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Claire Dederer Is a Troublemaker

The author dishes on sex and death and middle age.

By Jessica Voelker August 17, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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Claire Dederer photographed outside her office on Bainbridge Island, on July 18, 2017.

Image: Lou Daprile

In the memoir Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, we first meet Claire Dederer in her 40s. A parent, spouse, and successful writer, she’s nonetheless unmoored by depression and a sexual thirst that recalls her younger self—someone she’d prefer to leave in the past. But soon enough we’re loping down the Ave in the U District with teenage Claire, prowling espresso haunts and record shops in mod getups. Later, she flees her Ohio college and joins a chilly physicist Down Under, a misadventure that brings on more drifty malaise. The author eventually makes her way back to Seattle, where, inevitably, more love and trouble await. Refusing to pack life’s big moments into neat packages of lady hormones, Dederer’s second book (after 2010’s Poser) reads pretty breezy, yet slyly inspires a contemplation of the sticky matter at the core of all lives: sex and connection, a search for purpose, and the pesky knowledge that death stalks us all. —Jessica Voelker

I became very sad in my early 40s and experienced a tidal lust. I started to look for writing that reflected my experience, especially my sexual experience, and it was nowhere to be found. 

Every book I picked up turned into a menopause book. It was like, don’t take the biggest experience a person has and turn it into a hormonal story.

There’s this thing with memoir. You have to take a leap of faith and just assume there’s someone out there who needs that story. You have to make this assumption of universality.

Say the difficult things so the reader feels less alone. That’s how you resist the narcissism of the form. 

I started thinking about my youth and I couldn’t stop. Think about looking back at your diaries, or about who you were as a 16-year-old. For me it was humiliating, excruciating. But I couldn’t stop.

When you treat the Ave in 1984 as though it’s as famous as Greenwich Village in New York, it makes the reading experience smoother. But also, there’s something exciting about elevating my city in that way, to write about Seattle as though it were famous to everyone. 

Everybody has been to a coffee shop when they were a teenager, whether it’s in Berkeley, California, or Chagrin Falls, Ohio. They’re going to fill in their own mental details. 

I know I had a richer, fuller life than just whatever boy I liked. But if you read my diaries, they are a litany of being around boys, liking boys, being liked by boys, strategizing about boys, getting over boys. 

The girls aren’t the marquee story, but they’re woven in there. That was a big surprise, this subtle document of female friendship. 

My friend Victoria changed my life when she asked me to privilege our friendship over my ability to flirt with her boyfriend. That was this key ingredient in wrestling me out of being defined by men, and by love, and by sex. 

I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re sitting in a shed in my backyard in Bainbridge Island. I feel like a Seattleite, but I bailed. 

I was like the old man at the pub muttering into his beer and weeping all the time. I just was not a very good sport about Seattle changing so much.

My daughter is an artist, and she’s getting ready for college. In four years, she’ll be figuring out where to live. I would encourage her to move to New York instead of Seattle. New York is not that much more expensive, and the opportunities are so much more massive unless you are a tech person. I don’t understand why any other kind of young person would move here.

One thing that’s really great about being the age I am, and having a daughter, is there are so many things that are not going to improve for me. But there are things that I can help her with. To not have her looks constantly be the first thing reflected on her, not have her define herself through men or sexuality.

I have a house. I have two children. But this is the arena in which women for centuries have had their experiences.

It is very easy to say that it’s privileged, but that word can become a way to shut down female storytelling. I feel like young women, even though they’re much more aware of privilege and looking at other people’s experiences, understand that whatever their story is, it’s valid.

At 50 you have some amount of reflection about what you’ve been given, and what privilege you did have. That doesn’t mean that you have to pretend to have been happy.

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