Q+A: Lesley Arfin

June 06, 2007

Original photo by Danielle Levitt

Lesley Arfin has turned her engrossing "Dear Diary" column for Vice into an engrossinger book called Dear Diary that comes out this week. In Dear Diary, Arfin reprints her own diary entries from 6th grade up until she was 25, then comments on them with the added perspective of age, and, in many cases, the truth. For the book, the 28-year-old writer also talked to important figures from her life (many of whom she hadn't been in touch with for years) to get their take on how things happened.

After reading her column for five years we had pieced together a loose personal history for Arfin (popular in junior high, outcast in junior high, bad kid with friends, into hardcore, into raves and special K, at Hampshire, addicted to heroin, living in New York City, in recovery from heroin addiction), but when reading it all laid out in chronological order and filled with even more difficult details, her stories often hurt our heart. A lot. But we laughed at her observations a lot too, particularly at sections like this: "I called up Brad and remembered immediately why we weren't soul mates... I could tell by his voice that he was still hot, but I was running low on care juice while he seemed to be drunk on the stuff."
We bothered Arfin at work last week. After the jump read what she told us.

You’ve made references in Dear Diary and in your previous writing about touchstone books for teenage girls that maybe aren’t actually intended for teenage girls, like Flowers in the Attic or The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. In your own book there are sections explicitly directed towards teenage girls, but Dear Diary isn’t obviously a book for young people—is that who your intended readers are? Are you hoping they’ll eventually discover it?

For me, whenever I was writing and whenever I was in the moment and I forced myself to picture an audience, that’s who I pictured. It was more like, “What would I like to read if I was 15? Would I be into this?“ It’s kind of a little X-rated for younger girls, which is why I think that they might like it. If people our age, in their 20s and 30s, read it and they get into it, that’s awesome, but while I was writing it and reading all my old diaries, I really went back to that place and that age. Ideally I would love it if it were the new Go Ask Alice or something.

Obviously your writing is very personally revealing, do you think this book is an accurate portrayal of your personality?

I do, yeah, but I also think that I’m constantly evolving and changing as a person.

If someone met you after reading your book, do you think they would know what you’re really like?

It’s really, really personal, so they would definitely know a lot about the details of my life and what I went through, but it would hard for me to say whether they would know me as a person. It would be nice to think that if they read it, they felt connected to me and kind of felt like they knew me.

Have you always been so open about your emotions and history, or is this something that has evolved over time?

No, I definitely have not always been so open. There are a lot of things I let people know about me right off the bat, but I also have really strict boundaries with certain things. When I was growing up I didn’t talk to anyone, I kept everything super bottled up, I was so scared to say how I really felt. It definitely changed over time and I was influenced by a lot of my cool older friends who were so willing to be themselves. Even today, I could very easily talk about the past, but it’s very hard for me to talk about present situations.

The people who didn’t want to talk to you for the book after you had tracked them down, do you think that was because they didn’t want to revisit that time in their life or they didn’t want to publicly go on record?

Some of them I think were just done with me. I think there is an element of some people having some ill will or anger towards me and just not wanting to do me any favors, maybe emotionally not wanting to revisit some stuff just because they are done with it. One of my ex-boyfriends, Kevin, who I tried to interview, I’ve been trying to contact him and be friends with him for years and he’s just not having it. I just have to kind of let go, and that’s fine. Then I think there were some people who were maybe a little trepidatious to talk to me because of their own personal fears about talking about the past. Maybe they thought I was going to yell at them or call them out on some shit, I have no idea. I think more so, the people who wouldn’t talk were the ones who were like, “I don’t want to go back there. Ancient history. Get over it.”

What was the toughest interview for you to do?

It was really hard for me to call the guy who kind of broke my heart when I was in college. I think in the book his name is Brian. I’m so bad at remembering the characters’ names. There are so many of them, people are definitely going to get confused, there are like eight million characters. But Brian, I was really scared to call him. It was one of those things where in theory I was like, “It will be fine. It will be funny. No big deal,” but once you have to pick up the phone and dial the number…I mean my palms were sweating. Then there were some other people who I was so scared to call that after I wasn’t able to get in touch with them the third time or the second time, I was just like, “That’s it. It’s fine. They’re gone.” There was this one girl who used to try to beat me up all the time and I couldn’t get a hold of her. Probably if I kept trying I would have, but it was really, really hard for me to and make that call.

Are all the names changed in the book?

Pretty much all the names are changed. I think maybe a handful stayed the same. Like Bobby and Ruby are their names.

Was that the decision of the people you talked to or yours?

When I first started writing the book, I wasn’t going to change anyone’s names, so usually the very early interviews I didn’t change their names. Everyone else I was like, “You know what, it’s just going to be easier if I change everyone’s names. It’s just going to give me a little bit more freedom.” I started feeling bad. I didn’t want to say anything bad about this person even if I haven’t spoken to them in ten years. It wasn’t my motivation to hurt anyone’s feelings. With Bobby and Ruby, I love them so much, they are so real to me, I couldn’t even make it up. Their names are so perfect, I love them, it’s fine. Maybe there are a couple of people whose names I didn’t change, but I can’t even remember, they were insignificant characters.

Is there any one you regret tracking down, where the experience talking to them was so difficult that you wish you hadn’t done it?


I don’t know if you plan on having kids, but would you raise them in the city or in the suburbs?

I totally want to have kids. I want to have two to four kids, I have their names all picked out. If I was like really, really rich, maybe I would raise them in the city. I don’t know, I was raised in the suburbs, I know for a fact I wouldn’t go back to Long Island, but it would be nice to raise kids where they could have a backyard. Ideally I’d have a city place and a country place just like everyone else, but there is something fun about playing outside and kind of being bored. It’s cool to grow up next to the MoMA, but it’s also cool to visit it.

What do you think it is about Long Island that makes it so difficult or toxic?

I think that Long Island is difficult and toxic in a lot of ways because the people there are very close-minded. In the same way, it’s very romantic to me. I hated living there when I was growing up, but I also love that I hated it. I think that you’re supposed to hate where you are from, because it pushed me to want to get out and explore the rest of the world. My parents still live in Long Island and I love to go visit them. I love taking the Long Island Railroad, there is something very bittersweet about it for me. I don’t hate it. It’s sort of like a character to me, it’s multi-faceted.

What other writing do you do?

I do some freelance for different magazines, which has its pros and cons. I am trying to work on a script with someone who is a special surprise person who I don’t want to say, but he is awesome. We’ll see how that goes. I’ve never written a script before, but he is kind of really good at it. I’ve been writing fiction and poetry forever. That’s something that I always do, and I always take classes just for fun. I love writing fiction, but I also don’t think that I am a great fiction writer. I think I’m a good fiction writer, but I’m just trying to get better at my craft no matter what form it’s in. Writing a book at 28 is great, but who knows if there will be any more. Maybe I should just be a librarian or fucking work at a fucking hotel for the rest of my life, because that’s what I do now. I don’t know.

Are you scared for this book to come out?

It’s kind of a coincidence you should mention it, because every day I’m like, “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m totally humble. No big deal. I’m scared for my parents to read it, my parents’ friends, but whatever.” Meanwhile, I was just talking to my co-worker and I was like, “I think I have an anxiety disorder. I have anxiety every single day. I don’t know what it’s about. My heart is beating really fast, I can’t breath.” It’s like, duh, I’m totally scared. I’m scared I’m not going to get enough press, I’m scared I am going to get press. I’m scared I’m going to get a good review, I’m scared I’m going to get a bad review, I’m scared I’m going to get no reviews. It’s very scary, but I love that, it’s great, bring it on. I’d rather go through the fear and come out the other side than not go through it at all. But to answer your question, yes I am scared and I have anxiety and there is nothing I can do. I can’t take medication and I’m not going to, so I just have to learn to meditate or something, maybe go back to therapy, which I don’t want to do.

Posted: June 06, 2007
Q+A: Lesley Arfin