Q and A with Aspen Matis, GIRL IN THE WOODS
Adapted from Girls in the Woods’ jacket copy:
Girl in the Woods is Aspen Matis's true-life adventure of hiking from Mexico to Canada—a coming of age story, a survival story, and a triumphant story of overcoming emotional devastation. On her second night of college, Aspen was raped by a fellow student. Overprotected by her parents who discouraged her from telling of the attack, Aspen was confused and ashamed. Her desperation growing, she made a bold decision: She would seek healing in the freedom of the wild, on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail leading from Mexico to Canada.
In this inspiring memoir, Aspen chronicles her journey, a five-month trek that was ambitious, dangerous, and transformative. A nineteen-year-old girl alone and lost, she conquered desolate mountain passes and met rattlesnakes, bears, and fellow desert pilgrims. Exhausted after each thirty-mile day, at times on the verge of starvation, Aspen was forced to confront her numbness, coming to terms with the sexual assault and her parents' disappointing reaction.
1. I remember reading the NYT’s Modern Love column that began the writing odyssey that eventually became Girl in the Woods. What have you learned about book publishing and your own writing since those beginnings?
That's right! I published a piece in The New York Times' Modern Love column, and a handful of editors and agents emailed me to ask if I had written a memoir. But I hadn't! I was terribly excited and nervous, I asked my professor Susan Shapiro what to do; she told me, "Tell them yes! Tell them - 'I am not yet ready to show you pages.'" So that's what I did.
And then I had to write!!
I wrote 50 pages in the next six weeks. Then I worked with the editor Jill Rothenburg to compose a detailed "book proposal," which was my summer of 2012; I spent about 3 months before I was satisfied with it. THEN I sent the proposal to my first-choice agent, who had contacted me after my Times story, all those months ago — Andrew Blauner. By some miracle, he signed me. Within weeks he had used the proposal to sell my book to HarperCollins. Then I really had to write it.
I write to figure out the things I truly wonder and need to know. I want to find the answers to my questions — why I do that thing I always do; if this is the way our memories can misguide us, or if that is — or if I can notice better when mine wants to lead me to follow an unrewarding path of fear/judgment/whatever unhealthy dangerous or fruitless thing, and I can find the junction, and save myself from following. What I didn't expect was that writing a book would clarify not only my vision for the future, but also my perspective on my past. I thought those stories were over, but now I see them newly; I can no longer see myself as a victim. In a way, I grew up writing this book.
As I neared the end of the book, really the only thing that made me feel good — and made the book better — was seeing my mother and brother and dad with empathy. I was fueled by the need to show them I could see their tremendous love. I wanted them to see me seeing. I wanted them to read this book and finally see me — with empathy, too. (Writing my book quietly forced me into empathy.)
I learned that the way to write a book is to write every single day. Writing spawns writing. Ideas trigger new ideas. One day off really is two days lost. My process is simply to show up every day, and to forgive myself for “bad” days when nothing much happens. My only job is to commit to showing up with all of my intelligence.
2. Please talk a little about your writing process – did you show each new chapter to your editor or agent? Who were/are your first readers?
I submitted my first draft in thirds, in ten months total. Three months/100 pages; three months/100 pages; four months/100 pages, give or take. My editors gave me overarching notes, broad comments on the narrative and my focus. They could see with clarity that I'd given too much space to some unnecessary scenes while entirely avoiding writing a handful of scenes that were essential. For example, it was very difficult to write the actual scene of my college rape; I simply skipped it in the book's first draft. I write only, "I had been raped," which of course was not nearly enough. I didn't show chapters to my literary agent, Andrew. He waited to read the finished memoir, like anyone else. And my TV/film agent, Matthew, didn't receive the book until it was published.
My best readers were my old friend Lux Sommers, Susan Shapiro, a wonderful editor who'd first worked with me on an essay for Tin House named Emma, my friend/muse Cara Alexander (referred to as Corrina Gramma in my acknowledgements, Bryan Hurt, Bonnie Nadzam, my ex-husband, and my dad. And of course the book's official editors Matt Harper and Dani Valladares.
I thought writing Girl in the Woods would take about nine months, a page a day; really it took two and a half years of writing daily. I had to write 1,200 pages in order to find the 380 I needed.
3. Your acknowledgment pages lovingly document your many friends, teachers and family members. Nonetheless, I’m curious about which books and other art forms you consider to be your primary influences.
Movies, poetry, and philosophy influence me tremendously. I crave delicate and authentic style, and earnestness. I'm with Steinbeck when he said, "There is more beauty in truth, even if it is a dreadful beauty." I guess my most intense obsessions are violence and beauty, especially as they apply to moral philosophy.
Questions of ethics fascinate me, especially when explored through charming/quirky/
true characters living in little strange/attractive universes. I love magical realism, and my favorite narrative movies are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Moonrise Kingdom, and Birdman, and Diary of a Teenaged Girl, which combines film and animation (whenever we enter Minnie's mind).
As for books, I think everything I read teaches me something and influences me a little. In terms of style, I love musical writing in which every tone is intentional, atmospheric books that are vivid and perfumed. I devour everything by Aimee Bender, and Cara Alexander, who is a friend — a visual artist and philosopher. I also love books by Karen Brown, Annie Dillard, Salman Rushdie, Cheryl Strayed, and you. In terms of Girl in the Woods, my most direct influences were East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and Drowned by Therese Bohman.
I hate gimmicks, and I hate anything with a glib tone.
4. How have the people you met on the trail responded to Girl in the Woods’ publication?
Oddly I haven't heard from all that many people from the trail, but the few who have gotten in touch with me have all been sweet. The lovely trail angel of Hiker Heaven (her name in the book is Dana), for example, posted a picture of my cover on her Facebook page with the note: "Be kind. You never know somebody's reason for hiking." She was referring to my rape.
I haven't gotten any negative feedback from the trail community, but most hikers/trail people I haven't heard from at all.
5. Besides being such a gifted writer (and not yet 24 when you began writing this book!), you have likely inspired more than a few victims of sexual violence to seek help. How involved are you with RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) and other, similar advocacy groups?
Christine, thank you!! I truly hope I've inspired others to seek help. Yes, I am a member of RAINN's Speakers Bureau, and I've heard from many, many survivors. I’ve heard from girls who wrote their rapists love poetry, or tutored them in chemistry. I’ve heard some stories of other girls who did the exact same thing as I did, asking him to sleep over…You are never alone, "the only one."
This winter, I was the face of RAINN's 2015 year-end campaign. I shared my personal story in a PSA. The response was incredible — RAINN had a record-breaking December, raising enough to help thousands of survivors to get support through its hotlines. RAINN’s anonymous and free hotline is always open, and it offered me empathetic counsel whenever I needed, which was often. The voices through the hotline slowly taught me: It was not my fault, I didn’t cause it. Rapists cause rape.
I'm trying to help fund the hotline so other girls and boys who are confused and ashamed and hurting can hear these truths.
If I could tell sexual assault survivors one thing, it would be exactly what the counselors at RAINN taught me: that it was not your fault. Your rape doesn’t change a thing. You are loved, you are worthy of love. Anyone who reacts without compassion to learning of your rape is wrong to do so. No one will think you’re damaged when you’re raped, and if they do, they’re not worthy of your time. As Dr. Seuss says, “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
And I would say what Cheryl Strayed says, which is so beautiful: “Whatever happens to you belongs to you … Feed it to yourself.” Tell your story. Let it fuel you. Let it fuel your art, your work, your public service, whatever it is. No one else owns your story, and it’s so exciting that no two people have the same story. And I would also say, rape is not the end of your life. For me, it was the beginning of something bigger.
I want other girls to tell their stories, and be free of them.
I am donating 5% of my profits from Girl in the Woods to RAINN.
6. What are you working on now, if you don’t mind discussing it?
These past six months I've been working on a book called Cal Trask (as in the "bad" twin in East of Eden). But in my novel, Cal is a woman, not a man; she loves her older brother, but he's always very appropriate with her and respectful of her, and so nothing happens.
(But always wanting to be with someone who will never love her back, whom she can't be with, becomes her model for love...and the book tells the story of that model in her marriage.) My narrator is a woman whose nature is evil (Cathy Ames, by instinct; missing essential fingers), who has clear self-awareness. Yet she can't change herself. She desperately wants to be good; she needs a map that directs her, sustainably.