Transcript - Episode 98: Lyz Lenz
Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 98. Today’s guest is Lyz Lenz.
Hello there, everyone. Today’s guest is writer Lyz Lenz. Lyz’s writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Pacific Standard, and others. Her book God Land was published in 2019 by Indiana University Press. Her second book, Belabored, is due out from Bold Type Books in the spring of 2020. Lyz’s essay “All the Angry Women” was also included in the anthology Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay. Lyz received her MFA in creative writing from Lesley University. She lives in Iowa with her two kids and two cats and is a contributing writer to the Columbia Journalism Review.
So, I’ve been a fan of Lyz’s writing for some time now, both her journalism and her newsletter, which I’ll put a link to in the show notes, it’s pretty great. Of course the piece of hers that comes to mind first is the one that I think a lot of you might already know, which is her profile of Tucker Carlson for the Columbia Journalism Review, which was published a bit over a year ago. For me, the way that she speaks truth to power and so perfectly skewers people like Carlson, it’s the kind of thing that makes you want to get up and cheer, even while at the same time the behavior she describes makes you want to scream. Or, you know, it makes me want to do that.
Anyway, I knew that Lyz’s writing is phenomenal, that it’s always insightful and so, so smart, so when I heard about her book God Land, which is subtitled “A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America,” I immediately knew that I wanted to read it, even though at the time I didn’t really know what it was about. And what it is is an exploration of the culture of Middle America through the lens of religion, and how religion permeates so much of the region’s culture. It’s partly reported journalism and partly a personal narrative, and in some ways it is an exposé in that Lyz holds the church and its leaders and congregants accountable for the ways that racism and misogyny are so common in the church and so often harmful to people both inside and outside the church community. But what it’s not is a hit job. It’s nuanced and sensitive, and it never falls back on stereotype or reductive takes. I really thought it was a remarkable book, so I was pleased to get the chance to talk with her.
I’ve put a link in the show notes to where you can purchase your own copy of God Land, and I do highly recommend that. I’ve also linked a few of her journalism pieces that were mentioned in the episode, which I also highly recommend. And if you’re in the Austin area later this month, Lyz will be appearing at the Texas Book Festival in the weekend of October 26th and 27th. She will have panels and book signings both days and I’ve put a link in the show notes to the festival schedule.
One more thing before we start, Lyz generously added a reading to our bonus archive, an excerpt from the first chapter of God Land. That joins readings from writers like Rachel Zucker, Yanyi, Michelle Brittan Rosado, Julia Dixon Evans, David Bowles, Lydia Kiesling, and more. The complete bonus archive is available to Patreon subscribers beginning at the $5 level, and you can find all the information at patreon.com/likewisemedia.
Alright, let’s get started. Here’s my conversation with Lyz Lenz.
Mike Sakasegawa: Before I say anything else, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your book quite a lot, and I found it really moving in ways that I found kind of surprising. I don't know if that's kind of a weird thing to say or not.
Lyz Lenz: Well, what do you mean?
MS: Well, I've been a fan of your writing for quite a while now since, you know, well before the book came out—
LL: You were a hipster Lyz fan. "Oh, you like Lyz? Name five of her worst tweets."
MS: [laughs] One of the things that I tend to associate with your writing is, you know, a lot of your writing has this sort of righteous anger to it, I feel like. And it's an anger that I feel is very well deserved and very appropriate. But there was something about the way that this book, the way that both the narrative of it and the prose has this quality that is... I mean, it has that anger in it at points, at many points, but a lot of it also has more of a sense of longing to it. And that kind of surprised me in an interesting, and... I mean, it was very enjoyable and relatable to me, but it surprised me a little bit, you know what I mean?
LL: Yeah. I mean, I don't— [laughs] It's so interesting to hear this because I don't think of my writing in the same terms that a reader would think of it. Do you know what I mean? So it's so interesting to hear feedback about a sense of it and the way it feels to people. It's a beautiful experience, but it's also something that I think is really new to me as a writer. I've been writing for years and years and years, but I haven't been asked to talk about my writing until I wrote a book, right? So it's this weird kind of a dissonance, I think, to have somebody tell you "This was the sense I got from your book." And it's beautiful. And I never really know quite how to respond because, you know, I just want to say yes. You know? Yes, of course. Of course I'm angry. Of course there's longing. Other people have said they were surprised by the hope. Well to me I say "Of course." Because of course to me—I felt all those things, you know, and still feel them and deal with them on an everyday basis. But of course it is surprising to you as a reader, because you're not always expecting whatever nuance is there on the page to be there. Not in a way that you expect my writing to be flat, but just, you know, as a reader, you never know what levels a book is going to take you to.
MS: Yeah. Well, I mean, taking it away from just what my experience was as a reader, I guess what I'm thinking a little bit about with this is sort of, you know, that if the book has a different feel and a different focus and a different tone perhaps than some of your other writing, then to me that sort of signals something about the intention of it, you know? And so one of the things that I was thinking about when I was reading this book [was that] at the very beginning of the book, in the introduction, there's this line—let me find it... You're talking about the way that you made the conscious decision to call the place "Middle America." And that there were some reasons for that, but one of the reasons that you gave was that you wanted to challenge readers' perception of the place. But then the question for me is which readers, you know? Because as I have read different reviews and interviews and listened to other interviews that you've done, it feels like there's sort of different constituencies almost that this book is talking to perhaps in different ways, even if it's doing it simultaneously. And so the fact that it also operates in these different emotional registers than what I, you know, rightly or wrongly have come to associate with your writing, that feels significant to me. You know what I mean?
LL: Yeah. Well, I think the book has different emotional registers because it's longer than anything that I'd really been allowed to write before. Even though it's a short book, one note that long would be hard. But when you're talking about challenging different readers, I think that question gets to audience and who is this book for? And initially this book was for me, which is an incredibly selfish thing but, you know, I actually think writers should always write for themselves. Otherwise, if you can't yourself be interested in a topic, then you shouldn't be writing it, right? You should always be at least internally motivated by a curiosity or a longing or something. But that challenge that you're talking about is both a challenge internal but also a challenge external. And what I see in discourse about this space is that we either demean Middle America or we softly romanticize it. And I think it's demeaning to be softly romanticized. But I see that discourse happening here in Iowa especially, you know, where we want—part of us, we just want to be a nice place, you know, we want to be perfect. And, I mean, who doesn't—well, I don't want to be perfect, but I mean, I get it. I used to want to be perfect and so I get it. So I think you're right in noticing that internal versus external, that outward versus inward struggle that's happening there, both on the page and in the emotional register.
MS: It's something that I was thinking about a lot, you know, in prepping for this as I was listening to different interviews you'd done before, that different people seem to kind of latch onto different aspects of it.
LL: Yes. That has been so interesting.
MS: Yeah. And so, for example, if you are talking to people who are more sort of book people, I guess, who, book media tends to be more secular, versus when you're talking to people who are coming from more of a faith background, they seem to engage with this book in radically different ways, you know?
LL: Yeah. Yeah. And that's amazing to me. I actually wrote this book anticipating that more quote-unquote "secular people" would engage with it rather than spiritual people. I mean, that was my hope and my intention, because I think too often the talks about religion in America get sidelined to religious spaces. And when I think, you know, what we saw in 2016 and what—truly, we see this every couple of years in different ways—faith is so intricately woven into who we are as Americans that even if you're secular, there's still parts of how America was constructed, how we live our lives, and how we conceive of ourselves as American that's so intricately tied with a Christian faith that I wanted people to see that. And so that I was truly trying to write to that constituency. Now saying that, though, the vast majority of people in America believe in a God, in a Christian God. I mean, it's still a statistical fact. So I also think it's really interesting when you talk about, you know, religious versus secular, but so many quote-unquote "secular people" are deeply religious. And so I guess I don't see the binary in the same way that I think a lot of people would like to see it. I actually don't really believe in binaries at all, just on a personal level. They don't exist. So there's that happening. You know, you say book media tends to be more secular, but yet literally almost everybody I've talked to about this book, regardless of who they are has said, "Oh, well I grew up going to church." Or, "I'm Jewish, so I think about your book in this way." So there's that that I always like to push back against. Because there's this narrative in America that like, "Oh, well, we don't believe in God anymore." Statistically, that's not true. And so I don't know how that happened that somehow we all walk around thinking that the majority of Americans don't think about faith at all. When for the majority of Americans, faith is deeply, deeply a part of who they are. Even if they no longer go to church, even if they no longer believe, it's part of our formative memories, it's a part of our traditions, our family gatherings, the way we think about our relationships, and whether we do sports on Wednesday night or do we go to brunch on Sunday? There's just so many material ways that faith impacts us that I think we're foolish if we walk around saying faith in America is dead.
MS: Yeah, absolutely. And certainly that's something that you're engaging with very directly in the project of this book. It still strikes me that even if it's not true—I mean, I feel like what this book is doing in so many ways is sort of exposing the ways that not just one—if you want to call it "side," I don't like that term of "sides," exactly.
MS: But if you wanted to call it different constituencies, different groups, how we talk about the different issues that you're presenting in this book, that we have these false narratives, but it's not just one group that has those false narratives. Because I do think that there is a way in which, for example, the way that we talk about art and the way that we talk about literature has this sort of condescension towards faith. You know what I mean? And the way that you are presenting these things in this book, I mean it's a book about faith and it's done in such a sensitive and nuanced way that neither romanticizes it—you're holding people accountable for the ways in which these things are bad, but also you're not disavowing it either. And that seems like a really important balance to the project of this book. You know?
LL: Yeah. I'm also not proselytizing, too. I hope it's very clear to people that I do consider myself a person of faith. But that's... And, again, I think the majority of Americans do, which is why I think it's relevant, which is what compelled me. Because if it was just me, I don't think I would've been interested in the topic that long. I'm not that interested in myself as a character.
LL: Or at all ever, but just... [laughs] You know, "She's boring as a character."
LL: But to just say that, yes, it is still part of who I am, but I deeply don't want anybody to think this book is a book of proselytization. I think that even if people are not people of quote-unquote "faith," that we all access mystery in a different way. And if that's science, if that's art, that's just a way of accessing mystery, you know, that we all seek it out, we all look for it, and we all examine it in our own way. And this is my way, it's just the way I feel the most comfortable with. It's a space that is meaningful to me, because I think even now it still encourages me to think outside of myself to be a better person. But I know for other people they find it in so many different ways, and that's... Yeah, I mean, do whatever you want. Who gives a shit what I think, right? So, yeah.
MS: You're not proselytizing at all in this book. One of the things that I was sort of thinking about as I was reading is the ways that this... Like, a lot of the things that you're describing in this book, whether you are describing your own personal experiences—which you do, you are in the book and your experiences are a part of the narrative of this book—or whether you're describing the experiences of the people that you are reporting on, oftentimes there's this very deep pain that's expressed in these stories, right?
MS: And a lot of it comes to identity and it comes to a sense of belonging and wanting that sense of belonging. You know, I'm not religious and—I mean, I went to church when I was little but I wasn't really raised religious. But there are still so many ways that, for example, for me, some of the ways that you are expressing in this book of feeling excluded... You could imagine someone writing about a community that has so much toxicity in it. And not just—you don't even need to imagine because there have been many books written this way where someone is writing about the toxic nature of a community and it's really a takedown, right? And it's really like [an] "I'm glad I got out of that" kind of narrative. Whereas with this book it's really not that right? There is a pain to not being part of it. And there is, even though you consistently express, like I say, this accountability and saying you don't want to close your eyes again, but that there is something... There is still part of you that wishes that you could have that again. To me that's something that I feel a lot, it's not about religion, but it might be about race or it might be about America in general, just being a citizen, that kind of thing, that it felt very relatable to me. You know?
LL: Well, it's about being a family. I think truly, the thing that shapes the way I think was being one of eight children. Well, I still am one of eight children.
LL: [laughs] Sadly. Haven't taken out any of them yet. There's so much about family, about the complexities of family, about being born from the same womb and looking at somebody and loving them so deeply and being so confused about who they are, right? [laughs] You know, like I have sisters and I love them, but if I met them on the street, they would be so different from me that I would have a hard time having anything to talk about with them. But we're sisters and so we're bonded together and we have common history and that brings us together. So I think the struggle for belonging is not just something relegated to religion. I think it's too easy to say, "Oh, this thing is bad and so I left it. Look at me. I'm so much better now." I hate those narratives because you just know that the next thing after is where the story gets good, right? Because that's where you have to then contend with it. Because there is a sense of loss. And what do you do with that then? You know, so many people have a hard time leaving their faith because that's their whole family. What are you going to do? You leave your whole family? And then what? Who do you have? You know, especially if your whole life then has been defined by church and family, which [for] a lot of Americans it still is. And so then what? What are you going to do? You're going to make friends? How? Making friends is truly a hard thing as an adult for anybody. But you know, it's so funny, I was listening to a podcast about somebody who had left a cult and now they were selling multilevel marketing products. And that was just like this side note thrown into the thing. And I was like, "Well of course they are." Right? Because they want to belong. It makes perfect sense to me that if you had left this really tight -nit place that then you would get out of it and then join something else. We all want to belong and, you know, even those of us who would define ourselves by not belonging are still belonging to an ideal of not belonging. You can't get out of it. I think what I'm just babbling on and on about is [that] you can't ever leave. You know, there's the narrative of "Well if you hate America, get out of here." You know, "If you don't like your church, leave it." And I actually think you should leave your bad church. I'm not saying leave your faith. Leave your faith if you want to, but then what? But then what comes next? What do you fill it with? I joke sometimes that there's a no more strident religion in America than atheism because, you know, I've never been proselytized to harder than by an atheist, right? Which is great. Preach your good word.
LL: I'm here for it. But you can't tell me it's different than an evangelical proselytizing. Right? You're still doing the same thing. It's just the other side of the coin. I know I'm babbling but I had a therapist once and I was talking about—sorry, Mom—I was talking about how I didn't want to grow up and be my parents and so I was going to just do the exact opposite. And she was like, "f you're doing the exact opposite, you're still doing the same thing, you're just doing it in reverse." You've just flipped the relationships. She's like, "So let's try something else." [laughs] So, yeah, that search for belonging, that search for fulfillment, you can't ever just leave the thing. You still have to grapple with it. And even in the leaving, you have to contend with the hole that it left in your life, the way that it filled you and defined you. And that's what I hope that this book is about. And also we should try to make—if you can, this is not everybody's job—make it better. I mean, maybe in a couple of years I won't be going to church anymore, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to stop trying to make sure that these spaces in America aren't toxic for people.
LL: You know, let's make it better. It's why people still live in America. I mean, we love it, we hate it. But that's what being a family is.
MS: This thing that you were saying about people having that really knee-jerk response of "Well if you don't like it just leave." Sort of the inverse of that is like sometimes people would rather just leave rather than reckon with what any of these things mean.
LL: Well, I should just be real clear. If you're in a bad situation, leave. Absolutely leave. If your church is toxic, if your family is toxic, if you're being hurt, if your marriage is bad, leave if you can. I think my point is that even in leaving, you still have to contend with the emotion, with the trauma, with the whatever. So I just want to make that super, super clear.
MS: Oh yeah.
LL: Big fan of leaving. Huge fan of it. Big proponent. Huge supporter.
MS: I think my point isn't so much that people should stay or shouldn't. I would imagine that it depends very heavily on the specifics of the situation. My point is just that when someone says "If you don't like it, just leave," that's not... What they're really saying is "I don't want to hear your criticisms."
LL: Oh, absolutely. They're saying you don't belong here. And so that's why I really hate it because it's, yeah, it's just like, "Well, you don't like us, get out of here." Which is what so many churches say to so many women, to so many queer people, to so many people of color. It's like, "Oh, you don't like this? Well, this is what the Bible says, so get out of here." You know? It's like, "Yeah, no, that's not exactly true." But you know, you can't force people to have conversations they don't want to have.
MS: Right. I mean, this really seems like the crux of our moment right now, right?
LL: Right. Yeah.
MS: Like that there are people that just don't want to have to feel uncomfortable in any way, right? I mean, a lot of what this book is about is about this sense of nostalgia that so many people have for these previous times, but then the nostalgia is a false nostalgia because—it's not just that the things that they're describing didn't exist for other people of less privilege, but those things didn't even exist for you, right? Like this safety that people feel—there was a part of the book where you're talking about this famous kidnapping that happened.
LL: Jacob Wetterling, yeah.
MS: Right. And people want to imagine these previous times as like, everybody was just safe all the time. And to begin with, well, you know, people of color were never safe and queer people were never safe and women have never been safe. But even for straight white male people, you weren't as safe as you thought you were either, right?
LL: Right, we just didn't talk about it.
LL: You know, and that's the thing I think that is so upsetting for so many people about the Jacob Wetterling case, is that there were so many boys that the man—I forget his name—he was just walking around molesting children. These victims weren't listened to, they weren't believed. It's truly horrifying. Yeah, but this idea that there was ever a time when people were safer or better is just a lie. The only difference is there was just a time when we didn't talk about it as much.
MS: Yeah. And I think what is so remarkable about this book is that, you know, sort of going back to the question that I was talking about at the beginning with who are the readers that you're challenging, right? Because in some ways you're challenging people who are not from this space to reconsider their preconceptions, but you're also challenging people who are in that space to challenge their preconceptions about themselves. And so what are the consequences of—if we don't even understand ourselves and our own history, what are the consequences of that going forward? And there's so much discomfort in that. There's so much discomfort that all of us have, whether we are white or whether we're male or whether we're straight or whatever it is. We have this discomfort of having to look nakedly at what all of that actually means and what our own complicity is, is so difficult for so many people. And that's really—I think that that discomfort and that unwillingness to tolerate that discomfort is really at the core of all of our problems right now. And so what's remarkable about this book is that you're not just providing this information, this sort of debunking information to show people "You should look at this," right? But also within the narrative of the book, you're doing that yourself. You're putting yourself in this position too, of having to sit with the discomfort and having to look into the darkness and not being comfortable and living in the tension. And I think that that is just so remarkable and fascinating, both as a piece of journalism but also just as like a piece of literature, you know?
LL: Well, I think that it would have been completely inauthentic if I had been pointing my finger around at everybody like, "You're the problem, you're the problem, you're the problem." You know? One of the things—I studied fiction in my MFA, which tells you how good my fiction was, because I only write nonfiction now. I had a professor one time where I had asked him to help me with some nonfiction and I just said to him, I was like, "How come I can only get nonfiction published? And none of my fiction is getting published." And he was like, "hy don't you just explore that for a little bit, just sit with it, explore it." And I was like, "My God, what a nice way of telling somebody maybe that's the universe's way of telling you to stop writing fiction." So, in any case, but I think the thing about writing is nobody likes it when your righteousness is fully unshaded. I actually think of my writing in very visual terms of light, color, and shade, and who gets light, who gets shade, who gets depth. And you know, if my writing looks like some Thomas Kinkade picture where it's all light and no shade then I haven't done my job, right? We need shadows and every character needs shadow. And I know this is nonfiction but still in the writing you become a character. And still in the writing it becomes a narrative. And so I think that was one of the things that I really wanted to make sure was that people knew that I knew that I was part of the problem. You know? And that I wasn't just going to be me marching through the Midwest being like, "This sucks, this sucks, this sucks." That like I'm a white lady, middle-class lady—I mean 53% of white, middle-class ladies voted for Donald Trump in the election. It's not something I can just like be like, "Hashtag not all white women," right? These are my people and this was me and these were my silences. So I guess in some ways it makes the book a little harder because it would be great if—and I've had interviewers be like, "Okay, so what's the lesson?" I'm like, "I don't know! We're all bad!" And so I think maybe it would do a little better if I could just boil it down to one important lesson like we should all be friends. Let's all hold hands. And like, I don't know, I think some people should be friends and some people should feel free to never be friends with anybody ever again. Right? There's no right way. But, um... America's fucked.
LL: That's the story! Read my book! But anyway, the whole point being, yes, it was a very conscious thing on my part to just to make sure that I was honest about my own role in this space and in this American problem. And I think it would be great if we could all do that. But we're gearing up for 2020 and I don't see it happening as much as I would like, you know, especially in the media. Some of these humans walking around talking like, you know, they weren't one of the reasons everybody hated Hillary Clinton and now again are just doing it again for Warren. And it's just like, did you learn nothing?
MS: [laughs] It's just the never ending "The Scream" all the time. So one of the other things that I was thinking about, especially considering how much of this book is very personal to you, it is your personal life experiences and your personal emotions and responses, and not just reporting what you observe, but your personal responses to these things. And you know, it was sort of a fortuitous thing, this just this morning I had the opportunity to read your new piece in Time—the title is "How Many Personal Stories Must Women Share to Convince Others of Their Humanity?" And I just thought, well, that seems to tie in pretty nicely.
LL: You know, it's something I struggle with so much because there's two sides—says the woman who literally just rejected binaries before. But I think about it in a couple of ways is that I don't feel like people should be required to publicly bleed so that people should listen to them, right? We should just accept the humanity in all people. But we don't do that. So I have a hard time even in understanding myself. Do I share my personal stories because I want to or do it because I feel compelled to? And honestly, I don't know the answer to that. I think about it a lot, especially in interview questions where I hear interviewers gallantly trying not to ask something deeply personal because they want to respect it. But I did write about it, you know, so I a little bit love that discomfort in them because I'm just like, "Hmm, how are they going to get themselves out of this hole?" I don't think it's a hole, it doesn't offend me, because I'm fine with saying I don't want to answer a question and moving on from there. But I do feel it as a tension, right? We shouldn't be required to and yet we are required to and yet people do. But I also wonder if there's some something else, if maybe just more people should be more honest about their stories. You know, we really only require this public bloodletting of marginalized people who aren't given humanity or representation. But you know, what if we—not public bloodletting, but what if that vulnerability was expected of all people? You know what I mean? It would be very deeply different if, you know, you had to have a man sit there and say, "Well, I'm voting against abortion despite the fact that my experience with abortion is paying off these women to have them." You know, so like, "Oh, okay, let's get personal." It's never like that. So, I don't know. It's a real weird tension and I struggle with it. Sometimes I resent it. A lot of times I'll start to write something and I'll be like, "I will not put myself in here. I'm not gonna do it. I don't have to." But then I'm like, "Oh, but this is why I care about a thing." So I just, I also believe if the writer cares, they should make the reader care. And for me the best way of making people care is showing them why I care. And that means putting myself on the page. And I also think it gives transparency. So also that idea of not putting yourself on the page is a privilege really just allowed to a few. Objectivity is a complete lie. And it's really used as a cudgel to silence people. But I wonder what would happen if we just allowed people to say, "Okay, sure, yeah, I'm not objective and here's why." If we were just more transparent about our lack of objectivity. So there's a lot of things happening there. I didn't initially want to put my divorce in the book. It was not something that was happening when I signed the book contract and it was something that happened as I wrote the book, which is, you know, written into the narrative of the book. But I didn't really want to put it in there. I mean, for so many obvious reasons.
LL: I have kids. This is why it was a hard thing. I still have a life to live. And, you know, the general rule of writing about your pain is wait a while, you know, wait until the wound cauterizes and then write about it. And I was writing it while it happened. Like, while it happened. I wrote almost a complete draft of the book the month after I moved out of the house. So, but again, I just was like, "I can't be honest about the problems that I see if I'm not honest about the problems that I'm living." So I don't know. Look, I don't know.
MS: [laughs] I think it works and it's beautiful. Why don't we take a quick little break and we'll come back and do the second segment?
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever happens to be on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Lyz Lenz: I want to talk about country music.
MS: Alright. Let's do it.
LL: Okay. I mean, do you listen to country music?
MS: You know, I did when I was a kid. My mom's boyfriend, when I was maybe six years old until I was about maybe eight or nine, he was a big country fan. So I know a little bit about country music, but it's all from like the mid-80s, you know, so like—
LL: What did he listen to?
MS: He was big into Alabama.
LL: Oh gosh. Yes. Yes.
MS: And he liked, you know, Johnny Cash and—
MS: He liked Emmylou Harris a lot, I remember.
LL: Oh yes. Yes.
MS: You know, Willie Nelson, he liked. Although, every time he would listen to Willie Nelson, he'd be like, "I like this but he's so nasal."
LL: You know, I really hear that. I think I should like Willie Nelson more than I actually do. Much like Bob Dylan. Like theoretically I should be the biggest Bob Dylan fan, but I'm really not. Oh gosh, don't cancel me for this but I think he's a bad singer and I don't like listening to his voice.
MS: [laughs] Fair. I think that's totally fair.
LL: People are like "He's a lyrical genius." I mean, he won a Nobel Prize in literature for his lyrics. Great. He sucks at singing them.
MS: [laughs] I'm there with you, so if anybody's getting canceled, it'll be both of us.
LL: Okay. This is the hill I'm gonna die on. Bob Dylan sucking at everything. You know what? Just put it out there, he sucks at everything.
MS: [laughs] Okay.
LL: Deal with it, Bob. But so... So I grew up in Texas. 14 years. My mom is very Southern. She is currently a member of a dulcimer band. I don't know, you know what a dulcimer is, it's those kind of lap harp things and you can pluck it with your fingers or pound it with a hammer and it's mountain as fuck. So I've always loved that kind of music. Growing up I basically was, you know, like we listened to Christian music or like super deep, deep mountain folk music. And then the Eagles, and that was it. Because my dad. Right. Because dads.
MS: You've got to have the dad music in there somewhere.
LL: A dad's gotta dad and not conservative Christianity or hell will stop him. Hardcore dad all the way. But in the past few years I've really just been like... I think for a while I was like—like everybody—like, "Ehhhh, country music sucks, I'm not gonna listen to it." But in the past few years, I think I've had this real... I grew up in so many different places and this probably comes up in the book, but I really just want to find a place where I'm home, you know? And so I'm very obsessed with this idea of what's home and what makes you from a place, am I allowed to be from the Midwest? Even though I didn't grow up here, but I've lived here for a long time—like who's allowed to be from a place and who's allowed to be home and who's allowed to belong? And I think about these things all the time. And then I think an aspect of that longing is me listening to this music again. And in listening to it I really discovered how misandrist [laughs] country music women really are. It's so delightful. I mean, literally like every song is just this beautiful, blonde-haired woman singing about how she wants to kill men.
LL: I'm just like, "Hello. What?" Like, no wonder this is the music of my heart. And it's just, it's so fun. And I think one of the things is, you know, there's this... Maybe I'm the only one hearing it, but I think too about what's the music of an era, right? What's the music of protest and what's the music of an era? And I think a lot about how, you know, the Dixie Chicks kind of defined that Bush-era protest. And, you know, we're living in an era where we have so many [of] these amazing women in hip hop and R&B who are just—obviously, we all live under the reign of Beyoncé and Lizzo, you know, as we should. But, you know, you think about quote-unquote "Trump's America," what's the music coming out of there? And the music of country women right now is so amazing. The Highwomen?
LL: And everybody is talking about them and they should be, because they're just this amazing band. I'm sure your listeners know who they are, but it's—
MS: They better. [laughs]
LL: —Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires. And they're just amazing. I've been a Maren Morris fan for a very long time. She has a song called "My Church" and it's just gorgeous. It's about how music is a spiritual experience. But in any case, they're great but don't sleep on The Pistol Annies. Any time anybody's been like, "Oh, have you listened to The Highwomen?" I'm like, "Yes, obviously. I invented them with my brain because every single one of their songs—" Actually my agent was texting me and she was like "You literally could have written every single one of these songs." I don't want to make their success about me, even though I've never met them and they have never met me, but I am going to make it all about me. But The Pistol Annies. Okay. They're Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley, who—Angaleena Presley has this amazing song called... I think it's called "If You Bless My Heart, I'll Slap Your Face." Which is just so beautiful and speaks to that "Oh, bless your heart," kind of Southernism, which is basically just like saying "Fuck you." I love the aggression of calling out a passive-aggressive tactic. Because I live in Passive-Aggressive Land and I don't deal with passive-aggressive well. So that's maybe why I'll never be allowed to be from Iowa.
LL: But The Pistol Annies are also amazing. And I think we should also be like, "If you like The Highwomen, let's listen to The Pistol Annies," because The Pistol Annies have these songs.... Hold on, let me pull up my playlist right now. I've been forcing—so my kids are obsessed with Dolly Parton, obviously, because I'm their mother. I'm like, "You'll listen to this and you'll like it." But the song they love is "Jolene," which feels a little problematic to me because my eight year old daughter's like, "So what's exactly happening in this song?" And then I just tell them, and then I just hope that it doesn't get back to their school or something like that. I can just anticipate an email from the teacher. "So your daughter is explaining that there's this one woman who's trying to steal another woman's man..." And I'm like, "Yeah, that's called life, kindergarten teacher."
LL: So The Pistol Annies are amazing. Their songs are just so wrought with anger and desire and unapologetic living, and it's truly this kind of like misandry that you would see in... Oh gosh, what's that movie? Fried Green Tomatoes. You know, that just kind of exudes from this life. And I just reported a story out the summer for Wired and I got to go back to Texas and spend time among my people, who are angry white women. And it was just, you know, angry white Southern women, I guess—although Texas isn't in the South and literally anybody from Texas would barbecue me for saying they were. But, you know, there's that ethos there. And I was able to talk to Wendy Davis, the politician, and I was asking her something about what makes Texas women in politics so different. And she was just saying this thing, she's like, "Look, in conservative spaces we've put up with this garbage for so long that we've been fighting this and doing this, and in a way that makes it not just a thing that we do, but just part of who we are, our existence." And then of course recently in discovering Molly Ivins, the Texas columnist who passed away... When did she die? Was that 2017? But there's a new documentary about her. And I had never read her before and now I am a columnist ,and a good friend of mine, Sarah Weinman, told me to read her, so I've been reading her.
MS: Yeah, I just saw you talking about that the other day that.
LL: Yeah. And I mean, I'm just obsessed with her and her anger and her prescience and... I don't know, I see all of that just like swirling around in this space that not a lot of people pay attention to because it's moms, you know? And it's country music, which for better or for worse doesn't get a lot of discussion in the media. Or the... Define media? Well, no, I will not define media because we're on a time crunch, but you know what I mean? Like it just doesn't always take up that same discursive space that it ought to, but it really feels like something's there, something interesting and exciting and a little dark. It's a little dark. And I'm obsessed with it and I keep thinking about it all the time.
MS: I think it's interesting, you know, to the extent that I know anything about contemporary country music, the weird thing is that I've actually, I think, mostly come to it via NPR. Which is like—
LL: Yes! NPR is on it. I mean, look, I'm sure there's a lot of people there but I will say, Sarah McCammon, I just blame her for any time anybody pays attention to mom culture, it's because of Sarah and she's an amazing journalist who I love and admire. But you know what's so interesting is that if you listened to country radio—and I do, often, a thing I will admit—because I'm always fascinated because the music that I love and listen to in country music is not what's played on the radio. They mostly play the men.
LL: And then the men have these songs that are not dark at all. In fact, there's this Kenny Chesney song which pisses me off, and I get so angry about it that I will often just force people to listen to it so that I can then yell about it to them and they'll understand the context. So if you ever want to know what it's like to be my friend, I'll be like, "Watch this Kenny Chesney video so now I can scream about it.
LL: And people are like, "Okay..." God bless my friends.
MS: Isn't it interesting though that, I mean, the stereotype of country music is that, you know, it's all like, "Oh, my wife left me and then my dog died," and, you know, all of that stuff. But when you look at contemporary male country, a lot of it is like, "I love my truck," or like "Rah, rah, America," or, you know, Coors beer or whatever, you know, Shiner Bock, whatever right?
LL: Well the Kenny Chesney song is called "Can't We All Just Get Along?" And if you watch the music video, it's a bunch of white people at a Kenny Chesney concert hugging each other and getting along. It's like, "Oh, of course you fucking get along." I get so mad because it gets played so often and it feels like—it doesn't feel like an accident, right? But the flip side, it's like, "Well, what are all these dudes wives doing?" Well, they're over in the corner singing songs about about smoking weed and low key murdering people. So like there is a real breakdown in the system here and it's happening via music. And I am watching it. But yeah, the men kind of music is getting real... There's this one song, it's called "I Can Buy My Own Drinks," and it's by a woman. I think she has an all-female band and I heard it on the radio and I was surprised because again—Runaway June. And yes, they are an all-female band. And it's this great, wonderful song, but it's like, you know, it's basically like the whole song is like, "I don't need a man right now, so please leave me alone," which was a real strong energy. And the fact that it's being played on the radio—I heard a radio guy say, "Oh, we don't usually get all-female bands breaking into the country music charts." And then there was that whole thing with Lil Nas, right? Where, you know, his songs had broken through and then they took it off. You know, so again, something's happening here, right? There's something... I just see it as a representation of America, right? Like there's something happening with representation and power and it's being distilled down into this country music world where the men are like, "We're all fine, but you can't be on our list, but we're all fine and we're all gonna get along, but we don't let women get into the top five because we don't like play them on the radio, but everything's great." Meanwhile, back at home, the women are sharpening their knives, right? Ah.
LL: I love it.
MS: Yeah, I'm into it.
LL: I love it. Yeah. The thing I can't decide is, has it always been like this or is it getting worse?
MS: Like in terms of...
LL: Will somebody please let me talk to Miranda Lambert? Please. I'm probably the worst—I would be the worst music journalist because all I would want to do would be talk about Emmylou Harris and country music people. And it'd be like, "Do you know who—" I don't know, name somebody from that one boy band. You know the one that everybody liked for a really long time. Harry Styles. What band was he from? Or is he an actor? Is he an actor? Is he a singer?
MS: This is something that I'm—
LL: I'm going to Google this. This is peak mom content right here. "Who was that nice boy with the hair who was in that one band? You know. You know who I'm talking about."
MS: This is one of those things that makes me feel my middle-agedness quite a lot. [laughs]
LL: One Direction. I literally just Googled it. One Direction. I couldn't tell you. Clearly I can't tell you about One Direction. I'm impressed I remembered who Harry Styles is, though.
MS: Yeah. There's one question that I like to close with and that is—we've kind of been talking about it but maybe I'll ask it anyway and we'll see what direction it goes—is if there's a piece of art or literature or creativity in some form that you've experienced recently that meant something to you,
LL: So Carmen Maria Machado's book In the Dream House is something that I read and then immediately re-read it. And it comes out in October, I believe? Or November. But it is something that has just been sitting with me both in terms of craft and in terms of storytelling. And it goes back to that thing we were talking about of, you know, bleeding on the page and why we tell stories. But also in terms of craft, it does things with nonfiction that I never even dreamed of. So I sit with it a lot. The other thing is, another piece of art is there is an artist, her name is Carmen Winant. W-I-N-A-N-T. And she had an art exhibit, it's called "My Birth.” And I bought the book. I never saw the exhibit but I bought this book and it's just images of women giving birth. And I'm currently finishing a book called Belabored about reproductive rights. And it's both sad to me and still incredibly empowering to me that the images of women giving birth is still such a taboo thing, you know what I mean? I mean, we went through the 70s where it's like, I don't know, according to my mom, everybody just gave birth naked on the ground. That's not what my mom said.
LL: But you know what I mean? We've been doing this for so long. Anyway, but I have her book that came out of her exhibit and I flip through it often and think a lot about the things that she wrote in there. So those are the two things that kind of had been sitting with me. Besides angry country music.
LL: So, so basically a lot of mom culture. A lot of... You know.
MS: Yeah, yeah. Well, listen, thank you so much for talking with me. I really had a great time.
LL: Thank you. Thank you so much.
OK, once again, Lyz will be appearing at the Texas Book Festival the weekend of October 26th and 27th with panels and book signings both days, so if you’re in the Austin area do check that out. I’ve put links in the show notes to her events there. And make sure to pick up a copy of God Land for yourself and all your friends, there’s a link in the show notes for where you can do that as well.
And that is our show. You can find me and the show on Twitter and Instagram at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, and for all of your questions and even your things that are more of a comment than a question, you can reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up for the KTCO newsletter by going to keepthechannelopen.com/connect and every other week you’ll get updates about the show as well as a curated list of poems, essays, art, and more from around the web. And if you’d like to support the show, you can make a pledge to our Patreon campaign at patreon.com/likewisemedia. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on October 23rd with a conversation with writer Marisa Crane, so stay tuned for that, and until then, remember: keep the channel open.