Given the constant deluge of disheartening headlines this year, we could all use a laugh, couldn’t we? Tara Jepsen, author of the newly released novel, Like a Dog (City Lights Publishers), plans to provide just that in conversation with Beth Lisick at WORD bookstore (126 Franklin St) today (December 5th) at 7pm.
“Even when we’re not living under a kleptocracy like we are now, my gift and what I always want to do is give people a soul-soothing moment,” Tara said. “I just hope to give people a little relief and make them laugh.”
Tara is an LA-based writer, actor, sketch comedian, and rad feminist skateboarder who has appeared on the Emmy-award winning series Transparent. She and Lisick have been collaborating on comedy projects together since 1999, including their original web series Rods and Cones, released by Jill Solloway on Wifey.tv, and their queer cabaret Sister Spit. Tara also, alongside Miriam Klein-Stahl, illustrator of the Rad Women book series, co-founded queer skateboard brand Pave the Way Skateboards. Despite years of writing short stories and comedy, Like a Dog is Tara’s debut novel.
“I thought since I was a little kid that I would be a novelist. When I was on tour with Sister Spit in the 90s I just started farting around and writing stories,” she said. “I’m a total fucking ham and always have been, so this just seemed like the natural evolution of what I’ve been doing.”
Paloma, the protagonist of Like A Dog whose story draws from Tara’s own life, is unsurprisingly a total fucking ham as well. Paloma is a big-hearted, endearingly aimless skateboarder in her early thirties, wandering into queer San Francisco BDSM parties with her sidekick, Irma, and picking up odd agro jobs (re: weed farming) when pressed for cash. The story is centered on her relationship with her brother Peter, whose opiate addiction makes him nearly impossible to ever really depend on or be close to. Tara’s own brother Travis (to whom the book is dedicated) died in 2003 of the same disease, and much of the story is reflective of their relationship.
Greenpointers: How much of the narrative is based on real life events?
Tara: It is a very emotionally honest book, but the narrative is largely fiction. The story is fabrication but still a way for me to portray the relationship that we had and talk about what it’s like to have a sibling relationship with an addict, and what it’s like to never be able to connect to this person that you’re profoundly tied to, or I felt profoundly tied to; I’m sure a lot of people don’t feel that way about their addict siblings.
Greenpointers: With addiction or alcoholism, it is always difficult balancing how to recognize it as a disease someone did not choose, but still confront the damaging (and difficult to be around) behaviors that come with it. Was it hard making “Al-Anon themes,” like when Paloma describes Peter as a “hairy anus person” when using, so funny and so honest?
Tara: I really like that you noticed that – that’s so nice. It really wasn’t an effort; it wasn’t overt. I wanted to write this story with more compassion for Travis, but I also needed to live up to his humanity and his onerousness. In real life I had receded from him dramatically, because he really was not a fun person to be around. It was terrible. But I realized it was more interesting to write an intimate relationship between Paloma and Peter, which is why in the book they spent so much time together. I also really wanted to anchor it in the brother/sister relationship to not create more pain for my parents. They’ve had enough and I was just like leave them alone.
Greenpointers: Have your parents read the book?
Tara: My mom read it and said some of it was really difficult to read, but you’re a very beautiful storyteller. My dad still hasn’t acknowledged that I have a book out; he’s like a very stoic Danish type. Both sides have a ton of alcoholism, so I feel like my dad comes from this still very sad version of masculinity, like ya stuff it down and ya keep going. And I’m like your masculinity is a disease, or the way you engage with it, the way you use it.
Greenpointers: Your book has been praised for its casual, surreptitious moments of feminism, and what I found subversive throughout, in a way, was the first-person perspective of Paloma’s hilariously loutish stream of consciousness. How did you develop that highly distinct voice?
Tara: That part was really easy, because it was just like lifting up any gate on letting her be a flawed character. If I let her be flawed, I could write her thoughts in a natural tone without checking in too hard. Being a weird person or an outsider – punk, queer, whatever – you’re used to some degree of interpreting yourself for others. I’m used to that being too weird, but like, to who? Just having this permission to let her voice be was so fun. I could write in that voice relentlessly because it was really resonant with my own interior monologue. It’s the way I’m wired, and it’s really nice to have that be an asset for a minute.
Greenpointers: Do you see skateboarding as a queer space? Do the cultures blend or complement one another well?
Tara: This is everything that my deck company, Pave The Way Skateboards, is about. Especially coming from an underground, DIY queer culture, my aesthetic blended really well with skateboarding and the people I met. Of course, skateboarding has been homophobic towards men. It’s like, the one time where women have it a little easier. So we’re demanding a space for queer visibility, because queers have always been in skateboarding, but it’s just one of the last vestiges of boring, conservative thinking. It’s like really, there’s no space for gay men? Don’t you feel a little gay saying that?
Greenpointers: Do you have any future novels or writing projects in the works?
Tara: I did start another novel. It’s kind of the natural inclination after getting one out, but part of me is like I’d really have to think about writing in a different voice. The first is always a story you had to get out, and then come the stories you are artistically inclined to interpret. I also have written a bunch of different TV pilots and I have projects in development, but I just sit around and wait half the time. Writing for TV gets to the side of me that really wants to create a story, and my pilot definitely explores similar themes to my novel.