Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Neil Diamond, Cheesecake and a Pack of Dogs:
A movable chat with author Spike Gillespie

by Robin Bradford

I first met Spike Gillespie ten years ago at Scholtz’s, a century-old bar with deep populist roots and draft Shiner Bock. We were guests at an annual happy hour that Marion Winik and Sarah Bird used to host, gathering writers of various stripes for drinking and networking. We writers were much better at the former than the latter—but Spike excelled at both. That night Spike was aglow—her first book All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy: A Memoir was coming out soon. Fame, and all its gifts, awaited her.

She’s still waiting. Like a boyfriend with commitment issues, Spike’s success has been long in coming. She’s written for all the best publications (among them: regular columns for the Dallas Morning News and our own www.austinmama.com, and essays in the Washington Post, New York Times Magazine, Self, Elle, and Texas Monthly). But she’s also collected bruises (self-publishing online her "dotnovel" www.thebelljar.net after no one would buy it and seeing her first book never come out in paperback). Not to mention personal set-backs that would keep many of us in bed for life. Yet this morning, like every other, Spike is tying her shoes while swatting away a playful kitten and munching on peanut butter toast. I’m joining her for her daily ritual four-mile walk, but first she must collect the dogs.

A freelance writer and teacher, single mom, clean of alcohol and smokes, Spike lives in an artsy rental house in Austin’s hip Hyde Park neighborhood. The occasion for my joining her at 7:15 a.m. is to talk about her second book—Surrender (But Don’t Give Yourself Away): Old Cars, Found Hope, and Other Cheap Tricks—from Austin’s own University of Texas Press. A few nights before, she pulled off a wonderfully silly publicity stunt: a mock wedding to her career (complete with bridesmaid and cake). Representing the betrothed was her old manual typewriter, wearing an over-sized diamond-like stone. In truth, they’ve been living in sin for years and her new book, a collection of essays that ranges as freely and honestly as a summer road trip with your best friend, is their love child.

"Come on pack!" Spike calls and Satch, Tatum and Bubbles, three dogs lacking pedigree but making up for it with enthusiasm, gather for their leashes. And we’re off. First Spike wants to tell me about the article that’s appearing in that day’s Los Angeles Times, about the controversy surrounding UT Press’s decision to erase the "Bush is a Punk-Ass Chump" bumper sticker from the back of Spike’s liberally-stickered car, which appears on the cover of the book. At the wedding, Spike had available tiny replacement stickers that book buyers could apply for greater verisimilitude, but it’s clear she enjoys the fuss.

As we walk, Spike waves to people she knows in cars and one friend emerges from her two-story Victorian to greet us. It turns out this is the mother of an autistic child that Spike provides respite care for, and they spend a moment negotiating schedules. That’s the thing about Spike—just when you’ve got her pegged (brassy attention-seeker) she turns out to be someone else entirely (big-hearted caregiver). Finally, we reach the path at Central Market where we will harass the same house-bound dog three times as we make our circuit. I pull out a damp piece of paper and our interview begins. I thought it’d be fun to pick some words from Surrender and ask Spike to comment.

Austinmama: Walking.

Spike: Addiction. Passion. Walking has saved my life. I walk at least four miles a day except when I’m in a depression and then I do ten miles. But I haven’t done a ten-mile walk in a long time. I cannot overemphasize that the interval between my depressions has really lengthened since I started walking. Walking led me to other physical activities and clued me into the benefits of endorphins. Plus it made my ass skinny for a while and I really liked that.

Austinmama: Motherhood.

Spike: It’s something that saved my life, too. I often joke that if I hadn’t had Henry I would have been dead on the floor of a bar, choked on my own vomit right now. Henry made me grow up. I wouldn’t go out and recommend to immature people that they have a kid as a sort of cure, but... I got lucky—I also work hard at it. Being a mom is the best. I love every day of it, though I have had my hard days. Recently, he wanted to go bowling with some friends (he’s almost 13) and I wasn’t quite ready for that. He got so mad that he went to his room and I thought: What am I going to do? So I sent him an Instant Message (from the kitchen) and he Instant Messaged me back (from his bedroom). So we had this great argument and we wound up laughing.

Austinmama: Knitting.

Spike: I love knitting. I have this reputation as a knitter, but I can’t even pearl. I do rectangles and squares. I actually have done two hats, but the last one I did I was in such a hurry that I tapered it off too quickly and it looks sort of like the Taj Mahal. It was a replacement for smoking. I gotta do something with my hands.

Austinmama: Loneliness.

Spike: Funny. That you ask that. I was talking to another single mom and she said she gets lonely on Friday nights when her kids are at their dads’. I could be in denial here, but I don’t get lonely any more. I got lonely with these guys. The last guy, he was getting ready for a trip to go fuck another woman and he was scrubbing his shoes with my tooth brush. He said, "Oh, I didn’t know that was your toothbrush!" So, I have three dogs, three cats, a pile of books to the ceiling, and I have so many friends. My problem isn’t loneliness—I don’t get nearly enough time alone!

Austinmama: Road trip.

Spike: I love road trips! The thought of putting your foot to the gas pedal when you start out thinking: Oh, I’m about to drive 7,000 miles! is not great. But once I’m on the road it’s so—this is probably not very comforting to the people in the oncoming lane—but it’s very meditative. I do vast amounts of thinking. Especially since someone stole my stereo and I can’t afford to get a new one. My dream is to get a VW camper and just me and the dogs and the lap top—Henry’s welcome but I have a hunch he’s gonna move away—will just drive for a year or two.

Austinmama: God.

Spike: (silence)

Austinmama: That’s the next word.

Spike: Oh! I was talking to a friend—we were both raised Catholic—and I like the way he put it—we’re agnostics with major spiritual components. I don’t like to not believe in God, but I have a very hard time thinking of God as a single entity. Recently, I asked Henry, "Do you believe in God?" and he said, "Nah." That was depressing to me, even though I was the one who raised him and didn’t give him a God. It was crushing to me in the way that the time he came home with his ear pierced—even though my ears are pierced—I thought oooooh... God is a great source of humor and puzzlement in my life...

Austinmama: Depression.

Spike: I haven’t suffered one in a long time and there’s always this desire to think I’m cured. But one of the reasons I haven’t been depressed in a while is that I quit drinking, I quit smoking—and I quit dating. I suffered so much depression when I was in relationships, because I was incapable of choosing someone who was appropriate.

Austinmama: Cheesecake.

Spike: Cheesecake, knitting... Now I’m learning how to quilt. I think I was afraid of those sort of things because it was anti-feminist. I will make a great wife one day—for myself! I love to mop. But cheesecake... I ran into my former mailman last year and he said, "Just because I’m not on your route anymore doesn’t mean I don’t get a cheesecake, right?" So I tracked him down and I brought him a cheesecake. If I was being a novelist about it, I would say that cheesecake symbolizes my connection to New Jersey and to my family. There are eight girls—we can bake an insane quantity of baked goods!

Austinmama: Elvis Costello.

Spike: I love him. I’m afraid if I met him in real life, I’d be disappointed. I had his records on eight-track. He just spoke to me. He’s so clever with words. He’s wildly sarcastic and bitterly angry. I am this angry teenager stuck in this small town in New Jersey and here, creeping into my house through my little clock radio, is this guy who is such a great experimenter.

Austinmama: Neil Diamond.

Spike: Funny. Everybody knows Neil Diamond. He’s ubiquitous. I was driving in Saint Louis, like I described in the essay in the book, and I heard him singing that song, "I Am, I Said." It struck such a chord with me.

Austinmama: President Bush.

Spike: I do think he’s an asshole. Maybe if I took a fatalistic approach, I’d say: It was Bush’s job to be born and ruin everything. I think he’s stupid. When I hear him on the radio, I have to turn it off. Politics, like religion, is a way to impose order on chaos. Bush is doing some really, really bad shit. They’re taking stuff away. And mandating stuff. In Texas, the legislature is requiring that kids pledge allegiance to the flag and to Texas and observe a moment of silence. For my writing exercise at school today, I’m going to have the kids write their own alterna-pledge. I feel like when I pledge allegiance to the flag I’m saying to everyone else in the world, "Ha,ha, fuck you. I happen to have been completely accidentally born into a place where I get all these rights."

Austinmama: What would your alterna-pledge be?

Spike: I pledge allegiance to most of the bill of rights, though I prefer baring arms to bearing arms. I really pledge allegiance to my first amendment rights. I pledge allegiance to treating kids like humans and not humiliating them. I pledge allegiance to more Barbies and less bad dads. I pledge allegiance to living poor but having fun. I pledge allegiance to my friends who keep me going. I pledge allegiance to comfort food: pizza and spicy peanut soup and onion dill bread. I pledge all this, one nation, under dogs, because dogs are, in fact, the most supreme beings.

Thanks, Spike.

Surrender (But Don't Give Yourself Away):
Old Cars, Found Hope and Other Cheap Tricks
Order Spike's new book today!

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