Every semester, the Beacon invites the editors of The Emerson Review to critique the latest work from The Undergraduate Students for Publishing and interview the author. Caroline Praderio, author of essay collection Sweet Baby Jesus!, spoke last week about her creative processes.
Berkeley Beacon: Based on the title story of the collection, is “Sweet baby Jesus” actually something you say on a regular basis?
Caroline Praderio: It is. I have a roommate from Southern California — I think she brought it from there, or something her family says, and I’ve lived with her for the past two years. It’s just something that rubbed off on me, so now I do say it a lot.
BB: In that same story — it’s about running on the treadmill — there’s a lot of humor. How do you write humor? Do you have to consciously think about being funny?
CP: I don’t consciously think about being funny, even in real life, not just in writing. I tend to self-deprecate. David Sedaris does that and Sloan Crosby does it too — those are big influences for me. Almost everything I write is funny; I try not to write things that are sad because I don’t like to read things that are sad. I like to write what I would want to read. The first textbook I ever read when I came to Emerson College was On Writing Well, by Willian Zinsser, and he said that if you’re writing and something amuses you in the act of writing, you should keep it in. So when I come up with some stupid thing that makes me laugh, I always keep it in.
BB: Specifically in regards to the piece “Trespasses,” which is at first about sneaking into your old church clock tower, but also throughout the whole collection, trespassing is a theme — there are a lot of stories about realizations sneaking up on you. Is that something you thought about?
CP: Honestly — no. [laughs] It’s cool that you noticed that. The essay is called “Trespasses” only because that’s part of the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” but [the collection] is a lot about realizations creeping up on me. The only thematic thread that I was actively trying to pull through all these stories was that each one is about faith — some kind of faith that you can have in something.
BB: What gets you started writing an essay? In one of the stories you mention journaling on a regular basis, but are there other things as well?
CP: I’ve been journaling since I knew how to write and since even before I knew how to write. When I got to Emerson and started taking nonfiction classes, I realized I had this life’s worth of material that I can just access anytime. I’m not sure what to write about. It’s easy to forget things, but when I write them down in painstakingly boring detail like “I had eggs for breakfast today,” it just transports me back to the day. I honestly think that you can write an essay about anything so I find inspiration all over the place. The ideas for some of these essays, like the one about running on the treadmill [“Sweet Baby Jesus”], just came to me while I was running on the treadmill. The one about sex and me learning what sex was [“News to Me”], that came from a journal entry. And a lot of these, because this is my first collection and some of the first essays I ever wrote, a lot of these are about my family — my family’s best and craziest stories.
BB: In “Under the Taurus” you tell us about how you used to make up stories about the “less fortunate.” Do you still write fiction or any other genre?
CP: I used to write fiction because I was disappointed that I didn’t have some great tragedy to write about. I don’t write fiction anymore and every time that I try to it just ends up veering helpless toward autobiography. The characters are always just like me or they have the same problems or ticks that I do. I’m freaked out by the power that fiction writers have and the agency that you have where you can write about anything. The English language itself is so overwhelming. When you want to express an idea and you realize there are infinite ways to do so, it’s really scary. So having some sort of boundary, like my boundary is the truth, and that’s really helpful. It makes it a little less scary and a little less intimidating that yes, I have millions of words, and I can arrange the 26 letters of the alphabet in millions of ways, but I have the truth … I just sort of stumbled upon nonfiction here and it felt like home. When I found out that … creative nonfiction was literature, my mind was blown and I was sold.
BB: [Essayist] David Sedaris has written about how his family members get upset about the things he’s written about them. Do you let your family read your stories? There’s one story where you write about sex and your first experience with a guy named Bill. Do you worry that Bill is going to read your essay?
CP: Bill was there and he knows what happened [laughs]. He doesn’t know what I was thinking at the time, but I’m sure he could tell. When it comes to my parents, they know what’s in here. They haven’t read these essays, but I told them roughly what I say about them so they’re prepared. I treat them well in this because I love them and they’re great parents and my brothers too. Everyone in this book, I love.
I don’t let them read things ahead of time and it will obviously be a little weird for my dad to read an essay about me finding out what sex was, but I’m 21 now. He knows, everybody knows; it’s just letting the cat out of the bag. The rule that I adhere to when I’m writing about other people is I don’t write anything that I wouldn’t be able to say to their face. And it would be really awkward if I encountered Bill and I had to say “I was really weirded out when you had an erection and I felt it on my leg,” but I would say it to him.