Powell’s Q&A: Jessica Valenti, the author of “Sex Object”
Describe your latest book.
Sex Object is definitely my most personal work to date. All of my writing about feminism and politics has been personal, of course, but this book feels like the piece of work it’s all been leading up to. It’s a look at the way that sexism impacts women — not just on an everyday basis, but on an existential, psychological level as well. It’s my story, and everyone experiences sexism and misogyny in distinct ways — but I do think that there will be a lot that resonates with other women. Objectification is something that women live in, whether we like it or not.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I loved Corduroy the bear! That and Where the Wild Things Are were my constant go-tos. I’m so grateful that my parents were such big readers when I was a kid — reading books was a huge part of my childhood, and I think that’s part of the reason that I’m a writer today.
When did you know you were a writer?
It actually took me a long time to call myself a writer. Like a lot of women, I downplayed my success and career — for a while I called myself a blogger, even though I was writing for major publications in addition to blogging. It even felt strange to call myself an author — something I write about a bit in the book. But at a certain point, you have to accept that this is your calling. When you’re writing every day — whether or not you’re published — you’re a writer.
What does your writing workspace look like?
Since I live in New York, where the apartments are tiny and space is hard to come by, my workspace changes from day to day. Sometimes I work from our dining room table, other days I’m on the couch. We long gave up on the idea of having an office, I’m afraid! The space is less important to me — what I really need is quiet. No music, no TV in the background. Some nice flowers somewhere help!
Share an interesting experience you’ve had with one of your readers.
One reader did an oil painting of my dog, Monty, and mailed it to me. That was sort of amazing. Truly, though, the best experiences with my readers are just hearing from them about what resonated — it’s such a gift to be able to communicate with the people who read your work. That’s one of the best things about being a writer today — the relationship with readers is so different than it was 10 or even five years ago.
Tell us something you’re embarrassed to admit.
I don’t believe in embarrassment.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Jaclyn Friedman, who writes about sexuality. She’s a friend (we co-edited Yes Means Yes! together), but she’s also one of the most brilliant women around. Her book, What You Really Really Want, is fantastic.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
My daughter keeps a collection of rocks that she’s gathered from various beaches — that’s pretty special to me. It reminds me of when I was a kid and I thought I was going to be a geologist. I would dig up rocks in my backyard and paste them to posterboard after I identified them. It makes me happy to see her enjoy the same thing.
What’s the strangest or most interesting job you’ve ever had?
I worked in my parents’ clothing store when I was a teenager and in college — we sold lingerie and clothes to older women in the Bronx and Queens. Learning how to talk to people, how to sell things, was actually totally fascinating. And I can assure you that the most dramatic, interesting people are older Italian women looking to haggle over a sweat suit!
What scares you the most as a writer?
Being read. And not being read! It’s such a difficult thing — especially with a book like this one. Naturally, you want as many people to read it as possible, but when you write something that’s super personal, the realization that people will read it can be a bit daunting.
Do you have any phobias?
I actually used to be afraid of public speaking — which is ironic, considering I do a ton of public speaking now at colleges and bookstores. Today, it’s one of the best parts of my job — but when I first started speaking in front of groups, I was sure that I was going to throw up or pass out.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
Terrible, low-budget sci-fi horror films. I love them so much, and my husband — whose taste is much more highbrow — is totally appalled. I think when you do the work that I do, and you’re writing about such serious issues all day long, it’s nice to escape a little bit. Plus, they’re hilarious.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Any decision worth making will make you feel like throwing up.
My top five most-read books:
These are the books that are worn out, with pages ripped, because I go back to them so often.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Take This Bread by Sara Miles
Jessica Valenti is a columnist for The Guardian US where she writes about gender and politics. In 2004 she founded the award-winning Feministing.com, which Columbia Journalism Review called “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Nation, and Ms. She is the author of several books, including the national bestseller Full Frontal Feminism and the new memoir Sex Object. Jessica lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.