and then there was a better picture book and one after that and one after that, and then a youth novel a day from age nine on, with some adult novels sprinkled in and I was off and running.
What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
People love writers to have ritual lives, and mine is mostly chaotic, but I do have the same breakfast every morning on an octagonal white-enameled tray I bought in a junk shop thirty years ago, and the second mug of tea just sort of lingers into the afternoon.
Pick a GIF that you think, in this moment, best describes you:
If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
Two that I think are among my better works have the worst titles. Savage Dreams was named after an invading settler named James Savage who doesn’t appear until about page 237 or so, and River of Shadows, my book about the photographer/progenitor of cinema, Eadweard Muybridge, also seems opaque. I almost called it, “The Lightning Method,” for his breakthroughs in speeding up photography, and how I wish I had!
What is your favorite part of Recollections of My Nonexistence?
Describing my old apartment in all its small-scale loveliness and how deeply I grew into it and it grew into me — while I was writing I got into a taxi and gave that address first, though I left it fourteen years ago. And doing what often happens when I write: thinking harder so I see something anew — in this case that voices and voicelessness had been central to all my feminist writing since Men Explain Things to Me.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write in this book?
It’s getting the mix right: how much of something you know down to your bones do you need to say to convey it clearly to readers who may have had none of your experiences? When is it clear? Have you made your case? When did you lay it on too thick.
Write a movie poster tag line for your book:
They told her to shut up. So she got louder.