Reading Michelle Orange is like having a moving, one-sided conversation with your best friend if your best friend was feeling particularly astute that day. In This Is Running For Your Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), her ambitious first collection of essays, she mulls over top-shelf concepts like mortality and mediated reality, while seamlessly merging the high-end stuff with equally punch-packing discussions about choice movies of 1999 and Ethan Hawke’s face (Of which there’s quite a lot to be said, go figure). Orange e-mailed us to talk about the art of the critical essay, her family ties to film, America as everyone’s cool dad, and why I should start drinking more.
The experience of reading your critical essays is like observing someone ration and reason in real time — like thinking alongside someone — more of a conversation than a dictation. When you write, do you have an argument and resolution already in mind, or do you sort of work with things as they come?
Very much the latter. Often if you try to do it any other way, you’re in store for a humbling. I think it’s part of working as a critic — you have to come to whatever it is you are considering fresh. For me the fun of a more critical essay is finding a storyline, persuading myself of it, and (hopefully) persuading the reader to come along.
You interweave very warm, personal narratives into essays that are essentially about broad pop-culture phenomena. Do you ever have to keep yourself from becoming to personal or too general?
That’s part of trying to maintain control, and make sure the parts truly fit together. Those were some of the most interesting moments for me — spending weeks thinking about celebrity death, for instance, and being visited by the memory of a boy I idolized in high school, a “star” in his own right who died young. I think there’s a two-way flow between memory and culture, it seemed natural to blend them. But it has to be the right balance, because the hope is to reflect the reader’s sense of that same flow.
You seem to have a deep, and as you reveal, familial attachment to film. What makes this genre appealing to you over others?
Movies and books were both very big in my house. My father is an English professor, and he instilled in me a love of reading and an appreciation for literature. I don’t know if it’s by example or by design, but I think I also picked up from him the importance of developing an inner life. He spent a lot of time reading, but my dad (and my grandmother) also loved movies — every kind. My grandmother was a distant sort of figure, and I used to be frustrated by the time my dad spent wrapped up in books. The movies seemed to offer us a way to be alone but still together. That was probably the beginning of the love story.
In “One Senior, Please” you describe how your grandmother saved and inscribed bits of criticism on her movie stubs: “a record of hours spent and things felt.” Do you think movies are a form of escapism, or can meaningful experience be gathered through viewing?
I would say both things have to be true. And that there can be meaningful experience in escape. It’s not like you can actually leave your body, though the best movies might make you feel that way.
So at one point you tell your grandmother, “New York is a place where men either can’t stop competing with you or refuse to start.” What did you mean by that? Is there any way around this for a woman in the city?
Oh, Heather. This question requires wine and possibly cigarettes. That may have been a facetious remark — again, I suspect only the application of alcohol would help clear it up.
You hail from Ontario, but a lot of your subject matter seems to concern the American dream. Is this different from the Canadian dream? Or do you see the American dream as more of a global concept?
It’s a little like growing up in a co-parented culture. America is like the distant dad who lets us watch the cool shows and hear the cool music, driving us crazy with advertising for cool products we can’t get for ourselves. Canadians take in so much American culture that it becomes a source of confusion — sometimes resentment, sometimes longing. After almost a decade here I have a much better sense of the differences, obviously, between the cultures and their respective values. But I don’t think I’ll ever shake that feeling of being an outsider looking in.
You reflect on how Canadians, unlike other nationalities, “can not pine openly” for America. What was it, for you in particular, that prompted your move to New York in 2003?
I wanted to make a big change, and it seemed like the moment to do it. I was in my twenties and unsatisfied with the working life I had in Toronto. Like many people, I always had a dream of moving to New York — as though that was where my real life would begin.
The American dream has notoriously been set in the future, and you write about how in the early days of this country, nostalgia was considered a weakness of the Old World. Do you think nostalgia as a cultural trend is a sign that this country has matured? Or is it maybe a sign that it’s regressed?
If it hasn’t matured, America has definitely gotten older. It seems that nostalgia is the price of a complex or illustrious or otherwise mythologized history. America had such a big piece of the 20th century’s action that the current moment might have inevitably looked like a decline. (Though it looks like a decline for good reason.) And that’s when the nostalgia pump gets primed.
Michelle Orange will read and discuss her book with James Lasdun at tonight PowerHouse Arena, 7 p.m.