A Life of Books with Alisson Wood, author of Being Lolita

In her stunning, coming-of-age debut memoir, Alisson Wood details what happens after her senior year English teacher asks her if she ever read Lolita. An innocent question turns into a forbidden romance. As his hold on her grows, she begins to question everything.

Wood breathtakingly resists this time in her life and reevaluates why it happened and how it changed her.

Below, Alisson Wood answered Debutiful‘s “A Life of Books” questionnaire.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

I read every single Nancy Drew book cover to cover. I was a very fast reader and adored to read, so serial books were my catnip. I loved Nancy; she was smart, fearless, curious, and so independent. She didn’t need a guy in her life either– when Ned did appear, he was incredibly tertiary to Nancy’s desires and choices. Nancy had such agency. That’s something I admired and aspired to as a young girl, and now as a writer. I loved the hardback original versions, versus the rewritten “updated” ones, and at one point I was known for taking out literal stacks of books each week from the library. Many of which were Nancy Drew Mysteries. Or the Old Mother West Wind books, or The Baby-Sitters Club, of course. 

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

Absolutely! I think we should encourage people, of any age, to read, and let them read what they want without judgement. One of the first “grown up” books I read was Gone with the Wind— I was at a Waldenbooks with my mother, with my arms full of books I wanted (probably including a few Nancy Drew’s and Baby-Sitters Club books), and my mother, not wanting to have to buy all of the books, sat me down in one of those big plush chairs and gave me Gone with the Wind. She told me that I had to read the first chapter and then decide if I wanted that or all the other books. I could not have been more than ten. And of course, I was immediately swept up by Scarlett O’Hara and the strength of her voice and so chose Gone with the Wind. Which is an incredibly problematic book– packed with downright dangerous historical, racial, and gender stereotypes. It overflows with caricatures of mammies, this wildly fictional romanticization of the south, and Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship is incredibly manipulative and abusive. But while I was reading it, my mom would openly, critically discuss these problematic themes in the book, and modeled how you can “enjoy” a piece of art but aso challenge it. Books can start conversations around things big and small, for all ages. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

The obvious answer is Lolita. But it’s more complicated than that. I didn’t actually read Lolita in high school. It was given to me as part of a process of grooming and predation by an English teacher, a relationship that was intended to be one of support and encouragement of my writing, but quickly became incredibly abusive and traumatic. He told me Lolita was a beautiful story about love, a story about our love. He would go on and on about how wonderful and romantic the book, the language was, and I lapped it up. But, in actuality, I only skimmed the book. I thought a lot of it was boring and dense and at times I wasn’t even sure what was happening in a literal way on the page. 

Twenty years later, and over a dozen readings later (one of which in a college literature course), I have more appreciation for the book. The opening of Part One (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins…”) is truly staggering and an almost perfect example of language with intention and how to suture the reader. The art-making happening on the page. It’s just so beautiful! Undeniably so. As someone who teaches writing, it’s such a valuable tool to show how language choices and the poetry of lines, even in prose, can be so powerful, and impactful. 

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

This answer is also Lolita: but now I’m referring to the content, the plot, versus the craft. I believed the teacher in that it was a sweeping romance. I thought Dolores Haze (ne Lolita) was someone I wanted to be, that she was powerful and sexy and an image to desire. I did not see, as a teenager, that it was actually a story about dangerous obsession, kidnapping, rape, and abuse. (And I wasn’t the only one; there are people who truly believe this is a book about love.) Now, I see the book as beautifully written, at times overwritten — Nabokov famously despised and distrusted editors, and the book, frankly, could have been ¼ to ⅓ shorter. I know, sacrilege! But I stand by my opinion on this. Yet it is also wildly problematic. It romanticizes this kind of abuse, it has created “Lolita” iconography as a jezebel, a sexpot, a girl responsible for her own destruction. Or Humbert Humbert’s idea of her. In reality, Dolores Haze is a victim. Lolita is not a story about love, and is one more story in our Western canon showcasing a sexualized teenager, scandalizing trauma to the point of enticement, and deeply misogynistic. We don’t need Lolita anymore. 

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

Lolita. Oof, so much Lolita went into Being Lolita! I think structure is really difficult, and can be hard to find in a larger project. There’s so much information to manage, time, thinking about the reader… it can be really overwhelming, and structure can solve so many problems. I knew I wanted the book to be chronological, but other than that I had no idea for a while how to craft the book in a larger sense. Then, I was reading Lolita for the millionth time and it just hit me– this is the structure. Nabokov broke up the novel into two parts; part one is the extended “seduction” and set up of Humbert preying upon Dolores, the break between the parts is when the relationship becomes explicitly physically sexual, and part two is a series of road trips to escape being caught, and then Dolores escapes, and Humbert is sad, etc. (Also everyone ends up dead; it’s very Shakespearean in that way.)

I chose to simply steal and subvert the Nabokov structure. So, my Part One is the extended “seduction” and set-up of the relationship (or, my senior year of high school); the break between parts is when the relationship becomes explicitly physically sexual, and part two is a series of road trips to escape being caught and I eventually leave the teacher. But I don’t die at the end of the book! So I have a Part Three, which is very much tracing the impact of this trauma on my life, my choices, both conscious and unconscious, and who I am now. And it felt very organic to make this thievery, since my book is so much about Lolita and how it was woven into this part of my life. It just felt right.

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

Bluets by Maggie Nelson, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, Abandon Me by Melissa Febos, Jazz by Toni Morrison. Really I’m just listing some of my favorite books that I am in constant awe of, and I am in a state of wonder of how they were created. Wanting them to be “mine” is probably not the right word– I don’t desire to take anything away from anyone, since having a community of perspectives and voices is part of the beauty of literature– but I definitely seek to find that same sort of magnificence and power on the page, someday. 

What have you been reading during your quarantine and social distancing?

With the stakes as high as they’ve been in the world, I’ve been reading a lot of the New York Times, Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, New York Magazine, and other responsible sources for the urgent stories and information I think we all need to know. I struggle to find the space inside for more “fun” reading in a time like this, even though art is as important as ever when the world is falling apart. Art is everything. So even though it’s hard for me to read literature, I am buying books every week, going to readings, and doing everything I can to support my fellow writers and literary friends. 

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

Sister trauma novel.

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