Carrie Brownstein is Portland's most famous resident, and among the most polarizing. Her engaging new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, came out last week, and she'll be speaking with comedian Tig Notaro about it at Newmark Theater on Nov. 5. But WW managed to get to her first. Here, she talks about how she decided what to put in it, why she left Portlandia out of it, and how she feels about those who think she "ruined" Portland.
Willamette Week: You make it pretty clear in this book that you're not someone who is necessarily inclined to share personal details of her life with the public. So how did you arrive at the point of wanting to write a memoir?
Carrie Brownstein: Through my writing for NPR, during the interim years between Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia, I wrote a lot about music and culture and the idea of fandom, and the ways fandom changes via technology. It was slightly more theoretical, but I really enjoyed and relished the platform in which to talk about these ideas with people, especially the fluidity a blog allows for—the dialog between the reader and writer. What I found is people related most to the stories that posited me at the center of the narrative. So I started to think more about writing from that point of view, and thinking about the ways Sleater-Kinney had informed a lot of my ideas about performance and fandom. I wanted it to be less of a music memoir and more of a story about going from the margins and feeling like an outsider to finding a sense of belonging through creativity. It was more a love letter to music and creativity than the story of Sleater-Kinney.
Was there an element of catharsis for you in writing this book?
I think in the writing of the book, I was approaching it from the perspective of craft, and thinking about structure and syntax and tone. The content was what I needed to string together and shape into something that's an interesting narrative. I think there's very little about writing that feels like catharsis. Journaling might be like that. But certainly, trying to craft a good story doesn't really feel cathartic.
It's interesting that you put it in those terms, because while the book is beautifully written, in your tone—particularly when writing about your early life and your parents—there's an almost journalistic remove. Is that something you see when you read the book?
I haven't read a lot of reviews because I try not to subject myself to that self-consciousness it automatically engenders, but I've read the book be characterized as either too raw or not raw enough. It's interesting, because depending on someone's relationship to the material or the story or the prose, I guess, that's their take on it. I wanted it to embody a kind of humility and a lack of vanity. I don't think it feels removed from the material, but I was thinking in terms of vacillating between the subjective and objective. I think that's an intentional approach to the book. And I think, sometimes, when you switch into an almost objective view of phenomena, even if that phenomenon is something in your own life, then people can sense a kind of remove. I think it has enough transparency and a sense of reveal to it that hopefully it doesn't feel detached. That was certainly not my intention.
How did you balance revealing too much and revealing too little? How much second-guessing did you do along the way?
I wanted to include stories and vignettes that served the theme of the book: A search for family or the feeling of a family. There's a lot of ways the book charts substitutions for family in each of the sections. If a situation didn't fit into that theme, I kept it out. I tried not to put anything in just for the sake of satisfying anyone's idea of a rock memoir. I didn't think about it in terms of that, nor would it ever live up to something as salacious as Hammer of the Gods or Dirt by Motley Crue. So I didn't feel trapped by that convention. At the same time, I didn't want to omit anything because it was too raw or too revealing. But I also didn't put these things that just felt, like, here's another story that bolsters this idea that things were hard. I didn't want it to be an accumulation of tragedy. It had to function thematically.
The book reaches its climax with the incident that led to the end of Sleater-Kinney the first time around. You mention that it hasn't been discussed among the band since. Since the book's been out, has it been discussed? In a general sense, has the book reopen any other wounds, or help heal others?
Janet [Weiss] and Corin [Tucker] and I kept in very close contact after Sleater-Kinney broke up. They've always been some of my closest friends. So in some ways, we had already dealt with the sadness and discomfort and all the various reasons—and there were many, in addition to my own depression and anxiety—that caused the end of the band. In some ways, we have [addressed the incident], without explicitly touching on that particular night. We've certainly been through it with each other and come out the other side. Everyone's take on the book is different in terms of the people who are in it. My father, who I write about a fair bit in the book, his main concern is the band continued to tour in squalor much longer than he anticipated. Again, people bring their own concerns and experiences and perspectives to the book, and those are often different than what the people in the book are thinking about as they read it. Sometimes it's the new detail that's the most illuminating or enlightening, and not something they already lived through. So it hasn't functioned as that for the band. I talk to Janet and Corin at least via email or text every day. We're onward and upward. We're about to leave on tour again in December, so that's what we're focusing on.
You've always downplayed you and Corin's romantic relationship, but the aftermath, at least, feels more significant the way it's presented in the book. Was that a revelation to you?
I would never deny the importance of Corin in my life. There's so much in the book that reads as a love letter to my creative partnership with her and to the band and music in general. I think the significance of our relationship is very transparent within the songs of Sleater-Kinney. When people have asked me about it in the past, it's a very unsophisticated view of the relationship when so much of it was there for the taking in the songs. But she's certainly been one of the most important people in my life for the last 20-plus years.
This book is framed by this idea of fandom. Do you feel like fandom is fundamentally the same now, in the Internet Age, as it was back in the '80s and '90s?
It's difficult for me to assess that, but I don't remove myself from the realm of fandom, and it's something I purposely hold as sacred and continue to immerse myself in. In that sense, it feels the same. I think we have new tools with which to explore and re-create and share our affection. I think there's an awareness of a collective sense of wonder coalescing around a piece of music or a television show or a film. I also like the way, whether it's through GIFs or memes or blogs, that people can deconstruct and insert themselves into the narrative—almost into the performance, in a way that used to be more cumbersome, and certainly not as immediate. I think fans have always been participatory and crafty, and have always, through their imagination and their own forms of visual art and writing, placed themselves in the world of the artist. It's almost like you put yourself into this landscape that this band or musician or actor has created for you, because you feel a sense of belonging there. It's easier now to do that, but I think fans have always done that, which is one of the coolest aspects of being a fan.
Tell me about the decision to skip over Portlandia and how you've kind of become this mainstream celebrity. It almost feels like you're leaving something for a sequel.
Well, a couple things. One, the story of Sleater-Kinney as a container served the narrative and the thematic content much more than Portlandia. Second, I was really inspired by Born Standing Up, which is Steve Martin's memoir. It takes you through the back corridors, which constitute his childhood, his early relationship to performing, being in the circus, working at Disneyland, doing standup. He opens the door and the lights come on, he's on SNL, and that's when the narrative ends. That was the most influential book on mine. And lastly, as a tangent, I feel like Portlandia is very much in the subtext of this book. When I write about my early relationship with insular punk and indie-rock scenes, which professed inclusion but often were very exclusive and left people feeling alienated, and there were codified rules that were hard to understand—that is a lot of where Portlandia comes from.
This last question is somewhat separate from the book, but I feel like it ties into some of its themes. In Portland, Portlandia has become, for some people, a scapegoat for their anxiety over how the city is changing. Is that something you can sense or are aware of, and if so, how do you feel about that?
The main flaw in that argument is that when we released the video in advance of the first season, "The Dream of the '90s Is Alive in Portland," everyone knew what we were talking about already. So to say we were the harbinger of the changing nature of Portland is inaccurate. We're part of a conversation the city has had with itself for many years. It's a complex conversation about change and gentrification and homogenization, and our show started out with the city already in progress toward something a lot of people back then, but even more so now, have a growing sense of concern and discomfort about—even though, at the same time, we embrace and enjoy the benefits of a changed city. I'm not apart from that, not because of Portlandia, but because I've lived in Portland since 2001, and I've lived in the Pacific Northwest since I was born. The show has merely been part of an ongoing dialogue some of us were having five years ago and more of us are having now. It's a conversation I appreciate, and I think we should keep having. We're just a small part of that. I suppose we have a bigger stage on which to broadcast our ideas, but I think the show has always been critical and aware of the way changes affect a people and a city. I certainly think no one would have gotten "Dream of the '90s" if Portland hadn't already been "one foot in the grave," as people are starting to say.
It seems like, when the show premiered, a lot of people in Portland recognized themselves in it, and were able to laugh at it. But once it got successful, that's when everyone got mad. It kind of reminded me of what you wrote about Olympia, how you were sort of punished for Sleater-Kinney's success and your ambition.
Yeah, I've either been at the wrong place at the wrong time twice or the right place at the right time twice, depending on how people look at it.
SEE IT: Carrie Brownstein is in conversation with Tig Notaro at Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, on Thursday, Nov. 5. 7:30 pm. $37.95. All ages.