The Sweetest Debut: Sady Doyle on Britney Spears, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Female French Revolutionaries


Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Today we hear from Sady Doyle, a mainstay of online feminism whose brand-new book on the intersection of culture and gender politics could not be a better fit for Flavorwire.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Trainwreck is a feminist anatomy of the “trainwreck” phenomenon: A book about how we pathologize women for having public lives, and why we’re invested in watching successful women fall apart, combining portraits of historical figures like Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Brontë with analysis of present-day celebrities like Britney Spears and Whitney Houston.

What do you tell your relatives it’s about?

It’s about why we call women crazy for having feelings.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I had a vague list of “crazy” historical women that I was trying to connect with present-day celebrities as far back as 2012. It looked like a conspiracy-theory chart with a lot of lines connecting names, and not much else. (“Emily Dickinson → Fiona Apple??”) So it was rolling around for a long time in my mind, but it only began to look like something cogent and interesting due to some interest from a lovely editor back in 2013 or 2014.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

Herzog, Saul Bellow. Tried to read it to impress someone, got to the part about how women drink man-blood while eating salad, tossed it forever.

How about a book you’ve read more than two times?

Selected Poems, Margaret Atwood.

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for Trainwreck?

There are a lot of books in there! Two formative influences, I guess, would be The Love Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft to Gilbert Imlay and “Piece of Me” by Britney Spears.

Do you have a favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I will watch an episode of Chopped at any time, and I will judge every single contestant harshly and personally. Related: I am terrible at cooking.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

The all-lady Ghostbusters, or, as I like to call it, Ghostbusters.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

If I’m blocked, I will put on an album with no lyrics, and tell myself I have to just write without stopping or walking away from the computer until it’s over. I typically go for the Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand. There’s also a really good new album by Marisa Anderson, Into the Light, that’s the soundtrack to an imaginary “sci-fi Western.” I’m writing to it pretty often these days.

Who is your fashion icon?

I think I decided that I liked how Tori Amos looked in 1992 and just never stopped wearing jeans and tank tops. I thought Tina Fey looked good in sensible cardigans on “30 Rock” and started investing in those too. That was like 10 years ago. I’m waiting for a look from this decade that I can run into the ground.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

I’m mildly obsessed with a Norwegian pop singer named Aurora who is always being filmed in fantastically pristine and awe-inspiring Scandinavian landscapes. So I’ve decided I want a cottage on a cliff overlooking an ocean in (what I’m guessing is) Norway. I would probably be there for two days, figure out that there was nowhere to buy cigarettes or order Seamless from, and move out.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

Writer. I have pretty consistent goals.

Do you prefer writing at your desk, bed or couch?

I used to write in bed, because there’s no point to working from home if you’re not being a little bit disgraceful, but I’ve figured out that I get much more done at my desk. So, desk for now.

Are you more of a morning writing or late-night writing type?

Late night, 100%. No-one wants to make conversation with you. There are no e-mails coming in that you need to answer. My dogs are asleep, so I don’t need to walk them or feed them. At some point, you enter a sleep-deprivation haze and lose all self-consciousness about what you’re working on. I would recommend late night writing to anyone.

Does your method involve writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I still get stage fright about publishing pieces, and anything that resembles finality is nerve-wracking. That used to make me extremely slow, because I couldn’t stand the thought that I was actually finishing something, and had no more opportunities to make it better. So now, I go by the motto “everything is a draft.” I just crank it all out, in a pretty linear way, then go back through and try to re-work it and fine-tune it a few times.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I’ve taken some marketing and PR jobs over the years, often for people who would probably not love it if their company was publicly represented by me yelling about mental illness and upskirts and the patriarchy, so I try to keep the worlds pretty separate.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I do not sleep much, do very little housework, and also, have to be more or less dragged out of the house to socialize. That seems to do the trick.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

One of my favorite historical figures, in Trainwreck, is the one for whom there’s the least biographical material available in English: Theroigne de Mericourt. She was a highly flamboyant, theatrical, feminist French revolutionary who pissed off all the other revolutionaries by going on endlessly about women’s rights. She tried to start a fistfight in the Assembly once; she heard some guys making fun of her and she just launched herself out of the stands and threw herself at the bench.

Eventually her brother locked her in a mental institution, possibly for political reasons — there was a lot of inter-revolutionary purging going on at that time, and not being associated with her was probably the safest course — and she died there. But she also outlived nearly all of her contemporaries; they were all out killing each other, and she was locked up. She became a sort of medical freak show, a rare exhibit of a living revolutionary. All of this is very well-covered in France, but she’s still extremely obscure over here, so there’s not much available in translation. I would love to finance some kind of lavish biopic, or something that would make her more well-known over here. More Theroigne in the mainstream, this is my goal.

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

I still want people to respect me when this interview is over, so I’m gonna say no.