Aspen Matis was Salman Rushdie’s plus-1 at the PEN World Voices Festival earlier this year. She sold her book to HarperCollins on a proposal alone. She was invited by Lena Dunham to the set of "Girls" (she even has a book blurb from Dunham). She’s been published in the New York Times. Her book has been reviewed in practically every major newspaper and magazine: Cosmopolitan, Elle, NPR, among others. And she's only 25 years old.
I sat down with Aspen one rainy evening at a cafe in the Village to talk about writing, networking, and hiking.
Christina Berke: What happened between the end of the book and now?
Aspen Matis: After the trail, I just knew I wanted to be a writer. I was naive and ambitious, but knew it's not a practical way to make a living. I would show up to these "shut up and write" groups in San Francisco; everyone was fairly lost. Then I realized all of the amazing, accomplished writers were not at these things, and certainly not looking for a mentee. So it became apparent that the way was to go back to school.
CB: You left college after your first year. What was the process of reapplying to schools like for you?
AM: I applied to 10 or 11 and got into exactly two: Mills and the New School. I wanted to study fiction. As a transfer student, we were in this lecture hall for registering. I signed up for intermediate fiction workshop, but when I got to the front of the line, they said you need to take the beginner fiction workshop first. That's how it works. And she asked me, what do you want to take instead? I didn't want to go all the way to the back of the line, so I quickly flipped through the catalogue and found the longest course title-- "The Susan Shapiro Instant Gratification Takes Too Long School of Journalism." The description was the very shortest--all it said was the goal of this class is to write and publish a beautiful piece to pay for the class. You can't get an A unless you publish. So it was a vocational approach to writing. From that class I sold The New York Times "Modern Love" article. And I wasn't even special. I was one of seven to get into the Times. But Sue's the world's greatest mentor. And the class isn't even through the school, but through the continuing education. She line edits right there in class.
CB: Your book has a bit of everything in it--mystery, adventure, romance... How did you manage to capture such vivid and detailed accounts of your journey?
AM: The journal I kept was more about what was going on in my mind and in the world. What helped me was Google Earth and I'd zoom in to help with the memory. I also took a lot of photos. And the Hiker's Companion. It's a guidebook I didn't carry on the trail, but my parents have a copy of it and it narrates the entire trail.
CB: What is your writing process like?
AM: I used Microsoft Word. Some people have told me that's weird but I don't know what else to use. I would never set an alarm, and wake up naturally with the light, then go to a cafe. I worked three or four hours in the morning. I'd write until I hit a wall. Then I'd take a break and go for a walk. Then I'd go to a different cafe and do it again. I wouldn't socialize until I did my writing for the day. I treated it like a full-time job. My responsibility to myself was to show up every day with my full intelligence. One day off really is two days lost. Writing spawns writing.
CB: What was the hardest part about writing this book?
AM: The very hardest thing was writing about falling in love with Justin as I was mourning our marriage. When I sold the book we were still married, still together. The book was going to end with our wedding. But then he disappeared while I was writing the book. I had to write about finding this love and meeting him and falling for him as I was missing him, for my first book, on deadline, and the stakes were my book deal and my ability to finance me staying in New York. I lost my love and potentially my work. Getting through that is the thing I'm most proud of because I could have given up but I rose to the occasion. The worst part of a relationship is remembering the beginning when everything is beautiful. All I wanted to do was write about the end. I could write thousands of pages about that. It was therapeutic and cathartic. That was the hardest part. I don't know how I did it.
CB: How did you get through it?
AM: I had support from family, friends, and therapy. I locked into everything that was good and stable and kind and compassionate and still loving in my life.
CB: How did you find your voice after the rape?
AM: I wasn't vocal and open and healthy right away. The only way to change is to change. Understanding will follow. You change when not changing becomes more unbearable and lying and wallowing and staying stuck becomes more shitty then just standing up. A rape is too big a secret to hold inside your body and still be healthy. It will consume you. To speak openly and truthfully is so freeing. It lets it out, and puts it in its place, somewhere outside of you. If you don't speak about a rape, you don't differentiate about the disgusting terrible thing in yourself. To call a rape a rape is to put it in its place. It shrinks it. I felt unlovable. But it feels so good to have these real conversations. This is what happened to me. A rape is not who I am. It's not what I am. It is something that happened to me. And the more I talked about it the better I felt. The more I understood it wasn't my fault. And that I didn't cause it and that I was lovable.
CB: What did you think would happen when you told people about the rape?
AM: The thing that was stopping me from telling my story in the beginning was the fear of judgment, that they would hear that I asked the boy who raped me to sleep over. And that they would say to me, Well you asked him to sleep over, that's not rape. You're an idiot, you deserved this. But no one said that. It just became so unbearable to not tell my story that I did anyway in spite of that fear. And when I did, the response that I got from hundreds of woman was I also asked the boy who raped me to sleep over or I wrote him a poem. This was incredibly common.
CB: What advice would you give to people who have suffered from abuse, domestic violence, or rape?
AM: You're never the only one. Staying in the wrong relationship will actually make you physically ill. I know because I was married. Let yourself know what you already know. You know in your gut, in your body, when something's wrong. And honor that. And you will blossom. You are strong enough to leave that terrible relationship. All the tools, every element already exists inside of you. You are brave enough. You are strong enough. You are enough. Even alone.
CB: Would you recommend the trail to others?
AM: I don't think hiking the trail is right for everyone. But certainly it is time with yourself. It's not a destination. It's how you use that time with yourself and what you do with that time, that's the question. You can show yourself again and again that you are strong enough. And capable of taking care of yourself in this world.
CB: Do you have any plans to do another trail hike?
AM: I have no hard plans to hike again right now but I would love to hike the Camino Trail in Spain. And Switzerland in the Alps.
CB: Where did you normally work?
AM: Joe at Waverly and Gay was like my office. It was my favorite place. Renting a space for writing is for people who want to work in isolation and I'm much more about being around energy and people working together in solidarity. I find it very exciting and feel most productive when people are productive around me. Most of my closest friends are writers. That's why I have work dates with my friends. We will just show up to a cafe and write.
CB: What was your editing process like?
AM: I would write the stories that were burning in me, the stories I couldn't possibly forget. The original draft was 1200 pages and the published book was around 370. I really had to write all of these stories before I could discern which ones were necessary. The stories that are the most interesting and exciting and important to me aren't the most exciting to anyone else. So I had other readers. Corrina Gramma, who I call the aerialist, would tell me this is too elliptical, this is another story, you're obsessed with lost boys...
CB: What was your parents' reaction to the book?
AM: I'm actually very close with them. My parents have been incredibly generous and magnanimous. They're very private people and felt terribly exposed by this book and rightly so. But at the same time I didn't write this book for them. I wrote this book to help the people who had been in my position, other girls who had been sexually assaulted, people who were trying to find their place in the world. I'm not a PR machine for my family and I can't live my life the way that my parents would have lived theirs. I think they're proud of the accomplishment even though they are cringing at elements of it. And I think my dad feels like it's a love letter to him. Just like my Times piece, it’s about my dad's brilliance and professorship.
CB: As a young author, how did you build your connections with so many well-known public figures so quickly?
AM: When "Modern Love" came out, that was the biggest thing for me. I heard from hundreds of people, some of them famous, some of them not. A lot of famous people shared it right when it came out like [Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist] Nicholas Kristof and I asked if I could use it as a blurb and he said yes. He's amazing. People are generous when they believe in a project. Successful people are generous because they have so much to give. Plus I met so many tremendous people through cafes. I met Lena Dunham through [actor] John Cameron Mitchell, who I met at a cafe.
CB: You also acknowledge Salman Rushdie. How did you establish that relationship?
AM: Salman Rushdie is a mentor of mine. It was through Facebook that we met originally. I reached out to him just saying I was a huge fan and read him as a child. He responded. This was back when I was 21. And when my book came out, we had the same publication date of September 8. And he sent me a message on Facebook saying congratulations. If you believe in your work, they will find you.
CB: What's your next project?
AM: My next project is about my marriage with Justin and his withdraw from the world of work then his withdraw from the world of people and his disappearance from Mystic's funeral. It's called "Cal Trask," about how my nature is evil but I have tremendous self awareness and want to be good.
CB: Do you already have a contract?
AM: I could sell it if I wanted to but I don't want to do it that way. My first book I sold on proposal, but then you get deadlines from your publisher. It was so tremendously stressful. I don't regret doing it that way because it made me write the story quickly. I was writing eight hours a day every day and took two and a half years to finish.
CB: What are you doing right now to stay in the writing world?
AM: I'm reading [Milan Kundera's]"The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and taking Sue's workshop. She has a writing group with close colleagues. We critique everyone's work, including hers. She's my guide.
CB: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
AM: I tell everyone I care about who wants to be a writer to take Sue's class.