Off the Books: An Interview With Jessica Hopper

Cory Lomberg speaks to the author and critic about her new book, her personal remembrances of Chicago, and the reward of evaluating writing from your younger self.
By    September 19, 2018

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Cory Lomberg owns pairs of the SAS Free Time in every colorway.

For all intents and purposes, Los Angeles is no longer new to me. But some days, it sweeps me off level-ground like crumbs from a crossword puzzle. I’m blown over by the best glazed twist that has ever graced the earth. Shit’s been living eighty cents away, on Chevy Chase and Glendale, for my whole, faux-Angeleno life. I tear it limb from limb each time in greasy wonder.

By the happy hour host of my nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first birthdays quietly closing its doors, undergoing an angular paint job and becoming a barcade. By posters pouring from the steps of City Hall. By Legs McNeil posted up against the fence of a gas station-turned-New Age play structure looking way too old for this, for any of us.

My attitude toward L.A. can shift between infatuation and isolation, admiration and defeat within a work day. In her latest book, Night Moves, Jessica Hopper crystallizes the very matrix of emotions I’ve felt by documenting her own Chicago. Over the last two decades, Hopper has established herself as a definitive voice on the contemporary music of Chicago, leaving little ground uncovered among an oral history of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, a dedicatory letter to Sufjan Stevens and an interview on the unreported sexual predation of R Kelly upon teenage girls.

In Night Moves, Hopper stars Chicago as the scene that started it all. Her 2015 anthology, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, is largely comprised of pieces published in blogs and alt-weeklies like the Chicago Reader, the Village Voice, the L.A. Weekly (RIP) and the Portland Mercury. Yet Night Moves uplifts journal entries of the early aughts to memorialize Hopper’s world in insular detail and oftentimes, code. Companionship is the primary language through which Hopper maps Chicago and her experiences within it, from trips to Kinko’s to a series of first apartments, sacred in their scrappiness. Her patchwork of insights brings truth at a distance — the city itself is nothing without the way we talk about it.

We spoke about written memory, being a gentrifier, and writing to and for your friends.

How did you begin compiling these entries and seeing them coming together as a book?

Jessica Hopper: Actually, when I was working on putting together my previous book from 2015, an anthology of my work, it involved really going through basically everything I’d ever written. A truly humbling process. In that, I came across different pieces of writing, some were from blogs, some were from fanzines. I used to make zines for different reading tours and different band tours. Some journals, letters, stuff like that. But definitely the ribs of it are from blogs. So I was putting that together.

A little bit after, I was working with my friend Alice Merrill, who was helping me archive a lot of my work because I’ve been writing so much for so long that I just have a loose catalog of work. And in doing so, she said, “You have a bunch of writing here about Chicago and hanging out and writing that doesn’t fit with your other work, that doesn’t fit the collection, but I think it’s worth revisiting.” She took the liberty of starring all of the stuff that she was like, “You should go back and read this.”

And I think those entries that she marked — that’s about half [of Night Moves]. I went through and found some other things and started working with Naomi Huffman, who was the editor of my previous book, another Chicagoan. I was basically like, “Here’s all this stuff. How do we organize it?” And she came back with the organization and order for the book. So in a funny way, it was these other women helping me see a narrative that maybe I was a little bit too close to see.

And as I was pulling [entries] together, I refined them. Sometimes there were weird asides and hyperlinks. Some of this writing was really intended for a small audience. My friends. The Chicago music community. The people that I might trade a zine with or sell a zine to for a dollar on the road. It was already an audience that was maybe in the know. Sometimes I felt that I had to draw back a little bit and contextualize for a broader audience. It wasn’t a drastic widowing of the material. Just always trying to get at what was the truth of that time and space. And also to chronicle things that had no record or very little record of them because there’s so many spaces that were ephemeral and so many spaces that have since then been drastically impacted by gentrification.

Thinking about the editing process, I found that the kind of experiences you write about — I often come home from days out with my friends or myself and journal. In the following days or months, I look back and sometimes remember things differently than what I wrote. I was wondering what kind of merit you think there is in trusting what you wrote in the moment rather than what memory serves looking back years later.

Jessica Hopper: I think that’s a really interesting thing you observed that I thought a lot about in this process because had someone asked me to remember some of these things now, I might not remember who was there, who I ate dinner with. There’s things that just become fragmented with age and there’s so many — not banal moments, but domestic details that if I wasn’t writing four hours after the fact, those tiny moments of significance just don’t register the same way 10 years later. Or four years later or four months later. I think I was writing then for a kind of chronicle and for connection whereas I might journal now for posterity. I turned 42 yesterday. My memory grows faulty and it’s crowded with so many things. I’m a suburban mom now, you know?

I really think the main thing that I didn’t want to do in the editing process and the process of refining these particular entries was to be self-protective. I knew that from editing my previous book. I don’t want false grace notes of who or how I was at that particular time in my 20’s. When I was revisiting these things and kind of remeeting my 28-year-old self, 26-year-old self, at some points I was like, “Who is this person? Who wrote this?” I think also as you get older, you just remember, “That sucked,” or, “I was so broke and this apartment had mice living in the fucking cutlery drawer.” I was living on net-60 freelance paycheck to paycheck — which is not that different now, I should say.

But sometimes you get older and just kind of remember the struggle of it and not the sort of unfettered joy of it. That was really great to be reminded of. To reconnect and kind of just feel connected to the scrappiness and different parts of my younger self. In that way, editing and making this book was revivifying, in a way that making and collecting other books that I’ve done felt more like an emptying myself of ego and going, “Clarify, clarify, clarify!” In so many ways, the fundamental truth of that time and space were already on the page to reckon with.

That makes me think about one of the last excerpts of the book, where you’re talking about your friends making fun of your orthopedic shoes.

Jessica Hopper: Yeah, my SAS’s. My nurse shoes. I have 16 pairs upstairs. That’s like, my way to measure my level of success. When I wrote that, I probably had three pairs. Now I have 16.

That bit stuck with me. It just seemed like something my friends would totally do or have done, but if I wouldn’t have written it down that day, I wouldn’t remember it and wouldn’t think about it.

Jessica Hopper: It’s been really great to have copies of this land with folks who lived it. My best friend JR was like, “There’s parts in here that I don’t even remember.” Which is funny because the book is just as much about JR as me. My husband didn’t read it — I didn’t let him see it until it was already a book, basically, but he’s in it, too. It’s just turning out to be this funny little gift for all of my friends who are in it or on the perimeter of it. The weird rashomon of what we all remember or don’t of those particular times is really wild.

Something else that drew me in was the way you recognized your specific positionality throughout your time in Chicago and how your experience in Chicago is an experience with a lot of people and things, including gentrification. In the introduction, you described yourself as “an unwitting participant.” When did that awareness arrive for you?

Jessica Hopper: I mean, I don’t know if there was an exact moment of knowing, “Ah, this is a thing that I’m perpetuating. Me and my friends show up in this neighborhood and this follows.” I think I understood that from probably my second apartment in Chicago onward. Once I started to understand the city a little bit. Because when I was moving into a new place or apartment — which I did frequently my first couple years, even before the book picks up that history — I realized in part because I was moving into neighborhoods where frequently me and my roommates were maybe the only people, quote, “like us,” end-quote, on the block.

One of my first apartments here was in Humboldt Park and I knew, you know, there was like, a handful of other, usually white artists or musicians who were living on surrounding blocks. Like, I definitely knew one or two people from the music community who were living on every block. But right around there, it was, predominantly and historically, a Puerto Rican neighborhood. All of us artists and writers and whatever, we’re living in those spaces in part because that was what we could afford. But you look at those neighborhoods now, and not even now but two, three years after that — you could see what rolled in behind us. That we were part of what was a long and unrelenting wave of change, of different sorts of things being brought in and pushed out of those neighborhoods.

So I think I realized really early on in Chicago that the neighborhoods I was in were all changing and that I could see what the presence of particularly white artists and maybe a white student class were transacting on neighborhoods. We were very much interlopers. We were very much changing that space away from what it had historically been.

It wasn’t like, “We’re bringing cool cultural institutions.” We were bringing a fucking Urban Outfitters.

I moved to L.A. four years ago fresh out of the suburbs and something that I still can’t wrap my head around is the many young artists and artist-types I know and love here who have a wonderful ethos and believe in art and community and empowerment, but contribute to gentrification just by virtue of living here in lower income areas, in warehouses, by working at new bars or coffee shops or whatever. And this is not necessarily a question with an answer but it’s worth grappling with — how or where can they be? I’m wondering how you and the people in this book continued to navigate that as you got older.

Jessica Hopper: I got priced out of a neighborhood that I lived in for 20 years and now I live in the suburbs. There’s nothing to gentrify around here. I don’t know if that’s a realistic thing for most people. Something I think about when I think about this is when I lived in Wicker Park, one of my mentors told me — and was in her 70’s and had been an artist, a painter and a sculptor. She said, “Oh, where you live now, me and all my friends in the ‘70’s all had studios in those buildings in Wicker Park because it was like, the place nobody wanted to live.”

I think it’s important to see that lots of times, gentrification of a neighborhood is something that is a 40-year process. It doesn’t have to be the natural way of things, certainly. I think for artists and young people who are moving into neighborhoods that aren’t gentrified, one thing they can do is make sure they’re doing things that help keep the culture intact, support the nature of the neighborhood fundamentally. How do you do that? There’s all sorts of different options.

I think it’s really hard and I think it’s something that, given how, particularly in big cities, people are getting priced out in part by a big push of people moving out of the suburbs and into the city and pushing young people sort of onto the fringes to be like, okay, where are the neighborhoods I can afford?

If there were civic entities that were being more mindful of like, seeing the value of keeping some of these neighborhoods intact in whatever way and making it so there was rent controlled housing for students, artists and young people in a city, that keeps them from steamrolling other neighborhoods, you know? It’s a quandary for sure. There’s a lot of me trying to rectify that in real time, but also, like, you know, obviously I mock people who are like, “This place is getting gentrified!” and they’re the ones doing it.

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