[INTERVIEW] Chloe Caldwell on I’ll Tell You In Person

Publisher: Coffee House Press in collaboration with Emily Books
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Number of pages: 184
Price: $16.95



With stories about growing up and fearing growing old, friendships and friend foibles, the intimacies of obsession and the intricacies of depression, I’ll Tell You In Person is an essay collection as vulnerable as it is blunt. Chloe Caldwell’s sharp wit and keen powers of observation are in full force in her newest book.

Caldwell takes readers on an odyssey through turbulent formative years of heroin, binge eating, Craigslist dating, the loss of a close friend, coming out, living in Europe, best friends, ex-friends, relationship blunders, encounters with celebrities, and all the experiences of youth that make us who we are. I inhaled Caldwell’s essays with unusual quickness—losing track of time, forgetting the presence of people around me, being fully present and absorbed in a way that only the words of a gifted essayist can produce.

I’ll Tell You In Person chronicles young adulthood with aplomb. Though it can feel as if the reader is meant to recall her own adolescent calamities and stack them up for comparison, this collection isn’t some righteous manifesto. There is no moral to the story because, as seasoned writers know, stories don’t need morals.


I talked to Chloe about her book and the challenges of writing personal essays. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Mandy Shunnarah: I have to start off by congratulating you because I read I’ll Tell You In Person faster than any book in recent memory. One of the elements I most adored about the book is that you’re deeply self-deprecating without being overly critical or judgmental of yourself, and without apologizing. I got the sense that writing about your past heroin addiction, binge eating, masturbation, job woes, and nearly over-drafting your bank account to impress a millionaire celebrity was cathartic. Tell me more about your writing process and the emotional pilgrimage of writing this book.

Chloe Caldwell: Thank you! I’m touched you felt that way. The essays all came to be in different ways and times. “Yodels” I wrote back in 2013 for The Rumpus. “Soul Killer” I sent to Salon that same year because I had no money and $150 was a lot for me. Same with “The Laziest Coming Out Story.” So half of the book was already written without being considered a book. I began putting the essays together and then added five new ones over the course of 2014-2016.

I don’t know if it gives me any sort of relief or catharsis at all. The tough thing about this book was I was super broke during the process of putting it together, and submitting it to publishers. It’s stressful to work on a book without money, because to have time, you need money. It was difficult for me to sit and work on essays when I knew I should be working at my dad’s music store for money or catering or finding more teaching jobs.

MS: With I’ll Tell You In Person being your second collection of essays, how did you find yourself evolving as you explored more facets of what it means to grow up?

CC: It’s hard to talk about this stuff, it’s so ephemeral. I’ve always been smart in spite of my stupid choices and have been hyper-aware enough to know I could only make ridiculous decisions before I got older. And now I am older. It’s a creepily acute feeling I have at thirty, both like a child and a grown woman. My life is unconventional in the sense that I documented my wilder years. It’s not that I did anything more interesting than anyone else, it’s just that I have it out there in the form of a book. I feel myself evolving in many ways—I’ve always been into growth and therapy, etc., but I like to keep some of my evolving private.

MS: You share very openly in your work, though it sounds like people are always wanting more. What’s that like? How do you separate yourself from your work and maintain a personal life as a personal essay writer?

CC: I share openly in my work and in my life as well, mostly. But my essays are by no means my life story. There’s a ton I haven’t written about. The essays are just what I thought would be entertaining or enjoyable for a reader, what I had ideas for. People are definitely always wanting more and it’s a slippery slope. Luckily, I have an awesome therapist who used to work in publishing in NYC and knows a lot about the writer lifestyle, reads my books, and is familiar with the “scene” and the authors and books I mention. She’s helped me create clear boundaries around a lot of this stuff.

As Maggie Nelson says, “I don’t worry about people who ‘think they know me’ because, not to sound flip, they just literally don’t.” I’m paraphrasing, but I feel the same way. I have a private life just like everyone. I just write about certain “slices of life” if you will excuse that horrendous expression. “Prime Meats,” for example, is about something I did ten years ago. So I don’t feel super close to a lot of the essays in the collection.

MS: You seem at peace with your younger self, and I get the feeling that’s something a lot of people wish they could do. How did you get to that point? Was it a difficult place to reach when, as a writer of personal essays, you’re inevitably reaching into the past?

CC: Well, I don’t think I thought of it as a point to get to or a place to reach, which helps. I guess it’s just part of my make up, and comes naturally to me, which is why I ended up being a personal nonfiction writer—a lifestyle most certainly not for everyone. I did some weird shit in my youth, but who doesn’t? Plus, it got me to where I am: healthy, with books published, a job I love. My life is filled with the classes I teach, so I’m constantly reading personal essays of other people’s mistakes, so to me, it’s the new normal.

MS: The title harkens an intimacy that’s present on every page. Considering how I inhaled the book it almost feels strange that you’re not actually my real life best friend telling me these stories in person. Are these essays stories you did tell people in person before writing them down?

CC: No, they weren’t. I was just texting that phrase to my friends/family all the time about small things, like what I felt about a movie I’d just seen or whatever. I felt limited on text message and email and many of my close girl friends live in cities across the country from me, so I liked saving up anecdotes until I saw them in person and we could chat over glasses of wine. I liked the conversational tone of it for a book title, so it stuck. None of the essays aside from “Hungry Ghost” are exactly riveting stories or anecdotes. That’s why I say in the opener that I don’t necessarily have “good stories.” I’m more the kind of writer who tries to make narrative out of nothing.



Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though she calls Birmingham, Alabama, home. She writes personal essays, book news, and historical fiction. Her writing has been published in The Missing Slate and Deep South Magazine. You can find more of her work at her website, offthebeatenshelf.com.

[REVIEW] Communion, by Curtis Smith

Dock Street Press
153 pages, $14.00


Review by Cate Hennessey


In her marvelous book, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, Patricia Hampl ponders some of Rilke’s advice from Letters to a Young Poet. She comes to rest on this:

[Rilke] was not a sentimentalist of childhood. He is directing the young poet, rather, to the old religions of commemoration in whose rituals the glory of consciousness presides. He believes, as I cannot help believing as well, in the communion of perception where experience does not fade to a deathly pale, but lives evergreen …

This ‘communion of perception’ characterizes Curtis Smith’s new collection of twenty-one essays, aptly titled Communion. And while the book’s cover bears three holy wafers, perception here is driven not by a devotion to God or church, but by an ordinary father’s love for his son. Continue reading

[REVIEW] The Girls of Usually, by Lori Horvitz


Truman State University Press

238 pages, $16.95


Review by Erica Trabold



Lori Horvitz’s The Girls of Usually chronicles the most defining moments of the author’s life. From performing magic tricks to traveling the world to learning more about herself and her sexuality, thirty-two brief essays support a loose narrative that begins with Horvitz’s childhood and ends somewhere mid-life, a pause for reflection amidst a string of failed relationships.

Horvitz holds nothing back. On the page, her prose breathes contentment, curiosity, and energy— she is eager to share insights gained through personal experience, however unconventional her life may be. At the forefront, Horvitz addresses potential concerns about the scope of the project, which spans an entire lifetime. In an author’s note, she reminds readers that most scenes have been reconstructed to serve the book’s larger inquiry and essence. No transcripts exist to verify action, intent, or dialogue down to the very word. As is the case with most writers of nonfiction, Horvitz bases her exploration on the kinds of source material readers would expect, information gained through access to journals, personal interviews, and memory. Continue reading

[REVIEW] I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, by Kent Russell

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Alfred A. Knopf

304 pages, $24.95


Review by Joseph Demes


“I am homesick most,” Kent Russell writes, in I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, “for the place I’ve never known.” Framed by a road trip with his father, from San Francisco to Martins Ferry, Ohio, and a biopic of Daniel Boone, Russell’s essays (which have been featured in n+1, GQ, Harper’s, and The Believer) are imbued with longing for a mythology he has never embodied – and possibly cannot embody. His subjects are pearls excavated from an oceanic high- and low-brow milieu. They include: the “partially deflated . . . most physically unhealthful” fans of Insane Clown Posse (ICP); an entrepreneur peddling a Crusoean retreat for the rich; a man self-immunizing to snake venom, attempting to break records; and Amish teens furiously competing in youth baseball leagues in the throes of Rumspringa (time when they’re allowed to tour the secular world and either reject or commit to their religion).

Russell’s most comfortable and poetic when speaking of sports, especially hockey. While he writes about baseball with awe – of its immaculacy and a necessary ascetic view about stats – hockey is tragic, an entropic system. Gone is the purist view that players must display both technical finesse and vicious pugnacity. Stratified team dynamics are the norm: virtuosic scorers, middling defenders, and golem-like enforcers. Russell resurrects John Brophy: an aged, terminally concussed minor-league enforcer, a casualty of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE): brain damage usually spotlighted in football. Russell won’t allow us to forget Brophy, though; Russell can’t let us shake the past, despite his attempts at divorce. There is pent-up violence and frustration in his prose, a disjunct between his masculinity and a mythology of American maleness. Russell worries that he may be the son his father begrudges, and yet still his patriarch’s rightful inheritor: “I am become Dad, destroyer of beers.” Continue reading

[REVIEW] The Only Sounds We Make, by Lee Zacharias


Hub City Press

224 pages, $16.95


Review by Hannah Rodabaugh


Lee Zacharias’s most recent book, The Only Sounds We Make, is a collection of essays that discuss everything from where writers write, to the history of vultures, to the pleasures of photography, to destructive, document eating dogs. However common these threads may (or may not) be in our own lives, these essays interrupt our expectations instead of blandly repeating them. And they are wonderfully interruptive. Blending personal nostalgia, social or historical discussion, and intellectual statements, the twelve essays in this collection interweave all of these threads interestingly and adeptly.

The essays I enjoyed most were: “Geography For Writers,” a nuanced look at how surface plays in inspiration, and “Morning Light,” a paean to the creative delights of photography. Both fascinated me with their questions of place and location in relation to artistic endeavors. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Southern Sin: True Stories of the Sultry South and Women Behaving Badly, Edited by Lee Gutkind and Beth Ann Fennelly


Southern Sin


In Fact Books
350 pages, $15.95


Review by Kate Schapira


As a reviewer, I may have come in the wrong door. I’m not from the South, and I’ve never lived there or even been there for very long. What’s more, the word “sin” puts my back up — it reminds me of ads that refer to chocolate as a “guilty pleasure.” Oh, for heaven’s sake. Just relish the damn thing.

But what if you can’t? Or what if the guilt really does make the pleasure sweeter? What if, as Dorothy Allison suggests in her introduction, it fills you with defiant pride — the lie you get everyone to believe, the truth you fling in everyone’s face?

Sin as a show, as I’ll show them, appears more than once in this collection: Chelsea Rathburn, in “The Renters”, offers aid and comfort to a couple having an extramarital affair partly to thumb her nose at her ex-husband, “so squeamish about all things sexual.” The essays’ displays of intimacy, physical glut and emotional mess, feel less like confessions than like exposures. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Inscriptions for Headstones by Matthew Vollmer

~by Katherine D. Stutzman



148 pages/$12.00

“Here lies a man who….” Each of the thirty essays in Matthew Vollmer’s Inscriptions for Headstones begins with some variation on the traditional text of an epitaph. From there they spiral outward, memorializing experiences not often mentioned on gravestones: killing copperheads in the driveway with a shovel, tearing pages out of Playboy in a mall bookstore as a teenager, feeling guilty for spending time in front of the computer instead of taking your child sledding. Vollmer (Future Missionaries of America, Fakes) observes with pleasing precision the ordinary moments that make a life; he uses these moments to explore the relationship between memory and identity and to mourn the passing of the many different selves contained within each person’s history.

The essays in Inscriptions for Headstones are brief, usually no more than five or six pages, each written as a single sentence that wends circuitously through a mixture of reminiscence, digression, confession, and contemplation.  The pieces all seem to be about the same man, referred to only as “the deceased,” captured at different points in his life from early childhood until he himself becomes the father of a young son.  Certain motifs—an obsession with angels, a childhood in North Carolina, an adult life of teaching and writing—recur throughout the collection, binding the essays together and unifying their subject matter.     Continue reading

Bring the Noise: The Best Pop Culture Essays from Barrelhouse Magazine (A Review by J. Capó Crucet)


181 pgs/$15.00

Bring the Noise is the very first release of the ambitious (and highly promising) Barrelhouse Books, the D.C.-based magazine’s venture into indie publishing. I was drawn to the anthology in the hopes it would explain my unhealthy obsession with Jersey Shore (my working theory centers on the gravitational pull of JWoww’s chest). What I found instead, via the book’s strongest essays, was a sense of camaraderie: for better or worse, pop culture reflects where we are as a society now, and in hating or loving it—in examining what we hate or love about it—we figure out who we really are.

Comprised mostly of essays that previously appeared in Barrelhouse (five of the 18 are previously unpublished), the anthology is a potluck of voices and themes. It stretches the definition of pop culture to mean almost anything that could end up on TV or heard on the radio: from pro-wrestling, The Hills, the Chicago Cubs, and that creepy Wizard of Oz sequel (which I’d blocked from my memory almost entirely until this essay brought it back in vivid, nightmare-friendly detail), to Bob Dylan, payphones, and Pearl Jam. The range of these essays, however, is a reminder that pop culture isn’t always ubiquitous on a national scale, and so the tall order for a pop culture anthology—if it’s going to feel like the book it promises to be rather than, say, an issue of a journal—is that it be as robust and inclusive as possible. Continue reading