Why would anybody in their right mind want to write a book about getting crabs?
Out of necessity, in a roundabout way. About three and a half years ago, I had recently finished a novel and, while trying to place it with a publisher, needed some other project to work on. I was too exhausted from the novel to start a new one. What I needed was something different, something short, something self-contained that would occupy me for a while. So I started writing stories from my life. That time I wrecked my friend’s car. That time I stayed at the Waldorf. Eventually those stories coalesced around one in particular: that time I got the crabs.
Once I was finished writing “How to Get the Crabs,” I realized it had done more than just occupy my time. Writing about the crabs helped to clear my head of the novel so that I could focus on the next one. Who would have thought pubic lice could make for such a good palate cleanser?
How does Rick, your fellow crab-getter, feel about the ordeal?
Poor Rick has never been able to forget it, though not because it was such an ordeal. He’s never been able to forget it because, whenever Rick is around or just comes up in conversation, my dad will immediately tell “the crabs story.” On Christmas Eve this year, I happened to mention Rick’s name, and my father, with my whole family present, asked everyone to quiet down. Then, as though reciting “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” he began, “Snowden and Rick were living at the beach, and this one weekend they said they were feeling kind of itchy . . . “
Why did you choose to write the book in second-person?
The second-person point of view has some great benefits. The use of “you” makes the reader complicit with the narrative. There’s the “you” that is me, the person doing everything on the page, and there’s the “you” that is the reader, the person who is being addressed. Every story, fiction or nonfiction, requires a level of empathy from the reader. The reader needs to feel what it’s like to be the protagonist. What second-person does is literalize that relationship.
Another benefit of second-person is that it allows me, the writer, to think of myself, the subject of the book, as a character. I’m not an “I.” I’m a “you.” That helped me to keep from flinching when telling these stories. I could reveal the worst aspects of my personality, thoughts, and actions, things I might have glossed over in regular first-person. Second-person made it easier to be harder on myself.
Did any books serve as models for you?
In general there are two types of second-person usage. The first type features a “you” that is a specific character. Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and Junot Diaz’s Drown and This is How You Lose Her utilize this kind of “you.” You are a specific woman having an affair with a married man. You are a specific drug-addled fact-checker. You are a specific guy who habitually cheats on his girlfriend.
The second type of second-person features a “you” that is more of a hodge-podge of characters. Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York utilizes this type. You are a blend of the different kinds of people who arrive in New York. You are a blend of the different kinds of people strolling through Central Park.
The latter type can be effective, but I tend to prefer the former. It allows you to tell an actual story as opposed to a series of anecdotal details. So I’d say Moore, McInerney, and Diaz were the biggest models for me. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I think Mohsin Hamid’s novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia uses that type of second-person as well. Also, if anyone’s interested, there’s even a movie, Blast of Silence, with second-person voice-over.
What do you want to get better at as a writer?
Although there are some things I’ll always want to get better at—writing clean sentences, building narrative tension—I think what I need the most improvement on is eliciting genuine emotion in readers. Making people feel something is an incredibly difficult thing to do. What makes it so difficult is that there’s no schematic on how to create empathy. Nonetheless, if a writer can pull it off, if this complete stranger can make some person they’ve never met suddenly feel overwhelming sadness or joy through nothing but ink on paper, then that is sort of a miracle, don’t you think?
So, in other words, I want to get better at stirring readers—that, and making sure never to put myself in a situation after which I could write an essay titled “How to Get Scabies.”