“No, thank you. I’ll take the witch any day”: An Interview with Caroline Hagood

Growing up as a weird girl, one who wanted nothing other than to wear the comfy clothes of her male peers, I never thought myself to be feminine. I labeled myself as a tomboy at the age of five and ran with it. It was an excuse to step outside of the femininity that was expected of me. A reason to wear my baggy green basketball shorts, rather than those knee-length plaid bermuda shorts all the girls my age were wearing in the early 2000’s. I thought of myself as an outsider. 

As seventh grade crept up on me, I was someone who tried to dress and style myself in the image of other girls my age, always feeling that my personality and looks fell short. I was this twelve-year-old girl, standing in front of a mirror, wearing clothes that my mom thought were cute, feeling as if I was a fictional character in the story of my own life. No matter which spot I tried to force the puzzle piece of myself in, I was always forced back out to confront the true version of myself lingering in the back of my mind. I was inauthentic to myself because being different was frowned upon, but as I got older, I took my quirky personality, put it on display, and let my freak flag fly. 

This younger version of me who felt so isolated was the reason I felt such a big connection to Caroline Hagood’s book, Weird Girls: Writing the Art Monster. I first learned about Hagood’s book by searching through the PopMatters website, where I found a review of Weird Girls by Megan Volpert. I knew I needed this book in my life. 

In addition to 2022’s Weird Girls, Hagood has published Lunatic Speaks (2012), Making Maxine’s Baby (2015), Ghosts of America (2021), and Ways of Looking at a Woman (2019). A novel, Filthy Creation, is due out soon. She has been published in Electric Literature, Creative Nonfiction, LitHub, Kenyon Review, Huffington Post, The Guardian, Salon, and Elle. Along with a long list of many more incredible accomplishments, Caroline Hagood is also a mother, an assistant professor of literature, writing and publishing and director of undergraduate writing at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, as well as an editor at Hanging Loose Press. When the chance came up to interview Caroline Hagood, the author of a book that I knew was going to mean so much to me, I immediately took it. 

Throughout this interview, I had the pleasure of getting Caroline’s insight into motherhood, balancing being a mother and an artist, coping with bodily trauma, and her experience as a self-proclaimed “art monster.”

As another self-proclaimed “weird girl,” your book gave me a sense of comfort and belonging within the realm of writing. As the writer of Weird Girls, where on this earth do you find yourself answering these questions?

I’m so glad to hear that this book gave you some comfort and a sense of belonging. That’s such a huge part of why I wrote it. It’s isolating to be a person, to be a writer, to be weird, and I really wanted all lost souls to be able to find themselves in this book and sort of nod along.

I’m not sure whether you’re asking here about my geographical location or more like intellectual-emotional location, but maybe that will lead to a more interesting answer, haha. Although I’d prefer an interstellar adventure, I’m currently on earth. I’m in my apartment in Brooklyn, writing these answers to you at my desk, while taking breaks to play dress-up with my daughter and chess with my son. I’m also trying to figure out how to solve the problem I’m having with a current writing project. I think this sort of mental juggling act is pretty much just the modern condition.

The cover of this book—I absolutely love it. It is very detailed and uncanny. There’s blood, meat, and eyeballs, which makes you think about the women toward the bottom of the picture who are missing pieces of themselves but appearing unbothered. Did you choose this picture to be on the cover of your book? How do you think this corresponds with the content of your book? What is your interpretation of this piece of art?

I’m happy you asked about that. This cover art is by the amazing Robin Tewes. One of the many special things about working with small/independent presses is that you often get input on the cover art. Robin has done my last four covers. I saw this image and felt as though it had been created for my book, but it existed before it. 

To me, it embodies the whole Frankensteinian, hybrid, taken-apart-and-sewn-back-together way that I envision the creative process. It captures that incredible merger between humor, wonder, and horror that I often find in my favorite works of art. It also just looks like two ladies having a conversation I’d love to have.

The opening pages set a focus around the concepts of witches, difficult women, and what it is that makes these titles praiseworthy. What is it that makes a woman difficult? Is it her title or description as being a witch? Is this something to be proud of? How do we identify with our inner witch?

I think most women with a complex inner life will at some point be labeled difficult. For me, the title of witch in literature has always been a reason for pride. The witch often lives off in the woods, according to her own rules, inventing creative potions while the princess sits at home, obeying everyone else’s rules, creating nothing, and dedicating her life to the pursuit of being a beautiful object that can one day be loved. No, thank you. I’ll take the witch any day. I identify my inner witch as those strange and creative churnings I feel inside me before I sit down to write.

In the span of a little over 100 pages, you cover so many topics: the female monster, the mother monster, as well as balancing creativity within the boundaries of motherhood, trauma, and reclaiming the female body. You also make connections to popular movies, popular characters, and women in pop culture and media. Where did you find the inspiration to write such a book? How did you formulate all these ideas in such a cohesive way?

The first answer is easy and the second answer is hard. I wrote it this way because the inside of my mind is a nutty place where all these conversations happen all day long without anyone to listen, and I had to get them out or I’d lose my mind. How did I make them cohere? Did I? I hope so. I certainly tried. 

I think the kinds of books I most love follow a braided, associative logic, and I tried to rely on this. I use this bizarre writing approach that involves assigning lines and sections different symbols so I can see where they fit. The few people who have seen these notes have worried for me. Just kidding. Mostly.

In the opening lines of section 10, you write, “I remember the day I traded my sweat suits for ‘woman clothes’ that I wore like a costume. As a child, I studied females like a feral Harriet the Spy. I collected the pieces and sewed them together into a feminine amalgam that was going to be me. Building myself was like being Dr. Frankenstein and creating a monster.” As someone who felt alien as a child, regarding growing into womanhood, describing it as creating a monster to play the part of, have your concepts of womanhood changed as you’ve gotten older? What advice would you give that younger version of yourself?

My concept of womanhood has probably just gotten more absurd as I have grown up. After the whole having babies thing happened, I saw my body as even more of a surrealist experiment. I think this is why I’ve always gravitated towards queer theory when it comes to thinking about gender. I wished I had someone to talk to about all this so badly. I think I’d tell my younger self: “Don’t feel like you have to make all these gender pieces, or all these creative/intellectual pieces cohere. The best things come out of this very complex fragmentation.”

I love the little snippets of memoir that the reader gets of your life throughout the course of the text. Vivid descriptions of motherhood, “The real haunted house,” of the family home. Your writing is so relatable, even to me, a writer who isn’t a mother. How did you choose where to write and include pieces of memoir?

Phew. I’m relieved to hear that it’s relatable and not just totally off-putting. I’m also glad that the book’s not a total drag to read for people who aren’t parents. I didn’t want to write a “mom book.” I guess the pieces of memoir are where my own story broke through in the telling and where it felt like it might be necessary to humanize the theorizing. Plus, I just love to tell stories. Just ask my kids and students…

The “art monster” that you speak of is one of the most interesting terms to me in Weird Girls. How would you define the art monster to someone with an interest in reading your book? Is the art monster solely woman based, or a reclamation of a male-based viewpoint on women?

I guess the art monster (the person who gets to be single-mindedly dedicated to the art), as I’m using it in this book, has traditionally (and very problematically, of course) been a male figure, but I wanted to reclaim it for women and mothers. In terms of the viewpoint on women, when they try to take up this role, especially when they are mothers—who are supposedly meant to only think of their children—they can be portrayed as doubly monstrous.

If the goal of becoming an art monster is to take back the art monster and move away from gender, how do we do so? How do we become this art monster? Are we able to label ourselves as art monsters?

I’m certainly able to label myself as an art monster because if we’re talking about broad labels, I prefer that to just, “Dear Old Mom.” I think I’m still figuring out how to fully take back the art monster and move away from gender, but I guess my approach is to try to let the rules I followed as a woman, mother, etc. fall away more and more over time. It also involves doing whatever is necessary (while moral and legal) to get into the creative state necessary to write that great work. 

For many writers, this is about all those quirky rituals and talismans we rely on, whether it be the writer’s inspiration board, music, Red Bull, or an actual séance (I’ve never resorted to séances). It’s a process.

I also see a repetitive strand of humor in this writing. In section 29, you describe an exchange with your children about a diaper incident and you have an exchange with your Muse, “‘Can I even write an epic when I have so many asses to wipe?’” and your Muse assures you that great things will come from your encounters in motherhood. Are your uses of humorous motherhood moments intentional?

Definitely. First of all, I’m just someone who can’t deal with anything or see anything without the use of humor. I think motherhood is one of the hardest things, and it has required my sense of humor very often. I probably use humor in this book to soften the theorizing, much like the memoir moments. I also know for myself that I find it hard to relate to a book or person without a sense of humor. 

In Weird Girls, you explain that you use comedy to cope, especially during the recent/ current pandemic. Many of the female comedians and stage actors you mention have sets regarding the female body through trauma, childbirth, and reproduction, amongst other things. As a woman yourself who has addressed trauma, what place do you think women’s self-description of bodies and expression has in the performance world? Do you see performance and literature as another outlet for grief and trauma that women experience other than the #MeToo movement?

Absolutely. I think comedians/performers are doing some of the most interesting and cutting-edge work in creative nonfiction right now. I find their sets to be some of the most poignant lyric essays. Stand-up comedy has been a huge inspiration for me in terms of some of the experiments in form I’m interested in. I also think comedy/performance is a spectacular way of exploring/releasing trauma and other bodily experience.

Your book also focuses heavily on motherhood, becoming the mother monster to your children, who are also interested in monsters. I know you mention the inclusion of your children in your writing processes and routines, and your inclusion of them in what you write. What does the relationship between the monster and the mother look like? How does the monster and motherhood fuel each other?

Well, as you mention, one big connection between mother and monster for me is that my kids like me to play the role of silly “mother monster.” It’s fun and all, but I think it has also helped them to work through some of the normal childhood night fears. There’s a lot to say about humor there too. I also think mothers and monsters are linked in my mind as being generative: making kids or witches making potions. 

Going off that question, as a mother what advice do you have for writers thinking about entering parenthood/ motherhood in the future? How do you balance your craft and your family life? What is your writing routine? How does a typical day of writing look for you? Do you think that there is a fear when being an artist and a mother that eventually you will become just mom?

I think I had tons of fear of becoming just “Mom.” This was probably also a big part of why I wrote this book. I’ll just say that after you have kids, gender roles can rear their ugly heads. Even if you have the most wonderful feminist husband (which I do; hi, honey!), he still can’t carry the baby, breastfeed, etc. My point is that it was the first time in my life that I understood fully how a woman’s other identities could just be erased. My advice to writers considering parenthood/motherhood would just be to fight fiercely for your art. You can be the most loving parent in the world and still do this. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 

It won’t surprise you since you’ve read the book, but I’m a bit obsessed with writing, so I write on the subway on the Notes app on my phone, while walking using the voice record function if nobody else is on the street. I also wake up before my kids do and stay up after they go to bed to write. This is not easy since my son often rises at 5. 

I also include my children in my creative time a lot. I park us all at the kitchen table, and she draws, and he writes or something while I type. Obviously, they don’t always want to do this, and then I’m back to playing Go Fish for a hundred hours in a row. As corny as it sounds, I think my advice would be to make your life as much about creativity and the things you love as you possibly can.

Samantha Zimmerman is an editor of Pine Hills Review and a current graduate student at SUNY New Paltz. She loves experimenting with different types of poetry and writing creative nonfiction. Her work has been featured in Sledgehammer Lit, Bullshit Lit, and Discretionary Love Magazine. She currently resides in a small town in the middle of nowhere in New York. You can keep up with her on Twitter @samthezim.

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