Q&A with Wisconsin native Melissa Faliveno, author of ‘Tomboyland’

The debut essay collection was named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR, New York Public Library and O, the Oprah Magazine.
Side by side black and white headshot of Melissa Faliveno in glasses and the cover of her debut essay collection Tomboyland
Photo credit Maggie Walsh
Author of "Tomboyland" Melissa Faliveno

Melissa Faliveno’s stunning debut essay collection, “Tomboyland,” opens with the F5 tornado that leveled Barneveld in 1984 and never lets up, touching down again at various moments in Faliveno’s life; her childhood in Mount Horeb; the roller derby in Madison; and a moth-infested apartment in Brooklyn, New York, to name a few. Faliveno examines the nuances of gender identity, sexuality, body image, class systems, power, violence, substance abuse, Midwestern stoicism, depression, self-harm, trauma, community, guns and more. Her essays naturally hold space for anyone who struggles to see themselves reflected in dominant culture, but they’re more broadly relatable, too — and they deliberately draw no conclusions.

Although “Tomboyland” (published by Little A / TOPPLE Books and named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR, New York Public Library, O, the Oprah Magazine, and Electric Literature) offers a terrific read for anyone, I have to confess to a particular thrill: Faliveno and I share a hometown. The region she writes about that shaped her — the small triad of Mount Horeb, Blue Mounds and Barneveld — is the same community that shaped me. I know the people and places she skillfully reveals with such care on these pages. I’m intimately familiar with what we locals talked about — and, more to the point, what we didn’t. Faliveno’s lyrical reported essays read like the handbook I never had growing up, and I felt at home in her stories despite our vastly different lived experiences. It sounds like many readers have responded similarly.

Faliveno has lived and worked in New York for the past decade, but she’ll be “visiting” Wisconsin virtually on Feb. 6 to judge the adult spelling bee for Mount Horeb’s Scandihoovian Festival. I asked Faliveno for a Q&A before the big day (Full disclosure: I am also a volunteer judge.).

“Tomboyland” is a brave and thorough examination not only of yourself but of people you grew up with in small town Wisconsin — people who can easily read your book today. How did you approach writing and fact-checking, and have you heard from any of them since publishing?

It was an incredibly difficult and vulnerable process. Most of the material came from my own memory, which like all memory is fallible, but I also spent a lot of time talking to family, friends and all the folks I interviewed to help corroborate my understandings of these subjects and the place I come from. I asked them what they remembered and had long phone calls with old friends I hadn’t spoken to for years. It was hugely enlightening and also led to reconnections I’m grateful for. I also did a ton of research — read a lot and spent a day in the archives at the Barneveld Public Library. I learned so much I never knew. For other, more personal stories, I pored over photos and journals and old pieces of writing, which was both horrifying and hilarious.

Since the book has come out, I’ve gotten so many wonderful messages from people I haven’t heard from in years — old friends, former teachers, neighbors, people I grew up with. It’s a strange feeling to have so much of my life on display. But for the most part, people seem to be connecting to it, and that is such a gratifying and thrilling feeling. It also makes me feel more connected to the place and people I come from, and have been away from for over a decade, so in a way it also feels like a homecoming.

One of the things I hope comes through is that this book was written from a place of love. Even the most difficult material. I have so much love for the people and places I write about. I love Wisconsin, and Mount Horeb, and Madison, deeply; Wisconsin is my home, even though I’ve been gone for a while now, and even though my relationship with it is complicated. I love New York, but that relationship is complicated, too. So much of this book is about navigating such spaces — embracing the complications, the murkier terrain, in order to see more clearly, maybe to be able to love a place, or understand yourself as part of a place, more fully. This book has been called, by NPR and WPR, a “love letter” and an “ode” to the Midwest, and I really do think of it like that — my love song to the place that made me, and the places I’ve been between here and there.

What is it like to launch a debut book in a pandemic?

It’s wild! At turns depressing and exciting, thrilling and anticlimactic. This was my lifelong dream, and one of the things I looked forward to most was a launch: having a big party with my friends and colleagues here in New York, then traveling to Wisconsin for a reading at Room of One’s Own, then a party at Mickey’s. Getting to hug all my family and friends and thank them and apologize for being so out of touch as I worked on this thing and probably cry a lot and just celebrate all the people who helped me make this dream possible, who encouraged and supported me all along. And then a tour — traveling to other cities and connecting with new readers and old friends. I’m grieving not being able to have that. But maybe someday I’ll get a belated launch, and if that happens, I’m going to hug every single person I love so hard.

What does your writing practice look like?

It has changed radically since leaving my 9-5 job; mostly reading and writing in the mornings, then giving myself over to other forms of work — which these days is teaching, at the University of North Carolina (sometimes remotely, from Brooklyn, and sometimes in Chapel Hill) and doing some freelance writing. I finished “Tomboyland” in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, in my parents’ cabin near Boulder Junction, and that’s my ideal writing situation — nothing but trees and birds and quiet, Just Coffee’s Bike Fuel in the morning and New Glarus beer at night, walking through the woods when I need a break. Someday I hope to find that again, in a more permanent sense. Brooklyn doesn’t quite cut it. But I have a little desk by a window, and one tree outside, and the construction noise has gone down during the pandemic, and I can hear more birds, and that’s something.

What made you decide to write a book and how did you keep the faith?

Oh man, I’ve wanted to write a book since I was a kid. When I went to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I knew I wanted to do something involving books and writing. I was an English major, and when I took my first creative nonfiction class, that was it. I knew writing essays was what I wanted to do. Miraculously, I got a gig writing for Isthmus while I was still in school, covering subcultures in the city like coffee shops and roller derby and the kink scene — all these communities I was interested in, was a part of or wanted to understand better. After college I got a job as an editor for the now sadly defunct Trails Books, which published nonfiction focused on Wisconsin and the Midwest. We worked out of a tiny house on Willy Street (which I believe now is a ramen restaurant) and we shared the space with my pals Ben and Alison at Bleak House Books. Those were some really fun years, writing and editing, playing roller derby, and hanging out at Mickey’s and the Weary. When Trails went under, I decided to get my MFA. I left Madison for New York, to go to Sarah Lawrence College and study nonfiction, where I got to work with one of my heroes and fellow Midwesterner, Jo Ann Beard. I started writing more about the Midwest — because I was homesick, because I felt like such an outsider in New York, because I started realizing, on the coast, how strange and wonderful and complex the Midwest really is. Because I wanted to better understand this place I came from.

I wrote the oldest essays in the book in graduate school, around 2010. From there, it was a lot of submitting, publishing essays in small literary journals, and a ton of rejection. After grad school I worked as an editor at Poets & Writers Magazine, a dream job but it took up the majority of my time and creative brain space. I wrote only in the nooks and crannies when I could; early mornings before work, late at night, on weekends. I definitely lost faith several times, when I went long stretches without writing, when essays were rejected again and again, when I queried agents and heard nothing back; and in my darker moments I was pretty certain I’d never publish a book.

But I kept going back to the desk. I kept revising, starting over, starting new essays — and of course I was growing up, too. My fascinations and problems got more complicated, questions of identity, motherhood, violence, love, the body — and I wanted to write through them. The great thing about the essay — as a verb, to attempt to try — is that it’s an exploration; it’s about working through an idea, trying to find a better understanding. Part of writing for me is an attempt to discover more clarity in complexity, even if it just means getting more comfortable with uncertainty.

My parents instilled in me a certain tenaciousness — to go for the things I want, to not give up on them. They sacrificed a lot for me, encouraged me to chase my dreams down, even when it meant leaving home (they’re still in Mount Horeb — hi Mom and Dad!). When I left for New York to really make a go at being a writer, they basically said, “Go do this thing,” and I promised them and myself that I would give it everything I had. I also racked up a ton of student-loan debt, so, you know, I needed to make it count.

You examine gender identity and sexuality separately, a nuance I think is often missing in modern conversations, particularly in smaller Midwestern communities.

I’m just writing about my own specific experience as a human being living in a body. And for a long time, sexuality and gender identity were wrapped up in this confusing web; I wanted to dismantle the web, or maybe just wrap myself up in it, ask questions I’d never asked before, even (or perhaps especially because) it was all so sticky.

I was particularly interested in the ways that the places we come from — say, the working-class Midwest, or small-town Wisconsin — shape the way we live in our bodies, physically and emotionally. How our relationship to the land impacts and complicates our identity. How, say, a woman who grows up on a farm lives in her body, or how that body moves through the world. It’s something that people in big cities don’t know a lot about, and when I moved to New York I started to become so interested in the ways my experiences growing up in the Midwest differed from the people I was meeting here. I identified as queer, yes — quietly, slowly figuring out what that meant — but the way I lived in my body was so directly connected to Wisconsin, within and without of queerness. I wanted to look into the murkier corners of that relationship, or connection, to see what I could find.

Everyone’s experience is so different, and the experience of things like “gender” and “sexuality” is so often fluid — we’re living animals; we change, we grow, we begin to better understand our bodies and ourselves and our desires as we move through time. So, I guess one thing we still need, and what we will need as long as we’re on this planet, is as many stories as we can get. To read about as many experiences — of gender, sexuality, race, class, work, ability, life — as we can. I think reading and writing is one of the best ways to build empathy as individuals and as a society, to work toward a better understanding of one another — as a country, as fellow humans.

Was this a case of writing the book you needed to read?

I think it was more a matter of writing the book I needed to write. It was ten years in the making, and in some respects, I’ve been working on this book my whole life. There are so many stories that I needed to get out and onto the page — about myself, about this place I come from, about the people and landscapes and events that shaped me, and the questions I’ve been turning over and working through — so that I could move on to something else. I kept hearing from fellow writers that you spend so long working on a book alone, and then you put that book out into the world and it no longer belongs to you. I like that. It’s something I can give and, in doing so, let go of; I don’t have to carry it around alone anymore. It’s frightening, but it’s also liberating.

One of the best parts about publishing this book is that people have written or called to tell me how much they loved it, or learned something from it, or connected to it. How much of themselves they saw in this book, that I wrote things they’ve thought about or obsessed over or struggled through themselves, but never put into words. That they never knew there was someone else out there who felt the same way. That this was the book that they needed to read. Which, I think, is a huge part of why I do this.

What are you working on next and what are you reading?

I’m currently working on an essay that will be published in an anthology in 2022, an intersectional reimagining of Helen Gurley Brown’s feminist classic, “Sex and the Single Girl.” I’m also working on a novel! It’s set in the Northwoods and is loosely based on my experiences living there alone last year to write. It’s about a woman alone in the woods — and some weird and sometimes spooky stuff happens! It’s been really fun to write fiction, especially after writing such a personal book of nonfiction; hopefully a publisher enjoys it as much as I do!

As for reading, I’m finishing up the novel “Everywhere You Don’t Belong” by Gabriel Bump, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. It’s his first book and it’s so good. We’re doing a virtual event together on February 3, through Chicago’s Women and Children First bookstore. I’m also reading my friend Melissa Febos’s next essay collection, “Girlhood,” which is forthcoming in March, and Elissa Washuta’s collection “White Magic,” coming in April. They’re both excellent and I highly recommend them.

How can people best support your work and the work of other authors right now?

The best way to support the book — and other books that have come out during the pandemic, especially by debut authors — is to buy it! From a local independent bookstore like Room of One’s Own or the website Bookshop.org, which supports indies across the country. Then tell your friends about it, or give a copy as a gift, or share it on social media. If you like it, give it a review on Amazon or Goodreads. (If you didn’t like it, you can skip the review part.)

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