Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life, Chelsea Martin’s newest essay collection, is pretty much everything you want in a book about a young woman’s life, so far. It’s candid—unflinchingly so—full of humor and true weirdness, and never fails to confront the awkward and uncomfortable parts of figuring out who you are in this world. I’ve praised Caca Dolce before on NYLON, and feel really lucky to be hosting Martin for the September edition of the NYLON Book Club, but I also recently had a great time talking with her on the phone about this book, what it’s like to write about people you know are going to read it, and why it’s important to talk about artists’ relationship to money. Check out her thoughts in our interview, below.
In the intro to the book, you reference an interesting phenomenon you experienced growing up: Everyone would praise you for being “special,” and though at first, you thought it was kind of bullshit, eventually you wound up really believing that about yourself. How much do you think having that kind of confidence in yourself is necessary to be an artist?
I think it usually requires a ton of confidence in yourself, for thinking you have something valuable to say and present to the world. Just the guts it takes to show yourself as an artist—even if it’s abstract art, you’re still showing a huge part of yourself and what you think is cool and interesting. I think it requires a ton of confidence.
How did you determine which stories you wanted to tell in this collection? They take place at a time in life that’s thought of as typically “coming-of-age,” but they’re not moralistic.
I thought about that a lot, and I kind of don’t know the answer. [laughs] A lot of the stories were stories I really wanted to tell for a long time, like the stuff with my dad and family stuff. I knew there was a story there. But some of the other stuff... I started a lot of essays that I never finished. I feel like the process of writing about it kind of helped me determine what was going to work for the book and what was going to be too far outside the spectrum that the book was centering itself around naturally. So after I had a chunk of the essays started, I could sense what was going to fit in, just based on the things I was working on already, family stuff, and growing into an artist. There are millions of stories I could have told.
Some of these essays are what might be thought of as “big issue” stories, like your relationship with your dad and losing your virginity, but then there are also essays about your insatiable need to toilet paper people’s houses and your belief in aliens. But it’s interesting because, all together, it makes a really complete and fascinating picture, one that’s really holistic.
One thing that was interesting to me, too, was giving the same weight to an experience like toilet papering for a month as meeting my dad and my relationship with him, giving those two things the same weight, I thought about that a lot.
Also, I loved reading about what a weird, interesting kid you were, and the arbitrary things you did, like deciding not to ever use spoons. Kids just do stuff like that. Like, I had a friend in middle school who decided to eat only mu shu pork for a month. Or maybe it was a week?
Whoa, that sounds really unhealthy.
It was really unhealthy. And it started from a bet she made with her mom, and then she just did it.
I think a lot of kids do stuff like that. They kind of are just figuring out who they are, so they try things that are going to make them understand themselves, or differentiate themselves from their peers.
I think it’s rare to see it chronicled. It’s something people forget about to a certain degree, and you just split the truth of it wide open. What were some of the hardest parts to write?
I think I worked on them all pretty equally, and probably the more emotional ones were more difficult to get through, and I would cry while writing them a little, and some of the other ones, I wouldn’t feel that emotional about; like the pizza barf one, I wasn’t crying through it.
Is it harder to write about people that you know are going to read it, whether it’s people you have good relationships with or bad ones?
While I’m writing, I don’t think about it at all because I have to get in a frame of mind that I’m not concerned about other people, and I’m just worried about getting the story down honestly. But since I’ve been done, I worry about it a ton. Not people who I don’t care about or who aren’t in my life—I don’t worry about that at all—but for the people who are there, I do get concerned, and kind of go back and check the book sometime to see how bad it is, and what they might think about it. It’s pretty terrifying, thinking of them reading it, maybe. [laughs]
Class and money play a huge part in this book, and you write about them pretty unflinchingly, and I think that remains something that’s pretty rare, particularly when it comes to how artists make their livings and the backgrounds they often come from that make their careers possible.
I think it’s really valuable. I love seeing stuff about this kind of thing, class and money and how artists do it. I have an insatiable need to read stuff about that. I think it’s really interesting and a big issue for people who aren’t rich to get into art. It’s a huge, huge risk to try to do it. And... probably will financially ruin you to try, so I think it’s something to talk about. And, you know, it’s just kind of what I live with, so it’s on my mind a lot, and it’s part of my experience, so I just naturally go there, because it’s kind of what I have, so I work with it.