Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Q&A with Elizabeth Benedict

Elizabeth Benedict, photo by Daniel Lake
Elizabeth Benedict is the editor of the new anthology Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession. Her other books include the anthologies What My Mother Gave Me and Mentors, Muses and Monsters, and the novels The Practice of Deceit and Almost. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Huffington Post. She is based in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and have you always been obsessed with your own hair?

A: The response to my previous anthology, What My Mother Gave Me, was intense, and women kept saying to me, “We have to keep having these conversations.” I think they meant public conversations about issues that really matter to us – in that cases gifts of all kinds from our mothers.

I kept pitching ideas to Algonquin in this spirit, and one day they said: We have an idea for you – hair. That’s all they needed to say and I got it.

It just so happened that I’d had the idea of doing an anthology about women and their hair eight years before, but I couldn’t gather up enough writers to contribute. Well, with Algonquin’s interest, it was much easier. The rest is hair history.

Have I always been obsessed with my hair?  

Is there any woman who isn’t obsessed with her hair? I was low-to-medium obsessed when all I wanted to do was blow dry it smooth, though since I work at home and could for long periods in isolation, it was not a major obsession.

But when I started to go gray many years ago, I was pretty clear for a very long time that I wanted to color my hair. That’s something of an obsession, when you think about the time, the money, and the chemicals involved.

I’ve changed my mind recently, or it was changed for me: my hairdresser dyed my hair black, I guess by mistake, and I didn’t want to spend the next six months making it lighter, and I gave up and let it go gray. There’s a bunch of gray and still a lot of brown, and I’m grateful for that.

So now I’m obsessed with whether I really want to have gray hair. I’m trying to grow into the idea of it. By the way, my essay for Me, My Hair and I is called, “No, I Won’t Go Gray.” It might need tweaking. Or tweeting.

Q: How did you pick the contributors to this volume, and were you surprised by any of the overall themes that emerged?

A: The folks at Algonquin and I had a list of issues we wanted addressed and we came up with a list of potential writers. Some of the issues were cultural, racial and medical.

And then there were others that arose. The linguist Deborah Tannen wrote about why mothers and daughters have such complicated issues around hair. Journalist Maria Hinojosa wrote about how her hair became an issue in her marriage – when her employer wanted it to be slick and her husband wanted it to be natural and sexy.

There were a few writers I didn’t know but whose pictures told me they had some serious hair wisdom. And there were a bunch of interesting writers to whom I just said, “So what about your hair?” and out poured these stories.

What surprised me was the intensity of many of the stories they told – sibling rivalries, vast sums of money and emotion spent on hair products and hair salons, and the relationships that women have with their hairdressers.

Several in the book have been getting their hair done by the same people – I mean, teams of people – for 20 years. I was an innocent in some of these matters. I actually didn’t know that “product” is the plural of “product.”

Q: One of the issues running through several essays involves health. How did you balance the essays that touched on more serious themes with those that were perhaps lighter?

A: I wanted a mix of stories and tones, and there are two pieces in the book about women who lost their hair after chemo. We had a third writer who expressed interest, and we discussed whether that would be “too many” stories of that kind, but the editor at Algonquin felt that each would be so different it wouldn’t be an overload.

As far as the others – I didn’t know in advance whose essays would be funny and light and whose wouldn’t. And hair is such a deceptive subject that there’s a lot of angst even when the surface looks frivolous.

At first it seems like we’re just talking about what kind of haircut looks best with the shape of your face but we’re really talking about how your father didn’t want you to cut your hair when you were a teenager because he was an immigrant with a chip on his shoulder and didn’t want to give up the memories of his mother in the old country, whose hair hung all the way down her back except for the day she cut it and you left the country on an ocean liner and never saw her again.

So no wonder you’re having a nervous breakdown just trying to pick out a haircut from a magazine. This stuff goes very deep!

But, seriously, one of the lighter pieces in the book is Patricia Volk’s “Frizzball.” I guess you can tell something about her tone from the title.

Q: How did your experience editing this book compare with the experiences of editing your previous collections?

A: It might be harder to write about hair than about mothers or mentors.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, I’m trying to figure out what to do with my hair when I go out promoting this book. When I talked in public about What My Mother Gave Me, I always brought the scarf my mother gave me that inspired the book. It was pretty easy – and I couldn’t go wrong.

This time, people are going to be scrutinizing my hair, and I still don’t know what color or style or length it’s going to be on pub date.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m still not very good at the beauty and fashion part of life. I often put on my eyeliner on the subway on my way to wherever I’m going. I have a feeling I’ll figure out what to do with my hair the morning of the first event. Or maybe that afternoon. It’s probably too late once I’m on the subway.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Elizabeth Benedict, please click here.

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