Before ‘Love and Trouble,’ author Claire Dederer found her voice at UW

The best-selling feminist author and ’93 alumna dishes on growing up grunge, creating a literary canon for the Northwest, and bad men who create great art.

In November, during the early weeks of the #MeToo movement, The Paris Review published her essay, “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” In that piece, Claire Dederer, ’93, details her struggle to reconcile her admiration for the work of artists like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski with her disgust for their behaviors toward women and children.

The piece came out as the nation grappled with a wave of stories about sexual misconduct. It went viral, was shared around the world on Facebook and reposted on dozens of sites. Dederer was also interviewed about it on National Public Radio.

“They did or said something awful, and made something great,” she writes of these “genius” creators. Knowing about the awful thing affected her enjoyment of the great work, whether it was “Annie Hall,” “Chinatown” or “The Cosby Show.” She also writes about the “general feeling of not-quite-rightness” she and women across the country have been experiencing even before the Harvey Weinstein accusations were made public.

“I really wrote it for myself,” Dederer says now, surprised with its continuing popularity. “But of everything I’ve written in my whole life, it is the thing that has been most read, responded to and shared by men.”

A New York Times best-selling feminist writer, Dederer is on a roll. She also published a midlife memoir about love, libido, intimacy and identity last spring. In “Love and Trouble: A Reckoning,” she frankly details her experiences with men and boys, including a childhood assault and fumbling mutual encounters when she was, perhaps, too young.

claire dederer, love and trouble

Since her days as a Seattle Weekly film critic in the late 1990s, Dederer has honed a frank and funny point of view.

Dederer realized her calling in a short-story class led by UW professor David Wagoner in the late 1980s. After two difficult years, the Seattle native had dropped out of Oberlin College, a private liberal arts school in a tiny Ohio town 2,400 miles from home. Compounding her angst, the creative writing professor there had rejected her from the program, saying she wasn’t cut out to be a writer.

Back home in Washington in 1988, Dederer enrolled at the UW and found Wagoner’s course. “This is such a weird story to tell, but I feel lucky to have it,” Dederer says from across a table of a Post Alley bar one evening this winter.

That summer school course was a rarity. Wagoner, a Pushcart Prize-winning poet and author, didn’t often teach fiction. Dederer was hungry for a deeper understanding of the Northwest—having sought stories of place in the works of Ken Kesey, Betty MacDonald, Tom Robbins and Raymond Carver. “I was so desperate to see where I live reflected in literature,” she says. Landing a spot in the class with one of the region’s most significant poets was a gift.

Dederer dug in, crafting story after story. Then one day in late summer, Wagoner pulled out one of her pieces. “He read it aloud,” she says, “and then dropped it on the desk and said, ‘That is an actual short story.’”

I feel a drive to recall an era that feels like it’s being lost. There’s lots of things that memoir does, wanting to capture something that feels like it’s slipping away.

Claire Dederer

“It was one of the top three moments for me as a writer,” Dederer says. Her head buzzing and the class over for the day, she wandered past Drumheller Fountain. “I walked to Red Square crying, because for the first time, I felt like I was a writer.”

But Dederer was about to be sidetracked by her insecurity, a boyfriend and a two-year detour to Australia (which became material for her most recent memoir). “I was scared to be a writer,” says Dederer. “I think about the years I lost because of it.”

She has more than made up for it with two books and a raft of publications in Vogue, The Nation, Harper’s and The Atlantic, as well as Yoga Journal and Entertainment Weekly. Now nearly 50 and living with her husband, Bruce Barcott, ’88, and son on Bainbridge Island (her daughter is away in college), Dederer still haunts her hometown of Seattle. For our interview, we meet at a downtown café, only to find that it’s closing early.

“I know where we should go,” says Dederer, steering us north up First Avenue through a wave of tourists. Through a nondescript door off a cobblestone alley, we find the Alibi Room and head for a seat by the window. Which looks smack into the back of another building. “That building is new,” she says, waving at a structure that’s at least 20 years old. “This used to be an incredible view out to the Sound.”

That comment sets the tone of the evening: what used to be. It’s one of Dederer’s favorite themes and a lens through which she sees Seattle. And she keeps thinking about how it has changed from the city she fell for as a teen. “Seattle is losing its character,” she says; it’s no longer a place for young people and artists. “If your city isn’t growing, it’s dying. I’ve been in Seattle when it wasn’t growing, and that was pretty upsetting, too.”

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During Dederer’s adolescence, the city was foundering in a poor economy. Single-parent families were the norm, and for certain hours of the day, unsupervised teens ruled the city, roaming up Broadway and down the Ave. It’s a time and place that Dederer captures—along with the fierce and funny experiences of being a reckless teen—in “Love and Trouble.”

“I feel a drive to recall an era that feels like it’s being lost,” she says. “There’s lots of things that memoir does, wanting to capture something that feels like it’s slipping away. One of my biggest projects in terms of my own work is to evoke that sense of place.”

As a fourth-generation Seattleite, Dederer spent her childhood orbiting the University. It’s hard to understand in contemporary Seattle but the city used to be so different, she says. Laurelhurst, where she grew up with her brother Dave, ’95 (a guitarist with the Presidents of the United States of America), was a University neighborhood. Surrounded by professors and their children, the Dederers used the nature preserve around the Center for Urban Horticulture as their wild playground.

Their grandfather had season tickets to Husky football games. The spine of her teenage life was the Ave. She got her first real job there at Bulldog News. She killed countless hours at the Coffee Corral and Café Allegro, and ushered, for a time, at the musty, velvet-curtained Seven Gables Theater.

Lean, sharp and yoga limber, she sips wine from a tumbler and laments that more writing about the Pacific Northwest of that time doesn’t exist. To fill that void, she has stocked her memoirs with details of the city in the 1980s and ’90s—including, even, a map of the Ave., paired with memories from some of her favorite spots.

Richard Ford gets to have an existential crisis, and the women’s books are about having hormones. That was making me really angry.

Claire Dederer

Plumbing her teen diaries for material for “Love and Trouble,” she also details her struggles with middle age. She writes that “you find that all of a sudden you can’t stop thinking about her, the girl you were.”

“I was going through some of these feelings, intense feelings,” she says, “and I couldn’t find any literature about it. And not many novels.” What she did find were menopause memoirs that seemed to chalk all these emotions up to “the change.” “I’m sort of philosophically offended by that,” says Dederer. “Richard Ford gets to have an existential crisis, and the women’s books are about having hormones. That was making me really angry. I felt called to write the book.”

A few years earlier, something similar was brewing inside her when she started her first book “Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses.” In the 2010 New York Times best-seller, each chapter builds around a yoga pose as well as details of Dederer’s story of young adulthood, friends, family and becoming a mother. Dederer grapples with her sense of self while surrounded by other well-educated young mothers, all striving for some virtue in doing yoga, eating organic and raising their babies.

The idea for “Poser” came when Dederer was reviewing books for Yoga Journal and discovered a dearth of good books about yoga. So many seemed self-important. But what she first imagined as a series of essays by different writers evolved into a funny and honest look at her own issues with adulthood. “It just seemed like fun,” she says. “Can we not all have fun?”

In the New York Times review of the book, Dani Shapiro described it as a “fine first memoir, and it’s heartening to see a serious female writer take such a risky step into territory where writers of literary ambition fear to tread, lest they be dismissed as trivial.”

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If writing memoirs is a type of intellectual yoga, with “Love and Trouble” Dederer takes a deep breath and folds a little deeper. Read one way, the book is an exploration of sexuality, self-awareness and midlife by a woman grappling with imperfections, anxieties and urges. Read another way, and it’s a requiem for a vanishing Seattle written by a woman who grew up in the era of grunge.

The city in the late ’80s and early ’90s was in turmoil, says John Toews, the UW professor that Dederer credits most for her intellectual awakening. “It was this kind of wild place when adolescent and early adulthood issues were wrapped up in the counterculture,” he says. “I saw that in many of my students.”

“There was a golden, infinite feeling I had never felt at Oberlin,” Dederer writes of that time (after Australia) when she returned to the UW and got down to the serious work of college. With comparative history of ideas (CHID) as a major, she feasted on the classes and still draws on the expertise of her professors. “I got the most top-notch education,” she says. “I have this breadth of background that I never would have gotten had I been a creative writing major.”

Toews, who retired last year, was the founding director of CHID and taught classes in 19th century European intellectual history. He covered history, identity and culture—“things that Claire was just at that moment trying to get control of,” he says. During that period, Toews often saw students from private and Ivy League schools transfer to the UW. They were trying to define themselves in their own ways, not having other people speak for them, he says.

Dederer was quiet in class. “But when she started writing, it was clearly obvious she was pretty advanced in her thinking,” Toews says. Dederer read Kant and Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and then found a home for their ideas in her contemporary experience.

I’m really interested in the idea that we don’t always have to be improving.

CLAIRE DEDERER

Capturing Seattle of a bygone era in her writing, Dederer is helping create a new regionalism for the Northwest. She points to the body of work from Southern writers like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Alice Walker that captures the culture and landscape of a place. The Northwest deserves that too, she says.

It doesn’t matter that her Seattle isn’t everyone’s. “The true mystery of memoir is that its universality comes out of intense detail,” she says. She pauses before admitting, “I’m going a little into writing teacher mode.” Dederer leads writing classes at Hugo House, Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island and the UW.

She is now working on a book about Roman Polanski and “other bad people who create great art,” Dederer says, drawing from her feminist perspective and her comparative history of ideas training. The Paris Review article published last fall will likely be the first chapter. She is returning to the theme because she wants to reason through it at a time when most are responding with emotion. Meanwhile, “Love and Trouble” is due out in paperback in April.

As a feminist, Dederer mines her own life to expose questions and experiences women haven’t generally been encouraged to explore. And as a memoirist, she pushes against the classic form of transforming and improving through time. “The person I was at 13 is the persona I have now,” she says. “I’m really interested in the idea that we don’t always have to be improving. Writing ‘Love and Trouble’ was kind of a feminist act, and it changed me.”