Greg Marshall is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Prose. A graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, his work has been collected in The Best American Essays and has appeared in Fourth Genre, Foglifter, and Electric Literature, among other publications. Marshall's debut memoir, Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew from It, will be published with Abrams Press in June. He lives in Austin with his husband. Find him on Twitter @gregrmarshall.
“Scrap This Book for Parts,” an Interview with Greg Marshall
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Rich Duhamell. Of the process, they said, “Greg Marshall swoops into Leg with a refreshing, persisting levity that will keep readers delighted even through tears as he leads us through highs and lows like we’re bungee jumping. The theater of it all is unparalleled with how he highlights the comedic and beautiful, refusing to settle for a tragedy in any of it and constantly recalling the love of his family as an anchor within the piece. It was with much glee to find the same humor in this interview as in his memoir.” In this interview Greg Marshall talks about the difference in writing essays and a memoir, his challenge and advice to new writers, and the courage of queer authors and readers in the wake of current book bannings.
Superstition Review: I was stunned to read in the Acknowledgements about how you had doubted ever being able to publish a book, despite having had many of the chapters in different literary magazines but also given the clear skill and wit with which you write. Could you talk a bit about that enduring imposter syndrome and your challenge to the reader at the very end of “maybe you thought, Seriously? I could write something ten times better. I hope you do”?
Greg Marshall: When I was recording the Leg audiobook this spring, my friend Lizzy, a brilliant podcast producer, gave me the advice of imagining a queer, disabled listener out there putting in their earbuds at the park to listen to my tale. “You aren’t reading lines in a memoir,” she said. “You’re not grandstanding or defending what you’ve written to people who may or may not like it. You’re having an intimate conversation with a person—just one person—who needs to hear your life story.”
It occurs to me this is exactly what I was trying to do with my acknowledgments: I wanted to throw my reader or listener a lifeline. My way of doing that was to acknowledge my own doubts and struggles and moments of vulnerability.
I also wanted to throw down the gauntlet a little bit. When I was trying to get Leg out into the world, I spent an inordinate amount of time flipping to the back of books I loved, and some I didn’t, to see who represented the writer, who had published them, who was part of their creative community. It was a reconnaissance mission. The truth is, publishing a book is incredibly difficult no matter who you are or what your background is. It’s like summiting Everest in that it’s treacherous, completely optional, and contingent upon factors larger than any one person—and yet the foolhardy adventurers among us can’t help but try. So much of it is luck: the right timing, the right climate, even the right tweet. My acknowledgments were my way of saying, “I see you. I know why you’re nosing around back here, and I think you can do it. Scrap this book for parts if you must but figure out a way.”
SR: Some of the chapters in this book first appeared as personal essays elsewhere. What were the differences between writing an individual essay and working on this memoir?
GM: Writing about disability in essays can be like Groundhog Day. At the start of each outing, I have to re-explain my body. Hi, I’m Greg. I have cerebral palsy and I didn’t actually know about it until I was nearly thirty. The memoir freed me to only have to explain the oddities of my dawning corporeal awareness once and then show how that awareness rippled out over three-hundred pages. The essays often had a single frame: childhood pets, tennis, an adolescent fear of AIDS. The memoir was about removing the frames from each literary picture, if you will, and gluing them together to make a panorama.
Despite some of their limitations, I will say essays offer their own temporal advantage: time travel. In stand-alone pieces, I am free to recklessly careen through time and space, compress a decade into a sentence, burn through a whole book worth of material in a paragraph, and marshal all my narrative fireworks for a single, spectacular ending, the kind that ideally will make the overworked editors at literary magazines take note. The dad in my essays can die a thousand deaths, but the dad in my memoir can die but once. Why? Because Memoir Dad is part of a single, ongoing story. He’s not part of the metaverse.
SR: The briefest moments of the present throughout the essays often brought a grin to my face: the detail of still having that red couch, the inclusion of Lucas correcting your memory. With the past tense, it can be easy to forget how close in time and still ongoing these stories are. What was the process of deciding how and where to use these glimpses into the now?
GM: That’s a keen observation! I can’t say any of the “glimpses into the now,” as you beautifully put it, were done intentionally. They were my subconscious effort to respect how memory works and mimic it on the page. Even Proust needed a madeleine to get the creative juices flowing.
SR: The inclusion of the photo of you and your father in France at the end of the book was beautifully paired with the stories surrounding it and made me wonder: What made you decide to include the only other photo before all the chapters, a family shot with the caption that the author “pretends he is an only child”?
GM: There was fierce debate at Leg HQ, i.e., the living room of my 900-square-foot condo, about how the book should begin. For a fairly traditional coming-of-age tale, Leg boasts more characters and mortal turns of fate than a season of Afterschool Specials. We came up with the idea of using the family photo to help introduce some of the book’s major players. I wanted to show how big, raucous, goofy, and deeply ordinary my family was. Among these oddballs, I didn’t stand out and neither did my leg, probably because I was hiding it behind a piece of furniture.
SR: Your writing made me fall in love with your early writing mentors: the extravagance of your mother’s entire being, and the ladylikeness of Mary for being in McSweeney’s already upon her introduction. Who else was integral to your entry into the writing world, and how did they help you?
GM: Probably like most of us, I had some marvelous English teachers along the way and one really nasty one in junior high. Looking back, she was a harmless eccentric with the wan complexion of a corpse and a rabbity nose twitch. Had I known her as an adult, we might have been friends. We could have talked about our movement disorders! From the very beginning, she had it out for me because my mom had lobbied the principal to get me into Gifted and Talented English in the ninth grade based on my treacly poetry. My test scores had placed me right in the middle of my class, if not closer to the bottom. Mom claimed I was a bad test-taker because it took me longer to fill in Scantron bubbles, and there may have been some truth to that, but she also probably just figured I’d be bullied less among nerds. There was also the fact that I adored writing and tore through all of her Danielle Steel novels.
Anyway, this English teacher was a real character. She kept a cardboard cutout of Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the back of the classroom year-round and was what was kindly referred to back then as a “stickler.” Assignments were to be completed exactly as assigned. I understand the logic of this for, say, correctly labeling the Holy Roman Empire on a map of medieval Europe, but what is “correct” when it comes to a fifteen-year-old’s epic vampire diary that he spent all spring break working on? Does that deserve not a grade but a note to Come see me after class? And so what if he labeled the diary’s first entry as “entrée” because no one in his house ever bothered to fix his spelling? Should that mistake be met with a stern, You need to look this up?
I suppose you can see where I’m going with this, but what I learned from that English teacher was that I wanted to be a writer—I was a writer—no matter how hard anyone tried to take that away from me. She told me to look it up, I looked it up. She told me to see her after class, there I was with my twenty-seven handwritten pages, ready to pry out the staples with my grubby fingernails and start again.
At the end of the year, when I asked her to sign my yearbook—all gay children are required to ask this of our English teachers, whether we like them or not—she finally paid me a compliment. “Most kids would have given up,” she said.
SR: Your ability to encapsulate the sometimes problematic thought processes of your younger self was well executed; you acknowledge the internalized ableism and homophobia and transphobia you harbored at the time without editing around the truth of you in the past. How did you navigate when to qualify and acknowledge dated beliefs and when to let them play out as a typical adolescent lack of sensitivity?
GM: This was something I grappled with a lot. In the first chapter, I ask what it means to transform when there are parts of ourselves we can’t change. I was talking about our bodies but the same applies to past prejudices. The answer I land on, hopefully with some degree of nuance, is that it’s our understanding that can be transformed. Almost by definition that means that every moment of the narrative can’t be transcendent. Otherwise, what’s the epiphany at the end?
Ultimately, I had to trust in the totality of the story I was telling. I felt freer not to comment on my prejudice when my character is younger. By the time that character is in his twenties and thirties, an acknowledgment of bigotry becomes more necessary. In this, too, there’s a narrative opportunity to explode the idea that we’re ever done growing. That process doesn’t end when we turn eighteen, or twenty-one, or thirty, or forty for that matter.
Generally, I never wanted to come across as a super crip, a hyper-evolved, intelligent being whose disability made him beyond reproach. I’m a cis white gay man born in the 1980s. Problematic is pretty much my middle name. The premise of the book—that I didn’t identify as a person with a disability until I was thirty—naturally lent a kind of rookie-cop structure to the story. I blunder, backtrack, misinterpret clues, and I’m more than a little complicit in the system that tries to box me in. But hopefully, I mature and gain perspective along with the reader as we “solve” the mystery of my leg.
SR: The theme of compounded closets of queerness and disability is present throughout the chapters, the tug-of-war between safety in secrecy and empowerment in having the words to understand ourselves and others. How has publishing this memoir impacted your ability or desire to pass?
GM: You know that trope at the end of horror movies where it’s a year later and the survivor has gone on to publish a memoir about the experience? Their hair is nicely coiffed and they’re reading in front of a packed audience at a cozy bookshop? Putting out Leg has felt that surreal at times: liberating, necessary, deeply satisfying, but also like I’m waiting for some sardonic twist just before the credits role that will call into question my happy ending.
I should emphasize that my friends tell me this is a perfectly normal feeling for debut authors, especially for those of us who have experienced trauma. (So: everyone.) And my editor, publisher and early readers have been encouraging beyond what I could have imagined. But, you know, putting yourself out there is scary. It just is. Historically, people don’t like people who write things down. It’s probably objectively safer to stay quiet and hidden and I do recognize that being out is a direct result of my privilege.
At the same time, I’ve seen loved ones succumb to paranoia, lies, and anticipatory dread and it takes a toll. In the case of my boyfriend who died of AIDS complications, those habits cost him his life. In the case of another boyfriend, telling grandiose fibs made it impossible for me to know or trust him. In the case of my leg, it meant that I rarely found solidarity or friendship with other disabled folks, which has been one of the best parts of publishing Leg. So often when I’ve been in the closet, someone else is holding the keys. Leg was my chance to kick my captor in the balls and make a run for it. I guess I’m a dash-toward-the-light kind of person. I’m definitely a kiss-and-teller.
SR: You currently live in Texas, where over 800 books have been banned in recent years. You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you hope that Leg doesn’t get banned but that if it does, then the book is doing its job. How do you see the current sweep of book banning across the country in conversation with the bills you fought against with Don’t Amend? Do you have any words of hope for your readers about the effort to keep stories like yours from view?
GM: I was a freshly out teenager in the summer of 2004, when I interned for the Don’t Amend Alliance, and I can still remember so many of the books and movies I was consuming at the time. In fact, I’d decided to come out in the first place after watching the HBO adaptation of Angels in America over Christmas break. At my request, my dad had helpfully recorded every episode of the miniseries on VHS so it’d be ready for me. Man, I haven’t thought about that in a long time, how funny it was to give my dad that homework. Anyway, I knew I had to come out when I found myself most strongly identifying with the closeted bigot Roy Cohn as opposed to the play’s much more appealing out gay characters.
The books I read my first gay summer! It’s like taking another nibble of Proust’s madeleine: The Hours by Michael Cunningham, the pulpy anthology series Men on Men. Not everything was overtly gay, either. I read On the Road under the gazebo in my parent’s backyard and leafed back through the copy of Beloved my friend Lizzy and I had annotated to death the previous year in AP English. Soon my brother would introduce me to David Sedaris’ Naked and my friend Iris would populate my nightstand with Best Gay Poetry, the cover of which pictured a guy in a Speedo, and Crush by Richard Siken.What I’m saying is that these books were important to me. They were trial balloons that let me try on personas, and scant swimwear, before having to put them on in public. If you took one of these works of art out of the equation it might not have changed much for me but if you took all of them away, I would be a completely different person today, and I suppose that’s the whole idea behind book bans. They’re not about books any more than gay marriage bans were about marriage. Shunning and shame are the main objectives. Control.
One reason I love the naked anatomy figure on the cover of Leg is that he reminds me of a censorship controversy from when I was a kid: A traveling Rodin exhibit came to BYU when I was in the seventh grade and the university declined to show some of the statues that depicted nudity, including The Kiss. These masterly works were deemed indecent, immoral, unfit for public display at the Mormon-owned campus. A few years later, just before I started taking AP Art History in high school, the Rodin exhibit came back to Utah, but this time it was displayed at the University of Utah. The bronze nudes went up along with everything else, and guess what? The world kept spinning on its axis. Society didn’t crumble.This isn’t to make light of book or art bans or minimize how damaging they can be. Libraries are major book buyers, and they frequently purchase more than one copy. If you take away that economic power and distribution, debut authors like me would be badly hobbled, and frankly I’m already hobbled enough.On the bright side, Leg has given me a front-row seat to the courage and dedication of librarians and booksellers across the country. They’re fierce champions for books of all kinds, all interests, all genres, all reading levels. I love the idea of Leg out there fighting the good fight, championed by so many incredible human beings. Many bookstores, like one in my hometown, The King’s English, are partnering with local nonprofits to bring authors and free books into schools. They are doing great work. We just have to turn up and support them.
SR: Creativity clearly served as an outlet through every period of your life, from singing to theater to writing--and it ran in the family, too! What advice would you have for those currently in a creative slump?
GM: For me, slumps in creativity usually coincide with bouts of depression and anxiety. These mental conditions fog my windshield and make it hard to see all the beauty and intrigue and strangeness streaming by. Wistful is one thing, but I can’t write when I’m even a little bit sad. For the longest time, this was a source of shame and annoyance. I’m learning that being kinder to myself fosters my curiosity. I try to set up routines away from my desk to jolt my system: morning swims at Barton Springs, walks with our dog Zeus, calls to friends. What I try not to do is sit at my desk and wallow and scroll. That just makes the hole I’m in that much deeper.
My Mormon ancestors are tapping me on the shoulder to suggest I speak less holistically and more practically on finding your creative groove. I’m a fan of journaling for processing my latest text exchange with my mom but not for generating new material. That’s where writing prompts come in. They really can be immensely helpful in getting out of a slump. Or, if prompts aren’t your think, look for themed calls for submissions from literary magazines. If you come up with something you like, it won’t matter whether or not the magazine publishes it. In the summer of 2013, for example, The Fairy Tale Review was putting together a Wizard of Oz issue, and I thought, “I have an Oz story! I just have to write it.” They didn’t take essay, but they still lent me the sourdough starter I needed to get going.